Skip to main content

Safety in Prisons

Volume 597: debated on Wednesday 17 June 2015

Before I call Rachael Maskell to move the motion, it might help colleagues to know that I intend to call the winding-up speeches at 10.30 am at the latest. There are three Front-Bench spokesmen.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered safety in prisons.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I am grateful to have secured this important debate on the growing risks to personal safety in our prisons.

My interest in penal matters was instilled in me in early childhood by my late uncle, Professor Terence Morris. He was a great penal reformer who played an active role in the Longford committee, which advised Prime Minister Harold Wilson on penal reform. Terence Morris’s seminal work “Pentonville: a Sociological Study of an English Prison” transformed the prison service, and he was a leading member of the movement to abolish the death penalty. Beyond being an academic in criminology, to me he was my mentor, and he continued to be so until his untimely death two years ago.

I made my maiden speech on the subject of mental health, due to the rising risks in my local services. For the past five years, I have been representing people who work in our high-security psychiatric hospitals, as Unite’s head of health. I have campaigned alongside members who are challenged by the increased risks they experience due to skill-mix, the rise in pension age, cuts to staff and the threat of other changes to their terms and conditions. Therefore, I am well aware of the physical and mental dangers faced by staff working in such environments.

However, today I will focus on Her Majesty’s prisons and the risks that are increasing as the environment grows ever more dangerous. The changing demographics of our rising prison population—that is taking place against the backdrop of cuts—are escalating the challenges faced by prison officers and staff. I want us to examine why our prisons have become ever more understaffed and overcrowded, resulting in high risk and even violence to prison staff.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her election to Parliament and on securing this important first Westminster Hall debate. She will bring huge experience to Parliament on these matters.

The Government say they are providing new prison places, yet today new statistics show that there has been an increase in the number of prisoners forced to share cramped accommodation. More than a quarter of all prisoners now do so. Does my hon. Friend agree that that can lead only to greater tension in prisons and will further put safety at risk?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. Overcrowding is affecting safety in prisons, and I will set out how it is having an impact. The sharing of cells is one of the problems being faced in our prisons today.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does she agree that another issue that is increasing risk in prisons is the change to the conditions relating to earned privileges and the crackdown on release on temporary licence? Such changes make prisoners feel more stressed, which affects behaviour and risk.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the opportunities prisons have to rehabilitate people and enable them to reform their lives. I will pick it up later in the debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on being elected to Parliament and on securing the debate. In 2013, £45 million was spent on redundancy packages, and the staffing of the service is now dangerously low, to say the least. Will she comment on that problem?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that important point. The reduction in prison officer numbers is having a serious impact on safety in prisons. Again, I will return to the subject, because it has greatly contributed to making prisons so unsafe today.

I want us to consider why Labour’s 1997 ambition to be tough not just on crime, but on the causes of crime, is rapidly fading in the ideological drive to cut public services. Urgent investment and resolution are required to bring an end to those unnecessary trends.

Our prison infrastructure, as is the case in all public services, has shifted towards the private sector, which has resulted in a landscape through which to steer change that is fragmented and which forever draws resource from the service into the market. That has particularly failed where private companies have bid for and won loss-leading contracts, resulting in severe cuts to staffing. The Sodexo contract with Her Majesty’s prison Northumberland is one such example, where a staggering 50% cut to staffing has had profound effect. Since 2010, 18 prisons have closed—many of them smaller prisons and some high-performing centres, despite the evidence that demonstrates that smaller prisons correlate to safer environments. New prisons have been built. A Titan prison is being built in Wrexham, which is to house 2,000 prisoners, despite the research on the effect of the size of prisons on safety.

Putting that evidence aside, the issue of overcrowding across the prison estate is now at crisis point and we must seek urgent redress. It is reported that 80 out of 118 prisons are now categorised as overcrowded. For example, Wandsworth prison was running at 177% capacity in 2014—nearly double what it was designed for. Other full prisons are being ordered to make emergency space available for prisoners. Therefore, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) said, prisoners are doubling up in cells designed for one person. In some cases, three prisoners are sharing one cell.

There are 20,672 prisoners—more than a quarter of the prison population—living in overcrowded accommodation, and the number is increasing. That is clearly putting a serious strain on our prison infrastructure and facilities. Only half of prisons inspected are achieving “reasonably good” or “good” standards.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As she knows, I have two prisons—a privately-run prison and what we still call a Government-run prison—in my constituency. She may be aware of the death of a prisoner in custody at Altcourse prison. Does she agree that serious incidents involving staff or inmates should be reported to the local MP, so he or she can assure their constituents on the safety of the prisons and address any issues surrounding serious incidents in prisons in their area?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that tragic situation. Of course reports should come to Members of Parliament, because it is important that we scrutinise the environment we are responsible for overseeing in our communities. We are able to raise such important matters and drill down to find out why such incidents are occurring in our prisons and get some real answers. He therefore makes an important point.

With the overcrowding of our prisons, violent tendencies are being exacerbated. Overcrowding is now cited as one of the major risk factors for prison staff and prisoners. The toxic mix of overcrowding and financial and staff cuts is causing the penal system to fail those who are incarcerated, and it also has a longer-term impact on the public and wider society.

