This debate concerns the sorry story of Ford open prison. It is located in my constituency, two miles south-west of Arundel, and was established on the site of a former fleet air arms station in 1960. Ford is a category D open establishment, with an emphasis on resettlement, and has an operational capacity of about 500 or more offenders.
The chronology of recent events at Ford has been well listed and categorised in the local press and the national media. For me, they started on Friday 19 May 2006, in the midst of the foreign national prisoners scandal, which saw the Government admit that more than 1,000 foreign national prisoners had been released without being considered for deportation. When I visited the prison, I asked the governor, in terms, whether abscondments among foreign national prisoners were a problem and I was told, in terms, that there was no problem. I then raised the issue of foreign national prisoners being at the prison at all, bearing in mind that they would have little incentive to stay in an open prison if they were due for deportation. I was told, incredibly I felt, that many such prisoners actually wanted to be deported.
The following Wednesday, I was informed by a source at the prison and by the local press that a significant number of prisoners had absconded from the prison over the previous few days. I rang the governor to ask the same question again: was there a problem with prisoners absconding from Ford? Again I was told, in terms, that there was no problem; but we now know, from figures that I eventually dragged out of the Home Office, that 34 prisoners escaped between March and May, two of whom were murderers who were sentenced to life. Just one week before my visit, four prisoners absconded in one day alone. My contention is that the governor must have known about that when she answered my direct question about whether there had been people escaping from Ford in recent days. If she did not know, that was a disgrace.
Immediately afterwards, I tabled some parliamentary questions, and the following day—not, I suggest, coincidentally—the Prison Service mounted a dramatic early morning raid to remove 141 foreign national prisoners from Ford prison and transfer them to closed institutions. That raid made the local and national news. Only after a point of order that I raised on the Floor of the House about the Home Office’s failure to provide answers did the Home Office reluctantly admit, in a written answer on 8 June 2006, that 61 prisoners had absconded from Ford since the beginning of the year, that 33 of those were foreign nationals and that 19 had been considered for enforcement proceedings by the immigration and nationality directorate, with one due to be deported.
The situation raises a number of serious issues. The first is the rate at which prisoners are walking out of Ford. Figures subsequently released by the Government at the end of July reveal that, since 2001, 496 prisoners—nearly 100 a year—have escaped from Ford prison. So far as I am aware from the latest figures that the Home Office has provided, that figure is being broadly maintained. There had been 70 escapes up to October last year, although perhaps the Minister can give me more up-to-date figures than that.
Local people and I understand the role of an open prison, but two prisoners walking out every week is too high a rate to be tolerated by the authorities or the Government. It is a rate that indicates that the security regime at the prison is lax. There are stories in the local media and among the local population of prisoners regularly failing to sign out of the prison properly. In November, one resident who lives close to the prison told the West Sussex Gazette:
“I have watched prisoners walk out of the prison through a gap in the security fence, stroll across the field for an after Sunday lunch drink at the pub and then stroll back.
I have also seen, in broad daylight, cars pull up and goods in plastic bags be passed to prisoners and then taken into the prison. Local taxi drivers say that prisoners order taxis for prisoners to go to Littlehampton to collect up to 30 fish suppers at a time for inmates.
I have informed a retired prison officer of this and he told me that the prison is aware of it but does not have the ability to secure the perimeter fences. The gap in the security fence has been a permanent fixture for years. I have seen prison officers use it so the prison is well aware of its existence”.
It is no wonder that Ford has been dubbed HMP Butlins. Indeed, with the existence of a cricket pitch there, one might question whether prisoners should have any incentive to walk out at all. I understand that the swimming pool has now been filled in, but that is only because prisoners can walk out and sun themselves on Climping beach whenever they feel like it.
