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House of Lords

Tuesday, 18th April 2000.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Rochester.

Lord Grenfell of Kilvey

Julian Pascoe Francis St. Leger Lord Grenfell, having been created Baron Grenfell of Kilvey, in the County of Swansea, for life, took the oath.

Lord Mitford

Rupert Bertram Lord Redesdale, having been created Baron Mitford, of Redesdale in the County of Northumberland, for life, took the oath.

Prisoners: Rehabilitation

2.40 p.m.

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, in view of recent reports by the Chief Inspector of Prisons on the effects of solitary confinement and on the treatment of young offenders, and following two suicides in Leicester prison on 21st March, they will now instigate a policy review of the role of prisons in the rehabilitation and well-being of prisoners in the United Kingdom.

Lord Bach: My Lords, the Government work with the Prison Service to review and update policy continually in respect of the role of prisons in the rehabilitation and well-being of prisoners. The Chief Inspector of Prisons' inspection reports and thematic reviews provide a valuable input to that process. As part of the comprehensive spending review the Government provided £226 million over three years for constructive regimes aimed at reducing re-offending. There is still some way to go, but significant improvements in regimes and rehabilitation are being delivered across the prison estate.

Lord Judd: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Does he agree that whatever good work is being carried out by many dedicated people within the service, there is a disturbing situation? Whenever the chief inspector makes a devastating report, we hear accounts of what has been done to address the situation and, all too soon, sometimes literally within days, the next disturbing situation arises. Does my noble friend agree that there appear to be cultural problems within the Prison Service?

Many people who are in prison should not be there at all but should probably be in psychiatric care. Many young prisoners have had absolutely nightmarish social and family experiences which have led to their

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imprisonment. While punishment, where appropriate, is important, does the Minister agree that there is urgent need for leadership in establishing the biggest challenge of all, which is rehabilitation into positive citizenship? Does he also agree that there can be no complacency whatever about any suicides or any psychological damage to young people or any prisoners in custodial care?

Lord Bach: My Lords, we believe that the Prison Service carries out, under great pressure, an excellent job, but failures gain the most publicity. In recent years, the performance on security has improved markedly. Many excellent things happen in our prisons. However, the Government agree with my noble friend's statement that rehabilitation is absolutely critical. Increasingly, rehabilitation is emphasised within prisons. The Government are determined to improve regimes. Of course, those who have committed serious offences must be locked up for the protection of others, but it is equally important that they should not offend when released. The role of rehabilitation in that respect cannot be over emphasised.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, in relation to two inmates who committed suicide, does the Minister accept that both had the same tendency and were put in the same cell? What aftercare and advice are available to prison officers, particularly when prisoners are taken off "at risk" registers? Having made a statement about the need to divert young people away from custody, can the Minister explain why, under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the matter relating to reparation and training orders for young people comes into force in June as against new custodial powers that are being introduced in April, giving the message that custody comes before any reparation matters?

Lord Bach: My Lords, on the deaths in custody raised by the noble Lord, the whole House will want to convey personal condolences to the families of the two young men who died so tragically. It was a particularly tragic event. Perhaps I may speak personally for a moment. I know Leicester prison extremely well. In my professional career I have visited it much more than any other prison. In my experience, the staff and the governor are of the highest quality. That is my personal recollection.

Every suicide in prison is a tragedy and every one is taken extremely seriously by Ministers. As the noble Lord knows, the prison department investigates each one and there is an independent coroner's inquest. It is too early to be able to give more details on the points the noble Lord raises about these particular tragedies. Perhaps I can make one further point about deaths in prisons--

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Bach: I shall leave the matter as the House is against me.

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The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the concern expressed in this House, not least by the right reverend Prelates the Bishops of Lincoln and Southwark, and also in the press, regarding the reluctance of prison staff and prison chaplains to report abuse by colleagues for fear of victimisation? How is that grave problem to be addressed? Is the Minister aware also of the need to involve leaders of faith communities in the care of prisoners belonging to those communities? Are any initiatives being taken in that respect?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is right to make his point in relation to examples of victimisation. If there are such cases, I hope that in one way or another the authorities hear of them so that they can be dealt with seriously and speedily. Of course the faiths have a huge part to play in looking after those in custody and the Government are behind the increased involvement of the faiths in our penal institutions.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, does the Minister realise that the number of purposeful hours per prisoner fell from 26.4 hours per week in 1994-95 to 22.8 in 1998-99? Does he agree that a programme producing 1¼ million pairs of socks over the past three years, not for sale but for the use of a prison population of around 60,000, is neither productive nor, for the prisoners, a fulfilling use of their time?

Lord Bach: My Lords, this is not an issue that should be between parties; it is much too serious a matter. The tone of the noble Viscount's question suggested that somehow his government did better than ours. That is not true. The figures indicate that prisoners are being given more active time and more purposeful activities outside their cells. But the noble Viscount will know as well as I do that this is a difficult issue which must be coped with in the best way possible.

Baroness Stern: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the number of children in prison--children, as defined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, being under 18--has doubled since 1993? Those children come from the most damaged backgrounds. In the light of that, does he expect government policy to lead to a reduction in the number of children in prison? If so, when can we expect it to happen?

Lord Bach: My Lords, we hope that those of tender ages and from underprivileged backgrounds do not end up in prison. If they do, it is important that such children are educated in basic skills, which may lead to work when they are released. There is then more chance that they will not re-offend. It is critical that education regimes in prison are increased, as is currently happening.

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Housing Benefit Fraud

2.46 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, in order to reduce fraud, they will in future require all local authorities to arrange with the Post Office for housing benefit correspondence not to be redirected to other addresses, as already arranged in the present voluntary scheme.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, the powers we inherited in the March 1997 Fraud Act do not allow us to compel local authorities, even if that were desirable. However, 272 local authorities have now adopted the scheme; most of the rest should do so shortly.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her reply, which is encouraging. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a severe crackdown on welfare fraud, why do not the Government get tough on housing benefit deception, which is known to be widespread, instead of concentrating on changes to disablement benefits? The noble Baroness has confirmed more than once in this House that there is very little fraud in relation to the claiming of disability benefit.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am happy to confirm again that there is little or no evidence of fraud in relation to disability benefit. A great deal of error occurs in payment primarily because, fortunately, people get better and, as a result, they should be in receipt of less disability benefit. However, they do not always report the change in circumstance and therefore continue to misdraw that benefit.

The noble Lord is right that serious fraud takes place in relation to housing benefit. Fraud, or a strong suspicion of fraud, is responsible for the loss of around £840 million in that regard. One in six housing benefit claims is probably paid in error. We are tackling this situation in three ways. We are building a verification framework with local authorities to ensure that fraud is, as far as possible, built out of the system at the point of the original claim. Secondly, given that most errors occur after the initial claim when people's circumstances change, we are aiming for a weekly benefit savings scheme with local authorities so that they have an incentive to eradicate and prosecute fraud. Thirdly, we are going for the "Do not redirect" procedures with the Royal Mail. So we have a strategy in place. We hope that, as a result, we will see a significant reduction in housing benefit fraud.

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