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Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Rooker: My Lords, we have a constructive dialogue. The same was the case in my previous department at the DSS with the pensions ombudsman. That is the role of ombudsmen; if they did not do that they would not be doing their job. I pay tribute to Sir David Ramsbotham and I hope that I shall have good contacts with his successor, Anne Owers.

The state of prisons is a major concern for this House. When I first obtained my ministerial position in the Home Office I realised that I was de facto Home Secretary in this House in the sense that I answered on all relevant matters. I said, "Look, I can't possibly be put in the position in which a noble Lord stands up and asks, 'How many prisons have you visited since you have been at the Home Office?', to which I would have to answer, 'None'. My day job relates to other areas but I have got to get round the prison estate".

I will share with the House a couple of examples. On the morning before I made my maiden speech in this House I had a quick two-hour trip to Wormwood Scrubs on my way here. Last Friday morning I was at Brinsford. There will be more visits--in fact, there will be one tomorrow morning, but I do not want to advertise it in advance; it is not an unannounced visit but it is not of great moment for the House. When I make visits around the country relating to my immigration responsibilities I try to make it my business to ensure that there are areas of the Home Office estate--particularly prisons--that I can visit. That is important because it allows me report back to this House and to share my experience with ministerial colleagues.

In my notes I wrote that the theme of the debate was education, drugs, women and young people. Other issues, including asylum seekers, were raised--I do not suggest that they are not important--but those themes were mentioned more often by noble Lords. I have a "set piece" relating to the population, funding and investment, the importance of managing the service, young offenders and resettlement. Those matters are interrelated in many ways.

It is true that the prison population is high and that it has been getting higher. We in this country are not proud of the fact that we have more people per head of population in that position than anywhere else in Europe except Portugal. That is nothing to be proud of. For the information of noble Lords, today's count is 66,874.

Last week, following the Halliday report, the Home Secretary announced a significant consultation exercise on the future of sentencing arrangements. I cannot go into great detail because there is not enough time but there will be plenty of opportunities to do so. When the Home Secretary spoke on the

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gracious Speech, he meant what he said; I repeated in this House the fact that we want to have a consensus if we can. We want to share and consult before key decisions are made and to have as open a debate as possible. We are almost unique among civilised countries in that we have a party-political dog-fight over the criminal justice system; it need not be like that. That arrangement does not benefit the population as a whole, let alone the prison population.

The Government are not in the business of being driven by the size of the prison population. Our starting point--our priority--is to reduce crime; it is not necessarily to look at the size of the prison population. My view, which I believe was also expressed by other noble Lords today, is that some prisoners should not be in prison; I simply do not understand why fine defaulters are in prison. How can they pay the fine? How can anything positive come of that? Where there has been no offence such as theft in the sense of acquisitive burglary or violence against people, it does not make sense to send people to prison.

I read this morning of a recent case--thank goodness it was in the press otherwise it would simply have been in internal Home Office papers--involving a woman who had a disagreement of some kind about a debt of around £200. I believe she would not answer the judge in court and he said, "Contempt. Seven days' imprisonment". The woman was a thalidomide victim who had no arms and no legs. The prison had not made preparation and she had to spend two nights in a police station. What was the system thinking about in sentencing someone like that to seven days' imprisonment? It was absolutely appalling. She quite rightly won a human rights claim because the prison could not take care of her properly. It does not make sense to put that kind of pressure on the prison system. I know this may be construed as an attack on the judge but it is not meant to be personal.

Why are we sending people to prison and what are the benefits of so doing? No doubt we can all find similar examples. Of course, we are planning to increase capacity. In many ways, on a narrow interpretation of Halliday, we could have a rise in the prison population before it reduces. But it is important to remember that the aim is to reduce the numbers of people serving custodial sentences.

In relation to women in prison, I shall certainly make an effort to visit the women's estate. The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, reminded us of the issues in that regard, as did many other noble Lords. As I understand it from the report of Professor Wedderburn, published in February last year, she met the former prisons Minister. The issues in that report are still being considered. I understand that the Chief Inspector of Prisons completed a follow-up to his thematic report, Women in Prison, and that was being published today.

It is a serious issue. The female prison population has almost doubled in the past five years. The increases in the sentences on women for drug offences explain 50 per cent of that net increase. Some of those are foreign nationals who came here as drug mules, which

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brings real difficulty. It is a major issue for their families, their children and the fact that we now have record numbers in the prisons.

In respect of drugs, I wanted to make one point. I know we have not been at all party political today, but at one point I thought I heard someone say, "the socialist government elected in 1997". It was the very powerful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Chadlington. I was extremely glad to be here to listen to it, as with all the other speeches. Powerful lessons can be learnt.