A fortnight ago another prisoner escaped. This time it was a murderer who wanted to spend Christmas with his family. Prison officers did not realise that he was missing until 3 am on Christmas eve, after the police had picked him up and returned him to the prison. The Home Office has since confirmed that the prison does not have details of when he went missing. In a response to an inquiry by The Sun, a source at the prison admitted that the escape
“makes us a laughing stock”.
So it does. Only five days earlier, the Minister told me:
“Considerable progress in developing and improving security arrangements at the establishment has taken place at Ford prison over the last few years.”—[Official Report, 19 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 1973W.]
We must question what progress has really taken place when, as the Minister made his statement, a murderer walked out of the prison.
My second concern is that it is clear that unsuitable prisoners are being transferred to open conditions. That is driven by prison overcrowding, which is a consequence of the Government’s failure to plan properly for prison places. Back in 2003, the annual report of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons warned:
“Population pressure has meant that open prisons are receiving prisoners who would not formerly have been sent to open conditions at that point in sentence.”
We now know that, in the summer of 2002, the Home Office sanctioned a change in policy to allow the early transfer of criminals, including foreign nationals, to open prisons. We know that because of the letter that was sent to the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) by the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), then Minister with responsibility for prisons, although signed in her absence by the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety. That letter admitted that as a result of
“population pressures on the estate as a whole”,
open prisons were being
“asked to take prisoners who would perhaps have not previously been allocated there”.
Just this month, Harry Fletcher, the assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, has said that
“probation staff are stating clearly now that prisoners who are not suitable are being routinely reclassified”.
Only yesterday, the Prison Officers Association criticised the current prisoner categorisation policy:
“The allocation procedure now allows for some minor drug and violent offences to be categorised into open conditions.
Staff at establishments are very concerned that Category B prisoners of 4 years ago are now Category C prisoners or even worse Category D prisoners”—
such as those in Ford. The association continued:
“This has and continues to put the public at risk.”
My hon. Friend is raising the issue of Ford open prison, but does he accept that the same point is now greatly feared by a number of other open prisons? I have one in my constituency from which three people have absconded. One of those three was convicted of murder and the other two were convicted of manslaughter. Two of them have been on the run for almost 70 days, while one of them escaped at the weekend. We only saw photographs last weekend. There is a growing concern that the people who are sent to open prisons are being easily categorised in a way that they were not in the past.
I agree with my right hon. Friend’s concern, and shall refer to the prison that he mentioned in one moment.
We know from a document that was written by the governor of Ford and leaked to the press on 3 August that instructions have come down from the director of operations at the Prison Service, stating that
“local prisons must review prisoners serving short sentences for non-sexual or violent offences who are relatively low risk and likely to be suitable for transfer to open conditions…we are likely to get more very short termers, some who should really be in Cat C conditions”.
“Ministers have been briefed to this effect and are taking this risk.”
In other words, she knew that Ministers were taking the risk and that they knew that unsuitable prisoners were being transferred to category D prisons, including Ford. Plainly, if unsuitable prisoners are placed in open prisons in the first place, and if they then go on the run, there are serious implications for public safety. When, on 20 November, the Home Office eventually admitted that there had been 70 escapes since the beginning of the year—three made by prisoners serving life sentences for murder—it said that 28 of the 70 were still at large. Have those prisoners been returned? What penalties have they faced? We do not know; perhaps the Minister can tell us.
We do know that last weekend, Phil Wheatley, the director general of the Prison Service, said that he was embarrassed to admit that he did not know how many inmates were on the run from open prisons. When such prisoners abscond, there is simply no central database or record of them having done so.
My next concern is specific. The leaked staff briefing, written by the Ford prison governor, also suggested that a category C prison should be built at Ford. That is of particular concern locally. There is a formal statement of intent and agreement between the governor and the local community as represented by Arun district council. It states that there should be no more than 200 prisoners serving life sentences for violence or serving sex or arson sentences at the prison.
I find it extraordinary that the governor should have gone to a meeting with the council about the renewal of that agreement without mentioning her proposal that a category C prison should be sited at Ford. That proposal breached the spirit of that agreement, which has now expired. Confidence has broken down to the extent of there no longer being a formal agreement between the local community and the governor.
