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Lord Marsh: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is game, set and match?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, if the noble Lord means to me, I agree.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon: My Lords, the Minister said that these are convicted prisoners, but surely many of them are on remand or are there for non-payment of fines and did not commit crimes. Is not that so? Is it not a fact that something like one-third of the prisoners contained in those tiny cells have not been convicted?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, it is not true that many are there because of non-payment of fines. We have done some checks and in any single day in the country between 11 and 18 prisoners in the whole of the prison estate are women non-payers of fines, with about three of them being non-payers of their television licences. The courts do not lightly remand people to custody--and certainly not women. The type of offence and whether the person is a persistent offender who has attracted the attention of the courts previously is taken into account. The women on remand at Eastwood Park are not held in cramped conditions. The cells are perceived as being bedrooms only. At the moment, no prisoner is at Eastwood Park for non-payment of fines.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, if the problem of unpaid fines is as negligible as the Minister suggests, why has the Home Secretary announced that he proposes to review that problem as a matter of urgency? Secondly, does the Chief Inspector of Prisons intend to produce a report on this establishment?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the inspector has been in. He has done an unplanned spot check. We shall see his report in a short time. As for non-payment of fines, we were talking about women prisoners. My answer was made in the context of women prisoners. Nevertheless it is an issue. The Home Secretary has considered that it may not be the most appropriate use of an expensive prison cell. He has asked for that to be looked into in conjunction with the Lord Chancellor's Department.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, does the Minister accept that after her helpful and expansive reply to my Question last night, her present answers are somewhat disappointing? Does she agree that it is not satisfactory to defend the cells at Eastwood Park by comparing them with the unsatisfactory accommodation at Pucklechurch from which the prisoners came? Will she confirm that, since it is now admitted that these prisoners are not necessarily convicted--many of them are on remand--a high proportion of prisoners on remand are not in the end given a custodial sentence?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, of course that is true. Perhaps I should be positive rather than negative and say what is available at Eastwood Park. I might preface my remarks by saying that the prison was opened only on

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1st March and it is the 12th now. Inevitably some problems have arisen from the fact that the prison officers, who had agreed up to the point of the opening of the prison to a shift system, at the 11th hour withdrew that agreement. That caused initial problems. As I said, the prisoners will be out of the cells from 8.30 in the morning until 7.45 p.m. at night. They have much better dining facilities. They have toilets in their cells, and that is much more hygienic than chamber pots. The education facilities include a range of national vocational qualifications, courses in industrial cleaning, hairdressing, beauty salon work, pottery, literacy classes, basic skills classes, market gardening, polytunnels and landscaping. They have two gymnasiums, purpose-built visitors' accommodation and good healthcare facilities. I rest my case.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, will the Minister tell us whether the prison from which these prisoners came, which she has described in such graphic terms, is still in use?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, no it is not. In that prison the cells were 8 ft. by 8 ft. for two prisoners. This prison has cells which are 8ft. 9 ins. by 6ft. 2½ ins. for one prisoner.

Baroness David: My Lords, did not the previous Chief Inspector of Prisons, Judge Tumim, condemn the plans for the prison before the conversion was made?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, that was the case, but that judgment was made long before the prison was ready and long before it was opened. It was also made in the absence of knowing what would be the regime. It is important, and I believe it to be right, to say that these are bedroom cells. They are slightly below average, and they will be acceptable only if they go with a good, purposeful activity regime. That is in place, and that is what will be the case.

Lord Elton: My Lords, does my noble friend realise that the most encouraging and reassuring thing that she has said is the length of time out of cell? If those standards can be extended throughout the Prison Service, and the time out of cell used constructively, that will be an enormous advance.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, yes.

Business

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, at a convenient moment after 3.30 p.m., my noble friend Lady Chalker will, with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement on the IGC White Paper that is to be made in another place.

Education (Student Loans) Bill

3.5 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

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Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Henley.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES in the Chair.]

Lord Morris of Castle Morris moved Amendment No. 1:


Before Clause 1, insert the following new clause--

Level of subsidy

(". No subsidy paid in respect of a private sector student loan to any person in pursuance of arrangements under this Act shall exceed 10 per cent. of the value of the individual loan to which the subsidy relates.").

The noble Lord said: As the great exit pilgrimage takes place, I rise to say that the purpose of the amendment is to initiate a discussion about what is, after all, the hidden heart of the whole of this small Bill--the subsidy. I say that it is the heart of the Bill because in the explanatory and financial memorandum we read:


    "The Bill enables the payment of Government subsidies to private sector financial institutions which provide loans to students in higher education. Subsidies will be paid in accordance with arrangements made with the private sector institutions. The idea is"--
the version I have omits the word "to", but it should read:


    "The idea is to promote the availability of private sector loans as alternatives to the loans which are provided by the Student Loans Company out of voted money".

That is all very general, and necessarily imprecise. In Standing Committee B of another place on 12th December 1995, the Members of the Committee pressed the Minister to give some idea of the amount of subsidy being considered. They felt that that was something they wished to know. The Minister stated on that occasion:


    "We are embarking on a process of negotiation whereby the extent to which financial institutions are prepared to participate in the envisaged loan scheme must be tested. There must be a reasonable balance between public subsidy, as is envisaged in the Bill, and a desirable outcome in terms of what will be available to students. That process is only in its early stages".--[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee B, 12/12/95; col. 16.]

The Committee may feel that that did not greatly advance the degree of clarity about the issue and the question that was being asked. But on Second Reading in this place we took a small but significant step forward. The Minister said:


    "A number of points were made, I believe by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Lord, Lord Williams, about how we would set out our negotiating position and the cost to the Government. Noble Lords will have to accept that it is quite wrong at this stage for me to say what the subsidy will be, although I certainly reject the figure being bandied about by the Opposition of some £1,500".--[Official Report, 19/2/96; col. 963.]
That I found distinctly helpful.

Ministers argue that giving Parliament even a general idea would advantage tenderers in negotiations. Yet Ministers are asking Parliament to give them what Members in both places have described as a blank cheque. The debate on this new clause will give them another chance to let Parliament in on their rough expectation of the likely level of subsidy. After all, it is not so arcane and secret a matter as to be hugged by the

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Government to their collective breast in such a way as not to divulge a single thing. Even local estate agents will go so far as to put at the bottom of the particulars for sale, after all the usual stuff about "desirable, detached res.", something to the effect of "offers around so-and-so", or "guide price thus". It is not as though at present the banks and the building societies are fiercely competing with one another in trying to get a good deal out of the Government. Far from it. The Government have also had a much longer period of negotiation with the financial institutions than was envisaged before the tendering process had to be delayed and revised. Therefore, the argument that giving Parliament some guide as to the figure would divulge the Government's hand carries much less weight.

Our anxiety arises from the Government's inflated expectations about the scheme. They believe that it will save approximately £1.8 billion. Therefore, they must have some idea of the subsidy that they expect to pay. I cannot understand why there should still be this degree of secrecy on a matter such as this. If the Government can believe that they can save that much money from the PSBR, and if they can guess how many students will yield to temptation, it is not difficult to put a figure on the subsidy. Our guess was that it would be somewhere around £1,500 per loan. The Minister has stated that it is not that figure. It might be £1,499 or £1,502 but we know that it is not £1,500. The banks will have made a similar calculation in which the only variable is the number of student punters.

In proposing the amendment, my aim is to get the matter out into the open and hear for what amount the Government want Parliament to sign a cheque. I beg to move.


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