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Mr. Hopkins: It is not just a question of quality of leadership. There are competing teaching philosophies. There are teachers, and no doubt head teachers, who still believe that a more social, lively atmosphere in a school is the way forward, and that social development is as important as academic development—a wonderful idea, but I believe that learning is less effective in those circumstances.

Mr. Lewis: I agree. We need to learn from best practice, use hard evidence and examine the conclusions that Ofsted reaches about schools that are at the cutting edge in that respect.

In his contribution, the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) referred to the limits of the state. I agree that the state can do only so much, but it can create the framework that empowers the front line, and it can make resources available to institutions and professionals who were starved of resources for year after year, and who were asked to do an impossible job, tackling the consequences of social breakdown without the necessary resources. We must not run away from the fact that the massive investment that the Government have put into education has made a tangible difference to the ability of schools to provide the kind of education that we want for all our children, although there remains a long way to go.

I was glad that the hon. Gentleman praised pupil referral units, which have been a success. We need to look at the quality of provision for young people who are permanently excluded and are not in mainstream schools. At least full-time education is now being provided to those who are permanently excluded.

The hon. Gentleman was right to emphasise that young people and teachers want practical support to deal with bullying. I was fortunate not only to address the "Make the Difference" regional conference on bullying yesterday in Brighton, but to visit the West Dene primary school, where I met some of the playground buddies—children of eight or nine who are available to support other young children in the playground who feel threatened or unhappy or who are being attacked verbally. When opportunities are provided to share and spread good practice and to learn from each other, that leads to practical change. That was evident at the conference in Brighton yesterday and on my visit.

Dr. Pugh: Good practice should always be rewarded and highlighted in this House. Is it not the case that an internet site has been set up in Brighton—by the same people, I assume—to enable pupils to diagnose situations involving bullying and learn how to cope with them?

Mr. Lewis: There is indeed such a scheme, and many schools around the country have introduced initiatives such as peer mentors and playground buddies. Bringing those schools together to learn from each other leads to practical change and support for those on the front line in tackling bullying.

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I have spent rather a long time with my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) today—in fact, I have probably spent more time with him over the past fortnight than with my own family, but that is another story. He paid tribute to the excellent professionals who make a difference in our communities on every day of the week—that is something that we do not do often enough. He was right to name them, and I am sure that they will feel a sense of pride that he recognises the contribution that they have made to improving education in his community.

My hon. Friend rightly said that parentally condoned truancy is unacceptable. I would say to those politicians who run away from that problem and offer no solutions that the Government are right to hold to account parents who simply will not co-operate in getting their children to school. Their attitude is different from that of those who have genuine reasons for being unable to co-operate.

On my hon. Friend's commitment to the teaching of social behaviour, he will know that 25 local education authorities are receiving resources specifically for primary schools to buy in expertise on social and emotional development. I will be happy to talk to him about what is happening in those LEAs and the possible lessons that can be learned in terms of national policy.

I want to conclude by responding to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall). He was, of course, right to say that schools have to deal with the consequences of social deprivation and underperformance. For some young people, school is the only way in which we can intervene where parents are unable or unwilling to fulfil their responsibilities. We can never allow young people's life chances and choices to be blighted—the state has a duty to intervene through the school system. However, we have to do it in a way that also supports the family.

My hon. Friend talked about the statistics that are used to measure attendance. The Government accept the case that has been made to us by many professionals that in future, measuring attendance will be more helpful than separating unauthorised and authorised absence. That is not an attempt to get away from the 2004 target, which, as I said, we shall aspire to meet. However, it is right that we should look beyond that by working with professionals to consider how best to proceed, and we believe that measuring attendance is one way to go.

My hon. Friend was exercised about holiday absence during term time. If there are special circumstances or good reasons, every parent has the right, given the approval of the head teacher, to take up to 10 days' leave per year during term time. My hon. Friend cited the example of split families where children need to go away with mum and dad. However, hundreds of thousands of families—the majority, including many on low incomes—do not go away during term time as a matter of choice. What do we say to them? Do we say that it is legitimate and acceptable to go on holiday during term time? I applaud the local initiatives by travel agents and LEAs in trying to broker agreements on reducing peak season holiday prices. In some areas, such agreements have made a difference to prices. We will consider whether lessons from that can be applied across the country.

