Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness) (Con)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
You will know, perhaps more than many in this place, that I am a simple man, Mr Deputy Speaker. Prior to researching this Bill, I had not spent a great deal of time thinking about the criminal justice system or how it worked. I had laboured under the belief that if someone committed a crime, served their time and paid back their debt to society, they would be afforded every opportunity to succeed on their release from prison and make a fresh start. I was disappointed to find out that often that is not the case and many people released from prison, especially those released on Fridays, are almost set up to fail from the moment they set foot outside the prison estate. They face a race against time to access statutory and non-statutory services—to meet their probation officer; visit a pharmacy or a GP; sort out their accommodation—all on a Friday, with services closing early, and with some being a distance away or even impossible to reach by public transport. Many of them therefore end up homeless, with no hope of accessing services until Monday morning at the earliest. So they have nowhere to stay, they have little support and the world is on their shoulders. Is it any surprise that up to two thirds of people released without access to accommodation reoffend within a year.
That race against the clock is maddening. With a third of all releases taking place on a Friday, this is a numbers game, and the numbers are very high indeed: reoffending costs the taxpayer £18 billion a year; and 80% of crime is committed by reoffenders. If we support people as they come out of prison, we can play a key role in reducing the significant societal and individual costs of reoffending, leading to fewer victims of crime and fewer communities dealing with its impact. This Bill is an important step towards doing that. By making a simple change, by varying the date of release for vulnerable people by up to 48 hours, we can relieve that time pressure and give people the opportunity to make a fresh start. This small but significant change would build on existing Government funding and support for people coming out of prison, including the funding of temporary accommodation for prison leavers at risk of homelessness. We need to end the practice of Friday releases for the most vulnerable, so that they have the vital extra hours and days they need to get support in place before the weekend arrives. This move is supported by charities, the third sector, those working in prisons, the probation service and the Local Government Association, and by former offenders who have been through the system. If the House will indulge me, I will pepper this speech with examples from a few of them.
Last month, I was fortunate enough to visit Wormwood Scrubs in London, to see Governor Frost and her team. It was a fascinating and eye-opening visit, and I am grateful for the time she and her team, and the brilliant third sector organisations, such as StandOut, afforded to accommodate me and answer some of my banal questions. Entering a prison, certainly one such as Wormwood Scrubs, feels very final indeed. You walk through a set of remarkable Victorian buildings and the first thing you notice is how solid the place is. There are big, thick walls, and heavy, metal doors. Everything is contained and segregated by keys. Each door is opened ahead of you and closes behind you, with a click. Your choices are limited to the space you have access to. The outside world, even though you can see it above and through the windows, feels maddeningly far away. As Governor Frost explained to me, when you leave a prison like the Scrubs, setting foot outside the estate for the first time, you face the
“first independent choice you can make in a while.”
If someone is released on a Friday, they have precious little time to make those choices and if they choose poorly, they may well find themselves back in prison. Some would rather see their family than comply with appointments, for some their addiction takes priority and others simply do not have time to make their appointments, with no chance of getting from point A to point B in the remaining hours of the day. When someone resides in Wormwood Scrubs at His Majesty’s pleasure, is released at 3pm on Friday and then has to see their parole officer in Cambridge that same day, what chance do they realistically have of making that appointment before 5 pm?
I have spoken to prison leavers who were released from custody on a Friday. Some were lucky and managed to get support, but the majority were left facing severe issues with access to key resettlement services. Some ended up on the streets over the weekend while waiting for housing services to reopen on the Monday. Even worse, some people I have spoken to were greeted at the prison gates by the smiling face of their drug dealer. Criminal gangs know just how hard it can be for people to work through their release checklist, meet their parole officer, sort their housing, go to the pharmacy and so on, so they offer a handout—one that comes at a very steep cost. So the merry-go-round continues: the person is recalled to prison, and it all begins again.