Over the past two decades, the prison population has nearly doubled to 84,485. The number of women in prison has also doubled. Since 2010, staffing has been cut by 28%—a staggering loss of 12,530 personnel—and over the past three years resources have been cut by £263 million. The impact of the cuts has been observed not only by Her Majesty’s Opposition, but by the chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, who considered it extremely serious and concerning. He said that the system is not coping, and warned that, because of staff shortages, men are locked up together for 23 hours a day, causing huge tensions.

Nick Hardwick also highlighted that extra resources were needed or the prison population would have to be reduced. He said that

“this is a political and policy failure. This isn’t the fault of... staff… the demands on the system have… completely outstripped the resources available to… them.”

The annual report of the chief inspector of prisons at the end of last year highlighted the significant decline in safety and the enduring impact of time spent in custody. The average sentence has risen to 15.5 months or, for those on mandatory life sentences, up to 17 years. Punitive incarceration, which is all that can be achieved through long periods of detention without opportunity for rehabilitation, restoration and the development of skills, worth and value, does not break the crime cycle. That is evidenced by the extremely high, although now fairly static, reoffending rates, which put the public at further risk.

The previous Government had to take a U-turn on banning guitars in prison, and on banning other basic functions, such as being able to take a shower or make phone calls. Banning those provisions dehumanises prisoners, which has consequences. Minimal time out of a cell does not provide a prisoner with sufficient release but instead contributes to the escalation of risk, whether violent or otherwise. Physical, sexual and verbal assault rates remain unacceptably high and the number of violent incidents in prisons has increased. The number of serious assaults last year rose by a third.

The national tactical response group, which deals with serious incidents and riots in prisons, has seen an 89% increase in demand since 2010, with 223 calls in 2014 compared with 129 two years earlier. Only this week, we witnessed a riot involving 60 prisoners at Her Majesty’s prison Stocken. An officer was stabbed and hospitalised. The Prison Officers Association states that prisons throughout the land are on the brink of such incidents due to the dangerous staffing levels and the challenges caused by overcrowding. Substance abuse, the sharp rise in the availability of legal highs and alcohol abuse are challenging safety in prisons, and are now at serious levels in a third of prisons, with a marked prevalence found particularly among women prisoners, leading to negative behaviours and creating risks.

To dwell a little more on staffing numbers, they have fallen dramatically despite the number of those held in custody rising. That has not only put a tremendous strain on remaining staff, but led to an unsafe skills mix. Staff without sufficient competencies are now being required to take on responsibilities beyond their scope. That is not only a failure of the duty of care that prison management have to their staff, but it impacts on safety standards and increases the risk to staff.

The lack of staffing and changes in skills mix has a direct correlation with the number of violent incidents in our prisons. From 2013 to 2014, assaults between prisoners rose by some 14% and have reached the highest level ever recorded. Serious assaults on inmates have risen dramatically by 38%. In 2013, there were 11,397 assaults on prisoners; in 2014, there were 16,196. Serious assaults rose from 1,588 in 2013 to 2,145 in 2014—an increase of a third.

Four homicides took place in prison in 2013. Some 41% of prisoners now feel unsafe in their environment. Incidents against staff rose by a third—including the highest ever level of serious assault—and staff now have an unacceptable level of sickness, averaging 10.8 days compared with the national average of 4.4 days. These are not statistics, but lives being put in danger. Prisoners are being put at risk, as are staff who are going to work and carrying out their duties day by day. We must never forget that.

The number of prisoners at risk of suicide and self-harm is at an alarming high. Over the past year, the suicide rate has risen by 69%. Eight of those suicides were carried out by prisoners placed in segregation, four of whom were known to be at risk. The rate has risen significantly for the first time in five years. The proportion of prisoners at risk of suicide—21% of men and 46% of women—is substantially higher than the rest of the population, in which 6% are at risk. A staggering 23,478 prisoners self-harmed last year. The time officers can invest in building relationships has depleted; there is no time to sit down to have a conversation and a cup of tea, and to talk through the stresses and strains on prisoners. Instead, prisoners are turning on themselves in desperation.

Our youth justice system also faces challenge. Because of the shortage of appropriate placements, young offenders are often placed in those dangerous environments.

Before my hon. Friend moves off the point, and as there is a Minister here, the Government know the statistics that she is quoting. The Government have to provide a safe working environment for staff. Does she believe that they are failing in their duty of care?

Clearly, staff working in prisons—officers and other staff—are being failed. It is not acceptable that people are put at risk day by day when they turn up in their duty to serve. Therefore, I call for urgent attention to the issue and for a resolution. It is not acceptable just to read and listen to statistics. We have to take action.

With the right facilities, staffing levels, support and approach, much of the problems can be avoided. The impact of cuts to our public services has led to this perfect storm, failing people who then end up in a life of crime. We have no less than a moral duty to properly resource our services now to ensure that the prison populations fall in the future. Societal and Government failure has led to too many challenged individuals ending up in a life of crime.

Let us look at who the people behind the bars are—we have to look at what is happening in wider society to understand why people are ending up in prisons. Some 39% of the prison population experienced neglect or abuse as a child. Three quarters had an absent father; a third had an absent mother. A third of looked-after boys and nearly two thirds of looked-after girls end up in crime, which I hope is addressed in the Education and Adoption Bill.

