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Prison Education and Welfare Services

Volume 579: debated on Wednesday 30 April 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I am pleased to have secured this debate on education and welfare services in prisons—an important subject that affects the lives of thousands of prisoners throughout the United Kingdom, where 85,000 people are in prison. According to the Government’s figures, 81,000 are men and just under 4,000 are women. More than half of the UK’s prison population are in their 20s and 30s and therefore likely to have many years of freedom ahead of them upon their release.

In the first instance, prison must be seen as a punishment: a restriction of an individual’s freedom in response to their behaviour. However, it should not be a place that permanently reduces their life chances upon release. Offenders who are ex-offenders should be regarded as ex-offenders; they should be given the chance to move on with their lives and given a second chance. However, for some offenders, whole-of-life prison terms are more than appropriate; others, such as paedophiles and those who cannot be reformed, in my view deserve longer sentences than is currently the case. I hope that the Government will look at that in detail. I also think that tariffs for breaching the Official Secrets Act and acts of treason are far too lenient and might not deter those who would seek to undermine our nation’s national security.

For some offenders, however, prison can be an opportunity for them to change and turn their lives around—there is an opportunity, through education and welfare services, statutory or otherwise, to rehabilitate prisoners and provide them with the knowledge and skills to help them to lead successful and productive lives in their communities upon release. Through education courses, prisoners will be better equipped to find and sustain employment on release, becoming an asset to local communities and the wider economy. Education is still very much an escalator to opportunity and should be a key focus of the Government’s prisons policy. It has been estimated that up to 80% of prisoners have a reading age lower than that of an 11-year-old. That does not bode well for their employment on release or their successful reintegration into local communities.

A large proportion of prison education services are provided by the Government through the offenders’ learning and skills service, as well as through a number of Government-contracted providers. Although welcome, such statutory services tend to focus only on key basic skills such as maths and literacy. Those are of course important, but the training does not usually go beyond level 2, which is equivalent to a GCSE. The courses are highly valuable for prisoners, particularly those from poor educational backgrounds, and the Government deserve credit for increasing prisoner participation in them.

One of the key providers of such courses is A4E, which does some excellent work in helping former prisoners into employment, often bringing potential employers into prisons and giving offenders the chance to demonstrate their skills in a work-like environment. However, there are still areas in which the Government can improve the provision of educational services and make further progress. In particular, the focus on processes and outputs alone, where pressure is put on providers to get prisoners on to and through courses, risks missing those prisoners who require more focused, specialised, bespoke and, in some cases, higher-level teaching experience than the current system provides.

It is also difficult for education providers to draw down funding for courses beyond level 2, which results in a distinct lack of progress for prisoners who come from a stronger educational background. Furthermore, the comparative lack of more engaged learning, including more practical and vocational courses—such as gym courses, as well as workshops and other creative activities—risks alienating individuals who may not be academically minded but nevertheless have other practical skills that could equip them for the outside workplace. That is why the role of charities is important, because it often falls to charities and other external organisations to provide educational services in areas not currently covered by the offenders’ learning and skills service, or OLASS.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and make my usual declaration about my publication on prison reform two years ago. Does he agree that we should be looking into the idea of an academy prison, whereby the whole prison is run by a charity or altruistic institution? The current model is either state or private, whereas in schools we have transformed education by the provision of academies that are outwith the state or private institutions. Surely, the next step for public sector reform of prisons should be the charity not just providing the education within a small segment of a prison, but taking over the whole prison itself.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We must have a mixed economy for education provision in the prison estate. He makes an innovative point on the potential for an academy—either an individual academy within an individual prison or an academy with a capital A across the whole of the prison estate. He is of course well versed and experienced on this subject, having written a book entitled “Doing Time: Prisons in the 21st Century”, which looked at the subject of literacy, numeracy and education. I applaud his continued commitment to improved education in the prison estate.

I was talking about charities, and the Prisoners Education Trust, for example, funds around 2,000 people each year to study a wide range of courses in subjects and at levels not provided by statutory education services, including Open university degrees and diplomas as well as more practical and vocational courses. The trust does an excellent job in helping thousands of prisoners across the estate, and I pay tribute to its work. Over the past quarter of a century, it has led many prisoners back into successful lives in the community. The Ministry of Justice’s research confirms that prisoners who study are less likely to reoffend, so everyone wins. Other charities involved in such work include the Shannon Trust, the No Way Trust and the Henry Smith Charity—I do not believe that the latter relates to our colleague, the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), but I know that he is interested in this subject. They all deserve credit for supplementing other education services within the estate.

