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House of Lords

Monday, 30 October 2006.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Rochester.

Personal Statement: Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, with permission, I should like to make a personal Statement. Last Thursday, I answered a question from my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours about proceedings in Parliament in which he had mentioned someone’s name. In my answer, I said that,

That was not correct. The BBC Parliament channel did in fact broadcast those proceedings without any editing, both live on the internet and on television the following day. The name was later edited out when the proceedings were broadcast on “Today in Parliament” and “Yesterday in Parliament”. I give my unreserved apology for having misled the House in that way.

Prisons: Pentonville

2.37 pm

Baroness Stern asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, as with all of HMCIP’s establishment reports, an action plan will be produced within two months of publication. It will respond in detail to each recommendation. Her Majesty’s Government are grateful to the chief inspector for her insightful report on Pentonville, which is undoubtedly an establishment under pressure. The Prison Service has acted to relieve some of this pressure by reducing Pentonville’s operational capacity by more than 100.

Baroness Stern: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply, but does she agree with me that the chief inspector’s report shows that Pentonville is a prison in crisis? Is the Minister aware that the chief inspector says not just that Pentonville is affected but that all our local prisons are overcrowded and pressurised? Since one-third of our 80,000 prisoners are held in local prisons, can the Minister tell the House how the Government plan to respond to the crisis that affects not just Pentonville, but all local prisons?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, it would be incorrect to describe Pentonville as being in crisis, although it is undeniable that it has significant difficulties. It is one of the busiest prisons in London, receiving between 90 and 100 prisoners per day. There is a very targeted action plan for Pentonville, and a further action plan will be produced one year after publication of the report. Appropriate plans are in place for all local prisons, both to manage the pressures that they are experiencing and to keep prisoners safe.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, the chief inspector found that prisoners spent an average of five hours per day out of their cells, while the prison record showed eight hours. This is not the first time that the chief inspector has found such a discrepancy between prison records and reality. What action are the Government taking to ensure that their information on prison regimes is more reliable?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we have taken steps to reinforce the management structure in Pentonville. There are now three new governor posts

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there; the action plan involves rigorously looking at all the issues that have been highlighted by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector; and a progressive action plan will be in place there between now and December.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, although it is true that quite a lot of prisons are overcrowded, certain open prisons are not and there are no suitable prisoners to transfer into them?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the supply and nature of our prisons is an issue. Noble Lords will know that proper use has been made of all available space, and I assure them that the matter has been given anxious consideration by all those responsible for it in the Home Office.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, I know that the Minister and the Government are committed to the decency agenda, but will she consider the pressures on the Prison Service, which, realistically, will continue for quite a long time, even if new places are made available and other forms of punishment are used more frequently? Does she agree that there is a real need for the further training of officers when they are going to be working under pressures of that kind? Conflict and anger management, for example, would have assisted in some of the things that Her Majesty's Chief Inspector discovered.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I agree with the right reverend Prelate that the training of officers is critical. We are now able to engage prisoners more in activities, and the benefits of that are clear. We are also taking steps to ensure that officers receive the appropriate training to enable them to look after people in prison in a more progressive way.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords—

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords—

Lord Elton: My Lords—

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos): My Lords, it is the turn of the Liberal Democrats.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, the chief inspector’s devastating report stated that Pentonville was dirty and infested with vermin, that too many prisoners lacked pillows and toothbrushes and that, on one occasion, the prison even ran out of food. Were the Government aware of those problems before the chief inspector reported on them or only afterwards; and what action has been taken to deal with them?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the Government were aware that there were management difficulties. For that reason, the governor has been changed and three new governor posts created. Additional funding has been provided for the prison to bring about physical improvements, including the refurbishment of the visits complex and the staff mess and artwork for prisoner accommodation areas.

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Those areas are being worked on energetically. We inside the Prison Service made the assessment that Pentonville was not doing well enough and that change was absolutely fundamental.

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, year after year, we have report after report of failing local prisons. Sometimes that is followed by short-term improvement, but there is never consistent long-term improvement, with the lessons learnt being applied everywhere. Does the Minister not accept that this is a fundamental failure of the Prison Service management and management structure and that, until and unless someone is responsible and accountable for all local prisons to see that the lessons are applied, such unavoidable reports will continue to follow year after year?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, lessons are being learnt. The way in which the area managers are now planning the work enables us to learn from other situations and develop better systems of working. That will be reinforced even more when the National Offender Management Service is well embedded.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, I declare an interest as probably the only person in this place who has worked in Pentonville for six years as a member of the board of visitors. May I ask two questions? First, what proportion of the prisoners there nowadays are remand prisoners, and does that not complicate the authority and working of the prison? Secondly, when I was working there, the main trouble was lack of lavatories and showers. Has that situation been improved?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right: one of the problems that Pentonville faces is the number of prisoners on remand. Approximately 65 per cent of the prison population is on remand. As the noble Baroness will know, that brings about a high turnover and an inability sometimes to establish prisoners on education programmes, with problems inherent in that. Those issues are being addressed. We are looking at relieving the pressure on Pentonville and sharing its allocation with other local prisons. We have a detailed action plan for better addressing the problems at Pentonville and learning from our experiences elsewhere, which has worked.

