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House of Commons Hansard
07 December 2017
Volume 632

    [Relevant Documents: Sixth Report of the Justice Committee, Session 2015–16, Prison Safety, HC 625; and the Government Response, Session 2016–17, HC 647; oral evidence taken before the Justice Committee on 18 October 2017, on Work of the Parole Board, HC 415; on 25 October 2017, on Work of the Ministry of Justice, HC 418; and on 7 November 2017, on Young adults in the criminal justice system and youth custodial estate, HC 419; and seventh report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2016-17, Mental health and deaths in prison: Interim report, HC 893.]

  • I beg to move,

    That this House takes note of the Justice Committee’s Twelfth and Fourteenth Reports of Session 2016-17, on Prison reform and the Government Responses to them; notes with concern the continuing crisis in prisons in England and Wales, with an historically high prison population and unacceptably high levels of violence, drug availability and use, disturbances and self-harm and self-inflicted deaths in the adult and youth custodial estate; further notes the critical reports by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons on individual establishments and thematic issues; welcomes the Government’s intention to proceed with a programme of prison reform and to produce a prison safety and reform action plan as recommended by the Committee, and the publication of performance data on each prison from 26 October 2017; regrets the fact that the Government does not intend to bring forward legislation to establish a statutory purpose for prisons, enhance the powers of HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, and place the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) and the UK’s National Preventive Mechanism on a statutory basis; further regrets the Government’s rejection of the Committee’s recommendation that it should report at six-monthly intervals on the impact of governor empowerment on complaints made to the PPO and Independent Monitoring Boards; and calls on the Government to ensure that information on prison performance and safety is published regularly, and with sufficient detail and timeliness to enable the effective scrutiny of the management of prisons by the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service.

    Let me begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to debate this very important topic. I thank the co-sponsor of the motion, the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), and other members of the Justice Committee from both sides of the House who have contributed to our work over the last two years or more, both in this Parliament and in the previous one. I thank the many organisations involved in prison reform and other prison issues that have assisted us with their advice and experience. I also thank officials in Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, and many prison officers across the country, for their co-operation. They all deserve our thanks.

  • Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

  • I will, but I hope that the hon. Lady will bear in mind that I should like to make a bit of progress.

  • Did the hon. Gentleman visit Parc prison during the Committee’s investigation? Its fantastic work with Invisible Walls Wales is making a huge difference to people’s attitudes to prison, as it shows that prison can change the lives of prisoners and their families, and prevent reoffending.

  • We regularly visit a number of prisons. We are indeed aware of the very good work done at Parc, and we will continue our visits.

    Let me explain why we tabled the motion and did so these terms. We cannot avoid the reality that our prison system has reached a stage at which we have to use the phrase “a crisis”. I do not do so lightly. More than 30 years’ experience of practising criminal law and visiting prisons to advise prisoners, and subsequently, since coming to the House, working with the criminal justice sector, have led me inevitably to the conclusion that the system is under unprecedented strain.

    I do not for one second doubt the good intentions of the Minister or his predecessors, the Secretary of State or his predecessors, or the management of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. I also acknowledge the good work that we see carried out by many individual members of that service as we travel around the country. However, the fact is that despite the extra money that has been invested in the system over the past year or so following one of our reports, and despite all that good work, all the indicators were going in the wrong direction at the time of our two reports—one on prison safety and one on governor empowerment and reform, which were produced in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 Sessions respectively—and they are still going in the wrong direction.

  • I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman—

  • Not yet, although the hon. Gentleman clearly deserves it. I am grateful to him for giving way.

    I agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but is not the truth that we simply incarcerate too many people, particularly people with mental health problems? A staggering percentage of people in Britain have mental health problems, learning disabilities or autism. Should we not be investing more in keeping people out of prison and ensuring that they receive the treatment that they need to help them to avoid the criminal justice system in the longer run?

  • The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point—I agree with him. Although the two reports that gave rise to the debate do not touch on this directly, he may be pleased to know that our Committee has agreed to embark on an inquiry in which we shall examine projections for the prison population up to 2025. The issue that he raises will prove to be particularly important aspect of that inquiry.

  • Does my hon. Friend agree that literacy levels among prisoners are a problem? I understand that more than 30% of people in prison have the reading age of an 11-year-old. Does not that issue really need to be addressed?

  • My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The former Justice Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), rightly drew attention to that on a number of occasions. If we do not turn our prisons into places of education, we will be failing, and we will continue to see reoffending. Part of the problem is the low attainment of people when they arrive in prisons, which is often linked with issues such as social deprivation, a lack of proper parenting and unstable family backgrounds. A particularly high percentage of prisoners have been in care. Low educational attainment is a real problem, and it needs to be tackled.

    One of the problems that we have found is that because of other pressures on the system, many establishments are running regimes that are so restricted that it is virtually impossible for prisoners—even those who are well motivated and wish to do so—to gain access to some of the educational facilities that ought to be available. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend (Sir Greg Knight) for that important point.

  • Does my hon. Friend agree that prison can offer people a second chance to gain access to education and to find the right track? Charities such as Greener Growth, which works in Norfolk prisons in particular, and with which I work in my constituency, help people to understand and connect with the environment, and to learn about food and nutrition, as well as many of the other basics in life that most of us take for granted.

  • That is absolutely true. I and the Committee recognise the very good work that is being done. What we must do, however, is to ensure that we have a programme of prison reform that genuinely enables us to draw that good work together, and establishes a comprehensive and holistic strategy. For example, the good that is done by many people on existing programmes ought to be reinforced by a more imaginative use of release on temporary licence, but sadly there has been a decrease of some 40% in the use of such release over the last couple of decades. That is one of the indicators that are going in the wrong direction.

  • If we could engage many more outside bodies—local authorities and experts on health and education, for instance, and indeed experts on the environment such as the Wildlife Trust, all of which run many good programmes on rehabilitation—we could not only save money by setting up the right framework, but benefit offenders, as the courses would give them skills and make them feel confident about going into the outside world.

  • My hon. Friend is right. I cannot do better than quote a 19th-century prison reformer, Thomas Mott Osborne, a former politician who is described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath as having “turned to good works”. That might seem to be a tautology. Osborne became immersed in the prison system, becoming a prison reform commissioner in New York just before the first world war. He said:

    “Not until we think of our prisons as in reality educational institutions shall we come within sight of a successful system; and by a successful system I mean, one that not only ensures a quiet, orderly, well-behaved prison but has genuine life in it— one that restores to society the largest number of intelligent, forceful, honest citizens.”

    He was right then, and I think that what he said rings true now as well.

  • I was recently very glad to speak to a group of sixth-formers who were doing modern studies. They asked me about prisons, and I said that at the first opportunity I would raise the subject on the Floor of the House and ask one of their questions. Given that my hon. Friend is so well versed in the subject, I will ask him this question: “Do you think that the support on offer to those prisoners who suffer mental health disorders is effective?”

  • All the evidence that our Committee has seen so far suggests that it is not effective. Far too many people in prison suffer from mental health difficulties. David Cameron, the former Prime Minister, rightly emphasised that in a speech that he made back in 2015.

  • My hon. Friend clearly remembers it vividly.

    The point was well made. There are some people whom we will always have to imprison, because they deserve to go to prison, and I saw enough of them during my career as a barrister practising criminal law. However, many others are in prison due to far more complex reasons, such as bad choices, lack of support, lack of background, poor education and mental health issues. We need to be much more discerning, and that means that we need a much more sophisticated approach to our penal policy. We need to introduce genuinely robust alternatives to custody, in the right cases, for those who do not pose a threat and a danger to the public, and who can be reformed without their going to prison. That is critical. We have not yet achieved that. The objective must be not only that the public have confidence in sentences, but that we have proper systems for rehabilitation of those who are incarcerated. However, as almost everyone will be released at some point, we must make sure we release them in a better state in which they can contribute to society than at present.

  • The hon. Gentleman rightly emphasises the importance of education and rehabilitation, but may I add to that the critical aspect of access to family? May I also commend to him the report on mental health in prisons by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and the work that we did in particular to look at the risks to young people and offenders with mental health problems? Such people were not always guaranteed access to family support at critical times when they were self-harming or at risk of suicide?

  • That is a good point. I know that other Members are likely to take up such issues in our debate.

    While we welcome a number of the initiatives the Government have implemented, more still needs to be done. We particularly regret the loss of the prison element of the Prisons and Courts Bill from the last Parliament, because implementing that statutory purpose, which would have covered rehabilitation for prisoners, would have been an important umbrella under which to link the good work that is done. It is good news that we have a proper prison reform and safety plan, but it needs to be put into a full context. We need positive actions, not just the good aspirations that are set out.

    It is essential that there is a genuinely independent and robust inspectorate, so it is regrettable that we have so far lost the opportunity to place on a statutory basis not just the chief inspector of prisons, but the whole inspectorate as an institution, and to strengthen the requirement for his recommendations to be complied with. It is scandalous that at present only a minority of his recommendations in some cases are taken up. That needs to change. It is also regrettable that the prisons and probation ombudsman has not yet been placed on a statutory basis. I hope we will find a legislative opportunity to do so. I believe that that is what the Minister wants to do, but we must not lose it from the agenda.

    Our present indicators on safety in relation to self-harm, suicides, prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and assaults on staff continue to go in the wrong direction. More prison officers have been put in, but we must look in the round, too, at how many people we are sending to prison and why, and what sort of regimes are in place.

    We have heard reference to an action plan on prison safety and reform, and what we hope to see are specific strategies on employment, mental health, women in prison, and the retention and recruitment of officers, because keeping experienced officers is particularly important. We need a proper robust inspection mechanism under which the inspectorate, which includes excellent people, has genuine teeth to do what is necessary. We also need more transparency, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) will talk about transparency and data.

    It is not acceptable that of the 29 local prisons and training prisons inspected this year, 21 were judged to be poor or not sufficiently good. I know that the Minister agrees that we have to turn that around, but all too often I have found a culture of defensiveness among some of the senior management in Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. We must use the changes that have been made to the structure of the service to refresh that culture at every level. That is a most pressing matter. Great work is done further down, but all too often prison officers and governors have said to us that they feel cut out from what can still be too hierarchical a chain of command. That needs to change.

    Prison reform was rightly described by David Cameron as a “great progressive cause”, and so it should be, for politicians on both sides of the political divide. Let me end with this thought. A former Home Secretary who became Prime Minister said that one of the purposes of prison was to seek the treasure in the heart of every man. That was said by Winston Churchill in 1910. I say to the current Prime Minister that, as she has had the same career trajectory, such a phrase would fit very well with her desire to tackle burning injustices in society. Some of the injustices and challenges are as acute in our prisons as anywhere else. This is a great cause, and we hope that we will have some more specific responses from the Minister to our reports, and a further indication of the direction of travel. Above all, I hope the House will not let this issue slide down the agenda.