Such matters are serious, and a number of issues must be dealt with. First, I urge the Minister to undertake a proper security review of the prison. The fact that a prison is an open prison cannot mean that it has no security. Security at Ford is plainly inadequate, and I am not convinced that there is proper monitoring of offenders going in and out of it. As recently as December, the Minister told me that there were no plans to bring forward the Ford prison security audit, which will begin on 5 March. In view of everything that has happened, it would make sense for the Minister to bring forward that review and rebuild confidence in the community.
Secondly, there is a serious issue about risk assessment review procedures. We are constantly being told by the governor, and no doubt by the Minister, that all the prisoners have been risk-assessed. However, that assessment must include the risk of absconding. Prisoners are absconding, which undermines the assessment itself. In any case, the whole thing is undermined when it is revealed that procedures are secretly being relaxed. We know about that only because of leaked documents; it was never admitted to the public or to hon. Members.
My third point is that there should be a proper system for tracking offenders. It is absurd that we do not know how many offenders are still on the run from Ford and other prisons. Fourthly, the Government must address the questions of prison overcrowding and of unsuitable prisoners being transferred to open conditions. As all the experts now agree, that is unacceptable and places the public at risk. If there is to be a category C prison at Ford as part of the solution to those problems, that must be properly and openly discussed with local Members and with the council. So far, that has not happened.
That leads me to the issue of transparency. The governor must be straightforward with public and elected representatives, including me and the council. She has not been; there is a culture of secrecy at the prison and among the Government generally. Getting information from the Government has been very difficult, and that must change if confidence is to be rebuilt.
The Minister will be only too aware of the catalogue of blunders at the Home Office, including yesterday’s revelation that the serious convictions of 500 criminals have not been recorded on the police national computer. No doubt we shall hear about them later. However, my overall contention is that it is wholly unacceptable that two offenders should walk out every week from the prison. That severely undermines confidence, and I worry about the complacency that says that it does not matter and is all perfectly routine.
The greatest concern must be about an absconding prisoner going on to commit or having already committed serious offences. That happened following an escape from Sudbury prison in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin). Jason Hope escaped on 4 May; 21 days later, he sexually assaulted a 13-year-old boy. If such a thing happened at Ford after all the concerns raised about escapes, there will be most serious consequences for the governor and the Minister. I am sure that the Minister knows that. I urge him to recognise that the local community and I have genuine concerns about security at Ford prison. I urge him to address them.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing the debate. It reflects his continued interest, both as a constituency MP and Opposition Home Office spokesperson, in the work of the Prison Service and the Home Office in general.
As it is in his constituency, the hon. Gentleman clearly has an interest in Ford open prison. Ford is a category D training establishment which places great emphasis on resettlement programmes to prepare prisoners for release, a function of any open prison. Work opportunities at Ford include employment on farms and in gardens and vocational work in workshops. There are facilities for long-term prisoners to work in the community. That work concentrates on the principles of rehabilitation and reparation and is intended to benefit the local community. For instance, it includes involvement with a homeless shelter, an old people’s transportation scheme, the YMCA in Hove and the local villages. Ford also provides employment and business opportunities for the local area, and a large number of its staff come from the hon. Gentleman’s and surrounding constituencies.
I was aware of the hon. Gentleman’s May meeting with the governor at Ford. Clearly, she has not set aside his concerns. I am genuinely interested in what he said. I take some of the issues that he mentioned to be political, and I shall come to them, but I listened to his specific concerns and will address them. I will also be happy to meet him and perhaps to visit Ford.
The hon. Gentleman has expressed his concerns and those of the wider public about open establishments, and I am grateful that he decided to bring the debate to the House. He has had to respond to the media as a result of his position and I am aware that his local newspaper is running a campaign about the situation at Ford.
