HL Deb 10 April 2000 vol 612 cc7-11

2.55 p.m.

Lord Quirk

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Following the chief inspector's report on Portland, whether they will take steps to ensure a greater focus on education and training in all young offender institutions.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, new regime standards have been in place from 1st April for prisoners under the age of 18 which place a particular and clear emphasis on education and training. An individual programme is to be introduced for each young person suited to his individual needs, ability and aptitude. For prisoners between the ages of 18 and 21, the Comprehensive Spending Review delivered £4.6 million for a welfare-to-work programme, as well as general improvements in educational provision.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. Does the noble Lord agree that this matter depends very much on how the money is spent? In all conscience, Portland is far from the worst young offender institution. For example, Rochester beats it hollow in that respect. Does the Minister agree that Portland's rather good workshop and education provision shows just how much more could be done if better use was made of those facilities and, in particular, if they were integrated so that the splendid and often quite enthusiastic work carried out in the workshops was linked to the education system so as to provide youngsters with vocational qualifications? Further, does the Minister agree that we have both a duty and an enormously exciting opportunity to do something to remedy the deficiencies, whether through exclusion or otherwise, in the education of the 11,000 young offenders, 2,000 of whom are juveniles, and provide them with the necessary skills and training so that they lead productive and crime-free lives in future?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the short answer to the noble Lord's question is yes, but obviously there is much more to it than that. I am grateful to the noble Lord for his observations about the improved quality of the young offender regime at Portland. The noble Lord puts his finger on the key issue which is to ensure that young offenders generally emerge from the periods of detention that they endure better educated than when they went in. I must advise noble Lords that, as to BSA screening tests, the levels of educational attainment by young offenders on entering those institutions are extremely low. The figures demonstrate that only 41.6 per cent of young offenders are above level 1 in reading; only 14.4 per cent are above level 1 in writing; and only 24 per cent are above level 1 in numeracy. There has been welcome progress over the past three years, and today many young offenders achieve far higher levels. As to rates of recidivism, it is clear from the evidence that those who emerge with educational qualifications are much less likely to re-offend, and I believe that we should take great comfort from that.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, have any writers in residence been appointed to young offender institutions?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I cannot advise today. However, I am happy to undertake some inquiries and write to the noble Baroness. It seems something from which those institutions can benefit.

Lord Judd

My Lords, if rehabilitation is the main objective in order to turn young offenders into productive and responsible members of society, does the Minister agree that every penny spent on education and training within the present prison system is a penny well spent?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord. Over the current period of the Comprehensive Spending Review, £26 million is being spent specifically on education. We think that that is money well spent. It is a good investment and enables those young offenders in particular to get on to the welfare-to-work programme. We believe that that is one of the best and strongest contributions towards ensuring that those young people come out of the institution and lead a crime-free life.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the rise in the prison population, including those in the young offender institutions, creates a big problem? By the noble Lord's own reckoning, the figure is close to 70,000. Does the noble Lord accept that one way to promote education and training is to reduce the number of people in young offender institutions? The best way to do that is to make better use of community sentencing. Will the noble Lord consider the projects which NACRO has promoted? I declare an interest as chair of that body. It has worked effectively with a small number of people in such an institution. Does the Minister consider that he has an obligation to talk to other parts of the criminal justice system to ensure a reduction in numbers by better use of community sentencing? That is good for young people; it is good for young offender institutions; and, above all, it is good for the country.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it would be pleasant and desirable if the present prison population were to decline. However, we accept the sad truth: that while people commit serious offences, whatever their age, it is right to apply custodial sentences. We believe that prison works. We believe that prison can be a positive experience, and that we should pursue that objective. We want to get people into education and training to improve their opportunities when they come out of those institutions. One of the innovative schemes adopted is the detention and training order. It provides particularly for young people so that they receive training and education in the establishment to which they are located. When they come out that process of training and education will continue. We believe that that will provide more positive alternatives than a life of crime.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, is there a wide disparity between the young offender institutions in the amount spent on education? What advice is given to governors in relation to that aspect?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, there are disparities across the entire prison estate of which young offender institutions are a part. We want to bring all establishments to a higher level. That is why we have made bids against the next round of the CSR. We put money aside last year to achieve that beneficial objective.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate the gratitude on this side of the House for his support and reaffirmation of Mr Michael Howard's view that prison works?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am always grateful to the noble Lord for his help and support in these matters.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, how much is spent per head on the education and training of young people in young offender institutions? Perhaps the Minister will write to me on that point.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I confess that mental arithmetic is not one of my strongest points. I have the global figures. I shall happily try to provide the noble Earl in writing with a breakdown of those figures.

Lord Addington

My Lords, many of the young offenders have educational problems resulting from dyslexia. Will the Minister assure the House that there will be sufficient specialist trainers to ensure that those young offenders receive the appropriate training? If they have further inappropriate lessons from which they are bound to fail, it will reinforce their previous bad experiences from education.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am happy to give that assurance. The noble Lord makes an interesting point. Dyslexia is a problem experienced to some degree within the prison system. We are looking closely at good practice. I can advise the noble Lord that Pentonville has a very good dyslexia project, recently praised—dare I say it?—in a Guardian newspaper article on 28th March. Perhaps I may supply the noble Lord with a copy of the article. Simon Midgeley was extremely positive about the progress being made on behalf of prisoners who suffer from dyslexia.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, in answer to a Question for Written Answer last week, the Minister gave me figures of expenditure per head on education in the prison system over the past three years. Can the noble Lord break down that figure so that we can see how much per head has been spent in the past three years on young offenders and adult offenders respectively? It is vitally important that young offenders receive education which will be successful in preventing them from re-offending. Does the Minister agree, therefore, that more would be spent on young offenders than on adults?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord's surmise is probably not too dissimilar from mine. It is sensible that we invest heavily in the education of young people. After all, they are the future, whether or not they are in prison. We need to pay close attention to that.

I am grateful for the noble Lord's first question. We shall look again at the figures to see whether we can provide a breakdown to the noble Lord in the format he desires.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, are specific targets of literacy and numeracy set in these institutions? If not, will the Minister consider that suggestion?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, there are a number of key performance indicators. Some are of considerable value. The key one at present is to reduce by 15 per cent over the current period those who are on level 1. I shall consider the noble Lord's helpful suggestion against the other key performance indicators. Perhaps we can discuss the issue further.

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