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Volume 408: debated on Tuesday 1 July 2003

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.— [Vernon Coaker.]

9.30 am

Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is a pleasure to see you at any time, but it is a particular pleasure to see you so early in the morning. I also welcome the Minister, who is the sixth Minister with responsibility for prisons since 1997. I hope that he will remain in his post for two or possibly three years, because the Government's approach to prisons must be consistent, and that involves having consistent personnel as well as consistent policy.

The prison population has risen from 36,000 in 1991 to 77,379 in the current year, which is the largest number of people ever to be imprisoned in this country. Prison Reform Trust figures suggest that that is largely due to longer sentences rather than to more crime. I will not get into that argument, but it is not inappropriate that those who perpetrate burglary, rape and crimes of violence against their fellow citizens should be incarcerated.

The solutions include greater resources, greater efficiency in obtaining better returns for the money invested, shorter sentences, more effective community sentences, and tackling at root the propensity to offending behaviour. Although it is not the Minister's responsibility—so far, very little is his responsibility—to take those steps with regard to the population as a whole, it is his responsibility to tackle the propensity to offending behaviour through the Prison Service. He is severely handicapped by problems, caused by both the Prison Service and the Home Office, relating to the way in which the Prison Service is run, and the Home Office has failed to acknowledge some widely understood problems.

I shall refer in detail to the difficulties at Parkhurst prison in my constituency. The Minister will know that there are more criminals in my constituency than in any other, but I am pleased to say that most of them are not on the electoral roll. There are 1,800 prisoners in my constituency, and the Prison Officers Association at Parkhurst pointed out in April 2002 that:
"We have been two health care Senior Officers short since October 2000 … We have 10 Officer vacancies, four Officers acting up and two further Senior Officer vacancies. Two staff have recently resigned to join the Police … Nine staff applied for transfer to HMP Albany. We currently have 22 unified grades off sick … Every day the Residential Units are below their MSL, until staff are redeployed … workshops are closed and Officer instructors are deployed to the wings. In conclusion Parkhurst is experiencing serious problems with no solutions in sight."
That was the verdict of the branch chairman, Mr. Holmes, in April 2002.

At the same time, the chairman of the board of visitors, Janice Palin, wrote to me about her annual report for 2000–01:
"I have to repeat from the third paragraph of my letter last year that severe cutbacks continue to be made in the way of 'efficiency savings'. We appreciate that resources are tight in all areas and that prisons are not 'vote winners', but as we understand it 'rehabilitation' is the aim. How can this be obtained when more and more resources are being withdrawn? This is a very short-sighted approach to a long-term problem."
The board of visitors was not limited to that generalisation; it gave some examples:
"Serious impoverishment has led to the levels of disruption experienced during the year, and the Prison Service policy on appropriate resettlement programmes is either not delivering or is very ineffective."
It also made the point that services for mentally ill prisoners were inadequate. The board of visitors was particularly concerned about health care:
"Dentistry has always been a problem within the prison, which has been exacerbated by having to use unsatisfactory mobile facilities".
Dentistry is a problem in the whole of my constituency, where there is a desperate shortage of dentists. The board of visitors pointed out:
"Due to lack of staff, prisoners' out-patients appointments are being cancelled at short notice which means that they are not receiving the necessary treatment and the knock-on effect is that an appointment is lost to a member of the local community."

My hon. Friend has touched on health care in prisons. Does he agree that it is a crying scandal? Furthermore, does he agree that Ministers have been indifferent to the plight of those who need health care most? The Minister was unable to tell me the proportion of prisoners who receive thrombolysis within 30 minutes of having a heart attack, which is something that the rest of us would take for granted. Also, the last survey of mental health in prisons was carried out in 1997, according to a recent response that I have had from the Minister. Does my hon. Friend not agree that Ministers appear to want to ignore the health care of our prison population? Whatever they have done wrong—

Order. This almost sounds to me like a speech. It should be a brief intervention. There have been enough questions already.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I certainly agree that if Ministers are not ignoring the problems of health care, as he suggests, they are not dealing with them adequately. It is not good enough to give generalisations about objectives for health care—as Ministers frequently do, and as the Minister's predecessor did in a letter dated 23 April 2002—without delivering the resources. In the case of Parkhurst prison, those resources mean more qualified mental health care staff.

Those were some of the issues raised by the board of visitors in March 2002. Many were repeats of points that had been raised earlier. The Minister's predecessor, now the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), wrote on 23 April 2002 a letter of the most outstanding generalised guff—making the broad, sweeping statements that we now expect in ministerial replies—about the importance of resettlement work, which she said was
"making a significant impact on the lives of prisoners."
The letter pointed out how many literacy and numeracy qualifications had been achieved at level 2 in 2000–01.

None of those generalised statements responded, in my view, to the particular needs of Parkhurst prison. The Minister's predecessor claimed that Parkhurst had received sufficient funding to allow it to deliver an appropriate regime for prisoners, saying:
"Previous and longstanding failures to make required efficiency savings have resulted in a cumulative overspend that is now being addressed by the Governor."
Most of us now understand that a "cumulative overspend … now being addressed" means that money is not being spent where it needs to be in the current year, because it is busy repaying the debts of previous years.

The Minister's predecessor went on to recognise that
"more work is required to ensure that resettlement policy is translated into practice … All people with severe mental illness will be in receipt of treatment and no prisoner with serious mental illness will leave prison without a care plan and a care co-ordinator."
I have to tell the Minister that prisoners at Parkhurst are not receiving adequate treatment. In some cases, they have to be sectioned during their final weeks at Parkhurst to enable them to be moved to Broadmoor. They cannot be sectioned before they are out of prison, so they have to be sectioned in preparation for their departure, otherwise they would be free to roam the streets. However, because there is not an adequate number of places in Broadmoor, prisoners are left in inadequate health care facilities in prisons such as Parkhurst.

The Minister's predecessor went on to make some points about dentistry, to which I have referred, and stated:
"Regrettably, during the reporting year, there have been a couple of occasions when, because of operational pressures, the Health Care Centre has had to be locked resulting in prisoners spending longer in their cells than would have otherwise been the case. These operational pressures have also resulted in the cancellation of some outside hospital appointments."
The words "operational pressures" are a smokescreen for a lack of staff.

On remand prisoners, the Minister's predecessor stated:
"It is important that the Prison Service provides remand accommodation on the Isle of Wight to serve the island courts, ensuring that prisoners are produced on time, and to allow prisoners access to their solicitors."
That may be so, but it is not appropriate that prisoners on remand should be kept in the segregation unit of a category B prison, as was reported in paragraphs 1.05 and 1.06 of the report on Parkhurst by Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons, which followed visits in November and December last year.