The debate gives me the opportunity to offer more reassurance to the hon. Gentleman, his constituents and the wider public, and to get beyond the headlines that proclaim only that the prison population is at new heights and try to raise unfounded fears. Sadly, such fears do much to erode the trust that has been carefully built up between local communities and prison establishments. Such relationships are vital, as those establishments cannot function without the support of the local community. As I said, the staff form part of that same community.
I am aware that in the area local to Ford prison, there has recently been a good deal of concern and rumour about the possibility that part of the existing site could be used to build a closed prison. I also understand that a link has been made between those rumours and the forthcoming security audit at Ford, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Indeed, he has tabled parliamentary questions about that.
Let me be clear about both those issues in a way that I hope will reassure the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. The rumours about the building of category C accommodation stemmed, as he said, from a leaked internal memorandum and staff briefing from the governor. Although it is not normally Government policy to comment about such leaks, it is clearly appropriate to set the matter straight to reassure the general community at Ford.
The suggestions set out in the governor’s memorandum were her personal views of the potential options for the provision of category C places at Ford if the National Offender Management Service wished to examine them. She put them forward as options to consider, in the context of the Government’s announcement of the creation of a larger number of prison places in England and Wales. As such, I believe that her motives were constructive and helpful. However, there are no current plans to build any closed places at Ford. I hope that that assurance will be sufficient for the hon. Gentleman to cut any link between the rumours of closed places at Ford and the security audit.
Let me be clear about the purpose of the security audit, which is to be undertaken shortly. Such audits take place as a matter of routine at all establishments to ensure that systems are operating correctly, and to identify any areas that might need improvement. They take place every year at high-security prisons and approximately every two years elsewhere. The audit will scrutinise the establishment against standards laid down by the Prison Service, and it will be carried out by a specialist audit team. Any processes that are specific to the establishment but that are not up to the standards will be examined further, and a decision will be made centrally as to whether they deliver the same outcome. The audit at Ford will take place in February, not March.
I referred to trust and confidence. Confidence is particularly needed in the communities near open prisons, since such prisons by their very nature are of the lowest category. They are used at the final stages of prisoners’ sentences for reintegrating them into the community prior to their release. By their very nature, open prisons do not have secure perimeters, and there are no barriers to contain the prisoners. Prisoners are required to remain within the boundaries of the prison unless they are released temporarily on licence for a specific reason, such as attendance at a work placement that is part of a tailored programme to ease them gradually back into society.
It is important that we provide reassurance when someone absconds from an open prison, particularly when high-profile cases such as those that the hon. Gentleman mentioned raise any doubts about our commitment to public safety. Public safety is paramount, and, despite the current pressures, I can provide assurances that it will not be compromised. Only those prisoners who have been through a robust and rigorous risk assessment to determine their eligibility for open conditions will be transferred from a secure establishment.
Has the Minister seen yesterday’s statement by the Prison Officers Association? It says:
“The POA have serious concerns that they have raised with the Director General of the prison service who appeared to be unaware of the changes in the allocation procedure”
for open prisons. Have any such changes taken place? If the director general is unaware of them, is the Home Secretary unaware of them as well?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, as I was about to deal with the statement. Clearly, I am concerned about remarks of the National Association of Probation Officers and the Prison Officers Association. The chief executive of NOMS and I have written to NAPO and the POA asking them to tell us where they received the information from and when, because we are receiving unsubstantiated remarks about changes of categorisation. Categorisation allocation rules have not changed and public protection remains a key consideration, but we would be interested in any evidence that NAPO and the POA have that governors or other people have changed the rules. I put it on the record that we will be seeking responses from those organisations about their comments, and we will act on any information that they provide.
As secretary of the justice unions group, I was in communication with the POA yesterday. It is keen, and has been since the appointment of the Home Secretary last year, to meet him, but it has yet to do so. It has asked for a meeting specifically to discuss these matters. Will my hon. Friend communicate that to the Home Secretary so that a date for a meeting can be established as soon as possible?