The noble Lord asked specifically about the story in today's Evening Standard. The issue is included in tomorrow's business when I will be bringing forward an order for the support of the House in relation to part of the process of the pilot studies for testing alleged criminals who have been arrested and charged with specific offences in connection with Class A drugs--cocaine and heroin. Those schemes are to be piloted in one part of London and in Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire. I shall give more details tomorrow. That is connected with a longitudinal study. We must find out more because drugs and acquisitive crime are closely related. We know that, particularly when it comes to Class A drugs.

I realise that I am nowhere near coping with the time constraints, but I should like to mention funding and investment. There has been an increase in funding in real terms of 13 per cent since 1997-98 and by 2003-04 it will have increased by 23 per cent from that base line. The Prison Service has focused on key priorities, spending £8 million on suicide prevention and £5 million each year over the next three years on the young offenders' estate. I cannot do better than support and reinforce the issues mentioned by my noble friend Lord Warner.

I saw the effect of that at Brinsford and the contrast between the juvenile section and the 18 to 20 section. The governor was extremely conscious of what they had been able to do for one part of Brinsford but not yet the other. There is no question but that it is a serious issue.

I spoke to two young men, both aged 18 sharing the same cell. I was not quizzing them too much. I asked how long they had been there and how many times. One offered the information that he had been there four times. He was aged 18 and had spent his 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th birthdays in Brinsford on four separate visits. I asked the other gentleman the same questions. He said that this was his first visit and then, without any further prompting from anybody, said, "But after I get out I suppose I'll be back". Those were his words. I asked why he thought that. He said, "Well, I'll be with the gang and my mates".

That is depressing in the extreme. I visited the schools and the classrooms on the upper floor at Brinsford where there were two teachers from an offshoot of the local college which had the contract, with around 12 young men of similar age. They were teaching the most basic of writing and communication skills. It is absolutely clear, without knowing anything about the backgrounds of those young men, that they

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had been thrown out of school years before. They were not products of the secondary education system. The schools were able to get rid of them; the prison could not. The prison could not say, "You are being disruptive. We do not want you".

But that indicates absolute failure. This is 2001. Those people were around 18. They have come through an educational system which has completely failed them. As most other noble Lords said, there is a direct link between their education and their offending. We must therefore make extra efforts in the schools. David Blunkett is very conscious of that and he will appreciate--I say so on his behalf--what has been said about him and his efforts to bring some of that ethos over to the Home Office. That is not an unimportant point. We have to do better, otherwise there will be an inexorable increase which will do nobody any good.

We can all pay tribute to the calibre of the Prison Service and the quality of the people who work and effectively live in the prisons as officers and staff, on whatever level. I freely admit that there have been problems and action has been taken against some officers. More than one officer has gone to prison for the mistreatment of prisoners. We will not tolerate that under any circumstances. We will back the governors, though it is a worry that the amount of time a governor spends in the prison raises issues of quality of management and bringing forward cadres for other skills to come forward in the governor grades.

Problems will obviously arise when there are frequent changes of governor. It is the same in a school. If it has three or four head teachers over the same number of years, obviously the school will have problems. In the prisons, if the top person changes frequently it is self-evident that problems will arise. That would be the situation in any walk of life.

I know my visit to Wormwood Scrubs was a brief visit--only a couple of hours--but I found that over 50 per cent of the prison population there are foreign nationals. That places enormous pressures on the prison management. It is a combination of Uxbridge and Heathrow. Wormwood Scrubs becomes the receiving house. Excellent work has been done by Her Majesty's Customs and Excise in relation to those seeking to bring drugs into the country, but nevertheless real pressures are placed on the prison when 50 per cent of its population are foreign nationals.

In terms of the issues relating to resettlement, noble Lords got it right. It is not the case that resettlement relates to the short time after the sentence. Education has to take place over the whole of the sentence, and outside the prison. Of course if such education is conducted outside then people may not have gone to prison in the first place. We must have a more workmanlike and civilised approach, but must still take account of the reality. Until we can bring about a real reduction in crime, we shall certainly have to provide more places. I believe we will have some substantial debates on the legislation coming forward

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later this Session and certainly when we propose the consequences of the consultation on the Halliday report.

I regret that I have gone over time, but I would like to give a couple of facts and figures regarding the education that takes place in prison. A substantial amount of work takes place. Over the years the treatment of prisoners has improved considerably. No prisoner is held three-to-a-cell in a cell designed for one, despite the record population of the past few weeks. Fifty thousand educational certificates were achieved by prisoners last year and completion of offending behaviour programmes is up by 336 per cent on 1996/97.

I accept that there is some criticism. I am afraid I shall not be able to go into detail on the points raised by my noble friend Lady Stern. There is a major issue in terms of rehabilitation and trying to get some accreditation in a way that is rigidly rigorous. There is also the issue of achieving good academic standards, good scrutiny and, I hope, peer group assessment. I shall have to go into that further and I shall write to the noble Baroness as she asked me five specific questions to which she deserves answers.

