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18 Oct 2006 : Column 317WH—continued

One starts to see why the prison staff at prisons such as Leyhill have a heck of a job on their hands doing anything meaningful with the people coming in. I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify how long such prisoners stay for. When they arrive because of overcrowding, do they simply get a bed for the night before they are off, or are they there for the duration? Is anything meaningful or long term done with them, or they just shunted round the system?

To give another example, which I think is true of Leyhill too, the report says:

They have to go somewhere, but we simply cannot expect anything worth while to happen if they are moved at that point. If such prisoners are in for a fairly short period, what is going to come of moving them?

I have great praise for what has been achieved. Just eight absconders in the whole year so far is a fantastic improvement on more than 100. To wrap up, however, what should we be doing? My constituents need to know that the security threshold is not being lowered by the sending of prisoners to open conditions. We need to know that, regardless of the pressures elsewhere in the system, we are not becoming an easy touch. Open conditions are just not suitable for lots of prisoners. Open prisons require a degree of trust, maturity and responsibility, but many prisoners will simply walk out—I fear that the figures will start to bear out my prediction on that. So, there should be no lowering of the security threshold.

What else do we need to do? As ever, we need to tackle the causes of offending behaviour. I am the Liberal Democrat health spokesman and I see what is happening in mental health. Mental health problems, including psychosis, are extraordinarily prevalent in the prison population, yet we are seeing a squeeze on mental health services. We must consider spending money up front on preventing crime, not simply on tackling the consequences.

There are people in prison now whom we could get released to free up spaces, namely foreign nationals, many of whom have completed their sentence but cannot be got rid of because the Home Office does not have the paperwork sorted. I am currently chasing two constituency cases of prisoners who have been saying daily, “Deport me! Deport me!” I believe that one of the gentlemen concerned was finally deported this week, after the end of his sentence. He wanted to get out and be deported months ago, yet he took up a space in the prison system, which meant more pressure to send people to open conditions. If the Home Office could sort its paperwork out, I suspect that hundreds of prisoners who are in closed conditions could be sent home.

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The final thing is that, in my judgment, we are locking up too many of certain types of offenders, particularly non-violent first offenders. It is not just soft liberals who say that sort of thing. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), the previous Home Secretary but several, said in March 2002:

How right he was, at least on that occasion. Ultimately, we must tackle the source of the problem, such as the mental health and behavioural problems that are an important part of—although clearly not all of—offending behaviour. We must also look at sentencing and punishment. Serious community sentencing that means what it is called and actually achieves something for the community must be a better bet in many cases and will mean less pressure on open prisons, which have an important job to do and need to be allowed to get on with it.

I hope that the Minister can give some information to my constituents about who is being sent to open prisons such as Leyhill, how many are being sent, how often they are sent and what the pressures are, and give me some guarantees that the security threshold will not be relaxed one jot. Without those assurances, my constituents will be rightly concerned. The last thing that I want to say in six to 12 months’ time is “I told you so”.

Mr. Garnier rose—

John Cummings (in the Chair): Order. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman have the permission of the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb)?

Steve Webb: I gave consent to the hon. and learned Gentleman to intervene during my speech, which he asked me for, but I did not give consent for a speech in the debate.

4.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): I congratulate the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) on securing this debate and on the work that he does with the prison at Leyhill and the other establishments in his constituency, which I read up on during his last Adjournment debate on the matter. If the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) wants to intervene on me, I am sure that he will do so at an appropriate time.

The hon. Member for Northavon has given me the opportunity to set the record straight on some of the issues that affect the prison estate. Although this debate is about open prisons, there are concerns about what is going on within the Prison Service and about issues that affect the whole estate. He was right to start by acknowledging the excellent work that is done in the 16 open prisons in England and Wales, but particularly at Leyhill in his constituency. He paid tribute to the staff and the offenders for what they have done there. I should like to pay tribute to the 15 prisoners a day at Leyhill working for Mead Construction, which is
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giving them qualifications, so that they can come out into the wider community at the end of their sentences.

That is the nub of the question, in relation to the open estate. How do we use it? The hon. Member for Northavon was generous enough to say that the process is right. There are two parts to a sentence: there is the penal, custodial part of the sentence—the punishment part—and then there is the rehabilitation part, which is what the open estate should be used for. Hon. Members would not want us to release people without any attempt to rehabilitate them, because they would reoffend. I was happy that the hon. Gentleman mentioned reoffending. I am sure that we will return to the issue in discussing how the Government want to try to upgrade the contribution of all involved towards reducing reoffending. I look forward to that debate at a later date.

