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20 Nov 2001 : Column 52WH

Prisoner Rehabilitation

1 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): It is a pleasure to be here in Westminster Hall, Mr. Winterton. This is my first time. As someone who has come blinking into the sunlight from the Whips Office, I am once again participating as a full Member. I look forward to your gentle guidance as I stumble through the procedures. I sent the Minister a copy of my speech yesterday to try to be helpful. It is also available on my website and through e-mail at Essentially, there are three points that I should like to make. I shall make them very briefly so that the Minister can have as much time as she wishes to put her views on the record.

First, I should like the Government to outline the state of play with regard to the rehabilitation of prisoners and their proposals to improve rehabilitation. My second point, which I have already raised with the Minister, is about personal rehabilitation plans for each prisoner. The Prime Minister outlined several months ago that the hard core of recidivist prisoners have three things in common. First, they have a problem with literacy and numeracy. Secondly, they have a high propensity to drug problems. Thirdly, they have problems in their family background.

I should like the Minister to consider seriously introducing a personal prisoner plan for most prisoners—it probably would not apply to all—in which they would be set targets that they would be helped to meet. They could thus become more literate and more aware of the problems of drug abuse, and could develop the personal and emotional skills to allow them to re-enter society and not to go back into prison. Prison does not work. The statistics make that clear. Our exploding prison population gives eloquent testimony to that.

Finally, I should like to refer to a scheme that does not take place in prison but which helps those who are trying to reduce prison numbers, and that is the youth offender panels. Youth offender panels have been an immense success in Nottinghamshire. I shall explain the scheme briefly. The panel consists of volunteers from the community. They meet offenders in the 10-17 age group who have pleaded guilty. The offenders bring along their parents and the victim is present. They are challenged by the volunteers about their behaviour and what they intend to do to become better citizens, so they do not need better rehabilitation in prison because they do not get to prison.

The Nottinghamshire scheme is important and I hope that it has come to my hon. Friend's attention. I would like to praise it publicly in Parliament and also, if I may, ask that people who listen to this debate participate in this valuable scheme, which helps to get young people back on the rails before they end up in prison needing expensive and serious rehabilitation.

With those brief remarks, I will leave as much time as possible to my hon. Friend the Minister. If it is appropriate and acceptable, I may intervene on occasions. Incidentally, I do not expect her to go all the way to half-past 1 if she has not been given an enormous brief to take her there.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I believe that this is the first time that I have been in the Chair in

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Westminster Hall when a Member who has raised an important subject has spoken so briefly and sent his speech to the Minister prior to the debate. I can only express hope on behalf of the hon. Gentleman that the Minister will deal with the matter fully, in detail and to the hon. Gentleman's satisfaction.

1.05 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle): We have seen another aspect of the evolution of Parliament in the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) introduced the debate. I thank him for giving me notice of the issues that he wanted to raise. I hope that his speech will appear in its entirety on his website, because I have just been told that the Parliamentary Data and Video Network is down and in total chaos. Equipment updates are causing it problems, and I hope that his speech will be restored to the web quickly, as well as our electronic services, which we desperately need.

The hon. Gentleman has got to the nub of the question of reducing reoffending and trying to turn the tide of increases in our prison population in past years. I am not one of those Ministers who thinks that a rising prison population is a cause for great rejoicing. Some Home Office Ministers may have thought that in the past, but I hope they do not return in the future. Clearly, we must do what we can to battle crime and ensure that those who perpetrate it are appropriately punished. The public must be protected from those who pose a danger to the society that we cherish. However, if we want to get crime rates down and have a long-standing effect, we must reduce reoffending. We must put a lot of work into rehabilitation, so that we get people, especially younger people, off the path on to which they have stumbled before they damage themselves, their families and society as a whole.

Clearly, prison has a role in rehabilitation. We want to give people the skills and motivation to rebuild their lives, so that they do not reoffend. The Prison Service, the national probation service and other groups are working hard to achieve that. They share a target of reducing the reconviction rate of those serving custodial or community sentences by 5 per cent. by April 2004 compared with the predicted rate. A substantial agenda of joint work is in hand to achieve the target, and my hon. Friend mentioned the areas on which we must focus—basic skills, drug addiction and offending behaviour. Offending behaviour may result from rage, or an inability to express anger or violence in childhood. There may be many reasons for such socially unacceptable behaviour.

We do not underestimate the problems, and we must concentrate on the hard core of people who keep reoffending. Like my hon. Friend, I praise the Nottinghamshire youth offender panel. It has been a pioneer in the establishment of a central feature of our youth justice reforms. Juvenile offenders who appear in the youth court for the first time and plead guilty can be referred to a youth offender panel comprising trained volunteers from the local community and the local youth offending team.