I do not accept that the quality of the response from the Home Office is adequate. Ministers do not recognise the problems that are widely appreciated by my constituents, and certainly by the board of visitors and by those who work so well and effectively for the Prison Service, whether in a uniformed capacity or otherwise.

On 17 June, the board of visitors responded to the letter from the Minister's predecessor. I will refer to several points. The letter from the Minister's predecessor stated:
"Prisoners are not received late at Parkhurst."
One of the great problems is getting prisoners into the prison and dealing with their arrival sufficiently quickly. That cannot be done late into the night and certainly not after the prison reception closes. The Minister's predecessor thought that the prison reception closed at 7.30 in the evening. The prison thinks that the prison reception closes at 5.30 in the evening.

Prisoners are being brought to the Isle of Wight when they have been convicted at Winchester Crown court. They should be transferred to Winchester prison, but the contract for the transport of prisoners does not appear to require them to be transported to the right prison, with the result that they return, late, to the Isle of Wight. Other prisoners arrive at the Isle of Wight from other prisons. The consequence is that such prisoners are not dealt with properly. Far too many prisoners arrive without adequate paperwork and without sufficient information being given about their background, needs and, in particular, training needs. The education and rehabilitation of prisoners cannot take place if they are shifted, apparently at random, across the prison estate and arrive without adequate information on their needs.

In the response on 17 June, the board of visitors stated:
"We dispute the comment that prisoners are not received late at Parkhurst. The time quoted is 1930 hours. Why is it that 1730 has always been quoted in the past?"
Indeed, 17.30 is quoted in the report by Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons. The response continues:
"Reception is closed by 1730; there would be very few staff in the Health Care Centre after 1730."
That response was sent in June of last year. In November and December, there was an inspection of Parkhurst prison. There are a huge number of quotations from which to choose. There is criticism of the segregation unit because it includes prisoners who require protection, prisoners who are there for reasons relating to good order and discipline, lodgers—people who have just arrived at Parkhurst, but have not been found a cell because they have arrived so late at night—and local lads, some of them on remand, who almost certainly would not end up in a category B prison. I understand why it is necessary for there to be remand facilities on the island for people accused of crimes, but there are two other prisons on the island, and I would not describe Parkhurst as the ideal one for remanding prisoners.

An example of someone arriving in segregation is given as
"a black prisoner with mental health problems, transferred from Swaleside without any prior notice to reception staff of the seriousness of his condition. He had been on an open F2052SH ('Self-harm at risk' form) at Swaleside"—
they must have an awful lot of forms in the Prison Service—
"but this had been closed before his transfer in apparent disregard for his safety."
The example continues:
"To their credit staff at Parkhurst were now considering the appropriateness of securing his detention under Mental Health Act powers."
Another example concerns late arrivals:
"Often these involve young prisoners held on remand who were attending court on the mainland … some were coming to prison for the first time; a number were withdrawing from drugs. Spending their first night in prison on the segregation unit of Parkhurst could do nothing but exacerbate their anxieties."
Prisoners arrive with no sentence plan:
"The majority of prisoners entering Parkhurst came from other establishments. Some arrived with expectations of what they could achieve in a new stage of their sentence."
That was demotivating because it is so much harder to receive visits at Parkhurst. Paragraph 1.31 states:
"The establishment continued to house a significant number (37 per cent.) of black and minority ethnic prisoners who spoke of feeling powerless in addressing their concerns."
I thought that 37 per cent. was an extraordinary proportion, but I was advised that that is broadly par for the course in the prison estate, and the Minister needs to address and explain that.

The establishment has a lack of sufficient purposeful activity. All the criticisms show that there is a serious failure to address even the limited area of offending behaviour in prisons, to judge from Parkhurst. More than one area was praised, but I must repeat the praise for the physical education department, which the report said
"continued to deliver a good service in difficult circumstances. It was well-led by a very positive manager, and was one of the few areas where prisoners could gain qualifications."
The report contains some important messages for the director-general of the Prison Service and the area manager. I shall cite a few of those. The report for 2000 stated that
"The allocation criteria for Parkhurst should be consistent with its throughcare strategy, and the prison should aim to attract prisoners with the offending profile which the programmes at Parkhurst are designed to address."
The report said that that had not been achieved:
"Population pressures and the reduction in the number of offending behaviour programme places has not caused this to be a priority."
That is a direct criticism of the director-general of the Prison Service. It was also reported in 2000 that:
"Other Prison Service establishments and Population Management Unit at headquarters should be reminded about Parkhurst's change in role and therefore which prisoners should be allocated."
At Parkhurst 20 per cent. of the prisoners are foreign nationals, and of that number, 24 are from Jamaica. A minor recommendation was made that:
"Foreign national prisoners should be assisted to make affordable telephone calls to friends and families abroad."
That was not achieved. It was also recommended that:
"The number of foreign national prisoners should be analysed across the Prison Service and a strategy developed to manage them."
That was not achieved either. The report stated:
"We were aware of no change in national policy. We repeat the recommendation."
The report is a catalogue of failure, not on the part of Parkhurst prison—I commend the governor, Steve Metcalf, his predecessor, David Kennedy, and the staff for their excellent work—but of the Prison Service nationally. It does not follow the recommendations of Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons. The governor and uniformed and non-uniformed staff at Parkhurst work extremely hard at jobs for which most of us would not even consider applying.

The prison has 520 prisoners, 150 of whom are guilty of murder or crimes of violence. It is not adequate to respond, as the Minister did on the day the report was published, that there are many people in prison who should not be there. I invite him to walk around Parkhurst with me and indicate which prisoners should not be there but should, perhaps, be out in the community, living next door to his or my constituents.

When I told Steve Metcalf that this debate was coming up, he wrote:
"The good news is the amount of progress made, since the inspection, on addressing the issues.
We have re-organised in several areas, been successful in reducing our overcrowding, with the help of our Area Manager and PS HQ are optimistic that we will be successful with bids for additional trade training courses by next April."
Next April, it will be 15 months since the report was published. That is one third or one quarter of some people's sentences. Their offending behaviour will not effectively be addressed if they have to wait that long for training.

I wish to raise several other issues that do not relate to Parkhurst alone. One is the power of governors effectively to discipline prisoners. A European Court ruling prevents governors from reducing remission for disciplinary reasons. That causes cost and delay in the prison discipline system, and lack of discipline affects inmates and staff alike. The ruling diverts money from services to lawyers and perpetuates the absurd myth that people are entitled to serve only half the period for which they are sentenced.

