Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Miss Widdecombe: No.

Mr. Straw: She says she does not. Given that the right hon. Lady had planned much lower resources than we have put in, there would, under her plans, be many more people locked up two to a cell than is now the case.

12 Feb 2001 : Column 54

Overcrowding is likely to remain a problem in prisons. It is not for me to set an artificial ceiling for the prison population, and I am not going to. We are putting in additional resources to ensure a considerable increase in the number of places available. I judge that sufficient places will be available.

Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough): Mr. Narey has called overcrowding in prisons a scourge, Lord Woolf called it a cancer and the former president of the Prison Governors Association called it an obscenity. Does my right hon. Friend accept that prison overcrowding has grave and damaging effects, and is it a priority of the Government to eliminate the problem?

Mr. Straw: Other things being equal, I should prefer there to be no overcrowding or having two prisoners to a cell. However, we must ensure that enough places are available to meet demand, and that is what we are trying to do. We are putting a lot of extra resources into the prison system to increase the total number of places available. In addition, some other Prison Service establishments that are experiencing overcrowding produce a good standard of care for prisoners, while others do not. Overcrowding in itself cannot be used as an excuse for under-performance, and we will not accept that it should be so used. In any event, the situation is radically different from that which prevailed 10 years ago.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald mentioned suicides. I am sorry that she tried to make a political point out of one of the gravest issues that faces the Prison Service. She used out-of-date figures. The number of suicides fell last year, although that is of small comfort. That fall--to 81, not 92 as claimed by the right hon. Lady--is the first for five years. At the Prison Service conference, I announced a new, proactive strategy to try to turn around the service's record on suicides.

We must work extremely hard to reduce the number of prisoner suicides, but we must work even harder to ensure that prisoners are safe in their cells. Last year, as everyone realises, the Prison Service failed in its duty of care to Zahid Mubarek. He was locked up, quite inappropriately, with a man who subsequently murdered him. The investigation revealed racism in the establishment--Feltham young offender institute. I both encourage and greatly welcome the investigation being conducted by the Commission for Racial Equality into racism in the Prison Service. When its recommendations are received, they will be acted on.

Not only is there racism between staff and prisoners, but it is also carried out by white staff on black and Asian staff. I am determined that it should be eliminated--as are my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and the director general. One of the ways we are trying to do that is by establishing a race equality for staff--RESPECT--network for black and Asian staff in the Prison Service. The network was successfully launched by my right hon. Friend last month; the event was attended by 1,500 delegates. The Home Office's network now includes the RESPECT network. It provides an active voice for staff, so I know that it will be extremely important both in raising the concerns of black and Asian staff in the Prison Service and in ensuring a shift in approach and attitude.

12 Feb 2001 : Column 55

The right hon. Lady mentioned health care. When the national health service was established in 1948, one of the few things that the then Government got wrong was that prison health services were not incorporated into it. Since then, the prison health service has been a Cinderella.

Miss Widdecombe: Is the right hon. Gentleman going to change that?

Mr. Straw: Yes. We have already announced joint working between the Prison Service and the NHS. In some areas, NHS trusts provide health care. In addition, £35 million has been allocated over the next three years to improve health care facilities.

The Prison Service has increasingly suffered from the abject failure of the so-called care in the community policy implemented by the previous Administration--although I doubt that the right hon. Lady agreed with that policy. The closure of large mental institutions without the provision of alternative care was appalling; since the late 1980s, it has led to a sevenfold increase in the proportion of the prison population with moderate to severe mental health problems.

Prisoners suffering from dangerous and severe personality disorders are among those with the greatest mental health problems. On 20 December last year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health told the House of our joint proposals for managing that group. We have committed £126 million to fund a programme of pilot projects across the Prison Service and the NHS over the next three years, to research both a rigorous assessment tool and effective treatments.

The next pilot will provide extra places at HMP Whitemoor, alongside the existing assessment pilot centre, where therapeutic interventions will be piloted and evaluated. In addition, two new units are planned at HMP Frankland in Durham. The units will be built within a secure perimeter and will provide 100 assessment and treatment places; they are due to open in early 2003. A 70-place unit will open next year at the Rampton high security hospital. A further 70 places are planned within the NHS by 2004.

