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Prisoners: Work

Volume 696: debated on Thursday 15 November 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government what is their policy on work opportunities for prisoners.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am delighted to have the opportunity to open this debate on work opportunities in our prisons. We have a prison population that is too large and I do not believe that the British people are more criminally inclined or less moral in their standards than people in other European countries; but that is not what this debate is about. Every prisoner will eventually come out. How we treat them in prison must affect how they will behave on release. I want to focus on the 30,000 or so long-term prisoners serving sentences of four years or more—some of them life sentences and some on indeterminate sentences.

In some prisons I have seen prisoners doing nothing for almost 24 hours a day, lying on their bunks, frustrated and resentful in a way that is not conducive to avoiding their reoffending when they come out. Training and education in prisons are good. I was talking recently to someone involved in a training and employment programme led by the National Grid. It is excellent work, but it is for prisoners who are shortly to be released. I am concerned about those who are not—those who have a long period in prison, who will come out in the end—and how we can better handle them. There is a better way forward than what we are doing.

There is a difference between badly paid work that is only an obvious way of keeping people doing something and proper work that gives those doing it a sense of self-respect and worth. Nothing I say is intended to be a criticism of prison officers who do a good job in difficult conditions, but there are serious problems in the present system. The pay of £10 to £15 a week is low; there is little incentive to work and, after all, prisoners may say when they get out that crime pays better. Low pay means no experience of paying tax, national insurance, budgeting or supporting their families. Most prisoners have had little or no experience of real work and there tends to be a “cash in hand” culture in some of their backgrounds, and although they are not actually given cash in hand in prison, it happens in effect—and that can hardly discourage the illegal economy in the country.

Some prisons have public-private partnerships with private companies supplying equipment and effectively using prisons as cheap labour for menial tasks. That, again, does not add to prisoners’ self-respect. What are prison workshops for? Are they to enhance future employability or just to keep prisoners occupied when they are out of their cells?

The Prison Service sometimes subcontracts with outside employers, but the prisoners are employed by the service and have no real relationship with the business and do not feel responsibility or commitment. There is not a normal employer-employee relationship. The prisoners do not have any experience of competitive work. After all, people outside work in competitive situations. It would be better if work in prisons reflected the real workplace experience outside. Real work is surely about an involvement with the job and the employer, social status at work, career progression and workplace development.

In contrast, work in prisons is often desultory, with curtailed hours and interruptions regarding security or the regime. Unlike outside, work in prisons often involves poor-quality machinery. The productivity can be affected by interruptions and prisoners are uninvolved in the development of the products that they produce or in creative inputs to their work.

As I have said, the subject of this debate is the work opportunities for the 30,000 or so long-term prisoners. They cost the taxpayer £120,000 each for a four-year sentence. All too often such persons remain unemployed for the rest of their lives after they are released. They are supported by taxpayers, they probably have no pension—and what about support for their families?

We want a leap of imagination as regards work in prison. We need to change the culture. I am not for one moment arguing that prisons should be privatised. That is nothing to do with what I am saying. What I am saying is that prisoners should be directly employed by social enterprises and business, not by the Prison Service. If that were to happen, the taxpayer would benefit, there would be increased revenue, national insurance would be paid, prisoners would have a decent income, victims would benefit from charitable donations out of prisoners’ earnings, the prisons would benefit from productive prisoners who were purposefully employed and easier to manage, and the prisons would have additional income. Importantly, the families of prisoners would benefit—a source of income would come from the prison to the families and that would help in better relationships, financial support and self-respect. Proper work with income would provide an opportunity for savings and contributing to pensions. Prisoners employed in this way would work under trade union conditions, so there would be no argument about whether work in prisons denied work to people outside.

In the recent past I have visited Coldingley Prison, where there is a social enterprise project of the sort that I have described called Barbed. It is a graphic design studio run by the Howard League for Penal Reform and it is a model for what could be done. The people involved in it are all long-term prisoners. One said to me that coming to this enterprise unit was, “The best thing that’s happened to me in prison”. That is quite a big statement. I sat watching a group of about six prisoners, and noble Lords should bear in mind that these are long-term prisoners. They had computers and were preparing a pitch for a job in the competitive world. They discussed how, as a team, they would pitch for the job and allocate the tasks among the different prisoners in the group. For all the world, one might have been in a design studio somewhere in London: the atmosphere was the same, yet these people were in prison for a long time.

The Howard League treats those prisoners as employees. They pay tax and national insurance and they have a pension plan in the same way as other Howard League staff. The studio is absolutely a proper business. I have had my business cards designed there and, indeed, if any of your Lordships have any printing requirements, I should like to channel them in that direction so that the group can put in a competitive bid. It is a proper business and there is no do-good element. The prisoners each make a voluntary contribution to Victim Support. I believe that this should be seen as a pilot or model to be followed by other employers. The way forward is clear and I cannot see any argument against it, although there are one or two difficulties that I should like to mention in closing.

I understand that the Prison Service will not allow real businesses to employ prisoners because, it says, employment law might interfere with the right of governors to govern. Perhaps I may repeat that so that there is no misunderstanding: it is alleged that employment law might interfere with the right of governors to govern. If that is the case, surely we are caught in a dilemma which should not exist. If we are trying to run our prisons in the best way possible to protect and benefit society, surely prisoners should have real jobs and the argument about employment law should be overcome.

