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Miss Widdecombe: The right hon. Gentleman has changed his mind.

Mr. Straw: As John Maynard Keynes famously said, "If circumstances change, I change. What do you do?" I confess; I have been informed by the facts. I plead guilty to that.

Miss Widdecombe: In two weeks.

Mr. Straw: It was not in two weeks. I spoke to the Bourne trust in 1995. [Interruption.] Of course I remember it; I remember a great deal. I was there, and my recollection is accurate. We shall come on to that later.

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I changed my mind not least because, in March 1997, there was a unanimous report from the Select Committee on Home Affairs--involving Labour and Conservative Members--which provided a glowing endorsement of the conduct of private sector prisons.

Miss Widdecombe: I am very interested in this chronology; it is fascinating stuff. March 1997 was two months before a general election. If the Home Secretary had changed his mind then, did he make sure that people knew that he had had that change of mind before the general election? Local POAs were telling me that they were still being assured as late as March that prisons would no longer be privatised and that no further contracts would be let by the Government.

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Lady is quite right to ask me about that, because my speech in October 1995 was rehashed in "Gatelodge". I am sorry that it was, but these things sometimes happen in the swirl of an election campaign.

Miss Widdecombe: So he did not tell the electorate.

Mr. Straw: The electorate were told, as a matter of fact. I certainly did not dine out on the issue during the 1997 election. I can give the right hon. Lady more details about the provenance of the "Gatelodge" article, which I do not think was persuasive one way or the other in the election. We did say that we wanted a mixed economy in which both the public and private sectors could flourish. We did not want the one-way street that she proposed, involving transfers from the public to the private sector only. We wanted a two-way street where increasingly the public sector would be challenged by the private sector, but where it too could challenge the private sector. That has happened in respect of Buckley Hall, Blakenhurst and Manchester, where the public sector continues to run the prisons but with clear arm's-length agreements.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): This is a serious issue. In March 1997, the Home Secretary had changed his mind on whether the private sector should be involved in running prisons. However, he allowed the POA--the vital sectoral interest whose members might change their vote depending on the policies of the particular parties--to labour under the illusion that he was still in favour of the public sector running prisons. That is an example of how the Labour party has run all its policies.

Mr. Straw: I do not think it is quite as significant as the hon. Gentleman suggests. I have already explained that the speech I made in 1995 was rehashed into an article in early 1997. I do not think that people were misled in the way he suggests. I have been as open as I can about the provenance of that, and about the fact that, yes, I have changed my mind.

Miss Widdecombe: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: I hope that the right hon. Lady will tell us whether she will commit her party to the same levels of spending. She is very welcome to ask me two questions, and I look forward to her intervention.

Miss Widdecombe: We will spend what is necessary to supply the prison places.

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May I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the substance of the point that we are discussing, rather than what he may or may not have said before the last election? He has decided to bring both Blakenhurst and Buckley Hall, which have had favourable reports and are generally recognised as excellent, back into public sector control. Will he acknowledge that the private sector has a built-in guarantee of delivery in that if delivery does not take place there is a financial penalty in the contract, whereas there is no such penalty in any public sector contract?

Secondly, and more important, if the public sector can do a better job of running two excellent prisons than the private sector which created the excellence, why is not the public sector doing that in its own prisons? Why did the right hon. Gentleman not accept that bid and say to the public sector, "If that's what you can do, go and do it for one of the miserably failing prisons in the public sector"?

Mr. Straw: That is exactly what we are doing. There has been a service level agreement in Manchester, and we are seeking to roll that out in other prisons. Having SLAs and clear arm's-length relationships, with the people in the prison being on the line when it comes to delivery, is a very sensible approach for the public as well as the private sector.

The competition for Buckley Hall and Blakenhurst was won fair and square. I am responsible for the decision, but it was made, quite properly, by the director general, as accounting officer. There are necessarily some differences between the public and private sectors because the public sector cannot go bust. However, so far as possible, we have ensured that the same disciplines will apply to the team running the Buckley Hall and Blakenhurst public sector arrangements as apply to the private sector.

I note that again the right hon. Lady was silent on whether the Opposition will match our promises in respect of money.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: In the earlier exchanges, my right hon. Friend may have missed the shadow Home Secretary saying, "We will spend what is necessary to supply the prison places." Does my right hon. Friend read into that a substantial commitment to additional expenditure that has hitherto not been admitted in the House of Commons?

Mr. Straw: If it means anything at all, it means a lot more money, especially as the right hon. Lady seemed to imply that she would seek to eliminate overcrowding and a great deal more.

Let me deal briefly with overcrowding, health care, prevention of reoffending, suicide, race relations, young offenders and prison industries.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman about finance and resources before he moves on to other important matters.

The Library tells me that Prison Service expenditure from 1991-92 to 1999-2000 has risen from £1,462 million to £1,846 million. That is a 2 per cent. increase in real terms over nine years. In the same period, the prison population has gone up by 40 per cent. Are the Government prepared to make a commitment that, if re-elected, spend on the Prison Service will catch up with

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what has fallen away and will keep pace with any increase in prison numbers that the Home Secretary appears to anticipate?

Mr. Straw: One point on which I entirely agreed with the previous Administration was that the Prison Service was capable both of increasing performance and cutting unit costs. There was substantial waste, and we have continued to cut it. The figures given by the hon. Gentleman are correct, but they would have been lower if we had not had to put in additional resources--£60 million and £112 million--for 1997-98 and 1998-99. I have already explained that the further three years of the comprehensive spending review involve a substantial increase, and that will provide, among other improvements, an additional 2,660 places.

We expect prisons to produce efficiencies, and I see nothing wrong with that. What was appalling about the pre-Woolf system was that it was both costly and poor. The increase in resources provided by the present Administration, particularly since the first comprehensive spending review for 1998-99, has been more satisfactory. I have sought to ensure that there are more resources. Numbers have risen, but at the same time all sorts of practices have improved.

I shall deal with a few more points briefly in the knowledge that many hon. Members want to get into the debate. On overcrowding, nearly 30 per cent. of prisoners in 1990-91 were held two or three to a cell. That figure has fallen to 16.9 per cent., which compares with a target of 18 per cent.

Some slopping out has been brought back, and that affects 123 prisoners at present. That differs from the arrangements that existed in 1990-91, however, because all those prisoners are able to obtain manual unlocking of their cells, so that they have 24-hour access, except if there is an emergency on their wing, to sanitation outside their cells.

Miss Widdecombe: On overcrowding, the right hon. Gentleman said proudly that the figure for putting two prisoners in a cell designed for one had fallen to 17.2 per cent., whereas the target was 18 per cent. Will he acknowledge that the figure that he inherited was 15.5 per cent., and that there has, therefore, been some deterioration?

Mr. Straw: I cannot remember the exact figure--

Miss Widdecombe: It was 15.5 per cent.

Mr. Straw: If the right hon. Lady will hang on a moment, she will find that I am perfectly ready to accept her figures. There has been some downward change, and I regret it. However, that change has been in the context of a rising prison population. We have increased the numbers, but if the right hon. Lady wants to make a political point--

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