Our prisons are in crisis - violence, self-harm and deaths in custody are an at all-time high, prison capacity is stretched way beyond its limits and far too few prison officers struggle - under utterly unacceptable pressure - to deliver more with less. Against this backdrop the Government has published its long-awaited Prisons and Courts Bill. They now accept that prisons must be more than human warehouses; they must be places of education, rehabilitation and reform. The Conservatives are finally adopting the Liberal Democrat approach: better late than never! But their stated ambitions will be worthless if the Government fail to get a grip on prisoner numbers.
The last three decades have seen numbers in England and Wales rising more sharply than ever, almost doubling to today's level of about 85,000. The latest figures again show that we have the highest rate of imprisonment in Western Europe. This is crippling the system. Prisons are massively overcrowded, while chronic staff shortages prison mean staff cannot even ensure safety, let alone take on the extra work required to rehabilitate prisoners in their care. This is a political failure that needs a political solution.
We need to take a hard look at sentencing policy, unafraid of the popular press. The increased use of minimum sentences has tied judges' hands, meaning they can't use their wisdom and discretion to adopt alternatives to prison where appropriate. That is why the Liberal Democrats at our Conference are calling for a drastic overhaul in sentencing policy, which now lacks both rationality and flexibility, as judges feel constrained to pass prison sentences which deny offenders their best chance of rehabilitation. This Government had the opportunity to overhaul sentencing policy in this Bill and their failure to do so risks continuing a policy of chaotic and damaging over-sentencing and an ever-increasing prison population.
Then we have the national scandal of IPP prisoners, serving indefinite sentences, who are still in prison despite having served their tariff sentences. In Coalition we ended these sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection, recognising that they were unacceptable in principle, yet at the end of last year, almost 4,000 IPP prisoners were still awaiting release, the majority having served their minimum tariff. For these prisoners, the uncertainty of not knowing when they will be released is unbearable and has an established adverse impact on their mental health; their continued imprisonment also has an effect on other prisoners, quite apart from the damage it does to the reputation of British justice.
Unless the Government gets prisoner numbers down and devotes the resources necessary to getting staffing levels up, building a renewed prison estate and providing effective education, training and other purposeful activity in every prison, all they will be doing is trying to use small sticking plasters to staunch gaping wounds. Liberal Democrat Conference will once again stand up for doing what works to achieve real change - I hope the Conservatives will be listening.
Lord Marks QC is a Lib Dem peer and the party's shadow justice secretary