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My hon. Friend referred to the innovative work that is being done on truancy. I should like to mention Glenburn school, which is in his constituency, and which I have had the pleasure of visiting. The head teacher's name is Mrs. J. A. Pickthall—hon. Members may now understand where he got his excellent briefing from. It is an excellent school and she is an excellent head teacher. The partnership between the schools in Skelmersdale is especially exciting; it shows collaboration, not the competition that did so much damage to our education system in the past 20 years.

The debate has been of unusually high quality with limited party political point scoring. Attendance and behaviour are central to improving school standards. The stakes are high; as I said earlier, the children of today are the parents of tomorrow. It we are truly to end the intergenerational deprivation and underperformance that scars not only our education system but our society, we must make significant progress on attendance and behaviour.

The Government have a good story to tell but there are no quick fixes, no easy wins or slick slogans. We are considering long-term, sustainable change and rebuilding in our country the concept that there is such a thing as society. We are not simply a collection of individuals.

Jim Fitzpatrick (Lords Commissioner to the Treasury) : I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.


Bromborough Waste Water Treatment Works

5.26 pm

Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): I wish to present a petition on behalf of more than 600 constituents to protest at the failure of United Utilities to accelerate measures to stem the foul odours emanating from its Bromborough waste water treatment plant, which blight local residents' lives.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Open Prisons

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

5.27 pm

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): I have a growth industry in my constituency in that I have three prisons of different character. A private young offenders' institution at Ashfield in Pucklechurch has experienced serious problems of disorder and management since it opened in 1997. I am pleased that it appears to be on a more even keel after a recent change of management, but it has had its fair share of negative publicity.

Her Majesty's prison Eastwood Park is a women's prison that has also had its fair share of unfortunate news. Any prison suicide is one too many, but far too many have occurred at Eastwood Park and there have been questions about the quality of care, especially for prisoners with mental health problems. That prison has therefore hit the headlines for some of the wrong reasons.

Until recently, however, the third prison in my constituency, Her Majesty's prison Leyhill, an open prison, hit the pages of the local newspapers only when the inmates won prizes at the Chelsea flower show. They do that with pleasing regularity. However, it is regrettable that Leyhill has been in the news more recently for some of the wrong reasons: two prisoners have absconded or failed to return. I want to use the debate to consider those specific cases and, more generally, to press the Minister on the wider issue of who gets sent to open prisons and what happens when they are there.

I stress that the purpose of the debate is not to bash Leyhill or to attack what is, in my view, a good open prison. It is not meant to attack staff and management who are doing a good job. I strongly suspect that Leyhill is one of Britain's best open prisons, so my purpose is not to undermine its work.

I want to avoid my only regular contact with the prison being when a journalist telephones me to ask, "Have you heard who's got out of Leyhill this week?" From the point of view of the press, the more sensational the escape the better. I try not to contribute to sensational headlines but to point out that the nature of an open prison means that there is always a risk that a prisoner will abscond, and that that must be weighed against the benefits of the open prison system. I am equally aware of the risk of complacency in saying that occasional escapes are the price that must be paid, which would be irresponsible. Instead, I want to put to the Minister, for whom I have great respect, my concerns and those of other hon. Members about changes to the open prison sector, changes at Leyhill, changes relating to the kind of prisoners who are sent to Leyhill and other aspects of the process.

Two recent cases of prisoners failing to return to Leyhill highlight what can occur if risk assessment is unsuccessful. Michael Purcell absconded from Leyhill while serving a life sentence for rape, attempted rape and indecent assault. Convictions for sex offences are not uncommon among lifers at Leyhill, but in this case, Michael Purcell reoffended. He indecently assaulted one woman and was convicted of falsely imprisoning

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another. Last autumn, he was convicted again in Oxfordshire, when the judge said that Purcell was a danger to women and clearly posed a risk to the community.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. We can all say now that clearly Purcell should never have been sent to Leyhill, but where risk assessment has gone wrong, we must be certain that the authorities take it seriously. A significant number of those who abscond from prisons such as Leyhill are recovered, but a minority are not. Of those, some go on to commit serious offences. Cases where absconding is not a temporary aberration that can be corrected but represents a determined attempt to escape must be fully investigated and lessons learned. Is the Minister confident that a full investigation was undertaken in the Purcell case, that lessons were learned, that it is known how that individual got through the system and that there is less chance of something similar happening again?