Half of women prisoners have experienced domestic violence and a third have experienced sexual abuse. Some 66% of female prisoners and 38% of male prisoners committed offences to buy drugs. Half of all violent crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol. Some 49% of prisoners have anxiety and depression, and 25% of women prisoners suffer from psychosis. Some 20% to 30% of prisoners have learning difficulties and 47% have no qualifications, which emphasises society’s failure—Government’s failure—in providing steps and measures early on, and making interventions that can turn around the life course of those individuals. Those people should not be in our prisons and we have serious questions to ask.

It is a shameful story that the state has not intervened and given those people the hope and the opportunity that many of us have had. The fate of ending up in prison must be addressed. Not providing the right support at the right time is a crime of the state, which is why today’s debate is crucial. If we do not change the course of those people’s lives across the country, the prison population can only rise.

Will the Government stop and appraise the next wave of £30 billion of cuts and address the root causes of why our prisons have become overcrowded and unsafe? I challenge the Minister to resolve the reoffending rates. Such a punitive penal system as we have now, ever stripped of rehabilitation and resettlement opportunities, results in increased uncertainty and diminished hope for prisoners, and in a reoffending rate as high as 45.2% within a year and, for children, 68.2%.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She has touched for the second time on reoffending rates. Does she agree that addressing high reoffending rates—the reason that many of the profound problems that she has outlined continue to prevail in our prisons—is a fundamental part of what the Government need to do?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making an important point. There is a revolving door, with people leaving prison without support and rehabilitation and ending up back in the criminal justice system. That is a failure of our finances and of our investment in the lives of those individuals, who are then marked, with a life of crime ahead of them.

Picking up on that point, too many people are leaving prison without having the support they need, whether incarcerated or on leaving prison. Some 50,000 prisoners who were released last year did not get any support and post-release supervision. I heard from a woman in my constituency who left prison with no discharge support and ended up on the streets, exposed to exactly the same risks that she was exposed to before being placed in jail. She was fortunate to be picked up by the voluntary sector, which was able to address some of those issues. However, the voluntary sector is seriously under-resourced and it could make only a little step towards making her life a little different.

The previous Justice Secretary talked about a rehabilitation revolution, but does my hon. Friend agree that some basic things need to happen for that to take place? If people are to be prepared for a better life outside prison, they need education, including basic literacy and numeracy, and, of course, supported training.

We are not seeing any revolution in rehabilitation. Prisoners are locked up in their cells for 23 hours a day, unable to have chances in life and without the investment they need. The reduction in prison officer numbers is such that prisoners have no alternative opportunities until they reach the prison door and then, of course, people return to the life they knew before, without the turnaround that they desperately need, or the support, that would change the course of their life. We need to address not just that revolving door, but overcrowding, because the reality is that, as people return to the penal system, we are building on the overcrowding crisis.

We must also look at our probation service, which has also experienced severe cuts as it has been taken on its own journey around privatisation and out into the market, meaning that it is not able to integrate fully with the rest of the criminal justice system. We have to ask serious questions about that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. The probation service is not just fractured from the rest of the criminal justice system; it is fractured within itself due to an unnecessary, pointless, destructive and quite dangerous separation.

I was talking yesterday to Napo, the trade union representing probation officers, about further cuts that are going to be made to the service at a time when, including in this debate, we are hearing that we need investment rather than cuts, without which we will not be able to break the cycle. This reorganisation of the probation service is yet another that has no purpose or point in respect of feeding into the bigger picture.

Although we understand that there is overcrowding in our prisons, does the hon. Lady not agree that a lot of the responsibility for running prisons has to be at the top, from the governor and management down? She mentioned some investment in a number of prisons. In Northern Ireland it is perhaps slightly different; it is political. For example, some £10 million has been spent on Maghaberry prison in the past four years, because prisoners have damaged it and some infrastructure work has been done. Surely it starts with the management of the prison as well.

This is about not just management, but providing leadership throughout the Prison Service. The Government have an important role to play, as do leaders in prisons, whether directors or governors. There is such churn in the number of governors that they are in post for only about three and a half years before moving on, so they do not build relationships with the organisations they have responsibility for, which has a serious impact on providing leadership for the organisation to follow.

Another big question is why so many people end up in our prisons in the first place. We know that the number of community orders has fallen, despite their effectiveness, and that many people are held in prison while awaiting trial, with 27% not returning to prison afterwards, having been given other sentences.

I challenge our incarceration of so many people who are experiencing mental health challenges or addiction and substance abuse. I question whether it is right for people struggling with health issues to be locked up for 23 hours a day and whether, if that is not the right environment for them, we cannot find alternatives that will really help to address their health issues and issues around reoffending.

There is a clear correlation between safe staffing levels and safety in prisons. That is most evident in the 28% cut in the number of prison staff. The ratio of prisoners to prison officers is 1:4.8, whereas in 2000 it was 1:2.9. Prison officers are carrying so much more responsibility. Therefore, the effectiveness of their interventions is diluted.

