HL Deb 14 February 2001 vol 622 cc243-6

2.56 p.m.

Lord Dholakia asked Her Majesty's Government:

What their response is to the criticisms of prison conditions made at the weekend by HM Inspector of Prisons.

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

My Lords, the Government acknowledge that the Prison Service faces a difficult challenge in improving conditions across the estate. Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons is concerned that prisoners receive appropriate attention to tackle their offending behaviour, address their health problems and increase their levels of literacy and numeracy. The service is making progress in those areas. The challenge, as ever, is to drive up the level and consistency of performance across all prisons. The Government believe that there is ample evidence from recent HMCIP reports to suggest that the performance of other prisons can be turned round.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, will the Minister congratulate Sir David Ramsbotham on his forthright comments about prison conditions? Will he accept the comments made by Martin Narey, the Director-General of the Prison Service, who stated that he was not prepared to apologise for failing prison after failing prison and that he had had enough of trying to explain the immorality of the treatment of some prisoners and the degradation of some establishments? Will he consider those comments in the light of the fact that Sir David said that consistency is the responsibility of the Minister? When can we expect Ministers to live up to their responsibilities for our prison establishments?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, of course we take careful note of Sir David Ramsbotham's reports and, in particular, of those provided for the Home Office by the inspectorate, which does an excellent job. On many occasions the noble Lord will have heard me giving great praise to the robustness of the reports. They are invaluable and we greatly value their independence.

I, too, read Martin Narey's speech to the conference the other week and I agree with its contents. It was most encouraging. It reported to the Prison Service that great progress has been made in a number of fields. The speech was a further encouragement to achieve yet more within the service.

Of course, the Government accept their responsibility for the Prison Service and did so when they came to power. Despite the many improvements across the service as a whole and in many individual establishments, there is still much to be done. However, we had to tackle a legacy. We have started to tackle it and have made major improvements. We wish to continue making those improvements. I am sure that the noble Lord will support us in that good work.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the most important aspects of the problem is to establish clear objectives for the Prison Service? Although punishment is of course important and necessary, surely the biggest challenge is rehabilitation. Is there not a cultural problem within the Prison Service on that score? Could we hear more from the Government about what is being done to enable all those serving in that service to understand the objective of rehabilitation and to identify with it?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am sure that it will come as no great shock to the noble Lord to hear that we believe the rehabilitation of offenders to be central to the performance of the Prison Service. Of course, we expect our staff within the Prison Service to understand that, too, as they do. I believe that the service is improving its performance and some key indicators show that that is the case.

On the security side, there are far fewer escapes now than there were four years ago, the rate of positive drug testing has halved in that time and more offending behaviour programmes are in place. There has been an increase of 240 per cent in the number of such programmes since 1996–97. Last year, 60,000 educational certificates were achieved by prisoners, and 32,000 full qualifications have been achieved in prisons since April 2000. The number of teaching hours delivered in prisons increased by 10 per cent between 1999–2000 and the current date. There is now a major welfare-to-work programme in prisons.

All the major indicators suggest that we have good programmes in place, that we are focusing on rehabilitation and that our evidence-based approach will inevitably lead to lower recidivism rates. That is what we all want; the Prison Service is proud to have such an objective and Martin Narey is deeply committed to such an aim.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, given that education is of supreme importance in that rehabilitation process to which the noble Lord, Lord Judd, referred, and that Sir David Ramsbotham has this very month said that educational provision continues to be "appallingly low", especially for those in the 18 to 21 age group, what improvements does the noble Lord the Minister expect in the Prison Service, when educational provision is taken over by the DfEE at, I believe, the beginning of April?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, today we have launched a partnership between the Prison Service and the DfEE. That will build on achievements in recent years, and it will give prisoners, perhaps for the first time, the skills they need to compete in the jobs market. I have said on a number of occasions at this Dispatch Box, and I continue to maintain, that education and learning and the acquisition of skills will enable people who come out of prisons to go straight and to lead a better and more fulfilling life. Sir David Ramsbotham is right to draw attention to current deficiencies. However, I have made it plain this afternoon that we are making improvements and providing more teaching hours. I hope that all noble Lords support that.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, is it not inevitable that prison conditions will get worse while we try to put more prisoners into prisons than those prisons can accommodate? Is not the Home Secretary following the example of his predecessor, Mr Michael Howard, by going down what might be described as the American road on penal policy? Is the noble Lord aware that, as I speak, nearly 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States? That is roughly one in every 145 residents of the United States. Would it not be preferable to look for better examples in some of our fellow members of the European Community and some Commonwealth countries which can point to the fact that they have more enlightened and effective penal policies than this country has?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, there is, one might say, enlightenment and enlightenment. We need to provide decent, good-quality prisons that are supported by a service that has integrity and commitment to the job in hand. I and other Ministers have made it plain that we believe that we need to improve skills, training and educational opportunities. Whether we like it or not, there will always be people who, frankly, have to be in prison because of the nature of the offences that they committed. The prison population may have to increase for a short time while we begin to get more of a grip on driving crime down. Our commitment is to ensure that prisons are decent, that the opportunities that prisoners have to improve themselves are ample and that people come out of prison better citizens than they were when they went in.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, in connection with leaving prison, the Minister did not include re-offending rates in his list of major indicators. Will he say more on that?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we believe that the regimes that we are putting into place in prisons will enable people to acquire the education and training skills to which I have already referred. As a consequence, getting people into work when they come out of prison will reduce re-offending rates. Some early and emerging evidence suggests that we are having some success in that regard, which is an important gain. I suspect that the major parties are probably in agreement on that.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords. does my noble friend agree that, while there are of course some people who need to be in prison because of the nature of their offences, there are far too many non-violent offenders in prison and that there are much better ways of dealing with their offence in the community? Does he also agree that not merely is the cost of community service much lower but that recidivism is reduced? If we are going to stuff our overcrowded prisons with people who should not be there and create far too many prisoners, it is inevitable that prison conditions will continue to deteriorate, regardless of the excellent work of the Government and the prison authorities.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, my noble friend is right to draw attention to the excellent work that is being done. Recidivism rates for those serving sentences in the community and in prisons are, as it happens, very similar. Our intention is to extend the range of community sentences that are available. To that end and for that purpose, we piloted through Parliament during the previous Session the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000, which extends the range of community sentences that are available. The fact that the Probation Service will consequently offer improved backup, monitoring and supervision in the community means that we can increasingly rely on community-based sentences.