Prison Service

Prayers – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 12th May 1999.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hanson.]

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 9:33 am, 12th May 1999

The purpose of this debate is to raise in the House some of the wide concerns about the management of the Prison Service, especially those concerns highlighted in the reports of the chief inspector of prisons. I seek a response from the Government to those concerns and to some of the ideas that I will advance.

As of last Friday, the Prison Service held 64,238 prisoners in 127 directly managed establishments and in seven prisons run by private sector companies. I have chosen not to debate the issue of private prisons on this occasion, but we believe strongly, on principle, that the state should not deprive people of liberty and then hand the key to the private sector. However, that does not mean that private sector prisons cannot be managed well, and we can learn some lessons from them. I shall briefly explore that issue later.

The Prison Service employs about 40,000 staff in the prisons that it manages directly and the operating costs of the service total about £1.7 billion. A service of that size must be managed as effectively as possible and must achieve its stated purposes, giving value for money.

I do not believe that the Prison Service is in decline. It has made considerable achievements in recent years under particularly stressful conditions, most notably—although not exclusively—in prison security and in reducing the number of escapes. That is not surprising, as all efforts have been directed at those areas. The chief inspector pays a particularly warm tribute to the work of the former director, Richard Tilt, who was the first director appointed from within the Prison Service. He took control of the service in difficult circumstances when morale had been damaged dramatically and made significant improvements.

While criticising the management of the Prison Service, I acknowledge that friends and people whom I respect work at every level of the service, from prison officers to top management. I know the dedication and commitment that they demonstrate. However, the fact remains that there are significant problems and that something is seriously wrong with the management of the service.

Members of Parliament tend to know when something is wrong with organisations from the way in which individual cases are handled. I have had problems with the Prison Service over the years. While trying recently to secure the transfer of a prison officer from Scotland to England, I discovered that the England and Wales Prison Service and the Scottish Prison Service have been in dispute over transfers since 1995, and that that dispute remains unresolved.

While pursuing another case involving a prison officer who I believe was wrongly dismissed and unjustly treated, I discovered that Prison Service headquarters had told a local authority inquiring about his reference that that man had never worked for the service. When such things happen, one begins to explore the situation more deeply. Those painful individual matters—the first has been resolved satisfactorily, but the second has not—cause concern, but I have many other reasons to be worried about the management of the Prison Service.

Many of my greatest and most obvious concerns date back to the closing years of the previous Government. The Prison Service will never forget the years when it was run "Howard's way". His was an era when the Home Secretary interfered in all aspects of the service, but was never prepared to take responsibility for it, especially if something went wrong—as it often did. The revelations of the then outgoing Minister of State, now the shadow Secretary of State for Health, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), confirmed all our worst fears about the then Home Secretary's approach to the management of the service.

However, the problems had begun even before that. The Woodcock report on the Whitemoor escapes stated: There exists at all levels within the Service some confusion as to the respective roles of Ministers, the Agency Headquarters and … Prison Governors. In particular, the Enquiry has identified the difficulty of determining what is an operational matter and what is policy, leading to confusion as to where responsibility lies. The report made the further crushing observation: Any organisation which boasts one Statement of Purpose, one Vision, five Values, six Goals, seven Strategic Priorities and eight KPIs"— key performance indicators— without any clear correlation between them, is producing a recipe for total confusion and exasperation amongst those undertaking a most difficult and dangerous task on behalf of the general public. The new Home Secretary has rightly changed the management style that he inherited from his predecessor. He has stated clearly that he takes responsibility for the service, but his style is not one of constant and detailed interference. That is very welcome. It would be easy to assume that all the deficiencies in Prison Service management have been remedied, but the chief inspector's annual report makes it clear that serious long-term problems remain.

A major theme of the report is the lack of consistency within the Prison Service. Service standards and conditions identified by the chief inspector vary greatly and include variations within the same category of prison establishment. With the exception of dispersal prisons, there appears to be considerable inconsistency of standards within each category of prison. Factors such as whether a prisoner's offending behaviour will be challenged through education, work or offending behaviour programmes, how much time prisoners spend locked in their cells and whether those cells are overcrowded depend upon which prison an offender is sent to.

Referring to young offender institutions, the chief inspector's report states: We have continued to find some disgraceful examples of unacceptable treatment and conditions of children under the age of 18 and other young offenders, as well as some outstanding examples of good practice. The reports on Feltham and Werrington understandably caused considerable alarm. The inspector also pointed out that Prison Service management is failing to identify the problems within prisons. He stated: Time and time again, my Inspectorate and I find ourselves reporting on matters that I believe should have been resolved by line management as a matter of course. He continues: Unless senior management is ruthless in insisting on the maintenance of standards, never tolerating anything less than what is required, while recognising and enthusing over what is good, or better, no operational organisation can hope to succeed. The chief inspector's conclusion is that the fundamental cause of those failures is that this organisation is inefficient, because it appears to be more about the management of financial resources than the oversight of operational delivery". There must be something wrong with the management of a national service in which such contrasting results are achieved and significant problems are not identified by line management. That would not be acceptable in any other national service, and it should not be accepted in the Prison Service. There are varying circumstances for each Prison Service establishment, but that does not justify the results, which seem to be due to a failure in the organisation of line management.

The chief inspector suggests that the problem might have originated from the abolition of the Prison Commission in 1962 and the consequent Whitehall takeover of the management of prisons. He believes that from that point, the ethos has been wrong. The emphasis has been on a service to Ministers, rather than the delivery of required operational outcomes. I have always suspected that the Home Office's tendency to second-guess Prison Service decisions, or the fear that it will do so, blurs management responsibility and weakens managers.

The chief inspector does not blame individual operational directors, area managers or governors, but argues that the organisational structure needs reform. He contrasts the experience of dispersal prisons with the rest of the prison service. Dispersal prisons are under a single director with financial authority, so there is much greater direction and consistency, which contrasts with the geographically organised management of the rest of the Prison Service. He concludes that there should be much greater functional management of the service.

Recent changes have addressed some of those issues, but I share the chief inspector's concern that those reforms may not have gone far enough, and some aspects of them may create new problems. A positive step is the creation of a new position of director of regimes, as well as assistant directors for adult training, women prisoners and young offenders. However, the concern remains that, because there is not direct authority over all aspects in each of those areas, the necessary improvements will not be made.