  • Order. I should say that there is a time limit on speeches of five minutes.

  • Starting from now, Mr Deputy Speaker.

    This is a particularly hard-hitting motion; it does not draw back from the challenges the Prison Service faces. It is important that today Select Committee members focus on specific issues and ask the Minister for the Government’s response to the major challenges, and we will do that. As the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the very good Chair of the Justice Committee, said, the situation is deteriorating; the problems in prisons are getting worse.

    While staff are doing an excellent job and trying their best in difficult circumstances, there have been 300 deaths in prison custody in the past 12 months, of which 77 were self-inflicted deaths, and self-harm has reached a record high and increased by 12% over that period and the number of incidents requiring hospital attendance rose by 9%. Meanwhile, prisoner-on-prisoner assaults have risen to record highs, and the numbers of assaults on staff and of hospital admissions continue to rise, so there is a real challenge in the system.

    I contend that there is a challenge because of reductions in resources and staff numbers, but there is also a challenge because of an increase in the amount of psychoactive substances and drugs getting into prison. It is a difficult job and a challenge to tackle, but if we do not get the basics right in our prison system, the aims of reform, rehabilitation and turning positive individuals back into society will be hampered.

  • Over the past year, people in prison have taken their own lives at the rate of one every three days. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the prison services should set a zero-suicide ambition, that we should be seeking to save every life and that it is intolerable that so many people are losing their lives in the prison system?

  • Absolutely. The threat assessment and self-harm assessment are extremely important, but this requires staffing, so a watch can be kept on individuals and they can be supported through what are often challenging mental health problems, particularly in the first few days and weeks of incarceration, when people are coming off alcohol and drugs, or are arriving in prison with severe mental health challenges.

    We must tackle these issues in a positive way. One of the Minister’s challenges is to ensure that we undertake a review of the strategy, particularly on psychoactive substances and drugs. The Government have said that they have rolled out new tests for psychoactive substances across the estate; can the Minister tell us how many have taken place and their outcome? The Government have said that they have trained more than 300 dogs to detect these substances; does every prison have access to those dogs, and do those dogs ensure we catch substances that are smuggled in? The Government have said they are making smuggling psychoactive substances into prisons and possession of them criminal offences; I want us to monitor how we enforce that legislation.

    The Minister must look at introducing planned searches in prisons of prisoners. He must also look at whether there should be searches of prison officers and delivery staff. I spoke this week to prison officers who said they would welcome that because they want to weed out corruption among staff. I want the Minister to tell us how that will be undertaken generally. I also want the Minister to take further steps to ensure that all category C prisons have netting around them, to stop people throwing drugs and other things into prisons.

    I want to see the re-establishment of the dog units, not just as the regionalised resource that they are now, but as a local resource that can be allocated locally.

    We must look at the criminal gangs inside and outside prisons who are making money out of the delivery of drugs into prisons by many means. What I do not get from the Government is what their overall strategy is, and I think that feeling is shared by external agencies such as Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons. I see a number of individual measures, but I do not get the overall strategy. Will the Minister also tell me what is happening with reform prisons? We had a report this week about Holme House prison, which showed that every indicator was going in the wrong direction. It showed more drug use, more self-harm and more attacks on staff—and that is in a reform prison. We need to know who is accountable for that, and what plans are in place to drive improvements in that prison forward.

    Time is extremely pressing, so I shall just ask the Minister one more question. When the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), appeared before the Justice Committee recently, I asked whether the Oakhill training centre was now performing to a contractual level with which he was satisfied, and he replied, “Currently, they are.” Since that discussion, a report on Oakhill has shown that, yet again, that establishment is not performing to the required standard. Will the Minister tell me what concrete steps are being taken to improve performance at Oakhill? If the improvements that have been set out are not made, will he seek to remove that contract from G4S, as has happened elsewhere?

  • It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), and indeed to work with them on the Justice Committee. I apologise to the House that I will not be here for the wind-ups. I have already apologised to the Minister and to you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I might be here in body at the moment, but my heart is currently in court 47 of the High Court, where my district council and our brilliant campaigning group are bringing a judicial review against our clinical commissioning group for its failure to consult us properly on changes to our local hospital. I will be whizzing along there immediately after I have spoken today. Nothing else could stop me talking about prisons, as colleagues in the House well know.

    I realised during my time in the judicial review yesterday how much I, as a former civil servant, cared about evidence and good government. That is why I shall focus on the importance of data provision today. I am disappointed that the Prisons and Courts Bill did not make it into this parliamentary Session, but I accept that many of the changes envisaged by the Minister do not require legislation and can be taken forward in other ways. However, those changes must be driven by reliable performance data. During my two and a half years on the Justice Committee, we have asked successive Ministers for up-to-date information on prison safety indicators such as incidents of disorder, staffing levels and activity levels, including the number of hours each day prisoners spend locked in their cells. Our efforts have resulted in better-quality data on recruitment and retention, but we have struggled to scrutinise the Government’s efforts to improve the overall situation because we have not received all the information we need.

    The Secretary of State delivered welcome news when he appeared in front of the Committee in October and told us about the justice data hub, which went live the following day. I encourage hon. Members to look up the data hub on the Ministry of Justice website—though possibly not during the debate. It holds information ranging from prisoners’ perceptions of safety to accredited programme completions and deaths in custody. I am far from techie myself, but I have tried the hub out and found it quite easy to use. It is definitely a step in the right direction, but much of the information on it is based on annual statistical releases. If we are truly committed to reform in our prisons, we need more data that really drills down on specifics. We need to know how much time prisoners are spending locked in their cells on a daily basis, and to be able to work out whether the funding given to the most under-pressure prisons has actually had an impact.

    I am in regular contact with Ian Blakeman, the governor of HMP Bullingdon in my constituency. He was very understanding when I had to postpone our meeting, which had been scheduled for this afternoon, to speak in this debate. The prison recently underwent an inspection and areas of improvement were identified, but without comparative performance data and without knowing where he stands in comparison to other prisons, it is difficult for the governor to feel genuinely empowered to achieve the better outcomes we are all looking for.

    We must also know more about what our prisoners are doing once they have completed their sentences. The online hub tells us how prepared prisoners feel on release, but nothing more about those who find housing or employment after they have left prison. We know that there are some fantastic organisations working hard to prepare prisoners for their release, including the Clink restaurant and the Langley House Trust, which provides specialist housing, programmes and support services in the community for people seeking to live crime-free. Just 2.6% of people in the trust’s housing are reconvicted, which is one of the lowest rates in the country.

  • The Borough of Westminster has the highest incidence of rough sleeping in the country. Does the hon. Lady share my concern that those involved in Westminster Council’s rough sleeping strategy have found that one in three rough sleepers have been released from prison? We have to make finding a stable and secure home central to the issue of prisoner release.

  • I could not agree more with the hon. Lady. Housing is absolutely key to the proper rehabilitation of offenders. I do not think I would be breaching any confidences by saying that the Justice Committee will be working with other Select Committees in Parliament to ensure that we fully cover the issues relating to housing in the coming parliamentary Session.

    The Kainos Community transforms lives through the Challenge to Change programme, which includes post-release mentoring. To break the cycle of reoffending, we must have more data to target projects like these where they are most needed and most effective. Becoming a data-driven Department is a laudable ambition, but it is vital that the statistics we are given do more than scratch the surface. Prison management and the provision of safe and decent prison conditions that promote rehabilitation are complex tasks. They must be well grounded in evidence. Finding solutions to the problems our prisons are facing requires us to delve much deeper than we have yet done. In conclusion, off I go to court to deal with the way in which good government is run, but I ask all hon. Members to remember that, when considering prisons, data really matters.

  • It gives me great pleasure, as a newly elected member of the Justice Committee, to speak in today’s debate. Last Thursday, members of the Committee visited HMP Rochester. Rochester holds 740 prisoners and conditions in the Victorian prison have been described as deplorable by the independent monitoring board. In March 2017, the Government announced that the prison would be closed and replaced, but in October 2017 that was put on hold. Many of the facilities at HMP Rochester are in a state of disrepair. For instance, the classroom in which rehabilitation lessons take place has a leaking roof.

  • On that point, and the point made a few moments ago about data, it is extremely important to have adequate data if we are to provide education and training. The Prisoners Education Trust and the Ministry of Justice have both reported that reoffending goes down by an average of five percentage points if education can be provided.

  • I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I agree that education is absolutely at the heart of the rehabilitation of offenders.

    At Rochester, when it rains, lessons have to be cancelled because the roof leaks. These issues have to be addressed urgently if we are to reform our prisons and improve standards. Visiting cells there, we saw prisoners in cramped and unsanitary conditions. One cell that housed three men had a toilet that was screened by little more than plastic sheeting and had no toilet lid. In addition, the perimeter fence is low and not comprehensively covered by CCTV. This has led to drugs, particularly Spice and other psychoactive substances, frequently being thrown over the fence, with 47 drug-related incidents recorded in just one week. We were told it would cost £300,000 to install a fit-for-purpose CCTV system and that the benefits would be immeasurable. We also visited the drug rehabilitation wing, but the 12-step rehabilitation programme had to stop when the prison received its now rescinded closure notice. These are the conditions that the governor and staff at HMP Rochester are battling daily and I commend them for their work.

    One of the key factors in rehabilitation and safety in our prisons is the prison population. It has been fluctuating around the 85,000 mark for nearly a decade and as of this month stands at 86,000. The Government have been asked repeatedly why the numbers continue to grow, and their answers usually follow the template that more people are convicted of sex-related offences and are serving longer sentences. Although that may be the case in part, we must also look at the wider picture to understand fully why our prison population continues to rise. We cannot look at offences and sentence length alone to answer this question.

    Long-term cuts to mental health services, addiction support and housing have all played a part and had an impact on our prison population through reoffending rates. The Ministry of Justice’s latest figures show that 29.6% of offenders in the October to December 2015 cohort reoffended within a year. Cuts mean less support when these individuals require more than most. The Howard League’s “No Fixed Abode” study from 2016 estimated that a third of released prisoners have no accommodation to go to on leaving prison. The Combined Homelessness and Information Network’s annual report on rough sleeping in London showed that 33% of people seen sleeping rough had some experience of being in prison. Let me repeat that: a third of all prisoners are likely to be homeless on release.

