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House of Commons Hansard
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Prison Education and Employment Strategy
17 October 2018
Volume 647

[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered prisons education and employment strategy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and to raise this issue. I am sure that the Minister will agree that it is an incredibly important topic. It has at its heart the issue of recidivism—or reoffending, as it is more commonly known. The issue costs our society more than £15 billion every year, about twice the budget of the Ministry of Justice. I am sure that we would all agree that that is a big problem, which creates an additional burden on the prisons estate, and on taxpayers.

The prison population projections for England and Wales detail an expected rise in the prisoner population, with more than 90,000 expected by the end of June 2020. With that in mind, the importance of reducing reoffending is crystal clear, especially as reoffenders are one of the largest groups contributing to prisoner numbers. I note that the Minister has made reducing reoffending a central plank of his philosophy and strategy on prisoners and prisons.

There are some things that we can do better, and education in prison and employment after release are key. All too often, people with criminal convictions face significant barriers and prejudices on their release, which often prevent them from getting a job after they leave prison. As such, education and training is incredibly important, because it leads to jobs after release, which reduces reoffending.

In recent years, unfortunately, education participation in prisons has declined and prisoners have continued to have trouble getting a job after release. Reoffending is too high as a result.

I warmly welcome the education and employment strategy presented to Parliament by the Minister; it is a good strategy with a compelling vision that I wholeheartedly support. I want to consider the three main parts of the strategy: education in prisons, prison work, and employment after release. I thank the Minister very much for responding to this debate.

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Does the hon. Lady agree that, although it is essential that inmates have access to gym and sporting equipment, which is very important, it is equally important that there should be access to skills training and basic level education? Half of Britain’s inmates are functionally illiterate. Courses such as cookery—how to cook on a budget—are very important as well, as is skills training in order to get a job. Those are essential basic skills, which need funding.

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No Westminster Hall debate would be complete without the hon. Gentleman in his place. I agree with his point. Sport is a central part of the whole strategy, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s points. My speech does not contain a lot of references to sport, but the hon. Gentleman has made an eloquent point. We discussed the issue recently in the all-party parliamentary group for running, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove). We are all planning to run the marathon together, which may be foolish, but we want to use that opportunity to highlight the importance of sport in prisons and in wider society.

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Although only 1% of the population of young people has been in care, 25% of the prison population has. They have particular challenges with regard to their education, given the chaotic lifestyle of their youth. Does my hon. Friend think that that is a particular issue?

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My hon. Friend highlights an important point. No doubt he is drawing on his vast experience of housing and local government. I thank him for raising that point; he is absolutely right.

I come on to other factors that lead to prisoners coming into the system. Many prisoners are without basic qualifications—many do not have English and maths skills beyond those of an 11-year-old. That is quite a shocking statistic and highlights the need for change, which is why it is at the centre of the strategy. I am pleased that the Government are taking steps to address the problem.

We want individuals to be given the skills they need to unlock their potential, based on their strengths. That is a profoundly Conservative value. We want to help individuals get a job as soon as they can after release because that is the chance they have to rebuild their lives. I know the Minister believes that as well. The strategy echoes that vision by setting out several steps to improve the provision of education in prisons. I want to focus on one or two of those steps—the empowerment of prison governors and the establishment of a prisoner apprenticeship pathway. Those two steps in particular will help address the future challenges we face. They will not only help address reoffending, but help to do that in the context of a changing prison population.

Many prisoners have low literacy rates, but there is also an increasing number of higher-educated prisoners, as a result of the increased prosecution of fraud, IT and sexual offences, which are often committed by a slightly different demographic. Although it might benefit one prison to be offered basic education services or more practical education courses, it might benefit another to have a greater choice of education options—including, potentially, higher education. By empowering prison governors and giving them the authority to set strategy, they can do what is right for their prison. I understand that the strategy is already in action. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how it is going and where he sees it going in the future.

No doubt many prisons would choose the Open University as a provider of higher education. I put on the record my respect for the OU, which has long been trying to reduce the burden of reoffending; it has provided higher education courses to prisoners since 1972. More than 1,000 prisoners have studied with the OU in the past year. There is clearly an appetite for self-improvement in prisons. Let us make the most of it.

Unfortunately, too many prisoners still do not engage with any education service while they are in prison. Education is a key opportunity for rehabilitation of what is quite literally a captive audience; this is an opportunity that the Government cannot and should not miss.

