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Transfer of Prisoners

Volume 497: debated on Tuesday 20 October 2009

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor if he will make a statement on the report from the chief inspector of prisons documenting the concerted movement of prisoners between Wandsworth and Pentonville prisons in order to avoid inspection.

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for this question. Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, Dame Anne Owers, has today published two inspection reports concerning Her Majesty’s prisons at Pentonville and Wandsworth. The inspections took place in May and June this year. The background to the chief inspector’s findings is contained in a written ministerial statement that I made to the House this morning. An investigation report was received by the senior management of the National Offender Management Service on 2 October. The report found that 11 prisoners had been subject to temporary transfers between Wandsworth and Pentonville, and that those transfers had been arranged in a deliberate attempt to undermine the inspection process of Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons. Several of these prisoners were known to be vulnerable, and two harmed themselves during this process.

Following the receipt of the investigation reports, disciplinary charges under the Prison Service code of conduct were laid on 13 October against a number of individuals. Proceedings are currently under way. The House will understand that such disciplinary proceedings are not a matter in which Ministers can or should be involved.

The prisons and probation ombudsman and Her Majesty’s coroner are conducting separate investigations into the self-inflicted death of another prisoner transferred to Pentonville, following a court appearance, in the week before the Wandsworth inspection. The prisoner was held at Pentonville during the inspection, before being returned to Wandsworth. During the course of the investigations, information emerged to suggest that a third prison, HMP Brixton, temporarily transferred prisoners out during its inspection. A further investigation is now being completed and we are awaiting a formal report.

There are obviously questions as to whether these practices are more widespread across the prison estate. I have therefore asked Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons to work with the Ministry of Justice’s director of analytical services to investigate whether the temporary transfer of prisoners prior to inspections has occurred in other prisons.

The transfer of prisoners like this, in a deliberate attempt to undermine the inspectorate process of HM’s chief inspector of prisons, was a disgraceful matter in both its intent and its execution. The individuals involved neglected one of their primary duties—to treat those in custody with decency and respect—and made serious errors of judgment, which are neither justifiable nor excusable. But for these transfers, these two prisons were

“en route to get good inspection reports”,

as Dame Anne Owers, the chief inspector, commented this morning. She added that

“inspection has nothing to do with performance targets”.

Independent inspections and Prison Service performance standards, along with substantial investment, have led to a transformation in the nature of prison regimes over the past 12 years. Her Majesty’s chief inspector has acknowledged that prisons today are more decent, more constructive and considerably more secure, which is yet another reason why these incidents are all the more inexcusable and regrettable. I will, of course, keep the House informed of further developments.

The report by the chief inspector of prisons and the answer just given to my question today show that prisoners have been transferred from Wandsworth and Pentonville prisons with the collusion of senior staff and the deliberate intention of avoiding independent inspection without any regard for those prisoners’ well-being. Dame Anne Owers concludes that this was

“irresponsible, pointless and potentially dangerous”.

She is clearly right, and I am delighted that the Secretary of State agrees.

Those responsible face a disciplinary process. That, too, is right. We will await the outcome and I certainly do not wish to prejudice such proceedings today. However, if the Prison Service takes responsibility for its mistakes, will the Justice Secretary take responsibility for the failings in the prison system that are bringing this state of affairs about? The truth is that this type of incident, while totally inexcusable, is an almost inevitable result of this Government’s serial mismanagement of our prisons.

Prison overcrowding is at record levels. Can the Justice Secretary confirm that in May, at the time of the inspections, Wandsworth prison was holding 50 per cent. more prisoners than its certified capacity—just seven away from its absolute emergency breaking point? Is it fair to limit responsibility to prison staff when the Government have recklessly ignored all the warnings over a period of six years that predicted this crisis of capacity in our prisons today, which was bound to impact on how individual prisoners are managed?

The Justice Secretary seems to believe that targets can make up for this most basic failure to provide enough places for all the prisoners. Both Wandsworth and Pentonville prisons are subject to 44 different top-down targets, including one for the amount of water drunk and another for energy efficiency. In the first quarter of this year, as the Secretary of State said, Wandsworth prison was evaluated as “good”, yet at the same time we have these serious failings.

Does the Justice Secretary accept that we are witnessing the stark reality of the warping effect in the real world of excessive Whitehall targets set by this Government? Does he accept that prison officers would not go to such extraordinary lengths to dupe inspectors if the Government lived up to their responsibilities, and created the conditions in which they can work properly?

Then there are the specific findings of the chief inspector: the deliberate moving of vulnerable prisoners prone to self-harm which definitely led some of them to injure themselves, and the fact that two of the five prisoners from Wandsworth tried to kill themselves when told that they would be moved. One tied a ligature around his own neck and cut himself. He was forced from his cell in his underwear.