The hon. Member for Northavon asked me a number of questions about Leyhill. I shall try to respond to those and then return to prison capacity, the reassurances that he requires on public protection and what we want to do to build public confidence. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough raised what he perceived to be incompetence on the part of the Government, to which I will respond in due course.

Mr. Garnier: I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene. Before he comes to the detail of Leyhill, which is a constituency issue, albeit one that reads across into the wider issue of what we are doing with our prisons, could he please deal with the HMP Ford memo? Can he fit that into his Department’s wider policy—if there is such a thing—on open prisons? There is a suspicion, which is not simply based on ideas plucked out of the sky but increasingly on solid fact, that the Government are using the open prisons, as the hon. Member for Northavon said, as a dumping ground to deal with the overcrowded secure prison estate. The public need a huge amount of reassurance—

John Cummings (in the Chair): Order. Interventions should be brief.

Mr. Garnier: This is a reasonably brief one, but I think that the Minister has got the point.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful for the hon. and learned Gentleman’s intervention, and I shall try to answer the point as we move along.

Let us meet the issue head-on. There is the idea that there was no planning for the eventualities. Let us look at where we were. There was pressure on the prison population when the Government took over in 1997; there has always been such pressure. Since 1997, there has been an increase in prison place capacity of 19,000 and the new ministerial team has been considering the issue since it took over in May. A further 8,000 places were identified, and there are another 2,000 to meet some of the pressures.

In his announcements about our short-term contingency plans, the Home Secretary clearly said that we would use Operation Safeguard if necessary. We acknowledged the fact that the prison population was the highest it had ever been. I agree with the hon.
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Member for Northavon that we need to consider the issues of the prison population, community sentencing and the other alternatives that need to be in place. We ought to have that debate outside the frenzy of how the media ratchet up the issue by looking at it as purely political—or, dare I say it, party political—and trying to expose perceived weaknesses.

If we had not maximised the use of the open estate, we would have been blamed for not trying to resolve capacity issues. The key point about the transfer from closed to open conditions is the risk assessment, which has to be carried out to a set standard by the governor. I reassure the public and hon. Members across the House that there has been no change to that risk assessment or to how people are assessed for risk. The Home Secretary and I have impressed on the Prison Service that public protection and confidence in what we are trying to achieve are fundamental to maximising the use of the estate. There have been no changes of categorisation.

Mr. Garnier rose—

Mr. Sutcliffe: I fear that we are running out of time. I do not want to miss the opportunity to answer the point raised by the hon. Member for Northavon about Leyhill.

In recent months, Leyhill has operated considerably below its full capacity, but it is now moving nearer to full capacity. Clearly, prisons are resourced to operate at full capacity. The general operating capacity of the open estate is 95 per cent. at the moment. Only prisoners who have passed the rigorous and robust risk assessment can be allocated to open prisons. As I said, there is pressure for the Prison Service to maximise the use of the estate, but the appropriate allocation to open conditions continues to be paramount. The public can be reassured that we are not moving people into open conditions outside the normal risk procedures.

The hon. Member for Northavon mentioned prison education and how maximising the estate affects our ability to develop people so that they do not reoffend. I am conscious of that; it is important that we ensure that the relevant projects are in place. Leyhill is making maximum effort to ensure that people are given the opportunity to be rehabilitated back into society. However, there are pressures when the prison population rises and we shall look at those issues and the outcomes. It would have been wrong of us not to try to maximise the estate, given the pressures that we are under. However, for us the public are paramount; we shall protect them as we said we would.

The hon. Member for Northavon raised the issue of absconders. He made a good point. He praised Leyhill’s record on absconding during the past five years, and rightly said that there had been dramatic reductions in the number of absconders. He asked me for the figure for this year; I think that currently it is 25, but I shall confirm that. Leyhill is clearly showing the signs of improvement that he asked to see; as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the rate of absconding has come down over the years.

We are trying to establish alternatives to open prison. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of home detention curfews and how we are trying to find ways of rehabilitating people. The Public Accounts Committee
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recently published a report into the effectiveness of that scheme. Clearly, there are issues to be addressed, such as making sure that prison governors know all the outcomes in respect of people going on home detention. Clearly, information about the availability and eligibility of people going on to home detention curfews needs to be shared between prisons. It is important that we look at the prison population and try to find alternatives in which the public have confidence.

Steve Webb: May I get the Minister to focus in the few remaining minutes on the issue of overcrowding drafts? How often are people being sent to places such as Leyhill because other places are overcrowded, and what happens when they get there? Do they get sent somewhere else or are they there for the duration?

