My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend Lord Fowler for securing this debate. This is an extremely important discussion to drive forward, especially as the Lord Chancellor has indicated that he is willing to listen to all our proposals as part of his consultations. I have worked in a number of roles in prisons, including as a voluntary associate at Wormwood Scrubs and a visitor to HM Prison Pentonville and others, and I feel that I can add something to this debate.
My main point happily coincides with another issue that is very much on the agenda, which is mental health provision. According to the Social Exclusion Unit, more than 70% of the prison population have two or more mental health disorders. When I was a member of the board of visitors to Pentonville prison, I saw a large number of prisoners who had come from broken homes and were emotionally undernourished. Mental health provision must take account of this and the debilitating and lasting effects of substance abuse, which troubles the minds of prisoners long after they have left those substances behind. At present, there is not enough support for prisoners who arrive addicted and are taken off those substances. Opportunities for mental health assessment should be built into substance misuse care pathways to avoid overlooking individuals who also require psychiatric interventions, as recommended by the 2010 reform report.
Education is another key investment that requires additional investment and focus. In my experience, the most important step in reintegrating released prisoners into society is helping them to get a job. This holds true in almost all circumstances. Education can reduce reoffending, as mentioned by my noble friends Lord Cope and Fowler, and bring down the prison population. With a job, a regular income and something that keeps them focused, they can rebuild their lives and shape them how they want to. Most prisoners have low educational attainment and poor qualifications and dropped out of school early, with barely 5% holding a degree or equivalent. Teaching them in prison, when they have the time and motivation to learn, is crucial. For those who care most about the bottom line, this is an investment that pays back significant dividends.
It is not sensible for a country that wants to win in the global race to have such a significant chunk of human capital wasting away, being unproductive. It should be noted that vocational education is often a better route to employment than academic qualifications.
The idea of prison apprenticeships has been suggested in the past and remains attractive, as shown by the recent cases in HM Prison Lincoln. If a financial incentive was offered, such as a tax break on national insurance, it would boost the offering and uptake of prison apprenticeships.
Finally, it would be good to see more exercise hours offered in prisons. It is not healthy to be sitting around all day; indeed, boredom is often a factor in people involving themselves in crime. If possible, gyms and open areas should be open for longer hours, and inmates encouraged to go and exercise there, rather than watch television.