Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece’s maiden speech

In recent weeks, LDV has been bringing its readers copies of our new MPs’ first words in the House of Commons, so that we can read what is being said and respond. You can find all of the speeches in this category with this link. Alert LDV reader and bureaucratic blogger Mark Valladares, himself a husband to a Lib Dem Peer, our party’s president Ros Scott, has drawn to our attention that we have more new parliamentarians in the Other Place, who are also making maiden speeches. So today, Baroness Hussein-Ece’s words are reproduced below.

Baroness Hussein-Ece: My Lords, it is a great privilege to speak for the first time in your Lordships’ House. I have been humbled by the extraordinary welcome and support from my sponsors, my noble friends Lady Scott and Lady Garden, and from other noble Lords across the Benches. They have shown me great kindness, welcoming me and guiding me on the ways of the House. I also thank the dedicated staff, who serve this House so well, for their unfailing help and support. They are always on hand literally to point me in the right direction. For someone of my background, it is a huge privilege to serve in your Lordships’ House, although some have assumed that by taking the title of Highbury I was somehow able to get tickets to Arsenal matches.

My father, a Turkish Cypriot and a Muslim, came to this country in 1948 as a young man from Cyprus to seek work. He had served as a policeman during the 1940s, when Cyprus was a British colony. My mother arrived in 1952 to stay with her brother, who had settled in the UK after serving in the British forces during the Second World War. He had been captured by the Nazis and held in a prisoner-of-war camp until the end of the war. My maternal grandfather, Abdullah, was the son of a slave, who was captured as a young man in the Sudan and sold to a Cypriot merchant. In later life he was given his freedom and went on to marry my Turkish great-grandmother.

My parents were married in London. They brought with them the extraordinary work ethic that many post-war migrants shared when they came to Britain. I was born in Islington, well before it became a byword for the chattering classes. I went to school with children from some of the most deprived backgrounds and spent my school holidays with my family in Turkey and Cyprus. My early formative years have left me with a lifelong passion for, and commitment to, championing the cause of a more equal society. Islington is still a place with extremes of poverty and wealth and, in common with other London boroughs, great inequalities. I hope therefore to contribute to future debates on the rich social diversity of modern-day Britain.

The topic today is of immense importance and one that presents our society with huge challenges, so I am very grateful to be able to make a contribution to this debate. The London Borough of Islington, where I served as a councillor until May this year, has two prisons-Holloway and Pentonville-the latter, I was told, being the largest prison in Europe. I had the opportunity to visit these prisons on a number of occasions and to talk to both staff and offenders. I was a member of the PCT board when it took over responsibility for primary healthcare in those prisons.

As has already been mentioned, the prison population in England and Wales stands at a record high. Overwhelming evidence highlights that there are now more people in prison with long-standing mental health problems and learning disabilities than ever before, as mentioned earlier by my noble friend Lord Thomas. Many of these people end up in prison because, as the staff told me, there is simply nowhere else to send them. Many prisons lack the resources that they need to conduct full psychiatric assessments of those they receive, while a wider concern is that too often prisons use segregation units to hold people who are seriously ill until a transfer can be arranged.

Of ongoing concern is the over-representation of prisoners from minority ethnic groups-just under 27 per cent of the prison population, many of whom had undiagnosed mental health conditions until they came into contact with the criminal justice system. Furthermore, research carried out in the past few weeks by the University of Leicester has revealed that the number of women in prison is growing at a much faster rate than the number of men. This is despite their crimes often being less serious, with 94 per cent convicted for minor offences, compared with 76 per cent of men. Women often serve shorter sentences for lesser offences, which means that prison is far more disruptive for them, and usually for their children. Women are normally the primary carers for elderly relatives and children, as mentioned earlier by my noble friend Lady Kennedy. Around 55 per cent of women in prison have a child under the age of 16, and 20 per cent are lone parents. Because of the relatively small number of women’s prisons, and due to their geographical location, women tend to serve their sentences further from their homes than male prisoners. This can place additional pressure on important links with family.

We know that around 71 per cent of children in custody have been involved with, or have been in the care of, social services before entering custody and that less than 1 per cent of care leavers go to university. As the noble Lord, Lord Low, mentioned earlier, a recent survey found that over 90 per cent of prisoners had poor reading skills. These figures are of huge concern.

As Islington’s cabinet member for health and social care during my time as a councillor, I was for a period responsible for the looked-after children in the council’s care. As a corporate parent, I met regularly with young people in our care, and I also did some mentoring. I was struck by something that a young man who had spent most of his life in care said to me. He said: “You”-meaning the council-“are my parents, and like other parents, aren’t you supposed to make sure I get a good education and a job?”. Of course, he was right. Most of us who have children do all we can to ensure that they receive a good education and then eventually take up meaningful employment and reach their full potential. As the largest employer in the borough, as most councils are, I pulled together a senior-level board of all departments and partners to work together to improve the life chances of children and young people in our care. The Corporate Parenting Board met monthly and required every council department at the most senior level, and the council’s key partners, to set aside apprenticeships and trainee posts for Islington’s care leavers. This project was emulated by other councils across the country and proved to be quite groundbreaking at the time.

To effect real change in the way that we deal with offenders we have to look at investing more in diversionary and preventive methods, not only for people with mental health problems but for the way in which we as a society support children who are placed into care. Too often I was told by the young people in the council’s care that they felt that no one really cared. Of course we are all too well aware that in the present climate there are pressures on budgets and other restrictions that might prevent a more consistent approach across the country, but society will end up paying one way or another. The cost to the public purse for each prisoner is around £40,000 per annum and the cost of a young person leaving the care system who ends up offending further down the track is enormous. Is it not better to invest in that young person’s education and training?

I believe that instead of expanding prisons we should be looking at meaningful ways to reduce the prison population. Mental health trusts in partnership with local authorities should be compelled to allocate adequate resources to treatment and to divert offenders with mental health and drug and alcohol problems to those appropriate healthcare services. Reoffending would surely be reduced with investment in increasing literacy skills. Practical and consistent rehabilitation is surely a better investment.

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