HL Deb 22 July 2002 vol 638 cc4-8

2.46 p.m.

Lord Quirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will consider introducing a nationwide incentive scheme in HM Prisons and young offender institutions to encourage inmates to improve their educational skills and employment prospects.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, yes, we will consider a national policy as part of our longer-term strategy for improving the skills of prisoners. We want to see more prisoners involved in learning and benefiting from it. Our approach will be informed by existing good practice and by the outcomes of the current review of funding and procurement arrangements for prison education and training.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, I am grateful for that response. Does the Minister share my view that two weighty documents published this very month, the report on reoffending from the Social Exclusion Unit and the White Paper, Justice for All—in particular Chapter 6—should be required reading for everyone concerned with rehabilitation? Do not those documents provide compelling evidence that more offenders would take up education and training if they were not, in effect, lured into unskilled prison work by the better pay; that those on short sentences are often explicitly discouraged from training courses because it is said that it is not worth the bother; and that financial incentives should be provided after completion of sentence so that former offenders can continue with the courses they began while incarcerated?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, first, I agree with the proposition that the two reports should be required reading for anyone involved in the work of rehabilitation. Secondly, I agree with what was implied by the noble Lord in the second part of his question. We need to look again at how best to take steps with people in prison in order to reduce the risk of reoffending. Those steps should focus in particular on activities that will help them to secure gainful employment when they leave prison. Thirdly, I agree with the noble Lord in his point that simply leaving people without assistance after prison will often increase the chance of reoffending and reduce the chance of preventing it.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I refer the Minister to the two reports cited by the noble Lord, Lord Quirk. Does he accept that employment can reduce the rate of reoffending by between one-third and one-half? At present, approximately three in five offenders are reconvicted within two years of leaving prison. The process of dealing with reoffending by former prisoners costs this country over £11 billion a year. Given that, does he consider that prison sentences are not succeeding in turning the majority of offenders away from crime? Would not community penalties backed by education and employment projects be a better alternative for such offenders?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the best alternative would depend on the facts of a particular case. It is for sentencers to decide on the appropriate sentence in each individual case. However, I agree entirely with the estimated rate of reconviction referred to by the noble Lord. I agree that the cost to this country of reoffending is huge. Lastly, I agree with the proposition that we need to take a long, hard look at how we seek to reduce the rate of reoffending. That would not mean no custodial sentences, but we must look at how we help people not to reoffend after they have served their prison sentences. Instead, they should be encouraged into gainful employment.

The Lord Bishop of Rochester

My Lords, will the Minister consider using prisoners as peer group tutors for the teaching of reading, as recommended in the report of the Social Exclusion Unit? That has been tried in at least six prisons and appears to work well.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is right to refer to what has been said by the Social Exclusion Unit about that issue. We need to look at that proposal and a whole range of other proposals in regard to rehabilitating prisoners and making it less likely that they will reoffend.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord tell the House how many writers-in-residence are in prison?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I have never had an answer to any question asked by the noble Baroness. I do not know how many writers-in-residence are in prison. Perhaps I may write from my residence to the noble Baroness to indicate how many there are.

Baroness Stern

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the target for education provision for children under school-leaving age who are in prison is 15 hours a week? Can he tell the House in how many cases that target is reached? What are the arrangements for young people who are held in police cells because of prison overcrowding to ensure that their education is continued?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the noble Baroness will know that education is compulsory for offenders of compulsory school age. Fifteen hours is the target. I cannot help the noble Baroness in relation to the position of young people held in police cells. Perhaps I may write to her on that issue.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the most wonderful education provision in prisons is no good unless prisoners can get to it? Will he undertake that there will be a concentrated effort to ensure that prison officers are available to escort prisoners to education when they are, unfortunately, in prison rather than following the kind of course recommended by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I fully accept that access is vital. As I indicated in answer to the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, the whole issue of education in prison, including funding, is being looked at. That will obviously cover physical access to educational facilities.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, in addition to incentives to attend and complete basic education and skills training courses—incentives which I hope will include the possibility of a reduction in the sentence served—does the Minister agree that where such courses genuinely cannot be provided within the prison itself, more use could be made of temporary release orders for suitably assessed prisoners to attend locally provided further education courses?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I do not want to comment on that particular proposal but I have made it absolutely clear that we wish to improve the quality of education provided, access to education and the range of educational opportunities available. We also want to improve incentives for people in prison to take educational courses. The noble Baroness's specific proposal obviously will be considered in relation to all of those issues.

Lord Addington

My Lords, a very high number of people within the prison population have special educational problems and other social communication problems, which is usually one of the reasons why they failed in education prior to finding themselves in prison. Do the Government undertake a comprehensive series of assessments of such people when they turn up? If the figures are right and one in two of the prison population in young offender units have these problems, then, no matter how much money is pumped in, it may well be wasted.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I agree with what underlies the question: there is a very wide range of educational needs in prison, many of them at the most basic level. That is why we are widening the targets for basic skills qualifications. That will enable establishments to be much more responsive. As I understand it, the point being made is that the most basic skills are required. We need to provide education for those basic skills. We are looking at how to widen the system to achieve that.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I spent six years on the Parole Board. I congratulate the Government and their predecessors on the educational programme they give to life prisoners. The educational programme for the remainder of prisoners is lamentable. Can the Minister assure the House that his department will consider giving the remainder of the prison service the kind of attention that life prisoners receive in their educational programme? For example, it is ridiculous that people follow school terms while they are in prison.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I cannot give the assurance that the noble Lord seeks. All I can say is that we are looking at how we can improve educational provision for prisoners.

Lord Dearing

My Lords, will the Minister note that, unlike education, vocational training is not ring-fenced in prisons and that prison governors can, if they so choose, divert the money to other purposes? Will he further note that the provision for construction industry training has been reduced by 50 per cent over the past seven years, in spite of it leading to jobs and there being an acute shortage of skills? Will the Minister look into that?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, as I have indicated, the whole question of the funding of prison education will be looked at.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that credit should be given where credit is due? There are some excellent training courses in some prisons. I have been corresponding for four years with a young man who was given a life sentence and is due to be released shortly. He is concerned about what will happen to him when he comes out of prison. He has benefited wonderfully from what he has been taught in prison, but he is worried about what will happen when he comes out.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I agree with the noble Countess that there are a number of extremely good courses in prison. The problem is—it concerns the Government just as much as it concerns many Members of the House—that they are not sufficiently widespread. There is not enough choice and not enough opportunity for people to get to them.