The failure within young offenders' institutions is an example. Despite the Home Secretary's statements on improving the juvenile secure estate, senior operational managers were found to be failing to achieve their targets. The chief inspector said that, at Werrington, operational managers were sanctioning extensive doubling up in single cells and young people were being required to share cells with strangers on their first night in prison. At Feltham, conditions were even worse than when he had inspected the establishment two years earlier. He said: That senior line management in the Prison Service should even think that such conditions and treatment are appropriate, confirmed my fear that the Assistant Director of Regimes would be powerless to influence the day to day routines that are currently not her responsibility to fund, however much she might be able to design appropriate offending behaviour programmes.

The chief inspector gives the shocking example of HMP Brockhill, where, he says, disgracefully, we found that 80 per cent. of the uniformed staff were male, over a year after it had been converted to a women's prison. He says that Holloway remains virtually unmanageable.

The chief inspector has therefore repeated his call for greater direct functional management for aspects of the Prison Service, including making one person responsible for all aspects of individual functions, with the authority to allocate resources. The priority areas are women and young offenders, with one overall director needing to be responsible for all day-to-day activities in any prison in each of those categories. The Government have so far resisted that call, and I should like to know what their latest thinking is.

The chief inspector has also drawn attention to the fact that prison governors have extensive delegated powers over the budgets for their establishments, but also face a heavy bureaucratic load, which inhibits their ability to exercise leadership and remain in close contact with the prison. He says: To bog governors down in bureaucratic detail shows a lack of awareness of the load on them, and the fact that it is inhibiting their ability to walk their prisons is bound to have an effect on the operational performance of staff, which in turn affects the delivery of the operational aim.

There have been other recent reforms of the management system. The quinquennial review of the Prison Service has confirmed its agency status, which we have supported, but there have been further changes. A new strategy board is to be chaired by a Home Office Minister, Lord Williams of Mostyn, with the director general as his deputy, but there is also a separate Prison Service management board, which is chaired by the director general. There is concern that this unusual system of two overlapping boards will again blur the lines of responsibility in the Prison Service between operational and policy matters. How will that system work?

Part of the answer to improving management may be the extension of service delivery agreements within the Prison Service. We welcome that approach, which makes clear what is expected and how it is to be achieved, and that oversight of outcomes is needed. This is not, as I have said, the occasion for a debate on the ethics of the private management of prisons, about which we have concerns, but it is relevant to note private prisons' clear advantage, which we can learn from, which is that they are told precisely what is expected of them.

The Prison Service has a key regulatory role for private prisons, which do not always achieve their targets, as the long list of reduced contract payments demonstrates, but there are lessons to be learned from private management and the system by which those prisons' requirements are set. In the public sector, there needs to be proper assessment of the needs of each individual prison. Funding should follow needs more effectively, and reform should be based on that concept.

The biggest problem that the Prison Service faces is overcrowding. Excessive numbers not only lead to unacceptable conditions but undermine the work of the service. The focus becomes containment and security—keeping prisoners inside—instead of the more positive work that can be done. Overcrowding drains resources, reduces morale and undermines the capacity to undertake constructive work with offenders. It is understandably difficult to manage a service in which demands constantly outweigh resources. Overcrowding is a theme to which the chief inspector returns every year.

Overcrowding jams up the prison system. In theory, prisoners should move through categories of prisons by completing the required parts of their sentence at each level. However, the chief inspector points out that this sensible procedure has been severely disrupted by the effects of overcrowding, the Prison Service having to operate at over capacity the whole time to ensure that every available bed-space is occupied. It is welcome that the recent rapid rise in the prison population has decreased in the past year, but at more than 64,000 prisoners, it is stabilising at an overcrowded level. That is like saying to the inhabitants of various midlands towns, "It is all right, the floods will stay at about their present level, and they won't go up much more." The prison population is at a level above the Home Office's projection for this period.

According to the chief inspector, in the past year, local prisons were, on average, holding 26 per cent. more prisoners than they are resourced to hold. That category of prison is the greatest cause for anxiety because they are centres of inactivity and idleness. They have by far the highest suicide rate. Suicide is a major problem in the service. The figures for the first quarter of this year suggest that record numbers last year may be matched this year.

This country has 122 prisoners for every 100,000 people, compared with 110 in Spain, 90 in France and Germany, 85 in Italy and Holland, 80 in Belgium, 65 in Denmark, 60 in Sweden, 55 in Norway and 50 in Greece. Our prison population is well over double those of Greece and Norway. In the whole of western Europe, only Portugal jails a higher proportion of its population. We are similar to ex-communist countries in our rate of imprisonment.

Liberal Democrats have continually challenged the false argument that excessive use of prison sentences makes communities safer; it has the opposite effect because it maximises reoffending and consumes huge resources that could be used more effectively to protect the public. There seems to be a belief in the Home Office that the new community sentences in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the introduction of home detention curfews and some lessening of the "lock 'em up" rhetoric will reduce the prison population to a more reasonable level, but there is no guarantee of that. We have yet to see the results for the prison population of the Government's adoption of the previous Government's policy of mandatory sentencing.

Mandatory sentencing will not only affect those convicted of offences with mandatory sentences, but will almost certainly ratchet up other sentences when comparisons begin to be made between someone who gets a defined, mandatory sentence and someone whose offence seems to the courts and the public to be worse and more violent and therefore to demand a sentence greater than that for an offence carrying a mandatory sentence.

Overcrowding and excessive demands on the Prison Service have probably been directly responsible for the provisional figures for the results achieved against the key performance indicators, which were published in a parliamentary answer to me this week. Those figures demonstrate that the service has failed on five of the 11 targets. The areas where the Prison Service failed to meet the set targets were assaults, time out of cells, purposeful activity, completion of the sex offender treatment programme and cost per prisoner. Those are key areas. If we want to cut reoffending, good work now—in the provision of effective treatment for sex offenders and of constructive activity, and in cutting violence and bullying in prisons—is essential to help to protect the public in future.

Time does not allow for a detailed analysis of key performance indicators, although the chief inspector demonstrates that many of them are either false or misleading. He suggests that they would be more meaningful if, for example, they measured such things as the number of prisoners who have learned to read by the time that they are released.

Following the comprehensive spending review, the Government have allocated more money to the Prison Service, which is undoubtedly needed to sustain present demand. The figures that the Government use perhaps exaggerate the amount of extra money that the service will receive in real terms. Although the Home Office report refers to £49 million extra this year, £55 million next year and £56 million the following year, in real-term 1997–98 prices, we are talking about £3 million, £8 million and £7 million extra respectively. Having said that, the money is welcome in the Prison Service, and I see indications already of where it has been committed to valuable improvements.

