HC Deb 20 March 1997 vol 292 cc1066-7
9. Lady Olga Maitland

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department when the Minister responsible for prisons most recently visited a prison, and what was the purpose of the visit. [19790]

Miss Widdecombe

Earlier this week I visited HM prison ship Weare, and before that I visited Spring Hill prison Buckinghamshire, on 11 March. That completed my tour of all prisons in England and Wales. I visit prisons to see for myself what is happening at individual establishments and to talk to staff, prisoners and members of boards of visitors about matters of concern to them. It is a particularly important part of my role as prisons Minister.

Lady Olga Maitland

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her commitment to the Prison Service. She is the first Minister to visit all the prisons in England and Wales. Does she agree that, since the Prison Service became an agency, there have been considerable improvements? For example, the degrading exercise of slopping out has been abolished. There is now a much more constructive, but austere, regime. In short, prisons should not be hotels in which prisoners relax.

Miss Widdecombe

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind remarks. I can confirm that, since achieving agency status, the Prison Service has made remarkable strides. Not only has it achieved that which my hon. Friend has outlined, but there has been a reduction in the escape rate of some 80 per cent., a rise in purposeful activity of some 7 per cent., an increase in education, and elimination of the practice of placing three prisoners in a cell designed for one. Those achievements have been brought about because the Prison Service, its management and staff and the Government have been committed to such improvements despite the endless catalogue of damnation by the Opposition, who do nothing but point to the bad news. They demoralise the service with their constant criticism. They never acknowledge and praise the service for its achievements. I am pleased to do that and I suggest that Opposition Members join me in so doing.

Mr. Skinner

When the Minister was visiting the prisons in Britain, did she take her handcuffs with her, and how many times did she bump into that well-known recidivist the Home Secretary?

Miss Widdecombe

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on what I am sure will be his forthcoming retirement—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—in keeping with his own policy, and I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary on turning round our attitudes towards public protection, again in the teeth not only of ignorant opposition from Labour Members, but of nothing from them but concern for the criminal and for being soft on those who repeatedly prey on the public. When my right hon. and learned Friend returns on May 2, he will carry on that programme to the shame of Opposition Members and to the great benefit of the people of this country.