More recently, there was the high-profile absconding from Leyhill of Roddy McLean, described by the press as a drugs baron. It is difficult to capture the essence of his offences, but suffice it to say that in March 1997 McLean was sentenced for drug offences to 28 years' imprisonment, which was reduced on appeal to 21 years. I am talking about not a minor drugs dealer but someone with international connections. He was imprisoned as a category A offender, having been identified as a potential escapee. There were strong feelings held in Scotland at the time, because a customs officer was killed while apprehending McLean. Although he was not convicted of murder or manslaughter, one reason for the long sentence was the serious nature of his offences.

McLean was described at the time as

Yet within seven years, he found himself in the lowest of all risk categories—not category A but category D. He is now on the run, having failed to return to Leyhill from a community visit.

Some weeks ago, the Home Secretary made a statement to the House on plans to reform the Prison Service and the probation service. In a question on his statement, I asked him about that specific case. Clearly, the success of open prisons depends on the consent of the community: the community needs to be confident that people who are placed in open prisons have been properly vetted. I have looked at the documentation on the vetting process, and it is important to stress that the idea of risk to the public includes not only the risk that a person would be dangerous or violent if they escaped, but the risk that they might abscond. That is part of the risk assessment. Someone with a high risk of absconding is high risk, and should not be held in category D conditions.

I challenged the Home Secretary on Roddy McLean, and he responded that

For reasons that I shall give in a second, I am not convinced that many general policy implications flow from what I sense is a very specific, even unique, case.

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However, the case was clearly serious. I hope that the Minister can confirm that the investigation is under way and approaching a conclusion—it is some months now since Roddy McLean absconded—and that he will place its conclusions in the Library of the House or otherwise make them public.

I should perhaps bring to the Minister's attention a further aspect of that case, which was reported only this morning in the Daily Record. When Roddy McLean absconded, the police apparently did not understand the seriousness of the offences for which he had been convicted. The local police force understood that he had committed Customs and Excise offences, but did not seem to appreciate their gravity. Although the local chief inspector said:

he went on to say that those inquiries

It concerns me greatly that a person can abscond from prison in my constituency, or anywhere for that matter, and that the local police do not know or do not grasp, for whatever reason, that they are a convicted drugs offender with a 21-year sentence, and in an international drugs ring. I hope that the investigation will establish exactly what went wrong in that regard, as well as in respect of the wider issue that I am seeking to raise.

Having said that, I think that there is always a danger of hearing that someone has got out and simply jumping to conclusions. I have made inquiries of my own, and it seems that there were some particular features to Roddy McLean's case, including the move from the Scottish to the English system and the fact that some of the offences with which he was charged are unique to Scotland and do not have an obvious English counterpart. The fact that he found himself at Leyhill just seven years into a 21-year sentence is, I understand, quite atypical. His seems to be an unusual case, but I cannot help but reflect on how the law enforcement authorities must feel when they finally apprehend a drugs baron, who has been involved in serious drugs offences, only to find some years later that he has walked out of prison and not returned. One cannot help but wonder how the family of the customs officer who died in the attempt to apprehend that man must have felt when they learned that the man who was partly responsible for that death is now free, albeit on the run.

I stress that although the case is serious and warrants careful investigation, it does not illustrate a general issue of the sort that I want to raise this evening. There are more general lessons that need to be learned and more general questions that must be asked. I shall therefore turn to wider trends at Leyhill and similar open prisons, before asking some questions on where we should go with open prison policy.

The size of the inmate population at Leyhill has increased by about one third in recent years, which is a dramatic increase. From the taxpayer's point of view, I suspect that that is potentially better value for money because the prison's capacity is being fully utilised. There are now about 500 inmates, whereas some years ago there were barely 300.

The nature and composition of those inmates has clearly changed. Barely a quarter of those now at Leyhill are serving life sentences. The traditional role of the

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open prison was as the final phase of such imprisonment—the deinstitutionalisation of someone who had been in prison for a very long time. Instead, the majority of those at Leyhill are serving sentences whose total duration was less than three years to begin with, and they can expect to be released within a year. Clearly, that is a very different challenge. Someone convicted of a serious robbery, burglary or driving offence, who has served two or three years and who goes to an open prison with a year to run, is completely different from someone with a life sentence, who has been in prison for 10 years or more and is a completely different category of offender or even a completely different type of person. Clearly, the statistical evidence is that younger people who have been in the prison system for shorter periods are more likely to have drugs problems—again, that is more true of shorter-term offenders—and are far more likely to abscond.

