Skip to main content

HMP Oakwood

Volume 575: debated on Tuesday 4 February 2014

We are working closely with the contractor at Oakwood to implement the recommendations in last year’s report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons. As with other new prisons, Oakwood has experienced initial challenges, but action has been taken and the prison’s performance is improving. We expect that improvement to continue over the next 12 months.

A prison officer on the scene described the disturbance as a full-scale prison riot, but the Government and the contractor described it as “concerted ill-discipline”—that might be a perfectly adequate description of the behaviour of Back-Bench Tory MPs. I urge the Government to abandon this PR spin and for once to tell the simple truth.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the term “concerted indiscipline” has been used by both Governments to describe incidents that have occurred in both the public sector estate and the private sector estate. There has been no cover-up. I went to Oakwood 10 days ago and spoke to an officer engaged in the incident. I also spoke to a prisoner who, although not involved, was there at the time. I saw some of the CCTV coverage, too, so I am very clear about how serious the incident was, but to describe it as a full-scale riot is in my view inaccurate. Twenty prisoners were involved in the incident, out of a total of 1,600. The wing is now back in use and the issue was professionally resolved. That is what we would expect from prisons in the private or public sector. I do not think it is wise to overstate the significance of this incident in the context of what happens in other places.

Does the Minister agree that one way to relieve pressure on Oakwood would be to reopen the prison in Wellingborough, which took category C prisoners? Will he update the House on what progress has been made regarding Wellingborough?

Even by my hon. Friend’s high standards, that is inventive. As I have said to him before, we will of course consider again, as he has asked me to, whether Wellingborough is a suitable venue for a large new prison for the London area, but that is entirely separate from the judgments we need to make about how the rest of the estate operates. However, I will of course keep him informed as our thinking develops.

The coalition has characteristically dealt with the difficult decision of whether the prison at Wrexham will be in the public or private sector by deferring it, probably beyond the next general election. How can we prepare to ensure that the type of incident that occurred at Oakwood does not occur at Wrexham in 2017, when we do not know how the prison will be run?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman’s case is that what happened at Oakwood was because it was privately run or because it was too big.

That is very helpful. Let me help the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend. In relation to the size of the prison, it was the last Labour Government who decided to set it at 1,600 prisoners, and in relation to its running, it was the last Labour Government who decided to put the management of the prison up for competition and not retain it in the public sector. Therefore, on both counts it is not us on the Government Benches whom the right hon. Gentleman should be talking to; it is those on his own Benches.

In relation to Wrexham, we have quite properly said that there is an initial decision to be made, which is whether a large new prison should be built at Wrexham. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we were asked to build it on that site by his own council and a large number of other members of the Labour party in north Wales. The decision to be taken now is who should build it; we will make a decision about who should run it in due course.

Will my hon. Friend look at what the chief inspector of prisons said to the Select Committee on Justice this morning about Oakwood, which is that there are special problems in managing very large prisons and in new prisons? When both things are brought together, there are surely training and staffing requirements that the Department needs to consider.

There are undoubtedly issues that arise with every new prison. New prisons in both the public and the private sector, and of all sizes, have encountered these kinds of difficulties. My right hon. Friend is right, too, that it is necessary to pay close attention to the training needs of staff. We will do that—that is already under way—and both the contractors and the MOJ are keen to ensure that these issues are addressed.

I am afraid this prison is two years old now, and we would have hoped to see some progress. The Minister is being way too complacent about the failure of G4S at Oakwood. Given the delay in implementing the probation changes, due to fears of public safety, how do we know that he will not be equally tolerant of failure when he privatises probation?

There is no complacency on this issue at all. Let us get the facts right. Oakwood has been operating at full capacity since February last year, and it is not unheard of that prisons—in the public or private sector, as I said—have difficulties of this nature in the first two years of operation. That does not mean that we do not address those difficulties, but it is important to put them in context. If I may ever so gently say so to the hon. Lady, when I was at Oakwood 10 days ago, one of the comments made to me by staff who work there was that it does not help their already difficult job when their workplace is used for party political purposes to exaggerate what is going on there.