Overcrowding in recent years has led to significant cuts. The objectives of the Prison Service—rightly—are twofold: to protect the public by holding safely those whom the courts have committed, and to reduce crime by providing constructive regimes which promote law-abiding behaviour both in custody and on release.

The second objective has particularly suffered from overcrowding and tight resources. Between April 1995 and the end of this new Government's first year, there was a fall in the amount of education undertaken in 72 per cent. of prison establishments. In 63 per cent. of them, there was a decline in the amount of work undertaken, and in 49 per cent. a decrease in both education and work. That trend is in exactly the wrong direction.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is a problem not only with overstretch but because the Prison Officers Association is not allowed to operate in private prisons? Different rules and standards of employment are leading to difficulties. I do not know whether he is aware that people in charge of escorts do not recognise the POA. Market testing of training is another problem. I have two prisons in my constituency, and those are the issues that are raised with me. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman hears the same problems. The staff are of a good calibre, but morale needs to be lifted. The only way to do that is to stop overstretch and more prisoners entering prisons.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

As I have two prisons in my constituency and a responsibility in the House that leads me to visit many others, I echo the fact that there are just such problems. I have a great deal of sympathy for prison officers, who are at the sharp end of all the problems and must deal with cuts. Such officers are very often not available in sufficient numbers to enable the provision of education. Why are evening educational activities frequently cancelled? It is not because there is no education officer; it is because there are no prison officers to accompany prisoners on such activity.

The chief inspector has expressed quite strongly the need for a change in the culture of the Prison Service, involving both management and the Prison Officers Association. Such a change, away from the confrontation of the past toward a much more co-operative approach, began some time ago. Because private prisons began operation without some of that history, they have enjoyed some advantages. However, the POA would quickly point out that such staff are at some disadvantage in that they lack the association's strong support in some of the difficulties in which they may find themselves. We are in an era of significant change in how people who work in prisons work together with a common purpose.

When 53 per cent. of released offenders, including 75 per cent. of young offenders and 89 per cent. of juveniles, reoffend within two years of release, it is disastrous that we should be losing work and educational activities. There is a real chance that the Government's new money will simply plug the gaps that have grown over the past four years rather than achieve a net improvement. The key performance indicators that were published this week show that the level of purposeful activity has fallen for four years in a row. The Minister should be embarrassed that the figures are as bad as that, and should recognise the need for some urgent action.

The chief inspector points out that work and education are seen as the soft target for cuts. Without guidance to the contrary, one can understand why governors make such decisions; there is very little else that they can cut in the short term. That approach must be reformed. In the section on training prisons, the chief inspector makes a significant remark: When Governors suggest to me that their prison is the cheapest in the system, I ask them what they are not doing in order to achieve that 'distinction'. Invariably the answer is in regime activities, which means that they have idle and unemployed prisoners, the antithesis of a training prison. We must end the absurdity under which cuts in the very programmes that have been shown to help to reduce reoffending are regarded as efficiency gains. It is nonsense to regard taking out the very thing that can make prison do its jobs properly as an improvement in efficiency.

Prisons are there to protect the public by safeguarding those whom the courts have committed, and by ensuring that, when such people return to society, they are less likely to commit further crimes. To achieve that, the Prison Service must be resourced to meet the demands that are placed on it. However, it must also be managed in a way that delivers outcomes as effectively as possible. I do not think that there could have been more compelling testimony that that is not so than that provided by the chief inspector. I hope that the Government are taking it very seriously indeed.

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment) 9:56 am, 12th May 1999

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has been able to secure this debate. I shall raise three issues: the self-harm of prisoners, work and active prison regimes and the relationship between prisons and the probation service.

The incidence of self-harm in prison is worrying. We know that suicide in prisons is a major problem. Between 1990 and March 1997, 516 people took their lives in British prisons, which must be a major cause of concern. In addition to those who go so far as to take their own lives, a significant number carry out other acts of self-harm. In a written answer that I received yesterday, I was given some disturbing figures. Between September 1997 and October 1998—the last 12-month period for which complete statistics are available—the number of reported incidents of self-harm among male prisoners was 5,963, and among female prisoners, 1,052.

The figure for female prisoners is particularly worrying. For men, the 6,000-odd incidents can be set against 60,000 prisoners, giving a ratio of approximately one incident per 10 prisoners a year. But for the 3,000 women prisoners, there is approximately one incident per three prisoners a year. That must be a major source of concern in the management of care of female prisoners.

Although self-harm, by definition, is not wholly under the control of prison management, the regime must be a material factor in deciding self-harm rates. We believe that overcrowding, in particular, causes problems because it increases tension in prisons and reduces opportunities for supervision, especially of those who are vulnerable and liable to self-harm.

In that respect, the dramatic increase in the number of women prisoners who harm themselves must be noted: from 1,353 at the end of 1992 to 3,189 by the end of July 1998. That is a 136 per cent. increase, compared with a 64 per cent. increase over the same period for male prisoners. Concern about that is reflected in the chief inspector's description of the situation in Holloway as "appalling". Although women prisoners who harm themselves are of particular concern, the problem extends to prisoners in general.

On issues of work and active regimes, on which my right hon. Friend touched, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches believe that prison works best when prisoners work. The figures for weekly hours spent on purposeful activity are deeply worrying. As my right hon. Friend said, there has been a reduction in hours of purposeful activity in most prisons. The figures seem to show a trend of hours falling year on year.

In the year 1994–95. the average number of hours spent weekly on purposeful activities was 26.2; in 1995–96, it was 25.2; in 1996–97, it was 23.8; in 1997–98, it was 23.2; and in 1998–99, it was 22.8. That last figure was set against a declared target of 24 hours. There is an incontrovertible trend in the wrong direction, which we would wish to be dramatically reversed as a key way of reducing reoffending, which must be one of the primary goals of the Prison Service.

Prisoners need a purposeful regime if they are to be prepared for release. That must be a particular concern in respect of young offenders, who we hope have a useful future before them and will not return to the prison system or the criminal justice system.

The chief inspector's report on the young offenders institution and remand centre at Feltham causes particular concern in this respect. After visiting Feltham on an unannounced inspection, the chief inspector said that he had to disclose to the public not only that the conditions and treatment of the 922 children and young prisoners confined in HMYOI and RC Feltham were in many instances, totally unacceptable", but that they were some of the worst things that he had seen in the prison regime and in many ways worse than when he reported on them two years previously.

