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Education (Prisons)

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): I am delighted to be able to start the Adjournment debate. When the Division was called the Minister and I thought that we might be saved by the bell. However, we are here and I shall be as brief as I can.

The debate is important and provides an opportunity to discuss an issue that is rarely discussed: what takes place in prison, and especially education in prison. The debate comes at a time when there has been much talk about being tough on criminals and about whether we should send burglars who are first offenders to jail. It also comes at a time when the Government are looking into reforming and changing the criminal justice system and when figures show that we have the biggest ever prison population—more than 70,000—and all projections suggest that that will increase.

Debate often takes place in the tabloid press about who would be tougher on criminals and why we should lock people up in prison. However, the question of what we should do with folk after they have gone to prison is often lost from the debate. We have to question why people go to prison, and punishment is an important aspect of that. However, we need to focus much more on other aspects and on the role that prison can play. Education is a vital part of that process, but it does not make good tabloid headlines. I accept that victims of crime who have just had their house burgled—or worse—do not want to hear politicians talking about providing more education for prisoners. They want to hear tough language about locking people up and throwing away the key. I argue that the tough thing to do is to improve the quality of education in prisons, because that is likely to have a greater impact on reducing crime in the first place.

I hope that the debate is topical, because I understand that the Government are considering a major report commissioned by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which examined education and the reforms that they want to make. I hope that the Minister will comment on the Government's early thinking about how they plan to respond to the report and the time scale in which they will do that.

May I refresh the Minister's memory with several harsh facts and realities about the Prison Service? Home Office statistics show that 60 per cent. of prisoners need help with basic skills. That can be further broken down: 50 per cent. of prisoners lack level 1 numeracy, which is the equivalent of an 11-year-old's achievements; 66 per cent. lack level 1 reading and 81 per cent. lack level 1 writing. There can be no greater indictment than that. We have failed prisoners and the prison system. Those figures suggest to me that only 20 per cent. of prisoners would be able to fill in an application form on release. The rest would be incapable of filling in basic job application forms after leaving prison. Moreover, 49 per cent. of male prisoners and 71 per cent. of female prisoners have no qualifications at all. To put it bluntly, there is little else for prisoners to do in prison. We have a captive audience, but we are missing an enormous opportunity to tackle the problems that those figures highlight.

Why does that matter? It matters because prison is clearly not working. Fifty-eight per cent. of prisoners released from custody in 1997 reoffended within two

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years. We know that education can help to tackle that problem. The Correctional Services of Canada conducted research that suggested that vocational and basic skills training could cut reoffending by 12 per cent. That would have an enormous impact on reducing the number of crimes in this country.

What do we need to do and how can we improve the present situation? It is not all doom and gloom, because positive things are happening. I am especially taken with the work of the Prisoners' Education Trust—I met representatives of that charity a couple of months ago—and that is why I secured the debate. The trust does wonderful work in the prison system. An investment of over £200,000 a year has helped to make 852 educational awards this year. Its schemes operate in 75 prisons throughout the country. Of course, that is just one small charity, but several other charities are working in the field. However, I am sure that the Minister will agree that none of that work can replace direct Government action.

We need the Government to do several things. I would like them to produce more figures and data on the impact that education can have on preventing reoffending. I have mentioned statistics from Canada, but I wonder whether the Minister would consider commissioning work in this country so that we can make the case that more education can help to reduce reoffending. We also need a major programme of reform and investment. The PricewaterhouseCoopers study is a good start, and I hope that the Minister will tell us when the Government intend to respond to some of its ideas. I also welcome the 50 per cent. increase in funding—to £87 million—for education in prisons. A large proportion of that—£20 million—comes from the capital modernisation fund and is earmarked for better facilities. I welcome that. However, it is all very well having a spanking new building and computers, but unless the resources are available to enable staff to bring them to life, the money will have been used ineffectively.

The Government have recognised that they need to tackle the problem of the 60 per cent. of prisoners who have no skills, but they must also focus on the other 40 per cent. They need to ensure that the focus is not only on basic skills, but on trying to get much more out of people. The Government could learn a lot from the current work being undertaken by charities. I should be grateful if the Minister would give us his thoughts on how the Government could work with the charitable sector to make a difference, because the charitable sector gets to parts that the Government find it hard to reach. It has introduced considerable innovation, from which the Government could learn. For example, charities have considered ways of focusing education on the individual needs of each prisoner rather than trying to serve the system as a whole.