Mr. Sutcliffe: As I said, there is still capacity in the estate. For example, some prisoners in the south-east are moved to the north, where there is more space. Such movements are known as “out of area transfers”, not “overcrowding drafts”. Once prisoners are moved to an open prison, they stay there and do not keep churning around. We have a one-move policy, to maximise the position relating to the capacity problems.

Steve Webb: How often?

Mr. Sutcliffe: As I said, the figure for Leyhill absconds from 1 April to 16 October is 25.

The whole issue of sentencing and capacity is key to what the Government want to achieve. The Home Secretary has said that Operation Safeguard is not ideal, but it puts something in place that stops us having to let out of prison people who are not to be given the opportunity to get back into society. The home detention curfew scheme is an ideal alternative, but as more people become eligible for it there will be no need to put them into open conditions because an alternative will have been found. That makes the population in relation to open conditions different. The key factor is that the risk assessment has not changed.

Mr. Garnier: The hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) asked the Minister a direct question, which the Minister said that he would get back to. It was about the memo. Does the memo not exist? Did it exist, but the governor of HMP Ford not understand it? Will the Minister give us a proper understanding of
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the position? The issue touches directly on the points raised by the hon. Gentleman, and he asked the question directly.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I thought that I had answered the point by saying that the memo was wrong. Normally the Government do not talk about leaks, for understandable reasons that I am sure hon. Members would accept. I said that the memo was wrong because it was a wrong interpretation of what the Government had said. I am trying to reassure the hon. Member for Northavon that the position on risk assessments has not changed.

Yes, the Government have asked for the capacity of the estate to be maximised, but against that risk assessment so that people who should not be there are not put there. I cannot be clearer on our position on public protection. We want to protect the public and to maximise the estate, given the high numbers in prison at the moment. We then want to look at the prison population to evaluate what can be done to ensure that the most dangerous and prolific offenders, who should be in prison, are there. We then want to consider the rest of the prison population.

One of the statistics that I find amazing is that of the 79,000 people in prison, fewer than 5,000 are women. We could argue that that is too high, given some of the mental health issues raised by the hon. Member for Northavon. What does that say about the prison population? How do we deal with people—usually young men—who themselves may have been victims, and reintegrate them into society?

Many issues affect the prison population and are faced by the staff. I put on the record, as did the hon. Gentleman, my congratulations on what the staff have done to ensure that the public are protected, that people are rehabilitated and that individual prisoners are supported in various ways.

We in this country need to have a serious discussion about why our prison population is so high, and why per head of population we imprison more people than any other country in Europe. We need to have that debate soon, not just because of prison capacity issues but because of how society is going. We must try to address some of the problems.

We must be careful about people becoming risk averse. I say that cautiously because, as I said, we have not changed any of the criteria. I want to be in a position where judges—

John Cummings (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to the next debate.

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Further Education (Nottingham, North)

5 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): If any constituency in the UK needs further education, it is Nottingham, North. It takes in eight outer-city former council estates in the north of the city. Sadly, as the Minister knows from his interest in taking on the problems and tackling them, it is the least educationally attaining constituency in the UK. We send the fewest youngsters to university of any constituency, youngsters cannot stay on beyond 16 at any of the seven local secondary schools, and all the Nottingham, North wards are in the bottom 5 per cent. for educational attainment. Of those who go on to secondary school, 11 per cent. cannot read the first lesson at their school.

However, all the above are symptoms and not the cause of our perpetual educational underachievement. The cause is the anti-education culture of all too many parents on the estates. It is that which needs to be tackled, above all by developing effective parenting skills in the parents of children aged nought to five. Every Ofsted report on local primaries shows that children do not arrive at primary school school-ready; hence they do not have a fighting chance to develop the social and emotional intelligence that they need to learn and to attain. Putting those building blocks in place at nought to five is not a scheme or a nice-to-have—it is a prerequisite for sustainable improvement in attainment in a place like Nottingham, where 58 per cent. of children are born out of wedlock, and which has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the UK. Both of those factors contribute to poor inter-generational parenting skills.

I would ask the Minister to ensure that the Department for Education and Skills is at least as demanding in measuring local performance in improving parenting skills as it is in targeting five A to Cs in areas such as mine. One size does not fit all. Middle-England targeting does not fit the UK’s most under-attaining constituencies. DFES and local education policies must be much more sensitive to local situations and solutions. For example, we have not been helped by dilution of the local focus on education—on its own the toughest job in Nottingham—by piling children’s services, youth offending, social exclusion, teenage pregnancy and half a dozen other subjects on to one local education department. One difficult child abuse case could divert the single-minded drive on parenting and school readiness that we so desperately need to focus on in Nottingham. Those and other structural problems need to be confronted, but it is important that decisions are not made that make things worse, and that is where the Basford Hall college further education campus comes in.

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