The Prison Officers Association at Camp Hill has raised with me its concern that
"the Prison Rule that made it an offence against prison discipline for a prisoner to make a false or malicious allegation against prison staff"
has not been reintroduced. It says that in recent years there have been many cases of false and malicious accusations by prisoners against staff. Such accusations are deeply stressful to the staff, cost a huge amount to investigate and do nothing to maintain discipline in the prison.

In case hon. Members are convinced that I am extrapolating from the particular to the general, let me refer to the information that has recently been provided by the Prison Reform Trust. It shows that 85 per cent. of prisoners have had major illnesses and that there is a shortage of mental health professionals working in prisons. It shows the dire background of prisoners in terms of qualifications and numeracy and literacy, which are far below the national average, and of drug use and hazardous drinking. Unless resources are provided to address such problems, those prisoners will offend again.

In many respects, Albany, which deals with a large number of sex offenders, is a very successful prison. However, it suffers from a particular problem, in that sex offenders tend to be older men, many of whom are in prison for a long time, and it costs more to look after older prisoners. For example, in many cases, if they have to be transferred to hospital—St. Mary's hospital is just across the road from Albany prison—they have to be attended all the time. That is an added burden, just as it is an added burden to take those requiring dental treatment from Parkhurst. That needs to be addressed in the resources that are made available to Albany.

The Prison Reform Trust reports that many prisoners have never received help with their drug problems and that the Prison Service does not keep records of the percentage of prisoners with drug problems who do receive treatment. It also reports that transfers between prisons because of overcrowding often disrupt drug treatment and other training.

I have gone on long enough to paint a picture not only of Parkhurst, but of too many of our prisons. I am gravely concerned that we are spending about £36 million a year in Parkhurst alone on imprisoning foreign nationals. I wonder whether we could find a more effective way. We have bilateral agreements with some countries. Will the Minister consider extending those agreements, if necessary by purchasing places in prisons in Jamaica for Jamaicans? They would be nearer to their homes and families, and I doubt that that would be more expensive than providing prison places in the United Kingdom. That would get 24 people out of Parkhurst, and doubtless there are many Jamaicans in other prisons up and down the country.

I urge the Minister to review the background to the report on Parkhurst, which I suggest goes back some years. I urge him to check statements made by his predecessors, doubtless on the advice of their officials, to see whether they are true, because I fear that many in those letters appear to be untrue. I urge Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons to examine all such correspondence in future inspections of any prison.

I should also like the Minister to explore why so many black and ethnic minority citizens and foreigners end up in prison, and to do that not by demonising judges, the police or whoever for finding those who are committing crimes, but by identifying why there is apparently such a high propensity to serious crime among those citizens and foreigners. I should like the Minister to stay in his job, and governors to stay in their jobs, for longer. It is not satisfactory for a new governor to come in every time that there is an adverse report and then disappear after the next adverse report. I doubt that any Minister could do his job effectively in those circumstances, and I hope that the Labour Government terminate their term of office with no more than six Prison Ministers under their belt. I wish this Minister well in his two or three years in the job and I look forward to hearing his responses.

Order. May I help the House? It is the custom in Westminster Hall that the winding-up speeches begin at 10.30 am. At least four colleagues are seeking to catch my eye, so I appeal for an element of self-discipline. A number of hon. Members have prisons in their constituencies, so this is an important debate for them.

9.58 am

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on obtaining the debate, and I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister, who will reply to it.

Wandsworth prison in my constituency is one of the largest prisons in England and Wales and one of the oldest—it was built 150 years ago. Wandsworth, like many other prisons, faces overcrowding and all the resulting problems. The certified accommodation for the prison is 1,163 people, but the prison population is hardly ever at that figure. Today, like most days, there are about 1,400 inmates. As a result of that overcrowding, several hundred men are two to a cell, which creates problems and tensions. One has only to speak to a prison governor, the board of visitors and members of the Prison Officers Association to learn of the problems and dangers that overcrowding causes.

I am deeply concerned that there has been overcrowding in prisons for a number of years. Home Office Ministers and officials say that the prison population will continue to increase, and that is completely unacceptable to me, and to many hon. Members, irrespective of their party. As the current prison population is well over 70,000, it is time for the Home Office to look at its policy of overcrowding in prisons.

I have been in the House for many years. I have taken part in many debates and asked many questions on prison issues, but I can see no improvement in the prison population in the foreseeable future. I am deeply concerned that the House rarely debates the prison system. Had the hon. Member for Isle of Wight not been successful in the ballot, there would not have been a debate before the summer recess on this ever important issue.

I have no idea of the total cost of running the prison system, but I know that it is enormous, and it is growing year by year. Those of us who represent constituencies where there are prisons know what the issues are; we see them when we visit prisons and read about them in the letters we receive from members of the boards of prison visitors and the Prison Officers Association, who tell us the facts about prisons. The hon. Gentleman referred to the board of visitors' annual reports, which will soon be dropping on to the Minister's desk. Does he read them? What notice does he take of the issues and what action does he take? What does he do about the problems that are raised in those reports?

I pay the warmest tribute to Wandsworth prison's board of visitors; its annual reports outline the good things that happen in prison—I am the first to say that good things do happen—but they are overshadowed by the ongoing problems in the prison system. There was recently a thorough condemnation of the prison system by the new chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers. She has been in the job for only a short time and already she is highly critical of what is happening.

For many people who are sent to prison, it is the start of their problems. They have anxieties such as how they will adjust to prison and how they will keep in contact with their family. How a prison is run is the key to day-to-day life for a prison inmate, who will want to know such things as what association there is, what is offered and when it takes place. A prisoner will have questions such as whether there are enough officers on duty to hold associations, whether he can telephone his family when he needs to and what is the visiting system for family and friends. As any prison governor or officer will say, such conditions affect a prisoner's behaviour.

Those of us who represent London prisons know that the number of prison officers in a prison is crucial. In Wandsworth, the recruitment of officers and, more importantly, their retention, is a very real problem—it may apply to other parts of the country, too. Does the Minister have any idea of the cost of housing in my constituency? The weekly rent for a very small flat in the area is about £250. There are few, if any, officers' quarters in prisons; they were sold off long ago.

In previous prison debates I have called for an increased allowance to be paid to officers who work in London prisons. Officers at Wandsworth ask me why their London allowance is so much lower than that paid to a London police officer.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight touched on much of what one can say in debates about prisons. I am deeply concerned about continuing assaults on prison officers, but we rarely hear anything about them. Officers' morale is crucial in the day-to-day running of a prison.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that some of us really do want to work with him. I take to heart the comment made by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight about the number of prison Ministers that we have had. He made a point about consistency in relation to governors; the same is true of prison Ministers. Wandsworth prison had a superb governor, Stephen Rimmer, who turned it around. He was then moved off. In a long chat that I had with him about that, he said, "Tom, my problem is that if I don't take this promotion, I don't know when another offer will come my way." There is an urgent need for consistency.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will listen to Members who have prisons in their constituencies and that he will meet members of the board of visitors and the Prison Officers Association, because they can tell him what life is really like in a prison. I understand that he must have officials, but prison officers in prisons throughout the country and those loyal people who serve on boards of visitors run the day-to-day system in our prisons, not officials.