Leyhill prison therefore has far more prisoners, and far more short-term prisoners and prisoners of a different category or different type. Even if the proportion of absconders had not changed, merely having a third more prisoners would mean more abscondence, and the change in the mix of prisoners would lead to more people absconding. I therefore caution against inferring from the bare statistics that more people are walking out of Leyhill that there has been any relaxation in the regime. I am not convinced that that has happened. Nor do I believe that those responsible for Leyhill are failing in their duty. However, when more than one person a week, to use the phrase, walks out of Leyhill and does not come back, we must ask ourselves whether the assessment of risk, in terms of the risk of absconding, is being done properly.

Far from criticising my constituents who work at Leyhill, in many ways I am speaking up for them—they have not asked me to do so, but I am doing it in any case. For them to do their job properly, they need to know that the people being sent to them are appropriate for open conditions. Once we get to the stage at which more than one person a week is walking out, we must ask ourselves whether that job is being done properly.

Having focused on my local open prison, I want to turn to the wider issues about policy on open prisons and pose some questions to the Minister. When the Home Secretary responded to questions on his statement a few weeks ago on 6 January, he said:

That was apropos of open prisons. He said that a review had been commissioned and was under way. Can the Minister tell us more about that review, what its terms of reference are, who is undertaking it, when it will be finished and what chance we will have to scrutinise its results?

As the Minister will be aware, the chief inspector of prisons has today published her annual report. The section on open prisons makes uncomfortable reading. The chief inspector has based her report on her wide experience. Clearly, however, it has been coloured particularly by the one open prison that she investigated for the first time last year, and the three that she re-investigated. Many of the quotes and examples that she uses are based on those four institutions, of which Leyhill was not one. I therefore stress that some of my

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remarks may not—and probably do not—apply to the open prison in my constituency, but, clearly, this debate draws more widely on the position of open prisons.

The chief inspector begins by echoing the fact, and my observation, that the role and nature of open prisons is changing. She highlights the traditional role of open prisons as

particularly for prisoners serving longer sentences, lifers and others. She also says, however, that

Were I to summarise my concern, which led me to seek this debate, it would be that the changes going on in open prisons have not been the result of a conscious, careful plan or a decision that it will be a good way forward for open prisons to change the mix and that penal policy and rehabilitation should be moving in that direction. There may be an element of that, but my worry is that the numbers, overcrowding and pressures elsewhere in the system are driving the problem at least as much as positive policy decisions. I do not say that this has happened completely by accident, but my feeling is that the pace of change might be faster than those who thought this a good idea anyway would necessarily have wanted.

So my first question is: is this change in the composition of the open prison population being driven by overcrowding elsewhere in the system? In particular, is that pressure leading to the wrong sort of people—those who are not suited to open conditions—being sent to open prisons? The chief inspector says that


So the independent inspector is observing that this change is going on and believes that it is driven at least in part by population pressures elsewhere in the system.

Returning to the local situation, in last year's annual report, the then board of visitors at Leyhill said:

prisoners from

So the board of visitors has fed back the concerns of prison staff that the wrong people were going to open prisons. In the summer of 2002, the board of visitors reported that

I find that term slightly ominous, as is the concept whereby people are moved, perhaps en bloc, to an open prison in which there happens to be some space, because they will not fit anywhere else. The report says that

we should note the use of capitals—

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local prisons. The board of visitors proceeds to refer to

The staff say:

Thus the feedback from prison staff is that, on getting to know the people coming in, their thinking is that they should not be there. Some were reported with mental health problems and needed specialist care, and others had only recently been taken off self-harm watch in a local prison.

This situation gives me cause for concern. I hope that the Minister can offer some thoughts on the extent to which it is happening, but the chief inspector, the board of visitors and staff have provided clear evidence that the wrong people may be being sent to open prisons because there is not enough capacity elsewhere in the system. That concern has been heightened in recent months by the apparent setting of management targets for the governors of category C prisons, in order to get more people into category D institutions. If the result of such management targets is that the assessment of someone who is perhaps borderline is tipped over the balance, I would be worried. If an essentially category C prisoner is being reassessed as category D because the target has to be reached, that would clearly be unacceptable.

