Almost ten years ago, I started my career on the Liberal Democrat Frontbench as Home Affairs’ Spokesman. Back then I argued that what was needed to reduce crime was simply a focus from Government on firm, practical solutions that addressed the root causes of crime and that were proven to work.
It’s a view I’ve retained. And an approach the Liberal Democrats have pursued in Coalition Government. Because ensuring people are free from crime and free from the fear of crime is essential to the foundation of any liberal society. And it’s why tackling crime effectively is central to our party’s vision of a Britain where everyone can get on in life.
Free From Crime, Free From The Fear of Crime:
Old or young, rich or poor, you are not free to live your life, realise your ambitions, or hope for the future, if you are scared of what lies just beyond your front door.
The populist rhetoric of the last Government played up public fears and promised to tackle the root causes of crime. But what actually happened, they implemented more often than not heavy-handed measures designed to chase headlines: policies that sought to restrict the freedom of criminals by taking away the civil liberties of innocent citizens.
Unprecedented expansion of state surveillance, a wasteful ID cards’ programme and the inclusion of innocent people on the DNA database - these policies reinforced the views of both commentators on the Right, who argue we’re a nation stuck in a spiral of moral decline, and those on the Left, who believe we’re in a state of irreversible social decline.
Liberalism Is The Solution, Not The Problem:
But, this pessimistic vision of Britain ignores just how far we’ve come as a country and how much things have changed for the better. Most importantly, they deny a brighter future for our children – a younger generation, which government data shows, is actually less likely to take drugs, drink or smoke.
In fact, I would argue that it is the more liberal, more tolerant and less violent society – in which we live now – which has provided us with the right conditions for a substantial and sustainable fall in crime
When I was growing up, images of communities torn apart by riots, football games destroyed by hooligans and violent clashes between police and striking unions routinely dominated the news. These images are largely consigned to the past.
Now...of course there are exceptions. The senseless riots in 2011 were a powerful reminder of just how vital our work together – the Government, the police and the public – is to make our communities safer.
But our country is far less accepting of such violence. We are more ready to challenge racism, sexism and homophobia.
And we remain fully committed to tackling crimes such as domestic violence, or other abuses that happen behind closed doors.
For example, last year I launched the government’s Teen Rape Prevention campaign. We have a long way to go, but action like this is hugely important in making sure that young people everywhere understand that sexual abuse isn’t something that happens in a dark alley, but can be something that happens in your own home, perpetrated by someone you thought you could trust.
This Government has been committed to tackling these hidden crimes. We have introduced legislation to criminalise forced marriage, introduced new laws against stalking and the Home Secretary is leading important work into the dreadful cases of sexual abuse against young people who are vulnerable and need protecting, including those in care.
But while this crucial work continues, it is important that we recognise that, given more freedom and given more choice, the vast majority of us are exercising it more responsibly. And we’re doing so at a time of tough economic conditions.
Greater liberty, in other words, has not frayed the fabric of society. It has brought us closer together as a society and has brought a long-term fall in crime.
Fall in Crime:
Under this Government, crime is at its lowest levels since independent records began. That’s fewer homes burgled and possessions stolen. Fewer communities blighted by vandalism. And fewer people hurt, or killed in violent attacks.
This continuing fall in crime is one of the biggest untold success stories of this Coalition.
Lots of people predicted that in tough economic conditions, crime would go up, as it has done in the past. But it hasn’t and we should be proud of that fact. It has been achieved without excessive bureaucracy or increasing intrusion.
We have done this by focusing, quite simply, on what works.
Freeing the Police to Cut Crime:
And much of that is down to the work of the police. In a time of economic austerity, where every public service is having to take its share of cuts, the police have stayed focused on cutting crime and they have succeeded.
Every police officer, every PCSO, should be extremely proud that, on their watch, crime has dropped.
Even as they have faced difficult decisions on police budgets and the pay and pensions provided to police officers. And they have done this with professionalism, with care and by developing relationships with their local communities that last.
By ending the target-driven culture of form filling and red-tape, the Coalition Government has ensured officers are free to do what works.
And it’s an approach that has delivered results: ensuring that England and Wales are now safer than at any time since independent records began.
Empowering Communities & Victims:
We are also empowering communities to take control of the problems in their own areas.
Take restorative justice. An approach championed by local Liberal Democrat Councils taking tough, but practical solutions that actually work in bringing down crime.
