Edward Garnier – 2016 Speech on the Loyal Address

Below is the text of the speech made by Sir Edward Garnier, the Conservative MP for Harborough, on 18 May 2016.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). I might not agree with her commentary on the Queen’s Speech or the conclusions she reached, but I think that the thoughtful way in which she approached the several subjects she discussed was commendable. It was a commendable way to debate the Queen’s Speech, particularly from the Opposition Benches, because people tend to listen to Opposition Members when they speak carefully, calmly and without hectoring. She certainly was listened to by me, and I am grateful and very happy to follow her.
I am also happy to take this opportunity to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) for starting our deliberations this afternoon with two first-class speeches. The speeches were different in style, but both were hugely amusing and insightful. They are to be congratulated on what they had to say and the manner in which they said it.

All Queen’s Speeches can be something of a curate’s egg; they tend to include a bit of detail, a bit of general aspiration and a bit of

“Other measures will be laid before you.”

I do not suppose that this Queen’s Speech is an exception to that rule. However, I am keen to highlight three areas that appeal to me and that I think will be of interest to the country as a whole. It does not matter to me that the Bills on which I want to concentrate have a bearing only on England and Wales, because I think that the theory and public policy behind them should be of interest right across the United Kingdom.

The first issue that I want to deal with is the anti-corruption summit in London and the follow-on legislation that will tackle corruption, money laundering and tax evasion. There is absolutely no question but that for far too long the police and public policy commentators have not given enough attention to white-collar crime, as it is sometimes called. Nobody dies, there is no blood and guts, and there are no obvious victims in so many cases of corruption, money laundering and tax evasion, but none the less these are serious crimes. If somebody went into a bank with a sawn-off shotgun and stole £10 million, we would all get rather exercised about it, and in the event of a prosecution and a conviction, we would expect the offender to be given a pretty handy sentence. Yet there seems to be a rather perverse sort of admiration for people who, through computer crime or through other clever tactics, launder money, evade tax or commit acts of corruption, in this country or abroad.

All these financial and economic crimes need to be borne down on with a sense of purpose, because they not only produce victims in this country—we see pension funds ripped open and lives ruined as a consequence—but damage the developing economies in countries where corruption is, to some extent, endemic. It was interesting for me to attend the Marlborough House talks last week. I did not go to the main summit addressed by the Prime Minister but to the event the day before addressed by the noble and learned Baroness Scotland, now Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, at which a whole host of people, including the President of Nigeria, spoke with one voice about the need to tackle corruption, not only because it is wrong in itself, but because corruption in their countries damages their development, damages their economy, and makes the lives of their people, particularly poorer people, altogether more difficult. I welcome the onset of this new legislation, not least because it ties into something that I did when I was briefly in government, which was to introduce deferred prosecution agreements that allowed corporate malefactors to be dealt with pragmatically and effectively.

I am not so happy about the second thing that I want to draw attention to, which is the sentence in the Queen’s Speech that reads:

“Proposals will be brought forward for a British Bill of Rights.”
This idea of a British Bill of Rights has been knocking around the lampshade like a demented moth for some little while, and it may well be that if it has an armour-plated head, it can carry on knocking itself around the lampshade for a good while longer. I really do think it is a waste of intellectual and political energy for this—to mix my metaphors—dead horse to be revived. Of course the European convention on human rights and its application in our own courts, and in the Strasbourg Court, can occasionally be rather annoying, but that is not the point. The point of the convention, the point of the Strasbourg Court and the point of applying the convention law in our own courts, right across the United Kingdom, is to ensure that the courts can protect the interests of the people—the citizens.

I am not going to get too apoplectic about this, because I find that life is far too exciting already without getting apoplectic about a British Bill of Rights, and I will wait until the consultation is over—perhaps my obituary will have been written by then—before I deconstruct it. However, I urge the Government to make the consultation very thorough and to consider long and hard whether this is worth the political damage and in-fighting that it may well cause. I think it was the right hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) who said that there is no majority in this House, let alone in the other place, for a wholesale attack on the structure of human rights in this country. I suspect that he is right, but let us see what the Government come up with when they have finished consulting. I wish them all the best in their endeavours.

