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Lord Quirk: My Lords, is it not a matter for dismay and alarm that the report finds the education provision at Rochester to be in so desperate a state? Fewer than half of those enrolled in classes attend them; evening courses have been suspended; there are no functioning workshops; there are bad relations between the Prison Service and the education service; and poor management of the education service. As regards education in prisons, will the Government take urgent action not only in Rochester but throughout the service?

Lord Bach: My Lords, at the time of the inspection, there were weaknesses. However, I am happy to be able to tell the House that there have been significant improvements since then; for example, in November last year 98.5 per cent of the contracted hours were delivered. Improvements to the regime at Rochester were already in hand prior to the visit of the chief inspector, with the allocation of £465,000 of funding

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over the three-year period specifically to develop the provision of education and offending behaviour programmes.

The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, in view of the chief inspector's recommendation that there should be an urgent review of the conditions in the prison at Rochester and his call for a clear and coherent set of guidelines for the treatment of detainees, together with the need to take the variety of cultures seriously--for example, in the training of prison staff and in terms of staff from the Immigration Service--will the Minister acknowledge the excellent work being carried out by the ecumenical chaplaincy, which, incidentally, was not mentioned in the report, and pledge all the necessary resources for the continuance and strengthening of this important work?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am happy to do so. I am very grateful to the right reverend Prelate, who represents with such distinction the area within which the prison is located, for asking me a question this afternoon. The answer to his question is, unreservedly, "yes".

Lord Allen of Abbeydale: My Lords, can the Minister say whether there is any truth in the press report that the Government are proposing to abolish the post of Chief Inspector of Prisons?

Lord Bach: My Lords, there is no truth in that report. However, if the noble Lord will be patient with me, I shall have more to say in that respect on Thursday when I believe that I shall be answering a Question for one of my noble friends on this very subject.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that one of the chief concerns mentioned in this report was the poor treatment and conditions experienced by numbers of asylum seekers, immigration detainees and other foreign nationals? Does the Minister propose to do anything about the recommendation that someone should be identified by the Prison Service within its headquarters and given specific responsibility for the treatment and conditions of foreign nationals?

Lord Bach: My Lords, as I hope I indicated in my earlier reply to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, given the small numbers held in various establishments, which also have other functions, it would be impractical for someone at the head office of the Prison Service to have overall responsibility for the treatment and conditions of foreign nationals.

The most recent consultation exercise on the management structure of the service produced widespread support for continuing to manage the service on a geographical basis. Only the high security and female estates are managed functionally. The move to dedicated centres for immigration detainees,

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which is the Government's policy, will reduce the number of prisons which hold small numbers of them alongside other prisoners.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, can the noble Lord tell the House of any progress that the Government are making to ensure that fewer people who are mentally ill, mentally handicapped and mentally disturbed are kept in prison when they could perhaps be more happily accommodated elsewhere?

Lord Bach: My Lords, a task force is at present looking into exactly that difficult and important issue. I look forward to being able to report back to the House in due course.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow: My Lords, can the Minister say whether it is still the view of the Government that prison works?

Lord Bach: My Lords, of course prison works; but it works better for some than for others.

West Coast Main Line

2.53 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, in the light of reported delays in the modernisation of the West Coast Main Line, they will call together the parties involved to agree a programme for timely completion of the project.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston): My Lords, a group consisting of officials from the shadow Strategic Rail Authority (sSRA), the Office of the Rail Regulator, Railtrack and the train operators involved in the West Coast Main Line, both passenger and freight, has been established and meets regularly. The sSRA reports to Ministers as necessary. Railtrack has said that it is on course to meet its contractual commitments to Virgin in 2002 and 2005. The Rail Regulator has published a draft final order that he proposes to make. This would require Railtrack to produce robust plans which demonstrate that it can meet those commitments and that it can meet the reasonable requirements of other train operators and funders, including the shadow Strategic Rail Authority.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am glad to hear that this co-operative group, albeit at a fairly low level, is in operation. However, is not the Minister concerned that this project is running so dangerously near to being very late that the Rail Regulator has already issued threats of possible action for default? Is not the noble Lord also concerned that there is still doubt as to whether or not sufficient capacity will be provided for freight and for the slow passenger lines that must continue to use the West Coast Main Line? Further,

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should this work ever start, does the noble Lord know--indeed, does anyone know--Railtrack's plans for coping with the work and minimising the disruption to the rest of the rail network during the process?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, the regulator has sought and obtained enforceable undertakings from Railtrack to provide additional capacity for train operators, other than West Coast Trains Limited, on completion of the next stage--namely, to carry out strategic reviews of the scope for further capacity on the route. In November 1999, using his powers under the Railways Act, the regulator initiated enforcement action against Railtrack to require it to produce credible plans that demonstrate that it can complete the project successfully.

At present, Railtrack has refused to consent to the enforcement action. Without the consent of Railtrack to the changes, the regulator is required to go through a statutory consultation period. When that period closes on 25th April--this month--the regulator will decide whether to confirm, modify or withdraw the order in the light of representations received. However, the Rail Regulator and the sSRA have been in regular discussion about the enforcement action. The sSRA supports the approach that the regulator is taking. Railtrack's undertakings made to the regulator in April 1998 provided that it would carry out the necessary actions to ensure that the line is completed. We are assured that it will be completed on time in its first stage in 2002, and in its later stage in 2005.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, I have a question for my noble friend the Minister about the recent report of the National Audit Office on the Rail Regulator. Does not my noble friend agree that that report reveals how wholly unsatisfactory and inadequate the process of regulation of the railway was until the appointment of the present incumbent, Mr Tom Winsor? Further, can my noble friend also confirm that it is right that the regulator should insist that Railtrack honours its licence commitment to put the public interest ahead of that of its shareholders, and that there must be no slippage on the West Coast Main Line upgrade?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. The present regulator, Tom Winsor, took up his post in July 1999. He is currently engaged in a review which will make the final decisions later this year about the level of access charges to be paid during the period from April 2001 to 2006.

My noble friend referred to the report of the National Audit Office which said that the regulator found it difficult to establish whether Railtrack has carried out enough maintenance and renewal and that was partly because the regulator did not agree clearly enough at the outset in 1993 what standards Railtrack was supposed to meet. Therefore, the Rail Regulator has not been able to monitor the condition of Railtrack's assets, and information given to the

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regulator has not been independently verified. The Government echo the Comptroller and Auditor General of the NAO, who said that he welcomed the action by Mr Winsor. The Government also welcome the rigour that Mr Winsor is bringing to the role of regulator.

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