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The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw) rose--

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) rose--

Miss Widdecombe: I shall give way first to the Home Secretary.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady and I am following her remarks with some care. She said that such industries would be self-financing and would cover all prisoners, who number about 64,000 at any one time. Will she publish the calculations that lay behind that conclusion so as better to inform the debate and say what kind of product would be manufactured?

Miss Widdecombe: Product does not always have to be manufactured. If the Home Secretary has taken any interest at all in the work that already goes on in our prisons, he will be aware that a wide range of products such as printing--in suitable prisons, of course--and other services are supplied. If he considers the example of Blakenhurst, he will acknowledge that a lot of contracted work is taken in, which does not compete with local labour. Indeed, it forms the basis of much of the praise that has been lavished on that institution.

It is not as though I have to say to the Home Secretary, "This cannot be done." Other countries have prison workshops that undertake real work that produces real wages, so if he is seriously saying that that ideal cannot be realised, I do not agree. I am well aware that such issues often get distorted, so I remind him of what I said by quoting back my own words: we will work towards a full working day in all prisons. I did not say that, in the first five minutes of taking over his job, which I am greatly looking forward to doing, I would produce 64,000 places for work. However, I could work towards achieving that, which is what I shall do.

Mr. Straw: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: Once more.

Mr. Straw: I do not remember suggesting that such a thing would happen in the first five minutes, nor could it, under any Government. I am interested in the calculations that make the right hon. Lady think that it would be possible--after five years, for example--to make all those industries, which would involve 65,000 prisoners, entirely self-financing. I am asking her whether she will make those calculations public.

Miss Widdecombe: First, Prison Service industries, which supply products for the Prison Service, will obviously not be self-financing. [Hon. Members: "Ah!"] No, because those goods are bought only by the public sector. As prisons Minister, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), knows that they employ only a small minority of prisoners, whereas I want all prisoners

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to have the opportunity to work. Our solution will be to have prison workshops that are run on the same basis as any other small business.

The word "calculations" has been used as though this proposal will establish a uniform business, uniformly applied in all prisons. I am appalled by the attitude of Labour Members who are not interested in this proposal: they despise it and do not want to do it. They have reduced the hours of purposeful activity in our prisons, but all they can do is sit there and say, "There ain't no solution", and they are not bothered about finding one. We have the solution, we will impose it, and it will be welcomed by the public and the Prison Service alike. The Government should be ashamed of the fact that there has been four years of wasted opportunity. [Interruption.] The Home Secretary seems to find that hilarious.

Mr. Martlew rose--

Mr. Campbell-Savours rose--

Miss Widdecombe: I shall make some progress.

The law already allows--

Mr. Martlew: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance. Is it right for the right hon. Lady to say that she will allow me to intervene after she has taken an intervention from the Home Secretary, and then to refuse to give way to me, although she had agreed to do so?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): To whom Members of the House give way is entirely a matter for them.

Miss Widdecombe: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am afraid that the quality of interventions has not been so wonderful that I would encourage them, but just to be kind I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Martlew: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. I have listened carefully to her remarks, and I shall briefly recap. Prisoners will have to pay for their keep, pay compensation to their victims and pay for the upkeep of their families. What incentive will they have to work, or will the right hon. Lady make it compulsory and turn prisoners into slaves?

Miss Widdecombe: Yes, I will make it compulsory. If a prisoner refused to work, he would be put on the basic regime and have no chance of being under the enhanced regime. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that his Front-Bench team are looking horribly embarrassed. He misunderstands the nature of prison work by his reference to "slaves". At the moment, prisoners work 22 hours a week for about £9.50, which could be called slavery. I propose that they should have the chance to earn a proper wage. When a Bill was introduced--it was in our time and with Government support--to allow deductions to be made, Labour Front-Benchers supported the proposal.

Mr. Straw: We know that.

Miss Widdecombe: I know that the right hon. Gentlemen knows that, but his hon. Friend does not, so I am just telling him.

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Mr. Campbell-Savours: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Miss Widdecombe: Well, okay.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: The right hon. Lady's proposition is very interesting. We are all interested in the detail. We presume that she has not launched into a tirade to make an irresponsible statement. Will she give us the figures? She must have worked them out. A paper giving the calculations must have been circulated among the Conservative shadow Home Office team setting out the basis on which she can draw these assumptions. We are genuinely interested. Can we see the data?

Miss Widdecombe: I visited all the prisons in my time as the responsible Minister. If the hon. Gentleman were to do so, he would find non-uniformity in the lamentably few prisons that have such enterprises. That non- uniformity makes it impossible to say that we will have that business in every prison and how much it will cost. That is nonsense. It would be important to do that if we were proposing that this scheme should be funded by the taxpayer, but we have already said that it will be self-financing. [Hon. Members: "How?"] Labour Members have never run a business, so they have no idea how to make it self-financing. When one of the hon. Gentleman's constituents tells him "I want to set up a business that will be self-financing", he will ask "How?" It is such a startling proposition that the hon. Gentleman's mind cannot encompass it. The sooner we take the prison system out of the hands of Labour Members, who apparently do not even realise how anything can possibly be self-financing, the better.

We will begin to restart the process of reform, which we did, after all, start and which has been squandered by this Government. We will try to rebuild a real service from the decline, confusion and stagnation that this Government have introduced into our prison system. This Government have presided over an increase in overcrowding, the return of slopping out in three prisons, a rise in the assault rate, an increase in the number of suicides and a fall in purposeful activity. They have let things become so bad that their own director general describes conditions as immoral, and they do not even apologise for that. Yet this is the Government, and this is the Home Secretary, who in opposition had the gall to condemn our record when we were progressing in leaps and bounds.

Winston Churchill said that the test of a civilised society was how it treated its prisoners. The Government have failed that test, failed the people whom they should be protecting, and failed the offenders whom they should be reforming. They have also massively failed the thousands of decent, hard-working staff who struggle to do their jobs in impossible circumstances. They should give way to a party that cares enough to do something about the situation.

5.6 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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I was grateful to the Opposition when I saw that they had applied for a debate on prisons, because it is important for the subject to be debated in the House from time to time. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) was entirely right to say that our manifesto stated that I would take proper responsibility for the Prison Service, and that is exactly what I have sought to do ever since. I have sought to take responsibility for the good things that have happened in the service, for the not so good things, and for the bad things. I am responsible for the service, not least to the House.

The right hon. Lady's speech was a parody of the director general's speech at the Prison Service conference, and also a parody of the record of both this Government and the Government of whom she was a member. She said that she would not go in for faulty recollection, and then suggested that during her time as prisons Minister--from five or six years after the publication of the Woolf report until May 1997--the service had progressed in "leaps and bounds".

One of the striking things about the right hon. Lady is her absence of memory. Let me jolt her memory with a few quotations:


That was the right hon. Lady in her first speech in opposition summing up the previous five years, during which she had been the prisons Minister. Her conclusion about the Prison Service that she had been running was, "We shattered its morale."

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