Improving the education of prisoners is key to rehabilitation, but Ofsted inspections have revealed that one in five prisons have an inadequate standard of education provision, and that another two fifths require improvement. That is why, as we announced in this morning’s written ministerial statement, I have asked Dame Sally Coates to chair a review of the quality of education in prisons. The review will report in March 2016.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that improving the literacy and numeracy of offenders is vital to increasing their employability and, with that, their opportunity to make a contribution to society?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The levels of literacy and numeracy of many offenders in the system are far too low. If we can transform that and provide them with the skills to hold down a meaningful job, they can be genuine assets to our society rather than liabilities.
There are some formidable organisations that want to improve the quality of education in our prisons. In my previous role as Education Secretary, I saw how a wider diversity of education suppliers can help to raise standards for all, and particularly for the most disadvantaged. I would like to see the same reforming vigour applied to the education of offenders.
I welcome the written ministerial statement that the Secretary of State mentioned earlier. He will be aware that some prisons, in addition to educating their inmates, provide educational opportunities whereby outside people come into the prison to help and give ex-offenders jobs when they leave. That is a way of preventing prisoners from reoffending, but the practice is declining. Will my right hon. Friend look into this, please?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. One aspect of Dame Sally’s critically important review will cover engagement with employers. I am delighted that the chief executive of Timpson, one of the most inspirational organisations employing ex-offenders, is part of the team that will help Dame Sally to ensure that education, employability and rehabilitation are all operating together.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answers so far. Does he agree that the current provision of education in prisons, which seems to centre on the awarding of certificates, is insufficient and that we need to move towards a system in which the curriculum is written jointly with employers and focused on employment? Will he therefore consider connecting education in Her Majesty’s prisons to Lord Baker’s career colleges initiative?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Offenders often feel that they have to complete courses in order to secure release, and that those courses are simply boxes to be ticked and do not contribute to their employability. He is right to suggest that the visionary work carried out by Lord Baker to improve the quality of vocational education more broadly can help to inform what we give to offenders to give them a second chance.
In a Prisoners Education Trust survey, 83% of prisoners said that access to the virtual campus was poor. That is hardly surprising, given that prison staffing levels have fallen almost 30% since 2010. If the Secretary of State really wants to improve education provision in prisons, what is he going to do address that?
The hon. Lady makes an important point about access to the virtual campus facilities. One of the reasons for the reduction in prison staff is that a number of prisons have been closed as part of the modernisation programme that took place under my predecessor. I had the opportunity yesterday to talk to the governor of a young offenders institution who is taking steps to ensure that all the young offenders for whom he is responsible have access to virtual learning platforms. I would like to see how we can more effectively integrate cutting-edge technology with the provision of education for offenders.
The Secretary of State is right to stress the importance of education in helping to stop reoffending, but he seems to be completely unaware that classes are frequently cancelled and that wings are closed and locked down because of the shortage of prison officers. Will he now accept that the Government were wrong to cut the number of prison officers in the way that they have?
A significant number of new and talented entrants to the Prison Service have been recruited. I am confident that if we give governors, in particular, a greater degree of operational flexibility, we will be able to tackle some of the problems that the hon. Lady rightly identifies.
Does the Minister agree that all Governments, all Ministers and all parties have failed to do very much of significance in prison education? When I chaired the Select Committee on Education and Skills, we looked at this issue. I hope the new inquiry, which I welcome, will look at that because our recommendations are still relevant today. Is he aware that children with special educational needs, and particularly those with autism, often end up in prison? Will he examine the work of the Shannon Trust, which tackles the issue of literacy in prisons and gets prisoners teaching prisoners?
The Shannon Trust work is excellent and I am happy to commend it to the House. The work it does—its Toe by Toe programme—ensuring that prisoners can mentor others and help them to read is exemplary. The hon. Gentleman’s broader point is right; if we look back at the past, we see that we have not placed sufficient emphasis on ensuring that when prisoners are in custody we give them the tools to transform their lives for the better. That is absolutely vital and I know that he agrees with me on treating offenders as potential assets—as people who can contribute—rather than concentrating exclusively on the mistakes they have made in the past.