Welfare services available to prisoners, whether counselling, faith-based or pastoral services, such as the work of the prison chaplaincy, all make for better prisons and help reduce reoffending rates on release. Once again, the role of charities makes an invaluable impact on the lives and welfare of prisoners. In particular, the Prison Fellowship does excellent work in support of prisoners to navigate their way through a host of different programmes and initiatives. It also supports those who have little or no social or family network to support them in or out of prison. Through its excellent victim awareness programme, the Prison Fellowship teaches the principles of restorative justice, by giving prisoners the opportunity to explore the effects of crimes on victims, offenders and the community, as well as to take responsibility for their own actions and crimes.

On restorative justice, the Government should look again at the moneys provided to the police and crime commissioners for that type of justice work. I do not think that the majority of PCCs are best placed to spend those justice funds. My view is that organisations such as the Prison Fellowship and others should be able to apply for direct funding from the Ministry of Justice. I hope that the Minister will consider that again and will respond when winding up.

Other charities, such as Time for Families, also do good work, including running relationship courses in prisons. The staff and volunteers, like those of so many other charities, do so much for so many, and I pay tribute to all those who do such work. I also pay tribute to all prison officer staff and volunteers who work within the prison estate, most with professionalism and commitment, in both the public and private sectors and—who knows in the future?—in some third-way academy; I hope so.

The prison chaplaincy is the backbone of the prison welfare and pastoral services provided, with that care playing a vital role in the rehabilitation process, and helping prisoners with many of the challenges that they face.

Mr Dobbin, with your permission, I would like to be reminded when there is one minute left for me to speak. That would be very helpful.

For those prisoners of faith, the prison chaplaincy provides solace, confidentiality and somewhere for them to go to practise their religion. I pay tribute to all those who offer spiritual and pastoral counselling to prisoners and staff. None the less, some recent concerns have been expressed about accessibility to chaplaincy services. In a recent submission to the Select Committee on Justice, the Caritas Social Action Network in collaboration with the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales raised a number of concerns about access to religious services for prisoners. Some of that has resulted from changes in the organisation of the prison day, with the bishops citing the shortening of the prison day. I am interested to hear the Minister’s response to that claim, given the vital role, which I know he and the Government recognise, of the work chaplains do in the prison service.

I highlight the excellent Listener scheme established within prisons by the Samaritans. I recently tabled a written parliamentary question on the subject. The scheme helps to support hundreds of prisoners and can help reduce self-harming. Prisoners are trained by the Samaritans and other prisoners come to that prisoner for help, support and guidance. I hope that the Minister will ensure that all prison governors and staff are made fully aware of the Government’s support for this scheme, since, again, everyone benefits.

I turn briefly to maternity services and women in prison. My view is that women with very young children should be jailed only for serious offences. I think that pregnant prisoners as far as practicable should always give birth in NHS hospitals and stay in hospital for as long as possible wherever needed. The Government need to publish annual official figures on the number of pregnant women in prisons and the number of mothers and babies passing through the prisons estate each year. Those figures are currently not published. Bespoke policies cannot surely be made without sufficient detail and empirical data and evidence.

There are estimates that more than 600 women receive antenatal care in prisons each year, with more than 100 women actually giving birth during their sentences. Can the Minister confirm that the female prison population is likely to rise? If he thinks that is the case on projections, will the 80 mother-and-baby places in units in England—and other places—spread between seven establishments be sufficient to meet future demand? Does he think that such units are the right environment for babies to be born?

I am aware that in 2000 the prison service and the NHS entered into a formal contract to provide prisoners with the same standard of midwifery care as that provided elsewhere in the community, and rightly so. Is the Minister content that that contract is providing the health care that mothers and babies require?

Can the Minister confirm on the record that, though the practice was outlawed since 1996, mothers are no longer in every case shackled while in labour or giving birth? The Government need to do more to ensure that standards of antenatal care are far more uniform across the prison estate—high levels of care, not a lowering of standards of care.

I am grateful, Mr Dobbin. I would like to thank the Maternity Alliance for the work that it does in relation to mothers and babies in prison.

The Government are doing some excellent things to ensure that education and welfare services are available in prisons, and that work is admirably supplemented by the excellent work of numerous charities, some of which I have referred to today. However, I hope that more progress can be made, particularly in relation to uniformity of access and standards.

