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Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Hear, hear.

Miss Widdecombe: I am so grateful.

This might not be the most fashionable of political subjects, but it is clear that whether time in prison is spent purposefully or in idleness has a massive influence on whether, after release, prisoners become useful members of society or simply continue their pattern of offending behaviour. Education, drug treatment and, most importantly perhaps, the opportunity to develop workplace skills and a regular routine in life should be regarded as essential elements of our prison regimes. It is therefore regrettable that the Government have again failed to take the opportunity given by the Gracious Speech to take any action to provide access to purposeful work for all prisoners. Many of our prisons have, I regret to say, been exposed as places of squalor and neglect, where prisoners are allowed to rot in idleness in an atmosphere where bullying and intimidation are rife.

Only last week, the outgoing chief inspector of prisons criticised the way in which the Government have increasingly sidelined his role and ignored his condemnation of poor conditions in many of our inner-city prisons and young offenders institutions. I hope that the Home Secretary will make the commitment to preserve the independence of the chief inspector's role. Despite the lack of any reference to prisons in the Gracious Speech, I hope that he will commit the Government to ensuring that our prisons are not allowed to decline further into places of idleness, neglect and intimidation.

The Home Secretary must take action to ensure that all prisoners are given the opportunity to use their time inside purposefully. His predecessor dismissed such ambitions

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as impractical, but the Home Secretary can realise just how practical and effective they are by considering what has happened not only in other countries but here; for example, the arrangements put in place at HMP Coldingley in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). Such measures will have an important effect on the chances of criminals deciding to turn their back on a life of crime and to live a law-abiding life after release.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): The intimidation and thuggery that the right hon. Lady mentioned undoubtedly goes on in many prisons and in young offenders institutions, where only recently someone committed suicide after intensive bullying. Is she aware that many of us, certainly those of us who served on the Home Affairs Committee and hope to do so again in this Parliament, believe that the new chief inspector of prisons should be no less rigorous than her predecessor? Perhaps I am in a minority, but I have many reservations about the fact that the outgoing chief inspector's contract was not renewed.

Miss Widdecombe: I do not wholeheartedly share those reservations, but I agree that the chief inspector's independence must be guaranteed, which is why I have made an issue of it. I hope that the new chief inspector will be as rigorous as her predecessor, if not more so.

Another issue that still requires attention is how our asylum system treats those who are fleeing persecution. It is therefore regrettable that once again the Gracious Speech contains no proposals for legislation to reform the current system. Last Friday, in a press release, the Home Secretary expressed his desire for an asylum system that would ensure that asylum seekers were treated with respect while cases were being processed, and

However, it is clear that we are still far from having an asylum system that delivers that.

In addition, we now have confusion about just how many failed asylum seekers are being returned to their country of origin. Only yesterday it emerged that the Government are deliberately manipulating--I use a neutral word--the figures to exaggerate the success of their policies. In future, dependants will be included in the figures for failed asylum applicants leaving the country, but the figures for those applying for asylum will continue to include only the head of the family. The arrival of an asylum seeker with six dependants is classified as one application, but when he is removed, that is classified as seven removals. Previously, both figures were compiled on exactly the same basis.

The change in Home Office recording of asylum figures has never been fully explained to Parliament, and the Home Office is so desperate to cover its embarrassment that last night, a spokesman made the extraordinary claim that there was no attempt to conceal the new method of calculation as it had been published on the Treasury website. No doubt they were concealed in a section that received even fewer hits than the Deputy Prime Minister managed to get in during the election campaign. Perhaps we can expect an assessment of the Chancellor's five economic tests, news of the number of foot and mouth cases or notices of changes in the social security regulations to appear on the Home Office website in coming months.

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The Government's action, of course, will have the effect of inflating the number of removals and depressing the number of arrivals. We are just days into the new Parliament, and the Government have yet again been exposed as more concerned with spin and fiddling figures than with dealing with an asylum system that is grossly unfair to genuine refugees. On present evidence, the Government's action can be described only as blatant fiddling and deception. I challenge the Home Secretary to provide an explanation.

The Home Office's latest asylum statistics--if they have not been fiddled too--show that applications are still rising, and that those who appeal against a negative decision must face a growing backlog, especially in the appeals system, and massive delays. It is still the case that genuine asylum seekers, having fled here from real persecution, must struggle with a cruel and random system, and that people whose asylum cases have been rejected do not leave the country.

Only this month, a report by the immigration service union said that more than 130,000 people found not to be eligible for refugee status had vanished without trace to live and work illegally in this country. The head of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate at the Home Office has been forced to admit that the number of people who have gone missing is "very substantial".

There is nothing fair about that, and neither is it fair when genuine refugees have to face months of uncertainty while they wait for a decision on their asylum application or appeal. It is also clear that a system that is leading to a growing underclass of illegal and often exploited workers is not working in anyone's interests. However, despite the clear failings of the present system, and the Home Secretary's alleged desire--as extensively reported in The Sun--to address the failings of the asylum system, the Government have signalled that they have no intention of doing so. I hope that they will change their minds.

I have spoken about a number of important matters, but there is nothing more important than protecting the public. As I travel around the country I see, all too frequently, the results of the Government's failure to deliver. They have failed to deliver for the people of Britain and for our public servants, and they have failed to deliver what they promised.

Politicians may trade statistics, but people rely on their own experience. There are not many who think that things have got better. Not only has there been a failure of delivery, but all too often there has been a failure of common sense. Surely the victim's rights must prevail over the criminal's, rather than the other way around. Surely compensation payouts should be commensurate with suffering, rather than dictated by political correctness.

What is the sense in a system that grants compensation of a few thousand pounds when a breadwinner is lost, when hundreds of thousands of pounds are given to people whose feelings are hurt at work? Parents who try to restrain their children find themselves on the wrong end of the law. Citizens who try to defend themselves or scare off villains should not have to fear the law, but should expect to be protected by it. Citizens who go to another's aid should expect congratulations, not prosecution.

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The system should be on the side of the law abiding. It also needs to have a sense of proportionality. The law should not be deployed against a parent who stops his child going out to prevent her from seeing drug dealers. A system that cannot cope with significant crime should not be invoked to deal with childish spats. When a judge gives a thief back the vehicle that he has stolen and orders the police to pay damages for depriving him of its use, we are living in an "Alice in Wonderland" world. When prisoners sentenced to six months are released in just six weeks, we have to wonder what even that world is coming to.

It is not surprising, therefore, that today there is a failure of confidence in the police, who are no longer visible in problem estates or rural villages. There is a failure of confidence in the law, which needs to be on the side of the victim, not the criminal, and there is a failure of confidence in politicians, whose duty it is to ensure that the law protects its citizens but who instead hide behind statistics and increasingly unbelievable promises.

Conservative Members have always believed in a smaller state and that people should be able to keep more of what they earn. However, there is a balance to be struck. There is no good in making a god out of reductions in public spending at the expense of quality of life. When we wanted to promote home ownership and encourage people to take a stake in society, we undertook an enormous loss to the Exchequer through substantial relief on mortgages. The result was that we increased people's quality of life and, in the long term, there were savings as people took responsibility for their homes and for maintaining them.

When we wanted to improve the quality of retirement, we used tax reliefs to encourage people to make their own pension provision. The result was that we improved the quality of people's retirement and, in the long term, brought savings to the Exchequer because people shared the costs of their old age.

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