There was particular cause for concern in the figures that he reported on opportunities for employment at Feltham. When the children and young offenders who were held there were asked whether they had done any work that would help them to get a job on release, only 8 per cent. thought that it would help them. Twenty-five per cent. were uncertain. Six per cent. thought that it was too far in the future to say. Nine per cent. did not comment. Very worryingly, 52 per cent. thought that the work would not be helpful to them on release". That is set against the background of the chief inspector's deep concern about Feltham in general. Those youngsters have their whole life ahead of them, and we must hope that they will find their way into purposeful employment as a major way of preventing them from having any further contact with the criminal justice system.

Photo of Mr Lawrence Cunliffe Mr Lawrence Cunliffe Labour, Leigh

There are in my constituency a remand prison and a senior prison—Strangeways and Hindley. I remember discussing with a prison governor, who ultimately moved very high in the prison ranks, the question of what we considered to be purposeful training in the true sense. I am glad to say that half the young remand prisoners were doing purposeful training on such things as brick making, concrete work and car maintenance. They were a bit reluctant about car maintenance. There was always a problem attached—there was some temptation there.

The first thing that the governor said to me was, "If I could, I would ensure that all my prison staff got involved in this type of thing, but I have to make cuts according to the scale of tenders that are coming in for particular jobs." To cut a long story short, I believe that work is the answer to 80 per cent. of our crime problems. No one commits a crime believing that they will be caught. Fully employing people in useful occupations is the best form of therapy that one can give prison detainees.

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

The hon. Gentleman makes a significant and important point. It is useful to hear that those running another institution feel that the cuts that they have been expected to make are causing problems. Liberal Democrats believe that investment in confronting offending behaviour and dealing with some of the social and educational issues that have led people into crime is a very good investment for the taxpayer, and produces a far better return than making a short-term cut in an annual prison budget. If the money is used in the former way, we shall save significantly in the long term because people will not re-enter the criminal justice system.

The other side of the work coin must be education. It is well acknowledged that many of those who end up in the prison system have had bad educational experiences. Frequently, they are people who find work very difficult because they have not reached the first rung of the ladder—people with literacy problems, for example.

Seventy-one per cent. of the people who arrived at Feltham had been assessed for their educational needs, but, when asked about opportunities for education in the prison, a majority of them said that they were not good. Only a small number felt that the opportunities that they had had were sufficient for their needs, and 81 per cent. of those who responded said that they would like there to be far more educational classes.

There we have a group of youngsters who probably have deficient educational experiences, who have committed offences for which they are rightly being punished, but 81 per cent. of whom wish to enter some form of education and obviously desire to move forward. They wanted things such as NVQs in mechanics, engineering, catering and food hygiene, which would help them to find employment on leaving the institution. The desire is there, but there must be major concerns about whether those courses are being delivered in sufficient numbers.

I hope that the Minister will talk about the relationship between prisons and probation services. I know that that is a key policy area for the Government. In his 1996–97 report, the chief inspector of prisons reported on the probation services in worrying terms: Probation services have been cut. both in the number of seconded staff working in prisons, and staff to supervise prisoners on release. I trust that the Minister will say whether she believes that the cuts in probation staff who are seconded to prisons and those working at the area of release are being reversed.

The cuts have been especially difficult for probation services at a time when many of them are reporting that they are fully stretched in trying to implement national standards. They are doing their best to meet national standards, but some of the other work in relation to their own targets sometimes falls off the priority list. Some of that interface between the Prison Service and the probation service, where the Prison Service has one set of targets and the probation service has another, can suffer as a result. I hope that the Government will consider that.

Local probation services have reported to me that they naturally find it very difficult to work with local offenders, who will be coming home, and who are held in distant prisons. They simply do not have the resources to send probation officers to the other end of the country to work with the prisoner before release, and they often fail to do so simply on resource grounds. I wonder whether more could be done within the management of the Prison Service to ensure that prisoners have more contact with their home probation service before they are released, so that when they are released there is already a firm foundation for the probation work that will follow.

Finally, there has been a small reduction in the number of people held in prison as a result of the home detention curfew scheme. Will the Minister say something on how well she considers the Prison Service to be managing the release of people into home detention curfew? How will the scheme be assessed and reported on? It is a novel scheme and it would be useful to see how it has panned out, especially in respect of the crucial interface between Prison Service and probation service, where we are effectively transferring a responsibility; the probation services are obliged to pick up new responsibilities and set up new systems for managing the tagging schemes.

I hope that the Minister can use her response to say that the Government share many of my concerns and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. I hope that she can give us some prospect of a reversal in the worrying trends of reduction in purposeful activity and of failure to deliver the types of education, confronting offending schemes and work experience that we believe would make prison as effective as it could possibly be in reducing reoffending.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 10:09 am, 12th May 1999

This has been a useful debate on an important subject. I sometimes think that we do not debate prisons sufficiently in the House, and I welcome any opportunity to debate prisons and prison management.

I listened with great interest to the detailed speech by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who made some important points. At the outset, he said that his party had a principled objection to privatised prisons. That is fair enough. However, the right hon. Gentleman was good enough to concede that many advances have been made in the Prison Service through the introduction of private prisons, and that many lessons can be learned from the way in which they have been managed.

When privatised prisons were introduced under the previous Government, we heard similar objections of principle from the then Opposition. There was a long campaign of attacks on private prisons and privately managed custody services. There was a time when every escape from privatised custody services and court transfers was reported with great glee from the then Opposition Benches, but we do not hear so much about that now. There seems to have been a conversion, which we welcome.

There are ever increasing examples of the extension of private management. In another part of the House we are debating a Bill that applies privatisation to immigration detention centres. Nevertheless, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed raised important issues of detail, which must be answered.

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), who rightly mentioned the case of Feltham. I visited Feltham fairly recently. The institution has a long and difficult history. We need to pay attention to the views of the chief inspector of prisons on Feltham and the rate of progress, or lack of progress, there.

One of the problems is the physical structure of Feltham and the way in which the units are divided up. Another problem is the mixing of prisoners across age groups and categories–15 and 16-year-olds sometimes mix with older youths, 17 and 18-year-olds, and remanded prisoners mix with sentenced prisoners. It is better to keep the categories separate and Feltham does try to do that, but when I visited the prison it was apparent that that was not always being achieved, because of the pressures under which the system operated. I make no criticism of the prison staff, as I know that there are many caring prison staff at Feltham and at other prisons.

