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5.54 pm

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) on securing the Adjournment debate. I wish to take advantage of our extra time, and I rang the Minister's office earlier this afternoon to warn him. He knows that I have tabled a number of questions over the past few months about an open prison, Her Majesty's prison Sudbury, in my constituency.

I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Northavon said about the role that open prisons can play, and my speech tonight is not against open prisons. However, there is growing concern about the kind of people who are being sent to open prisons and some of his parliamentary answers have added to my concern.

As the hon. Member for Northavon said, the matter is no reflection on prison staff at a particular prison. They have no choice in who is sent to them. They have to deal with the categorisation, which is carried out elsewhere in the Prison Service. There are 15 open prisons in England and Wales. I am concerned to see that 1,173 prisoners absconded from them between November 2002 and October 2003. Absconded is the right word because prisoners do not have to escape from an open prison; they simply fail to return after they have gone out.

The Minister will know that there have been some disturbing cases involving Sudbury prison. On 7 January, I asked him

His answer stated:

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I am sure that that information must be available somewhere within the Prison Service. Although it may not be available directly from the prison, I would be surprised if it were not available to the Minister in the form in which I tabled the question.

The written answer also revealed that 67 people absconded from Sudbury prison in the year from April 2002 to April 2003. Two of them had been convicted of murder and three of grievous bodily harm. At this point, the matter became really serious: from April 2003 to 1 December 2003—a seven-month period—56 people absconded from Sudbury, of whom five had been convicted of murder and six of GBH. Those are the most serious crimes for which one can be sentenced in this country. We can all expose individual cases, which are not always the best evidence on which to base decisions, but the case of Mark Leicester is horrendous. While absconding from prison, he committed another murder in Derby.

I have another point for the Minister. He may not be able to address it today, but perhaps he will give some thought to the reaction of the police when prisoners escape or abscond. The hon. Member for Northavon said that the police were not fully aware of the true nature of one of the people who absconded from Leyhill prison. Derbyshire police refused to release the photograph of Anthony Craig of Preston, a convicted murderer aged 56 who absconded from Sudbury on 27 July and is still on the run. They said that they had no photograph and no publicity was given to the fact that he had absconded. The truth was that a photograph was available from the Prison Service, but the police decided not to release it.

That decision was wrong. There should be clearer instructions—possibly from the Home Office—on the way that police forces should respond in cases involving people convicted of the most serious offences. I am not talking about a person who is close to the end of his sentence. A convicted murderer under a life sentence is only ever released on licence and I believe that the Home Secretary is keen to keep that provision. I support him in that. I have no problem with his view on that matter, but it is no good for people to play down the fact that someone poses a danger. Convicted murderers are a danger to society if they do not return to their establishment; they have broken the trust placed on them when they were transferred to an open prison with better, easier conditions.

A number of escapes from Sudbury have caused concern recently. Police investigating robberies at the houses of four elderly people—including one who had suffered a broken leg—were searching for a violent murderer on the run from the prison. Isaac Price, who narrowly avoided arrest earlier this week by swimming across a swollen brook following a police chase, is being hunted in connection with raids on pensioners' homes in Shropshire and Worcestershire.

Members with open prisons in their constituencies do not usually complain about them. I have not complained about Sudbury in the past, but I am

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concerned now. We need to build up trust in the local community, as people who live near the prison need reassurance.

The hon. Member for Northavon made several points, but I am especially concerned about a growing trend. The Government are, rightly, proudly trumpeting their antisocial behaviour measures, including the antisocial behaviour orders. However, people who live near prisons also have the right to expect protection. Sudbury may be geographically isolated but it is sited in a local community. I hope that the Minister can reassure the House and my constituents that there has been no easing of the criteria for placing people in open prisons because, from the evidence that I have seen and the recent cases that have been brought to my attention, I fear that that may have been the case.

Sudbury is at full capacity. The picture is not dissimilar to the one that the hon. Member for Northavon gave us of Leyhill open prison. Maximum capacity at Sudbury is 560—I think that the maximum has increased over the past few years. The number of prisoners was 546 and 10 more were received today, which takes the prison to capacity.

In seeking assurances from the Minister, I echo some of the points made by the hon. Member for Northavon. Those of us with open prisons in our constituencies expect reassurance that the people sent there are right for the conditions at such prisons. After the answers that I received from the Minister last week, I fear that a growing number of people sent to open prisons do not deserve that trust. If that is the case, the criteria for sending people to open prisons and the very future of those prisons must be called into question. That is bad news for the Government's overall prison policy, so I hope that the Minister can reassure us.

6.4 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): I congratulate the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) on initiating this important debate. As he said at the outset, there are three prisons in his constituency: HMP Eastwood Park, which is a women's closed prison; HMYOI Ashfield, which is a young offenders and juvenile establishment—I was pleased to hear his positive remarks about that institution, which has shown considerable progress in the recent past; and HMP Leyhill, which is an open prison.

The hon. Gentleman referred to his concerns, and wider public concerns, about open establishments, and I compliment him on the way that he has responded to the whole issue—not only for acknowledging that Leyhill is a good open prison, but for not taking what must have been the considerable opportunities in the past few weeks to grab a few headlines. Instead, he has come to the House to debate the issue intelligently.

The hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) continues to ask me questions, which I shall continue to endeavour to answer to the best of my ability. Indeed, he has recently written to me, and I will respond in due course to that letter. He, too, shows an intelligent approach. He is right to say that trust is needed in local communities near open prisons. It is essential that they are reassured, and the way that both hon. Gentlemen have approached the issue is highly commendable.

