Prison Education

– in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 14th March 2002.

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Photo of Lord Quirk Lord Quirk Crossbench 3:08 pm, 14th March 2002

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to improve the provision of education in HM prisons.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Government Whip, Lords in Waiting (Whips)

My Lords, the Prison Service and the Department for Education and Skills launched a partnership last year which created the new Prisoners Learning and Skills Unit. Its purpose is to improve the quality and quantity of education in all establishments and ensure that prisoners have the opportunity to gain the skills and qualifications to find work or pursue further learning on release. We will look at targets and funding, and at developing basic skills and other provisions. We will introduce a national quality improvement strategy to raise standards and we will support continuity of provision when prisoners leave custody.

Photo of Lord Quirk Lord Quirk Crossbench

My Lords, I take some comfort from that reply and I am grateful to the Minister. But is he aware that in our biggest prison of all, HMP Wandsworth, the otherwise attractive education unit can provide for barely 90 prisoners at a time, and, even so, is open and available for only 20 hours a week? Is not this grossly inadequate for a prison housing some 1,400 inmates?

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Government Whip, Lords in Waiting (Whips)

My Lords, the noble Lord has drawn attention to pressures in the system. I recognise the point that he makes. He will appreciate that we are increasing the resources for the provision of education by 15 per cent over the next three years. That will help in providing additional facilities across the system. He will also recognise the intense pressure on the system with the increase in numbers that has occurred in recent months.

Photo of Lord Glenarthur Lord Glenarthur Conservative

My Lords, is the noble Lord able to tell us the ratio of teachers to the total prison population at the moment?

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Government Whip, Lords in Waiting (Whips)

My Lords, I have a swathe of statistics, but I do not have that one, so I cannot give it to the noble Lord. The only comfort that I can give him is that the intention behind the quality unit is to ensure that the provision of education reaches the same standard as that for people outside prison. Therefore, I think that I can assure him that resources will be made available to that end.

Photo of Baroness Linklater of Butterstone Baroness Linklater of Butterstone Liberal Democrat

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, while literacy and numeracy are fundamental to the provision of education in prison, the teaching of art, music and drama is equally important? The annual Koestler awards are but one example of the importance and the huge potential of that provision. It is all too often not available, due to its lower priority and the frequent demands of cost-cutting. Given that the idea of formal education does not appeal to the majority of prisoners, does the Minister also agree that arts education often provides a valuable gateway into more formal learning and is therefore doubly justified?

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Government Whip, Lords in Waiting (Whips)

My Lords, I have considerable sympathy with the view expressed by the noble Baroness. There is no doubt that the features that she described play an important part in prison education. However, the whole House will realise that there are a disproportionate number of people with very low skill levels in prison. Some 60 per cent of prisoners do not have the skill levels that we expect of the average 11 year-old. There is little prospect of us being able to ensure that people can earn their living and fulfil their part in society after they have discharged their responsibility in prison unless they have the skills that employers will be able to use. That is why basic skills inevitably form an important part of the programme.

Photo of Baroness Masham of Ilton Baroness Masham of Ilton Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister agree that volunteers coming into prisons can do a most useful job by helping prisoners who cannot read or write? Will he pay tribute to the many volunteers and encourage that practice?

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Government Whip, Lords in Waiting (Whips)

My Lords, indeed I shall. There is no doubt that the enormous progress that we have made on literacy and numeracy would never have been possible on government resources alone. They have been supplemented by an enormous amount of work by volunteers—both those working outside prisons among the general population and, as the noble Baroness rightly identified, those working with prisoners. We should pay due regard and tribute to that valuable work.

Photo of The Bishop of Bristol The Bishop of Bristol Bishop

My Lords, is the Minister aware that when a child of school leaving age is received into prison, the prison is often not told of any information about that child's previous education? As appropriate education is important to their future, is the Minister willing to ensure that that information is passed through?

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Government Whip, Lords in Waiting (Whips)

My Lords, that is an important point. We all recognise that the distressing number of juveniles who come within the framework of the custody system need particular attention. I emphasise that we are seeking to double the number of hours available for education for juveniles. That reflects the increased concentration of effort on that group. The right reverend Prelate is entirely right that we cannot improve education effectively unless we know the background of the people whom we are seeking to educate.

Photo of Lord Dearing Lord Dearing Crossbench

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a very distinguished statistician who is a Member of this House confided at No. 10 this morning that if you are in doubt about a figure, 10 per cent will usually do? I am not suggesting that the £50 million spent at present represents only 10 per cent of what is desirable, but there is a massively strong economic as well as social case for a great increase in expenditure on education in prisons for the good of all of us, as well as of the prisoners.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Government Whip, Lords in Waiting (Whips)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his contribution, particularly given his great background in education. I assure him that this morning's celebration by the Prime Minister of the provision of skills in this country was a reflection of our growing emphasis on the need to direct resources in that area. The noble Lord is right that education for the prison population is an important element if we are to reduce recidivism and, eventually, to reduce the costs to society in every respect.