  • Does the hon. Lady agree that that relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) about not being able to keep the data? It is well known that health outcomes for those who sleep rough are less good, and we find ourselves with a never-ending cycle of people bouncing between the street and prison, and in and out of the system, with little care and attention to find, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) said, the treasure in that man’s soul.

  • I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. One issue that has been raised with us is that people are imprisoned for short sentences of two or three months, and during that time there is no chance of any rehabilitation. We need to look more closely at community-based sentencing, so that people can get rehabilitation and come out of the cycle of prison and homelessness. That is an important point.

    To reduce reoffending rates, we need to stop the spiral of prison services being eviscerated, leaving inmates with little help in their rehabilitation work. It is a commonly held view across the House that prison is not there merely to punish offenders, protect society and act a deterrent; it must also exist to rehabilitate and re-educate. Those aims can ultimately reduce the risk of reoffending by providing services to inmates that will provide them with the necessary skills that mean that on their release from prison they will be best equipped to fit back into society and mitigate their chances of falling into a cycle of criminal behaviour.

    When prisoners are incarcerated, the state is responsible for their wellbeing. We must not view this responsibility lightly; if we are to reduce crime and, in turn, our prisoner population, we must fix the wider problem pieces of this complex jigsaw. Departmental figures released last Friday show that our prison system is operating at close to maximum capacity. This is not sustainable and it is not a simple case of longer sentences for more serious crimes. We have a collective responsibility to ensure that the system in which these prisoners are treated is comprehensive in its ability to provide rehabilitation; only then will we see our prison population decline.

    In conclusion, it is clear that multiple things must be addressed for us to secure decent and sustainable prison reforms and to ensure that the prison population is manageable and kept at a safe level. I have been able to draw attention to only a small number of concerns, and I hope Members will touch on other issues. Until the prison population is under control, I fear that reform and safety standards will suffer. Three people to a room in a Victorian-era prison with limited sanitation, derelict and dilapidated amenities, little or no rehabilitation work, and an uncertain future for “imprisonment for public protection” prisoners both inside and outside prison; this is not where we should be in a 21st-century justice system.

    We have by no means the worst prison services in the world, but we could and should do better. I look forward to furthering those aims with my fellow Committee members in due course.

  • I have three questions for the Minister. First, he has heard our concerns about the quality of the ageing estate and the living conditions of prisoners. What is he going to do about it? My second question relates to the status of the Government’s closure plans and the plans to update and replace our ageing prisons. What is he going to do about it? My third is about the impact of the uncertainty over closures on what the prisons are trying to do to update and improve their facilities.

    To deal with my first question, the Minister will have seen, as we have, responses from the chief inspector of prisons. He has heard from Members today that in many prisons they have seen that showers and lavatory facilities are filthy and dilapidated and there are no credible or affordable plans for refurbishment. In a report published only a couple of months ago, the chief inspector of prisons said:

    “prisoners are held in conditions that fall short of what most members of the public would consider as reasonable or decent”.

    My first question on what the Government are doing to address that is therefore very relevant.

    On my second question, the Minister himself said only a couple of months ago that although his first priority is to ensure public protection and provide accommodation for all those sentenced by the courts, the commitment to close old prisons remains a viable option with which he wishes to continue. I would like to hear some detail about what is happening with that programme. The prison estate transformation programme reconfigured the estate into three functions looking after reception, training and resettlement, and those three are crucial to the better treatment of prisoners. The Ministry was also given £1.3 billion in 2015 as part of the spending review to invest over the next five years to transform the prison estates. What exactly is happening to that, what progress is being made and how is it being dealt with?

    As for my third question, on the impact of the uncertainty about closure on prison performance and staff morale, I would echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) about the visit to Rochester prison. I was unable to go on that visit myself, but it is crucial that the lessons from it are learned. One lesson was, as governors told the Committee, that the decision about investing in maintenance or improving the facilities had not gone ahead since the announcement that the prison would close. As we have heard, the old 1840s prison buildings there are described as “deplorable” and “deteriorating”. That has an impact on recruitment, which had been frozen in Rochester, and it proves demoralising to staff.

    I think that those three questions are the most pertinent.

  • I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the Rochester issue. He might like to know that we found on one wing that some 22 showers had been out of operation for months. When we spoke to people there, they said that the nub of the problem was that the facilities management contractors do not see the governors as their client. They see their client relationship being with MOJ’s commercial arm. That needs to be got right, because it means that the efforts of governors get nowhere—

  • Order. Can I be honest? We need shorter interventions. The hon. Gentleman was hoping to get two minutes at the end of the debate; he is eating into that two minutes, and he will understand if he does not get them.

  • I fully accept the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), which goes back to what I said about the prison having given up on trying to invest any money in refurbishment or in replacing its ageing facilities. I have already quoted the chief inspector of prisons, who said that the shower and lavatory facilities in many prisons are filthy and dilapidated.

    What will the Government do to address our concerns about the quality of the ageing estate? What are they doing about the current programme of reform and estate modernisation? What impact is the uncertainty about closures having both on the prisons themselves and on the lives of prisoners? Those are the three most relevant questions.

  • The English prison system is in crisis. It is failing inmates, prison officers and, fundamentally, society, as the hard-hitting motion of the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) makes clear. Building more prison places will not solve the problem. The prison population tends to expand to fill the places available, often even before the places are built.

    As the Howard League puts it,

    “trying to deal with only the supply of prison resources and prison places will not work. We now need to manage demand and, in the process, ask some fundamental questions about who we send to prison and why.”

    It is therefore surprising that the UK Government are pursuing a strategy of building an industrial-scale prison complex in my nation.

    With that in mind, I will focus on the UK Government’s decision to outsource the crisis in the English prison system to Wales, rather than fix it. On 27 February 2017, the Ministry of Justice opened the biggest prison in Europe in north Wales—HMP Berwyn. Once fully operational, the prison will have the capacity to hold more than 2,100 male prisoners. I am sure it will not be a revelation to many in this House that piling a few thousand prisoners into a small corner of north Wales is not expected to be conducive to rehabilitation. Whether it is the left-leaning Howard League or the Centre for Social Justice founded by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), there is agreement that these prisons do not rehabilitate.

    Even more galling, HMP Berwyn will not meet the demands of the nation in which it is being built. HMP Berwyn alone will have 800 more places than there are inmates in Wales. In March 2017, the UK Government announced plans to build a new super-prison in Baglan, Port Talbot. Yet again, this prison is not being built for our needs. It will be for 1,600 inmates shipped into Port Talbot. A person does not need a Fields medal to work out that adding the 800 surplus places at Berwyn to the 1,600 surplus places at the proposed Baglan prison would mean 2,400 more places than are required in Wales.

    The truth of the matter is that Wales is England’s affordable penal colony. Westminster is turning old south Wales into a homage to 19th-century New South Wales. Those are not my words but the comments of Frances Crook, the chief executive officer of the Howard League. Ms Crook went as far as to draw a parallel between the infamous Botany Bay penal colony and Wales, a rather extreme but, none the less, fitting analogy.

    Plaid Cymru has always been against the building of these monstrous prisons in Wales. Currently, however, the plans are being taken ahead with the Labour Welsh Government’s blessing. In fact, the Labour Welsh Government in Cardiff could stop the development if they so decided, because the proposed Baglan prison would be built on Welsh Government land, if only they would, for once, put the interests and requirements of Wales first.

    Wales does not want or need another super-prison, much as it did not need the first. Because of the lack of distinct legal jurisdiction, Westminster can still impose prisons on Wales. Northern Ireland and Scotland are off limits thanks to their more generous devolution settlements, but not my country. The existing prison estate in Wales is far from perfect, but we need Welsh solutions to Welsh problems.

    Welsh young offenders and women offenders are being sent over the border to England, a damning indictment of the policy currently applied to Wales. Devolution of the prison estate and the criminal justice system must be a priority for the sake of offenders, taxpayers and the communities afflicted by the UK Government’s super-prison policies.

    Piling thousands of prisoners on top of each other in these titan prisons is not conducive to rehabilitation or safety, be it for those detained or for those doing the detaining. Relying on some modern-day digital panopticon for the safety and operation of our prisons is neither sensible nor appropriate. All the evidence shows that smaller, more human prisons that do not put economies of scale ahead of outcomes are what our prison estates need.

    I close with a plea to the UK and Welsh Governments: listen to the 9,000 signatories to the petition against the Port Talbot prison; listen to the experts from every inch of the political spectrum who advise against these behemoth prisons; listen to the former inmates; listen to the residents; and listen to Wales. We will not become England’s penal colony.

  • There are three issues that could promote the progress of effective prison reform, all of which relate to improving prisoners’ contact with their families. As time is short, I will summarise those issues at the outset. First, there is a need to consider the appointment of a deputy director for families, mirroring the staffing priority given to drugs and violence in prisons. Secondly, there is a need to speed up the long-awaited policy announcement on the revised procedures for release on temporary licence. Thirdly, could Skype and other innovative face-to-face digital platforms be used to strengthen prisoners’ family ties?

    I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for successfully championing the importance of good quality family contact to prisoners and their rehabilitation when he was Prisons Minister. His leadership paved the way for the excellent Farmer review.

    The need to replicate the good practice that exists across the prison estate in supporting prisoners’ family ties and to address inconsistencies in that area was one of the key messages of the Farmer review, “The Importance of Strengthening Prisoners’ Family Ties to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime,” published earlier this year. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah) for his wholehearted commitment to implementing in full every one of the Farmer review’s 21 recommendations.

    Another reason for the Farmer review so successfully gaining traction in Government is that senior officials are personally committed to the families agenda, often because they have been No. 1 governors in prisons and have seen at first hand the difference made by good family contact. However, this important agenda cannot be dependent on an individual official’s conviction that it matters. Civil servants move on.

    Indeed, Paul Baker, the most senior official working on the implementation of the Farmer review, is leaving at the end of the year. I pause here to acknowledge the decades of excellent service he has given to our Prison Service, his dogged pursuit of reform and his championing of prisoners’ families, who are among the most neglected and stigmatised people in this country.

    Mr Baker currently heads that work alongside his responsibilities as deputy director of custody for London and Thames Valley, a large group of prisons. In other words, the families agenda is tagged on to a very demanding existing work load. Does the Minister agree that now would be the ideal time to give this agenda the same priority within the management structure of the prisons system as drugs and violence, each of which has a dedicated deputy director? If the importance of family and other relationships is to be the golden thread running through our prisons, we need senior staff who are mandated to keep the issue salient until it is embedded in the estate as firmly as action to combat drugs and violence. Indeed, family involvement drives improvements in those other areas.

