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Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): On building links with the community, may I bring to my right hon. Friend's notice the outstanding work that is being done by the Bridgewater hostel in my constituency? A key part of its success has been the acceptance of risk in building links between offenders and the community. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, in looking at other providers, risk is properly recognised and quantified? So far, the private sector has been extremely risk-averse in handling prisoners in the community.

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend makes a powerful and important point about risk management, which is insufficiently addressed but absolutely central. However, I do not entirely accept her observation that the private sector has been risk-averse. That is why I said that we will publish a prospectus which means that private sector bidders can look at the particular circumstances and decide how to engage.

As for the voluntary and community sectors, we have not had the right relationship with them to enable them to address the risks in the way that my hon. Friend describes. I do not take the view that one type of provider is good at dealing with risk and another is bad at it, but that risk has to be at the centre of the whole contestability agenda.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I think that most people would agree with the bulk of the right hon. Gentleman's statement. As he knows, community penalties are very successful in reducing reoffending. The way to increase their use is to increase the number of fully trained probation officers needed to implement them. It is extremely disappointing that after months of debate, it seems that the National Offender Management Service will have contestability—privatisation—at its core, yet it is already known that many private prisons are failing.

Mr. Clarke: With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, he misses the point in an important way. I pay credit to the work done by probation officers and, indeed, by prison officers; they include highly professional and almost universally highly committed individuals. However, we have not been very good at working with other organisations, whether in education, health, housing, local government or whatever. That working together offers us the best possible chance of developing community sentences that are much stronger and more effective than they are at the moment. It is not simply a question of expanding what exists now, but of changing its nature to bring a far wider range of participants into the frame.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): I should like to draw to my right hon. Friend's attention the excellent work that is being carried out by the Wrexham youth offending service and by the north Wales probation service, whose work I was recently able to see. It is concerned about the proposal for an all-Wales probation service, which it
 
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feels may undermine its close links with prisons in north-west England that serve north Wales, which does not currently have its own prisons.

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about the relationship between north Wales and the north-west of England. He is right to say that the police reorganisation proposals, on which he has strong views, must take full account of the implications for probation. I assure him that I shall study carefully the relationship that he raised.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): The Home Secretary announced a range of initiatives for improving the skills base and tackling the lack of education and attainment of people in prison. Does he accept that that process does not end when they leave the prison gate? Does he envisage a role for the voluntary sector and charities, such as the Centre for Adolescent Rehabilitation—C-FAR—in Devon, which does incredibly good work in rehabilitating offenders and enabling them to go back into society, but faces a continual battle for Government funding because it was not eligible for any pot of money? If he envisages a role for such charities, will he assure us that funding will be available?

Mr. Clarke: I certainly envisage a role for voluntary and community organisations and I know of the hon. Gentleman's commitment, which was reflected in the question that he asked the Prime Minister yesterday. Partnership with voluntary organisations is central and his point about what happens after leaving prison or after a sentence has ended is important. However, we must bear in mind the need for quality. It is important that we do not say that an organisation will receive funding, whatever happens. We must ensure the quality of the provision.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I am sure that the majority of people agree with my right hon. Friend's comments about the need for stronger partnerships with a range of providers. However, some of us have serious concerns about contestability. Yesterday, I received a reply to a written parliamentary question in which I asked about responses to the consultation on restructuring probation. It appears that there were 748 responses but nobody could tell me how many were in favour of contestability. I suspect that the answer is a small number. I urge my right hon. Friend to reconsider the matter. It would be much easier to make a success of the positive agenda that he presented if we carried probation staff with us rather than having a fight with them over privatisation.

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is right. I give away no secrets by saying that, when the full results of the consultation are published, they will show that, as he suggested, few people supported the original proposals. I also accept that it is critical to move forward in the way that the strategy sets out with the professionals in the service, not against them. However, almost everybody in the service believes that the end-to-end offender management strategy and the partnership approach is
 
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right. They are not convinced that our proposals fulfil those two requirements. I am committed to fulfilling them and to trying to tackle my hon. Friend's point.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Does the Home Secretary accept that few dangerous offenders are women and that relatively few women commit violent offences? Yet in recent years, there has been a disproportionate increase in the female prison population. May we therefore have the widest possible range of alternatives, in which the courts and the public can have confidence, to custody for women, including sentences that are especially tailored to women and would be suitable for women with young families?

Mr. Clarke: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He may have noted an important recent speech by Lady Hale, a former Appeal Court judge, who clearly set out the points that he made. We are considering the matter carefully. There is no doubt that women in prison constitute an important group for whom we could and should look for alternatives to prison in several specific circumstances. We are actively examining that matter and I would be interested in any specific observations that the hon. Gentleman made to work with us on that.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Unusually for me, I want to build on a point that the shadow Home Secretary raised. He made a thoughtful point about education, which is vital. The statement refers to a modernised prison estate that focuses on reducing reoffending and facilities that can help bridge the gap between custody and community. I urge my right hon. Friend to consider a specific difficulty, whereby young people in the secure estate start to engage in education and are then moved to another institution. It can sometimes take weeks for the records to catch up with them, by which time they are moved again. That happens seriatim, they never receive the education and they leave prison still illiterate and unskilled.

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is correct. Although there have been some moves to improve the position, it remains unsatisfactory. I hope that two aspects of the proposals will tackle his concern. First, the move to community prisons will ensure more stability for precisely the reasons that he states and afford a better chance of working with local education institutions. Secondly, the IT systems, especially the national offender management information system—NOMIS—will ensure that the data are handled better. I hope that the strategy will address the central point that my hon. Friend raised.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): How widespread is the problem of intimidation of prison officers and their families by drugs gangs to secure a supply of drugs on the inside?

Mr. Clarke: The short answer is that I do not believe that such intimidation is widespread. There are examples of organisations trying to get drugs into prison and we are trying to stop that. The Prison Service makes
 
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a constant effort to prevent that. However, I do not believe that the specific manifestation that the hon. Gentleman describes is widespread.


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