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Miss Widdecombe: Exactly.

Mr. Hughes: Before the right hon. Lady gets too carried away in agreeing with me, I point out that another test is how we treat asylum seekers and refugees. The real tests are the difficult issues and the difficult people, and we are currently failing those tests.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but sentencing is ultimately a matter for the courts. The courts are not constrained to send people to prison, save in exceptional circumstances. When they send people to prison they are reflecting public opinion. The real task, therefore, is to change public opinion.

Mr. Hughes: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is very knowledgeable and I accept his point. I remind him, however, that in opinion polls the public say that sentences should be tougher. However, all surveys show that members of the public grossly underestimate the length of sentences. Public opinion is based on an inaccurate understanding of the facts. If the public knew how long sentences are, they would not call for them to be longer.

I am sure that the public want a better system for reducing reoffending rates. Prison governors are agreed that it is a priority to have regimes within prisons that hugely reduce the chance of people reoffending when released. There are only two ways of doing that. The first is to have a good purposeful activity regime of sport, work, training or education. The second method is to prepare people effectively for release. I have not found a prison in the country--a local prison with other responsibilities--where the staff have not said, "We have no time to prepare short-term prisoners for release. They have no training. They come in and go out before we can do anything with them because we are concentrating on long-term prisoners." It is those short-term prisoners who reoffend most often: they burgle; they go into prison and come out again; they burgle again and go back to prison. We are

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failing many of the people whom we put in prison. Sentencing is a matter for the courts, but they hope that when people are in prison, something will happen to persuade them not to reoffend. Nothing happens to them. They are locked up and then sent out with no assistance.

Mr. Stinchcombe: The single greatest factor in determining whether someone is likely to reoffend on release is whether he has a stable family life to return to. The lack of that increases the chances of reoffending by as many as six times. In light of that, is the hon. Gentleman disappointed that 26,000 prisoners are still held more than 50 miles from the Crown court where they were committed?

Mr. Hughes: I am disappointed. The hon. Gentleman is right, and I saw those figures in the Lord Chief Justice's report. Many people have made the point that we must move towards having community prisons for all but the most high-risk offenders. The director general said that that was still a dream. It should not be a dream. [Interruption.] I say to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald that I know that it is a difficult matter. As a south-east of England Member, as she is, I know that there are many prisoners from the south-east, but not enough prisons in the region to cater for them, so they get dispersed throughout the country. None the less, we must try to ensure that prisoners are kept as close to home as possible.

People must not only be prepared for release, but supported after release. If a prisoner has a family, work, a home and support to prevent him from going back to drug and alcohol abuse, he is far more likely to get back on the straight and narrow rather than to get into the reoffending cycle.

My conclusion is that the Prison Service delivers no consistency of standard throughout the prison estate, as is clear from the chief inspector's report. There is a lack of resources. That situation may be improving, but it is still appalling. My hon. Friends and I think that automatic mandatory sentences are wrong, but if the prison population is to increase, the Government must provide resources not only to build prisons but to do the rehabilitative work in the prisons too.

We must seek answers on overcrowding. The Home Secretary did not give a single specific answer about that. The Lord Chief Justice's question, which was also posed by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) and others, asked what the Government will do to tackle overcrowding. When will they tackle the problem? Do the Government accept that it is the overwhelming priority, and will they give it the attention that the Lord Chief Justice called for? When will we have a full constructive activity regime over the 35-hour week? When will pre-release preparation be provided for every prisoner who is about to leave?

We all agree about the objectives, but we disagree on specific answers. The Minister said, sotto voce, that the Government must be congratulated on better working between the Prison Service and the health service. I congratulate them on that, but I fail to understand why the NHS cannot run the prison medical service. I have not met a single prison officer who does not agree with me

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about that. The Government have been weak about this for a reason that I do not understand. We need only an announcement that the national health service will take over running the prison medical service. It is not difficult because only one agreement is needed. The move would provide much better career prospects both for those working outside prisons and those inside them. A much better service would be provided for prisoners and prisoners' families in the prison estate.

In the sentencing review that is approaching, we must allow courts to be able to impose community sentences and licences and probation for two years, no matter how short the prison sentence is. At present, I believe that a short sentence cannot have a community condition attached to it. That is nonsensical. The sooner that is changed, the better. Greater flexibility will keep many more people outside prisons.

We must aim at more community prisons, and we must not be dogmatic about whether they are run by the public service or the private sector.

I say carefully, but equally strongly, that prison officers must be much more progressive in many cases and much less conservative. There are some very good prison officers but they are hardly the vanguard of reform of the Prison Officers Association. I may not be loved for saying this, but when Mrs. Tasker took over in Leeds, I believe that she found that the gym was not able to be used for much of the day because the officers would not manage the prisoners to use it. Workshops were lying idle for much of the day because officers would not manage movements in and out of them. When education facilities exist, but are not being used, it is nonsensical. Management, working with progressive leadership in the Prison Officers Association, must change the defensive regime and have innovative, constructive and maximum utilisation of the prison estate.

I hope that the Minister will give us targets for reducing the numbers of prisoners who should be imprisoned. I hope also that he will give us targets for achieving full and purposeful activity. In addition, I hope that he will answer the question posed by hon. Members on both sides of the House about when we shall have a real reduction in overcrowding. Liberal Democrat Members are sad that the Government appear to be accepting what I thought was a Tory view, not a Labour view, that there will be an ineluctable rise in the numbers of people in prison. We think that the numbers should not be increasing to the extent that the Government are predicting. If we try to keep as many people out of prison as we can rather than put more and more people into prison, it is likely that we shall be serving the public interest far better.