I give another example. Apparently, Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs will not take income tax from prisoners because, it says, they are not employees. We can all dance on the head of a pin but I wish that some officials would stop doing so. It seems to me a very clear proposition: let us see how we can get into our prisons social enterprises that will employ long-term prisoners directly, give them the sort of income that they would get outside, minus certain allowances, and make their pay pensionable, with national insurance contributions, and enable the prisoners to support their families. Surely, as regards long-term prisoners, that is the best way to run our prison system. To get there, we need only an act of political will and a leap of imagination. My noble friend who will be responding to the debate is not short of political will or leaps of imagination. I wait to hear what he has to say.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on obtaining this debate and particularly on highlighting one of the many problems faced by prisons, which I believe would benefit from the leap in the dark that he indicated—a more visionary and forward-looking approach. I support the case that he has made and I welcome his description of the work at Coldingley.

I also welcome the involvement of the Howard League for Penal Reform, which, for several years, has taken a strong line on this issue, particularly marked by a document that it published in 2000 called Rehabilitating Work: What are prison workshops for?. It contains a number of recommendations which are as valid now as they were then. In line with what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, it is interesting that the introduction to this document starts with a 1990 quotation from the Scottish Prison Service:

“We should regard the offender as a person who is responsible, despite the fact that he or she may have acted irresponsibly many times in the past, and … we should try to relate to the prisoner in ways which would encourage him or her to accept responsibility for their actions, by providing him or her with opportunities for responsible choice, personal development and self improvement”.

For the five and a half years that I was privileged to inspect prisons, the one thing that I did not find was prisoners being treated responsibly in that way. Indeed, just before I left that post, a document called The Responsible Prisoner was published by an ex-prison governor who was working on my staff. It pointed out that institutionalisation is the very worst preparation for release and that you need to give people as much responsibility as possible for their lives in ways that will help to prepare them to live, when they come out, what the Prison Service describes in its statement of purpose as a useful and law-abiding life in prison and on release.

I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, talk about things which I have heard before and which have always made me cringe. Every time a proposal is made for innovation, reasons are given as to why it cannot be done. People say, “Oh, it will interfere with the governor’s right to govern”; “Oh, it will interfere with the Inland Revenue”; or, “Oh, it will never be allowed”. I do not believe that those reasons have been tested with the people who are allegedly responsible for making those decisions. If we approach the whole idea of the Government’s policy of protecting the public by preventing people reoffending as being the aim of imprisonment and, through that, help prisoners to live useful and law-abiding lives in prison and on release, as is the aim of the Prison Service, then I believe that a completely different approach from the way that imprisonment is conducted should be encouraged.

I was always horrified by the vast number of prisoners whom I found sitting in their cells doing absolutely nothing. It seemed to me that that demonstrated a complete failure to understand the purpose of imprisonment. I believe that, in order to establish what will help someone to live a useful and law-abiding life, you have to find out what has prevented them from doing so in the first place. There could be a behavioural, educational or medical reason or it could be down to a lack of skill. Having assessed it, during the time available, be it short or long, you have to provide a programme to challenge the reason. If someone leaves prison and then comes back, you can continue where you left off, but you should always aim to help them to live useful and law-abiding lives, based on the assessment.

That should lead to the provision of what I used to call “full, purposeful and active days” for every prisoner, based around the programme that is needed to achieve that end. There will be different programmes because individual prisoners are different people with different needs. The time available will decide which you do first or which you devote most attention to, but that does not matter. The full, purposeful and active day is a completely different way of approaching imprisonment compared with what happens now, and I seriously believe that, if prisoners had full, purposeful and active days, we would see a dramatic reduction in the number of suicides and assaults and a reduction in the sheer frustration which leads them to take drugs. I strongly believe that full, purposeful and active days for people are the best antidote to those three problems.

If that is so, and bearing in mind that prisons are now suffering from two problems which are beyond their control—one is overcrowding and the other is a shortage of resources—I should have imagined that the people responsible for the Prison Service would be looking hard at ways round that, including the provision of the activities which are currently prevented by a lack of resources. I should also want to look at whether the organisation of prisons was right and whether they were likely to receive all the benefits of what might be on offer outside.

Those of you who read the wonderful report on the riots in Strangeways in 1990 by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, will remember that he highlighted the fact that the three things most likely to prevent reoffending were a home, a job and a stable relationship, all of which were put at risk by imprisonment. He advocated that one way of getting round this was to form what he called, “community clusters of prisons”, so that in each part of the country there was a sufficiency of prison places to house all prisoners from that part of the country, with the exception of high security prisoners because there was not enough of them to justify a high security prison. That meant that they would not be moved too far away from their home, so did not put home, job and stable relationship at risk.