We need to examine how education is provided, physically, and the day-to-day problems in prisons. For example, there are difficulties in escorting prisoners to lessons. Sometimes, education is available but there are no prison staff to take prisoners to classrooms. Prison officers are currently under pressure, so they understandably have other priorities. Unless we make education a core function of the Prison Service, it will always be knocked down the list in a busy, pressured prison.

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Education in prisons is not joined up. There is an artificial divide between some of the vocational services and training provided by prisons, which is very effective as skills are often taught in a workshop environment, and the basic skills and academic education. It makes no sense to have the two run by separate organisations, at different times. Other incentives work against education. The prison pay system allows prisoners to earn money by working, for example, in prison kitchens, but there is no financial incentive for prisoners to take an education course if that course clashes with the opportunity to earn money. That is wrong.

There should be a system of national entitlement to education for prisoners. Such a system has been laid down for young offenders by the Youth Justice Board, but with only one in five prisoners currently involved in education and about 60 per cent. not having access to any form of education, it is clear that the system is failing adult prisoners. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government are prepared to make a similar commitment to give adult prisoners full access to education?

Another difficulty is that the curriculum is inflexible. We need to examine the range of courses that are available and to be more creative about the courses on offer. We also need a system that allows a prisoner who has already started a course at one prison to continue with that course if he is moved to another prison or leaves prison. At the moment, if someone is moved to a prison nearer to their home or to an open prison all their coursework is lost and wasted and they must start again. Worse still, an individual will clearly not want to remain in prison in order to complete a qualification, but the downside of being released is that that person will be unable to continue their education.

We need to reconsider how education in prisons is funded, so that money follows not, in this case, the patient but the prisoner, and so that we can track a prisoner, wherever they are and however long their sentence. At the moment, there is an enormous disparity in the range of money that prisoners receive to help with education. From a parliamentary answer to a question that I tabled a couple of months ago, I learned that the amount of money spent in Wandsworth is £257 per prisoner, whereas in my constituency of Winchester it is £576 per prisoner, and in Wetherby the figure is £2,416 per prisoner. I do not know what they are doing in Wetherby. Clearly, we need to tackle some of those disparities, but not by dragging down the money spent in Wetherby to give more to Wandsworth, because some of Wetherby's educational facilities would be lost.

The report by PricewaterhouseCooper examined different banding according to sentences. A certain amount of money could be allocated to somebody with a sentence of less than a year, an equivalent amount for sentences between one and four years, and a greater amount for those with sentences of more than four years. There is some merit in such a system, and I should welcome some early thoughts from the Minister on that.

All such issues require a change in the way that the process operates at the moment. I understand that February 2004 is when all the tenders for providing education in prisons are due. I am concerned that the Government may pick up on recommendations from PricewaterhouseCooper and try to rush them through, which would cause confusion in the re-tendering process

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for contracts in February 2004. How does the Minister plan to introduce those changes? It may make sense to change the re-tender date to allow a longer period for some of the changes to be implemented to avoid chaos in the system. If not, when the new contracts come through, a new system of work for education in prisons should be clearly put into practice at the same time.

In the limited time available, I have raised a number of issues and put a number of questions to the Minister to tease out from him what priority the Government give to such matters, and particularly to find out whether they intend to pick up on the recommendations of PricewaterhouseCooper. It is a Cinderella service. It does not attract tabloid headlines, and it is difficult to communicate with the public about it. If the Government want to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, I hope that they recognise that education is not a soft option. It is a seriously tough option to improve the quality of education in prisons. If that were done, it would tackle the reoffending rate and make prisons work more effectively, which has to be in everyone's interests.

4.32 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on securing the debate, and I am delighted to hear him adopt the new Labour mantra of investment and reform. Given his contribution to the debate, we agree on a tremendous amount. I will take into account some of the positive suggestions that he made as part of our consideration of the PricewaterhouseCoopers report. I share his view that a more coherent approach to the education and training of offenders, supported by increased investment, is absolutely essential. That should be seen as an integral part of the fight against crime, and provides us with a unique opportunity—I think the hon. Member made this point—to break the cycle of offending behaviour that is so prevalent among those for whom the criminal justice system is, in effect, a revolving door.

