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Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale) (Lab): I very much welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, especially the creation of the National Offender Management Service. Everyone who has a prison in their constituency, as I do in Rochdale, knows that a seamless service makes common sense for the provision of care before, during and after imprisonment. From our direct experience at Buckley Hall, which has been in the public and private sector as both a male and female prison, we welcome the identification of the problem of short-term sentences, especially with regard to rehabilitation. The problem, which has been mentioned on the Floor of the House before, is acute for women prisoners and the women's estate, especially with their high use of class A drugs and as poly-users.
Will my right hon. Friend give some thought to simple things? For example, we discovered that when male prisoners were admitted, the male regime did not consider whether they had notified their landlords of their imprisonment, so they accrued debt. When they were put back into the public domain, they could not get housing because of their huge arrears, and those huge debts made them more liable to commit crime.
Mr. Blunkett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her observations, which are apposite as usual. Housing is a crucial issue. A new advisory service within the Prison Service will work with the new management service to
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): This is a disappointing statement, and it is not what people thought the Labour party meant by being "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". The Home Secretary will be aware of concerns in the communities around Ford open prison about the increasing number of prisoners who abscond from that prison. Although Ford is an open prison, to which only short-sentence prisoners or prisoners coming to the end of their sentences should be sent, it appears that longer-sentence prisoners are being sent there as the prison system as a whole becomes more overcrowded. Will the right hon. Gentleman give me an assurance that inappropriate prisoners are not being sent to Fordand also that if subsequent to today's statement he discovers that they are, he will see to it that that policy is changed?
Mr. Blunkett: I have already asked the new chief executive of the service to report on the operation of open prisons to me and to the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East, who has responsibility for correctional services. We are not entirely satisfied that we have got the system right, although we reject the idea that the issue is new. There has been a programme of gradual scheduled movement to open prison and rehabilitation for the past 20 years, and we have no intention of reversing that, but we believe that far more scrutiny needs to be given to those who are placed in an open prison at a particular point in their sentence. Similarly, we should consider tracking and electronic monitoring of prisoners within the open estate; transfer to an open prison is part of the transition back to the community, and given thatwith all-party agreementwe are making more extensive use of home domestic curfew, it seems reasonable to do the same in open prisons. Of course, if the hon. Gentleman draws any clearly unsatisfactory incident to my attention, I shall expect action to be taken on it.
Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston) (Lab): As co-chairman, with Lord Rix, of the all-party learning disabilities group, I welcome in particular the part of my right hon. Friend's statement in which he said that dialogue was taking place between the Department of Health and his own Department about prisoners with mental illness. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that organisations such as Mind and Mencap take the view that there are still far too many people with learning disabilities and mental illness in prison, which
Mr. Blunkett: I welcome my right hon. Friend's comments. The transfer of function and therefore of resourcing to the Department of Health is, in my view, a long overdue and welcome movenot least because the Department of Health has the money and will continue to have it through to 2008that will enable us to invest in a medium-term programme that I hope will transform what happens in our prisons. Indeed, I have already seen it start to do so. There is no question but that a large number of people in our prisons suffer from mental health problems and disabilities to differing degrees. We have also tried to tackle the fact that the average reading age of prisoners in the estate is nine. Those facts speak out volumes in terms of cause and effect, and we have to deal with them as well as get tough and punish people who commit heinous crimes. The idea that we have gone soft, in the week when we have introduced life meaning life, and a dramatic change in all other sentencing in severe cases, is risible.
Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): Leyhill open prison in my constituency does good work in preparing low-risk offenders for release, but like those of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), my constituents are concerned that the wrong sort of people are being put into open conditions. Is the Home Secretary aware that within the past few weeks, a violent drugs offender seven years into a 21-year prison sentence was placed at Leyhill and promptly absconded? Will he please investigate the case as a matter of urgency, and assure us, as he has been asked to do, that dangerous people are not being put into open conditions?
Mr. Blunkett: I heard all about that prisoner during an extensive item on Radio 4more extensive than it is prepared to offer for the whole reorganisation of the offender management systemand I am concerned. I am concerned because it is not true that that individual was transferred from category B in Scotland to category D in England; he had already been transferred to category C in Scotland. When he was transferred to England he followed the normal programme, but it is patently obvious from the fact that he has absconded that a mistake was made. An investigation of that individual case must inform the way in which we approach the broader issue that I mentioned a moment ago, of revising our approach to open prison.
Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield) (Lab): One of the big positives of the current Government's penal policy is the much closer working relationship between the Prison Service and the health service at local level. Of the two prisons in my constituency, one is a women's prison, and I am concerned that many of the women in that prison should not be there, but would perhaps be more appropriately placed in a health facility. Will my right hon. Friend state what practical steps the new board will
Mr. Blunkett: It has taken me longer than I intended to fulfil what I spelled out to prison governors almost two years ago, and wrote and spoke about at that time, which was developing different approaches for different categories of prisoner, and reviewing our view of the estate. That will sometimes involve what have become known within the Home Office as Carter prisonsvery large prisons offering the type of facilities, including education, health care, training and work preparation and remedial action, that are needed for long-term prison residentsand sometimes secure hostel accommodation for prisoners who do not present a risk to themselves or others, in which rapid rehabilitation is the order of the day. We can link that to tougher community sentences through satellite tracking and electronic monitoring, and to intermittent custody, which allows a different form of custody for weekends but allows women to continue to hold their family together during the week. Without treating women materially differently from men in respect of the same crimeto do so would be wrong, and would breach the principle of equalitywe can tailor our action to the offending behaviour of the individual concerned and ensure that we prevent their reoffending in future.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): The Secretary of State complained about what he described as the unjustifiable increase in the number of custodial sentences imposed for driving offences. Is he not aware, as many hon. Members are from their postbags, that there is a significantly greater public appetite for more custodial sentences to be imposed for certain categories of driving crime, such as driving recklessly or dangerously? Does he not think, on reflection, that the matter is better left to the courts than to him?