HL Deb 16 October 2000 vol 617 cc744-61

7.32 p.m.

The Earl of Longford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the education currently provided in prisons.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, in effect, I am asking the Minister whether he will be able to tell us that the Government will give considerably more support to education in prisons than anyone has given until now. I am pleased that so many noble Lords are to take part in the debate but I am afraid it means that they will have only a few minutes in which to speak. Therefore, we all know that they will have to compress their thoughts very severely.

I hope that other noble Lords will not be upset if I mention only two noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, who is to follow me, is in a kind of sense my religious rector. I go to a prayer group presided over by him from which I and many others draw much inspiration. Later on, the noble Lord, Lord Evans, will make his maiden speech. The noble Lord comes from the great house of Faber. When I think of Faber, I think of T S Eliot; and when I think of T S Eliot I think of the honour he did my wife and me in asking us to accompany him, after his second marriage, on a visit to Buckingham Palace. My memory is not very strong, but did he write something about violets from the waste land or violets from the dead land? At any rate, I am sure that we shall have a violet from the noble Lord, Lord Evans. I am sure, too, that it would be disrespectful to his party to suggest that he comes from a waste land or a dead land, whatever it may be.

I shall come to the point very quickly because I have only a few minutes. I hope that I shall not take up my full 10 minutes. Every noble Lord present, including the Minister of course, would wish to pay tribute to those who dedicate themselves to prison education at all levels, including the prisoners themselves and those who teach them. I am sure that we would want at least that to go on record. I should like to put to the Minister two questions, of which I have given notice, with which he may or may not have time to deal. The second question will, I think, be expanded on by another, more gifted speaker.

Does the Minister agree that Christianity should play the same part in integration in prisons as it does to a limited extent—but, still, it plays a part to some extent—in the ordinary education system of the country? Secondly, is the Minister satisfied with the present arrangements under which, as I understand them, the decision as to how much money is actually spent on prison education out of the budget governors receive depends on the governors? As a result, it may not be very much. Everyone is well aware of that. The amount of education in prison depends very much on the—I shall not say "whim" of the governor—opinion of the governor.

I come to my main point. I bring forward three convictions which may or may not be shared by others. First, as a loyal member of the Labour Party for 64 years, I am delighted with the general record of the Government. I refer particularly to their record in Northern Ireland but also to their record in many other areas. Therefore, I speak today as a Labour loyalist. But, secondly, I am not at all happy with the Government's record on penal matters. It is very disappointing. I sympathise with the Home Secretary, who is stuck with a commitment to be tough towards crime. He has a difficult task. I am well aware that my old friend Evelyn Waugh, the famous writer, once said of me that he was glad that I was not Home Secretary because we would all have been murdered in our beds. So I realise that the Home Secretary cannot just be a straightforward penal reformer. He has to combine that with commanding the confidence of the public. Nevertheless, by the standards of anyone who goes into prison, the Government's record on penal matters is not at all good.

If people go into prison, as I have done every week during the period of office of the present Government, they will find no different atmosphere from the one that existed during the bad old days before Labour came in. That is a fact. No one can find any difference. There have been improvements. Tagging is an excellent advance. On the other hand, it looks as though the prison population will increase considerably under government policies. So I am not at all happy with the Government's penal record. However, I have a great deal of respect for the Home Secretary. He is a good Christian socialist and he has shown considerable sympathy for former prisoners—he wrote an introduction to a book by a man who had been in prison for many years. However, I remain hopeful but not overoptimistic at the moment.

If I may come back to prison education, I withdraw my criticism because I do not think one can say whether at this point the record is good or bad. The amount spent on prison education has increased considerably, in particular over the past year. That gives us hope for the future. However, one must look closely at these increases. Spending on education in prisons now runs at £41 million a year. That figure is a good deal higher than it was in the bad old days of the former Home Secretary, Mr Michael Howard, and, in the era that we associate with the noble Lord, Lord Baker, a colleague in this House, the amount spent on prisoners' education was £29 million. An increase of £12 million sounds acceptable, but one must realise that the prison population has grown by more than 50 per cent over the same period. Indeed, the population continues to increase. If one also allows for inflation and increases in the cost of living, it is clear that an individual prisoner is not as well off in terms of his education today as he was in the days of the more enlightened Tory government.

