I do not disagree with the objectives outlined in the suggestion; rather it is simply about how they can best be achieved. But the identification of the desire for continuity is of course important.
I was saying that one of the problems we must confront is the use of psychoactive substances, known as legal highs. Their use has been plainly linked with specific acts of violence and erratic behaviour, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Marks. This and the previous Government have already introduced measures to tackle the use of these substances, including the use of specialist dogs to search cells, and we are currently exploring the use of body scanners to reduce the threat posed by drugs being smuggled into prisons. This is a problem being confronted not only in prisons in this country but elsewhere throughout the world. It is proving particularly intractable, but it is vital that we do so. Despite the tireless efforts of all those working in our prisons, these issues, which were identified by many noble Lords, cannot be ignored. The Secretary of State has made it clear that our prison system is in need of reform. It fails to rehabilitate and it fails to ensure that criminals are prevented from offending again. Without reform, this cycle will continue.
What changes are we making? A key aspect of these reforms is the proposed changes to the prison estate itself. We will close down ageing and ineffective prisons, replacing them with buildings fit for today’s estate. We will invest in a high-quality modern prison estate, with appropriate facilities for training and rehabilitation. This is receiving enthusiasm across government. Some £1.3 billion will be invested to reform and modernise the prison estate to make it more efficient, safer and focused on supporting prisoner rehabilitation. The Chancellor announced that the Government will build nine new modern prisons, five of which will open during this Parliament, with better education facilities—as referred to earlier this week in a debate answered by my noble friend Lady Evans, which I shall not go into now—and other rehabilitative services, while selling ageing and inefficient prisons to free up land for new homes.
This includes the closing of Holloway prison. The female prisoners held there will be transferred to better prison environments, including HMP Downview, which we will reopen as a women’s prison. Downview provides better facilities for family visits as well as being a better rehabilitative environment for women. I do not in any way disparage what was achieved in Holloway, which I visited, because it was a remarkable prison. However, we feel that we can do better.
A number of noble Lords, among them the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and the noble Baroness, Lady Healy of Primrose Hill, mentioned the problem of women in prison. In 10 years of sitting as a recorder, I always found reasons not to send women to prison and I can hardly remember ever doing so. I am glad to say that the female prison population is now consistently under 4,000 for the first time in a decade. We are modernising the prison estate to provide the best rehabilitative regimes and hold women in environments better suited to them. We want to ensure that they serve their sentences in appropriate surroundings and to maintain their strong family ties. My noble friend Lord Farmer made the point that family ties are vital to assisting rehabilitation not only for women but for all the prison population.
Of course, it is not just the structure of the estate that we need to reform, but how we manage offenders. I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Fowler that prison is a place where people are sent as punishment, not for further punishment. If we ensure that prisons are calm, orderly and purposeful places—I entirely accept that there is a need for more purposeful activity—the skills and habits that they acquire there will prepare them for outside life. We can all benefit from that.
The Secretary of State clearly set out his commitment to “liberating offenders through learning”. Prisoners must use their time in prison advantageously. We must offer them a chance to obtain qualifications and skills—I note what the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said about that. I welcome the opportunity to visit prisons where that is going on: it is a vital part of the Government’s reform agenda.
We know that one in five prisons has an “inadequate” standard of education provision and two in five require improvement, according to Ofsted. That is why we have commissioned Dame Sally Coates to chair a review into the quality of education in prisons, which will report in the spring. Talking of reporting, of course I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, said: Mr Hardwick is there to provide an independent report to the Government on the state of prisons. That is important for him and his successor, and we should be able to take criticism robustly and respond appropriately. Their independence is crucial.
While the review by Sally Coates is going on, work is under way to improve the quality of learning and skills provision in prison. These measures include improving support for prisoners with learning disabilities—unfortunately, many have them— developing more creative teaching methods and collecting better management information. Giving poorly educated adults a basic level of literacy and numeracy is vital, following tried and tested methods, and the current failure to educate prisoners well is hard to defend. I do not think the House will need much convincing about the Secretary of State’s attachment to the importance of education.
Meaningful employment is crucial. It is a vital part of the Government’s approach to support those who have committed a crime to get out of the cycle of offending. We are keen to increase the number of employers who engage with prisoners and offenders to offer them employment opportunities. We hold an Employers’ Forum for Reducing Re-offending, chaired by the CEO of Timpson, James Timpson, which brings together employers who support the employment of offenders to share their experiences and promote the benefits of employing offenders to other businesses. We have built a relationship with several employers, including Halfords, which provides work for prisoners in its academy, which is run in a prison and employs the prisoners on release if they positively engage on their 16-week course. I have had several conversations with the Prisons Minister, Andrew Selous, who is particularly keen on and pleased with the progress that has been made in this regard.
We are also anxious that there should be greater autonomy at a local level for prisoners—a point made by my noble friend Lord Fowler and the noble Lord, Lord Beith, with his considerable experience of justice issues. That is a form of localism in the Prison Service. The noble Lord made the interesting point that Texas has brought about a strange consensus between the political parties on the way forward in that regard.
I could respond on the issue of IPP prisoners at considerable length; unfortunately, I do not have time to do that. Suffice it to say that we are progressing well in the number of courses available to IPP prisoners. We are also in the process of reducing the backlog for hearings before the Parole Board. As I told a number of noble Lords at a recent meeting, there remains the question of the Secretary of State’s powers to change the test for release. That is a matter which he continues to consider carefully. I will make sure that I faithfully transmit all messages from this House and noble Lords about the need to do something about that.
The points of the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, were well made. We are aware of the importance of reviewing the working of ROTL and liaison and diversion services. The Secretary of State has well in mind a possible wider review of sentencing. Similarly, several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Cormack, emphasised the importance of restorative justice.
Finally, my noble friend Lord Trefgarne rightly drew our attention to the plight of older prisoners, who are becoming a particular, somewhat unusual, feature of the prison population. That is partly to do with so many offenders having been committed for ancient offences of sexual abuse and the like. All prisoners, regardless of age, need to be treated in a humane manner that reflects their needs. That is a matter we should attend to particularly carefully.
I am grateful to all those who have taken part in this excellent debate and to my noble friend Lord Fowler for initiating it. The Secretary of the State and the Ministry of Justice will have learnt a great deal from it.