The hon. Member for Hallam spoke about education and training opportunities for young people in prison. That is an important subject. The best management of education and training for young people that I have seen in my visits to prisons was at an institution that has, sadly, been closed by the Government. That was the military correctional facility at Colchester—the so-called boot camp.

The term "boot camp" may have put an unfortunate complexion on that institution. In my experience, it had the most caring staff of all and more was being achieved with the young people at that institution, which was set up by the previous Government, than at any other institution that I have seen. Its training produced extremely good results, measured by certificates and recognition of achievement, in fields such as those mentioned during the debate—motor mechanics, brick laying and painting. The young people who went there received good instruction from trained instructors, under the watchful eye of the non-commissioned officers of the military correctional facility.

There was a good record of achievement. We look forward to the results of the independent research that has been carried out by the Cambridge Institute of Criminology into the performance of the military correctional facility, particularly its record of reconvictions. If young people who have been in trouble and spent time in custody receive good training and education and later have a lower rate of reconviction, we will study the results from the military correctional facility with great interest. It is a shame that when those results become available and the good practice there comes to light, the facility will no longer be open. Its premature closure is a matter of regret to us.

Prison management is a large subject. The aspect that I shall briefly explore is the management of prisons so as to ensure that the prisoners who present the greatest security risks are held in the most secure conditions and the public are given the greatest possible protection from them, and that other prisoners who do not present such a great risk to the public are not wrongly held in secure conditions.

With regard to the most serious offenders—those who are serving life sentences for the gravest offences—I am worried by a written answer received yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) about a case in his constituency, which throws light on the management of prisons, particularly the temporary release of life-sentenced prisoners. I understand from the written answer that there has been a recent history of life-sentenced prisoners absconding from Sudbury prison in my hon. Friend's constituency, and that in the past two months two life-sentenced prisoners failed to return to Sudbury from temporary release. One is still unlawfully at large. The other surrendered to the police in north Wales and has been charged with murder.

It may be difficult for the Minister to respond on individual cases, but I look to her for some reassurance about the policy of holding life-sentenced prisoners in relaxed conditions, and particularly temporary release for such prisoners. In the light of the information concerning Sudbury prison, and of the understandable concern of my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire, we are owed an assurance from the Minister.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I agree that the cases quoted by the hon. Gentleman give rise to questions about why particular prisoners are allocated to particular prisons, especially when one hears the police say that someone who is dangerous and whom the public should not approach has absconded from an open prison. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that to refer to life sentences in general implies that all life-sentenced prisoners need to held securely. That is manifestly not the case, as a life sentence is often a mandatory sentence and is sometimes applied to people with a very low likelihood of absconding or reoffending.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

That is right, but we must recognise that life-sentenced prisoners will include those who are the most dangerous to the public and who must be managed with the greatest care. That is the point on which I am pressing the Minister.

Moving down a notch on the scale of seriousness, the issue of prisoners released on home detention curfew was touched on by the hon. Member for Hallam. The Minister knows our view on the use of tagging—home detention curfew—for the early release of prisoners. We have no problem with the use of home detention curfew as such or as a sentence in its own right. It was pioneered by the previous Government, again in the face of opposition from the present Government. Every technical problem was highlighted, and at one time as a point of principle the then Opposition disagreed with the use of tagging in any circumstances—but I shall draw a veil over that.

The Minister knows our principles with regard to honesty in sentencing. The early release of these prisoners makes a mockery of the sentences handed down by the courts, at least as far as public and victims are concerned. A sentence of six months' imprisonment may mean only six weeks spent in custody.

On the management of prisoners who are to be released subject to home detention curfew, I was concerned by written answers that I recently received from the Department showing the extent to which prisoners with convictions for violence have been released on home detention curfew since the new system began on 28 January. Between that date and 19 April, 617 offenders who were serving sentences for offences of violence were released on home detention curfew.

Many members of the public would find that a striking figure. They and the courts have long recognised that violent offenders present the greatest danger to the public. Statutes going back to the Criminal Justice Act 1991 have recognised the need for violent offenders to receive longer sentences of imprisonment. It is thus surprising that so many of them are being released on home detention curfew.

When home detention curfew was introduced, we were assured that it would be managed in such a way that there would not be quota for such prisoner releases. I do not know how that is working out in practice, but we question whether it is right that so many prisoners with convictions for violence should be released.

If the Government have taken such a course in respect of early release through home detention curfew—we have made our views known on that—and instead of releasing so many violent offenders, can the system be managed in such a way that non-violent prisoners, who pose less threat to the public, are released? Many members of the public—not to mention victims who are concerned about early releases—will find it striking that violent offenders should be released in this way.

I turn from those who require secure conditions and who should serve out their sentences in prison to those who may not necessarily need to be in prison at all. I listened with interest to what the hon. Member for Hallam said about women prisoners. He is right that there has been a noticeable increase in their numbers in recent times; indeed, there has been a 20 per cent. increase since the Government came to office.

Sad to say, women sometimes need to go to prison—they commit serious offences, alongside men—but we wonder what lies behind such a disproportionate growth in the women's prison population, which is growing faster than the men's. We will be holding more and more women in prison, which I do not find a particularly inspiring prospect, and if there is a way of avoiding that I should like to explore it.

Members of the public will recently have seen the interesting television series featuring life inside New Hall prison. People would be concerned if we had to have more and more institutions such as New Hall to hold women prisoners, so I wonder whether imprisoning more women is justified.

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one area that we need to explore is better community sentences for women offenders so that we have non-custodial alternatives? Some probation services have reported that community sentences, and community service in particular, are often designed for men; it is a hard-labour situation. A lot of advances could be made so that courts have a genuine alternative to custody.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

It would be a shame if a court imposed a custodial sentence on a woman convicted of a serious offence because there was no appropriate non-custodial sentence, even though she was a borderline case. Many members of the public would rather she received a non-custodial sentence, especially if she had a family—she would be able to keep in contact with them.

I listened to the comments on Holloway made by the hon. Member for Hallam. I had not visited that prison until fairly recently, and one of the most striking experiences of an interesting visit was meeting a 16-year-old girl who was there. I asked to see the youngest prisoner, but I never expected to meet a 16-year-old girl. That meeting made me think about the public policy involved in a fresh-faced 16-year-old girl ending up in Holloway to serve a short sentence.

