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Prison Service

Volume 622: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2001

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7.30 p.m.

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government how they propose to deal with the penal situation described by the Director-General of the Prison Service at its annual conference.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Director-General of the Prison Service, Mr Martin Narey, a young civil servant—or at least, young by my standards because he is less than half my age—recently delivered a speech which was one of the most astonishing that I can remember in all my long years. Those noble Lords who are to speak in this debate, along with many other people, will have read what he had to say. However, I shall not quote from the speech because we have so little time. Mr Narey has stated that he is not prepared much longer to defend the indefensible. He spoke about the betrayal of duty to those in our care. That is pretty extreme language. I have never heard anything like it from a government official. I hope that the Government will pay attention to his words.

Mr Narey has described the situation in our prisons as "appalling". To an extent, he places the blame on the Government. However, being a civil servant, he cannot blame the Ministers. Sir David Ramsbotham, who knows more about prisons than anyone else, takes the same view as regards the gravity of the situation. However, he blames senior management along with the Government. We shall have to take a broad view of the matter.

Nearly 60 years ago I was working as the personal assistant to Sir William Beveridge. I was his bottle washer. We met Sir David Margesson, then Secretary of State for War. At the time, Beveridge was compiling a report on the use of skilled manpower in the services, although later he was to become famous for his work on social security. Sir David Margesson proudly described what was being done and asked, "Is there not a great deal to admire in that, Sir William?". Beveridge paused and then said, "A miserable show". I am afraid that that is also the verdict passed by Mr Narey on the situation in the Prison Service. It is a miserable show. Sir David Ramsbotham does not take quite the same view. Although he thinks that the situation is equally grave, he places responsibility for it firmly on senior management and the Government.

I do not seek this evening to place any blame because I am more concerned about the future. First, however, another recollection has come to mind. I once heard Harold Macmillan describe in an after dinner speech how he had cried himself to sleep on the first night at his prep school. The little boy in the next bed said, "Don't cry. Your position is bad, but not hopeless". I shall start from the assumption that the position is not hopeless. Something can be done about it.

In the last resort, we must ask the Government to do something, because they are responsible. Prisons are a part of the public service. The Government must take responsibility if the situation has deteriorated into a total shambles. However, we must first ask ourselves what the Government ought to be doing. In my view, they should concentrate on two matters. First, they need to spend much more money on the Prison Service. To be fair, they are doing so and I give them full credit for that. The second, and more important matter, is the need to reduce the number of people in prison. That is essential.

I am pleased to see that I shall be followed by the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, a former Home Secretary and Chairman of the Prison Reform Trust. I am gratified that he will address the House today and I am sorry that he has only six minutes in which to speak. I hope that the noble Lord will recall that, when he was Home Secretary, the prison population stood at 46,000. Today we have well over 60,000 in prison. I hope that he will be able to tell the House of the beauties of a smaller prison population.

The Lord Chief Justice, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, has given a scathing account of the situation. He has insisted that the prison population must be reduced. That opinion forms the main emphasis of my contribution this evening. What is going to be done to reduce the prison population? It may be said that people are sent to prison by the courts, not by governments. That response is not good enough. When Michael Howard became Home Secretary, he announced a new policy which was very much less agreeable or laudable than that of the noble Lord, Lord Hurd. Mr Howard announced that, "Prison works". Within four years, the prison population had increased by 50 per cent, with no corresponding increase in crime. That shows what governments can do when they put their minds to it.

Although I give the Government credit for increasing the money available to prisons, what are they going to do to reduce the prison population? They will not even admit that they are in the wrong. No government ever did. I have been a Minister and I have done my bit. One says that whatever the government do, is right. However, I know that that is not the opinion of those outside such circles. We have a mess which needs to be cleared up. It is in the Government's power to do that.

I do not expect a revolutionary statement from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State this evening. I am not quite so innocent as that. An election is coming and nothing must be done to suggest that the Government have become soft on crime. I ask only that the Minister will not commit himself still further in the wrong direction. In a sense, I hope that the less he can say, the better. Perhaps I may ask him only that he will promise to place all that is said in our debate tonight in front of his chief. I cannot ask for more and I shall not get any more.

When all is said and done, this is a grave matter. To return to what I said at the beginning of my remarks, I cannot think of another occasion in my lifetime when a top civil servant has threatened to quit unless a situation is improved. I leave on the table the question: what are the Government going to do? If they can do nothing now, I hope that, when Mr Straw becomes Home Secretary again after the election, he will take action that will be worthy of him.