Now we’re in government, we’re introducing Neighbourhood Justice Panels in 15 places across the country. They help victims deal with crime in a way that benefits their community and makes the offender face up to the wrong they have done.
We’re also empowering the public to trigger action from the police and their local partners on persistent anti-social behaviour.
And we’ve ensured that sentences in the community are a genuine and tough alternative to custody, where locking someone up isn’t the best solution.
By making more offenders perform unpaid work in the community, we will make sure that they pay back to their community, while also being rehabilitated through meaningful activity that teaches discipline and hard work.
And through restorative justice, these offenders can make a real difference to a victim’s ability to cope and recover from the damage that they themselves have suffered.
Doing What Works:
Of course, community approaches are not suitable for every crime. And when your house is burgled, or your car stolen, it doesn’t feel like crime is falling. If you’re attacked, or abused, society doesn’t feel that safe.
So sometimes prison is the right option and those who commit serious offences should serve their sentence behind bars.
But the story shouldn’t end when the cell door slams shut. Prisoners’ time behind bars must be used to change behaviour for good, not just take someone off the streets for a while. A lesson must be learnt. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
Every year, reoffending costs our economy around £10 billion. Almost half of those leaving prison are reconvicted within a year.
Considering that the cost of sending a criminal to prison is more than it costs to go to Eton, we need a better return on our investment.
For years, the Liberal Democrats have argued that you only truly break the cycle of crime when you cut reoffending. That is why in Government, we’ve been determined to reduce both its economic and social costs.
And as their current Shadow Justice Secretary admitted himself, this is where Labour got it so wrong.
The last Government talked tough on crime, but appeared to believe that a ballooning prison population was a good thing.
So be tough on crime, sure. Be tough on the causes of crime, yes. But none of it matters unless you are also tough on breaking the cycle of crime. As a society, we want a justice system that punishes people where it must, but also seeks to change people where it can.
For me, criminal justice policy should not be ideological, but pragmatic. It should have a relentless focus on what works. So this Government is using our investment more wisely - to ensure our prison and probation services are equipped to produce better citizens, not better criminals.
We know that those on short sentences are most likely to reoffend and yet shockingly they are the ones who have, until now, received almost no rehabilitation, or support. That is why the Coalition Government is driving a rehabilitation revolution. It’s a programme of legislation and innovative public service delivery that will transform the way offenders are dealt with once they leave prison and address persistent reoffending.
It is a radical, but practical approach that has the potential – in my view - to leave a bigger, more lasting imprint on British society than almost anything else that the Coalition Government might achieve. And I’m proud of the changes we’re implementing now and our plans for the future.
A Never-Ending Cycle:
Imagine a young 21 year old offender released from a 6 month prison sentence for burglary today.
He’s been brought up in care. Since leaving there at 18, he’s not had a permanent place to live. In and out of trouble, he’s not found much in the way of work. He can’t read, or write well so he’s struggled to get a job. He also suffers from mental health issues and drug problems that are influencing his actions and have intensified in prison.
And just in case you think I’m relying on lazy stereotypes here, let me spell out what the statistics themselves say. Only around a third of prisoners are in work a month before custody. Fifteen percent of them are homeless. And it is estimated that around a quarter of offenders suffer from anxiety and depression. While 81% of them have used illegal drugs before entering prison.
Today, that young offender would leave prison with 46 pounds in his pocket and not much else. There would probably be no-one to meet him outside and nowhere for him to go.
If he’s lucky, he’ll find a temporary bed on a friend’s sofa. If not, he’ll end up homeless. And within days he could end up back in the Criminal Justice System after breaking into another house; stood in front of a custody sergeant, who probably already knows his name.
People tell him to get a job. But he doesn’t know how. And he has nowhere to live. Nobody will give him a chance. And the only people he can rely on, of course, are the ones that got him into this mess in the first place.
That has to change. Because it is the victims of crime and the wider public that reoffending impacts the most. Whether that’s because they are directly hurt by re-offenders’ crimes, or because they read about what’s happening and think it says everything they need to know about modern Britain.
A Rehabilitation Revolution:
This destructive cycle of crime is what we are working to break. If we are going to do all we can for the victims of crime and our communities, we can’t allow this problem to go unsolved. Our Offender Rehabilitation Bill receives its Second Reading in Parliament today.
It brings forward for the first time a mandatory requirement for the most prevalent re-offenders – those serving sentences of 12 months or less – to undergo a targeted programme of support on release to help them turn their lives around.
