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Prisons: Education and Training

Volume 753: debated on Thursday 3 April 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what impact prison staff cuts have had on the provision of education, job training and substance abuse programmes in Her Majesty’s prisons.

My Lords, staff reductions have been made as part of the benchmarking reforms of public sector prisons. Benchmarking is the best means of delivering value for money for the public purse. It either increases purposeful activity or sustains current levels, and refocuses work and job training to enhance prisoners’ employment prospects on release. The Prison Service works closely with commissioners of substance misuse services and education to optimise the provision of these services to meet prisoners’ needs.

I thank the noble Lord for that rather disappointing reply. Provision of and access to education and training are two key factors in any meaningful attempt to prevent reoffending. I cannot imagine that anyone responsible for the conduct of imprisonment could be happy about an Ofsted report which finds that, despite some prisons having state-of-the-art facilities:

“Training and education in prisons are very poor and are failing to support offenders into employment… In many prisons, training and education comes too far down the list of priorities for prison governors and other senior staff.”

Nor could anyone be happy about a London University Institute of Education survey which found that 62% of prison educators criticised the negative effect of payment by results on prisoners as learners, and on the overall quality of education. When prison educators are complaining and prison staff are speaking openly about the difficulties of getting prisoners to education due to cuts in staffing, I hope that Ministers are suitably concerned. Will the Minister please tell the House what steps are being taken to rectify the situation?

Many steps are being taken. Work is progressing on introducing a new mandatory assessment for all newly received prisoners by OLASS, the Offender Learning and Skills Service providers. This will ensure that all offenders receive a learning assessment focused on English and maths, rather than those who simply go on to learning. NOMS and its partners are working towards implementing better data about sharing arrangements. I should say that intensive maths and English courses are being piloted in prisons, based on a model adopted in the Army, particularly to address prisoners serving short sentences.

My Lords, the Minister just referred to purposeful activity for those who are in our prisons. I know of one women’s prison where this activity is filling sandwiches for Pret A Manger. Is this the kind of purposeful activity to which he refers?

Purposeful activity covers a number of different areas: work, training, education, PE and programmes designed to tackle the causes of prisoners’ offending. Quite a lot of the emphasis on purposeful activity is to try to allow prisoners to engage in activities where they will have some prospects of work outside, particularly in the catering business. With great respect to the noble Baroness, who I know has great knowledge of these issues, that is in fact not out of step with where they might be able to find employment afterwards.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister accept that prisons are overcrowded, and that controls and discipline are difficult to maintain? In fact, there has been an increase of 72% in calls on riot squads, and we have reached a high point in the level of deaths in custody. Under these circumstances, in order to ensure that prison’s objectives of education, training and jobs are not affected by cuts in government expenditure, would the Minister not agree that it is time for automatic inspections by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons?

Any violence or instability in prisons is clearly to be regretted. However, the noble Lord will be aware that assaults in prisons are at their lowest level since 2008, and the number of cases of escaping or absconding has reduced by more than 85% of what it was 10 years ago. I am afraid that I cannot accept that there are problems as a result of overcrowding. At the moment, although there is no room for complacency, matters are stable in the Prison Service.

My Lords, does the Minister recall the debate last Thursday in which it was mentioned that more than 5,000 IPP prisoners are being held in prison, two-thirds of whom are beyond their tariff, and that the main reason for this is the lack of training for rehabilitation? Given that this is costing more than £200 million a year, is it not penny wise, pound foolish to cut back on courses of that sort? Can the Minister give some assurance that these prisoners can have the hope of getting rehabilitation courses?

I well remember the debate and the prominent part which the noble Lord played in it. He will also recall the response that I gave him, which was that there was a considerable, co-ordinated effort to ensure that those IPP prisoners were enabled to engage in appropriate activities which would increase the likelihood of, although not guarantee, their release after hearing before the Parole Board. That is happening, and the Prison Service is well aware of the problem.

My Lords, on 1 April 24 years ago, if my recollection is correct, the British prison system was subject to a series of riots. A Conservative Home Secretary, now the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, asked me to make a report. Another Conservative Home Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Baker, received that report and the House of Commons, with one exception, indicated that it accepted the recommendations, limited to 12, in that report. I am very pleased that a Government of whom the Conservatives are part have now focused on the importance of rehabilitation. Does the Minister agree that if you are going to have rehabilitation, it is very important, first, to control the numbers in prison and, secondly, to have the staff needed to cope with that number of prisons, for the reasons identified by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham?

The noble and learned Lord is referring to the Strangeways report. I entirely accept that rehabilitation should be a key part of prison. The noble and learned Lord will recall that the transforming rehabilitation reforms mean that those serving short sentences for the first time will now be able to obtain support after leaving prison and will be enabled by means of resettlement prisons to have some continuity in the support that they receive inside and outside. I accept his general observations. It is a matter very much to be borne in mind.

My Lords, whatever the Justice Secretary is now saying, is not the reality of the situation that his policy is preventing family and friends sending books to prisoners? Does not a state which treats its prisoners with gratuitous harshness and which seeks to suppress the life of the mind put itself and society to shame?

That is not strictly within the Question but entirely predictable. The Secretary of State has not banned books. Each prisoner is entitled to 12 books in their cell. The libraries in prisons are impressive. If the noble Lord would like to visit one of the prison libraries, that can be arranged with my department. It is a matter of great disappointment to the librarians that so many people have criticised the provision of books. What the Secretary of State is trying to do is prevent people sending in parcels that do not always contain books, or not exclusively books, to try to stem the real problem there is in prisons of drugs and other contraband, extremist literature and the like. We are not banning books.