That applies to those three factors. We are focusing on jobs, but it is relevant because there are countless examples of firms around the country that have taken work into prisons in their area, which might affect the protection of local people by helping them not to reoffend in their own area. At Lindholme prison the Yorkshire construction agency trains people in construction trades. It took the work into the prison and people come out to jobs. The National Grid programme, which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, mentioned, started with somebody identifying a shortage of forklift truck drivers in the Thames Valley, and then looking for potential trainees in Reading prison with jobs to follow. The British Leyland factory in Preston has identified a forthcoming skill shortage and recognised that there might be potential among Preston-living prisoners in Preston prison. They identified some people who had the aptitude to fill that skill, started training them and when they came out they went into something with a longer-term future.

Examples exist and I believe very strongly that if the Prison Service were to restructure itself around regional clusters of prisons, industry would be encouraged to pay more attention to the potential in prisons to help with skills shortages for the longer term. If that were so, industry could also be encouraged to take another look at the people who are in the local prison.

About three years ago, I published a book called Prison-Gate in which I advocated this sort of approach. I also included a chapter called, “It can be done”, describing what happened in Poland where, through the Government’s wisdom, they hired as the director-general someone who was the biggest critic of the prison system. They said, “If you are so critical, go in and sort it out”, and he did. One of the things he encouraged was local industries to put out-stations in those prisons where work for the firm was done in the prison by the prisoners for which they were paid. That is precisely what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, recommended.

That had an enormous impact because the firms gained something positive; prisoners gained some skill; and, of course, money was saved because the schemes were paying for themselves and the Government did not have to pay for the provision of that work in the prison. It is possible. Heavens above, if Poland could do this in the early 1990s, surely we can do it now. With regard to the reactionary attitude of the Prison Service, I remind that service that Wormwood Scrubs prison in the 1860s was built with bricks made by prisoners who then used those bricks to build the prison. It is all there. For people who say, “Oh, what about security and the frightful problems with bringing industry in?”, I say that welding, carpentry, and so on are carried out in prisons with the appropriate tools, so what is the problem? I think that the problem is precisely as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, says: it is a lack of will to take this leap in the dark and recognise that there are ways of doing more, particularly for longer-term prisoners, by allowing people who have not been to the prison previously to bring opportunities to prisoners.

I would add that instead of having a civil servant in charge of this process, I would bring in people from industry in every region of the country and Prison Service headquarters to be made responsible for giving an industrial business-like look at this activity, and not be put off by all the alleged excuses that have stopped this happening until now.

My Lords, through the medium of this debate I extend a word of comfort and reassurance to the staff of Her Majesty’s Prison Service and tell them not to be alarmed by what the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has just been saying. If you are in a great, time-honoured institution, which is growing and under stress, the way in which to survive from day to day is to learn its norms, behaviour and procedures, and learn how to conform so that acting together you can control the system and keep it going. That takes up most of your energy and does not leave much time for standing back and looking to see whether it is really worth while. If they do stand back and look at their current efforts, they will see that they are not achieving what they were put there to do. The figures are well known—the rate of reoffending is 67 per cent in two years. The staff are there to protect society and to help people become members of it.

What has been happening for many years is that if somebody is sentenced to four years, as chosen by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs—the Barbed project refers to four years—they have failed to make a success of life; they have not made society work for them. They have not managed to learn how to live in society. They are then taken out of it and put in an environment in which there is no possible prospect of learning anything about society because they are no longer in contact with it. They are returned to that society in a worse condition than when they left it.

I remember my frustration many years ago as a Minister responsible for prisons in tackling the question—at a much less advanced stage—of how to keep people purposefully occupied, not how to prepare them for the world. That came later. Whenever I think of this I see a grey room with rather insufficient light and six or seven people sitting round a table with parts of electric light plugs or multiple adaptors, and rather lethargically dropping each bit where it belongs—a mind-bogglingly boring occupation. The reason it was sought after was that it enabled prisoners to talk to somebody other than those they were banged up with in their cells all day. That is not the object of prison industries in my view.

The experiment to which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, draws our attention, and on which the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has elaborated, is important and exciting. The difficulty with having realistic conditions in employment in prisons is largely the shrieks of “unfair competition” from commercial concerns outside the prison which happen to make light fittings, or whatever. I remember that we had terrific trouble over the ladders we were making. The competitors proved to be in Canada, which made it easier to persuade the Prime Minister to continue with the effort, but it was a real pressure.

If the prisoners had been paid and if their pay had been in part docked to take account of the ordinary expenses of living provided by the prison—their bed and board—and if they had been subject to taxation, national insurance and pension deductions, there would have been no competition and no reason for other firms to complain. In fact, they would have become the sort of local resource that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has suggested they should have been. If you add that to the element of local involvement suggested by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, in his project, you start getting an interaction between society and the prisoners within it. Those who have failed to make a success of life in uncontrolled conditions are now going to be given an opportunity to make a success of it, in economic terms, in controlled conditions with the help of the prison staff. That is exactly what prison ought to be for.

I add two riders to that. First, we must not lose sight of the fact that a large proportion, if not the majority, of prisoners are semi-illiterate or completely illiterate, and the programme of work must allow for a programme of education. There must therefore be something reminiscent of day release, so that these people can still work in a programme that they would be working at in economic society outside while, under the same terms, able to get education inside.

