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Volume 711: debated on Wednesday 10 June 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for making economies in the running of the Prison Service.

My Lords, the National Offender Management Service is making savings across the range of its services to ensure that it can deliver its priorities to protect the public and to reduce reoffending effectively and within available resources. Plans to reduce costs in prisons include clearer specification of services, more streamlined HQ structures, reducing management costs in prison establishments and the increased use of competition for offender services. The significant investment in new prison places also creates future opportunities for more effective and efficient operations.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that the Chief Inspector of Prisons has expressed considerable concern about Prison Service plans to save money by amalgamating Askham Grange women’s prison, a very good prison, with New Hall, a prison with many problems 30 miles away? Can he give the House more details of the further planned amalgamations of individual prisons into larger units and can he assure the House that these economies of scale will actually save money, rather than just lead to problems that in the end will cost more?

My Lords, experience from the first successful project to cluster prisons, involving the three prison establishments on the Isle of Sheppey—HMPs Elmley, Swaleside and Standford Hill—has shown that the approach can deliver savings and bring significant improvements to offender management. The Sheppey project delivered savings of more than £2 million, which was then reinvested to improve the delivery of additional programmes for offenders. As to the clustering of New Hall and Askham Grange that the noble Baroness asks about, there is close ongoing consultation and discussion with staff and stakeholders from both sides about the clustering changes that took effect from April this year. I can only say that so far no concerns have been raised in these early stages.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Prison Service has carried out a mapping exercise in high-security prisons to reduce staff numbers by half? Can he tell the House how this sits with government assurances made only on Monday during the Sonnex Statement that public safety is a high priority for this Government? Can he also tell the House what the ratio of staff to prisoner numbers in these high-security establishments was in 1997 compared with today?

My Lords, as to the noble Baroness’s first question, I assure her that no such mapping exercise of staffing levels in the high-security prison estate has been carried out. As part of its ongoing efficiency programme, the National Offender Management Service is continually monitoring staffing levels to ensure that every prison is resourced appropriately to operate safely and securely. As to the specific figures that she asked me for, I do not have them on me but I will write to her with them.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, while we all want to see cost-effectiveness in the Prison Service, any economies that undermine or cut back the introduction of a prevailing culture of rehabilitation will inevitably result in a high cost for society in future as reoffending soars and we try to cope with all the problems that arise from the failure in the prison system?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. Our priorities are always to protect the public and to reduce reoffending. That includes rehabilitation, which is a major part of our policy. But there are financial pressures on the system at present and we have to face up to that.

My Lords, the third sector offers a huge resource to offender management. In the light of the spending cuts, will the Government consider a review of the third sector so that, with a more strategic approach and comparatively small investment, the Prison Service could make much more of the voluntary sector, especially in the rehabilitation of offenders?

My Lords, the Prison Service uses the voluntary or third sector a great deal at present; it plays an invaluable role as far as prisons are concerned. If I may, I will take back to the department his proposal that it should play an even larger role.

My Lords, the situation in the prison system worries me intensely, because it now has many of the problems that existed just before the Strangeways riots occurred. Does the Minister agree that the solution to the very real problem of dealing with that situation is for the money allocated to building new prisons to be diverted from that until the economy can justify it and, instead, for there to be a real focus on the need for rehabilitation and for punishing in the community those who can be safely punished in that way?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble and learned Lord for the part that he has played and his expertise in this field over many years. We all owe a huge amount to him. It is important that prisons are for those who have behaved in a particularly bad way. We do not want to send everyone to prison and it is vital that real, hard alternatives to prison are there, and we are setting those up. However, it is also important that we move with a new prison-building programme. One of the problems for life in prison is that there are now in the system cells and prisons that really ought to be closed down as soon as possible. That is why we are investing so much in future prison building.

My Lords, the Government announced some time ago that they were bringing in Titan prisons to save money. They then announced that they would have mini-Titans to save money. They are now bringing in Titans by the back door, from what the Minister said about the amalgamated Isle of Sheppey prison. Can the Government just tell us what they are up to?

My Lords, we are not bringing Titan prisons in by the back door. Prisons in the Isle of Wight and Isle of Sheppey clusters have retained their own separate perimeters. That is one major difference. They have not merged to become a single prison establishment. That is a second big difference. These efficiencies come from new approaches to sharing management and overheads on these neighbouring sites and by integrating the delivery of some of the regime activities and programmes for prisoners. Surely if that is what these savings are doing, they are worth while. The House has stressed on many occasions the importance of keeping prison programmes at a high level and covering all prisoners.