There is considerable evidence that prison education makes a significant contribution towards reducing reoffending, and that it could do more. The hon. Gentleman referred to the skills level of more than half the population; let us not exclude them from not only the labour market and further learning, but from integration into the wider community. Half of men and two thirds of women entering prison have no qualifications. The estimated cost of reconviction to the criminal justice system is an average of £13,000. For many offenders—I think the hon. Member will have seen this for himself, as I have recently—prison is their first experience of having the chance to gain a skill, which could be rebuilding a car engine or developing better communication skills. For many, it is the first opportunity to develop any kind of skill or qualification whatsoever.

I was certainly impressed by my conversations with the staff at Preston prison, which I visited recently; in circumstances that are not always easy, they are doing a tremendous job. They are being innovative, imaginative and as supportive as possible in their education and

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training programmes. I also had some interesting conversations with some of the prisoners. One told me how eagerly he had learned to read and write in prison. Another said that he was looking forward to taking up a college place on release, having gained a number of credits in prison; it meant that when he left prison, the college course would form part of his resettlement programme.

As I told the Education and Skills Committee recently, it would be wrong to say that Preston was a typical prison. A lot of tremendous work is going on there. However, although there are examples of excellence across the prison estate, we have a long way to go before we can turn good practice into standard practice; a point made by the hon. Gentleman. My colleagues across Government—particularly in the Home Office—and I are fully committed to ensuring that we take a joined-up approach to prison education; that is equally important. That commitment has to be supported by investment.

The hon. Gentleman will be reassured to hear that a record level of investment is going into prison education. Core funding will increase from £65 million this year to £125 million by 2005–06. With that funding and the capital investment that we have already begun to put into the system, I aim to equip prisons with the capacity to deliver a tailored programme of learning—another point made by the hon. Gentleman—from induction and assessment on arrival in prison to resettlement in the community on release. There is no point in achieving success with people in prison if it is not consistently followed through on release.

The hon. Gentleman knows that I am also considering the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, which provides a number of options for achieving that aim. It is accepted that we have to move from the present inequality of funding between prisons of the same type; there is no logic to that, other than historical spending patterns. We also seek to create delivery arrangements that support high-quality educational provision. However, as well as quality, we must have the capacity to develop provisions that are relevant to individual needs and match individual starting points. We are completing consultation on that report, and we will consider the hon. Gentleman's comments.

Mr. Oaten : Will the Minister give me a rough time scale for when that consultation will finish and in what form? When does he expect the Government to respond formally to the PricewaterhouseCoopers report?

Mr. Lewis : We have to respond by the end of February to certain issues because of their influence on contactors.

I am in a dilemma; the hon. Gentleman spoke about the balance between getting decisions right and ensuring synergy between contractual arrangements, and wanting to see swift and radical reform. I am committed within the next month not only to being clear about my specific responses relevant to the end of the February, but to laying out a clear and transparent time scale for how to tackle all the relevant issues. I shall ensure that hon. Members have sight of that within the next month or six weeks.

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The hon. Gentleman made a valid point on the use of evidence and data in terms of the impact of prison education on reoffending. We have some of that evidence now, but we could do a lot better. I take the hon. Gentleman's comments on board.

The voluntary sector is often imaginative and innovative in a way that the statutory sector never can be. We have to become better at spreading the good practice that already occurs in pockets—it is not mainstream practice—and ensuring that Prison Service officials in all parts of the country give thought to how they can engage with local voluntary organisations that may have something to bring to the table. I believe that the voluntary sector has flexibility and imagination. The community sector has an important role to play in the resettlement of offenders; there can be significant follow-through and support for people once they have been released from prison.

We shall make our position on entitlement clear later. The hon. Gentleman made a valid point; "once in a generation" might be an over-used term, but we do have a unique level of resource available and a commitment across Government—and, in many ways, across the political spectrum—which represents a unique opportunity to make a difference. If it takes an extra couple of months to get decisions right, I would rather take that time than rush the decisions, get them wrong and fail to achieve the step-change. We all accept that tinkering at the edges is not what the system needs, nor what we want.

The hon. Gentleman was honourable enough to acknowledge that there has been significant progress in recent years. It is important to say that, because I want to support the efforts of both governors and frontline staff who make the system work daily. They have not always had the central and external support that they deserve, but many of them, starting at the grass roots, have been incredibly innovative and imaginative. We should pay tribute to that, and highlight some of their achievements.

With regard to basic skills, last year prisoners gained 61,000 qualifications, some 24,000 of them in literacy and numeracy. In the first eight months of this financial year, prisoners had already achieved more than 25,000 basic skills qualifications. We are well on the way to meeting, and even exceeding, our national target of 28,800.