7.39 p.m.

My Lords, everyone who is interested in prisons has long owed a debt to the noble Earl. Sometimes he has been laughed at a little for his diligence and his compassion. But some of his warnings and prophesies are clearly coming true. Therefore, our debt to him has increased. It has further increased because he has taken the initiative to organise this debate.

It is high time that we had a full debate on prisons in this House. The other place debated the subject on 12th February. We had a debate on universities not long ago and it was a considerable success. There is a good deal of knowledge and feeling about prisons in this House. I hope that, between them, the Front Benches will overcome their hesitation, even their timidity, on this subject and allow us to have a full-scale debate.

The noble Earl rightly fastened on the speech by Mr Narey, the Director-General of the Prison Service. It was, as he said, a remarkable speech and I hope that many who have not yet read it will do so. It was delivered by a devoted public servant who is known to many of us, a man who was clearly under great stress—not least from the immediate audience in front of him of prison governors. He said that he was proud of much that has been achieved, but that he is no longer willing to put up with excuses for things that are inexcusable, and no longer willing to make such excuses for them himself. There was a contrast between that speech and the bland reassurances that were given in the other place by Ministers at the end of the debate on 12th February.

As the noble Earl said, Mr Narey is not alone. On 31st January, the Lord Chief Justice gave a notable lecture to the Prison Reform Trust, of which I am chairman; and Sir David Ramsbotham, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, in a series of tough and admirable reports, has thrown light into the dark corners of the prison world. It will be sad indeed if, as we fear, the clear voice of the chief inspector is silenced within a matter of months if he is not reappointed when his term in that post comes to an end.

This is a crucially important service, and it is now under great strain. Much good work is being done, but there is much that is badly wrong. There is no time to go into all the matters that need to be gone into. I must complement the noble Earl's remarks by saying a word about Feltham, a great institution of this country not far from here, where hundreds of young men are held because they have been convicted or accused of quite serious offences. Mr Zahid Mubarek, a young British Asian sentenced for a relatively minor offence and about to be released, was put into a cell with a young white lad who was known to be mentally unbalanced. Mr Mubarek was murdered in that cell a few hours before he was due to be released. Young men at Feltham are allowed less than three and a half hours on average out of their cells each day. Feltham has had four governors in four years. Let anyone who is acquainted with administration dwell on that ominous fact.

The Government have referred the problem to the Commission for Racial Equality. That is the wrong response. It is evasive. There may be racism in the Prison Service, but the real issue at Feltham and at many other places is not racism; it is ragged, inadequate management—the same brand of management that organised the damaging raid on one of the most successful prisons in the service, Blantyre House, and the dislocation of the governor and his staff. The move has been condemned by a House of Commons committee; and it was admirably dissected by my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden in a short debate in this House not long ago.

Perhaps I may say a word about women in prison. The figure has doubled in the past seven years. When are those of us who are interested in the matter going to have an adequate response to the report by Professor Dorothy Wedderburn, sponsored by the Prison Reform Trust? Are we going to wait until the growing numbers of women prisoners are fully caught up in all the troubles and evils of the prison population as a whole? I hope that the Minister will say something encouraging about a separate board to deal with the problem of women prisoners.

I end on the question of overcrowding. Every serious analysis comes back to that, as did the noble Earl in his speech. The Lord Chief Justice, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said the other day in his lecture to the Prison Reform Trust that overcrowding,
"is more destructive of an effective prison system than anything else".
Fifteen years ago, when I was Home Secretary, overcrowding was much worse. The police cells in many of our cities were crowded with prisoners. They had to be looked after by the police because there was no room in the prisons. I had to set up accommodation for prisoners at an army camp on Salisbury Plain. Since then, the prison building programme has reduced that pressure, but in a way that is somewhat insidious. We are no longer dealing with a raging fever, which is referred to on the front page of newspapers and of which everyone is aware and accepts that something has to be done. What we are now faced with is a deep underlying sickness. Preston is 81 per cent overcrowded; Shrewsbury is 74 per cent overcrowded; Northallerton is 62 per cent overcrowded. You cannot run a prison decently in those circumstances. All the efforts to deal with matters about which reformers rightly worry—education, training, treatment for drug abuse and the all-important link between prison and what happens to a prisoner after release—are weakened and frustrated by overcrowding.