My second rider is much smaller, but it occurred to me many years ago and was not followed up. If you want to get local people of good will involved in the prison, every prison has a chaplain; I think that they are still part of the prison staff. There would be admirable economic as well as ecclesiastical reasons for making the chaplaincy in a prison a curacy in the local parish, thus taking it off the prison books, allowing a number of extra prison staff and firmly involving the local PCC and the parish in what is going on—I look to the right reverend Prelate for a reflection on that. The prison will then become not a menacing hulk on the horizon full of threatening people who have been put there for terrible crimes which might prove dangerous to me, but a place where often broken members of society are mended, inadequate members of society are made adequate and all are given the means, experience, self confidence and self respect to take a proper role in the real world outside. That seems entirely beneficial, and I warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on bringing this subject to your Lordships’ notice.

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for raising this important issue and for giving us the opportunity to press for greater work opportunities in the complex environment of our prisons.

I hope to extend the debate a little so that it takes account of more than simply those who have been in prison for four years. Although there is a rather different set of issues for those who are there for short terms, they are equally important and crucial to this debate. I think, for example, of young offender institutions and my own experience, largely at Deerbolt in County Durham and Wetherby in Yorkshire, and how there is excellent training and skills development in our YOIs. There is a considerable commitment to educational courses, which benefit prisoners and improve their opportunities for employment on release. Yet both those YOIs are committed to a full employment regime, but find that far more difficult to encourage and implement.

It is difficult partly because of the unwillingness of the young men there to take part in employment, partly because of financial constraints. The unwillingness comes about, as other noble Lords have said, because the young men there have very little experience of a work environment; they find it difficult to adapt to the environment being sought within the prison. They need that opportunity if they are to take advantage of their future lives outside the prison. The financial issues are well known to all involved in the Prison Service, who know the need for greater funding of our prisons if they are to provide work environments for people.

I have listened with interest and approval to what has been said by the noble Lords, Lord Dubs, Lord Ramsbotham and Lord Elton, on the particular needs of those serving terms of four years or more. There, too, there is little incentive for such prisoners to develop patterns of work which will benefit them or society. While I too applaud the Barbed experiment at Coldingley, sadly the major point about it is that it is so small, and has not been duplicated—at all, I think; certainly not consistently—within the our country’s prisons. There must be much more willingness to look outside the box and provide a greater variety of opportunity for our prisoners in ways which will encourage them where they are, and into the future. It is an exception which demonstrates that it can be done, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said. Far more common, however, is menial and boring work, which comes over as part of the punishment rather than an opportunity for the future. We are not far from the era of stitching mailbags.

I want to encourage more thought about how public/private partnership can be used profitably for those in prison. The danger is, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has already said, that it effectively uses prisoners as cheap labour. That need not be so, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has given some examples of real partnerships between a prison and the local community, in places such as Lindholme. I wish, however, that I was as optimistic as the noble Lord appeared to be in thinking of the number of examples of this sort of partnership. I fear that I think more of the number of places where those partnerships do not exist and need to be encouraged.

All that fits in with what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, was saying about the relationship between a prison and its community. That applies particularly to local prisons such as Leeds where many are serving comparatively short sentences. Although 18 months may sound short, it is a long time for those serving it and can be destructive of their community, their family and life. The more we can persuade firms to be involved with their local prisons, the more opportunity there will be for genuine partnership between the prison and the community in which it stands.

I go along with the noble Lord, Lord Elton, when he says that one way to do this is through chaplaincy not being confined as it now often is to the prison itself but linking up with the local parishes, so that those from the parishes have the opportunity to go into the prison and feel that they are a part of that. In a number of areas of the country, not least west Yorkshire, there are multifaith community chaplaincies that integrate work in prisons with that which occurs following release.

One of the major issues at the moment is the reluctance of local industry to employ ex-prisoners. The CRB check can in practice simply become a bar to employment. If there were a more coherent policy to work with local industry to provide proper work for prisoners then all would benefit: the prison community, industry, the local society and society as a whole.

I referred earlier to the benefits of skills training, particularly in YOIs. The immense pressure that prison management and prison officers are under too often means that the education and work elements of a prison regime are inadequately integrated. Again, collaboration with local industry could lead to still more effective training together with the establishment of work opportunities.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for giving us this opportunity to support the enhancement of work in prisons. I look forward to positive responses from the Government which will be for the benefit of prisoners, the prison regimes and our whole community in that people will be drawn back into a proper place within our society and our communities.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, very warmly for securing this important debate to look at proper work for prisoners and at how that can reduce the harm caused to the public through offending, which is the Government’s primary target.

My noble friend Lord Ramsbotham spoke about the importance of regional clusters of prisons. To be a child who has a father or mother in prison is hard enough, but for them to be many miles away is a cruel injustice. It is well established that prisoners who keep family contacts are far less likely to reoffend. I hope the Minister will look careful at his proposal and will examine what appears to be being done so successfully in Poland on local prisons and on getting real businesses into prisons.