I wish the Minister well. Some of us will raise the issue of prisons with him time and again. We are willing to work with him, and I hope that we will do so and that he will work with us.

10.6 am

I am inspired by your call to order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and have converted what was to be a brief intervention into a speech.

I was a prison visitor before entering this place. It was a salutary experience. I want to talk a little about the work of prison visitors, who need to be differentiated from boards of visitors, which fulfil a completely different role. During the past two years, I have asked the Minister questions about prison visitors, because they have a great impact on the welfare and rehabilitation of those in our total institutions.

I am afraid that the Minister has a lamentable grip on how many prison visitors there are. When I asked the question last July, I was distressed that he appeared not to have met the National Association of Prison Visitors. The Government have no idea how many prison visitors there are and have not gone to the trouble of meeting the body that represents them. There is an obvious need to improve the welfare and rehabilitation of our prison population and the important part that prison visitors play in normalising and moderating life in prisons, so the Government's shortcoming is very serious. I hope that, a year later, the Minister will tell us that he has now met the National Association of Prison Visitors and can indeed tell us how many prison visitors there are.

I want to talk briefly about the prison health service—another subject about which I have bearded Ministers during the past two years. It is in a parlous state. There are moves towards bringing it more into the national health service, which are long overdue and are to be welcomed. We need to recognise that prisoners' health falls well short of the health that most of us in this country can expect. If we are serious about improving the overall health of the population of this country, we must focus on those areas where our efforts can have the most impact. One of those areas is the prison population, where health indicators, such as they are, suggest that the inmates suffer from extremely poor health in comparison with the general public.

The health care purveyed to our prison population is often of dubious quality, and the informatics that support moves that we might make towards improving that health are abysmal. I have asked a number of basic questions, the answers to which most primary care trusts in this country would have at their finger tips, but it seems that that information is not collected about the prison population. For example, the Minister cannot tell me the average time taken to institute thrombolysis following heart attacks, but I have no doubt that his counterpart in the Department of Health would have that information on the tip of his tongue. We do not know what proportion of our prison population are prescribed atypical anti-psychotics, which is recognised as the treatment of choice for psychosis, although we know that that population is a repository of a large amount of mental ill health.

The problem is not just the lack of health informatics about inmates. I recently asked the Minister about sickness absence among prison officers, but he was unable to tell me, although he was able to trot off statistics for the police service.

That all suggests that, probably for a long time, Ministers have failed to get to grips with what is going on in the health care of our prison population. Given the obvious need to improve the health of and the health service in that population, that is a serious omission.

10.11 am

Woodhill prison is a modern prison in my constituency. It is constantly being expanded, and is about to have yet another facility added for young prisoners. It had some unwelcome publicity recently about an incident involving a particular remand prisoner, which occasioned a ministerial statement on 19 June.

Many prisoners should not be in prison and would be better served if they were given community sentences. The public would also be better served if those prisoners were given community sentences, because they are more likely to lead to their rehabilitation. The public want people to be punished when they have committed crimes, but they also want them not to reoffend. I urge the Minister and his colleagues in the Home Office to make a real effort to inform the public about the reality of community sentencing.

I attended my local magistrates court, and it was clear that community sentences are a real and viable alternative to prison. They are not a soft option, and allow much greater control in ensuring that offenders undertake proper drug treatment courses or anger management courses. They enable positive measures to be taken to help them to stop their offending behaviour.

As regards the Minister's statement on 19 June about the incident at Woodhill prison, I want to refer to the report by the inspector of prisons following an inspection of Woodhill in February 2002. The report was published a year later. The distressing fact is that many of the issues highlighted in that report by the inspector of prisons in early 2003 mirrored the failures that the Minister outlined in his statement on the recent incident concerning the remand prisoner in Woodhill. Most of the issues come down to two factors. One concerns recruitment and retention problems. Not only are there problems of understaffing, but the staff tend to be relatively inexperienced and poorly trained. The ministerial statement on the incident concerning the remand prisoner pointed out that staff were being asked to do a complex task with inadequate supervision and training. That was also highlighted in the report of the inspector of prisons in February 2003.

The second factor is the quality of health services in the Prison Service. Woodhill is a modern prison, with modern health facilities. The report criticised those health facilities, so I dread to think what criticisms would be made of the health facilities in other prisons. The report is particularly critical of the methods used in the prison for the supply of medicines, and makes a number of recommendations. It noted that the
"written prescribing formulary … had last been revised in February 2000."—
that is two years before the inspection took place—and recommended that
"the prescribing formulary should regularly be reviewed."
The Minister's statement on the recent incident pointed to failures in prescribing practice in relation to the drug that was given to the prisoner concerned, which was perhaps not the most appropriate, and to the lack of supervision by staff of the handing out of medicines, which allowed the prisoner to accumulate sufficient to attempt suicide. I am concerned that the issues highlighted in that hard-hitting report by the inspector of prisons seem not to have been acted on, and that they will not be acted on now, even though a very high-profile incident has occurred which necessitated a statement by the Minister.

I am also concerned about the health system. The report by the inspector of prisons recommended that
"all staff whether doctors, nurses or non-nurse trained health care officers should have a training plan aimed at enhancing their skills to meet the needs of patients. These plans should be reviewed yearly. The Health Care manager should complete a training needs assessment."
> It also recommended that the health care manager should keep records on individual staff to ensure that they were all up to date
"in all aspects of current health care needs in prison."
Clearly, that has not occurred, and is again highlighted by the incident concerning that particular prisoner. However, I assume that the lack of training and record keeping occurs across the piece.

I do not criticise the prison staff at Woodhill or my local primary care trust, which has been very forward thinking in working with the local prison, and has made strenuous efforts to try to integrate the prison health care system into the local NHS and to bring it up to standard. However, I am concerned about the level of funding available through the Home Office and the Prison Service for bringing the prison health service up to scratch, in accordance with the action plan drawn up jointly by the primary care trust and the local prison. I know that responsibility for the prison health service will eventually be handed over to the NHS, and that the primary care trust will have to fund it. I ask the Home Office to ensure that the health service in the prison is up to standard before it is handed over, so that it does not have to be brought up to scratch by NHS funding, which is already tightly stretched in my constituency.