That cannot be satisfactory to Labour supporters like myself. We believe ourselves to be more humane and understanding towards those in trouble. Prisoners are certainly in trouble, for all that they may have brought it on themselves. Furthermore, I do not believe that the Government are happy with the current situation. I understand that plans are in place to increase the funding and I trust that the Minister will take the opportunity afforded by our debate this evening to offer some encouraging words. I hope that he will do so.

Prisoners vary widely both educationally and intellectually. A high proportion of prisoners are semi-literate and their needs are perhaps the most urgent. On the other hand, I am visiting two prisoners at the present time who are both serving long sentences. One is reading for three university degrees, two of those in theology. Another is a doctor of divinity and a doctor of psychology. Because of these variations, there is no doubt that it will be extremely difficult to cater properly for all prisoners.

I hope and believe that, whatever is argued about penal policy in general—no doubt we shall have many more debates on the subject—all would agree that education in prisons is of vital importance. I believe that the Minister's heart is in the right place, and that the same is true of the Home Secretary. I hope that, when the Minister comes to wind up the debate, he will prove me right in that statement.

7.43 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am indebted, as is the whole House, to the noble Earl, and my noble friend, Lord Longford. He has reached an age where any noble Lord may be called his friend, regardless of party. I do not recognise myself as his spiritual director—

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I say that the noble Lord was my spiritual rector, rather than director.

Lord Elton

My Lords, that leaves me puzzled as to my role, but I am sure that it is far beyond my capacity.

One cannot cover a whole subject in a four-minute speech. One must necessarily be critical because it is only through criticism that one sees any improvement. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I do no more than mention the good work being undertaken at Wetherby and Pentonville, highlighted in the annual report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons.

In my view, if a prison sentence does not prevent an offender from reoffending, it has failed in its principal purpose. A principal motive for reoffending is lack of income. A principal reason for lack of income is lack of employment and a principal reason for lack of employment is lack of basic skills. A report from the Basic Skills Agency points out that people with entry level skills in reading and writing have access to only one in 50 intermediate and lower level jobs. Even at level 1, access is limited to one in 25 jobs. Table 7.4 in the Home Office Prison Statistics for 1999 shows that 49.8 per cent of 97,000 prisoners screened were at or below level 1 for reading, 65.6 per cent were at or below level 1 for numeracy and a staggering 81 per cent were at or below level 1 for writing. Even the best of them, therefore, had access to only one in 25 of the job opportunities available to them.

The implications of this are horrendous for the prospects of such people. Because the noble Lord who introduced this debate struck a religious note, I think that it is worth saying that every one of those prisoners about whom we are speaking is worth, in absolute terms, every bit as much as any noble Lord here in this Chamber and should be as much a burden on our consciences.

For those reasons, we have a duty to try dramatically to improve this slowly improving service. I was disturbed, therefore, to read in the report of the chief inspector that, in many cases, assessment of the basic requirements of prisoners entering institutions is repeated in every prison. I have spoken to a director of a college of further education which supplies education provision to 13 different prisons. I was told anecdotally that, quite often, a receiving prison education officer, when he receives an assessment, will declare it to be rubbish and undertake the same task again. The chief inspector stated that, the largest number of basic tests through which any prisoner has told me that he had been put is eleven, after which no education followed". If that situation is to be changed, we need to introduce a form of standardisation to such assessments. Furthermore, the educational assessment must follow the prisoner through the system as he moves from one institution to another.

A great deal more needs to he said on this subject, but if we are to attain the standards the Government wish to see, they will be of no use unless they are repeated in each prison that the prisoner attends, otherwise the good original work will be lost. That is a disaster for the individual concerned.

7.47 p.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, I should like, first, to thank the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for introducing this important issue to your Lordships' House and also to thank him for his kind words about me during his opening remarks. I wish also to thank those on all sides of the House who have been so helpful to me during my first few months here. In particular I should like to thank the staff who have gone out of their way to educate and guide me, no one more so than Mr Alan Dobson, whose patience I have tried with numerous questions. Finally, I should like to thank my mentor, my noble friend Lord Bragg, who has been extraordinarily helpful.

There are perhaps 30 people in gaol in Britain who will never be released. The rest—the vast majority—will return to society once they have finished their sentences. It is essential that they come back into society with some benefit. Education is the best benefit we can give them, as well as being one of the most powerful weapons we have to aid rehabilitation and to stop reoffending.

