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Isle of Sheppey (Prisons)

Volume 597: debated on Tuesday 16 June 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered prisons on the Isle of Sheppey.

It is good to see you in the Chair for my first Westminster Hall debate of this Parliament, Mr Hollobone.

My constituency has three prisons: Elmley, which is a category C prison; Standford Hill, which is a category D prison; and Swaleside, which is a category B prison. Combined, those three prisons house almost 3,000 inmates —one of the largest concentrations of prisoners in the country. I would like to pay tribute to the fantastic men and women who work on the island’s prisons. They are dedicated and hard-working professionals of whom I am immensely proud. They work in an extremely challenging environment, facing the threat of violence on an almost daily basis with few complaints and a great deal of courage.

The threat of violence is growing. I have been associated with Sheppey’s prisons for almost 30 years and I now live in the village of Eastchurch, where all three prisons are located. Over those years, I have visited the prisons on a number of occasions—first, as the Swale borough councillor for the area, and then as Kent county councillor. Since becoming the Member of Parliament for Sittingbourne and Sheppey in 2010, I have visited the prisons every three months to meet local representatives of the Prison Officers Association. In addition to those meetings, I have been privileged to tour the prisons on a regular basis and have been able to chat with the staff and with the inmates, occasionally in their cells.

Last year, I was taken on a tour of Elmley, which is a regional prison, by the local POA representative, Mike Rolfe. For the first time in all my years of visiting, I felt a tangible air of intimidation on the wings, which was emanating from some of the inmates who were noticeably hostile. I have to admit that I was happy and pleased to have Mike Rolfe looking after me that day.

In Swaleside over the past three months, the special accommodation cells have been used for a total of 340 hours as a result of violent behaviour by prisoners towards staff, other prisoners and, on one occasion, self-harm. The latter incident is an example of the increase in mental health problems among inmates. In the same period, violent incidents have accounted for 23 planned control and restraint interventions and 42 spontaneous control and restraint interventions.

There are several reasons for the increase in intimidation and violence in Sheppey’s prisons. One is the increased use of drugs and so-called legal highs that have been smuggled into prisons—the latter are an increasing problem. There is consumption of illicit alcohol, which is often distilled from fruit stolen from the kitchens. Indeed, that was the alleged cause of a disturbance at Swaleside last year, which led to a prison officer being stabbed in the head.

There is an increased gang culture in prisons. Not only are there gangs from south London and Liverpool competing in Sheppey’s prisons, but foreign prisoners—particularly in Swaleside, which has a high percentage of foreign prisoners—who are forming their own national gangs. That is causing huge problems in our prisons.

Violence is caused by retribution for the non-payment of debts owed by prisoners for the supply of things such as mobile phones. These days, people can buy a mobile phone from Tesco for a tenner. Smuggled into a prison, that phone can be worth £300 to £400, causing a lot of illicit trade. Violence is also generated by the recovery of stolen contraband, such as mobile phones. Increasingly, frustration is caused by a reduction in recreation time because of a shortage of prison officers. I am particularly concerned about that problem because, unless something is done soon to increase staffing in Sheppey’s prisons, all the other problems I mentioned will simply get worse.

Let me again use Swaleside as an example. The target staffing level for the prison is 178 officers. However, 153 officers are currently in post. The lack of staff puts pressure on those officers who remain in post. Recruitment and retention are immensely challenging and are influenced by a number of factors. Morale is low, which is hardly surprising considering the environment in which prison officers have to work. The police are dealing with people all day, every day, but many of those people are either victims of crime or people suspected of a crime who turn out to be innocent. The people with whom prison officers have to deal, day in, day out, have all been found guilty of a crime—many of them violent crimes.

Prison officers feel undervalued compared with the police. If a police officer is attacked and injured, the perpetrators are tracked down, prosecuted and, if found guilty, sent to prison for a lengthy sentence. If a prison officer is attacked by a prisoner, too often the only punishment meted out is a withdrawal of privileges.

