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9. Mr. Win Griffiths: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many prisons or designated prison sites he has visited to discuss the provision of accommodation in the last year. [13857]

Miss Widdecombe: Since 1 January 1995, my right hon. and learned Friend has visited six prison establishments in England and Wales. I have visited 28 prisons since July 1995. In the course of those visits we discussed a range of issues affecting the Prison Service, including the provision of accommodation.

Mr. Griffiths: Did the Minister and the Secretary of State discuss with prison governors and other prison staff the increase in overcrowding since 1992? I understand that there are now more people crowded into single-prisoner cells than there were in 1992-93. In the prison planned for Bridgend in my constituency, will special care be taken to set strict limits on additional prisoners above the planned numbers--unless some of her right hon. Friends find their way there following the publication of the Scott report?

Miss Widdecombe: The hon. Gentleman might have carried more conviction had he got his facts right. Far from increasing since 1992, overcrowding has decreased substantially. There has been no trebling whatever in cells designed for one since March 1994. We have completely eliminated the use of police cells and the incidence of two prisoners occupying cells that are designed for one has decreased from 21 per cent. to 17 per cent. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman does his homework before he comes to the House.

Mr. Hawkins: Will my hon. Friend confirm that much prison accommodation is occupied by those convicted of serious shoplifting offences? Does she agree that, whereas the Government provided a citizens charter, the Labour party clearly propose a shoplifters charter. Have we not had the clearest demonstration that my right hon. Friend was right to say that the Labour party is the villain's friend?

Miss Widdecombe: The Labour party's definition of villainy is for a thief to be putting a treat in his or her pocket. What message is the Leader of the Opposition sending to children throughout the country--that it is all right for Mummy to go shoplifting?

Mr. Alex Carlile: Can the Minister confirm that the Home Secretary's new sentencing policies are likely to lead to an increase of about £1 billion in the cost of the prison building programme? If that is not correct, will she give us an up-to-date estimate of the extra cost of those policies?

Miss Widdecombe: The hon. and learned Gentleman will have to wait for the White Paper to find out more about those policies, but clearly we shall take into account the impact on both the prison population and the prison budget of our sentencing proposals and we shall make sure that the sentencing proposals and those other requirements are properly matched in whatever phasing we introduce. The hon. and learned Gentleman knows

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very well that he cannot get us to anticipate the White Paper now, but he needs telling firmly that we are aware of the problem and we shall find solutions to it. His party offers no solutions to crime, to prison or anything, other than the usual story of softness on prisoners.

Lady Olga Maitland: What progress can my hon. Friend report on the building of the secure training centres? Is she aware that youth courts are increasingly frustrated about their inability to put young persistent offenders into secure accommodation, so that they have to go back into the community and may offend again. Frankly, society is fed up.

Miss Widdecombe: My hon. Friend is quite right that society expects us to provide sufficient accommodation to take out of circulation those of whatever age who commit crimes. That is why we have had the single biggest prison building programme this century; that is why we have six new prisons planned; that is why we have sufficient accommodation to meet our proposals. That is why, as I told the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), we shall make sure that the prisons are there for those who ought to be in them. That is the policy that the British public want to hear. They do not want to hear about how we shall praise and release shoplifters.

Mr. George Howarth: Is the Minister aware that the Director General of the Prison Service and senior members of his staff appeared before the Public Accounts Committee yesterday and confirmed what we have known for some time: that Prison Service finances are in complete chaos? Is not the Home Secretary's announcement earlier this week that he is seeking alternatives to imprisonment for fine defaulters--interesting though that proposal may be--a reflection of that chaos and of the growing problem of offenders continually entering the prison system? Is the Home Secretary's announcement an indication that he is going soft on crime?

Miss Widdecombe: The only chaos in the Prison Service exists in the heads and the minds of Labour Members. As the National Audit Office recognised, the Prison Service has taken steps to correct what was wrong in the past. It has introduced rigorous new measures and increased the number of staff accordingly in order to attack the problem. It is putting much right at an exemplary pace.

It is typical of the Opposition that they cannot welcome that fact or pay tribute to or thank the very hard-working Prison Service management and staff for all that they have achieved. Labour Members simply pour scorn on what the National Audit Office has acknowledged are strenuous efforts to put things right. The hon. Gentleman should stop proclaiming gloom and doom and start recognising the achievements of the Prison Service and praising the very hard-working staff. If he does that, perhaps the Prison Service may have more confidence in the hon. Gentleman--because it has none at present.