Yet Ministers and Opposition leaders fail to acknowledge this problem head on. In the fashionable phrase, they are to some extent "in denial". Why? The noble Earl tactfully touched on the point. Some of the policies being pursued by both main parties would have the effect of making the problem worse. In my most depressed moments I sometimes think that the contest over law and order in the forthcoming election will amount to who can overcrowd our prisons most.

That is a popular cry among those who know little about our prisons, and care even less. They are not told often enough that, since almost all people in prison are released, it is a matter of public safety as well of ordinary human rights that prisons should be run to provide the best possible chance of a prisoner going straight after release.

We are talking briefly about a great public service which many of us know well. We are not talking about a waste management system. We are talking about a service through which thousands of our fellow citizens pass., albeit it through their own fault—

My Lords, the noble Lord is encroaching on the time of other speakers.

My Lords, I apologise for overrunning the allotted time. There is a destructive silence. We in this House should do our best to break that silence and insist on the necessary standards.

7.48 p.m.

My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, with all his experience, speaks as strongly and firmly as he has tonight, we should all take his remarks seriously. I join with him in thanking my noble friend Lord Longford for once again giving us the opportunity to discuss this important subject. We must also express our appreciation to Martin Narey and to the chief inspector for the courageous lead that they repeatedly give in terms of the priorities on which we should concentrate.

Last week, I put a Question to my noble friend the Minister on rehabilitation. I hope that he will forgive me if I say that he sounded a little impatient in his reply. He rattled off a lot of very convincing statistics to put me in my place. I hope that he will also understand that I was not totally convinced. I was convinced by the statistics. But it is rather like someone going up an escalator that is going downhill out of control. When we hear of things that are being done by courageous and dedicated members of the Prison Service to tackle rehabilitation, but then we look at the conditions and the environment in which they are trying to do it, it is very difficult to make progress. The whole problem of overcrowding is central to this matter.

Why does rehabilitation matter? It matters because it is an indication of our self-confidence as a society that we believe we can turn criminals into decent citizens. But it also matters economically, because to fail in rehabilitation is to be certain of growing expenditure in the future as we deal with the consequence of failing to win that battle and with people returning to society only to commit crimes yet again.

I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister agrees with me that part of the problem is that we have a "bubble-in-the-lino" syndrome; that is, when something happens, everybody concentrates on it and tries to work out why it happened and to put that situation right. Then, before we know where we are, the bubble pops up somewhere else. Of course, apart from the bubble in the lino, there is the more sinister issue of the ongoing hell-holes, as Martin Narey described them, which undermine the system as a whole—places like Wormwood Scrubbs, Leeds, Wandsworth, Portland, Brixton and Winston Green.

At this stage we should pay a real tribute to the dedicated work by some governors and much of the prison staff throughout the country who are battling against great odds. But I remain convinced—I do not believe I am alone in this—that there is a cultural challenge in the service as a whole. We have to win the battle for convincing the service that what it is about is rehabilitation and not simply incarcerating people. What is the message we give to the Prison Service in this context? We must all take a degree of responsibility in this regard.

Are we spelling out that we believe that rehabilitation is the challenge, the priority? Or are we concentrating too much on sending out the popular message to the people as a whole that we are determined to be tough on criminals? Of course punishment matters. Of course we must not be sentimental about criminality. But if we concentrate on telling the public how tough we are being and fail to educate them and lead them in a commitment to rehabilitation, how can we expect the Prison Service to change its culture?

The Howard League for Penal Reform, to which I am sure we are all grateful, in correspondence with me underlined some important statistics. In 1992 only 5 per cent of magistrates' courts' cases resulted in immediate custody, but by 1999 that had risen to 12 per cent. In 1992 44 per cent of Crown Court cases resulted in immediate custody, but by 1999 that had risen to 63 per cent. Use of immediate custody for women increased from 5 per cent of cases in 1990 to 15 per cent in 1999. The number of people sentenced to less than 12 months doubled between 1993 and 1999.

That does not indicate just an increase in numbers. The interesting statistics are there when we compare ourselves with other countries. For each 100,000 of our population, in England and Wales we have 126 people in prison. In France it is only 89, in Germany 97; even in Greece it is only 68. In Ireland it is 71; in Italy 87; and it is interesting to note that while the figure of 126 per 100,000 is the figure for England and Wales, in Northern Ireland it is only 91 and in Scotland it is 117—lower than England and Wales as a whole.