Let me give an example of the type of violence that prison officers face. Last year a prison officer, whom I know well and who works in Swaleside, was attacked by an inmate. The prisoner threw a kettle of boiling water at the officer. Such casual violence is not an isolated case; it happens on a daily basis. Thankfully, my prison officer friend’s reactions were quick—he ducked out of the way and the boiling water missed him—but he could have been severely burned. The police took no action against that prisoner. That cannot be right. If a prisoner attacks a prison officer or, indeed, another prisoner, that person should be tried and, if found guilty, given as harsh a sentence as if the crime had been committed outside prison. That sentence should then be added to the sentence that that prisoner is already serving.

Another factor in the difficulty of retaining and recruiting prison officers on Sheppey is the relatively low unemployment in our area, as in the rest of the south-east. Last year, UK Border Force ran a successful recruitment campaign that led to a number of my local prison officers leaving to join it. I acknowledge that the Ministry of Justice has done its best to get more staff into Sheppey’s prisons, including the temporary attachment of staff from as far away as North Yorkshire. I welcome those initiatives, but a long-term solution is needed. The canteen at Swaleside is operated by the private company, DHL, which pays its staff a better salary than a new entrant prison officer. That is the nub of the problem.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I know that he feels passionately about the three prisons in his constituency. I have had the fortune of spending some time—I hasten to add in a professional capacity—at one of those prisons, Elmley. Impressive and constructive work was available for prisoners at Elmley prison, ensuring that their time was spent fruitfully. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential that the prison does not use its unique circumstances to undercut local businesses in any way and, thereby, increase unemployment in his constituency and in the surrounding areas?

Yes. It is delightful that among the small number of MPs present for the debate are three Kent MPs. That is probably unique. I do agree with my hon. Friend, but there is another factor. That employment in Elmley and Swaleside is good for the prisoners and their rehabilitation, but it cannot take place unless there are sufficient staff to manage it, and that is one of the problems that we face. I believe that we need a proper review of the working conditions and pay structure for prison officers, including, perhaps, consideration again of regionalised pay that recognises the higher cost of living in the south-east of England and the difficulty of attracting people into a job with so many challenges when there are better employment opportunities elsewhere.

I also believe that the Government need to re-examine their policy on the retirement age of prison officers. It is simply unfair that police officers and firefighters can retire at 60, whereas prison officers are expected to work until they are 68, despite their work being just as physically demanding.

What goes on in our prisons is rarely something that resonates with the public, so the Prison Service never receives from the Government the priority that it deserves. It is the Cinderella service and prison officers are the forgotten public servants. In many ways, they are as much a captive of their penal environment as the inmates whose incarceration they are charged with supervising. I believe that the Prison Service needs both financial help and moral support. In the climate of austerity in which the public sector currently operates, it is perhaps naive of me to ask for help and support for the prison officers in my constituency. However, I am very concerned that, without action, we are building up a penal powder keg on Sheppey that could explode with very serious consequences. For that reason, I believe that the Prison Service in general, and my prison officers in particular, should be made a special case.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing the debate. He has rightly raised very important issues. He started by talking about the fantastic men and women of our Prison Service. I echo those comments completely. It gives me enormous pleasure to take every opportunity that I have in the House to say how much the work of our prison officers up and down the country is valued. As he said, it is often unseen, but it is incredibly important. Our prison officers are the last stop in our justice system. They are essential, and we must protect and support them.

Let me say how important the Government believe that the issues that my hon. Friend has raised are. Staffing and safety are central to everything that we are seeking to achieve in prisons. The challenges facing managers at the three prisons on the Isle of Sheppey are particularly acute, which shows the need for managers and local trade unions to work closely together to secure positive outcomes in the future. I welcome this debate to discuss the steps that the Government are taking to maintain safe, decent and secure prisons, to tackle violence and serious incidents and to reduce staff vacancies.