Not only are we meeting targets, we are ensuring that mainstream developments in literacy and numeracy practice reach prisons. It is important that we do not offer a second-rate, out of date service to prisoners; they have access to the most modern and up to date strategies.

We are also supporting prisons proactively, with a quality improvement programme. A body of professionally qualified advisers is working in every prison, advising them how to build on their strengths and how to deal with areas of deficiency. We are told by the Prison Service that the advisers are making a real impact across the country, and are supporting prisons that are preparing for inspection against the new standards of the common inspection framework. They also help prisons with their action planning in cases in which the inspections have identified weaknesses.

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We have also required all prisons to set up their own quality improvement groups, bringing together staff across the establishment to improve existing learning opportunities and to introduce new ones. That is already happening across much of the estate and there is no reason why it cannot happen in every institution. We have created a standards fund to encourage prisons to support staff development and training, to share best practice and to develop local quality assurance systems.

It is important to establish a culture of learning in the Prison Service. That is important not only for the prisoners but for the staff. I am delighted that two schemes are up and running, supported by the union learning fund, at Belmarsh and Haverigg prisons, to develop basic skills. That is engaging staff in learning. I recently had a meeting with Brian Caton, the head of the Prison Officers Association, and told him that I would actively welcome further applications from prisons for the next round of union learning fund bids. That area is underdeveloped and we would want to see a considerable growth in the number of prison officers who are involved in learning. I believe that that has a knock-on beneficial effect, in that it creates a learning culture in the prison environment.

The hon. Gentleman referred to vocational training and employment. He is right to make the point about the separation. In response to the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, we need to look at how we can create a more cohesive, integrated approach. In recent times, we have shifted the emphasis towards basic skills. We believe that to be right, given the low level of basic skills of more than half the prison population and the fact that there is a direct correlation between a lack of basic skills and a risk of reoffending. We must not lose sight of the need to help prisoners to improve their employability. The hon. Gentleman rightly spoke about reducing the risk of reoffending. One of the great ways in which to do that is not only to support and encourage people to learn and develop within their education programme, but to ensure that they are employable in a modern labour market. That is why vocational training is so important. Those in work are half as likely to reoffend as those without a job. That is very significant.

It is interesting to note that prisoners have gained 57,000 work skills qualifications so far this year. We have met our target already, which suggests that vocational education and training is working. However, I would like to know more about what those work skills actually mean and how they will feed through. Perhaps I will obtain more information for the hon. Gentleman on that issue.

We can do a lot more. We must ensure a much closer synergy between vocational training in prisons and the labour market. That is complex, because prisoners do not always end up living in the same area as their institution. Increasingly, we are trying to close the gap between what happens in the world of education and training and what is required in the labour market. When people are moving around, there can be different regional and sub-regional economic profiles. That makes the situation complex, but we should seek to close the gap further than we have done in the past.

The hon. Gentleman said that capital investment would be important to enable prisoners to modernise and upgrade their training provisions. Investment will also be required to fund the building of classrooms on

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prison wings and next to workshops, to help create a more cohesive and integrated approach between learning and more vocationally based courses. With the assistance of the CBI, Jobcentre Plus and others, we are strengthening our links with employers to improve the work opportunities that are available to prisoners during and after their time in custody. We are also using funds from the invest to save budget to develop an innovative project led by Cisco to give prisoners the opportunity to gain valuable information technology skills and either to continue learning or to gain work on release.

I do not need to say to the hon. Gentleman how important information and communications technology skills are in the modern world. They are being used increasingly in the classroom, in the workplace and at home. It is important that we bring prison learning into the 21st century with regard to e-learning. We have done some work on that relatively recently and have had learndirect pilots in five prisons during the past year. All the evidence is that the learners

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are often less threatened by a computer than by traditional classroom learning, which makes them no different to others who undertake basic skills courses in the community. In the prison population, we are dealing with high numbers of learners who have had a negative experience of school. That makes it even more important to find imaginative and innovative ways of turning them on to learning and removing some of the fear that inevitably accompanies people who have had a negative experience, not only in learning but throughout their lives.

I believe that we have answered a number of the hon. Gentleman's concerns, but we have a lot more work to do. I will consider carefully the lessons to be learned from our work so far and will also consider the recommendations in the report. This is a unique opportunity to get a credible reform and investment system in prison education and training. I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman and with others in making things happen. Education and training is one of the most powerful ways of reducing crime in our society.

Question put and agreed to.

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