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6.36 pm

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): I agree with the last point made by the right hon. Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd)--prisoners should be able to vote, and I see no argument against that.

The Director General of the Prison Service made a courageous speech, and I suspect that that was the reason for today's debate. As I said in an intervention, I am, for once, in a charitable mood towards the Opposition. The Prison Service should be the subject of debate. I believe that this is the first time that the Opposition have raised the topic in this Parliament. Be that as it may, we have a responsibility, especially as so many of our prisons are an utter disgrace.

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In his speech, the director general said:

he was not speaking of just the past four years--

In the short time--three minutes--at my disposal, I draw to the attention of the House the level of violence, bullying and physical abuse that occurs in prisons and has done for so many years. The House should be extremely concerned about that. Sometimes, the physical abuse is carried out by prison staff. Former prison staff from Wormwood Scrubs were jailed only last year. More often, however, bullying and violence are carried out by prisoners themselves, which make life that much more of a hell for other prisoners. The aims of rehabilitating prisoners and helping a good number of them to lead a law-abiding life when they leave prison is undermined by what takes place day in, day out in prisons.

I shall make a few brief points before the Opposition claim their time. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who spoke for the Opposition, disagreed about the number in prison, but I agree with what has been said by others, particularly the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). For many prisoners, there is no alternative to prison, but where there is a reasonable chance that the community will not be harmed, we should increasingly consider non-custodial sentences.

There is no chance, in my view, of substantial prison improvement and reform if prisoner numbers keep on rising. It is easy to send a person to prison and to believe that the community will therefore be safe, but what happens when prisoners other than those serving a life sentence are released? As a former Home Secretary, Lord Hurd, said, it is important to bear in mind that those who go to prison will eventually come out.

Finally, I have the greatest respect not only for the Director General of the Prison Service--I wish that he had spoken before--but for the chief inspector of prisons. Time and again, Sir David Ramsbotham and his predecessor spotlighted the failings. Yes, that embarrassed the previous Government and no doubt it embarrassed my Government, but I believe that what the chief inspector did was essential. I regret that Sir David is not being reappointed and I understand that an advertisement will be placed in the press to publicise the vacancy. The new chief inspector will not fulfil his duties properly if he does not speak out with the same courage and independence as the current chief inspector and his predecessor.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This may be as much a point of frustration as a point of order, but is it not regrettable that, as a consequence of the Government making an education statement on an Opposition day, only one Conservative Back Bencher has been able to contribute to the debate? I feel slightly annoyed about that because I believe that I am the only Member who intended to participate who has sentenced someone to prison. I also happen to have two prisons in my constituency. It is

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regrettable that I have been unable to catch your eye, but is it not also regrettable that the Government have taken up an hour, which has truncated the debate in a thoroughly unsatisfactory manner?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): That is not a point of order for the Chair, but I note the hon. and learned Gentleman's comments.

6.40 pm

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): We have had a good if all too brief debate and the complaint made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) testifies, if testimony were needed, to the Government's grossly insensitive handling of their business, which has deprived us of a proper opportunity to discuss our motion.

The debate was magnificently opened by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), the shadow Home Secretary. In a thoughtful, impassioned and statesmanlike speech, she made it abundantly clear that there was not a golden age for prisons under our Government. We acknowledge that prison conditions were poor, but they were improving then, so it is incumbent on the Government to recognise that they are worse and deteriorating now. That is the significant point.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) made a characteristically sincere, reflective and constructive speech and although I do not agree with all his remarks, I respect them none the less. My right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd) gave a timely warning against complacency from the vantage point of someone with real and direct experience of the system. The hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) legitimately pointed to improvements in service in his constituency, and he was justly proud of those. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), with whom I rarely agree, nevertheless made a fully civilised speech. He spoke with conviction and passion, but I am afraid that I profoundly disagree with him on the entitlement of prisoners to vote.

The facts in Her Majesty's inspector's reports speak for themselves. That on Brixton of June 2000 describes a service going "steadily downhill", conditions that are "totally unacceptable" and no workshops or education facilities worthy of the name. That on Feltham of September 1999 talks of only 15 hours purposeful activity a week instead of the target of 23.5 and of 90 people in full-time education and 700 receiving no education at all. Kids expect to be incarcerated for 23 out of 24 hours a day and get no fresh air for days on end.

At Portland, as the November 1999 report all too eloquently testifies, the conditions were, in the judgment of the inspector, "nothing short of scandalous". He observed, and all Members of the House would agree, that it was

If all that is not a sorry enough tale, the position at Wandsworth is equally bad. We are told that there is a "pervasive culture of fear" and an attitude that is "callous and uncaring".

What emerges from all the reports and the testimony of independent witnesses, who advise Members of the House, is that, too often, education in prisons, which

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should be the route to reform and future hope, is grossly inadequate, poorly structured, rarely co-ordinated and therefore inevitably defective in the results that it produces. Too often, young people, chronically and almost criminally, I dare to say, are moved from one institution to another before they complete the courses on which they have embarked, the results of which could benefit them and the wider community. Indeed, in many examples it is sad, but, nevertheless, salutary to recall that people in prison can acquire doctorates only in barbarism and criminal study. That is a tragedy and a damning indictment of the Government, who have had four years to translate their highfalutin words into meaningful and purposeful reality.

Assaults on prisoners are up 25 per cent.; assaults on staff are up 20 per cent.; and incidents of self-harm in prisons and young offender institutions stand at 7,398, which represents a 35 per cent. rise. The Home Secretary cannot gainsay the fact, no matter how he tries to quibble, that prison suicides have soared under this Government. Appalling conditions are inadequately attended to and Ministers are grossly complacent, but still they busily implement the home detention curfew scheme, which has released 31,000 serious offenders, typically before they have served even half of their sentences. We know that, as a result, about 1,000 extra offences, including two rapes and several assaults on policemen, have been committed.

I say to the prisons Minister that those incidents have happened on his watch. They should be on his conscience, for the blood that has resulted from those early releases and violent offences is surely on his hands. Prisons should be places for reform, not ruination; for deterrence, not degradation; for punishment, not purgatory. The director general has challenged the Government to make a reality of the rhetoric of decency and of dignity. It is nevertheless sad to recall that the Government, as we see in example after example after example, are preoccupied with the trappings of office and the perks of power. They are all too remote, I regret to say, from the failures of their policy and the damage done to victims as a direct consequence of that failure.

The Government, the Home Secretary and the prisons Minister have failed prisoners, failed victims, failed hard-working staff and failed the public. Wherever we look, we see purposeful activity declining. The quantity and quality of education is inadequate. The increase in slopping out is deplorable. The morale of those charged with delivering the service has been depressed and is probably worse than it has been in a generation.

I suggest to the House and the prisons Minister, who should have a full opportunity to reply, that there has been a litany of woes from a smug, self-satisfied and complacent Government who have failed to deliver. After four years of consistent inadequacy and repeated failure, it is time for a Government with an insatiable thirst for public office to give way to an Opposition with an insatiable thirst for public service.

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