Staff are enduring an unacceptable number of assaults, although I must say that all assaults are unacceptable. In 2014, prison staff experienced 3,637 assaults, 477 of which were serious—an increase of a third—and 10,000 working days were lost due to absence, mainly for physical reasons, but also increasingly because of work-related stress. Is it not the worst environment imaginable to fear for your life every day at work? Those 10,000 days lost could be dealt with by increasing the number of prison officers, making the workplace safer, but we also need to think of the real cost of that situation.

Of course, staff have been challenged by the higher levels of violence in their workplace and prison officers have to face risks that few in our population can even begin to understand. The prison population is becoming more violent and dangerous. Violent incidents have risen from 32 to 42 a day, eight of which are to members of staff. In 2012, there were 213 hospital attendances by officers, compared with 170 in just the first two quarters of 2013. These officers are experiencing injuries so serious that they have to be taken into the care of our emergency services.

The hon. Lady mentions the commitment and sacrifice of prison officers. I would like to put on record the assassination of Prison Officer David Black, in my constituency, on the road to Maghaberry prison, by republicans. Some 31 prison officers have been murdered over the past number of years. They have made the supreme sacrifice.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to that tragic situation, where the lives of prison officers are being put at such high risk that many do not return to their families at the end of their working day. That is unacceptable. Early intervention to ensure that people have safe passage to and from work, as well as at work, is crucial for our public servants.

We know that the reward is not great for our prison staff. They are stretched regarding cover and there is work intensification, and they are challenged when dealing with the emotional demands of the work, because they are not able to fulfil their ambitions for those they serve, such are the pressures put on them.

We also hear from the Prison Officers Association that there is a lack of support from management. There are high levels of bullying in an already tense and violent environment. We have seen cuts to pay in real-terms, cuts to pensions and a real fall in morale. The report into health and safety shows that 30% of officers have been physically assaulted in the past four years. Many more experience psychological distress or emotional exhaustion. We know that there are real challenges with recruitment and the retention levels of prison staff. Given the environment I have described, we can see how that can come about. Prison governors are not in one place for long enough. They are moved on before they can provide the stability that staff need and build the relationships of trust necessary to provide that prison with a vision, a sense of purpose and direction.

The Labour party is calling for some clear measures to be taken. Starting with leadership, we need governors to be established in prisons for longer to bring stability and the leadership necessary to ensure that reforms can take place to make prisons safer. We believe that that should be accompanied by better governance by prison boards, rooting jails in their local communities with representatives from councils, charities, the probation service, the police and other organisations. That would provide the opportunity to build the bridge back into community living, which is so important for the future lives of prisoners.

We need to refresh Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, so that inspectors are truly independent of political interference and so that they publish their action plans and demands for the resourcing necessary. We need to see those plans supported so that actions follow. That way, we will not just have action plans, but results coming to fruition from them, and we will be able to scrutinise the process behind that. Above all, by breaking the cycle of crime we can ensure that prisons stop fuelling crime. That will be achieved only by properly resourcing early intervention measures to prevent people from falling into crime in the first place. For those who do fall through the net, we need evidence-based rehabilitation programmes that focus on developing education, training and skills, on improving health, wellbeing and self-worth and on re-orienting prisoners to life after prison, where they will not be exposed to the same risks they faced before their convictions. That will only be achieved by giving prisons the best facilities and adequate staffing levels to facilitate such transformation. Such a programme will secure staff and prisoner safety and cut spending on the prison service in the longer term.

To conclude, we come into politics not just to talk about issues or ideas, but to exercise every moment to bring transformative change to the lives of the people we are sent here to represent. Our prisons are in a very dangerous situation. Is the Minister willing to challenge the system and ensure that the service is made safe and effective? I thank you, Mr Bone, for allowing me this time today.

Order. It might be helpful for Members to know that five Members are seeking to catch my eye from the Back Benches and we have just over 25 minutes until we reach the winding-up speeches. I should have reminded the Minister that the Member who introduced the debate will get two minutes at the end.

It is a pleasure to speak on this matter. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on outlining the issues so well and in such detail. Issues of staffing, safety and security are not limited to England and Wales, and I would like to give a Northern Ireland perspective to the matter and refer to the Select Committee on Justice’s report in the short time I have available.

The issues in Northern Ireland are no different from those on the mainland. Prison guards feel that they have no ability to restrain or confront dangerous inmates who damage televisions and wantonly break and vandalise equipment that they know will have to be replaced. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) referred to the £10 million that has been spent on repairs and infrastructure. With some inmates, there is a sense of, “They cannot do anything to me. There are no consequences to my actions.” Issues in England and Wales are pertinent to Northern Ireland, and I spoke to the Minister before the debate to make him aware of the issues to which I wanted to refer.

I am not sure whether the availability of drugs in prisons will be touched on, but something is seriously wrong. People who are not addicted when they go to prison become addicted while they are there. How can that be? I have read some correspondence between the Minister and the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland. Scanners are being introduced to prisons, but they sit gathering dust in offices. I understand that they are not used because prison staff do not want to offend the people who are smuggling drugs into prison. There has to be a method of change, and that has to start at the top with the governors.

