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Prisoner Education

Volume 608: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2016

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for your tender solicitude earlier, but as you can see, I have an amazingly talented team of Ministers. They are the Arteta, the Oxlade-Chamberlain and the Özil of this Parliament, and for that reason I am very happy to be on the subs bench for most of the time. I am also very happy that you have allowed me to group these questions.

Dame Sally Coates has been leading a review of education in prisons. Her interim report made clear her view that governors should be able to choose their education provider and hold them to account for the service they give.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is imperative the recommendations of the Coates review are acted on in a way that focuses on both paths into employment and the wider non-utilitarian personal and moral benefits that education can bring?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Colleagues may know that as well as being a distinguished Member of Parliament, he has also written for Inside Time, the prisoners newspaper, about the need to improve prison education. His own experience both in music and in education equips him superbly to make the point that education should be about not simply the utilitarian gathering of skills, but opening minds to art, culture and the possibility of new horizons.

As we have heard, we know that better education slows the revolving door between crime and incarceration. Will my right hon. Friend therefore update the House on the announcement made by the Prime Minister about a Teach First-style scheme in prisons?

Absolutely. One of my former colleagues, David Laws, is leading work, along with a formidable social entrepreneur called Natasha Porter, who herself previously worked with Teach First, to establish a new charity. More details will be announced about both the Government funding and how we propose to recruit a generation of talented graduates to work in our prisons.

I understand that the average reading age of prisoners is just 11. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to ensure that, when they leave prison, people can read, write and be off drugs?

My hon. Friend strikes at the heart of three of the principal problems that prisoners face. It is very often the case that prisoners have had a very poor educational experience. That is one of the reasons—it does not of course absolve them of moral responsibility—why they can often be drawn into criminal activity. As Dame Sally has made clear, we need to screen every prisoner effectively when they arrive in custody so that we can ascertain the level of skills that they have, and we need to judge prisons on the value that they add. As for removing the taint of drugs or substance abuse, that is a huge problem and one to which we will be returning.

But in Ofsted’s annual report, Sir Michael Wilshaw highlighted the fact that provision for learning, skills and work in the prison estate was among some of the worst available in the higher education sector. What more is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that that vital part of prisoners’ rehabilitation is brought up to scratch, as it should be?

Michael Wilshaw has been a brilliant chief inspector, and he is absolutely right about the situation in our prisons. There are some outstanding examples of educational provision in prison, but, sadly, too few. One problem has been that a small group of providers has been responsible for providing education in prison, but large and inflexible contracts have meant that those providers have not necessarily been as responsive to the needs of individual prisoners as they should have been. That is changing, thanks to the Coates report. One thing that will not change, however, is the amount that we spend on education, which has been safeguarded and ring-fenced.

Are there any formal links between the Prison Service and further education colleges to develop the apprenticeship schemes that we heard about earlier?

I am very anxious to expand apprenticeships in prison, and have been working with my hon. Friend the Minister for Skills, who is responsible for apprenticeships, and of course the prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), to do just that. One challenge is that, although, as I say, there are excellent examples of good practice, current further education providers in prisons have not been as responsive as they should have been in every case.

22. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that educational progress in prisons will form one of the metrics of the new league tables for prisons? (904684)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that if we give people greater autonomy—governors, in particular—they need to be held to account. It is absolutely vital that, in the new prison accountability measures and league tables, they are held to account for educational performance and the value they add.

The Secretary of State’s personal commitment to this issue is very clear from his excellent interview in Inside Time, which a lot of us read. Does he accept that, as well as provider quality, one of the biggest obstacles is the fact that in the current prison estate prisoners are locked up for great lengths of time, as the physical facilities needed are not there? That makes it difficult to achieve anything on this. Will he assure us that this issue will be integral to the prison renewal programme and the new estate and new properties coming forward?

The Chair of the Justice Committee is absolutely right, as is the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), to point out that it is simply not good enough that prisoners are in their cells for up to 22 or 23 hours at a time. Time out of cell is a key indicator of how effectively a prison is run—it is not the only one, but it is really important. My hon. Friend is also absolutely right to point out that when we think about new prison design we should concentrate on the time out of cell. I was privileged to visit a prison just outside Berlin where prisoners spend far longer out of their cells, either at work or in education, than in most institutions in this country. We can learn a great deal from the Germans.