Does the Justice Secretary recognise that those appalling and utterly avoidable examples of mistreatment are the consequences of a prison estate that is bursting at the seams? Will he undertake to come to the House and make an oral statement once we have the ombudsman’s findings on the tragic suicide of Christopher Wardally? Will he take some responsibility?

These are not isolated examples. As a result of the conditions in our prisons, incidents of self-harm rose by 10 per cent. last year. What hope can we have of reducing reoffending rates to protect the public when increasing numbers of prisoners are so desperate that they will harm themselves? [Interruption.] Did the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) wish to intervene?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman takes this matter so seriously, Mr. Speaker.

Does the Justice Secretary accept that the Government’s usual tactic of trying to characterise the transfers and the problems as being isolated incidents simply does not wash from what we know happened at Brixton? Will he give the House an undertaking to publish, in a written statement, a list of all prisoner transfers made within a week before inspections were due in all prisons in the last six months? That will at least give us some measure of transparency, given that there must be fears that this may in fact be a widespread practice. Although the Secretary of State has known about the matter for some time—since July—Wandsworth remains as crowded as it was back in May.

This is a Government who are on their last legs. They are exhausted, and they are bereft of solutions to problems that are entirely of their own making.

Let me respond to the series of questions asked by the hon. and learned Gentleman.

I have always taken responsibility for the prison system, and any other matter falling within my wide responsibilities as a Minister, in every Department in which I have been involved. However, there is no evidence so far—none whatsoever—that these totally unacceptable and inexcusable transfers have anything to do with the setting and maintenance of targets, or with overcrowding in prisons.

I accept, and volunteered in my statement—indeed, it was I who proposed it in the first place—that, given the evidence here, and the evidence that we have that something may have happened in Brixton, and we know no more than that, there are bound to be questions about whether the practice was widespread. That is why I have set up an independent investigation in which the chief inspector of prisons’ staff will be involved alongside my staff, who, I may say, are separate from the staff of the National Offender Management Service. However, both the director general of the Prison Service—who is as appalled about this as anyone—and the chief inspector of prisons themselves said today words to the effect that they doubt that the practice is widespread, and so far there is no evidence that it is. I promise the House, of course, that any evidence that emerges from the analysis that we are conducting will be made available to the House, and that, if there is any evidence, it will be followed up rigorously.

As for the number of prisoners in Wandsworth prison on the day of their inspections, two measures are applied, certified normal accommodation and operational capacity. No local prison in the country has ever been at its certified normal accommodation level. All work, and have under successive Governments, to their operational capacity. Wandsworth was just under it, and Pentonville was 84 under it.

On the hyperbole about targets, after years of absolute chaos in the prisons under the previous Administration—for example, escapes were running at more per week than happened last in a single year—it was they who established targets: eight key performance indicators and eight targets. There are now 13 targets for prisons, including on such matters as escapes, drugs, reoffending, staff sickness and ethnic minority staff. I would like the hon. and learned Gentleman to tell us which of them he suggests we should not meet.

As for overcrowding—

Order. May I gently say to the Secretary of State that if he could offer us a brief distillation of his views, that would be appreciated?

Order. So far, the exchanges between the Front Benches have simply taken too long. If that happens again, I will cut them off, as we must get Back Benchers in.

As for the timing, I was informed of this on 30 July. I issued a public statement immediately, and I also wrote to the hon. and learned Gentleman on 2 September.

What appears to have happened is, indeed, disgraceful, and it is particularly disturbing that the members of staff involved were of such high rank and of such previous high reputation. However, does the Secretary of State not feel some twinge of guilt about what happened? He says there is no connection between this and overcrowding, but the connection is as follows: because of overcrowding, every day there are massive transfers from prison to prison within the prison system, and presumably that is where the idea arose of hiding these problems behind transfers. The second thing he should feel some responsibility for is the fact that the prisons are full of inmates who suffer from mental illnesses—serious mental illnesses in many cases. There is a far higher proportion of people with mental illnesses among the prisoner population than among the population at large. We have been given to believe that some of the inmates concerned in this case were suffering from mental illness. Will the Secretary of State confirm that?

Does the Secretary of State accept that the overcrowding of the prisons and the fact that they are full of mentally ill prisoners is in the end the responsibility of the Government, who have encouraged both the greater use of prison and the increasing of prison sentences in a vain attempt to win a punitive war of attrition with the main Opposition party? Does he not see that this incident is a cause for soul searching not only in the Prison Service, but at the highest level of politics?

These are local prisons, and there is always a substantial movement in and out of any local prison. Local prisons, especially those in London, are very difficult to manage and I pay tribute to the staff. That has always been the case, but we have engaged in a massive building programme and so far—touch wood—we have kept prisoners out of police cells for at least the last year. Should the main Opposition party wish to trade stories about the state of our prisons, I can say that on any measure they are now in infinitely better state than they were under the previous Administration.

On the hon. Gentleman’s key point about mental illness, I accept that there are far too many prisoners in prison who ought to be in hospital because of their mental health problems. That is why we set up the Bradley review, the findings of which we are now seeking to implement.