Last week, I intervened in the debate on lenient sentences to say that there is a problem when stronger sentences are not handed down for crimes. Let us be clear: people are in prison for a reason: they have done something wrong. The law of the land has laid that down. We need to ensure that funding is available to staff prisons adequately. It is a vicious circle: we need more officers to staff the inmates and to keep things under control, but we also need a legal system that adequately reflects the seriousness of the issue. I am not in any way asking for a call-back to the days when prisoners were kept in their cells day and night; we should be rehabilitating prisoners, and giving them the skills to turn their lives around in the outside world, but we cannot do that by fostering a gang mentality.

Some constituents told me last week about the situation at Maghaberry prison. The dissident republicans can go outside and have their physical exercise and enjoy the sun, which we do not get very often in Northern Ireland, but the Protestants and loyalists in the other section are on 23-hour lockdown. I know that that issue is not the Minister’s responsibility, but I want to have it on the record, because it has been brought to my attention and I am concerned.

There has to be honesty when it comes to the prison system. I have known some people who had a time in prison due to the troubles and came out changed men. They own their own businesses, take care of their families and have become upstanding members of the community. As the hon. Member for York Central said, prison can change people, if things inside are done correctly. It is important that we rehabilitate and skill people to give them a different focus and direction when they get out.

I want to comment on family visits. Accessibility to prisons is so important for families who are unable to travel as much as they would like. It is only right and proper that the Justice Committee’s report expressed grave concern over the increases in assaults, and the hon. Lady referred to that, but we cannot ignore self-harm and suicide among inmates. I will quote from the background notes. One lady referred to her son, who was a suicide victim. She said:

“The Prison Service has our loved ones and they don’t know how to cope with them, they are not trained properly to deal with mental health and they haven’t got the staff to cope.”

Another lady said:

“I didn't expect them to love him, but I did think they would look after him until he came home to get proper treatment.”

We have to look at those issues. They cannot be ignored, because suicide and self-harm does happen.

We have to address assaults. The report said that evidence gathered from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, the Government’s performance data and other sources

“all indicate a deterioration in standards of safety and performance across the prison estate over the last two years”.

Those issues have to be addressed not only here on the mainland in England and Wales, but in Northern Ireland. I will send the Minister responsible in Northern Ireland the Hansard transcript of this debate and outline the things that we have recognised. The issues are similar in Northern Ireland, and we need to do something.

We also need to recruit more prison officers. We cannot ignore the experienced officers who have left. I am conscious that other people wish to speak, so I will leave this concluding remark: experienced officers have the knowledge and qualities that enable them to deal with things. New officers come in and have to learn how that works. Perhaps more should be done to keep our experienced officers and to ensure that they can mentor and bring on the new officers coming in. I again congratulate the hon. Lady on giving us all a chance to speak on this massive issue, which is important to me, the prison officers I represent, and those who are in prison because of their deeds, but who we hope will come out better people.

I will be extremely brief. I have to leave soon because I am chairing another meeting, so I apologise to the Minister.

Six months ago, we had a debate in the main Chamber on a report by a number of specialist psychologists from the University of Bedfordshire on stress at work for prison officers. The levels of stress and, to be frank, mental health issues were appalling. The Minister offered to meet us at the time, but we have never been able to take up his offer. Can we bring in the experts and have that meeting, so that we can be properly briefed on the issues raised by that report?

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) gave an excellent exposition of where we are at. I was a member of the Justice Committee that prepared the report that has been mentioned, and we documented the chaotic nature of the management of the Prison Service over the past five years. At one point, the Government laid off 800 prison officers, then realised that there were critical problems with officer safety and a rise in assaults, suicides and self-harm, and there were all the problems with security as well. The inspector said of one privatised prison that it was easier to get drugs there than a bar of soap. The chaos was displayed, and the Government realised some of their mistakes and started to recruit again. Interestingly, some of the officers who had been sacked the year before were recruited into a reserve force.

The chaos of the past five years is also reflected in what is happening in the National Probation Service, with Sodexo laying off 600 probation officers. Who will supervise people coming out of prison now? The split in the service, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central, between higher-risk prisoners who need supervision and medium to low-risk prisoners is counter-intuitive. There is regularly a shift between medium and high risk, and between low and medium risk. People are not safe inside and rehabilitation is not taking place because of overcrowding and a lack of staff. When prisoners come out, they are supervised in an almost chaotic manner because of a lack of staff and the breakdown of some of the central service provision that was backing up those staff, including, yet again, the failure of computers. In addition, the private companies are trying to maximise their profits by cutting back on professional standards.

We are in crisis again. That is not a party political point—whoever was in government, I would be making the same statement in the light of this evidence, which is coming from front-line staff. They are saying, “We’re not coping with the level of staffing and the pressures on us.” The Minister takes real care in his job. He responded as effectively as he possibly could within the financial constraints under the previous Government; he must now get a grip on the issue and say to the Treasury, “We need the resources to staff these prisons, protect the probation service and enhance the service delivery we are getting from the companies that have taken over.” Otherwise, I fear that there are real risks both inside prisons and when people come out. That risk is not just to prison officers and prisoners, but to the general public as well.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on securing this important debate, and I thank you, Mr Bone, for your excellent stewardship.