Of course, that may not always be the case. It might be quite convenient for local prisons to hold on to a few category D offenders, because they can make the place work better. Perhaps prison governors in category C institutions should be prodded not to go for a quiet life but to re-categorise at the right time, or to move people already categorised as category D into open conditions. But I am not clear what the nature of the target is, and I hope that the Minister can offer some clarification. Do governors of category C prisons have a target for moving people from category C to category D, or for moving people already independently categorised as D into open conditions? I hope that the Minister can clarify that question, because if the answer is the former, there is a danger that what should be an independent judgment on the merits of a given case is being biased by the effect of targets. We do not want that to happen.

The second question is: when people are sent to open conditions, are they properly prepared? The chief inspector says that in her experience, some who arrive in open conditions are ill-equipped. She says that

The experience for the receiving establishment is very different if those coming in are barely off drugs and have no plan of work or sentence plan. I am not sure that open prisons should have to deal with that wholly different experience, or that they provide the right environment in which to do so.

The chief inspector's report highlights one prison at which some prisoners arrived with only a week of their sentence left to serve. That seems extraordinary. In view of the disruption that that entails, it is difficult to see the point of it. Another open prison had nearly half of its community work places unfilled, because the wrong people were there. Without the right people being there,

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it led to the extraordinary situation where employers were willing to take people on from the open prison, but not enough of them were suitable to fill the vacancies.

I must stress again that that is not true of Leyhill, which could do with more employers in the local community willing to take people from the prison. I also believe that any available employment opportunities are taken up, and I stress the value that I attach to that. If an inmate can get a job with a national chain such as Tesco's or a similar company with outlets across the country, and can secure an employer's reference on release, it can provide a fantastic start for someone going home from prison. There is tremendous potential when such initiatives are run well, and Leyhill is certainly trying to make use of them. However, if the wrong people are sent to open prisons, that will not happen.

I wish to raise a couple of other issues before concluding. The open sector must have the right approach to education and training. The chief inspector encourages prisons to take a more proactive approach and not regard inmates as

The potential of open prisons is easy to see. The governor of a closed prison cannot send young people out to local colleges for courses, whereas the governor of an open prison has that possibility. Provided that the right people are sent to open prisons, the potential for broad training and education is evident. If they are not, the opportunity is missed, so we must ensure that open prisons can take the right approach to education and training by being sent people who are ready to take advantage of it, not people with more fundamental problems that should have been dealt with elsewhere.

My final point about the allocation of offenders to open prisons is the thorny one of sex offenders. Inevitably, they are one of the most controversial and difficult groups in the prison system, and it is important that institutions such as Leyhill have the right expertise to deal with them. I believe that the prison has about 60 sex offenders serving life sentences. There is also the question of whether other institutions should be developing that sort of expertise—for example, whether there should be somewhere in the north of England where officers have such skills, or whether sex offenders should be clustered in smaller groups and other open prisons given the training and support that they need.

There are obvious problems with clustering large numbers of lifers who have committed sex offences. If they have lost contact with their own local community, a specific area can become a focal point for them when they are released. Where sex offenders are deemed not to pose a risk to the public, it makes sense to spread them through the open prison regime, rather than focus too heavily on one or two institutions.

I hope that I have made it clear that I believe open prisons to be a valuable part of the prison system and that viewing them as a "bridge" between custody and community, as the chief inspector puts it, has to be right. The alternative of letting someone out from closed conditions back into the community is a recipe for disaster. If we want prisons to prepare people for reintegration into the community so that they will not reoffend, the open prison process, the transition, the

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work experience, the community involvement, and the slightly less institutional environment must all be good things.

I do not rule out the possibility that shorter-term offenders—people who perhaps pose a low risk and do not have long to serve—may also be dealt with appropriately in open conditions, thereby taking advantage of training, education and work opportunities more flexibly than in closed conditions. It may also be helpful that such people do not associate with prisoners in closed conditions who would not be such a good influence. I see the possibility there, but given that more than one person a week on average fails to return to one local prison, I wonder whether the change in the balance of open prisons has happened too quickly, whether it has been planned as much as it should have been, and whether the risk assessment is really working. For law enforcement agencies and the victims of crime, that must be hard to deal with.

I salute the work that is done in the three prisons in my constituency and I believe that my constituents need help and support in that task. I also believe that Government policy must ensure that the right people go into open prisons for the right reasons. I hope that when the Minister responds he will be able to offer me those reassurances.

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