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Mr. Speaker: There is one thing for sure: the hon. Gentleman cannot rerun Question Time.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware from reports at the weekend that Sir Richard Branson's People's Lottery is seeking compensation of £8 million from the National Lottery Commission. Any compensation would come from the funds that are much needed by organisations throughout the country, and many people have expressed their alarm at that. Have you, Mr. Speaker, received any communication from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport about a statement on this issue?

Mr. Speaker: I have received no such communication.

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Opposition Day

[5th Allotted Day]

Prison Conditions

Mr. Speaker: I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.29 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I beg to move,

I rather regret that the Government's gross discourtesy in having a statement on an Opposition day has meant that we have much less time for debate than this very important subject requires. When it happened on my previous Opposition day, I accepted it because it was a genuine emergency and the Government thought it necessary to make a statement on the steel industry. However, there was nothing remotely urgent about today's statement.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): The Conservatives used to do that.

Miss Widdecombe: Unless there was a sensitive time factor, we were careful not to have Government statements on Opposition days.

Let me start by quoting the Prime Minister when he was shadow Home Secretary. He told the Labour party conference that it was the Government's responsibility

He went on to say that we should drastically reform the system

That was his understanding of the priorities of the Government and the Prison Service in 1992.

In 1997, the Home Secretary made a point of saying at the beginning of his term of office that he would take personal responsibility for the Prison Service and did not intend to shelter behind civil servants. He will remember that I welcomed that as a step forward and looked forward to seeing how he would discharge that responsibility. Today, I shall examine the Home Secretary's stewardship of the Prison Service.

I shall quote some shocking words:

Those words were uttered by the Director General of the Prison Service and are an indictment of the Government's record on the prison system.

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I shall not pretend that prisons have always been exemplary under Conservative Governments and always despicable under Labour Governments. Until the publication of the Woolf report, Her Majesty's prisons were pretty bad, no matter which party was in power. That fact was acknowledged by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) when he established the Prison Service agency. From then on, we made steady and, at times, startling progress, but since 1997 the Government have not had that commitment and, consequently, the Prison Service has either stalled or--worse--fallen back, with bad results for prisoners and public. Let me make it clear at the outset that I do not criticise the many dedicated men and women who work for the Prison Service; I criticise the Government.

Prisons protect the public in two ways: by keeping the prisoner out of circulation for the duration of his sentence and by making it less likely that he will reoffend when he leaves. The huge progress of an 80 per cent. reduction in escapes in our final years in government has been maintained, but the progress on the second front of providing purposeful activity has not.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Although I shall not be voting for the motion, I believe that the subject should be debated. Indeed, the Select Committee on Home Affairs is meeting at 5 o'clock. Does the right hon. Lady accept that, irrespective of which party is in office, the situation will become extremely difficult if more and more people continue to go to prison who are not an immediate danger to the community? Instead of increasing the number of people in prison, is there not a case for considering the alternatives? There is, however, no doubt that some people must serve prison sentences.

Miss Widdecombe: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. I know that he takes a genuine and close interest in these matters. There is no inherent tension in having increasing numbers of people going to prison and also making the regimes decent and constructive. Rather than simply making that assertion, I can illustrate it with the fact that our best progress in making conditions more decent and increasing purposeful activity by hundreds of thousands of hours was achieved against a background of a 25 per cent. rise in the prison population in just a few years.

I do not believe that the courts send people to prison willy-nilly. Prison is nearly always a last resort when other options have failed, unless the first offence is horrendously serious. If the courts believe that people need to be in prison, it is the Government's duty to provide the necessary places in decent, constructive circumstances.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Does the right hon. Lady think that there are significant numbers of people who should be in prison but are not? Does she have any estimate of that figure? Does she believe that there are significant numbers of people in prison who should not be, and what is her estimate of that number? What does she think is the right policy for the next five years, whether or not she is in government during that time?

Miss Widdecombe: I think that there are people who should be in prison who currently are not. I refer to those

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on the Home Secretary's home detention curfew scheme, who should complete what used to be a normal part of their prison sentence. We have proposed "three strikes and you're out" for people who deal soft drugs to children. They should be in prison. We have proposed tougher penalties for those who commit sexual offences against children. They, too, should be in prison.