In April 2013, a young man from my constituency, whom I will refer to as John for the purpose of this debate, was sentenced to several years’ imprisonment at Long Lartin prison. By June that year, he was in excruciating and debilitating back pain. He was unable to move and could not independently use the bathroom or feed himself. As a result, he stopped eating. The pain was reported to medical staff, but despite instructions from a doctor that blood and urine tests should be taken, neither was.

By July, the pain was unbearable, but despite repeated requests for pain relief, pain scoring and examination, none were forthcoming. I am led to believe that not even basic pain relief, such as Panadol or ibuprofen, was made available to him. His repeated requests for hospitalisation were met with scepticism about the validity of his illness. It was suggested that his symptoms were only a malingering tactic and, indeed, a ploy to give him the opportunity to escape.

In August that year, John passed away. A post-mortem discovered a lesion that, had it been tested, would have been shown to be cancerous. At an inquest in January this year, it was determined that John was let down by the prison system: he was denied life-saving treatment and as a result died a very painful and uncomfortable death. The ombudsman stated that it was the worst case of medical negligence he had encountered.

So where are we now? No action was taken against the prison authorities. No one has been held to account for this gross negligence. The family are left in disbelief that this preventable death has occurred. They believe that this is not an isolated case and that similar cases are happening in other prisons—that may well be because of the severe cuts.

John’s safely was jeopardised in the most fatal way, and the consequence is that a 34-year-old young man has died. How can the family of my constituent rest, knowing that his death was probably preventable? He did not receive due respect and protection while in Her Majesty’s custody. Furthermore, he was denied the medical care that was his basic right. I ask colleagues to consider the evidence and join me in pressing the Minster to investigate John’s case in order to bring closure to his deeply saddened and angry family.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on her excellent contribution on this extremely important issue. The Prison Service and the probation service, which has been mentioned by different speakers, are in total and utter chaos. We should not be surprised. I will give a number of examples from HMP Northumberland, which is not in my constituency but is in the lovely county in which I live.

It should not be a surprise that we have this crisis in prisons when we look at how we have sold off the Prison Service to private companies such as Sodexo, which is, after all, a French catering company running prisons in places such as Northumberland. The fact that that type of organisation is running prisons does not inspire any confidence among the public. When Sodexo took over HMP Northumberland, it immediately made one third of the staff redundant. What happened? The prison was in chaos. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said, the prison then had to get a bank of people it had just made redundant to make themselves available, and that is still the case. There have been horrific situations at HMP Northumberland. Whose safety are we looking at? Not just that of the staff. I want to put on the record what a fantastic job prison officers do under tremendous pressure. The level of stress-related illness among prison officers is beyond all imagination, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Central described.

Look at what has happened because of staff reductions. Throughout the country, a third of the staff has been made redundant. In some prisons, the staff has been reduced by 50%. Are we surprised that there are problems in prisons? Are we surprised that there has been an increase in assaults on prisoners of around 10%? Are we surprised that there has been an increase in assaults on staff of 11%? Are we surprised that serious assaults on prisoners are up 35% and serious assaults on staff are up 33%? Of course we should not be surprised when there is no one managing prisons as they should be managed. I mentioned that there are a lot of people on bank working, if and when they are needed; we have lost a lot of experience in the Prison Service as well.

On 27 January, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, gave a damning report on HMP Northumberland, saying that

“not all prisoners received a thorough initial risk assessment or induction… prisoners said they felt less safe at Northumberland than at comparable prisons… recorded assaults were high and work to confront bullying and violence lacked rigour… there had been three self-inflicted deaths since 2012”—

the list goes on and on. I understand from the way that you are looking at me, Mr Bone, that others want to speak, but that list shows clearly what is going wrong and why there is a crisis in Her Majesty’s prisons.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington mentioned Sodexo, the French catering company that runs HMP Northumberland. Members of the Prison Officers Association have come to see me to explain what is happening in the prison. If anyone here likes “Porridge”—it is one of my favourites—let me tell them that I have been told that the prison is run on the basis of that fantastic comedy, and that is frightening. Sex offenders who have been put in open wings and had their lives threatened have come to see me, as have prisoners across the board and lecturers and civil servants working there who are afraid. That situation is absolutely unacceptable.

My good colleagues have mentioned lots of figures and I would love to mention lots more. How can those in prison have mobile phones? How can they readily get alcohol? How can they get drugs, when they want them, more easily than they can purchase soap and toothpaste? That is totally unacceptable; that should not be the case.

On reoffending, there has been privatisation of the probation service, which is in utter chaos, to say the very least. In Northumberland, Sodexo runs the probation service and the prison, so for Sodexo it does not really matter if people are rehabilitated in prison, or if it fails to rehabilitate them under the probation service, because there is a merry-go-round of finance, and that company can make a fortune from doing absolutely nothing. It can make a fortune from failure, which must be a conflict of interests. Will the Minister look at that? With increases in the prison population, in overcrowding and in violence and reoffending, it is of major importance that we get this right.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), who brought passion to the debate, as he does to every issue we discuss in this House. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on her district and analytical speech. It is important that we bring safety in prisons to the fore.

The No. 1 issue for me, as it was when I served on the Select Committee on Justice, is mental health in prisons, which is not being treated properly. I will say something controversial: I do not believe that there is such a thing as an alcoholic or a drug addict—I say that as the son of an alcoholic—but there is an underlying mental health issue that is not being treated.

