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Literacy in Prisons

Volume 580: debated on Tuesday 6 May 2014

Improving prisoners’ literacy is a key objective of education in custody. Where literacy needs are identified, prisoners are offered teaching and support as a priority. That can take place in classrooms, through peer mentoring, in libraries, at work and during other prison activities.

New Government rules limit the number of books a prisoner is allowed to have at any one time to 12, which means that prisoners studying for Open university courses or other qualifications will not get hold of the required study material. Prisoners are much less likely to reoffend when they have taken educational courses, especially when they have completed them. What contingencies has the Secretary of State put in place to ensure that his rules do not undermine the educational outcomes of prisoners?

Let me start with where I agree with the hon. Gentleman: it is undoubtedly the case that education aids rehabilitation, and where people want to engage in education we support them wherever we can. However, I should point out to him that the changes to the incentives and earned privileges scheme do not affect the number of books prisoners are allowed to have in their cells—that remains 12. Prisoners also have unrestricted access, within sensible safeguards which he would understand on the nature of books it is right to have in prisons, to the library as and when they need it. There is, therefore, no difficulty with prisoners having access to books, and where there is a specific requirement for a particular book that is not in the library, every effort is made to get the prisoner that book.

As ever, the Minister is being infuriatingly reasonable, but we do know that opportunities for purposeful activity are plummeting owing to overcrowding and falling staff numbers. That makes the ban on having books sent in to inmates all the more senseless, and the Labour party has already committed to reverse the ban. Will the Minister explain why having a ban on books being sent in to prison in any way aids rehabilitation?

The hon. Lady is being uncharacteristically unreasonable. We are not banning prisoners having access to books. As I have just explained to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), there really is no difficulty with prisoners having access to books. If only that were the biggest problem we face in connection with literacy in prisons, but it is not. What she must consider is whether she is really going to allow people to send into prison unrestricted packages, which, as long as they say “Books” on the outside, she will be prepared to accept at face value. If that is the case, she will have a rude awakening. This is a sensible restriction on packages coming into prison, but it is no restriction on prisoners being able to read or to study, which they can do now and will continue to be able to do.