HC Deb 17 December 2001 vol 377 cc12-4
7. Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury)

What action he is taking to improve conditions in young offender institutions. [21150]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Beverley Hughes)

With the creation of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales in April 2000, we are already beginning to transform conditions for young people under 18 in young offender institutions. There is also a manifesto commitment to build on the Government's youth justice reforms to improve conditions for 18 to 20-year-olds in custody. That group is already benefiting from money from the last spending review, including money for drugs treatment and offending behaviour programmes. In addition, the Prison Service has allocated a further £15 million over the next three years to improve standards in young offender institutions.

Dr. Murrison

Sir David Ramsbotham will no doubt feel that his newspaper article today is vindicated by the complacency of the Minister's response. How many prisoners and young offenders are in overcrowded accommodation? Does the hon. Lady agree that the prison health service is a desperately failing service, and that the only way to secure decent rehabilitation is through decency in custody?

Beverley Hughes

I do not have the figures for the proportion of young offenders being kept two to a cell designed for one, but I will write and let the hon. Gentleman have them. As for the prison health service, I know that he is new to the House, so he may not have been so aware of conditions in young offender institutions and prisons generally before he became a Member of Parliament. As a result of 18 years of Tory neglect of the Prison Service, it will take some time to improve conditions. Health provision in 1997 was dire, but we have begin to transform that. There is a new partnership between the Prison Service and the health service, and significant new money has gone into improving health care, particularly mental health care. We have a strategy for tackling the high number of suicides and cases of self-harm that took place 1997, and I am pleased to say that the number is coming down year on year. Unlike the Tory Governments of the past, the Government are implementing a commitment to decency in prison.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley)

Does my hon. Friend agree that a lack of basic skills is often a contributory cause of the social exclusion that leads to offending, and that improving skills is important in helping young people to return to a positive role in society? Will she undertake to ensure that education continues to be given a high priority for young people in young offender institutions?

Beverley Hughes

My hon. Friend is right. Recent studies by the Youth Justice Board and Her Majesty's inspector of prisons revealed details that confirmed what we already knew impressionistically: more than a third of young offenders have a reading age of seven or lower, half are functioning below the numeracy level of a seven-year-old, and the majority were not in school before they came into custody. We are beginning to put that right, with a new partnership with the Department for Education and Skills and a variety of educational programmes and training, to make sure that when young offenders have to be in custody, they begin to address some of the failure to achieve educationally that was a characteristic of their lives before they came into prison.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking)

Let me remind the Minister that after nearly five years of a Labour Government, 19-year-old boys at the Feltham young offender institute are still getting less than three hours a day of purposeful activity, and are still spending 16 hours a day locked up in their cells. The Minister herself has described that as unacceptable, the head of the Prison Service has said that it is regrettable, and I think that it is utterly shameful. Is not the former chief inspector of prisons right to say that there is no direction in the Prison Service? Does the Minister accept that such uncivilised treatment of young offenders does nothing to help them become useful members of society on their release?

Beverley Hughes

The difference between the Governments whom the hon. Gentleman supported and the present Government is that we are doing something about the situation in Feltham. His own record does not bear much scrutiny, either. Because of his day job, so to speak, he knew for many years about the situation at Feltham and other young offender institutions, and he said and did nothing about it. Furthermore, his facts are wrong. As a result of additional resources and an action plan to improve the situation at Feltham, time out of cell in Feltham B—that is, for the 18-to-20-year-olds—is up to six and three quarter hours a day on weekdays, with purposeful activity averaging more than 20 hours a week. A new regime was implemented on 2 July to take that forward. I am not saying that Feltham is as we want it to be, but it has progressed a lot further than it ever would have done under a Tory Government.