    Will the Minister kindly look at speeding up the development and announcement of the release on temporary licence policy? ROTL allows for the temporary release of prisoners, where it is safe to do so, to undertake purposeful activities that will benefit their resettlement, including rebuilding closer ties with their family. If men undertake parenting and other family learning courses, such as on how to be a responsible father, open conditions such as ROTL give them the opportunity to put theory into practice.

    Exceptional negative incidents will always be reported, but the evidence showing high rates of compliance with ROTL terms and a consequential reduction in reoffending rates is positive. For example, an offender could attend parent-teacher evenings, as well as case conferences to discuss their child protection and care proceedings. This also helps families adjust to having the person around more. Many prisoners begin to feel less legitimate as a parent, which makes it difficult to build rounded relationships with their child, and ROTL would help boost their confidence as a parent. Indicators suggest that all forms of ROTL have fallen significantly since 2013. Governors have been waiting for guidance on this for more than a year and do need it now.

    Finally, may I ask the Minister whether Skype or other face-to-face platforms could be used to aid prisoners’ family contact time, enabling digital visits to homes to see their family members in that context?

  • First, I apologise to the House and to the Minister if I cannot be here for the wind-ups. I also commend the diligence of the Justice Committee for bringing this debate forward, as it is incredibly important that the House has a chance to focus on this issue of safety and reform. Lots of organisations in the wider community are also campaigning on these areas, and I particularly want to draw the House’s attention to the work of the Community trade union, the largest trade union in the private prisons sector. It has a strong set of recommendations and campaigns for a safer justice sector. I urge the Minister to look at the work Community is doing and its important recommendations. That would add to this issue.

    I simply want to talk about Her Majesty’s prison Nottingham, which is in my constituency, where recently we have sadly seen very difficult pressures starting to grow. We have had five deaths in custody since the summer, some of which have been suicide and on some of which we have not yet had the coroner’s report and recommendations. It is therefore still early days in terms of knowing whether there is a common pattern of events in these cases. I have met the governor, Tom Wheatley, and spoken with the diligent independent monitoring board—these are volunteers who go in every week to check out things such as safety in the prison.

    The biggest problem in the prison is the cycle of drugs and smuggling, be it of Spice or mamba, to which many hon. Members have alluded. How these drugs are getting into the prison has to get national attention. Sometimes they are thrown over prison walls, but more often than not—it is difficult to be fully certain—there is a smuggling process whereby prisoners secrete drugs upon their person to bring them into jail. Some inmates are finding themselves affected by those psychoactive substances, but in a way it is just as bad that gang operations are going on within the prisons, as they are putting pressures on some offenders who go out on licence, halfway through their sentence. Incredibly, people are almost driven to reoffend, deliberately to break their licence, so that they can go back into prison in order to smuggle more drugs back in. It is an astonishing idea that in the 21st century there is reoffending as a way of making a living, but some prisoners are in that cycle.

    I urge the Minister to think creatively about how to break that problem. There is a question of resources involved. A ridiculous number of experienced officers have been taken out in recent years. I know that things are stabilising now and that new officers are being recruited, but that experienced officer set is what we need to retain to ensure the situation does not get any worse.

    I encourage the Minister to think about ways of breaking that cycle of people reoffending on licence, perhaps by getting the courts to randomise which prisons reoffenders are returned to. That might stop this notion that the prisoner breaking their licence knows they will be going back into a certain prison, such as Nottingham. If we can break that, we might be able to deal with this issue. I know that there are networks across other prisons, which are difficult to break, but we need creative solutions. It is important that the designated keyworker programme that has started in Nottingham is extended so that officers can get to know inmates a little more effectively. It is not just those on vulnerable watch who, sadly, we have seen taking their own lives. That is an important programme to be continued.

    Also on communications, we need to make sure we regularise access to telephone calls for prisoners, because there is a smuggling problem in respect of mobile phones, too. If we got into a situation where we had regularised phone calls and access to approved family members, some of the pressures and strains on inmates could be lessened. We need creative solutions. Resources are part of this, but it is not just about them, which is why I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the Chair of the Committee, for bringing us this important debate for the House to pay attention to today.

  • I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie), who talked about his experiences of his local prison, and I am pleased to be part of today’s debate. I believe there is general consensus in the Chamber about the fact that our prison system is not perfect, but I acknowledge that the Government have an ambitious programme for reform that will benefit not only offenders, but communities across the country. In particular, I welcome the 2,500 new prison officers who will be appointed and the provision of 5,600 body cameras, not just for prison officers, but for the police—that issue has been raised with me in particular.

    I wish to focus my speech on gardening and the environment in the prison system, and I make no excuses for that, because it has a lot of potential to be helpful. We know that imprisoning somebody does not in itself reduce reoffending rates. As a number of Members have said, to do that we must try to give these people skills to increase their employability chances and help them to reintegrate back into the community. That is where environmental and gardening schemes can really help. As I have said before in the Chamber, many prisons are old and outdated, with little green space. There is definite data to show that when people are not in contact with green space and nature, it has a real impact on their mental health. I want to talk about a couple of good schemes that can show how this is useful.

    The Eden Project has teamed up with Dartmoor prison to transform a disused exercise yard into a gardening project within the resettlement unit, from which local residents can buy vegetables, flowers and eggs. Such schemes are starting to crop up in many prisons across the country. When I was a television reporter, I went to Leyhill prison, near Bristol, which had a fabulous gardening project. It had state-of-the-art greenhouses and its gardening projects won gold medals at Chelsea. Lots of those projects need to be either reinstated—some have dropped away—or regenerated. The Conservation Foundation is about to start a “Gardening against the odds” project in Wandsworth prison. The project will extend across three exercise yards that are currently just tarmac, and will bring together prisoners, staff, members of the community, leading horticulturists and environmentalists.

    Such schemes can stimulate mental and physical health. As I said, they also teach skills and disciplines that can improve employability. I recently met the British Association of Landscape Industries, which represents a £6 billion industry that is crying out for people to work for it, so there are opportunities if we can skill people up in these areas before they get back into the working world. Lots of these projects are not costly—they are cost-effective and highly beneficial—so I hope that the Minister will make reference to them. Earlier in the year, he replied to one of my oral questions by mentioning a prison gardening competition and inviting me to be a judge. I hope he is going to stick to the offer, because I would very much like to do that.

  • I confirm the invitation to my hon. Friend to be a judge in the prison gardening competition, at her convenience—the invitation is open.

  • I thank the Minister for that. I am of course hoping that I will be allowed out by the Whips, as this is a very important initiative. Once it gets more attention, more people will enter the competition.

    The Forestry Commission runs an interesting offenders and nature scheme, with offenders typically working as volunteers on nature conservation and woodland sites. They get out to do tasks such as building footpaths, creating boardwalks and establishing ponds, and learn about conservation and the environment. That, too, is very cost-effective, and at the same time it addresses several of the underlying factors that contribute to reoffending.

    The Phoenix Futures recovery charity works with people, both in and out of prison, who struggle with drug and alcohol addiction. We have heard a lot about the drug problem in our prisons today. The charity is supported by the National Lottery, and it runs a recovery through nature programme, which aims to connect those who use the charity’s services with nature to assist their recovery. It has been shown that those who participate in the project have an incredible 41% higher chance of recovery than the national average, so I can tell the Minister that there is mileage in it.

    Many of the ideas I have mentioned are included in a Conservative Environment Network pamphlet, to which many Members contributed, which calls for a more holistic and cross-departmental approach to environmental policy. This Government are doing great work on the environment and bringing it into many areas, but let us add an environmental strand to our prison reform.

    I do not know how many Members have seen the film “Paddington 2”. Perhaps you have, Madam Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] Oh, well you should see it; it is fantastic. Paddington used cooking to improve the lives of prisoners, and I am saying, “Let’s use gardening.”

    We have a great opportunity. We need change. The situation is challenging. I am not saying that this is the answer to everything, but it is one small tool to add to the box—or the greenhouse—that might help us to address the problem. Ultimately, it will improve the lives of so many people who deserve it.

  • Nelson Mandela said:

    “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

    Those words should be at the forefront of our minds as we consider the ways in which prisons operate in England and Wales.

    With £3.954 billion of annual expenditure, prisons take up the largest share of the Ministry of Justice’s budget. That goes towards maintaining the 118 adult prisons and keeping roughly 86,000 people in prison. According to 2015-16 figures, that works out at a staggering £32,510 per prisoner.

    As a member of the Justice Committee, a week ago I made a very interesting visit to Cookham Wood young offenders institute and Medway secure training centre. I was heartened to see the education and training provided, but at the same time I was concerned to learn that, due to staffing levels, young people were not getting the 27 hours of education that they were supposed to get. Instead, they were receiving just half that amount. In my view, that seriously hampers the rehabilitation of those young men and increases the chances of them reoffending.

    I was also concerned about the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic young offenders at Cookham Wood, and I want to link that to the Lammy review, which was published on 8 September, and improving outcomes for young black and/or Muslim men in the criminal justice system. The review states that BAME people make up 3% of the population but more than 12% of the adult prison population, and the proportion of under-18s in custody who are BAME has risen from 25% in 2006 to 41% in 2016. There is a disproportionate number of BAME prisoners in the criminal justice system at a cost to taxpayers of at least £309 million each year.

    The Lammy review highlighted three key themes for action. The first is to strengthen the link between scrutiny and equitable decision making on the fairness of the system. That means using the principle of “explain or reform”, so that if there is no evidence-based explanation for the disparities, they should be addressed through reform. The second is understanding and addressing the trust deficit. The Centre for Justice Innovation has found that more than half of British-born BAME people believe that the criminal justice system discriminates against particular groups, compared with 35% of British-born white people. The third is identifying where responsibilities lie beyond the criminal justice system. Issues include parenting, the exploitation of young people, and the need for closer work with communities to hold offenders to account.

    The review made 35 recommendations and considered how they relate to prisons, among other areas, and preventing reoffending. One of the recommendations was to collect data. What do the Government plan to do in relation to collecting and disclosing data on the ethnicity of prisoners and offenders?

    I am also concerned about the basic screening custody tool for reception and resettlement. I am aware of problems faced by community rehabilitation centres and their subcontractors in receiving data that would help them to inform their view of what help a prisoner may need for resettlement. I am firmly of the view that more investment is needed for resettlement to work in prison.