The panel agrees a contract with the young person, perhaps providing some structure in their lives for the first time. The contract often involves reparation to the

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victim or the community for the offence. Other activities may be specified that address the offending behaviour and associated factors. If young offenders do not follow the contract, they can be returned to court for resentencing. The Nottingham project piloted and pioneered this highly successful approach. Because of its success across England and Wales, we intend to implement youth offender panels in April 2002.

I visited the youth offending teams in my own constituency and met some of the mentors. Young offenders, often for the first time in their lives, have someone who is not from officialdom or from their family who is interested in them and able to provide support and guidance as they struggle to come to terms with the change in their lives.

Mr. Allen : People in Nottinghamshire and the east midlands will be pleased to hear the Minister's strong encouragement of youth offender panels. It is often the last chance for 10 to 17-year-olds to break away from a path that leads inevitably to prison. As an aside, the volunteers on youth offender panels who help to tackle these young people's problems and get them back on the straight and narrow are the motivators, the mentors and the gold dust without whom the schemes cannot work. I hope that people reading the debate will reflect on whether they could spend some of their precious time helping out on youth offender panels, which would help young people not just in Nottingham, but throughout the UK.

Angela Eagle : I agree with those sentiments. I was struck by the degree of satisfaction enjoyed by individuals who agree to mentor young offenders. When it works, it is extraordinarily rewarding, so I would encourage those who feel that they have a contribution to make to get in touch with their local youth offending teams to offer their support.

I should like to deal with the scale of the problem of the social exclusion of offenders, to which my hon. Friend referred in his opening remarks. The figures show that one key aspect of effective resettlement that can make reoffending less likely is getting individuals back into jobs and into stable housing conditions. That is often difficult when people leave prison. It is less easy for people who have been in prison to obtain employment.

Some figures show the scale of the problem: only 50 per cent. of prisoners have reading skills; only 30 per cent. numeracy skills; and only 20 per cent. the writing skills necessary to apply for 96 per cent. of jobs. Basic skills training, for which extra money has been provided, is the key to making the prospect of resettlement and a reduction of reoffending a reality—both for those in prison and those working with them.

My hon. Friend is right that the people who are likely to end up in prison are those who have been in care or institutionalised in other ways, which makes it difficult for them to live independently in the community. Mental health and drug-related problems and low levels of basic skills are also factors. Once those problems are taken into account, it becomes clear what we should focus the extra money that we are spending on trying to bring down levels of reoffending.

Mr. Allen : People watching or listening to the debate may say, "Here we go. The Government are being soft

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on prisoners and giving them an easy time. Now we're going to teach them to read and goodness knows what else." In fact, it is very demanding for someone to tackle a drug habit, or for someone who was frightened by school and probably opted out of it to try to achieve challenging educational goals within the prison system. We can almost hear the ghosts in the distance saying that we are being soft on these people. In fact, rehabilitation is designed to keep people out of prison in future by making them better citizens and more able to look after themselves, rather than to keep recycling them through the prison system, which is very expensive. That will greatly benefit everyone who may be under threat of crime.

Angela Eagle : Clearly, if we contemplate the cost of keeping people in prison, on and off, for most of their lives, we realise that the prison system is a far more expensive option. If we can make these policies work, we will take some people out of the system. I do not want to become too philosophical, but there will always be some recidivists whom it is very difficult to rehabilitate. To some extent, we are not as interested in them as in the people whom we can help. We are trying to give those people practical opportunities. It is no good telling people that they should reform if we do not give them practical ways in which they can transform their lives.

We are investing an extra £18 million in prison education over the spending-review period, which will deliver 23,400 nationally recognised qualifications in literacy and numeracy at level 2 or higher. Last year, 12,462 qualifications were achieved. The target is for a rise to 36,000 at the end of the spending review process. That will make some people literate and numerate for the first time and therefore much more employable than before.

We are spending an extra £88 million under the Prison Service drugs strategy to ensure that we help almost 6,000 prisoners a year to enter drug rehabilitation programmes. Clearly, that will deal with some of the issues that have been raised.

We are spending an extra £16 million over the same period—2001-04—on the continued extension of independently accredited offending behaviour programmes. The number of completions is targeted to rise to almost 9,000 by the end of that period. We hope that, by focusing on the areas in which prisoners have difficulties, we will reduce the likelihood of reoffending in many thousands of cases.

We await the Social Exclusion Unit's study on reducing reoffending to provide us with further impetus in the development of our integrated inter-agency action zone resettlements. That includes an investment by the Employment Service of £1 million a year from this financial year to strengthen links with prisons. Often, the Benefits Agency does not know that a prisoner is coming out. A place to live and housing benefit claims could be sorted out before the prisoner leaves. Everyone knows the release date, but agencies have not been working together. Clearly, the prospect of reoffending rises significantly if the individual is just turned out of

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prison on to the streets without support, so a place on a training course or a structure in which he can look for work is necessary.