I have drawn concerns about staff recruitment and retention to the Minister's attention on several occasions, because it has been drawn to my attention by the local Prison Officers Association and by the prison governor. I am pleased that, partly as a result of pressure from me and from the prison governor, the extra housing allowance of four prison officers in Woodhill was increased from low to medium. However, in the light of continuing recruitment and retention problems, I asked the Minister to consider whether that allowance should be further upgraded.

I also ask the Minister to look into the issue of key worker housing for prison officers. There are significant key worker housing schemes being built in my constituency but, as elsewhere in the country, the definition of key worker applies only to police officers, teachers and certain NHS staff. It does not include prison officers although, to some extent, prison officers and police officers are in the same market, and prison officers often leave the Prison Service to go into the police service, because the pay and conditions in the police service are more attractive.

The responsibility for key worker housing is to be transferred to the Housing Corporation in the near future, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is currently undertaking a review of the categories of workers that should be included in the definition of key worker. Sponsoring Departments have the opportunity to present the case for other categories of public sector workers to be included. I ask the Minister to consider urgently the evidence available, especially from places such as Milton Keynes but also from London and across the south-east, that will enable the Home Secretary to argue for prison officers to be included in the definition and therefore benefit from affordable housing.

The hon. Lady is making a good point. I do not know what the position is at Woodhill, but on my visits to prisons in south-east England and from talking to prison officers, I have always been struck by the fact that many of them are routinely travelling 60 to 70 miles to work. They are living far away from the prisons in which they work.

That is often the case. There are reasons why prison officers prefer not to live immediately adjacent to a prison, particularly when, as with Woodhill, 60 per cent. of prisoners are on remand. There are parts of Milton Keynes in which prison officers do not live because they contain a high representation of the pre-prison and post-prison population—if I can describe them in that way—and the officers prefer not to bump into them when they are off duty.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman supports my case, as it should not be a party political point. We should all agree that prisons need to be effective in containing prisoners within a safe environment, particularly for remand prisoners. The Prison Service has an added responsibility for them, as they have not yet been proved guilty of any crime. Indeed, some of them will never be convicted.

It is also important that prisons provide an environment in which offending behaviour can be addressed and prisoners can be provided with a real opportunity to reform and rehabilitate, so that they do not return to prison. That is not possible in prisons at the moment, because of staffing difficulties, among other factors. I urge the Minister to ensure that that is addressed.

No, because I know that others want to speak.

I have already apologised to the Minister for the fact that I must leave at quarter to 11 because I have an appointment with another Minister that I could not shift. I apologise to the Chamber as well.

10.22 am

I should declare an interest at the outset. In introducing the debate, the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) made several references to the Prison Reform Trust. I am a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust.

This is the second time that I have made a speech in Westminster Hall about prison overcrowding. The last occasion was two and a half years ago when I marked the 10th anniversary of the publication of Lord Justice Woolf's report on the Strangeways riot. On that occasion, my lament was that 10 years after that report, and 11 years after the riot, the lessons of Strangeways had not been learned. Prisons that were grotesquely overcrowded in 1990 remained grotesquely overcrowded in 2001. Sadly, I return today to tell the Minister that things have not got better; indeed, they have got worse.

When the Labour Government came to power in May 1997, the prison population was just over 60,000. When I spoke in February 2001, it was 64,000. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) became Home Secretary on 8 June 2001, the prison population was just over 66,000. Eleven days ago, on 20 June, the figure stood at 73,478—the highest ever recorded.

The United Kingdom has the highest imprisonment rate in the European Union. Inevitably, the result is that 12 years after the Strangeways report pointed out the problems caused by overcrowding, the prisons of this nation remain overcrowded. Today, prison overcrowding is at its highest recorded level. At the end of May this year, 90 of the 138 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded. Preston was overcrowded by 86 per cent., holding 661 prisoners in a prison intended to accommodate just 356. Shrewsbury was overcrowded by 75 per cent., and Leicester by 73 per cent. Those figures are worse than for Strangeways in 1990.

More than 17,000 prisoners are held in overcrowded accommodation, so it is little wonder that doubling up still occurs, with prisoners held two to a cell meant for one and three to a cell meant for two. In the past 10 years, 13 new prisons have been opened, but nine are already overcrowded. The current overcrowding means that, all these years after Lord Woolf published his blueprint towards a more just and humane, fairer and securer prison system, we have still not progressed.

Lord Woolf called for an end to slopping out, which has indeed ended. Cells have integrated sanitation, but with prisoners doubling up, they have to defecate in front of each other. There is little wonder that three quarters of the independent monitoring boards are concerned that overcrowding is leading to prisoners being held in inhuman, degrading and unsafe conditions. Lord Woolf also recommended that prisoners should be held in community prisons, as near as possible to their homes. However, after all these years 27,000 prisoners are still held more than 50 miles from their committal court town, and 12,500 prisoners more than 100 miles away.

Lord Woolf also recommended that there should be a separate statement of purpose, separate conditions and a lower security categorisation for remand prisoners. However, on 13 June this year, almost 13,000 prisoners were those being held on remand. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) said, those prisoners have not been convicted. More than half will not subsequently receive a prison sentence, and one fifth will be acquitted or have the proceedings against them terminated early. Despite that, they are being kept in conditions that Mr. Narey, the former director general of the Prison Service, described as primitive.

We have to ask ourselves why. Why do we have these legion problems? Why are prisons so overcrowded? Why are prisoners still held hundreds of miles from home? Why are remand prisoners held in primitive conditions when they have not been convicted of a crime and may never be so? It is not because crime is soaring. As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight said, the adult prison population in England and Wales has grown by 71 per cent. in the past 12 years, but all the evidence shows that both overall crime rates and the number of offenders appearing before the courts have fallen in those 12 years.

If crime is not soaring, why is imprisonment? It is because of changes in sentencing policy. The evidence shows that courts are now more likely to imprison offenders who 10 years ago would have received a community sentence or a fine. People convicted of petty offences such as theft and the handling of stolen goods are now three times more likely to go to prison than they were in 1991. The courts are imposing longer sentences. The number of offenders being sent to jail for more than four years has increased by 62 per cent. since 1991, and the number of lifers has increased by 45 per cent. since 1992. England and Wales have a higher proportion of life sentence prisoners than the rest of western Europe.

In short, we are locking up more and more people, and we are locking them up for longer. It does not work. Indeed, it is doing harm to both the prisoners and the rest of us. We are locking prisoners up in conditions that put them unnecessarily at risk. Overcrowding has been one of the reasons underlying the dramatic increase in suicides and suicide attempts in custody—a record 94 last year. Worse even than that, we are locking people up in conditions that make them more likely to reoffend in the future.