I hope I may speak from a script in order to keep to time on this occasion. My noble friend Lady Howe of Idlicote drew attention to the National Grid Transco offender programme in her contribution to the debate on the Queen's Speech. Noble Lords have also mentioned it this afternoon. The Education and Skills and the Home Affairs Select Committees of the other place have enthused about the programme, and the Prime Minister gave the scheme his strongest support when Chancellor. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, kindly introduced me to the architect of the programme, Dr Mary Harris, five years ago. I was particularly interested because at that time it was focused on young people, and we know that a small proportion of young people in care go into custody, but they are more highly represented in prison than those who have not had that experience. They have predominantly been let down by their families before they enter care, and care has often let them down further, so I was very keen to see approaches that could rectify the way that we as a society have let them down.

The programme reduces reoffending from above 70 per cent to 7 per cent. It has now passed its target for this year of having trained 1,000 since its inception. It now works out of 25 prisons: adult and young offender; closed and open; male and female. Sir John Parker, the chairman of National Grid Transco, has persuaded 80 companies from five industry sectors to sign up to the project. Dr Mary Harris employed her discipline as a scientist rigorously to develop and perfect this universally respected programme.

In a nutshell, the programme selects likely candidates vouched for by the governor of the prison. They receive a mentor from National Grid and three months’ national vocational qualification training with a promise of a guaranteed job if they achieve their qualification. I was pleased to see the success of four of those graduates celebrated at Anglian Water. Their mothers, partners and children were present. With their consent, they were quizzed for 10 minutes before the audience by a senior Anglian executive on what they had learnt. The questions were technical, and the answers were full, correct and confidently given.

It is hard to express how uplifting it was to see those young men perform so outstandingly before their families—young men unlikely to have previously achieved at school or elsewhere. Seeing the young children of two of the trainees, one could think that they were now unlikely to grow up with a father out of work, in crime or in custody and therefore far less likely to follow that trajectory themselves. Hardly surprisingly, the 45 year-old service engineer who drove me to the station after the awards ceremony said that his work as a mentor was the most rewarding piece of work he could remember doing for his company.

So who benefits from the National Grid Transco programme? First, it is the victims of crime; secondly, it is business: businesses with an ageing workforce recruit and retain loyal, motivated young people. Businesses find the morale of their people is boosted as their staff relish making such a difference to the life of young people. It has often been commented that the public enjoy the fruits of a liberal economy, which tends not to interfere with business, but often fail to make the connection between their own prosperity and such business freedom when it comes to elections. So, the National Grid Transco programme is likely to assist in sustaining continuing market liberalism as it shows business manifestly putting back into society. Thirdly, National Grid and its partners benefit the young people whom they move out of criminality. Often these young people will have had no experience of a responsible father, of positive achievement or of a supportive family. The programme provides them with all these things. They receive a mentor and then work in a small unit often led by a responsible man in his late 40s or 50s.

I recognise the importance of what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said about not forgetting those 30,000 prisoners in jail for the long term. They need proper work for their own dignity, to avoid institutionalisation, for the support of their families and for their rehabilitation.

Finally, with Home Office statistics indicating a cost to the taxpayer of more than £230,000 to reconvict an offender and more than £37,000 to keep an offender in prison for a year, what plans does the Minister have to extend that programme? In particular, will he look at the ROTLs—the paperwork that enables governors to release those imprisoned for work purposes? Will he see whether their availability can be increased, so that more adults and young people can benefit from the scheme? I look forward to the Minister's response.

My Lords, speaking as a newcomer to this area in a debate where so many luminaries have spoken is daunting. On the other hand, to have heard of the many fine examples of good work in our prisons—in particular, the example that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, just gave us—is very uplifting. I pay credit to my noble friend Lady Linklater of Butterstone, who would surely have brought more erudition to this subject from these Benches than I can. I, too, take the opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for giving us an opportunity to discuss these matters.

In researching this subject, I realised that the numbers were depressingly familiar. The state of our prisons, with overcrowding, stretched resources and staff and increasing hours of in-cell time, were all known even to me. What came as a puzzle was the information related to employment. The fact that more than two-thirds of all prisoners are unemployed at the beginning of their sentence, and that two-thirds of those who do have a job lose it when they enter prison, is sad but intuitively unsurprising.

What was surprising was the figure behind those employment statistics: that 50 per cent of prisoners are at or below the level expected of an 11 year-old in reading; 66 per cent in numeracy; and 80 per cent in writing. In effect, we are saying that the period of incarceration is effectively dead time, in that it does nothing to improve those people's life skills—nor their emotional intelligence, which is closely related to life skills. It does not even prepare them to stand on their own feet after release. So we spend vast amounts of money to lock people up for a period, yet seem unable to use that period to equip those individuals with the tools that might have prevented them going in in the first place.

Many noble Lords have told us about the research that shows what a positive effect employment has on the lives of ex-prisoners. Those with jobs are between one-third and one-half less likely to reoffend than those without jobs. We also know of the non-financial benefits of employment on individuals’ lives: the rise in self-esteem and the development of soft skills, as well as the more practical competencies needed. Jobs also open up avenues to reintegrate into the community at several levels and to care for one's family. Given the resources that we expend on education and training at other levels of society, it seems extraordinary that we have not seen this as a priority for the kind of focus that it would evidently require. It seems that the mantra of “education, education, education” has been left behind for that rather needy group in society.