6.12 pm

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who speaks with authority given his experience of prisons in the south-east, especially Brixton. He has a liberal approach, which I would commend.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made some powerful points. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department also made some powerful points about the need for mental health prisoners not to be in prison. He spoke also of the problems of overcrowding and the

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need for the medical service in the Prison Service to be taken into the national health service. The right hon. Lady made some important and powerful comments about Brixton and Feltham, with which I could not disagree. These are scandals and there needs to be a public debate about them.

My experience of the Prison Service is restricted to my constituency, and that is as a visitor. I have visited Usk prison on about six occasions. I have also visited one or two constituents in other prisons. That is the limit of my knowledge of the subject.

I well remember the Woolf report, which made some important recommendations. One of the first times I visited Usk prison was soon after the Woolf report was published. It is a category C prison. Also in my constituency is the Prescoed young offender institution. Usk prison now contains mainly sex offenders. That follows the concentration of sex offenders after the Strangeways riots, including the riots in the 1980s.

As I have said, I have visited Usk prison about six times. A couple of years ago, I was there when His Royal Highness Prince Edward visited. I was, too, on another occasion, when Her Royal Highness Princess Anne visited. However, I also visited only three weeks ago, and that was prompted by three distinctions that the prison had achieved. I am grateful to the governor, Ray Coomber, for the invitation and for the opportunity to discuss matters with him.

The first distinction for the prison was to be awarded the Investors in People award. It is the second time that that has happened in Usk. I well remember meeting the prison officers who achieved the award only a few years ago. There is tremendous camaraderie among the prison officers and a great sense of humour. They say that everything we ever saw in "Porridge" can be confirmed by prison life.

Recently, Usk prison was awarded a charter mark. Most importantly, it had a successful inspection report. The inspection was undertaken between 13 and 17 March 2000. The inspector identified what he called the Welsh dimension. In Wales, we have four prisons--Usk, Cardiff, Swansea and the private Parc prison at Bridgend. One of the problems is that we do not have a prison in north Wales. Another is that we do not have a women's prison. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey have spoken of the importance of prisoners serving sentences as close as possible to where they live. Prisoners from north Wales, many of whom will be Welsh speaking, will have to go to prisons outside Wales.

The inspector commended Usk prison, saying:

that is, specialising in sex offender treatment programmes--

It is important that those other facilities be developed.

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Later on, the inspector said:

The Director General of the Prison Service, Martin Narey, commented on the report:

The sex offender treatment programme has developed significantly over the past few years. About three years ago, three members of the staff were specialising in the programme. There is now a section of about 11, consisting of psychologists, probation officers and prison officers who undergo specialist training.

Given what the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said about the progressive attitude of staff, it was interesting to listen to prison officers who described their attitudes when they first entered the service and how they have changed. They have become more progressive and more rehabilitative. They now realise, significantly, that offenders need not reoffend. They have an important role not only in punishing prisoners but in rehabilitating them for the society that they will invariably rejoin.

I remember one prison officer saying, "I was a hard-nosed screw when I came here." He is now involved in sex offender treatment programmes and other rehabilitation programmes.

I shall quote one of the prisoners who has gone through the sex offender treatment programme. It is called "Steve's Opinion", and the assessment is publicly available. It reads:

He concluded:

Nothing can condone what some offenders have committed. However, it is important that they have the opportunity to undertake sex offender rehabilitation programmes. I understand that the non-reoffending rate of prisoners who have gone through such a programme is 46 per cent. That is particularly significant, but it would be more significant if it was nearer 100 per cent. That programme needs to be developed throughout the whole Prison Service.

When I was last in Usk prison, I met prison officers and prisoners who go out to meet children and young people in schools and try to deter them from offending. I pay particular tribute to one prison officer, Ian Sandigate, whom I would describe as a rather rough-looking prop forward and someone who would frighten young people, but perhaps also a gentle giant. I also commend the prisoner whom I met; he is known as Mossy and he accompanies Mr. Sandigate on those visits. They work together and go to schools to give children and young

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people a realistic idea of what prison life is like. They will describe, not necessarily Usk prison, which may not be typical, but local bang-up prisons of which they have both had experience.

I saw the importance of the education and training programme at the new designated NVQ centre. Many prisoners at Usk are unlikely to get normal employment again, given their record. They are developing skills so that they can take up self-employment. I saw the information technology provision and the literacy programme, which is being organised through Coleg Gwent, the local further education college. I saw the IT facilities: the prisoners have much better IT facilities than the staff who are working on administrative affairs at the prison, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will look into that. I visited the farm, and saw the work that some prisoners are doing there. They are developing skills through the woodland strategy, which encourages them to understand woodland nature and to develop their own businesses in sustainable wood production.

In conclusion, the director general's recent report and speech were particularly significant. I hope that Usk prison will be regarded as a model for the country to follow. I accept that the nature of the prisoners there may make it distinctive, but it is important that the Prison Service gets the balance right to protect the public, provide punishment, provide disincentives to crimes that require that people go to prison, and rehabilitate people for the society to which they will return.

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