The prisoner apprenticeship pathway is an excellent example of how the strategy will help to increase the uptake of education and training programmes in prisons. It is a superb tool that makes good use of the time people spend in prison. Offenders will train in prison and then put that knowledge to good use in a guaranteed job on release. The scheme guarantees a prisoner a fresh start after release. Surely that is what we all want in our society—people to be given a fresh start to rebuild their lives, which is exceptionally important when it comes to reoffending. Education leads to jobs, which lead to an income, which leads to responsibilities and a lower likelihood of reoffending in future. A job can help someone who has lost their way to successfully transition back into society and normality. In the Conservative Government, we certainly all believe—as I believe others do across the House—that work is the primary way of rebuilding dignity and releasing human potential.

With that in mind, there is no reason why a prisoner should not have a job while they are in prison. I am so pleased that work in prisons is being encouraged by this Government. I note that more than 11,000 prisoners were working in prisons in the year 2016-17. That is giving purposeful activity, structure and meaning to a prisoner’s day, which contributes to a more stable prison environment and reduces costs on taxpayers, because prisoners undertake essential services themselves. More importantly, work in prison helps offenders develop many of the skills and attributes needed on release. About two thirds of prisoners are unemployed before entering custody and so may not have good employment records to recommend them to employers on release. Prison has a vital role to play in developing the skills and work ethic that employers are looking for.

Offenders who found employment in the 12 months after release from prison had one-year reoffending rates nearly 10 percentage points lower than similar offenders who did not find employment. That is a truly wonderful and life-enhancing statistic, where the value of work in prisons is clear. Employment really does help with a successful transition into society. Of course, that statistic highlights that more can be done, too.

There is benefit in exploring what more can be done to better use temporary release to facilitate smoother transitions into the workplace. For whatever reason, the use of temporary release has fallen, but work placements with employers outside prison walls would give prisoners the chance to apply their skills and to prove that they are hard-working and trustworthy, just as we all hope our young people will have a chance to do work experience while they are at school. Such placements would give prisoners a taste of work and a chance to readjust to life outside prison. I will be keen to hear what the Minister thinks about releasing more prisoners on temporary licence.

I note that the education and employment strategy recognises the importance of prisoners proving themselves to an employer. Although better education can help ex-offenders overcome some of the barriers to gaining employment on release, it cannot help overcome others; I am thinking particularly of the issue of prejudice. I welcome the strategy’s focus on supporting the offender after release by engaging with employers on issues such as prejudice. Understandably, many employers are reluctant to hire an ex-offender, and prisoners face stigma. I have come across this in my life experience—I was an employer before I came into Parliament. There is a notable lack of understanding about what prisoners can contribute to a workplace, and there are natural concerns for the other people who work there. I am glad that there will be some practical suggestions in the strategy to help overcome some of those barriers.

Employers sometimes express concerns that they might find ex-offenders difficult to trust, or they expect them to be unreliable. However, people who have employed ex-offenders have told me that, with effective rehabilitation, some ex-offenders demonstrate that potential employers’ prejudices are unfounded. Once someone has had a chance to show what they can do and to prove themselves, they can sometimes become the most trustworthy member of a team or organisation. That is to be warmly welcomed.

The education and employment strategy sets out a number of steps for improving the employment prospects of ex-offenders, and that is really encouraging. I note that one aspect of the strategy is the introduction of the New Futures Network, which will engage with employers by educating them about the changes that the strategy will bring to prison education and training and by persuading them to take on ex-offenders. I am pleased to see the civil service leading by example by employing ex-offenders—it is obviously in a position to lead and to shine a light on other employers.

Challenges remain, of course. Many employers are still at best sceptical about recruiting ex-prisoners at the end of their sentences. A YouGov study recently revealed that 50% of employers would not even consider employing an ex-offender—that is a great shame, because at the moment there are many vacancies that companies are unable to fill. Ex-offenders are a valuable pool of resource, and we ought to be able to give people an opportunity to rebuild their lives. I hope to hear from the Minister about what more can be done.

I am pleased that I have been able to raise this important issue in the debate. Of course, we need as a society to see prisons fulfilling their role: to punish offenders. That is absolutely right, that is what the taxpayer demands, and that is justice—its primary purpose. They should also be places of discipline, hard work and self-improvement. It is right that prisoners get the help they need to turn their lives around.

Prisons can do more, and I am pleased that the Government have introduced a very positive and constructive strategy that seeks to address that issue. In recent months, we have seen the Minister on our television screens, making many comments about the strategy—that is to be applauded, because we have to put it at the front and centre of our policies as a progressive and compassionate Conservative Government.

If we get this right, that will be wholly positive. Prison is an opportunity for rehabilitation, which has clear benefits for society: it leads to less reoffending and a lighter burden on the taxpayer and on society. I warmly welcome the education and employment strategy. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks, and I thank him for coming to the debate.