This Government have put education at the centre of their plans, in particular education for the deprived to combat social exclusion and widespread literacy problems. They are also giving priority to skilling and reskilling the workforce as we aim for full employment. We see, therefore, that government ambitions in education relate precisely to prison life and prisoners' needs. Many offenders are technically illiterate and need help with those things in life that we take for granted.

Last week, a writer-in-residence at one of our prisons told me this: Being inside obliges you to spend enormous uninterrupted periods of time with the last person you expected to—yourself. The brain churns away with no distractions so the impulse to put what you feel into words becomes overwhelming". He went on to say: Outside the literate man is worth little but inside he is King. Everything inside happens as a result of the written word—letters to loved ones, appeals to the Governors, appeals to court etc. Everyone therefore has to beef up their word store and the libraries are where they go to for that. Then something else kicks in and books become a source of comfort, a consolation, something both life-enhancing and empowering". The writer concluded, Libraries provide access to words". The prison library is of course the driver for education in prisons, with librarians working closely with prison education officers in all of our 143 prisons. The prison library duplicates the service provided by libraries and librarians outside: help with social security benefits, legal work, dealing with the ombudsman and, of course, access to the store of books to read and learn from.

They look also to wider objectives for education in prison: to ease the prisoner's rehabilitation into society, to help with breaking patterns of behaviour or lifestyle, to offer a broader vocabulary for greater social mobility and to expand horizons. Lifelong learning may have its own meaning in prison, but it is as vitally important if you are inside gaol as it is on the outside—perhaps even more so.

Apart from the Government, many organisations provide brilliant education-based programmes in prisons, far too many for me to talk about in a short speech, but I shall briefly describe one. The Dulwich Picture Gallery works in Wandsworth prison; its artistic and specialist teachers take large laminated reproductions of old masters from the gallery and teach the prisoners art. The prisoners are extremely grateful for this service because it is given in addition to the five hours a week allocated for education in Wandsworth.

In conclusion, I again thank the noble Earl, Lord Longford. Joined up government has been mentioned. Our hopes and ambitions for greater and more effective prisoner education will only be realised if funds are available and if the two government departments closely involved in this aspect of prison life, the Home Office and DfEE, work in a joined-up manner, in perfect harmony, to bring into the prisons the huge commitment and impetus that we see quite rightly directed at those in need of help in the community at large.

7.53 p.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, it is my duty and my privilege to thank the noble Lord, Lord Evans, on behalf of the whole House for an excellent maiden speech. It is customary to say nice words, but I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Lord's sentiments and applaud his delivery. I notice from the noble Lord's CV a frighteningly impressive career in public service and the arts; he is also a distinguished publisher. I feel that he will make many contributions in your Lordships' House. The noble Lord is a founder member and a director of the Groucho Club. As your Lordships' House goes through a period of change, I wonder what insights he will be able to give us.

So far, little disagreement has arisen in the debate because, as we have established, the prison education system is in something of a mess. In the most recent report by the prison inspectorate there appears the heading, "Education and Work—a study in Inconsistency". We have already heard how a large number of people who fail have problems with basic literacy and numeracy skills. Another alarming factor is that up to 50 per cent of the prison population may be suffering from dyslexia. This is a problem requiring help from people with specific training and an understanding of its diagnosis. They must be able to explain the nature of dyslexia before those who suffer from it can even start to access the service.

This is not the first time I have raised this subject. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, gave a very warm reception to the work being carried out by the Dyspel project based at Pentonville. We should hear more about this work because the follow-up figures show that the reoffending rate of a group which went through the process fell to 10 per cent from the normal 55 per cent.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, says that we must try to help people to get out of the cycle of reoffending. I agree that most prisoners are inspired by economic need or the perception of need. Here we have an opportunity to help a group who, because of their lack of literacy skills as a result of a specific problem, are incapable of finding work in a normal situation. If the problem can be identified when prisoners first enter prison, surely the prison system is an ideal opportunity to help them to build up self-esteem. Many of these people have written themselves off as stupid no-hopers and have had very traumatic educational careers in the school system. If we can give them a chance to find work, it may get them out of the cycle of offending. I suggest that the Government should be working towards that end.

I look forward to hearing any constructive suggestions the Minister might have. Can he give the House guidance as to where the education service fits into the prison system? I do not have the time to go into details, but education seems to be stuck on the end of the prison system. In terms of priority it seems to come behind the rapid movement of prisoners, visiting hours and drug testing. That does not help anyone.