Purposeful activity is of critical importance. To make prison work, we must ensure that prisoners are better when they leave it than when they entered it--better educated and, as far as possible, better trained. They should receive advice and help to get them out of their offending behaviour.

Mr. Edwards: I am sure that my right hon. Friend has previously heard me commend Usk prison for its training, education and sex offender treatment programmes. Will he be good enough to visit the prison? It could serve as a model for other prisons throughout the country.

Mr. Straw: I should be happy to visit Usk prison. Given the long list of visits that I have promised to make and have yet to fulfil, it may take a little time, but I shall certainly do my very best.

Purposeful activity has increased and the monthly figure for November was 24.6 hours. That is a steady improvement on last year, and we hope to meet the target that has been set.

12 Feb 2001 : Column 56

Education is key. We have continued many of the good things that happened under the previous Administration--not the shattering of morale, which we have helped to restore. I am astonished that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald did not have the humility to recognise what had happened. We were determined to introduce a literacy and numeracy key performance indicator, which is now in place. By the end of this financial year, prisoners will have gained 9,000 full qualifications at basic skills level 2, making many of them employable on release for the first time.

We are investing £18 million over the next three years to secure a 50 per cent. increase in the number of qualifications obtained by prisoners. We have also put much more money into accredited offending behaviour programmes--my right hon. Friend the Minister of State can deal with that later--and a lot of effort and money into custody-to-work programmes to ensure that people in prison receive much better preparation to get jobs. We know for certain that if prisoners have a job to go to, they are much less likely to reoffend, and far too many of them do not have jobs to go to.

The last substantive point that I want to make is on prison industries. The right hon. Lady could not leave alone the issue of socks. [Interruption.] She is chuntering from a sedentary position that there are millions of socks. She suggested in her speech that 2.5 million pairs of socks had been produced in a year. In my world--perhaps not in hers--socks wear out, so if socks are not produced year by year, there is a really serious problem. All the sock production takes place in Gartree prison in the constituency of the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), which is the centre of the Leicestershire hosiery area. The industrial production of socks in the prison service is darn good value and we have developed a holistic approach, but I wish that the right hon. Lady would stop putting her foot into the matter.

Some 600,000 socks a year are produced in prison industries to meet the demand inside the Prison Service. [Interruption.] The right hon. Lady says from a sedentary positions that there are 65,000 people in prison, but she does not understand that many people leave prison within much less than a year, so the turnover of prisoners is much greater than she thinks. She keeps talking about early release, but every prisoner, apart from the 23 whole lifers, is eligible for early release.

Miss Widdecombe: Do they take the socks home with them?

Mr. Straw: No, I do not think they take the socks with them, although I am sure that they are not stripped of their socks as they leave prison. That minor, but important industry in Gartree is run for the benefit of the rest of the Prison Service.

I shall make some general remarks about industries in prison. Subject to meeting prisoners' other needs, the purpose of prison--apart from punishing prisoners with the loss of their liberty--is not only to have them producing things, but to try to make them better people so that they are less likely to reoffend. It cannot follow that the only way to achieve that is to give prisoners full-time work, because many of the functions that they undertake would not be ones for which they would find jobs in their own area when they come out. There must

12 Feb 2001 : Column 57

be a balance, so I cast doubt on whether it is possible or sensible, within the overall aim of reducing reoffending, for every prisoner to be engaged full-time in work because there would be no time for anything else; it would be an inappropriate use of their time.

Yes, we should like more prisoners to be engaged in productive work. There is no argument about that. However, I have read the remarks that the right hon. Lady made on the subject at a Conservative party conference. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) is aghast at the idea. However, the more that I listen to the right hon. Lady on the subject, the more I think that her idea for a self-financing plan to provide work for everybody is as well constructed and put together as the announcement that she made at the most recent party conference. I am sure that other countries also lock people up for their second minor offence of possessing cannabis. We can also find a state in the United States where people are locked up for life if they commit three times offences such as stealing a pizza.

It is always possible in matters of penal policy to find some administration somewhere that has come up with a more crackpot idea than the right hon. Lady. She can be assured of that.

Next Section

IndexHome Page