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25 Mar 2008 : Column 18WH—continued

Clearly, there are disabled people who have severe disabilities and who are not capable of working at all, but the number of people in that category is relatively small, and it is important and right that they get appropriate benefits to enable them to live a decent life. For the much larger number of disabled people who can work, however, the range of opportunities that they can fulfil, particularly if employers are flexible, is much greater than many people thought in the past.

In the two minutes that I have remaining, I want to touch on one of the things that Remploy is doing to focus on keeping people in work. Under a programme that it operates in south Wales called healthy minds at work, it works with employers to pick up on mental health problems in the workplace before somebody falls out of work and becomes unemployed. There is a good reason for that:

Remploy, by restructuring the factory network in the way in which it has, has so far shown considerable success in getting disabled people into mainstream employment and in helping to keep people in employment.

I believe that the hon. Member for Stockton, North touched on my final point, which is about how long people stay in work. It is worth noting that individuals on Remploy’s Workstep programme sustain employment, on average, for three years and six months. We are not
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talking about people having work for a few weeks and then losing their job. They achieve a record of sustained employment, which means that for the programme as a whole, notwithstanding concerns about individual factories, Remploy is moving in the right direction.

10.47 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on securing this debate, which, as he said, is his second on the issue. I know that he feels strongly about Remploy, and I hope that we all share his strength of feeling.

I decided not to make a preordained contribution because I appreciated that plenty of points would be raised, and I wanted specifically to answer them. I start with the challenge that was thrown down by my hon. Friend, but before I get into that, I should say that I will relay his comments to my assistant private secretary, Paul Warren, whose ears will be burning if he is watching this debate.

At the beginning of my hon. Friend’s contribution, he threw down a challenge and asked what had changed since 25 July last year. I believe that the phrase he used was, “What has been going on?” Since 25 July, there have been intensive consultations and discussions with trade unions, and between trade unions and the Remploy board. There have been meetings involving the general secretaries, the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), and me on Remploy and how we plot the way forward. Roger Poole was appointed in August last year to bring an independent mind to the work with trade unions and the Remploy management. For those who are not aware of it, he has extensive experience on the trade union side as a former assistant general secretary of Unison.

The then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath, made a statement on 29 November 2007, after which he took numerous questions. Although hon. Members might still have issues with some of the details, there was general support at that point for the direction of travel in which we are taking Remploy. I hope that it will give my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North some confidence to know that, since then—in fact, in the past few days—the first high-level monitoring meeting, chaired by me, has taken place between the trade unions, Remploy’s chairman and chief executive and my senior officials to review exactly how the plan has been implemented.

Hon. Members share the view that, to make the process work, it is not just about words and the plan that was delivered on 29 November: this is a living plan that has to be monitored, not least in the interests of the disabled workers currently employed by Remploy, the disabled people no longer employed by it and the 20,000 disabled people whom we want to get into employment using Remploy as the vehicle.

I say to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that this has never been a money-saving exercise—never has money been one of the major issues. I thank the
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hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) for indicating that Remploy has received and will continue to receive a significant, multi-million pound amount in support from the Government. Indeed, the last out-turn figure on the grant in aid from the Department for Work and Pensions for 2006-07 was £133.8 million. We want to ensure that more disabled people benefit from the input from that resource.

Let me also be clear that we have never said that there is no room for sheltered factories, or supported employment as it is now called. We also continue to give support to the Remploy factories that continue to operate. Through our Workstep programme, we support people in some 83 factories throughout the country. Many of those factories are managed by the voluntary sector and some by the private sector, and others are run by local government. There is no change—our support should be there.

We want to ensure that we support disabled people into employment. However, we also have to recognise that the ambitions and aspirations of disabled people have changed over time. As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean said, in July last year the six big disability charities were prepared to go public and say that they supported the general direction of travel that we were taking. It is not about getting fewer disabled people into employment; it is about getting more disabled people into employment.

Frank Cook: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. McGuire: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will quickly answer the many points that he raised.

My hon. Friend is right: some work—shelf manufacture —is being done temporarily in Bulgaria while the factory at Neath gets up to speed. Remploy has to do that to maintain customers for the products that will eventually go to another factory. Otherwise, we will lose not only the factory but the customers. Although it almost makes for an amusing anecdote, the work has to be outsourced until we get that position stabilised.

My hon. Friend mentioned that there are no jobs in the Teesside area. In 2006-07, there were 14,000 vacancies in Stockton Jobcentre Plus, and 600 disabled people secured employment in the first six months of 2006-07. In Hartlepool, nearby, there were 5,000 Jobcentre Plus vacancies and 650 disabled people moved into jobs.