7.57 p.m.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for introducing this topic. It is an important issue and his dedication to this cause is widely respected. I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Evans on his stimulating maiden speech, with which I fully empathise.

I shall address just one area—that is the importance of health education in prisons, particularly for young offenders. I shall refer to government initiatives and to a specific intervention aimed at young fathers in prison.

By health education I do not mean simply physical health but include social and emotional health. A key aspect of health education is the encouragement of self-esteem and relationship skills, a matter referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Addington. Both are surely of key importance in prisons. We are all concerned about the impact of education, of whatever kind, on prisoners. If one of the aims is, as the World Health Organisation report, Mental Health in Prisons, states, motivating and assisting prisoners to re-enter society", we do not seem to be doing very well at it according to recent research.

The majority of prisoners on release tend to re-offend. Maybe, just maybe, with greater emphasis on developing self-esteem and relationship skills in a consistent and continuous way we might improve the situation. But it demands a whole prison approach.

This is a real challenge. High numbers of offenders come from deprived sectors of society. Up to 90 per cent have a problem with substance misuse, personality disorder or poor mental health. If we are concerned about inequalities in health, then surely prisons must be targeted. The Chief Inspector of Prisons has encouraged institutional promotion of health, but it appears that this is being pursued only in a small number of prisons.

Two units within the Department of Health have been set up to improve health care in prisons and to promote health. This will mean closer working relationships between the NHS and the Prison Service; prison governors and their local health authorities will have to carry out needs assessments and integrate plans into local health improvement programmes. It should mean more emphasis on health promotion, clearer aims and objectives and more guidance for staff. All this is excellent.

However, I want to illustrate the problems associated with any educational programme by referring to a piece of research done by the Trust for the Study of Adolescence. I declare an interest as a trustee. The research relates to a parenting education programme for young fathers—a third of young men in prisons are fathers. The course was based on the Prison Service social and life skills module, involving relationship skills; it is not merely about nappy-changing. The majority of young men who took the course thought it the most useful activity that they had undertaken while in custody. It seems clear that such schemes are of benefit, but they are not adequate in themselves. Intensive reinforcement and support need to be investigated. If we are to tackle cycles of reoffending, health education, with its central focus on improving self-esteem and social skills must be mandatory in all prisons. We should be asking whether it is.

8.1 p.m.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, the Government's response to the noble Earl's Question cannot be other than "No", as indeed Ministers have repeatedly made clear. For example, on 15th December 1998, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, said in reply to a Question from me: The present story is lamentable. Of all prisoners, 67 per cent. are below or at level one in numeracy … and of young offenders and juveniles … 82.4 per cent. do not get above level one".—[Official Report. 15/12198; col. 1229.] Things have not improved since then, to judge from Sir David Ramsbotham's most recent reports. Rather, in some significant respects they have grown worse, with classes cut, workshops unused, few establishments now offering NVQs or other qualifications, and 60 per cent falling way below even the old target for hours in education.

Not that such deterioration can be seen as a falling away from a golden age. Successive governments have faced adverse criticism from successive chief inspectors ever since the job was invented in 1981. And the need for urgent action grows by the year, with a sound education ever more essential as the "knowledge economy" replaces unskilled and manual work. And of course, our prison population keeps on growing. When I was a boy, it was 12,000. Now it is over 65,000, and still rising.

Though these numbers include a worrying increase in women prisoners, the vast majority are young males, disproportionately from troubled backgrounds and with next to no schooling. They (and their fellows not yet caught) have an equally disproportionate capacity to inflict social harm and misery. Our best hope of enabling them to turn from crime and lead an honest, productive life is to provide them with the education they missed.

There are brightish spots here and there, as several noble Lords have mentioned: at Pentonville, for example, at Kirklevington Grange; at Portland Young Offenders Institution, one engineering programme enabled 19 out of a class of 24 to gain full NVQs. There have been successes even among the hardened at CSCs such as one prisoner getting a GCSE in law, no less. And I myself talked to a young man in Brixton who was just completing an OU degree.

Such bright spots are few and far between. Despite the universal view among bien-pensants that, "Time in prison is a priceless opportunity for education", it is hard to avoid the feeling that the Prison Service itself has a stubborn culture of belittling education and training. We are told of education staff believing that "their contribution was viewed by other staff as a 'regime filler'", and there is evidence, sadly, that this view is so widespread as to seem endemic.