The Home Secretary has met the POA informally on several occasions, and a telephone conversation has taken place. Clearly, as the Minister with responsibility for prisons, I have direct responsibility for the relationship with prison officers. I have met them on a regular basis and will continue to do so, and I shall speak to the Home Secretary about future meetings.
We want the POA to respond positively to the letters that we have sent to it. The association is making substantial allegations and, if they are correct, we want to know about them and ensure that we act on them. I hope that Mr. Fletcher of NAPO and Colin Moses, president of the POA, will respond to the letters that we have sent to them.
It will help if I explain how the categorisation and allocation process works. Prisoners receive their initial categorisation soon after they are convicted and sentenced. They are categorised objectively according to the likelihood that they will seek to escape or abscond, and the risk that they would pose should they do so. In the majority of cases, consideration of those two factors alone are sufficient to determine the prisoner’s security category.
The risk assessment includes a consideration of current and previous offences; details of the charges, pleas, findings and sentences relating to the current offences, particularly whether they are of a violent or sexual nature; whether the offences involve drugs; and any other information on the prisoner that is available to the prison and probation services, such as a previous history of escape or absconding, medical and psychological reports and security information that might be relevant. Prisoners are placed in the lowest security category that is consistent with the assessment, although there may be instances where there is clear evidence that a prisoner needs higher levels of supervision than are available in a prison of the lower security category.
Will the Minister directly answer this question: is it acceptable that two prisoners a week abscond from Ford? He referred to the prison governor’s memo. How will he deal with the fact that she said that unsuitable prisoners are being transferred to Ford, and that Ministers know that and are taking the risk? How does that square with his claim that the categorisation policy has not changed?
I want to be clear about this: the briefing that the governor sent to her staff gave her view of the situation. I am saying that the categorisation has not changed. We have also said that people must be appropriately assessed for risk. As I said to the hon. Gentleman, I shall take up with the governor at Ford the issues that he has raised, but the categorisation has not changed. What has changed—he and others would have attacked the Government if we had not made this change—is that we are maximising use of the estate.
Certainly not, and that is why the risk assessment, which I shall discuss, is important in ensuring that people are in the most suitable places. However, as we are also criticised for not providing prison places, we are ensuring that we maximise the use of prison places, providing the proper risk assessments have taken place. I want that to be clearly understood.
Of course no absconds are acceptable, but they happen in open prisons because of the very nature of such prisons. The figures that I have for absconds from Ford go from a high of 142 in 2003-04 to 47 to the end of November 2006, so the hon. Gentleman’s figures are not correct. However, any abscond is inappropriate. People who are coming to the end of their sentences are risk-assessed. The vast majority go on to be reintegrated into society, but some abscond. Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that we should not have open prisons? Is he saying that we should not try to reintegrate people into society as they come to the end of their sentences? Murderers are given life sentences, but they do come to the end of them. In fact, it was this Government, through the Criminal Justice Act 2003, who ensured that we could have indeterminate sentences.
People come to the end of their sentence and have the opportunity to go back into society. Surely that should be done in a managed way.
In the two minutes that remain, we can get into a debate about sentencing. In 2003, the Government introduced indeterminate sentences so that people who are a danger to society could be kept in prison, unlike what was happening before. We are trying to rebalance the criminal justice system, and that is why we announced in July that we want people to have confidence in what goes on and to understand sentencing policies, and we have given undertakings in respect of that. I hope that the Opposition will be helpful in the discussions that need to take place on that.
As an Adjournment debate is too short for dealing with such issues, I am prepared to meet the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs and to visit Ford. We will consider in detail the issues that he raised. I hope that we can set up that meeting as soon as possible.
On foreign national prisoners, I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman in writing, in addition to the letter that I sent to him on 26 May. I hope that the assurances about the closed conditions that he thought would be the case at Ford—
Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.