To come on to the meat of what I want to say— I promise to take just a little time, not far too long—I congratulate the Government on their prison reform proposals. One of the things in which I have become interested in the past 11 years is prison reform. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister became Leader of the Opposition in 2005 and rearranged the Opposition Front Bench, he invited me to become the shadow Minister for prisons, then shadowing the Home Office. I think that the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), who is in the Chamber, was the then Minister for prisons; if not, he certainly took on that role shortly after I became the shadow Minister.

The Prime Minister asked me to find out what was going on in the prisons of England and Wales, because the prisons world is, except to the few enthusiasts about such issues, an entirely secret world. Over the course of the next three or four years, I set about visiting about 65 of the 140 prisons, young offender institutions and secure training units in England and Wales. In all those prisons and places of custody, I found dedicated prison officers and hard-working senior management teams, including prison governors. They were all interested in doing a good job, but unfortunately the good things that went on in some prisons were not replicated in others. There was no general pattern of a sensible application of policy.

The inevitable problem that one saw as one went from prison to prison—this was quite easy to see whether one visited the big Victorian prisons of Manchester, Leeds, Wandsworth, Pentonville or Wormwood Scrubs, or more modern prisons such as Gartree in my constituency or Glen Parva, a YOI that straddles the border of my constituency and that of South Leicestershire—was that of overcrowding. Although the Government’s proposed measures are entirely laudable and welcome, nothing of lasting value seriously can be done to reform and improve the condition of our prisons and prisoners—and thus to make them fitter to come out into the community and lead sensible and straight lives so that they can look after their dependents and themselves, get a job and become tax-paying members of society—unless we stop overcrowding our prisons.

Overcrowded prisons lead to churn. Someone sentenced in Canterbury Crown court for a particular offence might go straight to Canterbury prison, but probably not if it still specialises in overseas prisoners, in which case they will probably go to a relatively local prison. If Canterbury Crown court sends 10 or 15 people to prison every day and the local prison does not have sufficient space to house the inflow of just-sentenced prisoners, they have to be moved from Canterbury to Lewes or Maidstone, but how do those prisons fit in the 15, 30 and 45 prisoners that have been sent there? They remove 15, 30 and 45 of their own prisoners and shove them down the line, so there is a metaphorical jumbo jet of prisoners going around England, moving from prison to prison. One could say, “Well, that’s just bad luck.” However, their records and education certificates do not move with them, so when Prisoner Jones goes from Canterbury to Lewes to Exeter to Bristol to Birmingham, his medical and educational records are three or four prisons behind him. It is bananas, it is incompetent, it is inefficient, and it is a waste of life and public money.

We do that because in the past, we had Governments who were good at talking about prison reform, but did not get round to doing it. Now we must, and I think we have a Government who will, because the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Justice are genuinely interested in this issue. If the Prime Minister, who has said that he will not serve another term after this Parliament, leaves nothing behind him other than real proof that what we do to prisoners and what we do within prisons can allow our prisoners to emerge from prison as better citizens—off drugs, able to read and write, having received the mental health treatment they required and fit for a job—he will have done a really wonderful thing.

I am biased. First, as I said a moment ago, in 2005 I became the shadow prisons Minister and went on a literal and metaphorical journey to find out what was going on in prisons. I also researched and wrote a paper called “Prisons with a Purpose”, which I hope has informed, to some extent, the discussion we are now having on prison reform. It is inevitable that, as Front Benches change, other people come in and want to do things their way, rather than the way of their predecessors, but I like to think, in a rather self-regarding way, that the paper I wrote has proved to be valuable. If, unconsciously or consciously, my successors have drawn on it to produce good policy, that is a good thing.

