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House of Lords

Tuesday, 18th November 2003.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Rochester.

Prisons: Purposeful Activity

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

    To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to take in respect to the briefing published in October by the Prison Reform Trust on the current state of purposeful activity in Her Majesty's prisons.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Prison Service is well aware of the issues surrounding the involvement of prisoners in purposeful activity within Her Majesty's prisons. The Prison Service is committed to involving as many prisoners as possible in constructive activities as a way of reducing reoffending, improving prisoners' prospects on release and ensuring safe and decent conditions.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Bearing in mind that the Government's Social Exclusion Unit acknowledges that prisoners given skills training are significantly less likely to reoffend, and that two-thirds of men and women in prison have an educational level below that of primary school children, how does the Minister justify a per capita spend on prisoners that averages far less than half the per capita spend on primary school children?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, since this Government came to power in 1997, we have committed more resources to prisoner education. In the current financial year, 97 million will be spent on education and training in prisons; next year, it will rise to 122 million; and the following year, it will rise to 137 million. Within that sum, 12 million per year will be set aside specifically for vocational training.

We recognise the problems; we inherited a very poor education service within the Prison Service. Having marshalled and brigaded education within the DfES as operator and provider of education services, we are now beginning to spend significant sums of money on improving the quality of education in the Prison Service.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, when I was on the Parole Board, the teachers involved in prison education programmes observed academic terms. As

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the Minister will realise, prisoners cannot observe academic terms; there are no holidays. Do the people involved in education programmes still observe academic terms similar to schools?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, prisoners are obviously a captive audience. An education service in prisons should be tailored to prisoners' needs. As the noble Lord has observed, prisoners are in prison throughout the year and do not observe academic terms in the same way as everyone else.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords—

Lord Elton: My Lords—

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My Lords, perhaps I may suggest that we hear from the Liberal Democrat Benches.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, how do we monitor purposeful activities in prison? Has the Minister checked the outcome of what happens when prisoners leave prison? Does he accept that more than 60 per cent of people leaving prison reoffend within two years, and that more than 80 per cent of young people reoffend within two years? What are prisons for? Are they serving the purpose of rehabilitation? Does the Minister accept that the high level of the prison population is counterproductive to purposeful activity in prison?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, clearly, overcrowding in prisons is an important issue. It is the job of the Government to ensure that good quality resources are set aside so that prisoners have options before them. We want to see an improving education service which ensures that when people are released they have good opportunities for seeking employment and can make much better use of their life chances.

Viscount Tenby: My Lords, what is the target in the Prison Service, in hours, for prisoners to receive education?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I do not have a figure for that target. But it is obviously an important objective to secure education within the Prison Service. I am happy to write to the noble Viscount with details on the numbers of hours spent on educational matters.

Lord Elton: My Lords, when the Minister writes to the noble Viscount, will he also write to my noble friend Lord Pilkington and answer his question about academic terms? When will any government recognise that continually spending more and more money on more and more prisoners in more and more prisons is absolute folly? We must rejig the system so that proper rehabilitative treatment is given and the prison

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population diminishes. The prison population could be reduced by spending money on children when they are at risk so that they do not become criminals.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord has not been following government policy. The Government have a record that is second to none in terms of spending money on providing and improving the quality of services for children and young people. That is generally widely acknowledged. Clearly, the noble Lord has not followed that particular plot. Of course, we would prefer to see a smaller prison population. But if people commit offences, are tried and are convicted, they should properly serve a prison sentence.

The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, does the Minister regard the activities organised in prisons by the very large number of voluntary groups drawn from the Churches and other faith communities as "purposeful activity"? If so, can he can give an assurance that attention will be paid to the effect of the downward pressure on staff numbers on the opportunities to arrange such activities, in particular during the evenings and at weekends?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, of course we recognise the important part played by religious organisations in our prisons. A wide range of activities is provided in most prisons and one might say that they do count as "purposeful activity" in terms of key performance indicators. We recognise, welcome and celebrate the role played by religious activities in our Prison Service.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, can the Minister comment on the fairly incredible increase in the percentage of women imprisoned over the past 10 years? Apparently the increase is 189 per cent.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it is regrettable that there has been an increase in the number of women in prison. My guess is that much of that rise is related to the increased use of drugs by young women in particular. It is my recollection that some 40 per cent of women in prisons have a history of drug misuse and abuse. No doubt that is a contributing factor to their being in prison.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that, as prisoner numbers rise, the first thing to go out of the window is purposeful activity, while the second thing to go out of the window is education? That is self-defeating because it means simply that more people will reoffend. Can my noble friend tell me what discussions he is holding with the Prison Service better to deliver both purposeful activity and education in our prisons?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I cannot agree with the two statements made by my noble friend. The most current figures I have indicate that the number of

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hours available per prisoner for purposeful activity is 23.3 hours per week, which is the same as it was in 1997–98. However, far more is being done. I outlined in my earlier responses to this Question the amount of money that the Government are now committing to prisoner education. Roughly speaking, that sum will have more than doubled during the lifetime of this Government. So there is a commitment and we have reorganised the provision of education within the Prison Service. A better quality of education is being delivered and it is beginning to have results, as I am sure my noble friend would appreciate if he visited some of those prisons which now have much improved library and IT facilities, and teaching dedicated to ensuring that prisoners are given the opportunity, when they leave prison, of getting better jobs—as a result of the better education service being provided in our prisons.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that some of us are getting rather tired of hearing about how much money this Government have spent? Some of us are much more interested in seeing the results of that spending.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord would like us to spend less money on education. However, my general impression is that noble Lords support spending on education in prisons and want to see an improved quality of prison education services because that is recognised as a way of ensuring that prisoners do not reoffend.

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