Over the same period--from 1996/97 to the present time--the rate of positive drug tests has been halved, which is a success. Drug testing is taking place over the weekends and not just on weekdays. There has been an improvement in security. Escapes from prison establishments have been cut from 232 in 1992 to 11 last year. There is also a new strategy to prevent suicides that will target efforts where the risks are greatest. I have already said that several millions of pounds are being put into that effort this year.

Nevertheless, that is only a start; there is a great deal more to be done. This afternoon noble Lords have highlighted a number of instances in which inspection reports and other matters have revealed serious short-comings in conditions for prisoners. Establishments such as Brixton and Feltham continue to give cause for concern. That has to be addressed. Within the past year, Winson Green in Birmingham received what has been described as its worst inspection report ever.

There are serious concerns about some of our prisons, but there is an attempt within the Prison Service, led by the Director General and his staff, to raise the game. There is a repertoire of good practice and there are success stories in many prisons but that has to be shared around the rest of the country. Where the examples of Leeds, Wormwood Scrubs and Werrington have led, Birmingham, Brinsford and others can follow. I know that failure makes better news than success, but the Prison Service has to prove that it can turn failure into success.

We also need to be realistic. Turning around a large prison population with problems is a massive task and it will not be achieved overnight. The Government have provided significant resources. I have not gone into the statistics but under the recent spending review several hundred millions of pounds have gone towards making a serious impact on the prison estate. We have made it clear that inadequate conditions cannot

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continue and Ministers have given every encouragement and support to those running the Prison Service.

I end as I began with Sir David Ramsbotham's comment in his speech a few weeks ago that at the end of last month he had had three of the most positive experiences of his whole time as Chief Inspector. He had inspected three establishments, Brinsford, Chelmsford and Stoke Heath, all of which he had condemned a year before.

Progress is being made and we have to ensure that the same happens to the other prisons which have been given bad reports as we have achieved for those three prisons in the past year.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Hurd of Westwell: My Lords, it would be silly of me to try to embroider the debate after we have heard so many speeches that have covered such a wide area. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Cope for what he said. It was significant and welcome. I hope that it will be noted that this debate is taking place in official Conservative time, for which I am grateful.

On the wholly disarming speech of the Minister, there is a constitutional point in the background with which we are all familiar. Constantly in this House--this point was raised in the Royal Commission but the suggestions put forward have not yet been acted upon--a Minister replies to a debate on a subject with which he does not deal with day by day, and we put up with it. Ministers in that position have two techniques open to them. Someone as agile as the Minister could perfectly well settle for spending an hour on the brief, turning it into plain English and retreating to his cubby-hole as quickly as he can. The Chief Whip is here so I will not name names, but there have been Ministers who have adopted that technique and got away with it.

It is quite clear that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is not going to do that. He is visiting prisons; he is going to soak himself in the subject; he will go to the policy meetings and he will make a nuisance of himself, I hope. On past form, he is perfectly capable of doing that. Everyone in this House will welcome that. If that is to be his role, the least we can do is to be his critics from time to time but I hope that he will also treat us as his allies. There is plenty of material and ammunition lying around as a result of this debate.

I shall not summarise the points. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, raised a specific matter about the 18 to 20 year-olds, which is a crucial point. I did not mention women and the Wedderburn report because I knew that the noble Lord, Lord Acton, would do so, although I would have done if I had had more time. My noble friend Lord Chadlington spoke about drugs, as did the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham.

If the Minister is wise he will learn a little bit of the history--but not too much. We have had a debate in the House on the Blantyre House affair, organised by my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden, and it was the subject of an extraordinary Select Committee report in the other place. It is

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extraordinary how such a situation could have happened. It is like a group of medieval barons who decide to raid the castle of a fellow baron, and all that in the Prison Service. It is worth looking into that and into one or two other episodes that were touched upon to see how they could have happened to ensure that they do not happen again.

I hope that the point made by the Minister is one that he really believes because it goes to the heart of what this House is about. Every noble Lord who has spoken in this debate has spoken from direct personal involvement and, as the Minister said, that is not the case in the other place. The House of Commons is not constituted like that any more; it used to be, but it is not now. If the right reverend Prelate will forgive me, the Minister is surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. I hope that he will make good use of that. Those who have spoken in this debate are the realists. Often we are accused of having our heads up in the air and knowing nothing about the subject, but the people who are unreal and who have their heads in the air are the polemicists and the politicians who bang on about punishment and crime without knowing the first thing about prisons.

If he will accept noble Lords as critics and as allies--this subject will not go away--he will be useful to the House and maybe we can be useful to him. In my view there is no subject on which it is more important that the House should operate in this way than the one that we have just discussed. I am most grateful for this opportunity and to all those who have spoken. I am also grateful to my noble friend and to the Minister for the way in which he has responded. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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