All that adds up to the overcrowding to which the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, so tellingly referred. If we are looking at the issue of overcrowding and facing up to the increasing numbers, what studies do we make of what is going on in other countries which put less emphasis on imprisonment than we do ourselves? It is interesting to note that the Howard League calculated that the reconviction rate among people sentenced to short periods of imprisonment is some 75 per cent, whereas for those given probation it is 57 per cent. I wonder whether we really are looking seriously enough at the alternatives to prison and whether we are prepared, with some humility, to look at what other countries are achieving in this respect and learn from them.

I finish on the point on which I started. Yes, we have to give punishment where punishment is due. But rehabilitation is the challenge. The process of rehabilitation must be there from day one in prison; but it goes on after prison as people go back into society. We cannot just throw them out of the prisons into the community. People need to be looked after in the process of reintegration. And all that is virtually impossible if we go on with this madness of increasing the numbers of people in prison without being able to do anything intelligent with them while they are there.

7.55 p.m.

My Lords, in his list of complaints about the service he directs, Mr Narey includes the damning fact that "virtually nothing"—his words—is done during their time inside to prepare prisoners for release; nothing, in other words, to promote rehabilitation about which the noble Lord, Lord Judd, spoke, despite the prominence that is given in the declared aims of the Prison Service.

Of course, the poor quality and minimal quantity of education and training are not as headline grabbing or as shocking to the general public as the overcrowding, physical abuse, racism, drug addiction, squalor and filth that justify some prisons being called "hell-holes". But in this debate, for which we owe our gratitude to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, it is to education and training that I shall devote my brief contribution. Common sense as well as common humanity demand that we do far more to turn the prisoners of today, overwhelmingly male, into the self-respecting, self-supporting citizens of tomorrow.

Easier said than done. And for so many years, far more often said than done. But I hope I am not being too nave in believing that we may now be coming close to achieving a constructive and successful education and training service. I am thinking, for example, of the excellent facilities in the 400-place young offender institution at Ashfield, near Bristol, opened 15 months ago, with its fine classrooms, workshops, library, gymnasium, playing field and running track. I am encouraged too by the new arrangements whereby, from the beginning of April, the DfEE will take over responsibility for educational provision throughout the Prison Service. I hope the Minister will have more on that in his winding-up remarks. I shall not be alone in watching developments closely as targeting and continuity are vastly improved, high motivating courses put in place leading to NVQs and other qualifications, and literacy and numeracy not merely advanced but firmly linked to the inmates' potential interests. And I hope for much much more.

But attractive curricula in bright classrooms and buzzing workshops will be of no avail without the right teaching staff. And here we have a problem that must be addressed with vigour and imagination.

"No one forgets a good teacher", was the slogan of the TTA's recruiting campaign a year or so ago. Seldom can an advertising soundbite have embodied so much simple truth. Well, if it resonates with those of us who can rejoice in the education we received at the hands of good teachers, how much more must the memory of a good teacher mean to a prisoner of 25 or a young offender of 15 who had no such memory before sentence; often indeed little memory of school itself, having truanted his years away or been excluded through bad behaviour.

The TTA campaign had only a limited success in attracting recruits to mainstream schools. So it is not hard to understand the greater difficulties in attracting the right young men and women to educate tough, rough, disaffected prisoners who make the most lawless of our inner city school pupils seem angelic by comparison.

The education service in prisons and young offender institutions suffers among other things from a gross over-reliance upon part-time teachers; from the poor integration of education staff with other relevant service personnel; and from a sadly deficient career structure—not to mention the sordid, cramped education space such as I have seen in Brixton and which is still all too common across the prison estate. In consequence, there is a constant turnover of staff as dispirited teachers flee the service.

Yet it need not be like that. Adult prisoners and young offenders alike—truculent, unruly, unlovable and recalcitrant as they may be—are signally responsive to well-managed education and training. In many, if not most, cases they are well aware of what they have missed by way of education and often need little persuasion to start seeing the advantage of using their time inside to make up for lost opportunity. Teaching them can be a rewarding experience, however arduous.

Many young graduates are keen to go and help the needy in far-off, third world countries, not realising, perhaps, what their energies and idealism could do for our own, locally based third world of prisons and young offender institutions. They should be helped to realise, too, that they can by this means do good for themselves as well as for their incarcerated pupils. To this end, there must be good working conditions, full participation in the teaching profession as a whole, and well planned and well publicised opportunities for professional development, including entitlement to further training. And, of course, they must be presented with an attractive career structure, with the possibility not only of winning one of Lord Puttnam's national teaching awards, but of promotion to the grade of advanced skills teacher.

