It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Rachel Maclean for making a powerful speech and for securing a debate on such an important subject. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Eddie Hughes and Jim Shannon, both of whom have been strong supporters of the entire project of engaging with prisoners and offender reform in many debates in Westminster Hall and in the Chamber.
In essence, we are dealing with a classic issue of public policy—something where the objective or target really is a big prize. If we can get prisoners into education, and through education into employment, they are less likely to offend and there will be fewer victims. The public will be safer, and the prisoners’ lives will be turned around. The problem is that it is also a classic issue of public policy because it is easy to talk about but difficult to do much about.
The problem with this debate is that at almost any time in the past 175 years, Ministers would have stood up and talked about prison reform. Despite 175 years of Ministers talking about prison reform and about investing in education in prisons, we are still in a situation where only 20% of prisoners get a job on release—that has been pretty static for decades. About one fifth of the people coming into prison have a job and about one fifth of the people leaving prison have a job.
What is the answer to this problem? Clearly, it is not a question of silver bullets. In 1898, Herbert Gladstone stood up and gave a great speech in the House. In language that I cannot hope to emulate, he said that prison
“discipline and treatment should be more effectually designed to maintain, stimulate, or awaken the higher susceptibilities of prisoners, to develop their moral instincts, to train them in orderly and industrial habits, and, whenever possible, to turn them out of prison better men and women, both physically and morally, than when they came in.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 55, c. 858.]
That is over 120 years ago—it is very difficult to disagree with the basic expression of what we have been trying to do in this country for a very long time.
What are the problems? The first problem was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North: many prisoners come from very difficult backgrounds. As we have heard, perhaps a quarter of them come out of care. Nearly a third of prisoners have serious alcohol addiction issues, and another third have serious drug addiction issues. Perhaps half of prisoners have a reading age of under 11 and a significant number have a reading age of under 6. Nearly 40% of our prisoners have been excluded from school at one time or another.
To fast-forward from the rhetoric around education to the reality, one needs to imagine oneself in Pentonville—I was there today. Imagine a small classroom in midsummer. It is very hot and five men are sitting there with a single teacher. These are people who have never found it easy to go to school. They have never found it easy to listen to a teacher. Those five men will be at very different educational levels. One will be unable to read and write, and another one will be bored because he is in prison for theft but he can already read and write and does not understand why he is in the class. There will be a general sense that everyone is rotating through—on an average day at Pentonville, 45 to 50 new prisoners turn up and a similar number are released. It is very difficult to deal with that.
Solving the problem is not a question of making grand statements about the human soul—Mr Gladstone made much better statements about that in 1898 than I am able to make today. It is about understanding exactly what is going wrong in that prisoner’s journey, step by step. The first thing is to recognise the type of prison that that prisoner is in. Is it a reception prison that they are coming into for a short period, straight out of the courts from remand? If it is a prison where they are likely to spend six months, 12 months or two years of their life, a very different kind of education provision can be delivered.
Secondly, are the kind of qualifications offered in prison A the same as the qualifications offered in prisons B, C and D? A prisoner could move to four prisons in the course of their career. Too often, as a prisoner follows that course, they pursue a City & Guilds qualification in prison A, but it is not available in prison B. Even more fundamentally, the core common curriculum might not be available, so they might not be able to study English, maths and information and communications technology. In addition, governors frequently do not feel genuinely empowered to control the prisoner’s life. They do not feel that they have the leverage or flexibility to say to the education provider, “What really matters in this area is bricklaying,” or, “We have a real shortage of people in scaffolding. I want you to provide scaffolding training.” They do not feel they would get rewarded or promoted for that.
We are trying to deal with those kinds of practical issues in the education and employment strategy. The first thing we did was introduce a common core curriculum, which will ensure that, right the way through the prison service, every single prison, regardless of where it is, which part of the country it is in and how long the prisoner is there, will deliver the core curriculum of English, maths, ICT and English as a foreign language for people who do not speak English.
Secondly, we are ensuring that the qualifications in prisons are the same. A lot of this sounds pretty simple, but the complex and strange world of Government procurement means that we have ended up having a series of conversations about dynamic purchasing systems. We have ended up with 12 preferred suppliers for the core common curriculum and 300 suppliers for the additional work. We have 17 core groups bidding in, with a selected shortlist of five for each area.
What does that mean? Imagine that you are the prisons group director for Yorkshire, Mr Betts. You get your six prisons together and you have five people on a shortlist—it could include Milton Keynes college or Novus. Eighty per cent. of the score is based on your judgment, with your prison governors, of which will provide the best quality of education, and the other 20% is based on the cost of the provision.