Changes of policy or process within individual prisons or across the whole prison estate should not lead to a lowest-common-denominator approach. Those who occupy prisons are individuals who have done wrong to society. However, that does not mean that they should be written off. Yes, prison should be a place of punishment, but also a place of rehabilitation, a weaning off dependency and a place of restorative justice for those who have open minds and hearts. The prison service should be a helping hand in that process, not a deterrent or an unwitting roadblock. The prison service works best in a collaborative process.

Most prisoners will return to the outside world and it is in large part the responsibility of this Government to ensure that policies are advanced that help equip prisoners for a fresh start and a new life on their release, going on to lead productive and fruitful lives for themselves and for wider society.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Mr Dobbin. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing the debate and on the way he has set out his case. I agree with a great deal of what he has said. He is entirely right that the first thing the public expect is that sentencing is carried out in a robust and proper manner and that, where tough sentences are appropriate, they are handed out.

My hon. Friend will know that the Government are acting on that expectation in relation to legislation currently passing through Parliament. We will, for example, no longer have automatic release for terrorists and those who have committed child rape offences. I think that he and many others will welcome that.

My hon. Friend is right that prison should not simply be a place of punishment, but also an opportunity to turn lives around. He will recognise the Government’s clear focus on reducing reoffending. A large part of that relies on rehabilitation that takes places during custody as well as that which may take place later.

My hon. Friend talked about education and skills, and again he is right that that is hugely important. We recognise the important role that skills and employment can have in reducing reoffending. We are committed to creating a more effective system for helping prisoners develop the skills required for sustainable employment. I am especially concerned, as I know that my hon. Friend will be, about the number of prisoners who have poor literacy and numeracy. We know that such skills are essential for life and work and without them any individual is disadvantaged in the job market. For that reason, from August this year we are introducing mandatory assessment of learning needs for all prisoners on reception. This will help to ensure that those with the greatest need do not slip through the net. Of course, education is not mandatory for anyone over 18. However, we hope that our revised incentives and earned privileges scheme and more innovative and engaging approaches will secure the involvement of those adult prisoners.

My hon. Friend may know that we have piloted the use of the Army’s approach to intensive maths and English and have found that to be effective with prisoners. We intend to roll this out further, particularly for those serving short sentences.

Just for the record and for clarity—for my slowness—first, is the Minister saying that that will be offered to all new prisoners on reception? Secondly, how will that assessment be made?

The assessment should apply to all prisoners, so that we understand what someone’s learning needs might be. As I have said, it is difficult to compel anyone above the age of 18 to engage in any education courses, but it is important that we understand what a prisoner’s learning needs are when they arrive in custody. If someone has significant learning needs, it is right to give them every incentive and encouragement to address those needs, so that they can start to make their way in the world in a legitimate way, just as my hon. Friend described, when they leave custody.

My hon. Friend mentioned a number of charities that have an important part to play in this regard. He is right about that. He mentioned the Prisoners Education Trust, and I support what he said about it. He is right to mention the Shannon Trust in particular, given that we are discussing literacy among prisoners; it does good work, as he knows, through the “Toe by Toe” programme, which enables prisoners to learn to read outside a classroom setting.

My hon. Friend is also right to say that we have to focus on vocational training. Our offender learning strategy concentrates on preparation for employment, as we know that having a job when leaving prison can reduce reoffending. Vocational training, based on labour market intelligence, particularly in the year before release, will remain a priority especially in the new resettlement prisons. More broadly, I want to ensure that a core of employers is in place to offer employment opportunities to offenders and ex-offenders, in particular through the Employers Forum for Reducing Re-offending, chaired by James Timpson.

I am fully aware, as my hon. Friend is, that many prisoners have experienced a lifetime of social deprivation and face more significant barriers to obtaining employment than the average jobseeker and that prison leavers spend longer on benefits than other new jobseeker’s allowance claimants. For this reason, from March 2012 we introduced a change so that all prison leavers are immediately mandated to the Work programme if they make a claim for jobseeker’s allowance in prison or within 13 weeks of release. This is intended to ensure that newly released offenders have the support that they need to find and stay in work.

Of course, work after prison is an important factor, but work in prison is important, too. Work in prison can prepare prisoners to take up opportunities outside. Too many prisoners are able to pass their time in prison in a state of enforced idleness, with little or no constructive activity. We want prisons in England and Wales to become places of meaningful work and training, where many more prisoners work for up to 40 hours a week, and possibly beyond. We have had considerable success in increasing the number of hours worked in our prisons since 2010.

We want more prisoners to undertake challenging work, within the discipline of regular working hours, which will also help them develop the skills that they need to gain employment, to reform and, ultimately, to turn away from crime.

