HL Deb 15 January 1997 vol 577 cc183-6

2.45 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether any religious sect has been given special permission to act in a British prison with the aim of changing the attitudes of prisoners towards committing further offences after their release.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, I believe that my noble friend may be referring to a proposal for a six-months' pilot course addressing offending behaviour at the Verne Prison. This is to be run by volunteers from a Christian interdenominational organisation under the control of prison managers.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for her reply as it helps to explain disquieting press reports. While the aim of reforming offenders and reducing the prison population is to be commended, will there be periodical reviews to assess the progress and results of a scheme that apparently originates with a body based in the United States of America?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I can give my noble friend an absolute assurance that it is to be one pilot scheme run for six months. It will be fully evaluated at the end of that period. The scheme grows out of Anglican-Roman Catholic support. It is operated in a wholly non-denominational way.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness—

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I do not doubt that it is a good idea to have offending behaviour courses in prisons, but why cannot it be done through a secular agency staffed by professionals instead of by a religious organisation staffed by amateurs? Since the professed aim of the Kairos prison ministry is to build up strong Christian communities within corrective institutions, are not its activities a way of getting round the prohibition on proselytising contained within the Prison Act 1952? Will the Minister ensure that all the documentation concerning this scheme, including any literature which is distributed to prisoners who are not already Christians, is placed in the Library of your Lordships' House?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I find it quite extraordinary that the noble Lord gives no recognition to the wonderful work done in our prisons by non-professionals. They are people who work with prisoners in many different ways. Because they are not part of officialdom, very often they are more effective in addressing offending behaviour. This is a worthwhile experiment. Proselytising in prisons is not permitted and this is not a scheme to circumvent that. It is very important that the people who are involved in providing this course and those who partake of it, are doing so entirely voluntarily.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, can the noble Baroness say—

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware that she is absolutely right to give the House these reassurances. The organisation to which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, referred is a respectable one. It is not simply American, but it also exists in this country and throughout Europe. It is strongly supported by diocesan bishops of impeccable orthodoxy and conservative tendency. As I am sure the Minister is aware, misunderstandings have arisen because of highly inaccurate press reports. Does she agree that one should not necessarily believe all that the papers say about the Church, the Royal Family, the judiciary and the England cricket team?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I concur with the right reverend Prelate that we should not believe all that we read in the newspapers. I entirely agree with him that the articles about this particular scheme were very inaccurate indeed. Schemes such as this are run in Canada, America, Australia and South America. It is right to say that the Association for the Protection of the Convicted is widely spread in this country. It has done very effective work in prisons. It is also worth saying that the Verne Prison itself is happy about this course, so too are the chaplain and the Anglican and Roman Catholic ministers. The Buddhist and Methodist visiting ministers have not complained.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the Minister aware of any non-religious organisations that care for families where the breadwinner is in prison and which need help? If such organisations exist, will the Minister give them all the help that they so richly deserve?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I can think of many such organisations. I think in particular of the Society of Voluntary Associates, which I know well, which works with many prisoners on many different fronts. Some of its work is extremely impressive. Other family organisations also provide help to prisoners. The work carried out in our prisons by non-professionals is truly invaluable.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, I wonder whether the Prison Reform Trust was among the many organisations to make representations on this matter. Does the Minister share the pleasure of many of us that Mr. Hurd has joined that body?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I very much welcome my right honourable friend to that post. We have not had many representations about the organisation in question other than the Question on the Order Paper and some correspondence with the noble Lords, Lord Avebury and Lord McNair. I believe that the Prison Reform Trust will welcome such a programme of working to address and, where possible, to modify the offending behaviour of prisoners.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is there any cost to public funds from this venture? If so, how much?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, if there is any cost, I believe that it is negligible. Accommodation has to be found within the prison for the course to take place, but my understanding is that the prison officer involved has volunteered for the work. It will be in the normal course of duties for some prison officers who manage the wing where the course is to take place. However, those involved with the course are volunteers, as are the prisoners who will participate. The course will not cost the same as a course run by professionals, where the cost would be considerable.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, as a persistent and sometimes tiresome critic of the Home Office and the present regime there, may I say how much I welcome wholeheartedly the support which the Home Office is giving to this fine Christian initiative?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I give a heartfelt welcome to that comment from the noble Earl. I am sure that the whole House will wish the initiative well. We shall all benefit if it works: the prisoners themselves, those involved with the course, who will gain a great deal from it, and, ultimately, the community at large.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, have the Government received any comments from the Prison Service and, in particular, from representatives of the warders who will be involved?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the person who initiated the course in this particular prison is a member of the Prison Service. He is a Christian and he heard about the organisation through his church. He then spoke to the prison authorities and arranged for the course to take place at the prison. I can only repeat what I said earlier: no member of the Prison Service will be coerced into taking part in such courses. It will be voluntary on the part of the prison officers, as well as on the part of the participating prisoners.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords—

Noble Lords

Next Question!

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, I have a funny feeling that the desire of the House is to move on to the next Question. We have two further Questions left, so if the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, is moved to restrain himself a little, that might give us the opportunity to move on to the next Question.