For those not familiar with the region, let me explain that on Sheppey there are three prisons, collectively referred to as the Sheppey cluster. HMP Elmley is a category B local prison serving all courts in Kent. That establishment opened in 1992 and includes a category C unit of up to 240 prisoners added in 1997. With an operational capacity of 1,252, Elmley is the largest of the three prisons in the group. HMP Swaleside opened in 1988 and holds 1,112 prisoners. That establishment is a category B training prison holding long-term prisoners, including those serving life and other indeterminate sentences. HMP Standford Hill is a category D open prison with an operational capacity of 464.

My hon. Friend rightly referred to staffing levels in the Sheppey cluster. I acknowledge that last year a significant number of prisons across England and Wales experienced acute staffing vacancies. With an unexpected rise in the prison population, economic recovery in a number of regions made recruitment more competitive and challenging for prisons in some areas. Those dynamics, combined with short-term retention and sickness issues, increased pressure on the prison system. I have not sought to underplay those difficulties and I am grateful for the resilience and professionalism that staff have shown in maintaining delivery in challenging circumstances.

In the past few years, there has been significant change across our prisons and the wider offender management system. The National Offender Management Service has delivered savings of almost £900 million for the taxpayer, while fundamentally reforming the way it works both in the community and in prisons.

A significant contribution to the savings was made by the benchmarking programme in public sector prisons. The benchmark applies consistent staffing models and routines to prisons of the same type, removing historical and unjustified variations in the running costs of similar establishments. It also provided a refreshed approach to the prison regime, increasing the time for which prisoners can undertake appropriate and meaningful work, training and education to enable them to obtain employment on release to their home areas, which is particularly important.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister accept, with regard to benchmarking, that the prison officers on Sheppey showed a lead and embraced it enthusiastically?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I do accept that. The benchmarking was worked out with the help of the Prison Officers Association and, as he will hear in a second, has had some benefit for two of the prisons in his constituency.

The impact of benchmarking on the number of staff posts has varied from prison to prison, depending on their starting points, but overall it has reduced the number of staff posts and been a driver of financial savings across the system as a whole. For example, the benchmark reduced officer posts at Elmley while it will increase officer posts at Standford Hill and Swaleside. In the past five years, overall numbers of uniformed prison officers have reduced. However, the benchmark also changes the way people are deployed and work, by setting the resource according to the work required.

Nationally, the staffing picture has improved significantly following 12 months of accelerated recruitment. National recruitment delivered 1,700 new prison officer recruits into the service between January 2014 and March 2015. In the coming year, the National Offender Management Service will focus activity on recruiting greater numbers to priority regions—those geographical areas, such as London and the south-east, including the Sheppey cluster, where recruitment under the accelerated scheme has not yet matched demand.

Recruitment and retention of staff is one of the most significant challenges facing the three prisons on the Isle of Sheppey. The pressure has been felt most acutely in the number of prison officers available, but increasingly also in relation to other front-line staff. Staff numbers fell significantly despite recruitment during 2014. By the end of March 2015, the number of officer vacancies had fallen to 550 across the whole estate. At the same point, the three prisons on Sheppey cumulatively had 70 officer vacancies.

In the shorter term, the Prison Service has a number of other ways by which it can support prisons with shortfalls in staffing levels on Sheppey. Those include the ability to offer staff additional working hours, some at premium rates under a scheme known as payment plus. The service has also deployed prison officers from other parts of the country to work at sites with more acute staffing issues on a detached duty arrangement.

My hon. Friend raised concerns about officer pay and pension age. Pay rates are set at comparable levels for similarly weighted jobs in the same area. The National Offender Management Service reassesses that every year to ensure that rates remain competitive and to see whether any change is needed. Since April 2015, starting pay has increased significantly, and we will assess what impact that has on recruitment of staff. However, we are aware that certain establishments are having difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff, and a review is now being undertaken of the pay offered in the relevant areas. That includes the Sheppey cluster, and the review will conclude shortly. I point out, however, that ultimately rates of pay and local allowances are determined by the independent Prison Service Pay Review Body after receiving evidence from both the National Offender Management Service and the trade unions.

