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Miss Widdecombe: The right hon. Gentleman is being very slightly tendentious--I suppose I am not allowed to say "tendentious" in the House, but I think that he is. If he looked at the whole of that speech, he would find that I paid tribute to the immense progress that the service had made, that I was talking about one very confined period, not the five years that followed the Woolf report, and that I specifically said that, in those five years, we had made massive progress. I said that that was due both to the Government and to the Prison Service. The right hon. Gentleman should read the whole speech.

Mr. Straw: The speech is rather too long to read it now, but I always do the right hon. Lady the courtesy of reading her speeches. It so happens that there were indeed

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other parts where she talked about the achievements of the Prison Service. I also remember that she criticised us, probably fairly, for trying to take away from the achievements of the Prison Service during that period. The simple fact is that she went through one or two things in her speech on 19 May 1997, but she reserved her strongest prose, her greatest condemnation, not just for her right hon. and learned Friend, as it were, the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), her boss and the previous Home Secretary, but for the previous Government as a whole. She did not say, "We shattered its morale" with any qualification.

There had been some achievements following the publication of the Woolf report. I am perfectly prepared--indeed, it was in my text before I knew what the right hon. Lady was going to say--to put those achievements on the record, but the other truth is that, thanks to the way in which she and the right hon. and learned Gentleman sought to run the Prison Service, morale was indeed shattered, the system was not working effectively and there was no proper ministerial responsibility or accountability for the service.

Moreover, the right hon. Lady had agreed to a budget for 1997-98 and for 1998-99 that was so tight it would have led to catastrophe, had I not been able to persuade my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer very shortly after coming into office, following an agreement in the manifesto that we would audit the resources available to the Prison Service before sticking to the previous Government's spending limit, that there should first be a £60 million uplift in 1997-98 and a further uplift, covering two years, of £112 million.

The point that the director general made in his speech last week at the Prison Service conference is one that I have also made on a number of occasions and that, in her wiser moments--I am sorry that there were not any in the speech that she has just made--the right hon. Lady recognises: with the Prison Service, as with any other public sector institution and large private sector institution, we can put the same resources into establishments, establishments can deal with the same people and can have the same number of managers, yet they produce very variable performance.

In the middle 1980s, the previous Administration drew stark attention to that fact in relation to the performance of schools. Something that I did support in opposition was the introduction of a national curriculum and of testing because it was important to ensure that similar schools performed in a similar way. Indeed, when I was at the Inner London education authority, we did some research to draw that out. That should not be a matter of argument between the parties. The issue of raising the standards of all prisons in similar categories, first to the level of the average and then to the level of the best, is a central part of the strategy of the director general, which the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), and I have endorsed.

The right hon. Lady mentioned various adverse reports by the chief inspector. I have a few comments on that, the first of which is that she forgot entirely to mention that, when I became Secretary of State, I found on my desk a pile of about a dozen reports from the chief inspector--some of which, as I recall, were well over one year old. Although I do not necessarily say that she was responsible for that, it is interesting that she said nothing at all about

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it today. The reports had simply been shelved. They apparently conveyed embarrassing information and were shelved.

Miss Widdecombe: What has the right hon. Gentleman been doing for four years?

Mr. Straw: Almost my very first action on taking office was to say that a protocol would have to be agreed and announced between the chief inspector of prisons, the director general and me. It provided that, in very short order, report drafts would be submitted for factual accuracy to be checked; would go back to the chief inspector; and--unless there was a major argument on factual accuracy, not on the chief inspector's comments--would be published. If there was disagreement on factual accuracy, the draft would come back to me. I am pleased to say that that protocol has been very successful and we have ensured that reports are published.

Miss Widdecombe: What have the Government done?

Mr. Straw: Our first action has been to ensure that reports are published as quickly as possible. If reports were treated now as they were when the right hon. Lady was the prisons Minister, the public and Parliament would never know about bad prison conditions. The first thing that we have done is to shine light on those establishments, which the previous Administration refused to do.

Secondly, where there have been adverse reports, we have sought rapid improvements. As the director general said in his speech last week, there have been improvements at Wormwood Scrubs, Wandsworth, Brixton, Portland and Leeds. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, the director general and I were the first to say that, yes, change was too long a-coming at Brixton. Consequently, we said that that establishment would have to be market-tested. However, we have done more than that.

Although I have publicly expressed my gratitude to the chief inspector for his reports on individual prisons and for his thematic reports, it became clear to us that we needed more than just those reports to ensure a continuous stream of information on the relative performance of establishments. That is being dealt with by implementation of the recommendations of Lord Laming's inquiry, which were published in July 2000. He has established that by laying the foundations for improving standards systematically and routinely, identifying under-performing prisons much earlier, and ensuring that robust remedial action is taken, there will, we hope, be fewer adverse reports from the chief inspector.

I have already given the House details of the additional funds that we have provided over and above those provided by the previous Administration for 1997-98 and 1998-99. There were additional funds in the comprehensive spending review that was announced in 1998 and came into force at the beginning of 1999. For the three-year comprehensive spending review period that starts at the beginning of March 2001, we are providing an extra £689 million, with a 7 per cent. cash-terms increase for 2001-02 alone.

The settlement will allow the service to increase capacity to cope safely with the expected prison population, which includes more than 2,500 extra places;

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to upgrade health care centres; to enhance security; to maintain the very good record on escapes; and, significantly, to increase drug programmes and other regimes to reduce reoffending. In return, the service is signed up to challenging new targets on regime delivery.

Among the right hon. Lady's non-answers to interventions by Labour Members, I noticed her very long non-answer to the question on whether she was committing the Opposition at least to maintaining the Government's planned spending. In all the ever-changing commitments from the shadow Chancellor, that question has never been answered. As the right hon. Lady knows, however, I am always happy to give way to her on this, or any other, issue.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng): Does the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) have the answer?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is much more likely to have the answer, not least because he is a good friend of the shadow Chancellor. Whether the right hon. Lady is such a friend is open to doubt; it is a moot point.

The right hon. Lady failed to mention that industrial relations were continually bedevilled inside the Prison Service by almost institutionalised conflict. I have worked hard to ensure that there is a new climate. That has required me--forcefully, at the beginning of my period in office--to make it clear to the Prison Officers Association that I considered there was no place within the Prison Service for industrial action. I am not talking only about strikes, but about other industrial action. On one or two occasions, that led me to seek injunctive action in the courts against the POA.

We have moved on from there, and I am grateful to the leaders of the POA for their constructive approach. I am glad to say that last week I announced the creation of a new pay review body for prison governors and officers, which will be chaired by Sir Toby Frere. I fully expect this to lead to improvements in staff performance, and in response the POA has made a voluntary commitment never again to take industrial action.

The right hon. Lady quite rightly tweaked me about my remarks in opposition about the idea of private prisons. I confess that I did not like the idea when it was first put forward. I thought there was a danger that profit would be put above the care of prisoners.

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