I am on the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which is undertaking an inquiry into drugs. In Middlesbrough earlier this year, we spoke to addicts and people in recovery about their life stories. The same issue came up time and again. Their experience is addiction, prison, release, shoplifting and other petty crimes, and imprisonment again. At no point does the process help them, their family or those who work in criminal justice. Nor does it help society. In my constituency, I have spoken to Cumbria police and the amazing Well Communities and have seen these issues time and again.
The nature of unstable releases means further addiction and ripe pickings for drugs gangs involved in county lines —the exact opposite of the outcome from imprisonment and rehabilitation that we might hope for. The chair of the Local Government Association’s safer and stronger communities board, Councillor Caliskan, says:
“With staff limitations at the weekend across a range of services, delays in accessing accommodation and a lack of early intervention from support services, vulnerable prison-leavers are at considerable risk of reoffending. In bringing release dates forward, this will ensure prison-leavers have enough time to access the right help and support to prevent them heading back towards previous criminal activities.”
I could not agree more.
If we want safer streets, we have to start by making access easier to vital services that reduce offending. If people do not have the support structure, including housing and healthcare, that they need in place on release, we simply risk depositing vulnerable people back in the hands of those who encourage harm over good. When I visited Wormwood Scrubs, the governor and her amazing team made that point again and again.
If the House will indulge me, I will read the testimony of Stanley, which was supplied by the fantastic charity Nacro. These are Stanley’s words:
“The biggest problem is not having a roof over your head. So many people come straight out of prison with nowhere to live and go straight on the streets. They have nowhere to go, nothing to do and end up doing something stupid just to go back inside.
When you come out, there’s nothing. No phone, no money, no ID, and if you don’t have someone helping you—you’re alone.
Me—I’d lost weight in prison. My jeans don’t fit and I don’t have a belt. It was freezing and I had no jumper. Yet I couldn’t get my advance payment because I didn’t have any ID. They told me to come to the job centre to sort it out on the Monday, but what am I going to do over the weekend? And I’m supposed to start work on Monday, and that’s not a good look, making excuses on your first day. We’re being set up to fail. 99% will go back to prison because they have no choice.
I came out of prison homeless. They’ve known I’d be released homeless for months. Yet, released on a Friday, it’s getting late in the afternoon, and I still have nowhere to go. And the housing officer has now gone for the weekend. No wonder people reoffend.
I’ve got an appointment with substance misuse services, but they can’t see me until Monday. But I’m supposed to start my job on Monday. And I can’t get an advance payment for UC because I don’t have any ID. They told me to come and see them on Monday instead. So now I’m faced with the weekend, with just the discharge grant to my name. I need to buy myself some winter clothes—it’s freezing—and I need to eat.
I’ve got hospital appointments. I take 6 different types of pills. I’m starting a job on Monday and can’t go to the job centre on my first day of work. This is what people have to deal with all the time.”
This is a comment from the Nacro resettlement worker who met Stanley:
“The holding cell on a Friday is rammed as such a high proportion of people in prison are released in Friday. It’s made worse by those whose release dates were set for the weekend, and are being released on a Friday instead. The pressure on the prisons and resettlement services is incredible. Yet, so many are being released without any support. Nothing. They don’t know who their probation officer is. Where they need to go. What they need to do. And on a Friday, it’s a race against the clock before services close.
“Unfortunately, for those without housing, the only option on a Friday is emergency accommodation if that is available. And then that person will have to through the whole process again on the Monday, all the while trying to get to a whole range of other appointments. And UC throws up another obstacle. Anyone who has been in and out of prison and has claimed an advancement payment after a previous release, is no longer eligible for another advance payment. Released on a Friday with just the discharge grant, those impacted are faced with a long weekend with just £76 pounds to their name.”
For many offenders, the day of release from custody is a realisation of a long-awaited goal: a chance to turn their backs on crime for good. But the reality for those released on Friday can be fraught with practical challenges to surmount. Those who need access to multiple support services before they close for the day, including local authority housing and mental health services, can face a race against the clock. Many services close early and are then shut over the weekend. Approximately a third of all releases fall on a Friday, so those services are under considerable additional pressure.