Mr. Allen : I am sure that the Minister will deal with two important points. The first is about personalisation of a plan for the prisoner. My hon. Friend spoke about the global amounts of money that are allocated to education, drug awareness, and so on. That is welcome, but devising a personal plan is important if initiatives are to be practical and real for the individual. I would be interested in the Minister's remarks about that.

Secondly, would the Minister discuss the culture in prisons and the value of prison officers, education officers, probation officers and others who perform education and rehabilitation work? Again, I welcome the additional resources, but it is important not only that we keep prisoners under control and locked away, but that we value those who undertake education and rehabilitation work—unusual, at the moment—in the Prison Service.

Angela Eagle : Certainly. I was just about to deal with personal plans as part of a seamless sweep across the whole structure. All young offenders and those aged 21 and above who are serving sentences of at least a year are subject to arrangements for sentence planning and post-release supervision, which involve the probation service and youth offending teams. Such arrangements include joint action to tackle offending behaviour problems, and address practical issues such as employment and accommodation. Post-release supervision follows up and reinforces the work that is done in prison.

However, short-sentence prisoners—those who are serving under a year—may, depending on whether they were on remand, end up in prison for less than three months, and certainly no more than six months, by the time sentence has been passed. That is not always enough time to get to grip with their problems.

The recent Halliday report proposed a framework for short-sentence prisoners. It suggested a new sentence of custody plus, which would involve a substantial amount of custody planning and post-release supervision for those serving short custodial sentences. The number of such prisoners is a significant proportion of the overall figure, and we are considering how to deal with them in light of the Halliday proposals, the consultation and the responses that we have received. We must get to grips with that issue.

In my time in government, I have often had to tackle cultures in institutions. Closed institutions such as prisons have a stronger sense of their own culture than organisations that are more open. Despite the large increase in prison numbers, we have managed to maintain the 24 hours a week average that prisoners spend on purposeful activities. That average is not as large as I would personally like but, given the rapidly increasing numbers of prisoners, our commitment is shown by the fact that the amount of activity that is arranged for individuals has not fallen. In allocating extra resources for education, we must maintain the focus on ensuring that prisoners spend their time in a purposeful and useful way, which increases their chances of being able to avoid reoffending after they leave.

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If my hon. Friend wants me to praise those who educate people in prison, I certainly will; if he wants me to say something about their salaries, that might be a bit harder. We obviously value those who carry out that work, because we want to give prisoners a chance to reform.

Mr. Allen : My hon. Friend is extremely generous in giving way again. Sentence remission is often automatic in personal plans. If prisoners behave themselves and keep their noses clean, they may get a third off their sentence. Will the Minister consider linking personal achievement to remission? A prisoner may have worked damned hard with courage and determination to achieve a low level of literacy, or broken a long-standing drug habit. It may also be linked to the prisoner's category, so that people can claw their way to a better life and have that achievement recognised while in prison.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. Before the Minister replies, may I say that I allowed the hon. Member for Nottingham, North long interventions because he was brief in his opening remarks? I hope that that does not set a precedent.

Angela Eagle : My hon. Friend's idea is interesting and I will regard it as a submission to the Halliday review. I will ensure that that goes back to my ministerial colleagues and those who are considering our response to the Halliday review, because we want to encourage positive behaviour, and what he said was logical. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue.

The Government are investing in public services, but they are also reforming and developing them so that the money is used well. The Prison Service is part of that programme, and focusing on reducing offending behaviour is a more efficient use of money than putting people into prison, locking the door and throwing away the key. As long as the public are protected, it is cheaper to reform offenders and reduce reoffending.

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Mr. Allen : My hon. Friend seems to be ending her remarks. This subject is so important for people in our constituencies. It is important to the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears), and the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick), who are both present, and to all of us, that we crack the problem. When people are arrested, it must not be the first occasion of many on which they go to prison, but the first occasion that enables us to prevent them from going to prison again.

Finally, I would like to thank the Minister for her positive response, and you, Mr. Winterton, and the staff of Westminster Hall, for helping a novice through his first debate here.

Angela Eagle : My hon. Friend has raised an important matter. Unless we tackle reoffending, we will not reduce crime levels and maintain that reduction. The number of ex-prisoners who reoffend is a large percentage of those committing crime. If we crack that problem, we will see a sea change in the crime figures, which we are all working to achieve. Despite some early signs of success, I would not underestimate the problems. Already 12,500 prisoners have achieved level 2 literacy and numeracy qualifications. We have also promoted random drug testing, and the number of those who tested positive fell from 24.5 per cent in 1996-97 to 12 per cent. Drug use in prison has reduced dramatically. The number of completions of accredited offending behaviour programmes rose from 1,373 in 1996 to nearly 6,000 in 2001. We are on the right track. It is a difficult issue, and we have to focus our resources, our creativity and our attention on it. I hope that we shall succeed.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): It has been a different debate—one might almost say unique. We now come to the final debate, initiated by the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick), on the traditional medicines directive—a subject in which the hon. Gentleman has been involved for a long time.

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