I want to deal with the story in The Guardian this morning, which implies that Remploy managers are driving around in Mercedes cars while closing factories. I understand that the only person who drives a Mercedes car is the chief executive, whose terms and conditions and salary package have allowed that. For the benefit of colleagues, it is a taxable benefit. As far as I am aware, no one else in Remploy drives Mercedes cars.

I do not want to deal specifically with my hon. Friend’s letters regarding Mr. Precious, but I hope that he has received an acceptable explanation about why it was important that Mr. Precious and other workers throughout Remploy were given face-to-face, support rather than just a document saying what was going to happen.

Frank Cook: Nonsense!

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Mrs. McGuire: Let my hon. Friend say why it is nonsense.

Frank Cook: I made it plain in my statement—I quoted chapter and verse, with dates and days—that it is nonsense because it did not happen. In the sequence of events, the employee, for want of a better term, had to make a decision based on information that was not available to them. To say anything other than that is, frankly, misrepresenting the truth.

Mrs. McGuire: I am sorry, but I do not misrepresent the position. I think that we have laid it out fairly clearly. We would have been lacking in our duty of care if we just handed employees a document saying, “This is what the options are”. As has been well aired in this Chamber and in other parts of the Palace of Westminster, the process is intended to ensure that we support people by explaining what is going to happen and what the options might be. That was the situation in Stockton.

Frank Cook: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. McGuire: No. I only have another two or three minutes and I want to deal with some other points that were raised.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) has taken a great deal of interest in the future of the Poole site and she is a worthy champion of Remploy. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution contract, as I think she put it, was never made with the RNLI, but with the distributor of lifejackets. The work was transferred because there is now only work for one factory. I hope that I can give the hon. Lady some comfort by saying that the scanning, which she mentioned somewhat disparagingly, was part of the iON consortium’s
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work for the DWP and is a good example of public procurement. However, I fully appreciate her concern that workers will feel worried where there is instability and uncertainty. I will make it my business to ensure that as much information as possible is given to her and to the workers in the Poole factory.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) spoke about the Welsh factories and mentioned transport costs. We tried absolutely everything, including consulting local authorities and the Welsh Assembly Government, to put together a package that would save those factories. More than half the employees have opted to transfer to the Baglan site. Transport has been arranged and costs will be met. I say to the hon. Member for Shipley that the Bradford employees have had the option to transfer to the Leeds factory and 12 have opted to do so.

This has been a difficult process for us all: trade unions, individual workers, Members of Parliament and Ministers. Change is difficult, but we have put in place the right support systems to ensure that we can take Remploy from what it undoubtedly was when it was established nearly 60 years ago to what it needs to be to meet the aspirations and ambitions of disabled people in the 21st century. Obviously, there will be details that I will have to look at as a result of this debate, but I want colleagues to realise that we are trying to ensure that we get more disabled people into employment in a way that meets their ambitions and aspirations, and in as supportive a fashion as possible.

This issue is difficult for everyone, and it has been a difficult decision for Ministers to make. I think that we have made the right decision and, over the five-year period, disabled people will see the difference that a new Remploy will make to their lives.

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Prison Policy

11 am

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I thank Mr. Speaker for granting permission for the debate. I welcome the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, and the Front-Bench spokesmen for the two other main parties, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). I commend the work of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough, particularly on the recent Conservative party proposals on radically reforming our prison system. We will no doubt hear more about those proposals during the winding-up speeches.

Our prisons are in crisis and our prison system is not working as it should. I believe, as do my constituents, that imprisoning people for committing a criminal offence is appropriate in many circumstances and that prison works. However, the present system does not work. Too many prisoners have to spend their time in overcrowded conditions and reoffending rates have increased during the past decade, which suggests that the prison system is not working as it should. Indeed, the prison population has soared from 61,000 prisoners in 1997 to just over 82,000 today. I hope that the Minister will give us the latest up-to-date figures on how many people are held in jails in England and Wales.

It is perhaps more distressing that reoffending rates have also risen: from 57 per cent. in 1997 to 66 per cent. now. Worryingly, one of the reasons for the increase in reoffending is the increase in overcrowding. As of 31 January this year, 84 prison establishments in England and Wales, which is 60 per cent. of the prison estate, were overcrowded. In 14 of those establishments, the population was more than 150 per cent. of the certified normal accommodation.