I found compelling the King’s College study on the Restorative Prison Project. It was produced for the Centre for Prison Studies by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern. She recounts the findings of a small study by the Inside Out Trust to discover what both staff and prisoners thought about work and its effectiveness for prisoners. More than half of those surveyed welcomed work, not least because it gave them an opportunity to help others—I am talking about the prisoners. One in five said that doing such work made their families think well of them. In other words, there was an altruistic impulse. Staff thought that the prisoners were highly motivated to work for others; and more than half thought that the activities should be used as a basis to improve the image of prisons and prisoners. Staff are extremely conscious that it is not just the work done inside prisons that matters, but the work that prisoners do outside prison.

If we are to take up a new approach to the management of offenders and ex-offenders, not least because we want to break the cycle of reoffending, surely we need to think through our strategies of how we might see prisoners as individuals. Central to that change of mind-set would be to have them emerge better able to take their place in society after their interaction with the state in this unfortunate manner. This strategy would need to go beyond the concentration on offenders to encapsulate those increasing numbers who serve non-custodial sentences. The emphasis should therefore be on a higher standard of training and skills than they currently receive.

An important end product of the training and skills agenda is employment. NOMS has defined working with employers as a priority in its strategic plan in recognition of the sad reality that there is still considerable prejudice among employers towards those who have been imprisoned, but its work seems to be targeted at employment post-prison. It states that it will work with employers to design and deliver programmes to help prisoners with the skills that they need to gain work on release. So far so good, but what about those who have acquired skills and are still incarcerated? This is really the subject of the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. I know of his work with the Howard League, and I saw the excellent letter in the Guardian yesterday from Frances Crook, who also called for real work in prisons. She referred, as did the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, to the 30,000 men and women who are serving long-term sentences and who would benefit from working directly for external employers. As she points out, society would benefit from the taxes paid and the pensions saved while prisoners support their families on the outside, and from the increase in their employability on release.

The examples given by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, of what I would define as institutional lethargy make for grim listening. What does this say about our approach, which seems to militate against seeing the individual as capable, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, of a useful and law-abiding life? Will the Minister consider the recommendations of the Howard League’s Commission on English Prisons when it reports?

Finally, I turn to another matter which, although not directly related to work for prisoners, sends a powerful message about their rights. This is the democracy deficit at the heart of our approach to prisoners, which denies them a right to vote while incarcerated. This is a tricky political issue, but it deserves rethinking. If our philosophical approach towards those who have offended to the extent that we need to lock them up is that we consider their debt to be repayable to society, which I believe we do, surely it is strange to deny them a say about the society in which they will return to live. If we expect rehabilitation and seek to employ restorative strategies so that these individuals are better members of society on release, they should have a right to vote. If our emphasis is on returning them to the community, and indeed on building community prisons, with greater engagement with the public, surely the basic interaction by the citizen with the state is the tool of the good citizen—the ballot box. What is more, for a Government who have been so keen on responsibilities a propos of rights, it might even result in citizens who have a keener sense and awareness of responsibility if they are involved in the question of who governs them.

My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, I, too, come new to this subject. I hope that, despite our relative inexperience, she and I may congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, not only on introducing the debate but on the veritable wealth of experience that he has brought to it in attracting the various speakers who have spoken before us: the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, who is a former Chief Inspector of Prisons; my noble friend Lord Elton, who was a Home Office Minister when the Home Office still looked after prisons, before they were transferred to the Ministry of Justice—we hope that that will lead to great improvements, but we will have to see—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds; and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel.

As I said, I am new to this subject, but I query one point at the very beginning of the noble Lord’s speech when he said that this debate was not about numbers and then proceeded to concentrate on the 30,000 or 40,000 longer-term prisoners. I put it to the Government that this is largely about numbers; or rather that the problems, whatever they are, are made worse by the fact that at the moment we have record numbers in prison, record overcrowding and some 8,500 criminals being offered early release in a rather vain attempt to ease the pressure on prison spaces.

My first question therefore has to be about the numbers in the prison estate at the moment. My figures are that the prison estate currently has a useable operational capacity of 81,189, with some 400 places available in police cells under Operation Safeguard. I am advised that the current prison population is 81,474, which is somewhat larger than the operational capacity, including 339 people in police cells. I would be grateful if the Minister would confirm those figures. I hope that we will live to trust figures that emerge from the Ministry of Justice more than we sometimes trusted figures from the old Home Office.

Turning to the issues raised directly by the Question, I am sure that the Minister would be the first to agree that worthwhile work or training is very effective in rehabilitating offenders. As my noble friend Lord Elton put it, we do not want them to return to society worse than when they went in. So my question for the Minister is: how much work is available in the prison estate? According to the first report from the Home Affairs Committee in 2004-05 into the rehabilitation of offenders, some 24,000 work places were available in prisons throughout the estate. Even if all those were fully used, that allows for coverage of only a third of the prison population. Again, I would be grateful if the Minister would confirm that those figures are correct and go on to add what the Government are doing to increase that 24,000 to something that provides slightly better coverage of the prison population.

Next, I would like to ask the Government about access to the relevant programmes. Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons has said that:

“Access to relevant and timely interventions and programmes … has been adversely affected by prisoner numbers”.