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The hon. Member for Northavon mentioned two cases, the first of which involved Michael Purcell. I am not familiar with all the details of that case, so I cannot make any detailed comment, other than to confirm that he was transferred to Leyhill on the recommendation of the Parole Board, but I promise to consider the detail of that case, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman to answer his specific questions.

The other case that the hon. Gentleman mentioned—that involving Roderick McLean—is perhaps rather better known. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand if I cannot go to the conclusions of the investigation that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary initiated on that case—it would be premature to do so—but I want to put some information on the record, because there has been a lot of wild speculation about the case in the recent past.

I can confirm that Roderick McLean was remanded in custody on 29 July 1996, and sentenced on 13 March 1997. As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, Mr. McLean received a custodial sentence initially of 28 years, which was reduced to 21 years on appeal. He was initially deemed a category A prisoner in Scotland and also a so-called strict escapee, so his behaviour and movements were kept under particular scrutiny. He was downgraded to category B on 10 June 1998, and removed from being classified as a strict escapee on 23 March 1999. He was recategorised as category C at HMP Shotts, before being transferred to the English prison system on 13 March 2001. It is important to make the point that he was already a category C prisoner while in the Scottish system.

Within England, Mr. McLean was received at HMP Bristol—a local prison, quite close to the hon. Gentleman's constituency—on 23 March 2001. On 20 August 2001, Mr. McLean was allocated to HMP Erlestoke, which is a category C prison. He arrived at HMP Leyhill on 4 September 2002. As a prisoner in open conditions, Mr. McLean undertook more than 20 periods of successful temporary release from HMP Leyhill. Indeed, it was from a community visit that he failed to return on 8 September 2003—more than 14 months after moving to open conditions. I hope that it helps to put that information on the record.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the terms of reference for the review. I can confirm that the review will consider the circumstances leading to Mr. McLean's allocation at Leyhill prison, specifically the recategorisation procedures, as well as the circumstances surrounding his move from the Scottish Prison Service to HM Prison Service and his initial security category. It will also consider whether the speed of progression was appropriate given his length of sentence and whether sufficient detail was available about the offence to inform appropriate decision making.

The hon. Gentleman asked about communications with the police, and I can confirm that that issue will be part of the investigation. The report will make recommendations on preventing the recurrence of such incidents—either specifically related to Leyhill or to the service as a whole—and on the better handling of them in the future. The hon. Gentleman referred to comments made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on 7 January during his statement on the future of correctional services, and I simply echo what he said.

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We will make the findings available and I shall communicate them directly to the hon. Gentleman as soon as they are available.

I was especially pleased to learn that the hon. Gentleman visited Leyhill yesterday to discuss his concerns with its governor. I hope that he was reassured that the allocation and recategorisation rules have not changed—I hope that the hon. Member for West Derbyshire is also reassured—and that public protection is a key aspect of the decision-making process when assessing prisoners' suitability for open conditions.

I think that it would be helpful for the House if I explained the way in which the categorisation and allocation system works. Prisoners receive their initial categorisation shortly after they have been convicted and sentenced. The decision on the category that a prisoner is given—category A, B, C or D for male prisoners, and open, closed or semi-open for women and young offenders—is based on a number of pieces of information that together inform an assessment of the risk of a prisoner escaping or absconding and his or her potential risk to the public. The risk assessment includes a consideration of current and previous custodial records, details of previous offences, details of the charges, pleas, findings and sentences relating to the current offences, and any other relevant information on the prisoner that the Prison Service or probation service may have, such as medical information, psychological reports and any security information. Once all that information is available, prisoners are categorised according to the likelihood of their escape and the threat that they would pose to the public if their escape succeeded. Prisoners are placed in the lowest security category that is consistent with the needs for their security and control before being allocated to an appropriate prison.

After prisoners have been categorised and allocated to a suitable prison, they move through the prison system by a process of recategorisation. The process determines whether the risks that they posed at their previous categorisation assessment have changed, and the extent to which that has happened. Any decision on recategorisation must be based on a clear change to the risk posed by prisoners due to their likelihood to escape or abscond, the risk posed to the public in the event of them escaping or absconding, or other control issues that could pose a threat to the security of the prison. Risk levels may decrease or increase during the course of a sentence, so a prisoner's security category and allocation must reflect that. When prisoners are considered for allocation to the open estate, it is essential for their risk levels to be clearly reduced and for it to be shown that they can be reasonably trusted not to abscond or to take advantage of the reduced levels of security in the open estate.

I understand and share concerns about the extent of absconding from our open prisons, but we need to put the figures into context. The vast majority of prisoners are held in closed secure prisons. Indeed, of the 75,258 prison places in the system, only 4,400—less than 6 per cent.—are in the open estate. The increase in the overall prison population puts pressure on the prison estate as a whole. The greatest pressures, of course, are on the local prisons that serve the courts and thus take prisoners on remand, as well as those who are awaiting sentence or

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who have just been sentenced. Within that context, and in order to make the best use of the available capacity, the Prison Service is right to ensure that prisoners who are suitable for open prisons are quickly identified and moved out of closed prisons, subject, of course, to a careful risk assessment. There is no key performance indicator for recategorisation. However, as the Prison Service is under population pressure, there is a need to move people quickly once the assessment has been carried out and the prisoner is deemed suitable for open conditions.

The Government continue to increase the overall number of prison places.

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