I do not underestimate the difficulties. These young men and boys are not en masse very loveable—though Kirklevington shows what can be done with something resembling love. But things must change. There must be better, fuller, quicker, more rational records of individual education needs. There must be better allocation of present resources. What can justify discrepancies on annual education spend from £2,300 at Thorn Cross to £304 at Featherstone? Why should a place at a young offenders institution at Stoke Heath cost £15,000 a year while one at YOI Reading costs £27,000—a difference of 80 per cent? And while there is need for more money in aggregate, much can be done without more money: for example, through greater involvement of organisations like SOVA (the Society of Voluntary Associates).

Finally, while I respect the reasons for the current concentration on basic literacy and numeracy, young people—disaffected young males in particular—need active motivation to understand that these skills matter. And such motivation often comes from practical activity in workshops and from classes in art, as the noble Lord, Lord Evans, reminded us, in history, archaeology, music—the very things that have been cut back to help the basics drive.

8.6 p.m.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Longford for again giving us the opportunity to discuss this vital subject. My noble friend's lifelong commitment on these issues is a challenge to all of us.

I should like also to add my appreciation for an outstanding maiden speech to my noble friend Lord Evans of Temple Guiting. The sensitivity with which he spoke was very special. We look forward to hearing him on many other occasions.

In 1996, the education core curriculum for all prisoners was introduced. It contains three essential elements: basic skills; information technology; and social and life skills. Beyond this, the curriculum is up to individual prisons and is expected to be based on a careful assessment of the needs of prisoners at each prison. The curriculum should range from academic to vocational qualifications. The underlying objective is to assist lower achieving prisoners, who represent the majority of the prison population. The importance of this, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said, cannot be over-stated. A recent Basic Skills Agency survey found that 60 per cent of the prison population has literacy and numeracy levels which are so low that these prisoners are ineligible for 96 per cent of jobs.

The question, therefore, is how far the policy is being delivered in practice. Are there sufficient resources for a rising prison population? Are the facilities adequate? Are there enough teachers and instructors? Equipment, not least IT equipment, without enough teachers and instructors to work with prisoners on its use is, frankly, a route to failure and a waste of all the public money spent on it.

While there are evidently considerable variations between prisons and between types of prisoner, and while the provision is greater for women and young offenders and for those in open prisons, the sad truth seems to be that the average time spent in education and vocational skills training per prisoner per week in 1998–99 was a mere four hours.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, has referred to the observations of the Chief Inspector of Prisons. I find it interesting that in his 1997–98 annual report he said, few prisoners have adequate induction interviews to diagnose their educational needs and inform them about what is on offer". Time is very short. Perhaps I can, therefore, be forgiven for summarising my own concerns in several specific questions. First, does my noble friend agree that rehabilitation must be a priority objective in sane penal policy? Secondly, if so, does he agree that adequate educational provision is an essential part of this? Thirdly, if he agrees with that proposition, what can he tell us about how the Government are going to provide the necessary financial and human resources? Fourthly, does he reaffirm that all prisoners should have an assessment of their education and training needs, and that education should be targeted and appropriate to such individual needs. Fifthly, what are the Government going to do to ensure that that happens without delay?

The Howard League for Penal Reform, whose briefs I find extremely helpful on these matters, argues that prisoners undertaking education and training should receive equal pay to those who are working in order to enhance the status and attractiveness of education. Can my noble friend the Minister say what the Government's position is on that view?

I should declare an interest at this point, as I am president of YMCA (England). At our annual general meeting this weekend I spoke to some of those responsible for our work in prisons. I told them about this debate. There was one point that they asked me to underline; namely, that it is their firm conviction, based on front-line experience, that if education and rehabilitation are to be effective, these must form part of a caring process, which starts in prison but which, at all costs, continues with the prisoners on release. Re-integration into outside society is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. It is cynical to leave that to chance. It also makes economic nonsense, leading to a greater likelihood of failure and re-offending. It will be good to hear that, in their desire to be seen as tough on crime, the Government recognise the imperative of this and are prepared to act accordingly.

8.11 p.m.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl for initiating this evening's debate. I did not think that I would be able to get here in time, so I am indeed very grateful for this opportunity to speak.

Many years ago when I was chairman of the Television South Trust, we were approached by the authorities at Lewes gaol who wished to know whether we could finance a writer in residence for a year. We decided to do this, although it was quite expensive; indeed, I believe that it cost about £25,000, but that was a long time ago. We were very encouraged by the success of the project. There are many such enterprises in other prisons. I have received videos from a number of them which have shown me what progress has been made since our original grant.