That is why I stress numbers. Even following the Government’s early release scheme, which has seen some 8,500 criminals out on the streets early, the numbers continue to soar and capacity cannot keep up. What are the Government doing to increase the number of places available in prisons, bearing in mind that the current prison population is in excess of the usable operational capacity?

My next question relates to the purposeful activity, as it is called, that prisons make available. Many prisons make up that purposeful activity by engaging prisoners in what could be referred to as repetitive and meaningless work, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, which gives them no transferable skills for the outside world when they are eventually released. Given that the ability to find employment when they are released decreases the likelihood of reoffending by between a third and a half, depending on how one calculates it, what more will be done to provide prisoners with adequate vocational-based programmes?

I understand that the Prison Service has set a target of some four hours a day of purposeful activity for each prisoner. Every year, that target is being missed. Figures given earlier this year indicate that they are getting up to 3.6 hours of so-called purposeful activity, but one may argue that quite a lot of that activity is not terribly purposeful. What is being done to ensure that prisoners will get at least four hours of so-called purposeful activity and, if possible, something more?

Much has been made by all those who have spoken about the need for the Home Office and the Prison Service to engage with employers from outside to attract them to come in and offer more training to prisoners. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in particular, referred to the need to attract outside employers to provide genuine work. What are the department and the Prison Service offering to do on that?

Lastly, a number of speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, mentioned the Howard League for Penal Reform and its Barbed graphic design studio at Coldingley Prison. When being briefed for this debate, I, too, was told about the studio by the Howard League. What can the department do to ensure that charities are not bound by unnecessary red tape? The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, mentioned problems with employment law. The Government are very good at passing laws. Presumably they could make some changes to employment law and, no doubt, there is room in the legislative programme for adjustments to be made. We would be interested to hear what the Government have to say about making changes in that way and about easing the unnecessary red tape to allow not only charities like the Howard League, but also businesses from outside to provide the work, training and experience that would do so much to assist prisoners and prevent reoffending in the future. I hope that that provides the noble Lord with enough to be going on with and I look forward over the coming years to further debates on similar subjects with what we hope will be increasingly favourable news from the Government.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Dubs on securing this debate. It certainly reflects his considerable and welcome interest in the work of the Prison Service. I should also like to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, and the noble Lord, Lord Henley, to their respective roles on their Front Benches and I look forward, as the noble Lord, Lord Henley, suggested, to continuing debate about the Prison Service and the many challenges it faces.

I very much accept the thrust of what my noble friend Lord Dubs has said in arguing about the importance of work, particularly for long-term prisoners, but also, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds suggested, for those who are not classified as long-term prisoners. Work is important for all people who come into the prison estate. I also accept the importance of purposeful days. We do not want prisoners simply to be locked in their cells with nothing purposeful or constructive to do.

The Prison Service has arranged a vast number of activities to ensure that the days of prisoners are purposeful. On the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, my understanding is that there is a key performance target of 24 hours of purposeful activity per week, which, despite the population pressures—I shall respond to the noble Lord in a moment—is met. The latest figures are 25.3 purposeful hours per week. I shall double-check that and I will write to the noble Lord. I accept entirely the point raised by noble Lords about its importance.

I was very interested in the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, on restorative justice, in which I have a particular interest. She made some very important points on that. The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Elton, were right to focus on the skills, or lack of them, of many of the prisoners about whom we are concerned. The latest figure that I have is that 52 per cent of male prisoners have no qualifications whatever compared with 15 per cent of the general population. The figure is even worse for women prisoners: I think that it is in the 70 per cent range. Many of these people have little, if any, experience of holding down a steady job, so the very considerable challenge for the Prison Service is to turn that around and put prisoners in a position where they leave prison and do not reoffend, but instead move into work. Work is an important part of the strategy to reduce reoffending.

In my short tenure at the Ministry of Justice I have had the opportunity to visit a number of prisons, and I am not at all complacent about the major challenge here. However, we should pay tribute to the education and skills programmes that have been put into place. I also welcome the contribution made by external education providers to the prison establishment. We should pay tribute to them. I will not trade figures, but the fact is that there has been a considerable increase in the amount spent on education for offenders. It has gone up from £57 million in 2001-02 to £156 million in 2006-07, and I acknowledge the further £30 million from the European Social Fund that has been secured to fund additional provision. Further, one should not ignore the health of prisoners in this debate. The transfer of health responsibilities to the National Health Service has led to much greater investment in prisoner health. I believe that the two go together. We know that for people in society generally, being in work is mostly good for their health, while being out of work leads to poor health. That must apply equally to the prisoner community and to those leaving prison and moving back into society.

I did not recognise the figures given by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for reoffending, but I am happy to write to him with my details. Perhaps we might exchange correspondence on this. However, my understanding is that the latest performance figures show that adult reoffending has reduced by 6.9 per cent compared with the predicted rate. But I am happy to engage in correspondence with the noble Lord on that.

