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Miss Widdecombe rose--

Mr. Straw: Let me finish my point. However, by crackpot, I was referring to her ideas on cannabis.

Prison industry is a difficult issue. A Conservative Member raised the issue of our plans to expand the prison industry in his constituency with the director general. I shall give the right hon. Lady the hon. Gentleman's name in private because I have not asked him whether he is willing to have this case made public. The plan was far advanced, but the hon. Gentleman wrote in privately to suggest that it would seriously disrupt industries that pay its workers and he asked us to back away from the plan. Wisely in the light of the representations, the director general decided to do that because a serious number of jobs would be lost.

Some prison industries compete not with industries in this country, but with those abroad. For example, in data inputting--this may not be pleasant--we are competing with industries in the far east. That case does not create industrial relation problems or raise the issue of loss of profit here, but it is a difficult issue.

I am happy--this is a genuine offer--to sit down with the right hon. Lady to consider her calculations and examine how we can take her plan forward. We can argue about whether the figure is 65,000 or 30,000 full-time places, but we have a long way to go, so if we can create another 10,000 places, that is fine. However, she needs to be careful about making large promises that cannot and will not be fulfilled.

Miss Widdecombe: Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: Although other people are beckoning me to finish, I shall give way to her for the last time.

Miss Widdecombe: I shall be swift. Whenever the Home Secretary says that he is willing to consider an idea,

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that heralds the fact that he has stolen yet another jolly good idea from us. However, on this occasion, I am very happy to discuss the issue with him, because I am aware of the case that he has quoted. If he studies my speech, he will see that I was very careful to say that it is possible to develop prison industry without competing with local labour. It is possible and the right hon. Gentleman knows that. [Hon. Members: "How?"] Hon. Members keep yelling "How?", but I suggest that they go to have a look at what happens in Blakenhurst.

Mr. Straw: If the right hon. Lady thinks that she can do what she says, let us try to pin the issues down. However, we must consider the calculations.

The right hon. Lady has suggested that none of us has ever run a business, but that is not true of many Labour Members--they have run businesses. However, one thing that I know for certain is that a number of my constituents are about to end up in the bankruptcy courts because they did not produce proper calculations when they went to see the bank manager to take out a loan. Calculations are critical to the running of a business. It does not matter which side we are on; it boils down to a consideration of the calculations and whether it is possible for the plan to be self-financing.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: Will my right hon. Friend give way on this point?

Mr. Straw: Yes, but then I must conclude my speech.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: Is there any need to beat about the bush? Is not the reality that the shadow Chancellor has told the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) that he is not prepared to give her any more money, so she had to find a ruse to convince the public that more resources would be available? She has come up with an idea that she grossly exaggerates. Those are the facts, so why cannot we spell them out?

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend could be right. For me, the jury is out.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): It will not be a jury trial.

Mr. Straw: I think that this case requires a jury trial. I wait to see the calculations.

When my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, the director general and I spoke at the annual conference of the Prison Service last week, we all emphasised the need to drive up performance and to maintain the pace of change in the service. The work done in prisons is difficult and I know that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the dedication of governors, prison officers and other staff and to the work of the many volunteers who help bridge the gap in the community. I also pay a personal tribute to the Director General of the Prison Service and his staff at its headquarters for their excellent leadership.

The facts reflect my belief that conditions for the vast majority of prisons are improving. Understandably, we hear about the reports that the chief inspector of prisons produces on failing prisons, but we hear much less about the

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many more reports in which he praises prisons for adequate, good or excellent performance. We all recognise the need to continue to improve the performance of some prisons but, above all, we need to remember that it is the purpose of prisons to prevent offending and reoffending. That is the goal of our strategy.

5.50 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): We welcome the opportunity to have such an important debate. Like the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and the Home Secretary, we are glad to have a few hours in which to raise some of the issues, even if we do not receive all the answers. On a more mischievous note, I wondered whether the right hon. Lady had thought of becoming self-financing herself, which might be in everyone's interest.

The past few weeks have been vital for the debate on the Prison Service. The Lord Chief Justice made an important contribution in his lecture 10 years after the Woolf report and the director general made a crucial speech at last week's Prison Service conference. In addition, today's press includes an important article by Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham. He has been assiduous in making his views clear and has used his independence to do his job very well, as did his predecessor.

The Select Committee on Home Affairs made three initial proposals in its third report of this Parliament in the 1997-98 Session. It acknowledged that

It proposed a much better target for purposeful activity. In its second proposal, it confirmed:

With regard to its third proposal, it said:

All those statements reflect Liberal Democrat concerns.

However, none of us underestimates the difficulty of running the Prison Service, whether as a Minister, Home Secretary, director general or anyone else who is involved in its management. It is a hard, but vital, job, and we thank those people who are involved in the service. I pay tribute to the governors whom I have met on my visits to prisons in the 15 months since I have had responsibility for home affairs. I appreciate the hospitality of their management and staff, who were willing to answer all questions. Almost without exception, I found them impressive and encouraging. They certainly know what they want to do and it was interesting that they often gave similar messages about where improvements could be made.

I want to single out one or two people. I had an interesting conversation with the president of the Prison Governors Association when I visited Durham prison a few days ago, and I intend to deal with two of his concerns. He made clear the widespread view that many

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people should not be in prison and that the service is unable to cope well with them. He explained that there may never be adequate resources to manage people who stay in prison for only a short time and who the service cannot prepare for life back on the outside.