The figures speak for themselves. In 2013-14 an average of 19,383 prisoners were held in overcrowded accommodation, which accounted for 23% of the total prison population. What happens to prisoners with mental health problems? In 2013, 25% of women and 15% of men in prison reported symptoms indicative of psychosis, in stark contrast to the 4% figure for the general public, and 26% of women and 16% of men said that they had received treatment for a mental health problem in the year before they went into custody. With that knowledge, prisons should do more to ensure that prisoners with mental health problems receive appropriate support.

Personality disorders are particularly prevalent among people in prison, with 62% of male and 57% of female sentenced prisoners having such a disorder. Can we imagine how that must affect someone serving a sentence and in life afterwards? Sadly, in my constituency last November, the failure to address mental health issues both in prison and on release came home to me and the small, tight-knit community of Argoed. Cerys Yemm was a young girl on a night out when she met Matthew Williams. As we know, she was brutally murdered at The Sirhowy Arms and he was to die after being tasered by the police.

Mr Williams was said to have had all the symptoms of a paranoid schizophrenic. He had been sent to The Sirhowy Arms by Caerphilly Council having just been released from prison. Following his release he was not properly monitored, even though he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia from an early age and he was an habitual criminal. His mother told the press at the time that he was unable to access medication on his release. She said:

“He should have been in hospital. Every time he came out of prison we’d go through the same process. He would be placed in a hostel somewhere with very little supervision and no psychiatric help”.

Even though a serious case review is ongoing, I asked the then Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) to launch an urgent review into mental health in prisons. I will speak to his successor and seek a meeting at which we can talk about mental health and the rehousing of prisoners.

Last night the BBC Wales programme “Week In Week Out” revealed that two men went on to kill and several sex offenders were sent to a bed and breakfast on their release without the landlady’s knowledge. That is banned in England, as is sending 15 and 16-year-olds to B and Bs, yet that is still prevalent in Wales. Even though that is not a devolved issue, I call on the Welsh Government to ensure that that practice is stamped out by its councils.

I see what the time is, so I will try to wind up, Mr Bone. In 2009, Lord Bradley, a former Home Office Minister, called for adequate community alternatives to prisons for vulnerable offenders where appropriate. His report recommended that the Department of Health introduced a new 14-day maximum wait to transfer prisoners with acute, severe mental illness to an appropriate health setting. There has been progress in access to healthcare for prisoners who require special treatment, but the 14-day target has not been implemented. It continues to be vital that we get reform for communities such as Argoed—if the Minister ever wants to visit a community where everyone knows everyone else, he should go there.

The family of Miss Yemm have called for the Sirhowy Arms to be demolished so that it does not become a monument to ghouls like 10 Rillington Place or 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester. I support the family in that, but I hope that the Government will listen to the prison and probation ombudsman for England and Wales, Nigel Newcomen, who said that lessons need to be learned.

Staff working in prisons should actively identify known risk factors such as suicide and self-harm. Violent offences against family members are known risk factors for suicide, and being subject to a restraining order can be a sign of increased vulnerability. All new arrivals should promptly receive an induction, giving them information to help them meet their basic needs in prison. Mental health referrals need to be made and acted on promptly, and there should be continuity of care from the community. Prisoners are most at risk in their first month, but even if someone has served a sentence, they should still be monitored if they are found to have a mental health issue. I urge the Minister, on behalf of the community of Argoed, to take action, and I ask for a meeting at the earliest opportunity to discuss this issue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate on behalf of the Scottish National party. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on securing the debate and I thank her for her thoughtful and erudite contribution. She clearly brings significant relevant experience to the debate and we should all be appreciative of that.

The hon. Lady asked why prisons in England and Wales are so understaffed and overcrowded, and said that that is part of the ideological drive to cut public services and shift to private sector provision. I associate myself with that conclusion. She identified various problems in the Prison Service, such as: how overcrowding exacerbates the risk of violence to staff and other prisoners; the increase in prisoner numbers and the doubling of women prisoners; and the fall in staffing levels, which self-evidently brings about problems. She also mentioned the risk of suicide and self-harm, and noted that that was at an alarming level among female offenders. She concluded that we have a moral duty to resource properly to address those issues. I associate myself with that view, as well as with her call on the Minister to stop and think before the next round of cuts.

Prison matters are devolved in Scotland, and I will say a little about how we have addressed some of them. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) discussed problems in the Northern Ireland prison sector, which are clearly particular because of the history of the Province, and the availability of drugs in prison, which other Members have touched on. Drugs are a problem throughout the prison service in the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) described a situation of chaos in the prison system of England and Wales, which is deeply concerning. The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) told us a tragic story involving a constituent of hers whose physical health was not, it seems, addressed at all, leading to his premature death. The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) spoke about an unpleasant and tragic case that we have all read about, which highlights the need to address the mental health of prisoners and of those we are trying to rehabilitate in the community. The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) expressed concerns about privatisation.

