I am grateful to my hon. Friend for this question. We do not often get a question on prison reform at Home Office questions, yet it is an issue that hon. Members need to take more seriously.
Our priorities are maintaining the impressive improvement in the record on escapes and doing much more to reduce the rates of reoffending of prisoners and so protect the public. That means continuing to improve the quality and quantity of literacy and numeracy education, tackling levels of drug abuse and delivering more intensive programmes on reducing offending, while treating prisoners with decency.
I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. Perhaps it is because I have three prisons in my constituency that I have more than the average interest. We have had three bad cases involving paedophiles. One was exceptionally awful, in which a paedophile sentenced to a four-year term in prison was given 18 months off for remission, having received no education or psychiatric care. He returned to the community almost the same as he was when he left. Will my hon. Friend give such cases renewed thought? I look forward to changes in the way in which paedophiles are treated in prison.
Alongside the provision of more offending behaviour programmes in prison, the Prison Service has a target to deliver a substantial number of sex offender treatment programmes. That is linked to a more co-ordinated strategy in terms of multi-agency protection panels and continuing work with sex offenders in the community when they are released from prison. This is an important priority. We must ensure that when offenders leave prison, they are as well equipped as possible to ensure that they do not reoffend. For sex offenders, that is a particularly important part of our public protection strategy.
How can the Minister and the Prison Service be taken seriously on prison reform when Downview prison was re-roled from a category C/category D prison—it had a splendid scheme, RAPT, for dealing with drug offenders—to a women's prison, with just five weeks notice? The offenders being treated on all the programmes to which the Minister has referred were scattered to the four winds throughout the Prison Service, thereby losing the benefits of all those programmes.
I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the need to re-role Downview, and he has spoken to me about this. One of the fundamental responsibilities of the Prison Service is to respond to the summation of decisions of the courts. The number of women being sent to prison on sentence and on remand is increasing rapidly—much more rapidly than the general rise in the prison population. The Prison Service must respond to that. Were the numbers of women sent to prison to stabilise or reduce, I, for one, would be glad. We must respond to the decisions of the courts, and we had to re-role a prison to take the 4,000 women who are now sent to prison by the courts.
Should not the priorities be the safety of prison staff and, among prisoners, the eradication of drug dependency, as well as improved education? On the last point, is my hon. Friend shocked by the high levels of illiteracy in our prisons? Should not those levels be eradicated first?
Yes, I am shocked. It is important for hon. Members and the general public to appreciate that those whom the Prison Service receives are, on a range of indicators, some of the most socially excluded and disadvantaged people. That is not to excuse their offending, but to try to show that the problems with which the Prison Service has to deal are multiple and serious. Levels of drug-related offending are high, but the Prison Service is making massive strides in trying to help prisoners to make up some of their deficits. The number of literacy and numeracy qualifications now awarded at basic level 2—the lowest level for employability—is considerable. The focus on rehabilitation and resettlement is something that we want to continue.
There has been a worrying reduction in the number of visits received by prisoners over the past couple of years, and I am watching that closely. In particular, I am considering a pilot scheme in one region, in conjunction with a major voluntary organisation, to see whether we can provide better facilities in prison and, more importantly, make the links with agencies in the community, so that prisoners' family contact, especially with children, can be maintained. The hon. Lady is right to say that that is an important factor in the effective resettlement of prisoners, and maintaining links with family is an important priority for us.