I mentioned earlier the figures for prisoners held miles from home. The reason why Lord Woolf advised against that was simple. Maintaining good family ties can reduce a prisoner's risk of reoffending by a factor of six. It is the greatest single factor determining whether a prisoner is likely to reoffend on release, so if we want to be tough on crime and the causes of crime, restoring and sustaining those family relationships is a good place to start. Keeping people in prisons close to their families is the best way of doing that. However, today, with so many still held miles away from their home town, 59 per cent. of all prisoners, and nearly three quarters of young male prisoners, are reconvicted within two years of discharge from prison.

Prison is not working, so what should the Home Office's response be? It should be twofold. First, the Home Office must acknowledge that overcrowding is the core problem facing prisons. It is a scourge, cancer and obscenity. Those are not my words, but those of Mr. Narey, Lord Woolf and Christopher Scott, the former president of the Prison Governors Association, respectively.

The Home Office must address the problem of overcrowding not by building more and more prisons, but by sending fewer people to prison. I say that despite sharing everyone's abhorrence of crime. I have asked to serve on every Standing Committee on every major criminal justice Bill since I became a Member of Parliament. Crime blights my constituency just as it blights others. It ruins lives. It shreds the most fundamental human right of all—the right not just to live, but to live free from fear. I bow my head to no one in my desire to fight crime, but sometimes a more liberal touch works more effectively.

Rather than locking people up in overcrowded prisons, we should first focus on the need to cut crime. That is not a trite thing to say: it should be an imperative in criminal justice policy. Preventive crime reduction policies should be part and parcel of every properly integrated criminal justice and penal system. It can be done. In my constituency, the council evicted a drug dealer from a sink estate and offered the council house to the police to use as a temporary police office while it was being recycled into housing accommodation. Burglaries in that area fell by 81 per cent. in the following month.

Secondly, we should develop, and then sell, more effective and more flexible sentences, some of which do not involve prison. We should examine the alternatives to prison. Top of the list must be drug testing and treatment orders. In particular, we should expand the use of naltrexone implants, which block the effect of opiates so that there is no point in mugging an old lady for a 10-quid fix because the fix will do nothing. We should massively expand the use of naltrexone.

Thirdly, we must ensure that those who should not be in prison are not sent there. No one would argue against long-term imprisonment for serious or serial offenders, but we are imprisoning addicts and the mentally ill. Nine out of 10 young people in custody have mental health or substance abuse problems, or a combination of the two. We imprisoned David Blagden, a former constituent of mine, for 24 years for setting fire to some curtains on the week that his parents died. What fools we are. Prison should be for serious offenders and violent offenders, but we are sending people to prison who should not be there.

Juliet Lyon, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:
"It will take a sustained and decisive change of political will to halt this relentless increase in our prison population, and the shocking levels of re-offending and strain on the public purse which accompany it."
If we are serious about avoiding the next victim, now is the time to find that will and bring a sense of proportion and fairness hack into sentencing.

10.32 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing this timely and important debate, although I hesitate to congratulate him on the large number of prisoners in his constituency.

We have heard many examples from particular prisons, and a great deal about the deficiencies in health care for prisoners. I should like to underline the particular deficiencies in mental health care, which can lead to so many other problems. Members' comments have complemented the comprehensive study that the Prison Reform Trust has recently published, and I should like to associate myself with all the comments made by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), who has drawn on many of the study's findings.

We all want our communities to be safer, and we all want there to be fewer victims of crime. To those ends, some excellent work is being carried out, and I do not want to undermine the contributions being made by professionals and volunteers. However, we must recognise that an outcome of the Government's trying to achieve those objectives is the massive escalation in the size of the prison population that other Members have described. The size of the prison population is certainly rising at an exponential rate.

Since November last year, I have served on three Standing Committees with the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), all of which have dealt with the early release of offenders with electronic tagging. We have questioned whether those measures are part of the Government's overall strategic policy, or quick fixes to attempt to address the problem of rising prison numbers. We cannot be proud of the fact that we now have the highest imprisonment rate in the European Union, and we can be even less proud of—and should be greatly concerned about—the projections for the end of this decade, by which time the Home Office is suggesting that there could be a prison population of 91,000, and perhaps as much as 110,000. What are we going to do? Are we going to build more prisons, or are we going to examine carefully what is happening to give us more and more prisoners?

I want to comment on women prisoners, as there has been a particularly rapid rise in their numbers. Although those numbers are relatively small, an increase of 191 per cent. in 10 years must be highlighted. I shall also touch later on the number of prisoners under 18. I am relieved to see that that is now below 3,000, but there is still an awfully long way to go. I think that it is true to say that the spiralling prison population is unplanned. It is difficult to see how it fits into an overall strategy to reduce crime, and the unintended consequences have been graphically described by many other hon. Members this morning. We have built 13 new prisons in the past 10 years, but overcrowding is now at its highest recorded level in 90 out of 138 prisons. That overcrowding, as we have heard, threatens prison safety and has led to unacceptable conditions for prisoners. Linked to that is the massive rise in suicides, particularly in the past year, tragically including nine women. Those suicides must be linked to overcrowding.

Another result of the vast numbers coming into custody is that people have to be moved up and down the country—I understand that that is known as the churn factor. Prisoners are being moved around the system to accommodate demands from local courts and to avoid overcrowding in certain prisons. That has caused disruption to important education and drugs programmes, fewer opportunities for teachers to become fully involved, offending behaviour programmes to be suspended and family ties and resettlement work to be affected. We have just heard how important it is for prisoners to have good, strong links with the family and home community. The number of cases of prisoners absconding increases as more move around the country, and the work of prison officers is made much more difficult, as they find it hard to build up relationships and trust with inmates.

Further problems, as we have heard, involve the numbers of prison officers, staff shortages, the high level of staff vacancies in one third of all prisons, and record sickness levels among prison officers. In the reply to a parliamentary question that I submitted recently, I learned that 17 prisons are understaffed by more than 10 per cent. There are some staggering figures involved, and the problem is clearly causing a morale vacuum. The more members of staff who leave, or who are absent because of stress and illness, the greater the stress and work load for those who remain. It is a vicious cycle.

Does the hon. Lady agree that the whole picture painted by this morning's debate is of a system under incredible pressure, and that we therefore cannot rehabilitate offenders because the resources are barely there to keep them confined at all?

Absolutely. We really have a crisis. Our prisoners are locked up for longer, and not engaging in activities, which makes it impossible to make progress.

Among women prisoners, there is a high reconviction rate, and the majority are serving short sentences. There must be alternatives to custodial sentences for some of them. Mothers are separated from their children, and the knock-on effects for our social system are enormous. We have only 68 places in mother and baby units. A further 22 more places are planned, but how many are needed? There has been no recent survey, but a survey from 1994 suggests, if we project its figures, that we need about 178 such places.