It is sometimes said that holding younger people in local adult prisons is justified because that enables them to be nearer their families—there are more prisons than specialised institutions—but I have to report that the girl in question came from Southampton and the distance between Southampton and Holloway made it difficult for her family to visit. She told me that the thing that she looked forward to most in life was visits from her mum, and she had not been having enough of them. I could not think of any adequate justification for that and I wonder whether there might be a better alternative.

The Government have recently made announcements on young people in prison; I am prepared to give them credit for that, but I have some more critical comments to make on the question of boys in men's prisons. On the management of prisons holding girls, the Government have announced in a written answer that they intend to make use of the detention and training order by placing sentenced 15 and 16-year-old girls in available non-Prison Service accommodation, when the detention and training order is in force. The first priority will be to place the youngest and most vulnerable young women outside the Prison Service. In the short term, arrangements within the Prison Service for holding 17-year-old women, and other young women for whom other accommodation is not available, will be improved by establishing discrete units for young women under the age of 21, with enhanced regimes within these. That is one of those written answers that needs reading carefully, so I read it carefully to see whether there is what we might term a seamless safety net to prevent young girls from ending up in women's prisons. The more I read the answer, the more I was worried by some of the terminology, particularly the words other young women for whom other accommodation is not available".—[Official Report, 8 March 1999; Vol. 327, c. 29.] Does that mean that young girls will still be held in prison accommodation when other accommodation is not available?

Would not it be better if we simply stopped holding 15 and 16-year-old girls in women's prisons in such circumstances? I would be prepared to give the Government a plaudit if they made such an announcement, but I would be cautious about a policy that appeared to be moving towards ending the holding of sentenced 15 and 16-year-old girls in women's prisons, but did not achieve that. We have had experience of that nature with the Government's proposals for the remand of 15 and 16-year-old boys, and I now move on to that unhappy subject.

As the Minister will know, Labour Members made a great song and dance in opposition about the holding of 15 and 16-year-old boys in adult prisons. It is surprising that such boys are held in adult prisons up and down the country, sometimes in the oldest prisons. They are often held in the oldest parts of those prisons and, although they are separated from the older offenders, the context and setting are very much those of an adult prison.

The previous Government set an objective of ending altogether the remanding of 15 and 16-year-old boys to adult prisons. I should make it clear that such boys have been charged with an offence, but not convicted, although it is the view of a magistrates court that they need to be held in secure conditions. I am not disputing that they may need to be held securely, but the question is which secure conditions they should be held in.

The previous Government set in place a plan for providing local authority secure accommodation as an alternative to holding 15 and 16-year-old boys in adult prisons. Many people agreed that local authority secure accommodation would be a much better way of holding such boys than putting them in adult prisons, and they could certainly be given much more appropriate care and education. The hon. Member for Hallam spoke about the difficulty of providing education for young people in custody, and that is all the more difficult when they are being held in adult prisons.

Small numbers of such boys—one 15-year-old and a handful of 16-year-olds, for example—may be held in adult prisons scattered across the country. It is the responsibility of the prison authorities to deliver the national curriculum to under-16s, which would be difficult if there was only one person in that category in an adult prison. It would be much easier if that person was held in local authority secure accommodation with other young people. That is one reason, and there are many others, why local authority secure accommodation is so much more appropriate for such young people—certainly more appropriate than adult prisons and, I would venture, than young offender or remand institutions.

Local authority secure accommodation is the best option for those young people. The previous Government set in place a programme for creating 170 places in such accommodation, to remove the need for these boys to be held in adult prisons. The last time I asked the Government about this problem, I was told that they had provided six places in local authority secure accommodation. I should be interested to know from the Minister whether there has been any advance on six since then. How many places have been created in local authority secure accommodation since 1 May 1997?

This subject is of interest to me, and it was of great interest to the Labour party before the last general election. It campaigned strongly on this issue, as did the then shadow Home Secretary, the present Prime Minister, during the passage of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill in 1994. He highlighted the problem on the Floor of the House, and said that more local authority secure accommodation should be provided without delay. He said that 170 places were not enough, and that places were not being provided quickly enough. We should like to know how many places the Government have provided.

Given that commitment by the then shadow Home Secretary to create more local authority secure accommodation, and to put into it the 15 and 16-year-olds who are being held on remand in adult prisons, I am concerned about the announcement on the direction of Government policy in this regard. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 allowed for the continued remand of 15 and 16-year-olds in adult prisons subject to a screening for vulnerability. We were told on 8 March 1999: The Prison Service is finalising its plans for a distinct estate within its accommodation for 15 to 17-year-old boys remanded or sentenced to custody, with improved levels of care and regimes delivered within it."—[Official Report, 8 March 1999; Vol. 327, c. 29.] Are we to take it from that that the Government's policy is to hold those 15 and 16-year-old boys in other parts of the prison estate? Is the intention to move them from adult prisons into other young offender institutions or parts of the prison estate as opposed to local authority secure accommodation?

If that is now the direction of Government policy, they are short-changing us on the commitments that were given by the former shadow Home Secretary, now the Prime Minister. The Government are short-changing us on their commitment to put 15 and 16-year-old boys remanded in custody into local authority secure accommodation. We are concerned about the management of the Prison Service in this respect. I look to the Minister for an answer on that issue.

Young people in trouble and in custody are of great concern to us. We should take care to ensure that the Prison Service is managed so as to provide appropriate alternatives to custody whenever possible, including local authority secure accommodation. If young people have been sentenced to custody and are held in young offender institutions or in detention under section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, they should receive appropriate training and care.

We should devote our attention to the care of young people in those circumstances. This debate on the management of the Prison Service has afforded us an opportunity to discuss some of its aspects, and it is a subject in which we shall continue to have a strong interest. We expect the commitments that have been given to be fully honoured, and we do not want to be short-changed in the way I have described.

Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) 10:34 am, 12th May 1999

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) for securing this debate on the management of the Prison Service in England and Wales. I am pleased that even though there were only a few contributions, they showed that hon. Members take a close interest in this issue. It must be reassuring for people in prison to know that what is happening to them is discussed in Parliament.

