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Work in Prisons

Volume 542: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2012

We have ambitions to deliver a step change in the amount of work done in prisons. By making use of the lessons learned from the prisons that are already delivering full working weeks, we will work with the public and private sectors—including commercial customers and partners—and through the prison competition system to make our ambitions real.

The Secretary of State will know of the great work being done in Her Majesty’s prison Highpoint, in my constituency, which is one of our biggest category C prisons. Enabling third sector, private and other providers to work with prisoners before they are released has improved their chances of finding accommodation and work on release. What further action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that that is replicated throughout the country?

As I have said, we are building on the great work that is already being done, not least in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The purpose of prisons, it seems to me, is first to punish for crime, and secondly to reform as many criminals as possible. The second aim has been neglected in recent years, but the kind of work that my hon. Friend describes ought to be replicated as much as possible throughout the system, and that is the end towards which we are working.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments. He knows about the existing business in Her Majesty’s prison Gloucester, where prisoners repair bicycles which a charity then sends to Africa. It is a not-for-profit business. How does my right hon. and learned Friend think we could ensure that if the business were profitable it would not undercut businesses outside the prison, bearing in mind that paying the minimum wage might set a precedent in regard to other rights for prisoners?

One of the things about which we try to be scrupulous is ensuring that work in prisons does not undercut the work done by businesses employing honest employees outside. We would not be able to persuade organisations such as the CBI and our private sector partners to work with us if they thought that we were undercutting British competitors. We will not pay the minimum wage, because the taxpayer would find that he or she was footing the bill for it all. However, the costs of running a business in prison are considerable because of the security that is imposed. We intend to ensure, by means of a code of practice, that fair and proper competition is maintained and that we do not undercut ordinary honest businesses.

Given that, at present, 47% of offenders are receiving out-of-work benefits two years after their release from prison, I fully support what the Secretary of State is doing. What plans has he to ensure that there is a smooth transition from work preparation in prison to actual work outside prison?

Along with the Department for Work and Pensions, we have just embarked on a system whereby people who are released from prison go straight on to the Work programme. Their receipt of benefits is tied to a programme aimed at getting them back to work if that is at all possible, as it would be for anyone else. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend: all the evidence shows that having a job is one of the main factors that determine whether someone stops returning to crime, and it also stops the taxpayer having to pay benefits to such a high proportion of ex-prisoners.

If my constituents are to have faith in work in prisons, it is vital that inmates not only learn to work, but learn to become used to the routine of work. How much time per week does my right hon. and learned Friend expect to be assigned to prisoners for work?

Just the routine of working is very important. I believe that 13% of prisoners have never had a paid job in their lives, and about half have not been in a paid job in the last month before they arrive in prison. We aim to have a 40-hour week whenever possible, consistent with the other demands of the prison regime. Apart from skills and training, just getting people used to the daily routine of a working day is good preparation for an honest life in the outside world.

Many people hope that inmates will take advantage of work in prison so that they can pay something back to society and victims. What levels of compulsion will the work schemes involve, and what will happen if some prisoners choose to refuse to work?

Although some very good work is being done in prisons at the moment, and although there always have been one or two prisons in which a fair amount is happening, we will not be able to provide work for all prisoners for quite a long time. Our aim is to get a much higher proportion into work, and for that reason employees in prison will be volunteers. That is welcomed by private sector partners who like to have a say in their work force, and who want a properly motivated work force consisting of people who are trying to get themselves into a better state to go straight when they leave.

The Lord Chancellor will know that 51% of those who enter the prison system have a drug dependency. What programmes to assist them will he have in place to enable them to undertake this work?

Actually, an even higher proportion than that have abused drugs in the month or two before they arrive in prison. We are currently opening the first drug rehabilitation wings in prisons, and we hope to have drug-free wings, too. We are upping the effort to deal with the drugs problem, which is a very large cause of the criminality of many of the people in our prisons. Obviously, it should be given a much higher priority than it has sometimes had in the past.

How many companies on the outside does the Secretary of State expect to be linked to prisons in the next 12 months, so that those companies, such as Timpson and some utilities companies, that already have workshops and bases in prisons can help people through the door and into jobs on the outside?

There is growing interest, and I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to those companies, such as Timpson and one or two utilities companies, which have been pioneering this initiative for quite a long time. Shortly before Christmas, a letter was sent to the newspapers that was signed by companies including National Grid, Cisco and Marks & Spencer, and the CBI helped organise a day for us with outside companies. We have not put a target on the number of companies we want to be involved, but many companies want to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility by taking part in this programme, and some will find that it is a very useful way of recruiting and training staff for their businesses.

The Secretary of State will know that many inmates have mental health problems, including schizophrenia, which can make work in prison and, importantly, the transition out difficult, especially if they do not have anyone to monitor whether they are taking their medicine at the appropriate time. What steps is the Department taking, alongside the Department of Health, to ensure that appropriate medicines, including longer-lasting medicines such as injections that last a month, are part of the process, thereby helping people to have a smooth transition phase?

The hon. Lady has listed almost all the measures to which we are giving the highest priority in trying to make prisons reforming institutions. We have addressed work and drugs. Alcohol has not yet arisen, but mental illness is also a very serious issue. We are well advanced, in co-operation with the Department of Health, in making plans for diversion services for those who ought to be diverted out of the criminal justice system and given secure treatment for mental illness elsewhere. Through the Department of Health, we are also greatly improving the treatment facilities for those who have to stay in prison. Mental health must be tackled, especially if it is the real root of the criminality of someone in prison—and, indeed, some such prisoners should not be in prison at all.

Does the Secretary of State have any plans to adopt the Policy Exchange report recommendation that prisoners should be paid, but in turn should use their wages to pay for perks such as televisions, Freeview boxes and gym equipment, just as the rest of us in the outside world have to do?

Prisoners pay for some of those things already, although the innovation we are putting in place is to make provision from the earnings of prisoners for payment to victim services and to dependants outside. I agree that we are not just giving prisoners pocket money. We are giving them money from which they should, perfectly properly, make payment for those things for which they ought to be paying, including some reparation to their victims.

We have only to look at the Order Paper to see how keen the Secretary of State is to talk about work in prison. It is a shame that the Government are not more interested in the benefits of paid work for those who have not committed a crime.

There are merely two paragraphs on women offenders in his “Making prisons work” report, and there is no detail whatever on how his initiative will make a difference to them. Is it not true that this Government are showing no leadership on women in the justice system, and that there is a very real danger that all progress will be lost?

It is my Parliamentary Private Secretary’s enthusiasm for the policy of work in prisons that is exemplified, in part, by the Order Paper, together with the enthusiasm of all my hon. Friends who have asked questions on this extremely valuable policy, which is an innovation compared with the neglect of this subject by the previous Government.

We are giving a high priority to the needs of women in prison, and we will continue to address the matter. The previous Government were doing quite good work on women in prison, and we have not reversed anything; indeed, we are building on the Corston report. On work in prisons, we certainly intend that female prisoners should have the same opportunities of work and training as men, and we are thinking of what special arrangements we should make to ensure that such facilities are available and suitable for female prisoners.