I visited HMP Northumberland with the Secretary of State for Justice this month and spoke to the highly successful providers of education in prison there. Does the Minister accept the potential for alternative providers for an individual prison? Does he agree with his predecessor, the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), who indicated on 13 March 2014, as reported in Hansard, that such organisations would be genuinely welcomed by the Ministry of Justice, provided that they satisfy the financial and safeguarding criteria?

It is not so much who provides the prison accommodation that matters, but what they provide and the support that goes with it. My hon. Friend will recognise that neither this Government nor the previous one have excluded the possibility of prisons being run by people other than the state. It is important that we look at every potential provider of prisons, to ensure that they can provide for us not just a secure environment, but one in which rehabilitation can be achieved. I recognise his enthusiasm for this cause. We think that it is more important that what is provided is good, rather than who provides it.

Let me move on to restorative justice, which my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin mentioned. I am an enthusiast for restorative justice, which has a significant part to play, not just outside custody but inside, too. He will know that restorative justice principles are sometimes used inside our prisons. The Government have, in this sense, put their money where their mouth is and made some £30 million available over the next few years for restorative justice to be carried out. He is right to say that, at the moment, the bulk of that money goes to police and crime commissioners. It is right that people who are in a position to determine local need have that money available to them, but that is not the only resource available for restorative justice. I will consider carefully what my hon. Friend has said, to see whether there are other ways in which we can achieve the objective that he has set out.

I am, like my hon. Friend, an enthusiast for chaplaincy, which does a good job. He knows that chaplaincy teams in prisons are available to provide pastoral support to prisoners of all faiths and to those of no faith. All prisons have multi-faith chaplaincy teams to both provide this support and to enable religious provision. All new prisoners are seen by a chaplain, from whom they hear about the support and services provided. In addition, prisoners who are segregated or in health care—both particularly stressful times—are visited daily by a chaplain to offer support. Chaplains can also be alongside prisoners at times of crisis in their lives, such as bereavement, when they may be particularly vulnerable. Our chaplaincy teams also deliver a wide range of group activities and classes that are not just faith-based but look at issues such as loss, victim empathy and developing life skills. Chaplaincy teams are well placed to both provide this support and to challenge behaviours and to provide positive role models.

My hon. Friend mentioned the care that may be on offer from other prisoners, aside from the care offered by the authorities. Again, he is right about this. Often, we find that prisoners respond and relate more easily to their peers. A good example of this is the Samaritan-trained Listener scheme, which he mentioned, whereby carefully selected and trained prisoners act as listeners inside the prison. They listen in confidence to their fellow prisoners who may be in crisis, feel suicidal or need a sympathetic ear. The listeners assist in preventing suicide, reducing self-harm and generally help alleviate the feelings of those in distress. In addition, selected prisoners act as what we call insiders, helping with the induction process by telling new prisoners all they need to know about life in prison, what is available and where to find help.

My hon. Friend asked about maternity and childbirth provision. He knows that, under the Health and Social Care Act 2012, since 1 April 2013, NHS England has a legal duty to commission health services or facilities for all people who are detained in prison. Women prisoners and their babies should have access to the same range and quality of health services and treatments from the NHS as everyone else. This will include antenatal and post-natal care through attendance at hospital or in-reach midwifery. The six mother-and-baby units in England and Wales provide an overall capacity of 64 places for mothers. In fact, there is a total of 70 places for babies, to allow for twins.

My hon. Friend asked about population projections. Of course, we keep this matter under review, but we will always look to ensure that we have sufficient capacity to accommodate those who we believe will find themselves in the custodial system. He is right to say that the custodial system is not the best place for mothers and babies to be. He will know that courts will always think twice before incarcerating someone who is in that condition, but sometimes that is necessary. The decision to provide a place in a mother-and-baby unit is taken by a board consisting of representatives from the local authority, the prison, other interested parties and an independent chair. The overall age limit for most of these units is 18 months, although that may vary depending on the circumstances. He will appreciate that, when considering applications for admission to mother-and-baby units, the best interests of the child are paramount.

My hon. Friend asked me one other question, which was on handcuffing. Handcuffing is profoundly undesirable, and the general policy is not to handcuff women, but as he will understand, an individual risk assessment has to be made in each and every case.

I hope that my response assists my hon. Friend, and I welcome his interest in what happens inside prisons. I am also grateful for the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) who, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin has said, takes a consistent interest in such matters. There is a good deal more to do, but as my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin and I entirely agree, prisons must be both places of punishment and places where we seek to turn around the lives of those who would otherwise go on to reoffend.