8.3 p.m.

My Lords, it is a privilege to have the opportunity to participate, all too briefly, in this very important debate. I share the words of the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, that it is time that the usual channels found the opportunity for a major debate on this topic. I am talking about five hours, when speeches could be a little less constrained.

I bring the credential that for some years I was the parliamentary adviser to the Prison Officers' Association. In that time, I visited 32 prisons. It might be said that I have the best record for being in prison than anyone in this House. I have visited Dartmoor, Grendon and Strangeways. In my study at home, I have a slate that was thrown from the roof of Strangeways during the riots. It is inscribed:
"To Ted Graham, a true friend of the Prison Officers Association.
I have also visited Liverpool, Durham, Littlehey, Doncaster, Risley, Bristol and Leicester—I say in deference to my noble friend Lord Fyfe—which is a full security prison. I have been to Feltham and Exeter prisons, too. I remember visiting prisons after some terrible times.

The problem is to try to put things in perspective. My memory goes back over 20 years of close involvement and observation. We have to decide what has improved and what has deteriorated. There is no question that the problems of overcrowding, or two or three to a cell, have been tackled—though not mastered—imaginatively.

When I consider the purport of the remarks that we have heard in the debate, Mr Narey has my deepest respect. I put it down as a cry for help. It was not accidental but deliberate. He decided to use the opportunity and the audience that he was addressing to get the maximum dramatic effect, which I believe he achieved. He has the attention of the nation. The public, who abhor the terrible crimes that people commit, think that once the court has passed sentence and the criminal is behind bars, that is the end of the matter. However, we who understand the penal system know that that is only the beginning of the problem for governors, prison officers, the Home Office arid the courts.

I have no brief for any group, but as parliamentarians, we should use every opportunity to engage the attention of the public. They should accept that when they make a prisoner of a man or woman, they also make a prisoner of a prison officer. They are locked inside prisons and their lives can be very difficult. The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, said that Mr Narey was subject to tension and frustration. Nobody has the answer. My noble friend Lord Longford, to whom we are grateful, does not have the answer either. However, he has the right attitude. He knows that the present position is not right. The Minister should look upon this opportunity kindly, because it provides him with the chance to parade what is happening and to tell us the solutions.

I can recall when Roy Jenkins, as Home Secretary, said that 42,000 was an unacceptable figure. It is now nearer 60,000. Of course, there are more prisons, but as a humane society, we ought not to feel that the solution is to build more prisons to house more prisoners. My noble friend Lord Judd and the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, hit the nail on the head by addressing the problem of trying to turn out from prisons men and women who can improve their lot in society.

Without making a party political point, in my time, I have visited prisons and was appalled and depressed to be told about the diminution in educational and employment opportunities. Those aspects of the regime were being slashed and cut, yet we know that the prospect of employment and a home when someone leaves prison are extremely important.

I hope that the Minister will take kindly anything that smacks of a stricture. The purpose of the debate is to encourage him to do more and to do it better. He knows that he has Parliament behind him. We shall be telling the governors and prison officers, who have the dirty end of the stick, that Members of this House want to help them if we can. The Minister should be encouraged by this opportunity, as should my noble friend Lord Longford. We want better conditions, but we also want fewer people to be sent to prison. If the Minister can help by giving us an idea of the alternatives to full-time custodial sentences, I, for one, would be grateful.

8.8 p.m

My Lords, perhaps I may also add my thanks to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for the debate? There is public concern that we have significantly failed to invest in our prison system. Successive governments must bear responsibility for that, as they have failed to arrest the rising tide of people who are being committed to prison. There is a record number—60,000—of inmates in accommodation that could hardly cater for half that number. Added to that, there has been a deterioration in prison regimes, budget limitation and demoralised prison staff. All those factors have affected the progress that we expected following the Woolf report. It is no wonder that the Director-General of the Prison Service has lost his patience with progress in key areas of our prison policy.

