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House of Lords

Tuesday, 17 January 2006.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Oxford.

Prisons: Education and Training

Lord Quirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, the Green Paper envisages an augmented role for prison officers in reinforcing the learning programmes in which an individual offender is engaged, and encouraging and supporting learning activity. Staff beyond those employed directly in delivering offender learning can play a critical role in the development of an environment in which learning is taken seriously, working side by side with an increasingly skilled and qualified teaching and learning workforce.

Lord Quirk: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that helpful reply. Would she not agree with the recent report Wings of Learning from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College London, which demonstrates conclusively that many prison officers would like to be more involved in delivering the rehabilitation that education and training provide, and that they dislike being seen as operating only at the less pleasant end of prison life? I am sure that we would all agree that relations throughout the Prison Service would be improved if prison officers and inmates, and prison officers and educationalists, worked better together.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I absolutely agree with the sentiment expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Quirk. Prison officers have demonstrated their total commitment to this endeavour. The Prison Officers' Association has been forthright in its support for the report's conclusions. We also welcome the report. It makes an interesting and important contribution to the debate.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, how many writers in residence are now in prisons?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I do not know the precise figure. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharples, will know of the contribution that has been made to literacy and learning, and the enhancement of poetry and other matters which have been very useful. I will ensure that the noble Baroness has that information.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that the best system is a tripartite
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partnership between the prison officers, the local authority and private companies that are doing this work as well? That gives continuity for people coming out of prison and going on to further education.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that partnership is important. The Green Paper emphasises the important role that can be played by the business sector, working together with the learning sector and prison officers. It makes it clear that there is a role for everyone in strengthening the quality and effectiveness of training so that people are really employable.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, is it still the policy in some prisons to pay more for attending work sessions than educational skills classes? If that is so, what is the Government's policy on it?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I have made it absolutely clear that learning is of real importance, not least because it is the gateway out of offending behaviour. The acquisition of skills makes a direct impact on employability, which has a direct impact on resettlement and reducing reoffending. We are making that an important part of our new plans to change the template that we have had.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: My Lords, do the Government have any plans to increase the development and learning skills of prison officers, given the inadequate training base they have? In particular, is the Minister aware of the foundation degree course being developed at Leeds prison? It includes a module on how prison officers can develop prisoner learning, and thus leads to learning officers on the wing. Does the Minister support such an initiative?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we have supported all the initiatives in relation to the enhancement of prison officer learning. Indeed, the noble Baroness may be familiar with the efforts that have been made by the Prison Officers' Association and other unions to emphasise that the lifelong learning approach, which has been advocated by many, is the most appropriate. Prison officers will get a greater degree of fulfilment if they can continue to learn and can enhance the learning experience of prisoners. That is what we have learnt from the research and is the information that we are getting from elsewhere. It is an important contribution to the way forward.

Lord Judd: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that while the battle to change the culture in prisons from warehousing to an emphasis on rehabilitation is not yet totally won, one of the most encouraging dimensions of our Prison Service at the moment is the quality and commitment of much of the leadership and many of the staff, who see their role in precisely this context of rehabilitation? Rehabilitation not only
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matters for the prisoner, but makes extremely good economic sense for the nation, rather than seeing people return to prison to be kept at public expense.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I agree with that. The Prison Officers' Association has recently secured funding from the union learning fund to open eight learning centres across England and to fund a peripatetic learning manager in Wales. The Prison Service has supported the development of the learning centres, much of the effort of which has been directed at the delivery of improved skills for life. At Nottingham learning centre, the Prison Service has supported the union's efforts in raising awareness of skills for life; every new entrant prison officer there has taken the national test for literacy and numeracy. It is important to all of us, and I very much welcome the change in attitude of, and the approach taken by, the current leadership.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I know that the Minister is aware of the National Grid Transco scheme and of how successful it is. Are prison officers involved in the selection of candidates for that scheme? How they are selected?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I know of the National Grid Transco scheme. The noble Baroness will also know about the corporate alliance that I launched in November. It encourages other companies to come forward to become involved in similar schemes. The involvement of prison officers in that scheme is essential because they have to work together with probation and other officers to identify the people who may be amenable to attending those schemes. The private sector working together with the voluntary sector and the public sector has enabled us to do that which we have not been able to achieve before, to the betterment of communities, but also to the advancement of offenders who wish to change.

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, one of the problems for prison officers is that very often they do not have time to go on the courses that they need in order to become teachers. Very often career planning for individual prison officers is not done to select those who are suitable to become trainers. Can the Minister say whether the identification of talent among prison officers is in the plans for the future?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: It is, my Lords. The Prison Service continues to work towards embedding the Skills for Life agenda throughout the service. The staff are encouraged to use Prison Officers' Association or Her Majesty's Prison Service learning centres or a local provider to address developmental needs. Staff wishing to undertake the national vocational qualification in custodial care must complete the national test in literacy. We are continuing to enhance the professional development of officers right the way through because we see it as a fundamental way of changing the system.

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Information Commissioner

2.44 pm

Lord Tyler asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, the Information Commissioner is an independent body created by statute. He has responsibilities for handling complaints made to him under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Data Protection Act 1998. The number of Freedom of Information Act complaints outstanding on 31 December 2005 was 1,325. The number of Data Protection Act complaints outstanding on the same date was 2,477.

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