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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) for making a powerful speech and for securing a debate on such an important subject. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), both of whom have been strong supporters of the entire project of engaging with prisoners and offender reform in many debates in Westminster Hall and in the Chamber.

In essence, we are dealing with a classic issue of public policy—something where the objective or target really is a big prize. If we can get prisoners into education, and through education into employment, they are less likely to offend and there will be fewer victims. The public will be safer, and the prisoners’ lives will be turned around. The problem is that it is also a classic issue of public policy because it is easy to talk about but difficult to do much about.

The problem with this debate is that at almost any time in the past 175 years, Ministers would have stood up and talked about prison reform. Despite 175 years of Ministers talking about prison reform and about investing in education in prisons, we are still in a situation where only 20% of prisoners get a job on release—that has been pretty static for decades. About one fifth of the people coming into prison have a job and about one fifth of the people leaving prison have a job.

What is the answer to this problem? Clearly, it is not a question of silver bullets. In 1898, Herbert Gladstone stood up and gave a great speech in the House. In language that I cannot hope to emulate, he said that prison

“discipline and treatment should be more effectually designed to maintain, stimulate, or awaken the higher susceptibilities of prisoners, to develop their moral instincts, to train them in orderly and industrial habits, and, whenever possible, to turn them out of prison better men and women, both physically and morally, than when they came in.”—[Official Report, 24 March 1898; Vol. 55, c. 858.]

That is over 120 years ago—it is very difficult to disagree with the basic expression of what we have been trying to do in this country for a very long time.

What are the problems? The first problem was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North: many prisoners come from very difficult backgrounds. As we have heard, perhaps a quarter of them come out of care. Nearly a third of prisoners have serious alcohol addiction issues, and another third have serious drug addiction issues. Perhaps half of prisoners have a reading age of under 11 and a significant number have a reading age of under 6. Nearly 40% of our prisoners have been excluded from school at one time or another.

To fast-forward from the rhetoric around education to the reality, one needs to imagine oneself in Pentonville—I was there today. Imagine a small classroom in midsummer. It is very hot and five men are sitting there with a single teacher. These are people who have never found it easy to go to school. They have never found it easy to listen to a teacher. Those five men will be at very different educational levels. One will be unable to read and write, and another one will be bored because he is in prison for theft but he can already read and write and does not understand why he is in the class. There will be a general sense that everyone is rotating through—on an average day at Pentonville, 45 to 50 new prisoners turn up and a similar number are released. It is very difficult to deal with that.

Solving the problem is not a question of making grand statements about the human soul—Mr Gladstone made much better statements about that in 1898 than I am able to make today. It is about understanding exactly what is going wrong in that prisoner’s journey, step by step. The first thing is to recognise the type of prison that that prisoner is in. Is it a reception prison that they are coming into for a short period, straight out of the courts from remand? If it is a prison where they are likely to spend six months, 12 months or two years of their life, a very different kind of education provision can be delivered.

Secondly, are the kind of qualifications offered in prison A the same as the qualifications offered in prisons B, C and D? A prisoner could move to four prisons in the course of their career. Too often, as a prisoner follows that course, they pursue a City & Guilds qualification in prison A, but it is not available in prison B. Even more fundamentally, the core common curriculum might not be available, so they might not be able to study English, maths and information and communications technology. In addition, governors frequently do not feel genuinely empowered to control the prisoner’s life. They do not feel that they have the leverage or flexibility to say to the education provider, “What really matters in this area is bricklaying,” or, “We have a real shortage of people in scaffolding. I want you to provide scaffolding training.” They do not feel they would get rewarded or promoted for that.

We are trying to deal with those kinds of practical issues in the education and employment strategy. The first thing we did was introduce a common core curriculum, which will ensure that, right the way through the prison service, every single prison, regardless of where it is, which part of the country it is in and how long the prisoner is there, will deliver the core curriculum of English, maths, ICT and English as a foreign language for people who do not speak English.

Secondly, we are ensuring that the qualifications in prisons are the same. A lot of this sounds pretty simple, but the complex and strange world of Government procurement means that we have ended up having a series of conversations about dynamic purchasing systems. We have ended up with 12 preferred suppliers for the core common curriculum and 300 suppliers for the additional work. We have 17 core groups bidding in, with a selected shortlist of five for each area.

What does that mean? Imagine that you are the prisons group director for Yorkshire, Mr Betts. You get your six prisons together and you have five people on a shortlist—it could include Milton Keynes college or Novus. Eighty per cent. of the score is based on your judgment, with your prison governors, of which will provide the best quality of education, and the other 20% is based on the cost of the provision.