We welcome the marginal improvements and certain constructive activity but, overall, the numbers held in cells, the lack of urgency on repairs and refurbishment plans, and the fact that prisoners spend increasing amounts of time locked in cells, is a recipe for disaster. Of course, we are looking at the new arrangements for the Probation Service and hope that the number of seconded staff working in the Prison Service, and staff to supervise prisoners on release will increase. Can the Minister give a projection of any additional probation staff who will be working directly with the Prison Service?

In the past, the Minister has been at pains to mention the very slight improvements in prison education, a point well argued by the noble Lord, Lord Quirk. However, I have seen no evidence of a minimum level of education, except for those of school age, and even their statutory needs are not being met in all cases.

There is not enough work in many of our prisons. It would be helpful to know how many workshops are fully operational. Will the Minister indicate whether there has been an increase in psychologists who design and help to run offending behaviour treatment programmes? I suspect that those too have been cut.

I was delighted to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell. Under his enlightened leadership, much progress was made in the criminal justice system. I often ask why we allowed the situation to deteriorate after his period as Home Secretary. The noble Lord often had a difficult time in placating the Conservative Party but he stood firm, for which we all respect him.

At present, the prison population is at least 15 per cent higher than it was at the end of 1992. Twice as many women are in prison than there were in 1992 despite the fact that they commit less serious crimes than men. What are the factors which channel women more speedily than men through the criminal justice process? Surely it is unacceptable. It is not just women but it is what they represent—the family, possibly young children, in some cases a stable home environment. If the woman is taken away, then the family structure is destabilised.

The high prison population confirms that prisons do not work. We can contain people in custody, but without the appropriate rehabilitation programme the cycle of prison dependency continues. It no longer acts as a deterrent. Often it is a small break from the life of crime but does little to address the matter of the offending.

Many questions need answers. Has the early release scheme combined with electronic tagging worked? Could that not be used more extensively? Has that helped to reduce the reoffending rate? Is research evidence available to confirm that? Do drug treatment and testing orders have any impact on inmates? Has that helped to reduce drug dependency among vulnerable inmates? Are the schemes for mentally disordered offenders working?

At NACRO, we have worked hard to provide employment schemes and housing for released prisoners. That goes a long way towards resettlement, particularly for short-term prisoners. The Government must join hands with us in that exercise. A better allocation of resources will certainly help but there is also a need for the Government to make a concerted attempt to argue the case for a more sparing use of imprisonment and for greater use of punishment in the community. We have the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, with us on that particular point. It is for the Minister to talk up or talk down the prison population. Ministers can produce a more balanced climate by highlighting the case for the constructive use of community sentences. It is not to succumb to political pressure but to educate the community about our civilised values.

That is what leadership is all about. It is to lead public opinion and not to follow it. The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, is right that prison cannot devolve its responsibility to others, including as regards race relations policy. What will the Commission for Racial Equality find about our prisons?

I welcome the idea floated by the prison chiefs only this week in relation to backing a union for inmates. Equally, we should examine whether voting rights for prisoners could help to make politicians more responsible for penal institutions.

The Director-General of the Prison Service has done much to manage but he needs his managers to support him. Those who fail to do so must make way for the others who are willing. For far too long, restrictive practices in our prisons have hampered progress. We cannot allow that to continue.

I thank Martin Narey for speaking out. It is time for an unequivocal statement from the Government that he has their backing. Nothing less will do. I have spoken to the Minister and also to the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, to tell them that immediately after my speech I need to attend another engagement to which I have been committed for a very long time. I hope that the House will accept my apologies but I shall read their contributions with great interest.

8.14 p.m.

My Lords, there are fewer policemen now than when this Government came into power and, as a result, I am afraid that the Government are losing the battle against crime. That is the main reason for the increasing prison numbers.

I too pay tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who has a long history in debating this issue. I believe that my noble friend Lord Hurd is right. We need a proper debate in this House. I shall be brief because I want the Minister to have his full 12 minutes to reply.

When this Government came to power, they inherited a Prison Service which was under strength. There is no doubt about that. But it was in control, if only just. The Government promised to improve the prisons but unfortunately, the system has got worse. What have the Government done or not done to end up in that situation?

In June of this year, the Chief Inspector of Prisons apparently found conditions in Brixton to be worse than in his last report in 1996. He found conditions to be,
"totally unacceptable in any jail",
Brixton having no workshops and no educational facilities worthy of the name.

It has been reported that in a Birmingham prison, half of all the education classes are unfilled. The chief inspector found conditions were significantly worse than when he made his previous critical reports in 1995 and 1998. I am afraid that that is an indictment of the malaise which has developed in the prison system under this Government. The Government can blame us for what the conditions were like in 1995 or 1996 but we certainly cannot be blamed for those conditions in 2001.