Natural England

2.45 pm

Lord Taylor of Holbeach asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, as part of Defra’s recent budget reduction

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exercise, the 2006-07 budgets for the founding bodies of Natural England, which are English Nature, the Countryside Agency and the Rural Development Service, were cut by £14 million, £12.9 million of which falls to Natural England. We hope to make an announcement on the 2007-08 budget in the next few weeks.

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. As usual, he was disarming in his candour. However, the candour cannot conceal the crisis that has overwhelmed Defra. What jobs will be lost in the light of the cuts and what of Natural England’s promised programme will be shelved or reduced?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the technical adjustment to this year’s budget is approximately £200 million. Our overall spend is £3.7 billion. I do not diminish the significance of £200 million—noble Lords should not misunderstand me—but it is a very small part of our overall budget. Within that, the adjustments to each of the bodies affected are quite small.

No part of Natural England’s programme will be affected. Some areas will proceed a little more slowly than others. Its start-up money has not been affected. It is important for a new organisation to be able to start up effectively—it was launched earlier this month. Its core budget is £170 million. When other funding streams for which it is responsible are factored in, that rises to some £225 million. It has overall responsibility for more than £400 million when one adds in the EU agrimoney schemes. I realise that that is not core funding, but Natural England can comfortably cope this year at the start-up. I understand that no one will be dismissed from their job as a result of the cuts to which the Question refers.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, as I understand it, Natural England’s major function is to enhance the environment. Is this not a crazy time to be contemplating a cut in the budget, especially when the whole budget is petty cash in public expenditure terms? Will my noble friend reconsider the cut?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I would probably have difficulty explaining to anybody that £200 million is petty cash, but it is petty cash in terms of our overall budget of £3.7 billion. It is a small part of the money. We have a satisfactory arrangement for readjusting Natural England’s budget, and we do not envisage any of its major schemes being affected. Some will probably start a little later than others—it had a spending moratorium in the period before it was launched. I understand that the moratorium was lifted on the launch day of 11 October.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, despite those answers, the Minister said categorically on 16 October that the budgets for flood defences would not be cut and that it would be possible to proceed with the EU water

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framework directive. Can he confirm that that is still the case, or will there not inevitably be some long-term cuts?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, that Answer was about the spending of the Environment Agency. I recall that I was asked specifically about flood defence work. That is not affected by this budget adjustment.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, although the Minister said that the cut was small beer, does he accept that it would have been crucial to many areas of Natural England’s work? Does he not regret the announcement of a £12 million budget cut on the day of the launch? That is hardly good PR. Is the £200 million cut due to overspend or underspend in Defra? Various views on what caused it have been put around.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, it is both. The £200 million is made up of approximately £40 million of work for various agencies that was delayed last year and brought into this year, as that helped to meet last year’s pressures relating to TB compensation and the final cost of foot and mouth disease; £55 million of work that was delayed last year and moved into this year to cope with a reduction in end-of-year funding arrangements; and £65 million of surplus capital charges that turned out to be no longer available under new rules. Some £23 million related to the RPA’s running costs, and there was £10 million extra emergency preparedness for avian influenza. That is how the £200 million is made up; there is no secret about it. Some was underspend, some was overspend, and some was expenditure delayed last year and brought into this year.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that British Waterways has announced that about 180 of its staff were made redundant? Can he say what short-term impact that is likely to have on British Waterways’ key role in urban regeneration?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I probably need a bit more advice on British Waterways, because Natural England does not deal with it. British Waterways is a trading body. It is true that it has had a cut, but, again, it is a fairly small percentage of its income. Some people might say that the cut is not the reason why it has had to make the redundancies, but I do not know. I would have to take further advice on that.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, was the scale of the forthcoming cuts inherent in the Question known to the Government when the Bill setting up the new agency was going through the House?

Lord Rooker: Certainly not, my Lords. The reality is that a team of Ministers went into Defra at the time of the reshuffle in May, and at the end of June it was drawn to our attention that there was a hole in the budget. We are trying to deal with it as best as we can.

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The Countess of Mar: My Lords, will the noble Lord explain who is responsible for what I can only describe as cock-ups in the accountancy in Defra, and are their heads going to roll?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, with respect, I do not think that that is a fair way of putting it. I have explained how the pressures behind the £200 million have come about. The fact that they came to light and were put to Ministers only at the end of June, to be dealt with this year, makes it more difficult. People have expectations. The budget was fixed at least at the last CSR and would therefore have been known last autumn. It certainly was not known when the legislation for Natural England was going through. I have explained that each amount is justifiable, and we cannot ignore them. We have to deal with this as best as we can, as we have tried to do in the department’s overall budget and spending of nearly £4 billion.

Defra: Budget

2.52 pm

Lord Livsey of Talgarth asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, the Rural Payments Agency business change programme did not lead to deficits that required cuts within Defra.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, I may be wrong, but in his original Answer to the previous Question I thought I heard the Minister refer to cuts in the Rural Payments Agency. Will the noble Lord explain the further £200 million cuts in the Defra budget this year? Many of us feel that that is very much related to the massive overspend in the Rural Payments Agency and its problems with the single farm payments scheme. Surely, the shortfall should have come from the contingency fund and not from slashing vet services at a time when we must be concerned about bird flu. There are also problems in the Environment Agency, and we have just heard about the cuts in Natural England.

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