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I welcome what the Minister is saying. It is heartening to hear how much progress has been made. Will he enlighten us about the role of volunteers who go into prisons and offer their time freely because they believe in the cause of helping prisoners to rebuild their lives? For example, my son is an English literature student and he went to a nearby prison and taught prisoners Shakespeare. He said it was the most profound experience he had ever had. The feedback was that the prisoners got something out of it too. Clearly, there is a vast spectrum of that sort of activity. I very much hope that what he did does not crowd out the kind of activity that the Minister is describing. Will he enlighten us about that?

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Absolutely. To put this in context, if you were the Yorkshire prison group director, Mr Betts, you would get your governors together to look at your list of five. You would choose the supplier that you think will provide the best quality for your core common curriculum, and then you would adjust for your area. How do you do that? Humber, which is a training prison, is currently offering coding, upholstery and design services to other prisons. Lindholme—again in Yorkshire—will be focusing on construction skills. Then, as my hon. Friend pointed out, you need to be open to bolting on to that the incredible education offerings of other types of volunteers. I taught Shakespeare in prisons when I was an undergraduate, so I can relate to what my hon. Friend’s son has been doing. The governor needs to provide space for those voluntary organisations to come into the prison, and they need to get the regime right for the core common prison day so they can get the prisoners into the classroom.

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In the Minister’s response to the intervention of the hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), he referred to the educational quality of the providers he is looking at. Everything he said is right, but some prisoners need daily living skills, budgeting skills and how-to-live skills. How do we incorporate those sorts of skills into the very basics of their lives?

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The core of the answer is that we must give governors the freedom to adjust to the prisoners. They must take responsibility for that. One of the big changes in this framework is that we have taken power out of the centre and given it to governors so they can do exactly that. How are governors doing that? Increasingly, numeracy, literacy and budgeting skills are taught through the upholstery, carpentry and construction courses. The best way to get people to learn those things is often to focus on the practical vocational skills, and attach life skills to them.

In Yorkshire—I want to pursue this example a bit further—the New Futures Network gets people with the prisons group director to connect directly to employers. It reaches out to employers’ boards and ensures that employers understand what is on offer in the prison. I pay tribute not just to Paul Foweather, the prisons group director in Yorkshire, but to organisations such as Tempus Novo. My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch asked about voluntary organisations. Tempus Novo is a charity run by two terrific ex-prison officers who have spent 25 years working on the landings. They left as band 4 officers—not governing-grade officers—and set up that organisation. They walk with employers into the prison, introduce them to the prisoners, reassure them about what is involved in employing offenders, and go into the workplace with the offender for the first interview. If any problems emerge in the workplace, Tempus Novo follows them up.

In the end, education and employment for prisoners is not about big ideas or fancy strategies. It is about doing 50 or 60 things well and looking carefully at the quality of what we are delivering. It is about speaking to prison governors and prisoners and saying, “What is going wrong with the curriculum? How many hours a day are you able to spend in the classroom? Is the fan working in the classroom? Are the teachers actually turning up? Is the qualification you got of any use in the outside world? Yes, you are beginning to go on an apprenticeship scheme, but are you able to connect it to the Government system? Yes, you are learning how to abseil, but are you getting the health and safety support to be able to turn that into being a window cleaner on a high-altitude building? What are we doing with release on temporary licence”—that is a question from my hon. Friend—“to make sure we give people the chance to spend time in an employer’s workplace before they leave prison formally?” Changing that is about changing a dozen small rules. We must ensure there is not a statutory lie-down period in each new prison, so that if a person is released on temporary licence in one prison and moves to another prison, they do not suddenly have to sit back in the prison and lose touch with their workplace.

If we get all those things right—it will be hard yards—we can make a difference. At the moment, only 20% of prisoners who leave prison get a job. If we can get it up to 25% or 30%, it would be fantastic and would change nearly 40 years of stagnation. Those do not sound like big numbers, but nearly 200,000 people circle through our criminal justice system every year. Every one of those people we get into a job is 7% less likely to reoffend. That translates not just into tens of thousands of families with an income and somebody at home with a job, but into thousands fewer crimes and thousands fewer victims of crime. It leads to a society that is healthier and safer.

At the core of this is our belief in the capacity for humans to change, and in our incredibly hard-working prison officers, governors and prisons group directors who are driving through this change. Employers such as Timpson take a huge risk, but they put a lot of energy into understanding prisoners, their needs and the skills they need to stand eight hours a day on the shop floor dealing with customers. If we get all those things right, we can be proud not just of our criminal justice system and our education strategy but of our society.

Question put and agreed to.