    As has been said, there is serious concern about the state of some of our older prisons, whose living conditions are poor and inadequate. Hon. Members may have read recently about the appalling conditions at HMP Liverpool. There is also concern about the staffing of our prisons, with 95 out of 104 of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service prisons being understaffed. There are 13% fewer operational staff than in 2010, and we all know that a full complement of staff is required to keep prisoners safe and protected from violence, and to help to reduce the prevalence of psychoactive drugs in our prisons.

    One of the reasons why there is such demand for psychoactive drugs is the fact that many prisoners are locked up for long periods. It is a widely held view that more purposeful activity outside cells is a good way to reduce demand for drugs. Similarly, more staffing would help to keep vulnerable prisoners safe. It is worrying that there were 120 suicides in prison in 2016, which was double the number in 2012. We need to keep prison staff safe as well. In the 12 months prior to March 2017, there were 7,159 assaults on prison staff, which was a 32% increase on the previous 12-month period.

    In conclusion, the Minister and the Ministry of Justice have much work to do if they want to reduce reoffending among prisoners.

  • Prison safety and reform will continue to be major priorities for the Justice Committee until the challenges facing prisons are stabilised. I want to focus on governor empowerment and on young adults in our prisons.

    The increase in assaults, self-harm and self-inflicted deaths are all unsurprising, given rising prisoner numbers, over-occupied prisons, understaffing, and the wave of psychoactive drugs that have been washing over prisons for the past couple of years. How can the system turn prisoners’ lives around when too many are locked up for 22 hours a day and are unable to access education, treatment or work? Those are major challenges not only for prison governors, but for Ministers, the MOJ and the Prisons and Probation Service.

    In the Queen’s Speech of 2016, there was a plan that prisons would be independent legal entities, with the power to enter into contracts, generate income and appoint their own boards. Both the Secretary of State and, more recently, one of his Ministers have said that they remain committed to continuing to work towards not only making prisons places of safety, but reforming them.

    The Justice Committee, of which I have been a member since September, agrees that prison management and the provision of safe and secure prison conditions that promote rehabilitation are complex activities that must be well grounded in evidence. I would add that adequate resources are also crucial.

    I remember, once upon a time, when governors could be incentivised to reduce the reoffending rates of those released from their establishments. Even now, there are many examples of positive good practice in prison, a number of which have been mentioned today. Overarching that, however, there appears to be no joined-up strategy of rehabilitation, or even of reform. The prison system seems to be always in crisis management mode. This is exactly the time for clear lines of accountability between the Ministry of Justice, the Prison and Probation Service and governors. Those lines appear fuzzy at best to members of the Justice Committee.

    What is the current status of devolution to governors? What support have governors been given to implement the empowerment agenda? Where is the review of reform prisons? Overarching that, where are the levers, and who gets upset when there are failures?

    I want to move on to young adults in the criminal justice system. I draw the House’s attention to my former trusteeship of the Barrow Cadbury Trust, which initiated the Transition to Adulthood Alliance. Young adults aged 18 to 25 are a distinct group: only 10% of the general population, but accounting for 17% of those sentenced to prison every year. That is, admittedly, a drop from 25%, but is still too many people at a key stage in their vulnerable lives. Research shows that when policy makers, sentencers and practitioners take into account developmental maturity and the particular needs of young adults, they are more likely to grow out of crime.

    Those results were reflected in a key recommendation by the Justice Committee in its inquiry into young adults in 2016. A week ago, the MOJ released a study that supports the Transition to Adulthood Alliance’s long-standing campaign for criminal justice agencies to take account of young adults’ maturity in service design and delivery. Given the Government’s research findings, what assurance can they give that they will provide a distinct regime for young adult offenders, as proposed by the T2A Alliance and the Justice Committee?

    We all have to ask what prisons are for. I hope that, instead of prisons just warehousing prisoners, as too often seems to be the case, the Secretary of State and the Minister will take responsibility for ensuring that our prisons are humane and safe, and that they turn lives around and reduce reoffending.

  • Given the short time available, I hope that hon. Members will not mind if I restrict my comments to the conditions of my local prison, HMP Wormwood Scrubs, especially as this debate coincides with the publication of the Independent Monitoring Board’s report last week. I start by paying tribute to Rob Foreman, the chairman of the board, and his predecessor, Chris Hammond. They have done an excellent job, as do the overwhelming majority of staff at the prison, who show dedication and professionalism.

    I was initially heartened when I read the covering press release, which said that promising changes had been made in some areas, such as the introduction of more CCTV and a new system for prisoners to access their property—it is true that in July the Scrubs went from grade 1, the worst grade which only a handful of prisons are in at any one time, to grade 2—but that is probably where the good news stops. We have to be frank about this: there is nothing new about problems at the Scrubs. Many years ago, it had problems with violence against prisoners and poor management. An HMI report in only April last year talked about rat-infested and overcrowded conditions, with some prisoners too frightened to leave their cells.

    The difficulty is that the current problems are specifically connected to underfunding, poor services and low staff numbers, despite what we are told are efforts by the Government to increase staffing, having cut it back so dramatically under the coalition Government. There were still 57 members of staff out last year, and only 21 in.

    The report says that

    “complaints made by prisoners are sometimes handled inappropriately, or passed to the staff member who is the subject of the complaint.”

    It says that the

    “lack of maintenance…means that prisoners are frequently subjected to conditions that are indecent and not suitable for them to live in.”

    Prisoners experience unacceptable delays in accessing medical treatment, and the report says that

    “Care UK is not always able to provide enough staff to deliver…triage and screening processes.”

    On the key issue of safety, the report says that 40 to 50 violent incidents occur in a typical month, 25% of which are gang-related. The prison has

    “the second highest number of prisoners moved by ‘Tornado teams’”

    and had four deaths in custody.

    A terrible contractor called Carillion is responsible for maintenance, but the report says that beds were in poor condition, that toilets were broken, that cells were unheated, that staff worked in overcoats, and that there were no working urinals in parts of the prison. People are living in medieval conditions.

    As for the education services, attendance at classes in June was 24%, and the library was closed for several weeks because Carillion could not fix the alarm. The Koestler Trust, which does fantastic work in prisoner art, is based in the old governor’s house outside the prison, but there is no art teaching inside. These are truly terrible conditions.

    The prison has the worst record in London for accessing legal help. What that means in practice, when solicitors try to see their clients, is, to quote the report, that

    “prisoners are effectively being denied access to legal advice.”

    I ask the Minister to look at that, because it is not acceptable in any of our prisons, especially one that is 45% remand.

    The private community rehabilitation company is MTCNovo, which I remember telling the shadow Justice Minister was not a good appointment. The report says that it does not sufficiently engage with prisoners before their release, with far too many released without any accommodation to go to. Is it any wonder that reoffending rates are so high when that is the background? It is not an accident that we are talking about companies such as Care UK, Carillion and MTCNovo. The privatisation of prison services lies behind what has happened to a substantial extent.

    When the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) became Justice Secretary, we were promised a prisons revolution, but of course he did not stay around long enough to achieve that. It is odd to think that the right hon. Gentleman would be seen as the champion of the underdog in that way, but he was following the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), and a tip for anyone wants to have a good reputation is to follow him into a job. What will the Minister do to address the appalling conditions that are experienced every day in our prisons?

  • I want to concentrate on just one aspect of the prison system, the workforce. Prison officers are working with people with complex mental health issues and people who have experienced trauma throughout their lives. Prison officers work day in and day out with people who may assault them. They keep watch over people who want to end their life. They are at the forefront of tackling organised crime; work to intercept drugs; have to work in high-conflict and high tension situations; and suffer intolerable abuse. Prison officers have told me about the unbelievable and disgusting practice of “potting”, which involves prisoners dumping a bucket of urine and excrement over the head of a prison officer. They are routinely spat at. Every day, 20 staff are assaulted.

    Somehow, prison officers are not seen as frontline workers, but I want to challenge that in the strongest terms. Although their work is behind closed doors, their heroics should be seen and valued in the same way as other public sector workers.

    The increase in violence and tension in prisons cannot be seen in a vacuum. It is part of the perfect storm that has been mentioned—huge cuts to prison staff, a massive increase in the use of the drug Spice, and an historically high prison population. Thousands of prisoner officer jobs have been cut. I know there has been an effort to recruit more prison officers, and that is welcome, but they enter the service on very different terms and conditions from those with longer service. Even those with longer service have had their terms and conditions radically altered. They are now expected to work much longer. Recruitment drives aside, the ability to retain new recruits remains in question.

    I agree with the POA that 68 is too late a retirement age for such a strenuous and stressful job, and I support its members in challenging that increased pension age. It would be hard to argue against the clear correlation between the difficulties in recruitment and retention of prison staff and the erosion in pay, terms and conditions, alongside the difficult circumstances I have described. I met a prison officer recently who said that their pay was only £13 more than seven years ago, and that was someone with more than 30 years of service. That cannot be right.

    Staff shortages are more pronounced in the south, but those shortages have an impact on other regions—in particular, the north-east—through the detached duty system. If I get anything out of this debate, I hope it is an assurance that the Minister will look into that system. It sees prison officers from my region being asked to work away from home for prolonged periods of time, staying in hotels and being sent to prisons where they do not have a longstanding relationship with the prisoners, have no in-depth understanding or knowledge of their needs, issues or personalities, making shifts more precarious. The Justice Committee found that the first 13 months of the scheme cost the taxpayer £63.5 million. I would like to know how much that system has cost to date. Should the Department not have considered spending that money on providing incentives for those jobs, making it more likely that people in the south would apply? I am told that many workers in the north only accept detached duty because of their own dwindling pay.

    If we are serious about addressing the crisis in our prisons, we must start with the workers. We have to ensure that they are working in safe conditions—I believe that that safety is in numbers—and that there is a concerted effort to keep more experienced workers alongside newer staff. Through the cutbacks, we have lost far too much organisational knowledge and experience in our Prison Service. There must be acknowledgement that being a prison officer is a strenuous frontline job. It is completely untenable to make these people work until 68, with that really difficult fitness test. In fact, it would be more expensive for the service through things such as temporary injury benefits and medical inefficiency payments.

    We have to value these workers by turning the Prison Service into a career again, rather than just a job. To do this, we must stop wasting millions of pounds on short-term sticking-plaster solutions, and really invest in the workforce.

  • I congratulate the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) on setting the scene so well. We have heard constructive contributions from Members on both sides of the Chamber. It is always good to have a Northern Ireland contribution in a debate on a matter that, to be honest, is devolved. It is good to hear observations from us in Northern Ireland; we encourage some of the recommendations that have been made, and have some suggestions that the Minister could perhaps look into.