As we have heard from all sides of the House this evening, problems do exist in the prison system. However, I believe that we should build on the success that has been achieved thus far. I thank noble Lords for their attention.

8.12 p.m.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by thanking the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for introducing this most interesting and important debate, which highlights how crucial the subject of education in prisons is. It is a subject which I feel merits more detailed debate than is possible tonight. I should also add my congratulations to those already expressed to the noble Lord, Lord Evans, on his marvellous maiden speech.

The problems faced by the prison services of the United Kingdom in meeting educational needs are indeed immense. As mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, one of the most telling statistics must be that 60 per cent of the prison population has literacy and numeracy levels so low as to make them ineligible for 96 per cent of jobs. A key weapon in reducing this huge figure is education—the principal means of rehabilitation and helping former prisoners back into work.

The UK prison services are well aware of the problem. In England and Wales the requirement to provide an education core curriculum is specifically aimed at these low-achieving prisoners, with a laudable target of reducing this group by 15 per cent by 2002.

I had the privilege of being closely involved in the founding of the Butler Trust in 1984, and I am a trustee. It highlights best practice through its awards, which have included many in education. It has identified remarkable work that has literally been life changing for the prisoners concerned.

One education officer in Barlinnie was nominated by several prisoners, and, very unusually, by a prisoner's wife also. With the education officer's help, he started to write poetry to her as a way of expressing himself. She wrote: I took a lot from that poetry and still do … it led to us all being able to communicate more, to build and be positive about the future". That moving and telling voice is one that is rarely heard, but it encapsulates what education can do.

We also identified a music tutor whose nominator wrote: Most of her pupils have never played an instrument before, and certainly none could read music, yet an average of 30 pass Associated Board examinations every year. One particular prisoner was both difficult and illiterate but with her encouragement has learned to play the clarinet exceptionally well; this confidence has carried over into his other educational work with the result that he is now fully literate, has passed Grade V in both clarinet and music theory and has also become a much more trusted prisoner". Such initiatives are marvellous, but they are not unique. They demonstrate that the arts are central to the education process and to achievement in the core skills, not an add on.

The investment in prisoner education with £10 million per annum allocated in the Comprehensive Spending Review is greatly to be welcomed. The number of prisoners achieving accreditation in basic literacy and numeracy has risen. However, with devolved budgets, anything apart from the core curriculum is left up to individual governors. The result is that higher education and the arts are the casualties. This is both short sighted and wrong, for it cuts at their role at the heart of education and undervalues what education can and should do.

In his latest annual report, the Chief Inspector of Prisons makes a key recommendation that, the requirement for a structured needs assessment to be carried out on every prisoner should be written into education contracts which should be ring-fenced". I believe that that would make a real difference to the potential impact of education programmes.

Now that money for drug treatment programmes is ring fenced, I hope that the Minister can give me reassurance in relation to education when he replies. If the Government remain true to their oft-repeated commitment to education, no area is more in need of a demonstration of such commitment than our prisons where we have seen its life-changing potential and where the need is so very great.

8.16 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, I am sure that all your Lordships will be grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for initiating this debate, which was further enriched by the informed and sensitive maiden speech by the noble Lord, Lord Evans. On matters connected with prisons, we on these Benches have not always been in agreement with the noble Earl. However, on this occasion we are at one with him in drawing attention to this important matter.

It is wise for anyone, whether in government or in opposition, to be continually aware of the standard of prison education in other countries around the world. For example, in Hong Kong, education and training while in prison is the norm rather than the voluntary bolt-on which it has too often been regarded as in the United Kingdom. The proof of the pudding is in the very low level of re-offending by international standards that occurs in that territory.

Where I believe that the Government can be criticised is on the hours devoted to purposeful activity, of which education is, of course, an important part. Under the present Government the average time spent per prisoner on purposeful activity has fallen. Although there has been an improvement in the past 12 months, the figure is not yet back to the levels achieved by the previous government. Equally, the funding level in real terms for prison education in 1998–99 was £1.5 million lower than in 1995–96, although the prison population rose during that period.

It is the view of the Opposition that the provision of purposeful activity must be meaningfully and productively utilised. My right honourable friend Miss Ann Widdecombe has said: We will move towards a full working day in all prisons based on self-financing workshops that take on real work which real employers want in the real world". I should add that real work requires real skills, which of course require education and training. The report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons for 1999–2000 takes up the same theme, drawing attention to the large amount of government work that is given to Federal prisons in the United States.