Attention has been drawn to the fact that there is scope to improve our prisons and their management. I shall try to respond to as many of the points raised as possible. The 1997-98 annual report of the chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, has been used as a reference point. It is an important and extremely useful report. As the Home Secretary said in his speech to the Prison Reform Trust last year, which is quoted in the introduction to the report: The inspection of prisons should continue to be both independent and rigorous". It is important that we consider carefully what the chief inspector has said. In an Adjournment debate, the more negative aspects tend to be highlighted, although the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed made some positive points. In the report, the chief inspector says that when he took up the job he was advised that progress would be made only following disasters, and he quoted the various reports that had led to changes being made. What he goes on to say is interesting, however: That may or may not be so, but my optimism, and gut feeling that the Prison Service has been presented with another window of opportunity, is, this time, not based on a particular disaster, but on a situation that has been created by the very deliberate programme embarked upon by the Government in general and the Home Secretary in particular, which I hope that I have interpreted correctly. I am pleased that the chief inspector recognises that the Government are trying to approach the management of prisons in a different way.

The two key themes of the report are that our prison system needs improved direction, leadership and management; and that standards set should be met better and more consistently—that word comes through in everything that has been said this morning—across the system. I should like to address those issues before I deal with particular points.

The Government are committed to ensuring proper ministerial responsibility for the Prison Service. That was an important element of the recent quinquennial review of the Prison Service and its status as an agency. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced on 1 February his conclusion that the Prison Service should remain an agency of the Home Office. That followed two reports which, together with the writing of a new framework document, comprised the quinquennial review of the agency.

A report on evaluation of performance had concluded that the Prison Service, in the context of a rising prison population, had achieved a remarkable turnaround in performance over the first five years of agency status. That was partly because of a clear focus on outputs and service delivery as measured in key performance indicators. A prior options report studied the organisational options for the Prison Service and concluded that agency status should be reaffirmed. It is interesting that that was virtually the unanimous view of a wide range of internal and external prison interests.

The Prison Service can, in some respects, be regarded as under new management. It now has a new director general, Martin Narey, a new deputy director general, Phil Wheatley, several new directors, a new board structure with my noble Friend Lord Williams at its apex, and a more streamlined approach with a clearer focus on performance management. Much of that is tied together by a new framework document, announced by the Home Secretary and issued at the end of March, which sets out the up-to-date relationship between the Prison Service, Ministers and the core Home Office.

The new framework document proposes significant changes to meet the Government's commitment to ministerial control. It integrates the aims of the Prison Service within new planning arrangements for the wider criminal justice system. That is important, because for too long the prisons have been separate and isolated. We intend to ensure that everything that goes on in prisons is directly related to what is going on in the rest of the criminal justice system. The document focuses on management, responsibility and accountability issues with greater clarity for the roles of principal players, and in particular it provides for a new Prison Service strategy board and a Prison Service management board.

The Prison Service is also streamlining its structure and its approach to managing the service's performance. The 12 area managers are now managed directly by a new full-time deputy director general. There is a strong focus on performance management with 15 service delivery agreements between headquarters and establishments in place or planned from April 2000. Three-year improvement plans for particular establishments where appropriate will be rigorously managed. These arrangements build on a strong internal auditing structure through the standards audit unit, whereby operating and security standards are audited in every establishment at least once every two years.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Prison Service management board and the Prison Service strategy board. He felt that there might be some confusion about what each would do, and asked for clarification. I assure him that this has been carefully thought out. The newly formed management board deals with immediate issues and meets regularly, addressing a wide range of day-to-day matters such as monitoring plans, deciding on priorities and expenditure, authorising projects and initiatives, approving internal communications—that is very important—and deciding what the strategy board should discuss.

The membership of the management board has been broadened to reflect our wish for a more outward-looking Prison Service. It includes a new director for corporate affairs, who will be a focal point for the service's modernisation programme. Those attending the board will include a racial equality adviser, who is yet to be appointed.

The Prison Service strategy board provides a forum for discussion of the strategic direction of the service. The board, chaired by my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Williams, the Minister responsible for prisons and probation, will concentrate on long-term strategy and high-level monitoring of the service's performance. Generally, the board will discuss major strategic policy matters such as personnel and industrial relations, and the extent to which the service is looking outwards and contributing to the more co-ordinated criminal justice system that the Government are trying to facilitate. The board's membership includes a Home Office director responsible for sentencing and correctional policy, and, among its non-executive directors, a current chief constable. The director general will still have delegated authority over day-to-day management of the service, and will be directly accountable to the Home Secretary for its performance. He is the Home Secretary's principal adviser on matters relating to its activity.

It is always interesting to hear the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) reminding us of what we did or did not say when we were in opposition. I would like to remind the hon. Gentleman of plenty of things that the Conservatives said when they were in government—things that they said they would do, and then did not do—but I feel that, when we are debating prisons, we should be looking forward and asking how we can improve things generally. [Interruption.] That means that I am not prepared to engage in a debate about what was and was not said, even by former shadow Home Secretaries.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed asked why governors were allowed to cut regimes, thus making it less likely that we would cut reoffending. We are shifting the focus on to what works, and trying to develop measures of effectiveness rather than concentrating on the amount of time that is spent outside the cell. What happens when prisoners are out of their cells is extremely important, and, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) pointed out, it is essential for the Prison Service to work closely with the probation service in that context.

We are appointing a joint independent panel of experts to accredit prisons' probation programmes, developing a joint assessment tool and improving joint planning and training. As the hon. Gentleman said, a close working relationship between the Prison Service and the probation service is vital to the securing of a regime that will help to prevent prisoners from reoffending.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether the cuts in probation services would be reversed. It is true that in some prisons probation involvement has declined in recent years; we are committed to reversing that by refocusing on constructive regimes to reduce the amount of reoffending. The ambitious programme of joint work by the Prison Service and the probation service is set out in the Government's 1998 consultation paper on the future management of probation. All the Prison Service's work on resettlement and reducing reoffending must be linked with the work of the statutory and voluntary agencies. We know that improvements can be made, and we are committed to making them.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed asked whether we were focusing adequately on the need to reduce reoffending, given that we had failed to meet the year's key performance indicator for the treatment of sex offenders. The extra money from the comprehensive spending review is being carefully targeted to reduce reoffending. Over three years, it will allow us to double the number of offending behaviour programmes. It will help us to improve prisoners' basic skills: we have set a target of 15 per cent., exactly the target set by the chief inspector. It will also allow us to implement a comprehensive drugs strategy, and to transform the care of juveniles to meet the expectations of the new youth justice board.