Some women have to make a terrible choice to keep their baby with them for perhaps 18 months at a particular prison, when that takes them further away from their other children. That is scandalous if we are to move forward and describe ourselves as living in a civilised society. There is also the issue of children in prison, and it is questionable whether we are meeting children's rights in this country. How long will it take to provide all the placements for children? Will the Home Secretary meet his commitment to having no young girls in prison by the end of this year? There have been promises since 1999, but when will action be taken?

We have said a great deal, but perhaps the issue is in the sentencing. The Criminal Justice Bill refers to a new custodial scale including custody plus and custody minus, but is there not a case for a royal commission to look at the whole issue of punishment? The media say that sentences must be tough and there seems to have been a reaction to that, but, more recently, the media have been concerned about conditions in prison. We have had a series of articles about incidents in prison, including an article headed:
"Inside Holloway—one woman inmate's harrowing story of life on the dark side".
We must marry the two issues, and we must give leadership.

We must move forward and think about what prison is trying to achieve. I believe that it is achieving punishment, but not rehabilitation and health care. We want a prison system that works and which the community supports with a full review of sentencing. As the Magistrates Association has suggested, we could even have an interim community penalty between a fine and the current community sentences. We must be imaginative and try to make fines work more effectively. We must use prison when serious, violent crimes have been committed, but for some of the shorter sentences we should use our money more effectively by treating people, preventing re-offending and making our society better.

10.41 am

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) has done the House a good service by raising the issues concerning Parkhurst and Albany prisons. He has done something that is quite unusual. During my time as prison spokesman for my party, I have been horrified at the number of Members of Parliament who have never visited their local prison. It would be useful if we were all better informed about what was going on in the prison system.

The hon. Gentleman has been supported by the expertise of the hon. Members for Tooting (Mr. Cox) and for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), and of my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), who brought his medical experience to bear, which was extremely useful. There is no doubt that the situation is bad, but I shall not repeat the litany of how bad it is or make a party political point on the issue, because I have a funny feeling that, irrespective of when a Conservative Government next come to office, it will be equally bad then and equally intractable to deal with. There is no doubt that the situation is extremely serious.

I hope that the Minister will be able to give us the exact figures on certified normal accommodation—the last figure that I saw was 65,850—and on the operational capacity, whose absolute ceiling limit is around 76,000. I hope that he will also tell us how close we are to that operational capacity. Are we a few hundred away, as I think we might be? At the end of my contribution I shall ask the Minister to tell us what he will do when that capacity is reached. This is an immediate crisis that needs to be addressed.

There is no doubt about the consequences of overcrowding; they have already been listed. In some prisons—including Liverpool, Pentonville and, I believe, Wandsworth—inmates are locked up for 23 hours a day. Assaults in prison have risen 9.9 per cent. during the past 12 months to more than 6,500, and there have been riots and disturbances, most notably at Lincoln, but also at Guys Marsh, Ranby and other prisons.

Many prisons are not meeting the Government's and Prison Service's target of 24 hours a week of purposeful activity. Belmarsh, which is a state-of-the-art remand and local prison, and regarded in some ways as a model—I have visited it—is providing between 11 and 15 hours a week only. We have heard about the suicide rate going up, and it is astonishing that in a prison such as Woodhill, with a dedicated unit for remand prisoners known to have mental health problems, the situation was so bad that a suicide attempt could be made by a prisoner under 24-hour supervision by staff through an open cell grille. That is an astonishing state of affairs, and a reflection of the collapse of staff morale and lack of training highlighted by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West. We have heard also about the churn effect, which is a disaster.

The one thing that I have become convinced of during my time as prisons spokesman is that it is possible, in the right conditions, for prisons to deliver purposeful regimes that help rehabilitation. Prison can work, not just in detaining those who are psychopathic or a serious danger, but—if part of a structured programme, both pre-release and post-release—as a very important tool in rehabilitation.

Prisons are not hell holes; they can be constructive, pleasant places, and a secure environment can be a real help to rehabilitation in the right conditions. I know that the Minister will agree that that cannot happen if there is overcrowding. The churn is the classic example of that. Prisoners are taken off programmes and sent to another prison 150 miles away when they are about to take their GCSEs or national vocational qualifications the next day. That is a crazy state of affairs.

During an earlier debate, I agreed with the previous prisons Minister, who said that it was possible to visit a prison that had had a terrible report 12 months previously, and to be impressed that it had completely picked itself up, only to find that, six months later, under pressure from overcrowding, the situation had collapsed again. It is impossible to ensure sustained improvement.

We have heard about travel distances, and the problem of prisoners not being local. It is worth highlighting that there are 700 children in the prison system who are more than 100 miles away from their homes. We have heard a great deal about measures that are being taken, and we have been given local statistics, but I think that I am right in saying that during 2001–02, 363 officers were recruited, while 1,342 officers left the service. That is a measure of the extent of the crisis. The numbers of prison officers are static or going down, and prisoner numbers are going up.

The Government have tried a number of devices to establish community-based punishments. We have been broadly supportive of those, including what we thought were emergency measures on tagging to get some people out of the prison system. However, those provisions will not solve the problem. My impression is that prison numbers are going to continue to rise because people are coming before the courts having committed offences when Ministers have made various public pronouncements about the antisocial nature of those activities. That leads to those people being imprisoned because the courts do not consider that there is any adequate alternative that commands public confidence. What are we going to do about that?

I would like to hear from the Minister about the wider issues, and about the immediate crisis. At what point are we going to have to put prisoners into police cells? Are we a week or two away from that, or a few months, or are we going to be able to avoid it completely? What other contingencies have been made for the operational capacity ceiling being reached?

It has been suggested that introducing weekend and evening jails might solve the problem. I do not quite see that. If we built a jail for weekends only, the fact that it was filled at weekends would not mean that it could be filled by alternative prisoners during the week, so I am not sure how that would help to reduce prison numbers. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us a little about that proposal, as that particular kite has been flown. It would surely require more prison places.

How is the prison building programme progressing? I fully respect the views of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), and I sympathise with many of the points that he made. We should be trying to reduce the prison population, but the reality is that under the Criminal Justice Bill and according to the Halliday report, prison numbers will increase by 8,000 or 9,000. That is according to Halliday; the Government think that that number will be a little lower. We have been stacking more and more people into the system, which might have been all right if we had had a system that could take them.

I have grave concerns, especially as custody plus and custody minus are not going to come into operation for some time—it would be interesting if the Minister could say when they will do so. When the Criminal Justice Bill becomes law, there will be a restriction on passing sentences of less than 12 months imprisonment, with the consequence that during the initial term agreed by the Government, more people will be sentenced for longer terms.