Because we know that the majority of those sentenced to prison are sent there for 12 months or less. And that of those almost 60% of them reoffend on release.
This will have a significant impact on women offenders also. Proportionally, more women than men are serving short-term prison sentences. Many of these women have complex needs. For example, they are more likely to have mental health problems than male prisoners, more likely to have reported experiencing some sort of childhood abuse. And they are more likely to be the primary carer for children. This Government is determined that these reforms will help women prisoners too.
Change will start in the police station and courts with experts on hand to identify whether a mental health or drug problem could be one of the main drivers behind this young offender’s behaviour. So he can be dealt with in a way that is appropriate for his illness and crime.
Following conviction, for example, he could be sent to a drug recovery wing in prison to help him get through withdrawal and the most intense, early stages of recovery.
Work in Prison:
The changes will continue in prison. We are putting more and more offenders like him to work in prison every year: making sure he doesn’t lie idle in his bed. That he is paying back to society and learning the pride and value that comes from a hard day’s work. What’s more, the money he earns from the work he does will go into a compensation fund for victims.
Alongside action to improve prisoners’ core skills, this will ensure that a young offender can get experience to help him find work outside the prison walls. And employers like Timpsons, Network Rail and the National Grid are already going into prisons and training prisoners in skills that can translate into real-life employment.
We’ve already increased the work hours of prisoners by over 800,000 hours last year.
And we want to get more businesses involved in these schemes as well as find more commercial work for prisoners to do, without undercutting local businesses.
Beyond the Prison Gates:
But the real change comes when our offender is released. A few weeks before he leaves, he will start working with a new provider organisation to organise and plan for his resettlement beyond the prison gates.
If possible, the young offender would have been sent to a prison close to his local community. So that any positive, personal ties that he did have - with family, or friends – could be maintained. If that can’t happen, we would then aim to relocate him closer to home towards the end of his sentence.
In prison, he’d work with the service provider to develop a programme of tailored support that fits his needs.
This could mean getting him a place on a basic skills course at the local college, or finding him somewhere to live.
They’ll ensure that from day one - if he is claiming JobSeekers allowance on release - he has a place on the Government’s work programme, with access to information and training that will help him get a job.
If required, they could also organise additional drugs treatment and testing to help him stay clean.
Most importantly, when he gets out there will be someone there to meet him. A mentor - someone experienced, potentially someone whose been an offender themselves and knows what it takes to build a life free of crime outside – who can help this young man through advice and support stay on the straight and narrow in that critical first year after release.
We are already seeing some positive results. For example, in Peterborough Prison where older, longer serving prisoners are actively mentoring those serving shorter-sentences. Given their experiences, these mentors are proving to be some of the most effective people to convince those who’ve made a mistake not to repeat it over and over again.
We’re not ideological about this approach.
What we want to see is something that takes and builds on the best from the public sector, the best from the private sector and the best from the voluntary sector to break the cycle of crime for good.
That is why we are reorganising the Probation Service, so that the public, voluntary and private sectors can work more flexibly and effectively side by side.
We want to extend the good work that is taking place all over the country, including right here. And we want to ensure that all of those with a strong track record in this area – including smaller regional rehabilitation charities, social enterprises or entrepreneurial staff from Probation Trusts interested in starting an employee mutual to bid for work – are able to get involved
That is why I’m pleased to announce today a package of tailored support to help fledgling mutuals and smaller rehabilitation organisations bid for contracts.
This includes access to around £7 million worth of funds to help these groups bid and support their work in communities. This is addition to the £10 million mutuals support programme, which is open to probation staff.
We are also making available to these groups valuable financial tools, legal advice, coaching and training and a network of peers and expert contacts to help take them through the bidding process.
We are serious about getting those who know what they are doing involved in our rehabilitation revolution.
So in conclusion, let me be clear, I am wholly committed to that Rehabilitation Revolution. And we are putting in place the legislation, innovative policies and providers to deliver solutions that work. That will tackle, for the first time ever on a mandatory basis, the complex issues and drivers behind the persistent problem of reoffending.
And provide the support needed to fundamentally change the lives of those released from prison.
As a society, I believe, we’re more progressive and we’re more liberal. These are the best conditions in which to cut crime. A society, in which the Government and public can bring about the necessary changes that will ensure a future, where more people are free from crime and the fear of crime: in short - a stronger, a fairer Britain.
Thank you very much.