The hon. Member for Hallam spoke of the importance of work. People coming out of prison need to be prepared to get work, which will require the basic qualifications that many currently do not possess. We are working hard to improve that.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed asked whether we were considering functional management for women and juveniles. That important matter is currently being discussed. The new director general is—I think the word is "actively"—considering whether it would be right to move to functional management for women and those under 18. Obviously, any decision will have to be made after careful consultation both inside and outside the service, and I am sure that the director general will note what the right hon. Gentleman has said today; but significant improvements are already being made as new investment comes on stream.

The hon. Member for Hallam asked whether we were committed to reversing the decline in the number of hours spent on purposeful activity. That decline is not acceptable, and we are committed to reversing it, but, as I have said, we are also determined that time should be used more effectively. That is not straightforward: not everything works, which is why we must focus on basic skills, employment and accommodation needs, the problem of drug misuse and running offending behaviour programmes that work. The money for the new regime, and the new director of regimes, will enable us to make progress.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said that there was not as much new money, in real terms, as had been suggested. The additional £226 million over three years is a real increase in terms of 1998–99 prices. The programme for access to drugs testing and treatment is to receive £76 million; £79 million is being provided for additional regimes for engagement in constructive activity; and £51 million is being provided for the juvenile estate and regimes. All those amounts are tied to specific improvement targets: the new money will be specifically geared to the raising of standards and the reduction of reoffending.

The right hon. Gentleman asked what we meant by efficiency. Of course, no sensible person would define efficiency as the meeting of targets through the reducing of regimes. The service has been set challenging targets: as the right hon. Gentleman said, it aims to save £18 million, then £36 million and then £55 million over the next three years. We have a programme that we believe can deliver those savings through, for instance, energy efficiency, new procurement procedures and contract escorts. There will be no impact on regimes.

We all know from our visits to prisons that improvements could be made. Prison officers and governors need to develop methods of management that do not affect services that are vital to prisoners. On overcrowding, clearly, prisons must take all the prisoners that are sent to them by the courts. Average capacity will be increased by 2,400 places between this year and 2001. As hon. Members will know, four new prisons are to open. Overcrowding is not expected to rise over that period. We will introduce a new KPI for this year to measure doubling, so that it will not exceed 18 per cent. The figure for 1998–99 was 18.4 per cent., a slight reduction. Nevertheless, we aim to improve on it.

Self-harm is a serious question for every institution. It is dealt with by the suicide awareness team. It is often inflicted by prisoners with psychiatric illness. Often, it is evidence of frustration and replicates behaviour before the person went into prison. It is especially worrying among women. We are aware of the problem.

A priority for the Prison Service is to reduce self-harm by better diagnosis and identification of risk, focusing attention on counselling, treatment and advice. It needs to be constantly monitored. There has to be a balance between allowing reasonable freedom and access to things that can cause self-harm—materials, pens, cutlery and clothing—and preserving decency and dignity. That is the sort of difficult day-to-day decision that has to be taken by those working in our prisons. As hon. Members have said, we know the difficult job that prison officers have.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere was worried about lifers in open prisons and those who might be being allowed out under home detention curfews. Management of lifers is undertaken with great care. The overwhelming majority of lifers will be released in due course. Releasing them safely requires us to test them out in lower-security conditions. Once lifers have shown they can be trusted, temporary release may be appropriate for some.

Of course, where there is a failure, it is a matter of great concern, but the chief inspector himself acknowledged that the service's record on the safe release of lifers is very impressive.

There were a number of questions on home detention curfews. It is still early days, but, as of 28 April, 2,035 offenders were subject to the HDC scheme. Since the beginning of the scheme, 4,274 offenders have been placed on HDC and only 184— 1 per cent.—have had their licences revoked. The number placed so far in curfew demonstrates that the scheme has been handled sensitively and cautiously—the approach adopted by the governors, which we have encouraged.

Clearly, disparity of sentencing throughout the country is something about which we are all concerned. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed will know that the sentencing advisory board has been set up, which will look at why sentences are different in different parts of the country, and how we can ensure that we get a sensible balance and that the public feel that people are being sentenced appropriately. We will keep a careful watch on that. There will be regular reports on the numbers involved. What we do not want is sentencing becoming an issue only when something goes wrong. It is important that we regularly look at what is happening.

Several hon. Members mentioned Feltham, about which I feel strongly myself. We accept that there are fundamental problems at Feltham. I found the report that was published on 26 March pretty horrifying. It is particularly horrifying that so many things seem not to have happened following the previous recommendations after the full inspection in 1996. Clearly, that is not acceptable, but there are some good things happening at Feltham.

The Prison Service obviously shares many of the chief inspector's concerns about Feltham. Again, the opportunity exists to tackle some of the underlying problems there so that managers and staff can work together to create a prison of which they and the service can be proud. A task force has been set up to remedy the shortcomings; it is led by a senior governor. It has chartered a plan for improvement, which will be implemented over the next six months. There are serious issues to be tackled—some 39 issues for immediate action. The remainder are being taken forward by headquarters.

In addition, 10 new officers started training in April. The problems have been due mainly to population pressures. We are aware of the problem. I would hate the hon. Member for Hallam to come back in a year's time with conditions still the same at Feltham. That would be a real indictment of our attempt to change what is happening there.

I am aware that I have perhaps not raised a number of other points. Hon. Members will be written to if anything has not been raised.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am grateful for what the hon. Lady said earlier. On the question that I raised about Sudbury, will she write to my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) about that matter, saying as much as possible, because I know that my hon. Friend is worried about what has taken place there?

Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

Of course we will. We will write to the hon. Gentleman and give him a full report of what is happening.

We have spent a useful hour and a half this morning during which we have aired a number of concerns and issues. I do not wish to underestimate their importance, or skate over failures, but the recent security record of the service has been good. There has been a 74 per cent. reduction in the rate of escapes and a 23.5 per cent. reduction in assaults.

The service came out well from the recent review. Ministers have taken responsibility for the service within a framework that allows the director general the necessary scope and freedoms to run what is a large and unique organisation. We are investing around £226 million of additional money to help to develop constructive regimes that help prisoners to avoid returning to crime following their release. Together, those changes should help to address the concerns that have been raised by Sir David Ramsbotham.

Vivien Stern, former head of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, recently praised the Prison Service of England and Wales for its culture of knowing the difference between right and wrong, for its willingness to admit its mistakes and to strive to put things right, and for the courage and independence of prison governors in fighting for improvements in conditions. No one denies that there are difficulties and challenges to overcome, but the Government believe that the Prison Service and the arrangements for its higher management are broadly in good health as the millennium approaches.

We know that hon. Members will continue to voice their views and to press for those improvements. We will continue to respond.