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Prisons: Education and Training

Volume 701: debated on Thursday 1 May 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What further action they will take to ensure education and training courses are given priority within the Prison Service.

My Lords, the Government see education and training leading to employment as an important part of their reducing reoffending strategy, with investment in offender learning and skills rising to more than £170 million this year. We have an ambitious programme of reform under way, much of which is focused on improving the skills and employment opportunities of prisoners, led by an interministerial group on reducing reoffending.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that partly encouraging reply. However, does she agree that if prisoners—especially young prisoners—who have emerged almost entirely untaught from so-called looked-after status are not automatically to return to reoffending, what they need above all while in custody is education and training to help to equip them for a totally different life after their release? Under those circumstances, and not least in the light of the Government’s response to the important Leitch report, should not the Government play a far more proactive role by using incentives, financial penalties or whatever other means of encouragement are necessary to ensure that both the inmates and the institutions gain if prisoners enrol for skill courses, rather than more routine work, within the prison?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that the Government need to do more and I can reassure her that we have an ambitious programme of reform under way. As I stressed in my first Answer, we see the promotion of new skills for offenders as a key part of our strategy for reducing reoffending. She is right to draw attention to the fact that the Leitch report highlighted real gaps in skills, and offenders—and young offenders, in particular—are the very people in whom we see the greatest skill gaps.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us how many writers in residence there are now in prisons?

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot. I apologise but I shall investigate that question and write to the noble Baroness promptly.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if rehabilitation is the primary objective in penal policy, education and training in the most up-to-date forms is essential, but that it is also essential that this process starts the very day that a person begins his or her prison sentence? Can she assure the House that reports that the Government intend to put the emphasis on the end of a sentence, rather than the whole sentence, are not accurate? I know from my own experience of working with organisations involved in prisons that the need for that process to start right at the beginning is crucial.

My Lords, my noble friend highlights an important point. I think that the key step that the Government took was in 2001, when we transferred responsibility for offender education to the education department. Since then, the pivotal status of assessment on entry to prison has been a key factor in promoting the development of personalised learning for prisoners. Therefore, I do not accept that there is undue emphasis on the end of a prison sentence. However, offender learning through employment, for example, can take place only when a prisoner is able to go out on release and take part in employment. Therefore, I emphasise the importance of the assessment at the start of a sentence.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that prisoners with learning difficulties are often effectively excluded not only from education but also from offending behaviour courses and that there is evidence that, for that reason, many may have longer custodial sentences than others convicted of comparable crimes? Can she tell us what steps the Government are taking to make provision for such prisoners?

My Lords, if I may, I shall come back to the pivotal role of the assessment that needs to take place right at the start of admission into the secure prison service. Once offender learning has become the responsibility of the Learning and Skills Council and its delivery partners, their assessors are responsible for ensuring that they have the skills to identify learning needs, but an emphasis must also be put on doing the right things in the right order. It is not possible to help offenders to learn and gain new skills if they have drug and alcohol problems or are experiencing mental health problems. Therefore, it is absolutely right that the assessment is done, that access to the right services is secured and that that happens in the correct order.

My Lords, the Minister used the word “reform” and spoke of the fact that a group of Ministers is taking personal responsibility for these matters. In view of the importance of the issue, can she say whether prison governors are personally accountable for pre-set targets for achievement in this area and for the quality of the work that takes place?

My Lords, I come back to the importance of educational outcome, responsibility for which must rest with the education providers. However, responsibility for ensuring that offenders attend classroom and educational activities is very much with the prison governors, who have targets for achieving results in this area.

My Lords, what information can the Minister give us on the implementation of safe web access in prisons? Such access is very important but is in fact quite limited for a proportion of the prison population. Has there been progress on implementation?

My Lords, pilot programmes are taking place particularly in the north of England to look at the use of e-learning which, of course, involves safe web access. I shall have to write to the noble Baroness with more detail, if I can get it.

My Lords, will the Minister explain to the House why the Government are not willing to link the successful completion of education programmes, or indeed work objectives, to eligibility for parole?

My Lords, I think I can reassure the noble Lord that the successful completion of educational activities and the building of new skills is very much part of achieving an offender’s sentence outcome. A range of outcomes is required for a sentencing plan to be successfully achieved and it includes matters such as behaviour and alcohol and drug dependency. Although educational and skills achievements are important, I am sure the noble Lord will agree that it must be one of a number of the factors taken into account.