Four years into this Government's term of office, report after report has condemned the conditions in our prisons. But the Government have failed to give the Prison Service any priority. In his condemning report on Feltham young offenders institution, the chief inspector reported that it was without clear strategic direction and that conditions were unacceptable. Two years later, the Government have not done anything to solve the crisis.

It is conditions at young offender institutions which should worry us most. It is essential that young offenders should be able to use their period of incarceration to rebuild their lives as useful members of the community.

In his report on conditions at the Portland young offenders institution, the chief inspector stated:
"If an organisation such as the prison service does not have a proactive line management structure that is required to monitor and correct the quality of the treatment and conditions of prisoners, it will fail in its duty towards both prisoners and the public".
I know Martin Narey and I respect his judgment. He said:
"I am not prepared to continue to apologise for failing prison after prison…I've had enough of trying to explain the very immorality of our treatment of some prisoners and the degradation of some establishments".
The Government have a duty to invest in the Prison Service. They have a duty to show a lead in the Prison Service. They have a duty to protect the public. They have a duty to keep the prisoner out of circulation for the duration of his sentence. But they also have a duty to make it less likely that he will reoffend when he leaves prison. That is an important point which noble Lords have stressed this evening.

8.19 p.m.

My Lords, first. I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, for providing me with the full 12 minutes, although it is now somewhat nearer to 11. I also put on record my thanks to my noble friend Lord Longford for instigating this short debate. I pay tribute to him for his continued and persistent interest in this subject, a persistence which has gone on for 50 or 60 years in total. I also give my words of gratitude and thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, for homing in, as one would expect he would with his deep understanding of the prison system and Prison Service, on some of the key issues which confront us.

I want to run through a few of those issues in my speech. But I want to pick up on the director-general's speech made earlier in February. It was, indeed, a remarkable speech and one that I believe bears full reading. I say that because, although the director-general's comments about "hell holes" was mentioned by most speakers, his speech paid a remarkable tribute to what is actually being achieved within the prison system. He spoke of being on the verge of a major break-through in the way in which the Prison Service is beginning to improve. I believe that he did so with justifiable optimism.

However, I take the view that we should approach the subject as being one of those where there is much more to do. Nevertheless, much good has come from the intervention of a Labour administration and from the improvements that we have instigated. The Home Secretary responded to the director-general's speech last week on an Opposition Motion about conditions in prisons. I am glad to be able to consider some of those questions in the House tonight. I should like to draw out what I believe to be key improvements in security, education, offender behaviour programmes and the reduction in drug taking and healthcare.

The improvements in security are probably well known. However, it is perhaps worth reflecting that, back in 1992–93 (under another administration), there were some 232 escapes; but, so far, during the course of this financial year, there have been just 11 escapes. I know of noble Lords' interest in resettlement. The Government are committed to tackling the issues that lead to imprisonment and then, on release, to recidivism. Here, too, there has been real progress over the past few years. Offending behaviour programmes—the very measures that attack offending behaviour—have increased by 240 per cent, from 1,373 in 1996–97 to 4,664 in the past year. The figures relating to mandatory drug tests show that the number of positive tests is down from 20.8 per cent in 1997–98 to 12.4 per cent in the current year.

Many noble Lords made reference to the quality—or perhaps the lack of quality—of education provision within our prisons. Last year 60,000 educational certificates were achieved by prisoners and education provision in prisons is now focused on basic skills; that is, skills that ensure people are properly and fully prepared for employment when they leave prison. Moreover, 30,000 full qualifications were gained in prison last year, and there has been a 10 per cent increase in real terms in teaching in our prisons. In my view, that is not a demonstration of a government who are neglectful of the importance of education and its role in prisons.

The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, made reference to making prisons an area of priority. We have demonstrated that: the Government have provided over £79 million from the Comprehensive Spending Review for regime development. We are providing a further £74 million from the Spending Review 2000, over the period 2002–04. That has enabled more prisoners to undertake offending behaviour programmes, improve their basic skills and complete welfare-to-work programmes to enable them to be prepared for the world of work when they leave prison.

