HL Deb 02 November 2004 vol 666 cc139-42

2.45 p.m.

Lord Quirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether improvements in education and training provided in prisons are keeping pace with current and forecast rises in the prison population.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Filkin)

My Lords, we are doing well against our targets for improving the literacy, numeracy and work-related skills of prisoners. But we want to go much further. The new sentencing arrangements and the national offender management system give us the foundation for a better learning and skills service, spanning custody and community, aimed at reducing reoffending.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reassurance, which chimes with some of the good news that I have been noting, not least the programmes produced by Learn Direct. These proceed from Dearing House in Sheffield, so they could not be other than good. But if we are making progress with long-serving prisoners, does not the Minister share the concerns of Ms Owers, the chief inspector, that our systems for training and education are singularly ill suited to those on short sentences, who number many, many thousands and include first offenders? I do not forget in this connection the thousands who are kicking their heels on remand. Should not these be the very people for us to target, with incentives so that they can undertake intensive learning and, as it were, cut recidivism before it starts?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the noble Lord asked a number of questions. In broad terms, the Chief Inspector of Prisons is right—there are greater challenges in providing appropriate training input for prisoners on short sentences or those on remand. The central focus of our thinking on that issue is that prison should be used as an opportunity for diagnosing the skill deficits and employment deficits of the offender in that situation so that you have a clear understanding of where their current skills do not fit them for employment, recognising that you then have to change other parts of the system to provide inputs to increase their basic and vocational skills in order to increase their prospects of employment. The noble Lord is right: a central focus of policy has to be on how to reduce reoffending and how skills appropriate to the location from which the prisoner comes can be supplied.

Lord Elton

My Lords, what success are the Government having in ensuring that there are sufficient prison officers to escort prisoners to education when education facilities and teachers are available? What success are they having in ensuring that prisoners who were in education when they went into prison are kept in touch and given the same curriculum as they had when they left and which they will rejoin when they get out?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, we certainly have to address both those points if we are to construct an effective system to increase the likelihood that someone who has been in prison will be able to go into employment. The central issue we are looking at—and we are at the start of a fairly fundamental review—is what a system would need to look like such that when someone left prison and was in supervision afterwards, it would be possible for them to earn a living without reoffending. At present, if a person is incapable of getting work, we know what is likely to happen as a consequence. The two points raised by the noble Lord are part of the review, but it needs to go considerably wider.

Lord Acton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in a Written Question on 4 May I advocated that educated prisoners should teach illiterate prisoners how to read? Is he further aware that my noble friend Lady Scotland gave a positive reply? She went on to say: There are plans to support activity to train prisoners, prison officers and staff from other agencies to become adult learner supporters".—[Official Report, 4/5/04; col. WA 106.] Can my noble friend say how these plans are developing?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, it is axiomatic that my noble friend Lady Scotland always gives my noble friend Lord Acton helpful replies, as most of us know. The more specific answer is that we are very positive about the concept of peer support because there is the resource in the prison of someone with education capability. We have commissioned the Centre for British Teachers to carry out a short study to evaluate how the benefits of the Toe by Toe programme for adults can be adapted to fit in with the Skills for Life strategy. We are actively interested in this issue.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone

My Lords, can the Minister explain what is the retendering process for the prison education contract since the Government announced in January that Project REX, as it was called, was to be abandoned?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the Government decided to stop the Project REX process because essentially the introduction of the National Offender Management Service meant that the landscape of offender management, encompassing both prisons and what we used to think of as the probation service, required a supply of basic skills training and vocational training which was appropriate for the totality of that landscape rather than simply being prison-focused. Therefore, the answer is that it is part of the process that I signalled to the noble Lord earlier: we are looking root and branch between the department and the Home Office about how we would better construct a system which had as one of its central goals the reduction of reoffending through increasing the capacity of people to get jobs. The supply of appropriate educational and vocational skills will be a crucial part of that process.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, as half of all prisoners do not have the skills required by 96 per cent of jobs, has not the time come for the Government to make it a legal requirement for all prisoners to receive a minimum of 30 hours' education and training, regardless of age, length of sentence and number of prison transfers?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I am reluctant to leap to instant legislative solutions without being convinced that they would work in this respect. But I am with the noble Baroness in that part of the thinking that I instanced is about how we incentivise the system and incentivise the offender to be motivated towards learning and appropriate learning that will increase their ability to get a job. In a sense, that is obvious: one has to devise a system such that prison governors, prison officers and offenders are all motivated to realise that getting appropriate skills for jobs is how the system should be performing. By implication, I am not pretending that we are quite there yet.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords—

Baroness Greengross

My Lords—

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, we should move on to the next Question.

Forward to