Previous SectionIndexHome Page

10.55 am

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting): My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham) and the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) rightly congratulated the two maiden speakers whom we have heard today. All hon. Members know that making a maiden speech is something that we have to do on being elected to the House, and we fully understand that regardless of the experience—which we shall learn of in coming years—that those two speakers bring to the House, one's first speech in the House is an ordeal.

The hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) paid tribute to his predecessor, Teresa Gorman, with whom many of us served in Committee. She was a very outspoken lady and, whether or not one agreed with her, always lively and controversial. As a London Member, I have some knowledge of the part of Essex that the hon. Gentleman represents. He glowingly described many of Essex's villages. He also mentioned small business. Regardless of whether they are in government or opposition, all hon. Members have many small businesses in their constituencies, and our constituents raise with us many of the small business issues that he described. We shall listen to him with great interest.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) paid warm tribute to Robin Corbett, whom many of us have known and worked with for a very long time. I am delighted that Robin is now in the other place. My hon. Friend also mentioned that he represents our country's second city. Those of us who have been privileged to be Members of this place for many years know that, some distinguished Members on both sides of the House, have represented Birmingham constituencies. My hon. Friend described the various professions and occupations in his constituency and made it clear that his roots are there. He really does know the area that he represents, which will be greatly beneficial both to him and to his constituents.

20 Jul 2001 : Column 549

We welcome both new Members to the House, and we shall listen with great interest to their speeches.

I also extend a warm welcome to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, who is held in high regard by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Many of us have worked with him on an issue that we, like him, hold very dear—Cyprus. Even now, there are in the Chamber hon. Members on both sides who have a deep commitment to that issue, but none has a commitment deeper than his.

I am sure that my hon. Friend has already discovered the depth and variety of our debates on matters to be considered before a forthcoming Adjournment. Although they are fascinating debates, an attempt was once made to stop them. I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that that does not happen.

Jeremy Corbyn: I agree with my hon. Friend that these debates are important. Does he recall that there was a time when Back Benchers could apply for and be granted debates on motions to be debated and voted on in the House? They gave considerable power to Back Benchers. Does he hope that the reforms ahead of us will again make possible such debates?

Mr. Cox: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. I was pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on the Front Bench for quite some time this morning, but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will refer to that point. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House attach enormous importance to these opportunities.

I recently asked my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary

Wandsworth prison is in my constituency. It is one of the oldest in the United Kingdom and I am aware that over the years large sums of money have been spent on it, but like all old buildings, it requires a great deal more and the works are extremely expensive.

In the reply that I received from the Under–Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), I was told:

I welcome that. The reply continues:

I very much regret that part of the reply.

In February, I initiated a debate on Wandsworth prison. I paid a warm tribute to the governor of the prison, Mr. Stephen Rimmer, to the members of the board of visitors and to members of the Prison Officers Association for their commitment to the major changes being introduced there. Those changes are continuing. Wandsworth prison is now a very different establishment and has lost the image that it had for so many years. That shows that leadership and commitment enable meaningful changes to be made in penal establishments.

20 Jul 2001 : Column 550

I have quoted part of the reply that I received to the question that I asked on 5 July. However, I still hope to tell the House what I see as the key aspect of it. It continues:

I deeply regret that. There are several reasons why I think that it is wrong and that Wandsworth prison should be allocated extra funding. The governor, the Prison Officers Association and the board of visitors at the prison attach great importance to education. Sadly, prison inmates throughout the system, be they men or women, often have poor educational backgrounds. People serving prison sentences in prisons with modern educational facilities are generally encouraged to make use of the opportunities. Hon. Members who have prisons in their constituencies know that if there are no modern educational services in a prison, prisoners will not make use of what is available. We need to develop a wide range of courses because all the evidence shows that prisoners make use of educational opportunities.