As for those people who are in prison but should not be, the only significant number is those who have severe mental problems. In my time as prisons Minister, I was concerned that people who should be treated by the NHS are instead left in a prison system that cannot cope with them. We might tackle that problem a bit better--although we would probably not solve it completely--if the NHS was responsible for delivering prison health rather than there being a completely separate service, which means that there is not a seamless continuum.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to play a numbers game, and I cannot do so. I have never subscribed to the view that there is an ideal prison population--a number above which we should not go. I can only repeat that where the courts decide that prison is appropriate, it is the Government's duty to supply the places, even if that means building more prisons.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: The right hon. Lady was prisons Minister for several years. She referred to people with mental illness who are in prison. Did she set up a study to evaluate the number involved, and does she recall what that number was?

Miss Widdecombe: I was given a series of numbers by the prison health service, which varied from those who should not be in prison at all to those who would be helped if they received adequate health services while in prison. I shall not indulge in faulty recollection; Ministers have recently got into trouble because of faulty recollection. We conducted studies on those numbers. The hon. Gentleman might remember that we introduced a hybrid order, which enabled judges to determine that there should be a mixed penalty to be served partly in prison and partly in hospital. Before the hon. Gentleman asks me whether I made any assessment of the success of that, the answer is no because there was not time to do so before there was a regrettable change of Government.

I was saying that in the years following the Woolf report, prisons were made decent but austere. For example, the practice of prisoners sharing three to a cell designed for two was ended in 1994. Slopping out was ended in 1995. It is now back in three prisons. Assaults on prisoners and staff fell. The percentage of prisoners sharing two to a cell for one dropped, and prisoners engaged in hundreds of hours more of purposeful activity. They spent more time out of cells, were subject to random drugs tests, undertook national vocational qualifications and were given a new and effective system of incentives and privileges.

Four years into the Government's term of office, report after report has condemned the conditions in our prisons. However, the Government have failed to give the service any priority, even to the extent of the Minister with responsibility for prisons being unable to give me basic information about performance against standard indicators in the House.

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The Director General of the Prison Service's comments in his speech last week exposes the Government's attitude to our prison system. He stated:

In June, the chief inspector of prisons apparently found conditions in Brixton prison to be worse than when he made his previous report in 1996. He found conditions to be

He found that there were no workshops and no educational facilities worthy of the name. Who has presided over the system for four of the five years that have elapsed since 1996? The answer is the Home Secretary.

At Birmingham prison, it has been reported that half of all education classes are unfilled. The chief inspector apparently found that conditions were significantly worse than those set out in previous critical reports in 1995 and 1998. That is an indictment of the malaise that has developed in the prison system under the Government. They could blame the Conservative Government for 1995, but not for 1998, and certainly not for 2001.

How can we expect our prisons to fulfil their role of protecting the public and allowing criminals to make a new start in life if inmates are left to rot in idleness in such conditions? The chief inspector further stated that Brixton prison is not failing but is being failed. It is being failed, and failed by the Government. As the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, pointed out in his Prison Reform Trust lecture last month, in the past financial year the Prison Service's key performance indicators were met in less than half of all cases. That is hardly an impressive record. The Conservative Government's track record was that the agency consistently met either all or nearly all of its indicators.

In his latest annual report, the chief inspector of prisons commented that 1998-99 was a very bad year for the Prison Service, marked by extreme examples of unacceptable practice in prisons. Let us consider the facts. Under the Government, the number of assaults on prisoners has increased from 2,747 in the Conservative Government's last year to 3,456 in the year 1999-2000. The number of assaults on staff also increased by 471. Before the excuse is made that there are more prisoners, it is a percentage increase of 4.8 per cent. in the Conservative Government's final year to 5.3 per cent. in respect of prisoners; there is a smaller increase in respect of staff.

One of the saddest indicators of the failing prison system--of bullying, hopelessness and depression--is the number of suicides. In the last year, the number was 91, compared with 70 in 1997. Under this Government, the period of time that prisoners spend out of their cells on weekdays fell from an average of 11 hours in 1997 to just over 10 now. The number of hours that prisoners spend in purposeful activity fell to 22.8 hours; under the previous Government, it had increased to more than 26 hours. As the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) admitted last week, the hours of purposeful activity are now back to

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those of 1992--before we began to implement the Woolf report--which means that all the progress of our last five years has been vitiated.

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