The other reason I am biased is that when I came out of government in September 2012, I was fortunate enough to be invited to become a patron of Unlock, a prisons charity, and a little while later I became a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust. It is a happy coincidence that my hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families is sitting on the Front Bench, because his brother James has just become the chairman of the Prison Reform Trust, and the name Timpson and doing good things for prisons and prisoners run together. In a number of prisons—possibly in Liverpool and Manchester, and certainly in Wandsworth—Timpson workshops train guys who can then go out and work.

As General Ramsbotham, the unlikely but marvellous inspector of prisons, said, the three things that a released prisoner needs are a strong relationship—whether with their family, wife, husband or partner—somewhere to live and a job. The Timpson trick is to allow ex-offenders and ex-prisoners to set up shop, run it on their own and handle money. The business trusts those people and, in return, they pay back by earning money, supporting their families and providing a service to their customers. Yes, of course, the odd one fails, but the risk is worth taking. I hope the Government will feel encouraged by that example, and that they will feel that the public attitude towards prisons, prisoners and prison reform is not as conservative, with a small c, as old-fashioned or as ill-considered as many would have us believe. There is a fund of enthusiasm for good work in prisons, and I urge the Government to push hard for it and not to be upset by the occasional recidivist or the occasional disaster, because the overall direction of travel is good.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman take this opportunity to pay tribute to the mother of the Minister for Children and Families? I believe that she recently passed away. She was the primary driving force behind the amazing things that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has just talked about.

Sir Edward Garnier

Of course I will—I do not want to make this a Timpson-fest, but I am happy to pay tribute to the Minister’s mother. I was fortunate enough to meet her, and I was very sad when she died, as I know my hon. Friend the Minister obviously was.

That family’s story, which goes beyond the fostering of a lot of disadvantaged children and the setting up of workshops in prisons, demonstrates what private enterprises, charities and individuals can do to turn things around. If the Government can harness that work and borrow the enthusiasm and spirit of volunteers, charities, professionals in the probation world and so on, they can produce an understanding that going to prison is not the solution for a prisoner but part of a much longer journey. I have been a Crown court recorder and sentenced people to prison, and from reading their histories I know that they are often the children of prisoners or from broken families. They are often mentally ill, and they are largely illiterate and unable to function. I have sentenced people to community sentences who do not even know how to tell the time. They are told, “You are required to be at such-and-such a place at 10 o’clock next Friday, where you will meet the probation officer,” and they ask, “How many sleeps is that?” It is as rum as that.

I hope that the Government will push this agenda on with great enthusiasm. There are charities that do good work for the mentally ill and for prisoners, but we need to join things up so that ex-servicemen, for example, who are under the care of the Ministry of Defence and get into trouble when they leave the Army, can be properly treated by that Department and by the Department of Health, and do not fall through the gaps between the departmental budgets. As I have said, we have to deal with overcrowding and stop the churn, and we must be braver and have more releases on temporary licence—that issue was spoken about over the weekend.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice, for the Committee’s report. It sounds the alarm bells and tells a story, but that story has been told and told and told. Now it must stop being told and something must be done. I hope that when the next Queen’s Speech is given this time next year, Her Majesty will not need to say:

“My Government will legislate to reform prisons and courts to give individuals a second chance”,

because that work will already have started.

I will speak finally about another pet subject of mine. The law on sentencing in this country is incredibly complicated—I would say impenetrable. I resigned as a Crown court recorder because when I went on a judges’ refresher course last October at Warwick University, I discovered that three pieces of legislation were passed at the end of the 2010 to 2015 Parliament that I had never heard of—and I follow criminal justice legislation carefully. Ludicrous. Ludicrous of me, one may say. We must stop treating this place as a criminal justice sausage machine, concentrate, and pass sensible legislation that does not repeat itself, and allows the courts to do justice, protect the public and enable wrong to be set right. I hope that one way in which we can do that is by codifying the criminal sentencing law in one easy, though no doubt big, volume so that judges can see what the law is, what has been amended, what has been repealed, what is still there and what is not yet in force, rather than having to look at 25 different books or internet sites to find out the correct sentence. That is not much to ask of the Government, and perhaps they could start.