However, as a Government we are not complacent and are determined to do far more. We are investing £30 million over the next three years in a new Prison Service custody-to-work programme which is aimed at improving prisoners' chances of obtaining a job and stable accommodation on release. There will be a £5 million programmed spending each year at five local prisons and five young offender institutions to improve regimes with a focus on preparing prisoners for work. The Government will also be making available significant new resources to modernise and improve prison healthcare over that period.

Details of that additional investment are currently being finalised, but there will be two major streams of investment. First, extra funding will come through the Prison Service to improve healthcare premises, to invest in the training and development of healthcare staff and to tackle the threat posed by infectious diseases, such as hepatitis B. New NHS funding is being made available to support the commitment in the NHS plan to develop community-type mental healthcare—in reach services—for prisoners. The NHS plan contains a commitment to engage 300 new staff in providing the kind of mental health service by 2004 that I believe prisoners deserve. It will provide new and better treatment for some 5,000 seriously mentally ill people in our prisons today. We have also announced that funds are being made available to rebuild prison healthcare centres for those that most badly need it. Pentonville, Birmingham and Chelmsford prisons are all to receive new healthcare centres. Planning work on those developments has already begun.

The director-general's frank assessment of the conditions in prisons has allowed us to debate in an open and sensible way the need for further improvements. It has also enabled us to report on the real progress that this Government believe is being made. I do not want to leave your Lordships' House in any doubt. This is not a Prison Service in crisis. It is service that is going through a period of change. The scale of the reform and improvement is clear for all to see.

We are not complacent about the need for further improvements. We shall continue to drive performance by setting challenging targets. I should also like to draw noble Lords' attention to some of the best prisons. Swinfen Hall, which was recently praised by the Lord Chief Justice, has been transformed over a number of years from what was previously a moribund young offender institution to one where one cannot but be impressed by the "can do" atmosphere and the way in which staff demonstrate a genuine commitment to delivering a constructive and civilised regime. There is also Elmley in Kent, which is a young prison both in culture and staff, where high standards have been the norm from the outset and where an ethos of good industrial relations and flexibility has been translated into a sense that everything is possible.

Another example is Frankland, which is a dispersal prison holding many of the country's most dangerous high-risk offenders, where security and control are tempered with decency and respect. It is a place where prisoners are able to contribute through world-class industrial workshops. There is also the hugely impressive Altcourse, which is a privately-run prison where innovative design has created an environment that lends itself to the decent treatment of prisoners. Relations between staff and prisoners are clearly of the highest order and levels of purposeful activity are delivered that many training prisons would be delighted to achieve.

Noble Lords asked a battery of questions; indeed, there were too many for me to answer in the short period of time left for my response. I am entirely in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, that there is need for a longer debate—perhaps, as the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, observed, a five-hour debate. As No. 2 prisons Minister, I am sure that many of your Lordships will appreciate how much I would look forward to that happy event.

However, certain comments need to be made in conclusion. We do focus on rehabilitation. My noble friend Lord Judd was absolutely right to raise that issue. For that reason, we have sought and brought forward extra investment to ensure that, when people are in prison, they spend their time usefully and acquire the skills, training and education that will help them when they are released. That is why we invest in our staff; indeed, staff morale is probably higher now than it has been at any time in the recent past. Good quality staff will always ensure that you have a good product at the end.

I cannot accept the allegation of the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, that there is much badly wrong with the service. I believe that there is much good in our prisons. We need to build on the positive that is already there. I thought that the noble Lord was very gracious to concede that during his watch, so to speak, in the Home Office there was a profound problem of overcrowding—30 per cent of those in prison in the early 1990s were in overcrowded cells. No doubt policies implemented before that time led to that being the case. The noble Lord was clearly determined to tackle the problem, as were successor Home Secretaries. Now we are in the happy position of there being somewhat less than half that number in overcrowded circumstances, despite the fact that the prison population has increased.

We want to see a prison regime that makes people fit for the outside world, one where people can leave prison with the certainty of their being accepted into the world of work and where recidivism rates decline. We believe that we are making progress to that end. We have put in place new programmes, not least those to ensure that there are adequate community punishment programmes in place to help those who urgently seek to go straight in the wider world.

Many other questions were raised in the debate. I shall undertake to study all of them most carefully and to provide a careful written response to noble Lords whose questions I have not managed to answer. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Longford for the time and energy that he has devoted to this policy field. I look forward to longer and fuller debates in the future, where we may have the opportunity to discuss at greater length some of those important matters that have been raised in what I believe to have been a most useful short debate this evening.