    I am very much of the school of thought that prisons play a key part in the structure of the nation in a two-fold manner. I am thinking of the three Rs. The first is clearly retribution, which happens because the prisoner has done wrong and the courts have decided on a jail sentence. But alongside side that, we need the other Rs: rehabilitation and retraining. If those elements are part of the process, we have a genuine chance of turning people around. I want that to be part of what we are trying to achieve through legislation and through the Select Committee.

    We cannot ignore the rising number of suicides in our prisons. I think every hon. Member who has spoken today has mentioned this, and it is important to do so. Although the number of suicides in prison has doubled since 2013, the prison population has also doubled in the same time. But the number of suicides in prison is still higher than the average in the general populace. In prison, 120 people per 100,000 commit suicide, which compares with 10.8 people per 100,000 outside prison. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point and see what we can do.

    The Prison Reform Trust has stated that prisons in the UK are currently holding 7,300 people more than capacity. The hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) mentioned assaults on prison officers. I am very aware of that issue because a lot of people working in prisons in my constituency—this is not a point for the Minister to respond to—are subject to assaults on a regular basis. There has been a 27% increase in assaults compared to last year, and reports say that officers are outnumbered three to one in some prisons. We must consider the need to develop inmates into efficient and beneficial members of society, including those who have unfortunately been involved in assaulting prison officers. We need to turn this situation around.

    The hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who is no longer in her place, mentioned gardening and the other work that has been done in some prisons. The Minister responded by giving her the opportunity to be the judge of the prisons’ gardening competition. There are things that can be done, but we are not seeing enough of them. We need more to happen. We must work our hardest to prevent those who have served their time from becoming repeat offenders. It is so important to address that issue compassionately, directly, efficiently and in a way that actually works.

    The fact that 26% of those who serve their time reoffend within the next six months provides us with a clear example of how the prison system has—I say this gently—failed them. Only one in four prisoners has a job to go to on release from prison, and one in five employers says they would exclude or would likely exclude former prisoners from the recruitment process. Some 11% of those released from prison cannot get accommodation. It is important that we address these issues.

    We are witnessing a dramatic change in the operation of our prisons, with fewer staff being responsible. We have not seen—again, I say this gently and graciously—the increase in the number of staff in prisons that perhaps we should have seen. I understand that only 75 members of staff have been recruited this year, when there is a dearth of more than 2,000. I also believe that 27% of frontline staff leave the role before two years of service. What are we doing to keep staff on board and not to lose them? We must establish a support system that helps new staff to acclimatise and adjust, not simply leave the service.

    There are significantly high levels of mental health issues within our prisons. An unbelievable 26% of women and 16% of men in prison have received treatment or are currently receiving treatment for a mental health problem in the first year of their sentence. Everyone in this Chamber wants the same thing; it is about how we achieve it. I look to the Minister for his response; we are all here to support him. I hope we can get the results that we want.

  • Before I call the spokesman for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), I am sure that it does not compromise my impartiality in the Chair if I wish him and his colleagues in Paisley the best of luck for the exciting announcement in about four and a half hours’ time of which town or city will be the city of culture 2021. I hope it is going to be Paisley—good luck.

  • Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was concerned that I would be unable to shoehorn a mention of Paisley 2021 into a speech on prison reform in England and Wales, but you have managed it for me, so thanks very much. I will carry your best wishes back home on the 4.55 pm flight, if I make it to Heathrow on time. It is also an honour, as usual, to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

    Although I am a relatively new member of the Justice Committee, and although some of my contribution today will be based on my short experience serving on the Committee, I should note that I am speaking from the SNP Front Bench and will tailor my remarks appropriately.

    The small matter of prison reform in England and Wales has dominated much of the work of the Justice Committee since I was appointed after the general election, and it will continue to feature heavily in the coming weeks and months. However, this work is not new to the Committee, given its good work on this issue in the last Session, particularly on scrutinising reforms put forward by previous Justice Secretaries.

    The Queen’s Speech was a missed opportunity for the Government to introduce a Bill that would continue the reforms of the English and Welsh Prison Services. This was unfortunate, as the evidence is clear—indeed, the Committee saw for itself just last week—that the Prison Service is facing some very real challenges. The Government cannot be distracted by Brexit at the expense of modernising the English and Welsh justice systems.

    Despite the required reforms being wide-ranging, I will consign my remarks to the attempts that are being made to keep people out of the criminal justice system, including the attempts to reduce reoffending. The goal of keeping people out of prison is a basic premise that I am sure we can all agree on. Not only is it good for the individual; it is vital for our wider society and economy. Prison is obviously a necessary and appropriate route for those who commit serious crimes, but detaining an individual has to be for the right reasons and it should not be seen as the automatic result for everyone who commits a crime.

    Reducing the prison population is a key feature of the Government’s proposed reforms to the Prison Service and it is easy to see why that is the case. An exceedingly high prison population is not uncommon in most western democracies, but it is still worth noting that the total prison population in England and Wales on 31 March this year was just over 85,500 people. The recent prison population trend is cause for great concern and will rightly be a major influence in any reforms that the Government eventually introduce.

    An exceedingly high prison population serves little good. It is not good for society, the economy or the taxpayer. In many cases, it will not be good for the offender or, indeed, the victim. The current prison population of England and Wales raises some difficult questions for the justice system. As we seek to confront this issue, we should be asking ourselves whether we are detaining the right people or whether the criminal justice system still considers prison time to be the automatic outcome for the majority of those who commit crimes.

    The PCS, too, has spoken of the significant changes that have affected the Prison Service. Chiefly, the prison population has doubled in the last 30 years while successive Governments have failed to protect funding and staffing numbers. That, in turn, helps to create a much more difficult, stressful and dangerous working environment for those working in the Prison Service.

    I repeat that most other European countries are facing similar problems. However, we should take note of the Council of Europe report, which concludes that the UK has the highest prison population rate in western Europe. It states that England and Wales has a prison population rate of around 148 inmates per 100,000 citizens —well above the European average of 134.

    In Scotland, we face similar challenges with our prison population. However, the annual daily average prison population has decreased in each of the last five years, falling by over 8% over that period, from 8,179 in 2011-12 to 7,500 in 2016-17. In addition, in the same period, the young offender population has almost halved, with numbers for remand and sentenced prisoners also dropping by that proportion.

    However, the Scottish Government are not complacent. At a time when crime is at a 41-year low and recidivism rates are the lowest in 16 years, our prison population is still far too high, particularly among female offenders.

  • Through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has run an excellent campaign for Paisley 2021, and I very much hope that he gets the news he is looking for tonight.

    Will my hon. Friend join me in commending the Scottish Government, and particularly the Justice Secretary, Michael Matheson, for the progressive approach we have seen towards women in the prison system? Will he also welcome the £1.5 million extra for community justice services for women?

  • Absolutely. I could not agree more. In addition, we are going to close the Cornton Vale prison in 2020, demolish the old facility and move 80 women who need more security, as well as having five new community facilities, which the £1.5 million additional investment will pay for.

    Another area where the UK Government may want to take inspiration from the Scottish Government is the policy of a presumption against short sentences, which was recently augmented in the programme for government, with a plan to consult on an extension of the presumption from three months to 12 months. Overwhelming evidence confirms that short sentences simply do not work. They disrupt families and communities. They restrict employment opportunities and make it harder for individuals to access housing. Short-term sentencing does nothing for recidivism rates; in fact, the absolute opposite is the case. Short sentences are, therefore, not effective, and nor do they make a sensible use of all-too-scarce public resources.

    A Scottish Government extension of a presumption against short sentences gives us the very real opportunity to place Scotland at the forefront of introducing a transformative justice system. Karyn McCluskey, from Community Justice Scotland, has commented on the Scottish Government’s new policy, saying:

    “A smart justice system replaces ineffective short sentences with a problem-solving focus on addiction, mental health, poverty, social exclusion and adverse childhood experiences—and recognises prevention is better than cure.”

    This move by the Scottish Government has also been welcomed by the former Deputy First Minister of Scotland and by Lord Wallace of Tankerness, a Liberal Democrat peer in the other place—or the upside down, as I like to call it.

  • I think I got away with that one.

    Lord Wallace said the policy was a

    “welcome and imaginative extension of the presumption against short sentences.”

    Former Labour First Minister, Henry McLeish, also supports the policy, saying that 60% of those who are imprisoned for three months or less are reconvicted within the year.

    Therefore, this imaginative policy from the Scottish Government is not only helping to reduce our prison population, but is doing so in a way that is helping to tackle reoffending rates and transforming criminals into valuable members of society.

    The UK Government’s previous White Paper placed a strong emphasis on preparing prisoners for life after their sentence has come to an end and helping to support them to change their behaviour. Now, I support many of the Government’s aims, such as tackling health and substance misuse issues, helping to prepare individuals for working life after prison and improving access to education and training. However, it is vital that we fund and support projects, voluntary groups and charities that can effectively evidence the positive impact their work has on changing the lives of prisoners.

    As the SNP’s Westminster spokesperson for sport, and as someone who has always been involved in sport, I passionately believe that Governments of all colours should be tapping into the power of sport to help change attitudes and behaviours. As a rugby man, I am particularly interested in the work that Saracens rugby club has done to help reduce reoffending rates. Saracens rightly point out that 70% of young offenders leaving prisons in England and Wales will reoffend within 12 months, primarily due to a lack of support and motivation, low career aspirations and not having positive role models in their lives.

    The Saracens’ Get Onside programme uses the power of rugby to help to improve the life chances of young people leaving the justice system. The programme is based in Feltham young offenders institution and aims to build career aspirations, to provide mentors and a link to a local sports club and to assist in finding educational routes or employment. That will, in turn, give offenders a sense of belonging, and it surrounds them in a positive environment.

    Currently, in terms of the Get Onside programme’s success rate, 92% of young offenders do not return to crime, saving the Government and the taxpayer around £1 million a year. On their website, the Saracens published a quote from a participant in the programme, who said:

    “The project helped to give me belief and direction and taught me that I must be true to myself to achieve.”

    This programme, and many like it, highlights how we can use the power of sport to produce tangible social benefits for individuals and wider society. Sport can play a positive and key role in helping to rehabilitate offenders, as well as playing an important preventive role in keeping people of all genders away from crime altogether. As such, the Government would be missing an open goal if they did not incorporate the power of sport into their wider reform agenda.

    As the UK Government move forward with reforms, it is important to note that they have a responsibility to wider society, ensuring communities are safe and wrongdoers are dealt with in the appropriate manner. However, they also have a responsibility to those working in the justice system. It is a fact that the number of serious assaults on officers in Scottish prisons is 90% lower than in prisons in England and Wales, mainly due to the number of officers who are in the system because we did not cut the funding for officers.