Like other noble Lords, I acknowledge the work at HMP Coldingley which has been jointly developed between the Prison Service and the Howard League for Penal Reform. It is an excellent example of work that will undoubtedly help to facilitate a positive resettlement outcome for offenders. The right reverend Prelate talked about the attitude of local industry. It is interesting to note a recent report by the Institute of Personnel and Development. It noted the positive experiences of employers who have employed ex-offenders. This is an important point. A survey has shown that UK organisations are four times more likely to report a positive experience when employing an ex-offender than a negative one, and around four-fifths say that former offenders settle into work well with their colleagues, perform well and are reliable. That is a very good indication indeed. The latest figures I have for progress after discharge, which were produced in August, show that 27.1 per cent of prisoners moved into work, while a further 10.4 per cent moved into education or training. Of course we want to see those figures grow, but they represent progress and it is important that we build on them.

I want to take this opportunity to praise those companies and employers who have really gone the extra mile to work with ex-offenders. Many of them have done a tremendous job. Further, it must be said that in this case it is the private sector that is showing the way for the public sector. Central government, local government and the health service should all say with hand on heart that a lot more could be done. We are delighted with the work of the Corporate Alliance for Reducing Re-offending which has the aim of increasing the number of offenders going into work and self-employment; it is doing excellent work. There are now many fine examples. Wessex Water is working with several prisoners in the south-west to train offenders for employment in the water industry. We have heard about the National Grid; the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, did an excellent job of indicating the work that is being done there.

There are other models where prisons set up workshops to employ prisoners, making money for the prison and promoting the gaining of transferable skills. Her Majesty’s Prison Wandsworth, in partnership with Bovis Lend Lease, Dixons, Cisco Systems and Panduit, is introducing a workshop to train prisoners in voice and data cabling. This is not the kind of mailbag job which, rightly, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and other noble Lords were concerned that we should not have, but real training which will help offenders when they leave prison to find work in the community.

At Her Majesty’s Prison Lindholme an in-house bakery employed a total of 84 prisoners in 2006. Of these prisoners, 49 were registered for an NVQ and 64 NVQs were awarded. In Winson Green Prison in Birmingham I have seen the hairdressing training salon where prisoners are enabled to gain NVQs. That is the pathway to employment. I can assure noble Lords that we support a variety of employer programmes and schemes and encourage them to scale-up their activities. Working with national companies can be very useful in piloting programmes in certain prisons and then extending them to other prisons.

I return to the point raised by my noble friend about ensuring that prisoners are already involved in real work. I agree about its importance and progress is being made in this area. But there are obviously some challenges in responding to some of the requests made by noble Lords and I should like to deal with two of them. The first is the issue of the direct employment of prisoners by external organisations. If this was perceived to be only red tape, it would be frustrating. But there are clear accountability and management issues involved about which governors and the Prison Service are concerned. It is important that governors retain the ability to fully manage their prisons.

Although it may be frustrating, I repeat that having prisoners directly employed by a third party within a prison would set up conflicts between employment legislation and the Prison Act. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, invites me to bring forward amendments to employment legislation to deal with the situation. Certainly these are matters we keep under review—I do not want noble Lords to think that we are not concerned with these issues—but we should not underestimate the real, practical difficulties. My noble friend believes that I can simply wave away the HMRC ruling about liability for PAYE and national insurance—

My Lords, if only I could stand here and do that. I can assure my noble friend that my department will continue to have the relevant discussions with HMRC on those matters.

Returning again to mailbags and widgets, I accept the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. The Prison Service has taken significant steps to modernise some industries and will continue to do so. Of course, if we can have partnerships with the private sector to help us to do that, it will be enormously welcomed.

I have an extensive breakdown of the number of workplaces concerned and am happy to write to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, on it. It ranges from the number of places in prisons, which is 10,000, to those in charity workshops, of which there are 800. Kitchens provide another 4,000 places and numerous domestic jobs. If the noble Lord would like it, I would be happy to set that out in some detail.

I say to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that release on temporary licences is done only after robust risk assessment by prison governors. We welcome the opportunity and the advantage that it brings. It has to be balanced against the need to protect the public. I understand that we have 1,600 prisoners on ROTL across the prison estate on any given day.

The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, will know that we are considering voting in the light of the European Court judgment. I cannot yet tell her when we will produce the results. I understood what she said, but I am not sure that I wholly agree with her. There is a clear issue between rights and responsibilities, but we are under an obligation to report the results of the latest consultation.

My latest figure for the prison population is 81,417, of which 273 prisoners were held in police cells under operational safeguard.

We expect shortly the report of the Carter review, which is looking generally at the demand for and supply of places in prisons. We will report to Parliament when we receive it.

I know that noble Lords wish me to take not a leap into the dark, but a leap of imagination. I assure them that there is no lack of will on the part of the Government or Her Majesty’s Prison Service to ensure that as much opportunity as possible is given to prisoners to develop skills and to use work in terms of the value it brings both to their experience in prison and to their preparation for leaving it. We are committed to working with outside organisations, which we welcome. I understand the frustration about some issues relating to employment and the HMRC. We will continue to discuss those matters.

I end by paying tribute to the Prison Service for the progress that it has been able to make amid all the challenges that it faces, and to all those employers and organisations that work hard with it.

House adjourned at 3.53 pm.