Thames Valley Police

10. Mr. Butler: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what progress Thames Valley police

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has made with civilianisation since 1979; and how many police officers have become available for operational duties as a result. [13859]

Mr. Maclean: Information from 1979 is not available. Since 1985, civilianisation of posts has released 152 police officers for operational duties, to add to the 1,100 extra police officers recruited by Thames Valley police since 1979.

Mr. Butler: Does my right hon. Friend accept that that success in putting policemen back on the streets to fight crime is greatly welcomed by my constituents and others? On top of that, there is the welcome news that 30 additional police officers will be recruited to the Milton Keynes force this year. [Hon. Members: "Reading".] I am not ashamed of being able to read: I recommend it to Labour Members below the Gangway. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the 17,000 additional civilians recruited since 1979--not just to replace policemen, but to improve efficiency in the Thames Valley--is a record of which we can be truly and rightly proud?

Mr. Maclean: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that since 1979 not only have we recruited an extra 17,000 civilians to relieve the load on police officers, but we have recruited 15,300 extra police officers. We had to recruit 7,500 of those officers in the first few years of Government because the Labour Government ran down the police force. Under the last Labour Government, the police force was 8,500 officers under strength: that is the record of the Labour party's care for the police force.

Mr. Straw: We have just heard another example of the Conservative lie machine. Will the Minister confirm that, under the last Labour Government, there was an average increase in police strength of 500 officers per year? That compares with an increase of just 300 per year since 1979.

As to the Thames Valley, does the Minister understand that no one in that area--least of all the police--will accept the complacent nonsense that we have heard from him and from his hon. Friend this afternoon? Does he not understand that in the Thames Valley area villainy has flourished in the past 15 years? Crime has increased by 150 per cent. and convictions have decreased by 33 per cent. Is it not true that, under the Conservatives, there is much more crime in the Thames valley and elsewhere and many more people who are getting away with it?

Mr. Maclean: I am delighted that, after half an hour of questions, we have finally managed to provoke the hon. Gentleman to get to his feet. If he is concerned about too many people getting away with it, why did he vote against all the measures that the Conservative party introduced in the 1980s to prevent people getting away with it? Why did he vote against giving the Attorney-General the power to review lenient sentences, and why did he try to pull the teeth out of the policy on secure training centres?

The hon. Gentleman is worried about people getting away with it in the past. How many will get away with it in the future because the Leader of the Opposition does not believe in prosecuting criminals who steal from shops? Rather, he regards it as perfectly okay, because they are just putting a treat in their pockets.

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Prisoner Transfers

11. Mr. Pike: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many requests for transfer of prisoners from one prison to another the Prison Service dealt with in the last 12 months. [13860]

Hon. Members: Again, again.

Miss Widdecombe: Yes, I shall say it again and again until the Opposition get used to it.

The Prison Service deals with requests for transfers on a regular basis. The majority of such requests are dealt with locally and detailed records and statistics are not held centrally.

Mr. Pike: The Minister will recognise that the Prison Service believes that it is beneficial to prisoners and to the running of prisons to have prisoners near their families so that they can visit. What facilities does the Prison Service have to try to ensure that that is done wherever possible, given that, in many cases, the prisoners' families are totally innocent people?

Miss Widdecombe: The Prison Service has a very clear objective, which is--as far as possible--to keep prisoners near their families, but it has to take into account the security classification of the prisoner, available space and sundry other considerations. Nevertheless, the Prison Service's objective is that which the hon. Gentleman rightly described as important.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: Will my hon. Friend accept that she is very unlikely to get any requests for transfers from Lancaster Farms young offenders institution, because it has cracked the problem of bullying? Instead of isolating the person who is bullied, thus depriving him of privileges, it isolates the bully, depriving him of privileges. That has had a magical effect on bullying and people from all over the world come to learn about it. It is also one of the reasons why the prison got an excellent report from prison inspectors. Will my hon. Friend congratulate the prison?

Miss Widdecombe: I have pleasure in congratulating Lancaster Farms. I can confirm what my hon. Friend has said--its anti-bullying strategy has provoked national and international interest.

I also congratulate the Prison Service in general on the emphasis that it has put on anti-bullying strategies and on the success of many such strategies, often with completely different characteristics, in various prisons.

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