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Jacqui Smith defends inmates painting home

Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has defended using day-release prisoners to paint her home, claiming they "didn't have anything else on".

The former Labour MP admitted that two inmates from HMP Hewell in Redditch did some decorating at her luxury property in the Worcestershire town.

A Prison Service spokesman said the offenders were supposed to be doing work to "help the whole community" as part of a scheme run by a local charity, the Batchley Support Group.

He 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."

Speaking on the LBC 97.3 morning show, Ms Smith said she wanted "to set the record a little bit straight" and accused The Sun, which ran the story on its front page, of "having a go at me".

She said: "You may or may not have seen the front of The Sun but they are having a bit of 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.

"It hadn't been cleared with the prison authorities in advance and they've now launched an inquiry and The Sun is having a go at me.

"Well, just to set, I hope, the record a little bit straight, these are guys that were working with a local community organisation in Redditch, a community organisation that actually gives work experience opportunities to prisoners as they come towards the end of their sentence.

"They do a whole range of odd jobs and working in the local community - I think a really good scheme and really well done by this community group.

"On one day, when actually they didn't have anything else on, they did come to my house and do three hours-worth of painting, for which me and my husband made a donation to the community group."

Ms Smith, who was standing in for regular presenter James O'Brien, added: "I think it's a bit hard on the community organisation because I think they were doing a really good job - in fact, the sort of things I think that prisoners should do as they come towards the end of their sentences.

"Get out and about, get a bit of work, get used to getting back into the community.

"But I know that when it's anything to do with me, the papers like to put probably the very worst spin they possibly can on it and in my view, that's what The Sun has done today."

Ms Smith made the comments during a phone-in on the Government's new proposals for community sentences to make unemployed offenders work a minimum of 28 hours over four days, with the fifth day spent looking for full-time work.

Referring to the Prison Service investigation, she added: "I'm perfectly happy to answer any questions that might be asked as part of that inquiry."

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."

Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: "It's a disgrace that a former Home Secretary has used prisoners as her personal handymen.

"There needs to be an urgent and independent investigation into how this was allowed to happen.

"Prisoners on these schemes are meant to be making amends and paying back the community for their crimes, not tidying up a disgraced ex-MP's backyard.

"It beggars belief that Jacqui Smith ever thought this was acceptable, especially after being booted out of office for abusing taxpayers' money.

"She received a generous salary and perks when she was a minister. If she wants her house painted, she can easily afford to pay for it herself."