A National Audit Office report concluded that prison

and that prisons should, therefore, change the way in which they deliver education courses. As part of its inquiry into the rehabilitation of offenders, the Select Committee on Home Affairs stated that

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): My hon. Friend is right; overcrowding is a factor in the increase in the number of prisoners who reoffend. However, does he also accept that it might partly be because prison is like a holiday camp, as one prisoner told the Secretary of State last week? About 1,500 prisoners have Sky TV in their cells, five prisons have swimming pools for use by inmates and two thirds of prisoners have keys to their cells. One custody sergeant told me that the biggest deterrent to people committing crimes was the prospect of going to prison for the first time, but once they had been to prison, it was no deterrent at all—their friends were there and it was not half as bad as they expected it to be. Does my hon. Friend accept that such a situation also leads to reoffending?

Mr. Hollobone: I am grateful for that extremely helpful intervention. I commend my hon. Friend on the work that he does in the House on behalf of his constituents; he is always forthright and on the ball when representing
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their concerns. I agree with his analysis. Indeed, with his permission, I shall later quote extensively from the debate on prisons that he initiated in Westminster Hall almost exactly a year ago. I shall quote some of the statistics that he mentioned at that time on why prison works.

I agree with my hon. Friend: in many cases prison is far too cushy. Like him, I was on the police parliamentary scheme for a year. I spent 22 days with the Northamptonshire police, and again and again police officers told me that in many cases prison is no longer a deterrent. If somebody has not been to prison before, it might be a deterrent, but once someone has been to prison that is no longer the case. For career criminals—who are becoming younger and younger—incarceration is considered a career break or a holiday. Prison is not intimidating to such people in any way. In fact, the quality of life for many individuals is higher in prison than when they have to do an honest day’s hard work in their home town. I agree with my hon. Friend: prison is neither the deterrent that it once was nor that it should be. I shall explore those issues later.

We must stress the fact that there should be a rehabilitative element to prison. People should not simply be put in prison for a set time without attempts being made to change their attitude and behaviour. Overcrowded jails result in the rehabilitative process being damaged. It is not simply that people are not serving their sentences in full, as I and my hon. Friend would like them to do, but that they are not being properly prepared for release once their sentence has finished. The overcrowded state of our jails means that it is not possible to provide the rehabilitative programmes that should be in place.

I quoted some figures on the present level of overcrowding. Another statistic is that some 17,000 prisoners are doubling up in cells—twice as many as when the Government came to power. More than 1,000 of cells designed for two people are actually being occupied by three, which means that nearly a quarter of the entire prison population is housed in cells designed for one fewer person.

Because the prison system is not working as it should, emergency measures have been introduced that have resulted in the early release of violent offenders. Community sentences command small and declining levels of public confidence. In short, the prison system simply is not working. It is not that the Government have had no notice of the growth in the prison population. They have been aware of projections about the size of the prison population, but they have done too little about building prisons to house the extra prisoners.

I believe that prison works, and for the benefit of Members I shall reprise some of the statistics that startled me when I first heard them a year ago when they were mentioned in this Chamber by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley. In terms of absolute numbers, Britain has a relatively high prison population, but that in itself should not be surprising as we are a relatively highly populated country. As my hon. Friend pointed out, again and again the prison population is given in terms of numbers of prisoners per 100,000 of population, but in fact we should be looking at the number of prisoners per 100,000 crimes. Let us consider that and see what the result is.

If we consider the number of prisoners per 100,000 of population, the figures are near the average, but are still quite high. However, if we consider the number of
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prisoners per crime, we have the lowest prison population in the western world—lower than the US, Canada, Australia and other EU countries. For every 1,000 crimes committed in the UK, we have approximately 13 prisoners, compared with approximately 15 in Canada and Australia, well over 20 in the rest of the EU as a whole, and a whopping 166 in the US.

We are told that prison does not work. Let us examine the evidence. In fact, the evidence shows that prison does work in reducing crime. The country with the lowest prison rate in terms of prisoners per crime, which is the UK, has the highest crime rate—more than 10,000 crimes for every 100,000 people. However, the country with the highest prison rate, the US, has the lowest crime rate—about 4,400 crimes for every 100,000 people. Canada, the country with the second lowest prison rate, has the second highest crime rate. The EU has the second highest prison rate and the second lowest crime rate. Prison also helps to prevent reoffending.

Philip Davies: I am flattered that my hon. Friend is using some of the arguments that I deployed in the debate a year ago. Does he agree that it is blindingly obvious that countries with the highest prison populations have the lowest crime rates, because the more criminals who are locked up in prison, the fewer who are out on the streets committing crimes?

Mr. Hollobone: As usual, my hon. Friend is spot-on. One reason for the reduction in the crime rate over recent years is that a large number of extra people, particularly violent offenders, have been incarcerated.

The other point about prison is that it helps to reduce reoffending. I shall explore some of the statistics. Just before Christmas 2006, the Home Office sneaked out a report on reoffending. Entitled “Re-offending of adults: results from the 2003 cohort” and published in November 2006, it concluded that

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