HC Deb 12 March 2001 vol 364 cc613-5
4. Mr. Paul Clark (Gillingham)

What steps the Prison Service is taking to help offenders secure work on release from prison. [151701]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng)

The Government are committed to reducing reoffending by those released from prison. That is why we are investing £30 million in a new Prison Service custody-to-work programme, with the aim of doubling the number of prisoners going into jobs on release over the next three years.

Mr. Clark

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Does he agree that jobs—as he clearly said—and stable accommodation are two of the most important factors in ensuring that people do not reoffend? Does he acknowledge that current research suggests that only about 10 per cent. of offenders get a job, and that 40 per cent. have no stable accommodation on release? Crime is falling overall in Medway, but there is still a long way to go. Can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that the Government are taking all the steps that they can to ensure that people do not reoffend?

Mr. Boateng

My hon. Friend is right. On a recent visit to Medway, I met a number of people engaged in the voluntary sector, not least those involved with resettlement. We know that only 10 per cent. of prisoners get a job on release, and that more than 40 per cent. are released without stable accommodation to go to. The thrust of the custody-to-work initiative will be to ensure that prisoners get advice and assistance in advance, so that they can get a new deal place or a job, and issues such as housing benefit and the need for a stable address are dealt with by the probation service and the Prison Service working in tandem rather than separately. We thereby hope to ensure that we make a real contribution, through resettlement, to reducing reoffending. That is the bottom line: protecting the public better by ensuring that such people go to work, and go to a stable address.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

The Minister will be aware that prison-based commercial activity can contribute to reducing recidivism, but will he consider the way in which such activity is being carried out at Kirkham prison in my constituency? I have recently received complaints from those in the poultry industry that a new commercial enterprise based at the prison is being conducted in a very uncompetitive fashion. Those running the enterprise from the prison are doing a lot of boasting that it is cheaper than those that operate commercially outside, because their labour does not have to be costed in at a commercial rate. Will the Minister examine the matter for me?

Mr. Boateng

I believe that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the right hon. Gentleman have had some correspondence on this issue. We are well aware of the difficulties that he has outlined, which highlight the problem—he may like to make that point to his right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). We must get the balance right between creating commercial enterprises in a prison context and ensuring that they do not have an unfair advantage over the wider community. We are making real headway in this area. The total number of prisoners employed last year was 19,000. The number in the public sector has risen from 7,600, the figure that we inherited when we came into office, to 8,500 today. We are getting there, but it takes time and effort, and we are determined to put both into the equation.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

I know that my right hon. Friend shares the view that providing education and training in prison is essential if prisoners are to be able to get jobs when they are released, and avoid going back to a life of crime and reoffending. The opportunities vary considerably from prison to prison, although improvements are being made. How much further does my right hon. Friend believe we can improve the opportunities, to ensure that all prisoners have education or training before they are released?

Mr. Boateng

My hon. Friend puts his finger on an important point. We still have further to go. We will increase spending on education in prisons by 17 per cent. over the next three years. Last month, my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Blackstone and I introduced a new prison/DFEE partnership at Wormwood Scrubs. Such partnerships will be rolled out across the country, and should provide real benefits for prisoners and for their future employment.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

Is the Minister aware of the evidence produced in yesterday's "Panorama" programme that 90 per cent. of the people who leave Feltham young offenders institution reoffend? Does he agree that, although considerable progress has been made in educating the younger offenders, the vast majority leave without education or training, and are functionally illiterate and totally unprepared for the world of work? Could he explain how he is taking forward the programme to address that problem?

Mr. Boateng

I am well aware of the problem. Feltham will be one of the pilot institutions under the custodyto-work programme, and we have recently opened a new education centre there. It is true that the under-18 estate has had the benefit of real and substantial investment over the past three to four years. We have more to do for those between the ages and 18 and 20, and we are determined to do it.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Given that only last month the Director General of the Prison Service described many of our prisons as "hellholes"; that under this Government slopping out has returned; that assaults on staff have risen by 25 per cent.; that incidents of self-harm have soared by 35 per cent.; that only 9,000 out of 63,000 prisoners work in prison workshops—representing a reduction of 4 per cent. on the previous year—and that more than half of all ex-prisoners typically reoffend and go back through the revolving door of the criminal justice system, why does the right hon. Gentleman not abandon his smug complacency and either adopt the Conservative policy of a full working day for a full working wage, or accept that a Government who have an insatiable appetite for public office should give way to an Opposition who have an insatiable appetite for public service?

Mr. Boateng

I really do not think that the hon. Gentleman does justice to this subject. My responses to this question have in no sense been complacent. We still have a way to go, but the hon. Gentleman caricatures the director general's speech and the current state of the Prison Service.

This morning I attended the Butler Trust awards ceremony at Buckingham palace. The trust gives awards to prison officers—men and women—so that they can address some of the problems outlined by the hon. Gentleman. It is inspired by the former Conservative Home Secretary's approach to these issues—

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

One nation!

Mr. Boateng

As my hon. Friend says, it is very much a "one nation" approach, seeking to build consensus rather than division into penal policy.

We are addressing problems long neglected under the last Administration. That is why under the present Government, industrial output in prisons is up, qualifications for prisoners are up, and crime is coming down.