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Mr. McLoughlin: Does the Minister have the figures for what it costs to keep someone in an open prison as opposed to what it costs to keep someone in more secure accommodation? If he does not have those to hand, perhaps he could let me know later.

Paul Goggins: I shall certainly write to the hon. Gentleman with an answer. I cannot give the figures off the top of my head. Different establishments cost a different amount. An average across the estate is £36,000 per place each year. I shall get him a precise answer as soon as possible.

The Government have provided 14,700 more prison places since 1997 and seven new prisons. Additional funding has been provided for about an extra 3,000 public sector prison places to be built at existing prisons. Two new private prisons, providing 1,290 places, are also due to be opened at Ashford and Peterborough in 2004 and 2005 respectively.

Mr. Webb: The Minister has moved on to the general capacity of the system. Does he accept, however, that only today Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons said in her report about open prisons that, because of pressure on numbers, different sorts of people are going to open prisons? That seems to be a fact. I think the Minister is happy that they are all properly assessed, but is the policy to change the mix of who goes to open prisons deliberate, or is it a by-product of pressure in the system?

Paul Goggins: I thought it was important to set the capacity issue in context. I shall say more about the people who occupy those 4,400 places in our open system later.

If we take into account the additional places provided since 1997 and those that are being made available, we expect 78,700 prison places to be at our disposal by 2006. Simply providing more prison places is not the only answer, however. It is vital that we continue to work with people in our prisons so that they have the capacity for rehabilitation. I am pleased that this year we expect 50,000 basic skills qualifications to be gained in our prisons. Some 30 per cent. of people leaving prisons last year went into either a job or training. As the hon. Member for Northavon remarked, that is a good indicator of the chance of people staying out of trouble in future.

It is also important—my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary spoke of this in his statement on correctional services on 7 January—to provide sentences with

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credible intensive community sentences for people who would otherwise go to prison for short periods, usually with little impact. It is not enough just to have extra prison places. We have to use them properly and get people on intensive community sentences, if appropriate. However, open prisons will continue to make an important contribution to resettlement, preparing prisoners for their release in a way that will reduce reoffending, thereby increasing public protection. That is an important point. Some 2,500 of the places in open prisons are generally used to help prepare longer-term prisoners, including life sentence prisoners who are coming to the end of their sentence. That includes people who have committed serious offences, such as murder and sex offences, which have been mentioned. So 2,500 places are reserved for those people.

Roughly half of resettlement regime places are occupied by prisoners involved in unpaid community work placements. That enables them to make reparation to the community while learning useful skills that will increase their chances of finding employment on release. The other half are for prisoners who are involved in paid employment outside the prison during the final months of their sentence. That can be an important stage in the transition back to the community for longer-term prisoners. Subject to appropriate risk assessment and monitoring, they do real jobs for real wages alongside other members of the work force. That enables them to help to support their families and to save money for their release. It may also provide them with a job that they can continue once they are discharged, and the hon. Member for Northavon mentioned Tesco in that context, which is good example. We know that prisoners are much less likely to reoffend if they get and keep a job on release.

A period in open conditions is essential for most life sentence prisoners. It allows the Prison Service to test areas of possible concern in conditions that are nearer to those in the community than can be found in closed prisons. Lifers have the opportunity to take home leave from open prisons and, more generally, open conditions require them to take more responsibility for their actions.

The remaining 1,900 open prison places are occupied by short-term prisoners. I accept that such prisoners, although not presenting a risk to the public in terms of their offence, tend to be more impulsive and have less to lose than life sentence prisoners if they abscond. However, I emphasise again that those short-term prisoners have been allocated to the open prisons only after a thorough assessment of the trustworthiness of the prisoners not to abscond and of the risk posed to the public if they should do so.

In addition to those two main groups, we are also developing new ways of using places in the open prison estate. From next week, we will be piloting intermittent custody, the first of the new sentences to be introduced under the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Kirkham, a male open prison in Lancashire, together with Morton Hall, a women's prison in Lincolnshire, will be the first prisons to accommodate offenders serving intermittent custody. This use of part-time custody is an attempt to reduce the negative outcomes, such as loss of employment and accommodation and family breakdown, which can often accompany even short periods of full-time custody.

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Intermittent custody will be for offenders who have committed an offence sufficiently serious to warrant a custodial sentence, but who represent a low risk to the public should they serve the sentence intermittently. Offenders in full-time employment or study, or with responsibilities as carers, will be likely to serve their custody days at the weekend and be in the community under licence supervised by the probation service during the week. Those who are unemployed will be likely to serve their custody days during the week, with a regime focused on helping them find a job, and be in the community under licence supervised by the probation service at the weekend, in order to help them to maintain family ties and community links. That is a further option that the open prison estate will be increasingly using.

A very high proportion of the prisoners who go to open prisons make the most of the opportunities provided there to improve their prospects on release. As I have said, many work in the community doing paid or unpaid work. However, I accept that a very small proportion betray the trust placed in them and abscond.

There was an increase in the number of absconds from 825 in 2002 to 1,224 in 2003. The increase at Leyhill was from 25 to 102, and at Sudbury for the whole year it was from 65 to 78. I share the concerns voiced by both hon. Members, but I reassure them and the House that while the figures concern me, we shall do everything we can to get them down.

Those figures should also be seen in the context of the commitment to security, which is central to the work of the Prison Service. Last year there were just 13 escapes from prison—that is, escapes where people got out of secure conditions. There have been no category A

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escapes since 1996. Therefore, I ask hon. Members to place the concern about absconds from open conditions in the context of that wider, very successful commitment to security across the rest of the prison estate.

Only a small proportion of those who abscond commit offences while they are at large. However, I reassure the House that whenever a prisoner absconds or fails to return from an outside work placement, the police are informed immediately. The details of the prisoner are circulated to police forces and visits may be made to known addresses. Once the prisoner is recaptured, he or she will be returned to a closed prison, where many will complete the rest of their sentence.

This has been a very important debate. I will reflect carefully on the remarks of both hon. Members who contributed to see whether there are other points to which I should respond. I look forward to further discussions with them about this topic. I hope that they are reassured that open prisons, which provide some 4,400 of the 75,000 or so prison places currently available, are a key part of the process of rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners back into society.

There has been no change in the system of categorisation and allocation. Indeed, public safety remains the key issue when recategorisation is being considered. However, I am not complacent. I share hon. Members' concerns about the recent increase in absconds, and I shall continue to ensure that the Prison Service takes all the necessary steps to keep them to a minimum.

Question put and agreed to.

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