I very much welcome Sally Coates’s review and look forward to its findings. The Secretary of State will know that Ofsted says that outstanding learning cannot possibly be provided in prisons that are dangerous, violent and not safe. He needs to think about the fact that serious attacks on prison officers have risen by a third in the past year, with many prison officers working day in, day out in fear. I am talking about inexperienced staff; he has recruited many, but they are unencumbered by experience. Drugs and understaffing are endemic in the system. He mind find those issues trickier to deal with, but what is he doing urgently to address them? Without addressing them, he will not achieve his aim of improving education.
Those are very fair points from the hon. Lady. She is absolutely right about the increase in the number of incidents of violence in our jails. One factor driving that is the presence of new psychoactive substances—what have sometimes been called “legal highs” but are more properly, as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Andrew Selous has pointed out, called lethal highs. One thing that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice has done is introduce legislation in the Psychoactive Substances Bill, which I know has cross-party support and will help to deal with that. She is also right in saying that we need to ensure that the appropriate training and support is in place for prison officers. They put their security on the line every day to keep the rest of us safe, and everything we can do—for example, extending the roll-out of body-worn cameras—to ensure that their security is at the heart of our prison estate is worthwhile.
That is probably the best answer I have had from a Secretary of State on the issue of prison officer safety, on what must be the 20th time of raising it, and we will hold him to the moves he has promised to make. But what happens inside prisons is only half the story. Will he ensure that the review examines continuity of learning on release? I ask that because I am concerned that, following the chaotic sell-off of probation, offenders are not being adequately supervised, risk-assessed or monitored. He knows that Sodexo has already laid off 600 staff, many of whom had good experience in providing offenders with suitable skills and learning placements.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that the transforming rehabilitation programme needs to be scrutinised very closely. I have had the benefit of talking to the trade unions that represent not just Sodexo employees but employees from across probation, and they have raised a number of genuine concerns, which I hope we can meet. More broadly, the opportunity to appoint a new chief inspector of probation, and indeed a new chief inspector of prisons, arises—the closing date for applications is this Friday. The current incumbents of both posts have done an excellent job, but it is really important that we have high-quality people who will hold to account the organisations responsible for the fate of offenders and ex-offenders.
I welcome the appointment of Dame Sally and her review, and the emphasis that the Secretary of State placed upon rehabilitation in prison when he appeared before the Select Committee on Justice. Will he ensure not only that Dame Sally’s work is linked in with the work done by Lord Harris of Haringey in his excellent report on the philosophy, in effect, of rehabilitation in prisons, but that we look at the expertise of not only the Prison Service, but those outside it in dealing with the raft of multiple issues that these offenders suffer?
I absolutely agree. Lord Harris’s report was a sobering reminder of the problems we face in our prison estate in managing some very vulnerable people who engage in self-harm and, in some cases, suicide. The recommendations that he made are receiving proper consideration in our Department. More broadly, the point that the Chair of the Select Committee makes about engaging outside organisations is at the heart of the transforming rehabilitation programme. The extension of new powers to community rehabilitation companies, which my predecessor introduced, will increasingly bear fruit in the months to come.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. One of my principal concerns is that far too often the courses that have been offered and the qualifications that have been available to women in prison have not reflected the genuine needs—the circumstances that led them into offending in the first place or the needs that they have when they leave custody. One thing that Dame Sally will be looking at is exactly what needs to change, and there are no options off the table.
In the days of the coalition I discovered as Prisons Minister that the budget for prison education was held in a Department led by our coalition ally. The result was that it became very difficult to achieve the objective of getting the commissioning of education in prisons into the hands of prison governors. Does the Secretary of State now have sufficient control to achieve that objective?
My hon. Friend was an excellent Prisons Minister, and he is absolutely right that we need to give the governors greater control. The response that I have received both from the Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Minister for Skills, Nick Boles, has been hugely encouraging. Obviously, we have Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service contracts—the contracts that govern spending in prisons at the moment—which need to be honoured, but I hope that we might be able to move at pace to devolving responsibility to individual governors.