By John Geoghegan
‘Well, they didn’t have anything else on’: Jacqui Smith defends use of two prisoners drafted in to paint her £450,000 home
Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has defended her use of two day-release prisoners to paint her £450,000 home when they should have been doing community work.
Prison bosses have now launched an investigation into how the pair, who were working for free as part of a back-to-work scheme and were meant to be improving parks and clearing up rubbish-strewn streams, instead ended up spending two days redecorating a room in Miss Smith’s house last month.
Speaking on an LBC radio programme, she was guest presenting, Miss Smith said she wanted ‘to set the record a little bit straight’ and insisted the prisoners ‘didn’t have anything else on’.
It also emerged that, as payment for the work, Miss Smith donated an unspecified amount to a local charity which organised the project, the Batchley Support Group.
Miss Smith stepped down from her Cabinet role weeks after it was revealed she billed the taxpayer for the £67 cost of hiring two adult movies watched by her husband, as part of her expenses.
And last year she lost her seat after a public backlash over a £116,000 expenses claim.
According to The Sun, Miss Smith yesterday initially denied knowing about the incident but later admitted what happened.
Chiefs at Hewell Prison, near her home in Redditch, Worcestershire, reportedly knew nothing about the work, which took place last month, until they were tipped off.
A Prison Service spokeswoman confirmed they knew nothing at the time and the project has since been suspended.
She said: ‘The decision to provide prisoners for this work was taken without consultation with HMP Hewell or the Ministry of Justice and was a mistake.
‘Offenders should work on projects which help the whole community.
‘The scheme has been suspended while a full internal investigation is undertaken.’
The prisoners were doing unpaid work, supervised by Batchley staff, as part of a ‘resettlement to work’ strategy.
Speaking today, Miss Smith said: ‘You may or may not have seen the front of The Sun but they are having a bit a go at me today because two prisoners who were coming towards the end of their sentence and doing work experience carried out about three hours’ work at my house doing a bit of decorating.
The Prison Service often works with charities and councils to do community-based unpaid work projects carried out by convicts.
The Batchley Support Group is based in Miss Smith’s hometown of Redditch.
On its website, it describes itself as ‘a community-based neighbourhood association’ which aims to ‘build resident participation and involvement in community activities’ and ‘advance social inclusion and lifelong learning’.
Among its projects are a tool loan scheme, community drop-in and advice sessions and support groups for vulnerable and older people.
No-one from the charity could be contacted for comment last night.
Miss Smith is not believed to have any official links to the charity.
Miss Smith, who was Home Secretary from June 2007 to June 2009 under the previous Labour government, lost her Redditch seat in the general elections last year after becoming embroiled in the MPs’ expenses scandal.
Miss Smith was also criticised for claiming £116,000 over six years to pay for a second home in London, but it was later revealed that she was in fact staying in a house owned by her sister.
A spokeswoman for Batchley Support Group said staff were not aware of restrictions on what kind of work the offenders could be given, but accepted that the arrangement ‘may not have been the best use of prisoners’ time’.
In a written statement, she said: ‘Batchley Support Group is a charity and seeks to supplement any funding with earned income to help pay for the work it does within the community.
‘It does undertake paid work for individuals who can pay the market rate in order to be able to subsidise work on the homes of those who would otherwise struggle to pay and to pay for projects that will benefit the whole of the community.
‘The resettlement to work project was agreed with HMP Hewell before current support group staff were in place.
‘The group has not found any documentation stipulating exactly what prisoners can or cannot do as part of the agreement.
‘Batchley Support Group weren’t aware of the scope of the restrictions and Ms Smith and (her husband) Richard Timney certainly wouldn’t have been aware of these.
‘However, the group does agree in retrospect that undertaking work on Ms Smith’s home may not have been the best use of prisoners’ time, though it should be pointed out that the donation made for the work has enabled Batchley Support Group to carry out much-needed work in the community.’