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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I think that one should begin by saying that any death in custody is unacceptable. No one wants to see suicides in custody. The Government, and particularly the Prison Service, take the matter extremely seriously. Staff are trained to deal and cope with exactly those sorts of problems. A risk assessment programme is in place where it is thought that a prisoner might self-harm.
The noble Lord is right that there are stresses and strains within the Prison Service; no one would want to gloss over that fact. However, the Government are investing much more in education within the prison estate. By the end of January 2004, the prison system, including public and contracted prisons, delivered 34,792 basic skills awards against an original projection of just 30,000 for that year. I think that that emphasises the fact that we are expanding educational activity in prisons, which is very much in line with the expanded budget for education in the Prison Service.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, do the Government have an explanation for why we have a much higher prison population per capita than any comparable western European country? Is it that we are more wicked, or the system more vindictive, or what?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I do not know whether we are more wicked or not. I like to think that, by and large, we live in a liberal, peaceable community. However, when people offend they must be dealt with and they must face the full consequences of the law. I think that we all accept that fact.
Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, referring to the Minister's reply to the right reverend Prelate, does he not agree that the definition of "usable operational capacity" is the maximum safe overcrowdedI repeat the word "overcrowded"capacity of the prison estate? In view of that, what assessment has the Minister made of the effect that sentencing policy, both currently and over the next 10 years, is expected to have upon the prison population in England and Wales? How has any such assessment affected the Government's building programme?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we have made very careful assessment of the likely increase in the prison population. However, it is notoriously difficult to be precise in these matters. Some estimates last year suggested that we would have a rather larger prison population than we currently have, but that has not turned out to be the case. Following development of the building programme, by 2006 there will be operational capacity of 78,700 prison places. Statistics are notoriously easy to misinterpret but one good and, I thought, rather cheering statistic on which I alighted in my briefing indicates that the number of young people in prison is now 1 per cent less than it was this time last year,
Baroness Stern: My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the number of women in prison has increased by 67 per cent since 1997. Of the 4,500 women locked up, more than half report a background of domestic violence and more than a third have been sexually abused. Does the Minister consider that putting those women in prison for the minor crimes that they have committed serves justice and reduces crime?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it is hard to make a sweeping assertion that all of the women to whom the noble Baroness referredit is obviously extremely unfortunate that they are in prisonare in prison for minor offences. I have no doubt that they will have been properly convicted by the courts for offences that merit a period of time in custody. While those women are in prison of course it is right that, following an assessment, correctional programmes are put in place which deal with the very many problems to which the noble Baroness referred. During my visits to female establishments within the Prison Service I was most impressed by the quality of the work that was carried out in particular to deal with matters such as self-harm, abuse, drug abuse, and so on. It is such work that we need to invest in to ensure that people do not reoffend and can usefully lead a valuable life outside prison.
Lord Elton: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the figures are double what they were in the 1980s when I served as prison Minister and that we regarded that as disgraceful? What sense of urgency is there in overcoming the problem of reoffending? How do the Prison Service and the probation service establish that no prisoner leaves prison without a means of support and shelter so that he is not driven immediately into crime again?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, as I have said on many occasions, it is for the courts to determine whether it is right for someone to go to prison. Of course, in sentencing they will act on the information that is before them to determine whether a sentence is appropriate. While prisoners are in prison it is right to establishthis is what we try to doan appropriate programme of education so that prisoners can usefully lead a life outside prison that will enable them to keep free of crime and becoming involved in new crime. We are not complacent about the issue of recidivism. It is part of our determination to ensure that rates of re-offending come down.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord asks a very pertinent question. For that very reason the Government decided to embark on a more coherent strategy linking the Prison Service and the probation service so that when offenders are released from prison they have the opportunity to receive counselling, advice, guidance and referral to the services which try to get to the root of their alcohol or drug abuse problem and thereby reduce the level of reoffending. That is one of the areas in which we have invested heavily over the past few years.
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, does the Minister agree that many women prisoners have a high incidence of churning about and movement from one prison to another, therefore increasing the social damage incurred by their imprisonment in separating them from their families? Have the Government looked into the possibility of trying to return the large number of female drug runners or mules who are in prison in this countrythey come mostly from the Caribbean islandsto the countries from which they originate to finish their prison sentence there because that particular section of the prison population has increased very rapidly in recent years?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Baroness puts her finger on a very pertinent problem. My understanding is that there has to be a prisoner transfer agreement in place between this country and the country from which the so-called drug "mule" has come. Therefore, certain issues need to be examined in that regard. This is something that we keep very carefully under review in terms of policy and it is a matter that we are obviously considering at all times.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, is the noble Lord awarethis is a short questionof what happens to those prisoners who are seriously mentally disturbed but cannot be sectioned because they are untreatable and are sent from one prison to another? What happens to them? Is he aware of the problem?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am aware of the problem. I have visited a number of health centres within the prison estate. I am well aware of the difficulty to which the noble Lord refers. The Prison Service tries to develop an appropriate programme for each individual. That is obviously given very high consideration when dealing with the health, particularly the mental health, of each individual prisoner. However, it is not an easy
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I apologise to your Lordships' House as that is not in my key statistics list. However, I am more than happy to try to find out those figures, write to the noble Baroness and share them with your Lordships' House.
Lord Clark of Windermere: My Lords, is not making more use of community service awards one way of reducing the prison population? Can the Minister give us an assurance that magistrates in England can confer community service awards on people who reside under different judicial systems such as the one that applies in Scotland?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I shall have to think about that question. If the noble Lord will bear with me, I shall probably have to write to him precisely on how that might work.
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