    I hope that the Minister can expand on the answer he gave me recently when I asked whether, given the increase of more than 1,300 in the prison population in England and Wales, 2,500 extra officers were enough. The answer was:

    “The 2,500 target is obviously based on careful analysis of what we need in order to deliver the offender management model, which means one prison officer having a six-prisoner caseload, and it should be capable of allowing us to do so.”—[Official Report, 12 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 453W.]

    In his summing up, I would like the Minister to give a bit more information on that. Was the 2,500 figure arrived at assuming an increase of 1,300 in the population, or do a further 216 officers need to be hired, using the one in six ratio he gave me?

    We all want to keep people out of prison, and that has to include adopting preventive and effective policies that tackle and help those at risk of reoffending. I can only hope that, as the UK Government move forward in this process, they will reject taking a flawed, ideologically driven approach and instead undertake an evidenced-based approach, taking on board the recommendations that the Justice Committee makes, to ensure that the English and Welsh justice systems can operate in modern and efficient manner.

  • I would like to begin by congratulating the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), and all the other members of the Committee on all their work and on securing today’s debate. I previously served on the Committee, and it was a most valuable experience.

    The Committee has repeatedly shone a spotlight on the ongoing crisis affecting much of our justice system, and its work will become even more important over the coming months, given that the Ministry of Justice budget is set to be cut by another £800 million—by 40% over the decade to 2020—making the MOJ the most cut of any Department.

    Turning to today’s topic, our prisons have received vast media coverage over the past year—nearly always for the wrong reasons. The word “crisis” has been used time after time as a descriptor, but it is no longer sufficient. We have warned of crisis for five years—unfortunately, crisis is the new norm. The staff holding the service together are expected to do crisis management. The truth is that our prisons are now moving beyond crisis and are approaching emergency.

    Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, with whom I had the pleasure of undertaking a prison visit, described the situation in his scathing annual report:

    “Last year I reported that too many of our prisons had become unacceptably violent and dangerous places. The situation has not improved—in fact, it has become worse.”

    He went to warn that not one young offender institute was deemed safe, describing the “speed of decline” as “staggering”. He described a Dickensian prison system with people

    “locked up for as much as 23 hours a day”,

    which is

    “compounded by staffing levels…that are…too low to keep order”

    or to

    “run a decent regime that allows prisoners to be let out of their cells to get to training and education”.

    I would argue that it is the Government’s policy of slashing hundreds of millions from the Prison Service budget that has driven us into the emergency room.

    Perhaps the starkest example of the prisons emergency is what the Justice Committee, in its sixth report of the Session, described as

    “the ongoing and rapid deterioration in prison safety”.

    It was right to do so. It is a stain on our nation that self-harm and suicides are at record levels and that assaults are up by almost 80% on 2010. Every day, 74 people are attacked in our prisons—one every 20 minutes, morning, noon and night, every single day of the year. The consequences of this violence are dire. With prisoners locked near permanently in their cells to maintain safety, it is almost irrelevant whether education, training or mental health services are improved. Locked in their cells for that amount of time, they remain inaccessible, at a great cost to wider society. This violence is closely connected to another theme addressed by the Select Committee—empowering governors and prison reforms. The Government talk of a reform agenda delivering a modern prison estate fit for the 21st century and of governors self-managing their education budgets to help prisoners, but none of that will bear fruit until the epidemic of violence is tackled.

    The central cause of the prisons emergency has been the loss of staff. Conservative Justice Secretaries have cut the number of frontline prison officers by almost 7,000 since 2010. New psychoactive substances, drones and phones are all serious problems in our prisons. As the POA says, staffing shortages drive the wave of violence. I welcome the fact that the Government now acknowledge the damage done by thousands of prison officer cuts and have begun to try to reverse their own cuts, but the staffing picture is not, I am afraid, as rosy as the Government seek to portray it. Despite 1,200 extra officers recruited over the past year, one in four of our prisons has still had a fall in officer numbers in the past 12 months. That includes staffing cuts at 25% of the prisons labelled as being of concern. In high-security prisons, it is even worse: half those prisons have fewer officers than they had a year ago. For all the talk of empowering governors, the number of governor grade staff has been cut by over one third and continues to fall.

    Staffing cannot be permanently resolved separately from pay. The insulting 1.7% recent pay offer was yet another real-terms pay cut—a cut of £980 per year for the average prison officer. Falling pay is one of the reasons there is an exodus of experienced officers, who are now leaving at three times the rate back in 2010. The Government’s policies are creating a dangerous cocktail of experienced prisoners and inexperienced prison staff.

    The motion addresses the wider restructuring of the prisons system. The Government have destabilised the prisons system through an erratic reform policy that veered first this way and then that way, while prisons were being stripped of valuable resources, both human and financial. This has not been helped by the constant chopping and changing of those at the top. I have been shadow Justice Secretary for just over 18 months, and I have already dealt with three Justice Secretaries, each with their own specific vision. One of the current Secretary of State’s first tasks was to toss aside the Prisons and Courts Bill and the creation of a statutory purpose for prisons. That was especially regrettable as it had the support of virtually the whole House. Although the Government have scrapped the Bill, one thing remains the same: their answer to the deep problems in the prison service is yet more reform. I am a bit sceptical.

    Concerns about how reform is being undertaken were especially well expressed by the president of the Prison Governors Association, Andrea Albutt, who decried the fact that governors have seen nothing tangible coming out of the MOJ to ease the burden to date. The PGA complains of the MOJ’s prison reform programme draining resources, with expensive policy teams in Whitehall, operational experts taken out of prisons and put into the MOJ, and competing structures that sometimes undermine accountability. In short, if real powers rest in new Whitehall teams, budgets are cut and central contracts restrict freedom of decision, governors are not in charge in the way that they should be.

    Despite talk of greater autonomy, prison governors are still suffering the lack of control that arose from outsourcing key prison services to the private sector. The hiving off of facilities management and repairs has undermined basic decency in prisons. When prisoners are remarking that it is easier to get drugs than clean clothing, or when prisoners go for long periods without properly functioning showers or with a broken cell window, this does nothing to build the necessary institutional trust. It also makes reforming lives much harder. Labour has not only ruled out any more private prisons but committed to a review, working with prison governors, to identify the private maintenance and repair contracts that can be brought back in-house over time, saving the state money and improving prison conditions. I heard the Chair of the Justice Committee call for an urgent review of these same contracts in Justice questions on Tuesday. Labour Members fully support his call.

    The motion rightly points to our historically high prison population. Prison must act as a deterrent and, yes, as a punishment. Often prison is a fitting sanction, especially while a convicted person is a danger to the public, and a significant minority of people may never be safe to release. However, most people will one day leave prison, so it must also rehabilitate, but too often it is failing to do so. We now have 10,000 more prisoners in jails than we have proper places for. Rehabilitation cannot take place in overcrowded prisons. Armley Prison, in my home city of Leeds, holds nearly twice the number of prisoners that it was built to accommodate, and that is not an exception: the latest figures show that almost seven in 10 of our prisons are overcrowded.

    As we have heard, such warehousing of people without any support or access to rehabilitation means that when they leave prison they are likely to be in the same position as when they entered—or perhaps even worse: drug-dependent, homeless and without the skills to get secure work. Their stay in prison will be too short to tackle their problems. In fact, they may come out of prison more likely to commit crime. I have been struck by the fact that nearly every time I meet a prison governor, they tell me that we are jailing too many people. They ask me why we are using vast resources to send someone to prison for a few weeks. They are frustrated at seeing the same people over and again. When people at the frontline raise such matters, we must all take them very seriously.

    The evidence underlines the fact that, for far too many, prison is not working. Six in 10 adults released from prison after a sentence of less than 12 months, which over half of all prisoners receive, commit another offence within a year. The cost of reoffending has now hit £15 billion. As a society, we need to be asking if we should have jailed 8,000 women last year when the overwhelming majority committed a non-violent offence, with half in prison for theft. If prison is about rehabilitation as well as punishment, what is the point of seven in 10 women serving 12 weeks or less in jail? With a woman’s prison place costing £47,000 a year, alternatives could free up valuable resources to invest in women’s centres and community solutions and to make prison work for those who really should be there.

    We need to tackle the discrimination that means there is a greater disproportionality in the number of black people in our prisons than in the prisons of the United States of America. It wastes lives as well as valuable public funds. Too many prisoners, as we have heard, are suffering from mental health issues and need intensive medical treatment, not incarceration. Perhaps most immediately, we need to tackle the cases of the IPP prisoners. We need to debate all three issues separately in this Chamber on another occasion.

    In conclusion, we have a huge amount to do to turn our prisons around and make them places where lives are transformed, so that—this is our main objective—our communities become safer places to live. After nearly a decade of failed policies that have cut our prison service to the bone, that cannot and will not be done overnight, but the ongoing scrutiny of the Justice Committee will play a valuable role in helping to make our prisons work.

  • I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and the Justice Committee on securing the debate. I thank Members for their contributions, and I say genuinely that almost every one of today’s contributions was constructive, made in good faith and had some merit to it. My hon. Friend set out with characteristic clarity many of the issues that our prisons face. As we all know, and as the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) mentioned, nearly all prisoners will one day be released, and our prisons should therefore be places that put offenders on a path that will enable them to turn away from crime after release. That means providing a safe and secure environment, and providing the right interventions and support to help them to turn their lives around.

    No one doubts the challenge that we face with prisons or expects the situation to be quick or easy to turn around. I do not shy away from conceding that our prison system faces unprecedented challenges, but I am confident that we have a clear and coherent plan to face them. That plan will secure the safety and security of our estate and staff, empower governors to make decisions that are right for their prisons and ensure that we have the right tools in place to support offenders to rejoin society as productive citizens.

    The hon. Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) and for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands)—the hon. Gentleman is no longer in his place—referred to the motion, and specifically to its mention of our “historically high prison population”. We can all agree that the prison population is too high, and we want it to fall. We have, however, made a considered judgment deliberately not to set an arbitrary target for reduction, because we will not compromise on our responsibility either to the victims of offences or to the safety of the wider public.

    We will always hold in prison criminals whose offences are so grave that no other penalty will suffice, or who would pose a genuine threat to the public if they were released. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North mentioned that the Government should have a presumption against prison sentences of less than 12 months. Indeed, in England and Wales there is a presumption against custody at all, and a judge will send someone to prison only if they deem it right to do so.