I apologise for the brevity of my remarks; I would have liked to expand them further, but I want to give the Minister a chance to reply. He has my sympathy; I wish him well in his job, and he will always have our constructive support. This issue should not be party political, and I do not intend to make it so, but the Minister has a serious problem on his hands. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight for highlighting that.

10.50 am

I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on obtaining this important debate. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox): these issues are debated far too infrequently, and it is important that we should discuss the conditions in prison and the pressures that we face. I was grateful to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight for what he said about his hopes for my future. I should point out to him that I have survived at least one reshuffle, even though I have been in the job for only a few weeks.

It was clear from the hon. Gentleman's speech that he takes a strong interest in the prisons in his constituency and elsewhere. He spoke powerfully about his concerns for the welfare of prisoners, as did all Members who contributed to the debate. I will try to respond to some of the issues that he raised and to the points made by other hon. Members, although inevitably it will be impossible for me to answer all the questions in the time available. I emphasise that I am keen to engage constructively in debates on these issues, and I will attempt, at least in writing after the debate, to cover every point that has been made and to try to answer every question.

The Government are committed to ensuring that the public are protected from crime and the criminals who commit crimes. Various references have been made to the Criminal Justice Bill. The Government are making it clear that those who commit the most heinous crimes such as murder will face longer prison sentences. It is a popular view that those who commit the most horrendous crimes should face longer prison terms. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight rightly stressed that part of my responsibility relates to rehabilitation and reducing offending, as well as to overseeing those in our prisons.

I want to emphasise the tremendous work that is being done in prisons, albeit in the face of various pressures. That work includes offending behaviour programmes, drug treatment, and education and training. I can tell hon. Members that people in prison obtained 32,398 level 1 and 2 basic skills qualifications last year. That represents one in 10 of all qualifications obtained in the country, which is a great tribute to the work done by people in the Prison Service. Increasingly, we need to prepare prisoners for their release by making them ready for work. Jobcentre Plus is doing a great deal in that regard.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) mentioned some of our recent debates on the home detention curfew, which is proving to be a great success in reintegrating and rehabilitating prisoners. The maximum period is now four and a half months, which will reduce the number of people in prison. At the moment, about 3,000 people are on home detention curfews at any one time who would otherwise be in prison. That number will increase. The home detention curfew will ensure that their re-entry into society is more successful.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me about the current prison population. We heard various estimates of that figure, but I regret to tell the House that each of them was an undercount, rather than an overcount. As of this morning, the prison population stands at 73,807. The hon. Gentleman asked what the total uncrowded capacity was. That currently stands at 66,144. The total useable operational capacity in the Prison Service is 74,436. Not all those places can be used, of course, because they might be in the wrong part of the estate or in the wrong part of the country.

There is no hiding from the fact that we are under great pressure in regard to numbers. Last year, police cells had to be used to accommodate additional prisoners, and we may not be very far away from having to do that again. Operation Safeguard may soon be necessary, but I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a definite date. Obviously, none of us wants prisoners to be held in police cells. They are not the appropriate place, and precious police resources are diverted away from safeguarding our communities and into safeguarding prisoners, which none of us wants.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight referred to the three prisons on the island. Although he highlighted some of the difficulties at Parkhurst, I think that he would agree that, on the whole, the performance and quality of those prisons is good. Albany is a four-star prison, Camp Hill will soon be a four-star prison and Parkhurst, although it has been criticised, is also making progress. He also raised a number of issues about staffing, and mentioned a time, some months ago, when there was a need to recruit additional staff. I am happy to tell him that there has been a big local recruitment campaign—I am sure that he is aware of that—and that all officer vacancies were filled as of last week. Some senior positions remain unfilled, but most of the officer positions are filled.

The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members also raised the issue of health care. It might interest hon. Members to know that, when I leave this debate, I am going to a Prison Health Development Network conference. The network facilitates the transfer of health provision in our prisons from the Prison Service to the national health service. The process began in April and will be completed in 2006. Responsibility and funding will be transferred to primary care trusts. The transfer will mean a third more money going into health. Already, additional staff are being recruited to help to deal with the considerable mental health problems that exist in our prisons.

I am pleased to say that there is a good relationship between the prisons and the primary care trusts on the Isle of Wight. Recently, they jointly commissioned research into the mental health needs of prisoners, and the results are imminent. I am also pleased to confirm that £5 million of capital investment has been set aside to provide a new health care centre at Parkhurst. I am sure that that will be of interest the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned escort contracts. Obviously, the difficulties that he outlined about prisoners arriving late are symptomatic of the overcrowding that he mentioned. I can confirm that, when prisoners are received in the evening, they will routinely be seen by health care staff. He also made a number of points about the recent inspection report. I will write more fully to him about that. Clearly, there was a need to make improvements in the segregation unit and there were important indications of the need for improvement in the reception facilities.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned race relations and the over-representation of black and ethnic minority people in prisons. That is a profound issue, not just for the prisons in his constituency but throughout the prison system, and it should concern us all. I am pleased to confirm that a new race relations liaison officer has been appointed and is in the post. All complaints are investigated. I am pleased to say, as well, that there are liaison officers on each wing of the prison. I would be happy to send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the improvement plan. I should warn him that it keeps changing with the additional improvements, but I am sure that he will find things of interest in it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting talked about the importance of the independent monitoring board. When I visited Wandsworth recently, I was able to meet the chair of the board. I strongly agree with what was said about the role that volunteers play. That is a real example of civil society engaging with the criminal justice system. I promise that I will read the reports and that the independent monitoring boards will get a more timely response from Ministers than perhaps has been the case in the past. The boards' role is extremely important.

I am pleased to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) is a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust. Its report makes an important contribution to the debate, and I hope that it will aid growing consensus on the issues. Clearly, prisons are under pressure, and there must be growing consensus between politicians and the public on sentences and on how we should move forward.

I have only seconds left.

The hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) raised a number of issues. I still cannot answer the questions about the response time to heart attacks and the number of prison visitors. I shall write to him when I have that information. I can tell him, however, that the number of days lost per person because of sickness has fallen from 16.4 to 13.7. That is one question that I can answer, and I hope that he will be encouraged by that.

Clearly, our prison system faces major pressures. Several hon. Members mentioned the need to develop alternatives to prison, and I am concerned about the large number of people who are in prison for six months or less—

Order. Time is up and we must now move to the next debate, which offers a very rare experience. I am not sure how often the leader of a major political party applies for, and succeeds in getting, an Adjournment debate, but that has been achieved. The next debate, which has been initiated by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), perhaps highlights the importance of constituency duties for all Members of Parliament.