HL Deb 15 February 1999 vol 597 cc459-62

2.46 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to ensure that by the year 2000 the prison system is less stretched and better able to rehabilitate prisoners.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, the latest projection suggests that pressures on the prison population by the year 2000 will be lower than previously forecast. The central projection for the average prison population in 2000 is 64,600, 7,600 fewer than previously.

As a result of the Comprehensive Spending Review settlement £226 million has been allocated to deliver our commitment on constructive regimes. This money will lead to an expansion of offending behaviour and drug treatment programmes, as well as education.

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reassurance. Will Her Majesty's Government consider marking the millennium with an amnesty for selected non-violent prisoners in order that the Prison Service can begin the new millennium with a more manageable prison population and build on the reassurance that he has given?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, amnesty is not a traditional remedy in this country. I believe that there are serious objections to it as a matter of principle. However, as always I shall transmit the right reverend Prelate's suggestion to the Home Secretary.

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, within two years of their release from prison 75 per cent. of young men are reconvicted. Does the Minister agree that one of the key challenges facing the prison system is to reduce recidivism by improving the management of rehabilitation within prisons? Does the noble Lord accept that plenty of evidence demonstrates that some programmes and methods adopted within prison work considerably better than others? Will he encourage the UK Prison Service to identify and develop such best practice in order to achieve much more in this country and to set a useful example for other states in Europe and elsewhere?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Earl is right in everything he says. In fact, the new education contract which came into effect in January of this year means that education for a prisoner will be an integral part of the sentence plan throughout. There is no doubt that education of prisoners, job opportunities, home connections and ties in the community are the best positive indicators against recidivism.

Lord Acton

My Lords, have the Government taken any action on the finding of the Chief Inspector of Prisons that many women are remanded in custody for brief periods, only to be given bail on a second court appearance without any fresh information?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the treatment of remand prisoners within the prison estate has concerned me. Accordingly, I have asked the Chief Inspector of Prisons to carry out a thematic review of all remand prisoners within the prison estate.

Lord McNally

My Lords, the Minister spoke some pious words about education in prisons. Is it not a fact that education provisions have fallen by one-third in the past four years? Furthermore, is there not a great deal of leeway to make up within the Prison Service? Rather than dismissing suggestions such as those made by the right reverend Prelate, is there not a need for an open mind on how to break into the vicious upward spiral of the prison population? In terms of crime and punishment, it is clear that prison is not the only solution and in some cases it is not the best solution.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I have not said anything pious and therefore I am not suggesting that the right reverend Prelate has—

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln

My Lords, not on this occasion!

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate obviously holds on to his day job! What I said was not pious or platitudinous. We are devoting a substantial amount of new money, £226 million, to improve the regimes. We have to attack the cancer of drugs either in the community or in prisons. We have to find more positive regimes. I have visited prisons to see them working and I know that miraculous work is being done with limited resources. It is not only cash that is required; it is intelligence, imagination and determination. I pay full tribute to those in the Prison Service who fully exhibit those qualities.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, have pressures on the Prison Service eased as a result of fewer people being convicted, shorter sentences or earlier releases?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, a complex series of causes bring about an easing on the prison regime. One easement has resulted from the success of the home detention curfew. Since 28th January, 775 prisoners have been released and only 14 have been recalled. There are 749 still on tag and others have successfully completed that useful scheme. I believe that everyone recognises that until we get prison numbers at a manageable level, one way or another, we will not be as productive as we all hope in ensuring that people do not reoffend. Training them properly and giving them structured prospects is of profound assistance to them.

Lord Laming

My Lords, can the Minister indicate the Government's response to recent inspection reports of young offender establishments which has been critical of the reduction in training and education opportunities for young offenders? Is it possible that the contracts to which the Minister has referred apply also to young offender establishments?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, yes we will set particular targets so that we can ensure that by 2001 50 per cent. of those who leave will have at least level 2 literacy and numeracy qualifications. That is the bare essential required in order to have sensible prospects of work opportunities.