The Prison Officers Association is discussing retirement age with the Government and the Cabinet Office. We will consider any information submitted to us. Regardless of age, it is important that prison officers are fit, healthy and able to perform their role, to safeguard their colleagues and those within their care.

We are under no illusion about the scale of the problem of assaults in prison. The number of assaults increased by 10%, from 14,664 in 2013 to 16,196 in 2014. Although the increase is partly due to improvements in reporting of assaults following changes in data assurance processes, those improvements do not account for the whole increase. Serious assaults, including on staff rather than on other prisoners, have risen even more, to 2,145 in 2014 from 1,588 in 2013—an increase of 35%.

Deaths in prison custody have risen over time, alongside an overall ageing of the population, which includes an increasing number of elderly prisoners. Around two thirds of deaths in prison custody are from natural causes. Self-inflicted deaths are a serious cause for concern. In 2014-15, there were 76; although lower than the 88 in 2013-14, that figure is higher than the level over the previous five years.

Some incident categories in the Sheppey cluster have also increased, although not all. Assaults on staff have increased significantly, and we have also seen an increase in self-inflicted deaths at Elmley prison, although not at the other sites. However, assaults on prisoners have reduced year on year since 2011 and self-harm decreased between 2013 and 2014.

Although we do not downplay the significance of each and every incident—and I wish to make clear again my commitment to reducing violence further—the statistics show that violence is a complex issue that is influenced by a number of behavioural and situational factors. There is strong evidence that an increase in the illicit trade and misuse of synthetic drugs and new psychoactive substances is linked to the recent increase in violence across the prison estate. The problem is increasingly prominent in the community at large, and my hon. Friend will be aware of the Government’s intention to legislate to control such substances. We are also developing a range of responses to the challenge within our prisons, including training of drug detection dogs and the deployment of urine testing capability.

In addition, the Serious Crime Act 2015 introduced two new offences that will help combat violence in prisons. One is being in possession of a knife or other offensive weapon within a prison—I think my hon. Friend will agree that it is amazing that that was not an offence before the 2015 Act—the other is throwing items over a prison wall, which is a common way of introducing contraband, including new psychoactive substances and other drugs, into a prison. Both offences carry a penalty on conviction of imprisonment, a fine or both, depending on the circumstances of the offence.

The National Offender Management Service has established a violence reduction project to gain a better understanding of the causes of the current levels of violence in prisons and to ensure that both prevention of and response to violence are strengthened. A range of action is being taken across the prison estate as part of that programme, including issuing new guidance to governors to support the development of local violence reduction strategies. We are also piloting the use of body-worn cameras across 24 establishments, including 42 cameras at Elmley and 34 at Swaleside.

We have introduced a joint protocol between the National Offender Management Service, the police service and the Crown Prosecution Service on the handling of crimes in prison, to address precisely the issue that my hon. Friend raised. I assure him and the prison officers he represents that I take that issue extremely seriously. Where there should be a prosecution I absolutely want to see one, with a due penalty. We have also introduced the development of more rigorous case management of individuals with a greater propensity to violence. HMP Swaleside is delivering a case management pilot as part of its work with personality-disordered offenders. Although distinct from the main programme at this stage, it will ultimately contribute towards learning to inform our future violence reduction work. We are also investing £2 million in increasing closed circuit television coverage during 2015-16.

A programme of work to address the rise in self-inflicted deaths is being taken forward. Last summer, new regional leads were put in place in each public sector prison’s region, as well as in Wales, to support staff in prisons and share best practice. Additional staff were provided to certain high-risk establishments, and national learning days on deaths in custody were held last year. Regular communications have been sent to governors and staff to share learning from deaths in custody and promote learning from independent bodies such as the prison and probation ombudsman.

I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s concerns about the prisons in his constituency. I do not underestimate for a moment the challenges faced by staff at those three prisons, and the significant challenges we face serve only to emphasise the achievements of those staff. I hope that I have reassured him that I take the issues seriously and that we will continue to do everything we can to address them.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.