Ideally, when someone is discharged from prison they will have a job to go to and not return to prison. However, the figures on that score are not very hopeful. They show that more than 60 per cent. of young people in prison had left school before they were 16 and that, when they leave prison, some 60 per cent. of prisoners are ineligible for more than 90 per cent. of jobs. Sadly, prisoners often have speech or communication problems, which is yet another reason why a prison such as Wandsworth, which has had an on-going commitment to building a modern, efficient education service for inmates, should be entitled to extra funding to develop that work.

It is estimated that it costs about £20,000 a year to keep a person in prison. That is yet another reason why we should try to keep people out of prison. If we provide modern facilities to educate prisoners, we will have the chance to achieve that aim.

During the debate in February, I also spoke about asylum seekers. At the time, Wandsworth was awaiting the first of the asylum seekers to be sent there, and it now has some 50 of them. In February, I spoke of the pressures and strains that that would put on the prison and the need for specific funding to be allocated to Wandsworth and other prisons where asylum seekers are being held.

I pay the warmest tribute to the chair of the board of visitors, Mr. Akerman, and to all on the board of visitors at Wandsworth prison, for their great commitment week in, week out and their involvement in the day-to-day running of the prison. Mr. Akerman has told me that the arrival of asylum seekers at Wandsworth prison has indeed placed additional pressures and strains on the prison.

Sometimes I wonder whether the people who are involved in making decisions, including Government Ministers and senior civil servants, really understand what happens when asylum seekers are sent to penal establishments. Although those men and women may indeed have immigration problems, we must remember—and I hope that the Home Office remembers—that they are not criminals. They have not been convicted, nor are they on remand for a criminal offence. They are being detained for immigration reasons, and come from a wide range of countries. Many of them speak different

20 Jul 2001 : Column 551

languages and have a limited knowledge of English. Clearly, they need advice and help with their cases. Sometimes they need help trying to find or keep in touch with their families at home. They also need to build a relationship of trust with the prison officers.

I pay the warmest tribute to the people from the Wandsworth Refugee Council and similar organisations who regularly visit prisons and give enormous help to people detained because of immigration irregularities. The Government, the Home Office or the prison authorities could not provide such help.

Many of the 50 asylum seekers in Wandsworth prison were abused or persecuted in the countries that they fled. One can understand how people who have suffered abuse, often in prisons or detention centres, must feel when they are again imprisoned. They wonder what will happen to them. Thankfully, little if any abuse takes place in our prisons, but detainees would not know that and would be enormously fearful.

To their credit many hon. Members on both sides, take an interest in the welfare of asylum seekers in prisons, but we do not know what checks are made regarding their background and why, and for how long, they are detained. Wandsworth has well over 1,000 inmates. It is impossible to run two systems in such a major prison: one for the vast majority who have been convicted or are on remand, and one for those who have not been convicted of anything.

The chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, has repeatedly said that he does not believe that it is the Prison Service's role to hold asylum seekers in custody. He said:

That puts great pressure on governors, wing governors and prison officers. It is time that the whole thing stopped.

People being questioned about alleged immigration irregularities should not be in prison, but if they are, it is intolerable that no extra funding should be allocated to offset the additional costs faced by the authorities. I realise that this is not the Minister's department, but I hope that he will convey my deep concerns, and those of many others, to his Home Office colleagues.

Sir David Ramsbotham is soon to retire. He has criticised aspects of the regime in Wandsworth. I am pleased to say that his recommendations have been followed. Those of us who take an interest in prisons and have studied his reports know that he always gave his honest opinion, whether it pleased the Home Secretary of the day or not. He spoke of improvements that were needed not only for the inmates but for the staff. He has done an excellent job and will be a very hard act to follow. I pay him the warmest tribute.

All those involved in running prisons say that we cannot keep sending more and more people to prison while continuing to cut prison budgets. The policy has no credibility, and I am sure that many of us hope that it will cease. Proper funding must be made available.

Next Section

IndexHome Page