Pursuing the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), ought it not to be a much clearer objective of the prison system that prisoners are assigned to, and kept in, institutions with regimes that have the capacity to reduce their likelihood of reoffending? Does the Secretary of State recognise that a lot of the time that is not happening, which is why such disgraceful transfers might not have been so obvious?

We do, indeed, seek to transfer prisoners whose sentences are of reasonable length to fulfil the major part of their sentence in institutions that might help to reduce their reoffending. I also say to the right hon. Gentleman that reoffending rates have significantly improved, not least as a result of some of the targets we have set. The problem in some of these cases is that these were prisoners who had to go to court. That is the purpose of a local prison. Such prisoners cannot be held miles away from the court they are attending.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that by indulging in these transfers the senior management have not only betrayed the prisoners and the trust we have put in them to treat prisoners properly and fairly, but have also completely eclipsed the hard work of prison officers who, in fact, have been improving conditions in the two prisons concerned?

May I first pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), in whose constituency Pentonville prison lies? I know of her great concern about the prison and her great commitment to the work of the staff. On her overall point, I entirely agree with her; one of the tragedies of what has happened is that, as Dame Anne Owers has said, all the good work and the improvement in progress, which was specified in the reports and which the Opposition failed to acknowledge, has been eclipsed by this terrible series of incidents.

May I say to the Secretary of State that the real concern is that the practice is very widespread? Will the inquiry look into that? Will it also examine the role of the medical staff who have been involved? Will he alert the independent monitoring boards of each prison to address this particular question?

On the issue of whether the practice is widespread, that is obviously a question for all of us—it was the first question that I asked. That is why I have set up this detailed investigation, which will look, first, at the transfer records for each prison that has had an announced inspection to check whether any prisoners were shipped out and shipped back again—that will be the key indicator. If any such prisoners are found, further investigations will be carried out. I also accept what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says about medical staff.

We do not yet know whether these transfers contributed to a prisoner killing himself, but would the Lord Chancellor agree to report to this House, following the report of the prisons ombudsman and the coroner’s report, on whether that was the case in this instance and on the number of prisoners up and down the country who are killing themselves while they are in our prisons?

On the specific issue, the reports of the prisons and probation ombudsman are normally published. The publication of this report is a matter for the ombudsman, not for me, however, I fully understand the concern of the House to see the report. An inquest will also take place, probably after that. It is entirely appropriate that that should take place before any announcement is made to the House, but I will, of course, keep the House properly informed. Any suicide in prison is deeply to be regretted, but I just say to the House that the number for last year, 60, is lower—the figure fluctuates considerably—than it has been since 1997.

If there is to be further investigation into any other possible occurrences of transfers related to the inspections, how will such transfers be identified and separated from the more routine transfers that take place when prisoners are making court appearances, which so often lead to their curtailing any education or training courses in which they are involved?

I am quite clear that those who are doing the investigation will, from their knowledge, be able to spot why a transfer took place. If a transfer took place from Wandsworth, Pentonville, Brixton or any other prison to a court—this happens every day—it is perfectly obvious why the person was transferred. On the other hand, if there was a transfer to a court and then a transfer to a different prison, and the original prison was being subject to inspection, that would trigger a warning light. This process of investigation will give a very good indication of whether, prima facie, this practice has been going on. I must say that the director general of the Prison Service, Phil Wheatley, and his senior staff, as well as the chief inspector and I, are totally and utterly committed to checking and checking again as to whether this practice has been going on at any other prison. As Mr. Wheatley said this morning, he has been a prison governor and in his experience, he has never come across such practice, but we may have to live and learn.

I spoke to the governor of HMP Wellingborough this morning. He was aghast at the practice and confirmed that it had never happened in Wellingborough. Will the Lord Chancellor explain to me why the inspections are announced in advance and why the inspectors do not just turn up?

Some inspections are announced in advance and a great many are done unannounced. This is a matter for the chief inspector of prisons. I understand that her view is that having announced inspections provides an opportunity for the prison to ensure that it is in good order and to meet objectives previously set. She does not inspect to targets—she has made that clear—but she inspects to key indicators of what she describes as a “healthy” prison. At the same time, the inspectorate does use—I believe that it uses these more than formal, announced inspections—unannounced inspections. How the chief inspector does it is entirely a matter for her, but I think that the whole House will wish to place on record its thanks to her; it was in an announced inspection that this situation emerged.

The other point that I would simply make to all those Members who have asked whether such activity is more widespread than the current examples is that the information about these transfers emerged through complaints that prisoners made to their lawyers. Prisoners are fully entitled to write to their lawyers, to the ombudsman, to HM inspectorate of prisons and to Members of this House confidentially and without that information or those letters being seen by the prison staff. We can rest assured, given the publicity that has been given to this matter, that if further prisoners feel that they have been subject to such unacceptable transfers we will know one way or another.