In the short time available to me, perhaps I may say something about the role of the voluntary sector in prisons, to which the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, referred. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Judd, also made reference to it with the work of the YMCA, which is a leading organisation in this field. I am not in any way suggesting that voluntary organisations relieve the service of any obligations that properly belong to it, with the attendant budgetary implications, but rather I should like to remind your Lordships of the hugely influential and supportive roles that organisations play in the prison education regime. They range from correspondence courses on specialist subjects to participation as at the YOI at Thorncross in an impressive operation with the prison education and probation services, Operation Headstart, to give young offenders on discharge just that.

Many of those organisations act as networkers for other voluntary resources and the arrangements between voluntary bodies and the Prison Service are frequently made at local prison level. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, referred to that point, but such devolved arrangements for the voluntary sector are tried and tested. I understand that this form of co-operation is actively nurtured by the Prison Service. I shall be interested to hear whether the Minister can tell us more about it.

All governments must resist the temptation to make the prison education service a financial Cinderella. It remains an absolutely crucial component in equipping the prisoner for a sound, fresh start and in minimising the chances of reoffending. Any appropriate initiatives produced by Her Majesty's Government will have the support of these Benches.

8.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

My Lords, I also am extremely grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for initiating this debate. It has been wide-ranging: all the contributions have been particularly telling in their unique and individual ways and none more so than that of the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Temple Guiting, who made the best speech of the evening. His speech was delivered with great insight and considerable passion. I am so impressed by the speech that I think we shall have to extend to the noble Lord an honorary position in advising the Prison Service on future education plans, particularly in regard to improving the quality of its libraries.

The noble Lord made the following important point; namely, that education is the best benefit that we can give to those in our prisons. The noble Lord, Lord Quirk, made another simple but short point; that is, that the short answer to the Question posed by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, must be no, in that we can never be satisfied with the education provided in our prisons. We must constantly aspire to improve it. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, also made an important point when he placed the whole debate in the context of reducing reoffending when people leave prison.

There have been significant developments in education for prisoners since the Government came to office. Lifelong learning—many noble Lords mentioned this—is very much at the heart of our policies, with the improvement of basic skills in the national labour force a high priority. However, while 20 per cent of adults nationally have poor basic skills, 60 per cent of the prison population have poor literacy and communication skills and 75 per cent are deficient in numeracy. As many noble Lords have noted, prisoners with such poor basic skills are denied access to some 90 per cent, if not more, of all jobs. This is a serious problem which the Government are determined to tackle. Only 12 per cent of prisoners who leave prison find a job on their release. We must do more to ensure that we tackle that problem. Education is absolutely the key to success there.

Education policy in prisons therefore both reflects the priority the Government place on improving basic skills in the labour force and our aim to improve the employability of prisoners to reduce the likelihood of reoffending. Research evidence suggests that properly targeted interventions can be effective in reducing the likelihood of reoffending. The effective regimes study, for example, found that prisoners with educational needs at the start of their sentence who attended educational courses had reconviction rates of 32 per cent, compared with 40.5 per cent for those with educational needs who did not attend. That is a telling set of statistics.

Basic and key skills training is therefore a priority for prison education. The Prison Service has been given a new target to reduce by 15 per cent by March 2000 the proportion of prisoners discharged at the end of their sentence with basic skills at or below Basic Skills Agency Level 1. The national target is undoubtedly testing but achievable. So far this year, some 1,569 full Level 2 qualifications in basic skills have been achieved. To support the national target, the Prison Service has set local targets based on discharges from establishments. Each establishment has been given a key performance target showing how many Level 2 accreditations it must achieve.

The Prison Service allocated additional funding over three years to provide improved opportunities for prisoners to enhance their basic and key skills. But the Government are determined to do more. We are providing a further £18 million over the next three years under the Spending Review 2000. The Prison Service will work in partnership with education providers, other government departments and agencies to help more prisoners to achieve levels of basic skills sufficient to widen their access to training and employment.

