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House of Lords

Wednesday, 6th March 1996.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Worcester.

Lord Joicey --Sat first in Parliament after the death of his father.

Prison Service Expenditure Cuts

The Lord Bishop of Worcester asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are satisfied that the Treasury cuts to the Prison Service announced in January will not affect educational and other services within the prisons.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, reduction in provision of regime activities, including education, may be made only as a last resort and after savings elsewhere have been sought.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. Will she agree that when cuts are made in the face of a rising prison population, rehabilitative services like education and chaplaincy are always vulnerable? Will she further agree that if prisoners leave without qualifications to help them in the search for a job, they may return to crime and in turn add to the prison population?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I absolutely agree with the right reverend Prelate about the importance of both the chaplaincy service and education. For that reason, we believe that those services should be protected, not only because they benefit prisoners on release but also because they are material to good order inside prisons.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, is the Minister satisfied with her reply that the reductions would arise only after savings had been sought in other areas? I assume that she refers to the often repeated government assertion that savings on administration can always be made by all public services at all times. Surely the Government have a responsibility to be certain that cuts in the area of services to people in prison should not be made.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, perhaps I may tell the House about some areas where I believe that efficiencies can be achieved: better shift systems to avoid wasteful deployment of staff--some prisons employ over-qualified staff on routine tasks; better use of part-time and contract staff; reduction of management layers; reduction of headquarters staff; exploring the scope for contracting-out services--for example, works services, ground services and vocational training; the improvement of energy efficiency. Prisons can improve their systems for managing performance. They can take prompter action in dealing with poor performance and

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unsatisfactory attendance records. They can exercise better control over staff expenses and improve on and have more efficient procurement policies. The list is considerable and none of it affects frontline services in any other way than to improve them.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, can my noble friend tell us the cost to taxpayers of keeping a prisoner for a year?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I believe that it is in the region of £25,000. However, I shall ensure that my noble friend receives the information.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, will the Minister provide justification for the damaging and horrifying cuts at a time when the prison population has reached a record level and when the Government plan to increase it by many thousands? This is at a time when we are told, in the words of a former Conservative Prime Minister, that we--the nation--have never had it so good.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, first, there is a general policy by the Government that we should make our services as efficient and effective as possible and that we can improve frontline services, while cutting out waste. That is the general policy.

Perhaps I may put into context the present efficiency reductions that are being asked for. In 1979 there was one prison officer for every 3.02 prisoners; today there is one prison officer for every 2.13 prisoners. That is an improvement of 30 per cent. The number of officers in the Prison Service has increased since 1979 by 76.6 per cent., while the prison population has increased by only 26 per cent. In 1979 there were almost 5,000 people sharing three to a cell. There are no prisoners now sharing three to a cell. In 1979 there were 11,700 sharing two to a cell; that has been reduced to 8,000. Spending has almost doubled since 1979, there have been 21 new prisons, 18,500 new places. More purposeful activity is taking place in our prisons than ever before: 300,000 hours of additional purposeful activity have been added since agency status. More prisoners than ever before spend more than 12 hours outside their cell. Those are the improvements effected by this Government since 1979.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, speaking of purposeful activities, will the Minister agree that the Open University offers a particularly valuable opportunity for prisoners to prepare themselves for release? Can she say what number of prisoners were taking Open University courses in 1995-96, and what number will be taking them in 1996-97? Will she also agree that it is to be deplored if prisoners are taken off Open University courses as a disciplinary penalty, without adjudication?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I cannot give the specific information for which the noble Lord asks. If I am able to obtain it, I will write to him.

The point made is an interesting one. It may well be that that is a more cost-effective way of providing information in prisons than the very high cost of a

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teacher being before the prisoners, physically teaching in the prison. There are distance learning programmes and other ways of efficiently delivering education in prison. We want the Prison Service to think much more laterally about how it can provide education for people in prison. It is an important point that the noble Lord makes.

Lord Richard: My Lords, the Minister gave a long list of what the Government had done, and another long list as to where she believes the Government can save money. May I therefore take it from that that there are no proposals to cut educational and other services within the Prison Service?

Baroness Blatch: No, my Lords, I can give no guarantees at all. The noble Lord scoffs, but the Government have effected a great deal of improvement since 1979. The service today is better resourced and prisoners are better cared for than they were in 1979.

How the efficiency savings are found is a management issue. I have made clear, as has Mr. Tilt, the Acting Director-General of Services, that we expect the front-line services to be preserved. We expect priority to be given to stability, good order and security. Only as a very last resort should any of these areas be looked at for savings.

Lord Brain: My Lords, in view of the Minister's remarks about 30 per cent. savings, and other savings, will she be surprised to hear that the chaplain of Channings Wood prison in Devon has recently had a 30 per cent. cut in his budget?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I cannot comment on any individual prison. If it is a 30 per cent. cut, there must be some reason why it is disproportionate to cuts in other prisons. The overall cut is nothing like 30 per cent.

Baroness Faithfull: My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister satisfied that it is right that Oxford prison should be closed, in view of the fact that it has splendid educational facilities and the men go out to education? I appreciate that the prison has been leased by the city council to the Prison Service. Nevertheless, does my noble friend agree that it seems the wrong moment to be closing down such a very good prison where the men are so happy?

Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Blatch: All terms are relative, my Lords.

There is a very buoyant prison building programme. I do not believe that any prison establishment at this time is closed without very good reason. I will pass on the reasons to my noble friend.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, does the Minister believe that prisons--

Noble Lords: Order!

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne): My Lords, I think I take the sense of the House that with three more Questions to come, time is limited. I wonder whether the noble Lord would allow us to continue.

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Community Hygiene Concern: Funding

2.47 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will reconsider their decision not to increase funding to Community Hygiene Concern for their "bug busting" campaign in schools.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege): My Lords, in January, Community Hygiene Concern approached the Department for Education and Employment for funding. The organisation was asked to refer its request to the Department of Health. It has not yet done so.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, before asking any supplementary question, may I say how grateful I am that the Department of Health is to produce a leaflet, which I gather the noble Baroness will launch on 22nd April, promoting the "bug busting" campaign.

Does the Minister accept that it is unreasonable to expect this very small charity to provide education to school nurses and medical practitioners for a mere £25,000 a year? Will she look urgently at the question of funding, in view of the fact that many of the chemicals used are now producing resistance in the head lice?

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