Report (5th Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 10:30 pm on 20th March 2012.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development) 10:30 pm, 20th March 2012

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for continuing to examine the practical difficulties that some ex-prisoners face. We appreciate the difficulties that they may face when trying to resettle in the community and we have taken a number of steps to address these problems.

When the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, withdrew his amendment in Committee, he expressed the hope that the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Work and Pensions would communicate more effectively on this issue. My noble friend Lord McNally wrote to my noble friend Lord Freud and I can give the noble Lord an absolute reassurance that our departments are working very closely to address the gap between release and receipt of benefits.

Prisoners' needs are already often assessed on reception as part of the sentence plan. New prisoners are specifically asked about benefits by staff at induction and are referred to one of the 140 Jobcentre Plus employment and benefit advisers currently working in prisons. In addition, all prison leavers have their rehabilitation needs reviewed as part of the discharge process only weeks before release. It is this period close to release that is key to meeting resettlement needs, and that is where the Government have invested resources.

The Government are doing a great deal to overcome resettlement barriers and are currently implementing a strong package of measures. The key strategy to take this forward is the data-linking project which is being undertaken by the Ministry of Justice and the DWP. The project shows that more than half of offenders sentenced to custody are claiming benefits immediately prior to their incarceration, and two years after release from prison almost half are claiming out-of-work benefits. This is the scale of the task we face as we seek to make improvements to the process.

However, improvements are there. From 1 March, offenders leaving custody have their jobseeker's allowance claims processed before they leave. We expect to reach some 30,000 prisoners a year. Jobcentre Plus advisers are rightly in the lead on providing advice and administering benefit claims, but they are working closely with prison staff to facilitate this process, including advice on financial support available prior to release. We believe that this is the right point at which to make assessments for eligibility.

We are also aiming to address the finance gap through our plans for universal credit payments. Under our proposals, an applicant, on leaving prison with a valid claim, can be paid his claim immediately through payment on account in the same way as any other benefit claimant. All of this is intended to help prison leavers get their benefits quickly and help increase their chances of finding work, which is also a key part of the Government's agenda on reducing reoffending.

The noble Lord's Amendment 156A would have prisons potentially duplicating the work of Jobcentre Plus. In addition, the process proposed by the amendment would require the Prison Service to conduct sometimes wasted work. A mandatory assessment of all offenders on entering into custody would either be premature-as the work done on entering prison is highly likely to need updating as the sentence continues-or not needed at all, if the personal circumstances of that person do not justify it.

The Government are fully committed to ensuring that ex-prisoners have the support they need to make a successful and productive return to society. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, is quite right in his aim in this respect. Our proposals on ex-prisoners' access to welfare benefits are part of that commitment. I hope that what I have said today reassures the noble Lord and that he will withdraw his amendment.