Monday, July 19, 2010

Mike German's maiden speech in the Lords

Courtesy of Liberal Democrat Voice:

Lord German: My Lords, you took a very brave step in allowing a German to be introduced into your Lordships’ House just a few days after England’s defeat in the World Cup. The extremely generous-hearted way in which I have been received has, however, received a few knocks in my first week or so. Just last Friday, my noble friend Lord Lester, in his Defamation Bill, talked of the German ad hoc balancing law. I know the Liberal Democrats favour fair representation, but it made me wonder who I was to be balanced with. Then this week, in questions about your Lordships’ murals, there was a request for the German specialist to be brought in.

I realise that I am to be very careful indeed to observe the frequent exhortations coming my way, but I can tell noble Lords that this German is not German, and neither is he English. The name derives from a 5th century bishop called Germanus, who came from Auxerre; he was dispatched by the Pope to the western parts of this country to return the people to the authentic Christian fold whose followers took on his name. Spelling was not a strong feature of 5th century Britain, so many derivations of the name survive today. There is a street in London named after one of them-Jermyn -and there are Jermin, Germaine and the like. It is reported that the bishop Germanus won the people over to the Augustinian teachings of divine grace by using his superior rhetoric, so no pressure there.

I am privileged to join the growing number of Members of your Lordships’ House who have been Members of the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments. I am the first Member of the National Assembly for Wales not to have been to the other place, and I look forward to using that experience to help the Assembly to develop and to questioning my noble friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness on his new responsibilities for my country.

I wish to say something about my experience of prisoner education and the problems with it. There are two prisons close to my home. They are in the area that I represented until just a few weeks ago. One, at Usk, is a secure Victorian building that was built on the monastic level, which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool talked about earlier. It houses many medium and long-term sentence offenders. The other, in nearby countryside, is an open prison. Both have the same management team, and both represent different ends of the spectrum of prisons in our country.

A few years ago I received a request from the head of training and skills at these prisons to assist them with the qualification structure of the training programmes that they could offer offenders, and to see whether they could be made more appropriate to the world of work. This was my first introduction to the link between reoffending and reintegration, and the importance of skills to that link. It soon became clear to me that much needed to be done to improve both reoffending rates and the level of ex-offender reintegration into the community.

For those who seek level 2 vocational qualifications and beyond, it is nigh on impossible to achieve them while in prison. The NVQ requires an element of work-based on-the-job experience that cannot be provided in a closed prison environment. These NVQs are needed to provide a ticket to a place of work. City and Guilds-type qualifications are used as a route to the NVQ, but no matter how well a prison can simulate the workplace, this will be insufficient to provide the necessary qualification.

On a visit to a very large prison in Doncaster, I saw a two-storey house that had been completely built from scratch by offenders inside a former aircraft hangar. It had fully functioning plumbing and central heating and a fully fitted kitchen, and it was tastefully decorated. After it had been built, it was completely demolished. Even the construction of the finished object was insufficient to gain an NVQ in any of the craft skills needed such as plumbing, plastering, carpentry, construction, electricals and so on. The examining bodies will not accept a fully constructed building in an aircraft hangar as appropriate on-the-job training.

The only solution to gaining these types of qualification is to get an appropriate work placement following release, and these are not easy to come by. As a report last year from the Prisoners’ Education Trust revealed, 87 per cent of offenders surveyed believed that few employers recruit ex-offenders, although there are notable examples of good practice such as National Grid Transco, which employs ex-offenders and takes them on on training programmes. The evidence from employers is clear; core skills are a very much needed element in the mix of skills to be learnt on the job, even though a start can be made in simulated surroundings. Punctuality, working with others, literacy and numeracy are key to success in holding down a job.

There is much research now on the nature of the support that is needed on release to lead to possible successful reintegration into society. In essence, it can be summed up in four words: family, roof, job, and cash-reintegration into some form of family life, a secure home, a job or work placement, and help to manage on a limited income. A Select Committee in the other place recommended:

“If the purpose of providing education and training in prisons is to reduce reoffending by enabling prisoners to gain secure employment, then the continuation of support and programmes on release is essential. The Government needs to: produce an overarching resettlement strategy for prisoners; commit to the continuity of provision of education and training on release”.

My experience was that much more needs to be done if we are to succeed in resettling ex-offenders effectively. For some, perhaps many, prison is not the right solution for reintegration. We are told that reoffending costs the taxpayer £10 billion a year, that there are no robust statistics on those who are successfully reintegrated into society, and that an overarching resettlement strategy will be expensive. This leads me to conclude that we must punish the wrongdoers, but we must also ensure that we help them to get on to the straight and narrow. Not doing so will contribute further to the fracturing of the social fabric of our country.

Finally, I thank all the officials, colleagues and Members of this House for the great kindness that I have been shown in the past few weeks. There is so much to learn, and everyone has gone out of their way to introduce me to the work and operation of this very kind and friendly place.

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