We are doing better in reaching prisoners who need to be engaged in learning but who may be reluctant to attend traditional classes. In addition to the money spent on educational contracts and library provision, we spent £18.3 million in 1999–2000 delivering 7.8 million hours of physical education. All physical education delivered during the core day has to be purposeful and part of the prisoner's sentence plan. These prisoners are likely to take part in focused PE programmes rather than leisure and recreational activity. Last year, prisoners gained 51,800 awards in PE, including NVQs, GCSEs and vocational qualifications. These qualifications are of real value, not just in raising self-esteem but in opening up employment opportunities, particularly in the leisure industry. But the Prison Service is also using PE to deliver basic skills learning and to support offending behaviour programmes. At Frankland Prison, education has been linked with PE through the delivery of key skills in the gymnasium.

This innovative approach is being extended to catering, workshops and instructional officers. PE officers and wing officers are being trained to offer basic skills support. The Mount, Hindley, Wellingborough, Leeds and Styal Prisons and Feltham Youth Offender Institution are all about to take part in a new University for Industry Learn Direct prison pilot.

Evaluating the use of new technologies in prison, promoting and improving basic skills through employment, gym, workshops, wing officers and education, are all examples of how we are creating a learning environment in our prisons. The Prison Service is also developing links with outside employment through welfare-to-work programmes which focus on vocational guidance, educational achievement in basic and work skills, preparation for work and links with New Deal advisers. A new custody to work unit is being established to increase the proportion of prisoners going into jobs or training on release. We are providing £21 million over three years—money which will go towards programmes which will complement the additional provision for education and vocational training. The unit will establish links with other agencies and will work closely with the Social Exclusion Unit on its study into the reintegration of ex-prisoners.

All these initiatives and more are necessary if we are to reach the high aspirations that the Government have for improving education within the Prison Service and for ensuring that people leaving prison have a real opportunity and choice to change their previous chosen career of offending.

Many questions covering a wide range of subjects were asked during the course of the debate. I apologise in that I shall not be able to answer all of them but I shall attempt to answer some. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, asked three questions. He asked whether I believed that. Christianity had a part to play in prison education, believe that it has but I also believe that we must also recognise other faiths. It is of course the case that Islam, Buddhism and many other religions are catered for within the prison system. The noble Earl also asked whether I was satisfied with the money that was spent on prison education as it is devolved to prison governors. One can never be entirely satisfied with that but of course we want to get better value for money. While I recognise that there may be some problems with devolved budgets, having flexibility and the ability to make a judgment in each individual prison establishment is a valuable course to take.

At an important press conference, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary confirmed that funding for prison education will also be devolved to the Department for Education and Employment and, more importantly, it will be ring-fenced. That is an important commitment of the Government.

Lord Elton

My Lords, as the prison budget is now locally managed, will it be ring-fenced within the individual prison budget?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I shall have to come back to the noble Lord on that matter. I shall happily try to provide him with a fuller response.

I believe that the noble Earl and the noble Lords, Lord Elton and Lord Addington, asked about basic skills screening and testing. These basic skills tests are standardised. All prisoners are required to complete the basic skills agency screening test which is available in two forms and is the same. It is now the case that prisoners should take this test only at first instance and that the results of the test travel with them and advise their treatment throughout their time in prison.

With his interest in dyslexia, the noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked how seriously we take that issue. Of course we take it seriously. All prison education departments are obliged to identify a prisoner's individual learning needs. That includes dyslexia. A dyslexia information guide was issued in February 1999. It includes a positive indicator questionnaire for use with prisoners which is of tremendous value and I think will be helpful to those working within the prison education service.

We have been increasing resources. Over 1998–99, resources have increased from £40.4 million to £40.89 million and we are providing extra money within the Comprehensive Spending Review funding programme. Over the next three years, £30 million will be spent on education.

My allocated time is drawing to a close. As the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, said, this valuable debate is worthy of more time. However, we have been able to focus on some of the improvements in the delivery of education in prison establishments. The Government are not complacent. We believe that the Government have had an important opportunity to show that we have a clear strategy for improving the opportunities for prisoners to change.

Education provision within the Prison Service requires to be seen as part of the wider forces for change. The direction of education is determined by the What Works strategy and the need to ensure that provision is linked to relevant outcomes so that the likelihood of reoffending is reduced. That informs our whole approach. I believe that the Prison Service has risen to the challenge of change by setting clear and measurable targets. Those targets will bear greatly on the levels of achievement for which we strive from the service and from every individual prisoner. Every effort is being made to offer relevant opportunities to offenders so that they can lead purposeful lives on release. Education is at the heart of it. We believe in education. We think that we can achieve great things. Much progress has been made but, as ever, there is more to do.