    It is important to remember that our current prison population reflects the number of serious offences—including sexual offences—that are coming before the courts. That has changed the nature of sentencing, with fewer people being sent to prison on short sentences but more people in prison for serious crimes on longer sentences. To give the House one example, there are now 4,000 more sex offenders in prison in England and Wales than there were in 2010.

    I can assure the House that we will always have enough prison places for offenders who are sentenced to custody by our courts, and that protection of the public and providing justice to victims will remain our principal concern. Our latest statistics show that we have operational capacity of 87,370, and a current headroom of 1,241 places. The current population is 86,129, which includes 4,048 women prisoners. Of course, we cannot simply build our way out of the situation, but we have a plan for bringing in new capacity to the estate to provide modern, cost-effective, fit-for-purpose accommodation that will deal with the concerns that have been raised about overcrowding in the estate. HMP Berwyn currently has 800 places in use and will, when fully operational, provide 2,100 places. In addition, we have announced plans to build four more modern prisons.

  • The Minister has talked about capacity, and I understand the work that is being done. A specific point that has been raised with the Select Committee is the slowness of repatriation of foreign national prisoners who are serving sentences in the UK. Repatriation of such prisoners would certainly take some pressure off capacity. Can he help on that point?

  • The Chair of the Select Committee makes an important point about the repatriation of foreign national offenders. He will be aware that the most effective scheme to repatriate foreign offenders is the early release scheme, under which 40,000 foreign national offenders have been moved out of the UK since 2010. Prisoner transfer agreements are also in place but they are a lot more challenging because they require the co-operation of the receiving Government, who do not always seem that keen to receive their own criminals back. A cross-governmental task force is focused on that very point.

    To realise our vision for prisons, we must first make sure that they are secure environments that are free from drugs, violence and intimidation. Again, I do not shy away from acknowledging that the use and availability of drugs in our prisons is too high. The House has often discussed how the rise of psychoactive substances in our prisons was a game-changer, but it was when organised criminal groups moved in to take control of supply routes into prisons that the rules changed. Those groups have embedded themselves throughout the prison estate, becoming ever more sophisticated in driving the drug market and making enormous profits from peddling misery to those around them. Their activities have been facilitated by the rise of new technologies, such as phones and drones, which they have used to try to overcome our security. Those things represent an unprecedented threat that we have not faced before.

    As our prison officers and law enforcement partners across the country regularly prove, however, we are more than up to that challenge, and our investment in security is bearing fruit. Last year alone, HMPPS officers recovered more than 225 kg of drugs from the prison estate. Our new team of specialist drone investigators has already helped to secure over 50 years of jail time for those involved, and the team is supporting ongoing investigations across the country.

    We are providing officers with the tools that they need. We have already introduced drug tests for psychoactive substances across all prisons, provided every prison with signal detection equipment and trained more than 300 sniffer dogs specifically to detect new psychoactive substances. The right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) asked about the availability of sniffer dogs to prisons. The dogs operate on a regional basis and are therefore available for prisons to call on as and when they are needed.

    We are investing heavily in security and counter-terror measures, including £25 million to create the new security directorate in HMPPS. This year we will also invest more than £14 million in transforming our intelligence, search and disruption capability at local, national and regional level, to enable us better to identify and root out those who seek to supply drugs to our prisons. That investment includes more than £3 million to establish our serious organised crime units, which will relentlessly disrupt our most subversive offenders.

    We are already seeing early successes from the new capability. A recent joint Prison Service and police operation at HMP Hewell, involving our specialist search teams and dogs, recovered 323 items, including 79 mobile phones, 29 improvised weapons, 50 litres of alcohol and a large quantity of drugs.

  • The Minister is indicating that those things are all intelligence-led. They should be routine.

  • The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but we need to know what we are looking for, and we need to identify the prisoners who are most likely to have links with organised crime. We now know that about 6,000 prisoners have links with organised crime on the outside and are conduits for drugs into our prisons, and that allows us to be far more effective in what we are doing to combat those operations. It is still very early days, but the point I am making is that we are beginning to see success. As we go forward, we intend to build on these successes, through our new drugs plan, which he mentioned, and our work on corruption, where it exists—even if it be only among a very few officers. He will be hearing more from me about that shortly.

    Of course, this is not just about seizing or intercepting drugs. We should never forget that we have a duty of care to our prisoners—we want to help offenders with drug problems—and more of our prisons now have specialist wings to support them in overcoming their dependencies. We are also working closely with health partners to provide information, guidance and support to prisoners, visitors and staff on the impact and damaging consequences of drugs.

    Hon. Members have mentioned the safety of our prisons. Ensuring safety is partly about having the right staffing levels to deliver safe and consistent regimes, and we are making swift progress in recruiting the additional 2,500 staff in the adult estate we promised in 2016: 1,255 extra prison officers have been recruited in the last year, and officer numbers are now at their highest levels since August 2013. In the youth estate, we have likewise expanded frontline staff capacity in public sector youth offender institutions by about 20%.

    Preventing suicide and self-harm is also a focus of mine. We are taking decisive action to reduce the levels of self-harm by strengthening the frontline. Each individual incident of suicide or self-harm is one too many and a source of deep tragedy. We have introduced new suicide and self-harm prevention training to give everyone working in prisons, whether officers or staff from other organisations, the confidence and skills they need to support those in their care. So far, more than 10,000 prison staff have started the training, and all new prison officer and prison custody officer recruits now complete the programme as part of their initial training. I am glad to say that the number of self-inflicted deaths in custody is significantly down from last year, although I will be the first to admit that there is still a lot of work to be done.

    The Chair of the Select Committee referred to the architecture of the prison system and how we can hold ourselves to account. We are strengthening the ability of the inspectorate to hold the Government and the Prison Service to account and have introduced a new urgent notification process, which had formed part of the original Prisons and Courts Bill, to enable the Secretary of State to be alerted directly where the chief inspector has a significant and urgent concern about the performance of an institution. We launched that process last month. The Secretary of State will be directly alerted by the chief inspector if an urgent issue needs addressing to ensure that recommendations are acted upon immediately. A new team of specialists accountable to Ministers will ensure that immediate action is taken and will respond within 28 days with a more in-depth plan to ensure sustained, long-term improvement for the prison.

  • I hear what the Minister is saying, but a lot of it sounds like firefighting. I quoted from a report on the Scrubs earlier, but tomorrow we have Her Majesty’s inspectorate’s report on the Scrubs—I do not know if he has seen it yet. I have not quoted from it because it is under embargo still, but it shows endemic, long-term problems that need powerful solutions, and I just do not hear that vision coming from the Government.

  • The hon. Gentleman is being unfair. Recruiting more staff, investing in intelligence and technology, rolling out a drugs strategy, introducing an urgent notification process, giving more power to the inspectorate—all these things will solve the issues in our prison. I hear him on the Scrubs—I admit that there are deep-seated challenges there—but prisons are, always have been and always will be difficult places to manage. That said, we are making significant investment in tackling the problems in our prisons. As I have always said, it will not happen overnight, but the actions I am outlining show our determination and will to overcome the problems and make sure that our prisons are places of safety and reform.

    Hon. Members have touched on employment and education. We have recently announced the new futures network, which will be a broker between prisons and the employment sector so as to help prisoners find work on release and get better purposeful activity in prisons. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) mentioned that sometimes drug habits develop because prisoners are bored. Having more and better purposeful activity is important to ensuring that prisoners are purposefully occupied in prison and can gain new skills and improve their chances of finding a job on release.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) rightly mentioned the estate. Yes, the plan is to create 10,000 additional places. Of course, there have been issues with maintenance, but those are issues for facilities managers, and I am in direct contact with them to ensure that, whatever the future plans for a prison further down the line, we maintain standards of decency in that prison.

    In conclusion, reducing reoffending, protecting the public, reforming offenders and ensuring the safety and security of our staff and those in our custody remain my Department’s top priorities.

  • I appreciate the Minister’s remarks and the spirit of them. Will he confirm that the Government remain committed, when a legislative opportunity occurs, to placing the powers of the inspectorate, the prisons and probation ombudsman and the national prevention mechanism on a statutory basis?

  • I can confirm that we are very alive in looking for legislative opportunities to do exactly what my hon. Friend says. He will be aware that where there are other avenues, such as private Members’ Bills—one to enable us to switch off mobile phones is going through the House now—to make practical progress, we are doing so.

    We must break the ongoing cycle of reoffending that has for too long blighted communities the length of our country by helping offenders turn their lives around and prepare them for a productive and law-abiding life on release. I will end by reiterating some of the remarks I made at the start of the debate. Reforming our prisons to be places of safety and reform will not be easy, but the House should be in no doubt about the energy and resolve with which we will continue to tackle head on the challenges that we face. I welcome many of the points made today. They were constructive. I disagree on a number of issues with the Opposition spokesperson, but I know that we all share the same intention: to make our prisons places of safety and to ensure that when people come out of prison, they do not reoffend.

  • I thank my 14 Back-Bench colleagues who contributed to this debate, and I appreciate the spirit of the Minister’s response. We look forward to working with him and his colleagues. He has not by any means answered all the questions raised in the debate, but that was partly a matter of time. We will need to continue to press the Government on several matters, but we look forward to doing that.

    Since there is a lot of speculation today about what people have framed and put on their walls, in various contexts, perhaps I might commend something for the Minister’s wall. When Thomas Mott Osborne took over responsibility for Sing Sing penitentiary in New York, he said he was going to turn the jail from a scrap heap into a repair yard. That would not be a bad thing to have on the wall of every prison governor’s office and every office in NOMS and the MOJ.

    Question put and agreed.

    Resolved,

    That this House takes note of the Justice Committee’s Twelfth and Fourteenth Reports of Session 2016-17, on Prison reform and the Government Responses to them; notes with concern the continuing crisis in prisons in England and Wales, with an historically high prison population and unacceptably high levels of violence, drug availability and use, disturbances and self-harm and self-inflicted deaths in the adult and youth custodial estate; further notes the critical reports by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons on individual establishments and thematic issues; welcomes the Government’s intention to proceed with a programme of prison reform and to produce a prison safety and reform action plan as recommended by the Committee, and the publication of performance data on each prison from 26 October 2017; regrets the fact that the Government does not intend to bring forward legislation to establish a statutory purpose for prisons, enhance the powers of HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, and place the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) and the UK’s National Preventive Mechanism on a statutory basis; further regrets the Government’s rejection of the Committee’s recommendation that it should report at six-monthly intervals on the impact of governor empowerment on complaints made to the PPO and Independent Monitoring Boards; and calls on the Government to ensure that information on prison performance and safety is published regularly, and with sufficient detail and timeliness to enable the effective scrutiny of the management of prisons by the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service.