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Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): I visited Usk prison in my constituency only three weeks ago. May I assure the right hon. Lady that the description that she has just given is unlike the experience in that prison, where the amount of purposeful activity--NVQs, sex offender treatment programmes, training and education--has increased markedly in the past few years?

Miss Widdecombe: The picture that I am painting is not, as the hon. Gentleman said, my picture: it is being painted by the Home Secretary's own report and statistics. If they are wrong, Ministers are misleading the House. I do not think that that is likely; the report and statistics are right, and the hon. Gentleman must accept that. If purposeful activity takes up an average of 22.8 hours, it stands to reason that in some prisons--perhaps including Usk--it will take up more time, but in others it will take up less.

We must also consider the fact that that indicator includes all the open prisons, where a full day's work is normal for all prisoners. In many prisons, therefore, there are only a few hours of purposeful activity a week. I am happy to accept that the hon. Gentleman was impressed by what he saw when he visited his own prison. I could name other prisons, and I shall, where I have been impressed by what I have seen. I am afraid, however, that there are many more--regrettably, most prisons--which do not reach those standards.

How can prisons be expected to reform criminals if time is squandered in idleness, which amounts to thousands of lost opportunities to do something to make our prisoners useful members of our society? The Government claim that they have exceeded their target for the number of prisoners sharing a cell designed for one. Their target was 18 per cent., but the number sharing a cell is 17.2 per cent. However, that is a percentage increase on the 15.5 per cent. that we left in 1996-97. There could not be a clearer demonstration of sliding back into bad ways. The figures for the last financial year show that the situation was even worse than the year before. If targets are lowered, and if Ministers who inherited a 15.5 per cent. rate of two prisoners sharing a cell for one set a target of 18 per cent., inevitably standards will slip, which has happened in this and other measurements of our prisons performance.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley): I am interested in the right hon. Lady's speech so far. Will she say what she would do about all those things and give a straight answer to a simple question? Will she commit to match, at the very least, the Government's spending plans for prisons?

Miss Widdecombe: Oh dear; I have a feeling that a Tory gain is in the offing. Our proposals on policy have already been made clear, and I shall make them clear again a little later--[Interruption.] When I do so, I shall address the issue of spending. If the hon. Gentleman contains himself, he will hear what I have to say. The Home Secretary cannot plead pressure of numbers, for we reduced the percentage of two prisoners sharing a cell for one during a time of record rises in the prison population.

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In his highly condemnatory report on Feltham young offenders institution, the chief inspector reported that Feltham was without clear strategic direction and that conditions were unacceptable, yet two years later the Government have done nothing to solve the crisis. In August 2000, the assistant governor at Feltham resigned, claiming that the prison still operated in "Dickensian conditions".

In his report into conditions at Portland young offenders institution, the chief inspector stated:

Has the Home Secretary done anything about that?

Surely it is conditions at young offender institutions that should worry us the most. It is essential that young offenders, above all, should be able to use their period of incarceration to rebuild their lives as useful members of the community, but instead there is an increasing culture of violence, which is leading to our young offender institutions becoming human dustbins, which young people leave dehumanised and sucked into a culture of ever more violence. The number of violent offences per 100 in those institutions has increased from 78 in 1997 to 90 in the last full financial year.

This Government are without a strategy for prisons; they are a Government who have allowed drift, decline and stagnation to infect the culture of our prison system. Not that there has been any shortage of ideology. In 1996, the Secretary of State said:

What is morally repugnant is the appalling situation that the Government have allowed to develop in so many of our prisons. It was our vision that led to significant improvements, which have now been lost by the Government.

Of course, not all reports have been bad. The chief inspector's report on Blantyre House concluded by praising the consistent, innovative and courageous approach of the governor and staff. So what happens? Blantyre House is raided provocatively and excessively, the governor is removed, and Ministers defend their actions.

The inspection of the private prison, Blakenhurst, concluded:

The inspection report into Buckley concluded:

The report continued:

That is in contrast to the "hell holes" of many of our urban prisons described by the director general. What happens? Blakenhurst and Buckley Hall are renationalised--given back to the public sector, which cannot even run its own prisons properly, under an uncaring Government. Of course, the public sector pays no penalty if it fails. There is no built-in financial incentive to succeed.

I would be the last to lay all the failings of any prison directly at the feet of a Home Secretary, but too many of the problems in our prison system have been created by the Government. The lack of a strategic vision is failing

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both prisoners and the public. The Home Secretary attacked privatisation as immoral--not just bad or misguided, but immoral--yet he is now offering it as a solution to the immoral conditions at Brixton. At the same time that privatisation is seen as the answer to the problems at Brixton, Blakenhurst and Buckley Hall are being brought back into the public sector.

One wonders whether the right hon. Gentleman has done yet another U-turn. Having been converted in a matter of weeks from a moral repulsion at the mere thought of private prisons to supporting them and providing more of them, he is once again--and in the teeth of all the evidence of the reports submitted to him--going back to the old Labour view that anything private is bad and anything public is good. Alternatively, has he done some deal with the Prison Officers Association, to which he promised before the last election that he would abandon privatisation?

It is precisely this confusion--abandon privatisation there, implement it here--and lack of direction at the heart of our prison system that has led to decline and stagnation under this Government. What our Prison Service needs is a sense of direction. It needs a Government who have a vision for it and its future and who are prepared to tackle the disgraceful conditions in which so many prisoners spend their sentences.

Last year, the number of hours that prisoners spent in workshops declined, which is another way of saying that the number of hours that they spent in idleness increased. We need a prison system that works not only by protecting the public by taking criminals off our streets, but by allowing those who have been caught up in criminality the opportunity to rejoin society as useful citizens--yet the Home Secretary is squandering the opportunity to create a prison system that will work on both those counts.

Our proposals for self-financing prison workshops would create an opportunity for the Prison Service to start to take significant steps towards becoming a service that truly fulfils the three tasks of protecting the public, punishing criminals and providing a chance for those who have committed crime to build a new life on release.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Making sacks.

Miss Widdecombe: The last thing that I want is for prisoners to do what they do at the moment: churn out more than 2 million pairs of socks every year--not for some sensible purpose such as sale to Marks and Spencer, but for consumption by a prison population who have never exceeded 64,000. So whether it is sacks or socks, I am not interested in purposeless activity. [Interruption.] If I may continue, the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) may hear the answer to his question.

We will work towards a full working day in all prisons. The work that prisoners would undertake, if it came from real employers who really wanted it to be done, would allow a wage, rather than pocket money, to be paid to prisoners. Deductions could be made to cover savings, so that the prisoner could not be left with the plea that he had a choice between criminality and the dole; reparations to victims, so that he would understand that there are

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consequences to actions; the upkeep of his own family, which falls almost entirely on the taxpayer; and, indeed, his own upkeep, so that he would learn the habits not only of regular and demanding work, but of an orderly and responsible distribution of the proceeds of work.

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