I visited the women's high-security section of Durham prison. One woman told me that she should not be in prison because she stabbed someone after being mentally ill for a number of years. She said that she should be receiving treatment in hospital. Although I understand why the decision was taken to put her in prison, many people in prison have been failed by our mental health services. Hospital would have been a better place to deal with that woman.

I visited two very different prisons in a short time--Lancaster, which I think is the oldest prison in the country, and Doncaster, which, as one of the newest prisons, is also doing a particularly good job. I have changed my view on private sector prisons and believe that it might be appropriate for them to exist, provided that they have suitable, enforceable contracts with the public sector. It is useful to remind the public sector that the private sector offers an alternative and can set an example for it to follow. I accept that it is easier to produce better services in a brand new prison than it is in a very old prison such as Lancaster, which is hundreds of years old. However, even some old prisons do excellent work. Lancaster runs extremely good sessions on the rehabilitation of sex offenders and how prisoners can deal with drugs, alcohol and anger management. The fact that it is an old prison does not mean that it cannot follow good practice.

I have also seen transformations in London, although plenty still need to take place. Wandsworth prison has improved significantly, but that is not the case for Brixton. I am probably in and out of Brixton more than any other prison. I should make it clear that that is always for constituency reasons--colleagues know that I am here far too often for there to be any other explanation. Brixton prison is not only overcrowded but unable to cope properly with the pressure that is placed on it. Many of its prisoners are on remand and should not be there.

Leeds prison made the strongest impression on me. According to the league table, it has the greatest overcrowding of any prison in England and Wales. I visited it a few weeks after the new governor was appointed and could see the difference that Mrs. Stacey Tasker had already made. I did not know the previous governor, but little changes had apparently made a huge difference. Daily morning meetings allowed the management to exchange their experiences of what had happened the day before. The new governor decided to move the previous governor's office from the prefab outside the prison building to the middle of the prison, so that every time she went in and out of her door she could see what was going on. She also decided to walk around without colleagues, which made her much more free to talk to prisoners. I pay tribute to such innovative governorship, which should be seen more often.

I should also like the Minister to know that I was privileged to visit Leeds prison for two days when the prison inspectorate was carrying out an inspection. I think that I am the first Member of Parliament to participate in such a visit. It did an excellent job and I pay tribute to it.

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Its staff were courteous and helpful, and effective across a range of activities. I enjoyed my time with them and thank them for that opportunity.

Prison numbers are rising significantly. There has been a 40 per cent. increase in the past nine years. We have more prisoners per head of population than any European country except Portugal and a large number of remand prisoners, although that has dropped slightly in the past couple of years, even though 50 per cent. of remand prisoners do not receive custodial sentences. It must be wrong to lock up so many of them before they are tried when the courts subsequently decide not to imprison so many of them.

The Home Secretary knows that I am concerned about Prison Service expenditure. In nine years, there has been a 2 per cent. increase in expenditure for a 40 per cent. increase in numbers, which cannot be explained by the service becoming more efficient. It is impossible to get 38 per cent. efficiency savings in that time. The Director General of the Prison Service made it clear how he and his colleagues had resisted the efficiency savings that it was unreasonable to ask them to make.

As the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald explained, prisoner activity has, sadly, been reduced. I was encouraged to hear from the Minister that purposeful activity has increased in the past few months. However, a parliamentary answer from the prisons Minister to the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) on 12 December shows that since the Conservatives left office, purposeful activity has decreased, which is inexcusable. The figures vary widely throughout the prisons estate, but on average prisoners spend only 23.7 hours a week on such activity. Prisoners are not prepared for release and a constructive life outside if they spend half their time locked up with nothing to do.

The statistics for the amount of time spent on education, on farms and in industries seems to show a decrease while the prison population has gone up, which is a tragedy. [Interruption.] I say to the Minister that I am aware that figures differ throughout the service, and some prisons are better than others. That is true of all the prison statistics. Some prisons have no overcrowding, and others, such as Leeds, have 800 prisoners living two or three to a cell. The last statistic revealed by parliamentary answers that I should like to refer to is that the number of hours spent outside the cell varies hugely too.

That leads me to my first conclusion about what has been going wrong. The director general said that he was not willing to go on making excuses for what happens in the Prison Service. At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of management and Ministers to deliver consistency throughout the service. Although there has been improvement in some areas, many things have gone wrong in many places over the past four years. The director general admits that there has not been a general improvement.

Some of us believe that there are too many people in prison, and that we ought to try to reduce that number. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), told me that there are comparable reoffending rates for those who have been inside and those who have not. Figures are difficult, and I do not want to make the matter too complex, but the ball-park figures are that 57 per cent. of those who go to prison reoffend within two years, which is not a great

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success rate, and those who receive sentences that are a good alternative to custody, such as community sentences, have a less than 50 per cent. reoffending rate. Good alternatives are therefore much more successful than wasted time in prison.

Lord Chief Justice Woolf made it clear that we often send people to prisons that have totally ineffective regimes for dealing with them, whereas a constructive alternative outside prison would be far better. We ought to ask ourselves who is in prison who ought not to be. There are many women, people with mental illness, prisoners on remand and people serving short sentences who should not be in prison. If policy makers considered those four categories of people, we could significantly reduce the prison population and introduce a sentencing regime that keeps many people out of prison while more effectively preventing them from reoffending. In prison, often little is done to prevent that, and sometimes positive harm is done by keeping people locked up.

In his lecture the other day, the Lord Chief Justice, referring to a comment made by Churchill when he was Home Secretary, said that one of the tests of a civilised society is how we look after our prisons.

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