The safety of prison staff and inmates is a grave concern. We owe a duty of care to people in our prisons, and in particular to those who are vulnerable—I would especially identify vulnerability through mental health and of female offenders. I have a particular interest because, in my previous career at the Bar in Scotland, I worked for many years as a High Court prosecutor, so I was putting people behind bars. I regret to say that the first woman whom I put behind bars went on to commit suicide in a Scottish prison. Clearly, that is not my fault, but it has always weighed heavily on my conscience, because I felt that the young woman was in need of assistance, which perhaps she did not get in the Prison Service. However, we are taking steps to address that in Scotland. I have also worked as independent counsel for the families of people who have taken their own life in prison.

I will say something about how we in Scotland have tried to address suicide in prisons and female offending, not because we necessarily do things any better and I want to score points, but because I want to give an example of how we are taking things forward. Perhaps other prison systems in the United Kingdom can draw upon it. On suicide and self-harm, the Scottish prison service has something called the “ACT 2 Care” model, which I believe is replicated in the English Prison Service. The model tries to achieve collaboration between all involved—prison officers, the healthcare staff and the families and friends of prisoners—to identify those at risk and to deal with the risk of suicide and self-harm without putting people in solitary confinement, except as an absolute last resort.

I am pleased to report that the rate of self-inflicted deaths in Scottish prisons has reduced in recent years. In the 12 months to the end of March 2014, it was 0.8 deaths per 1,000 prisoners, which is down from 0.9 per 1,000 in the previous year, although that is still not good enough and we have a long way to go. The figures in Scotland compare favourably with the rate in England and Wales which, in the year to the end of March 2014, was 1 death per 1,000, but I do not want to score points on that. I recognise that we have a smaller population in Scotland generally, so it might be rather easier for us to address issues such as overcrowding in prisons.

No account of matters in Scotland would be complete without acknowledging what I touched on in my personal experience. We had a serious problem with suicide and self-harm among female prisoners. The Scottish Government are keen to keep vulnerable groups such as female offenders away from standard prison environments, although the most serious offenders must still be in prison for significant periods. However, the Scottish Government believe that diverting less serious offenders away from prison can lead to more positive outcomes for offenders’ health and wellbeing. The Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice recently announced a significant increase in funding of an additional £640,000 for female justice projects, as part of what he described as a “radical and ambitious” approach to female offending.

The Scottish Government intend to consult on a plan to provide smaller, regional and community-based facilities for female offenders throughout the country, rather than a national women’s prison. Interestingly, for the record, the Scottish Government were thinking about building a new women’s prison, but agreed to reconsider under pressure, among other reasons, from the feminist movement in Scotland, which has been reinvigorated by the independence referendum and by members of the Scottish Labour party who have raised the issue. Hon. Members may be aware that Kezia Dugdale, the deputy Scottish Labour leader, and I have often shared a platform on feminist issues, and I look forward to doing so again. I wish her well in her bid for the Scottish Labour party leadership.

We have to accept that certain people must always go to prison, but one contribution to be made to the debate is the suggestion that female offenders and other vulnerable groups should be kept out of prison and in their communities, rehabilitating them there, and so addressing the problems that have led them to offend in the first place. In that way, I hope we can make progress.

I again thank the hon. Member for York Central for raising this important issue. I thank all Members for their contributions to the debate. I look forward with interest to hear what the Minister has to say in due course.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.

I approach the debate with a heavy heart. The Minister is the fourth prisons Minister whom I have had the pleasure of shadowing since my appointment. Issues such as the one we are discussing have been part of our debates throughout that time. It has never been easy and I have never been able to arrive in such a debate and say, “I am glad that things are improving.” I have never felt so concerned about the situation in the prison system. I would like debates to be more focused on rehabilitation, dignity for victims and work in our prisons, because those are the things that we should be discussing. Instead, we are continually forced by the reality on the ground to concern ourselves with understaffing, overcrowding and, increasingly, violence. The Minister cares deeply about that—he often looks at me, plaintively, as if saying, “I care about this too.” I know that he cares, and I am pleased that he does. Surely the number of Members—including, pleasingly, new Members—who have felt the need to come to this Chamber for the debate shows the level of deep concern in the House. I hope he will be generous in allowing interventions.

I congratulate my new colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), on her election and on securing the debate. It was a pleasure to listen to her thoughtful opening speech. I look forward to working with her on such issues in the months ahead. Her constituents will be proud of her speech today, as will her predecessor.

The speeches we have heard from hon. Members capture the concern that is felt about the state of our prison system. Violent, overcrowded and understaffed prisons do nothing to challenge offender behaviour or to protect victims of crime. We have heard examples of exactly what was achieved by the prisons policy of the previous Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who is no longer in the Chamber, spoke about release on temporary licence and overcrowding. She is completely right. She has great experience of serving as a magistrate in Manchester, and has frequently seen the problems upon release and the difficulties in securing the important staged release. Sadly, that has been mismanaged too often and is now unavailable to too many inmates.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) spoke about death in custody, which he cares deeply about. Sadly, he is getting more and more experience of dealing with the relatives who have suffered such a tragedy.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) spoke about governorship. Clearly, there is a problem with resources in the prison system, but the problems faced by the Minister will not be dealt with simply by increased resources, even if were he able to secure them. Governorship is very important. There is too high and too frequent a turnover of senior staff in our prisons. The average tenure is far too short, especially when compared with, say, the length of tenure of a leader in an education establishment. On average, the tenure of leaders in educational establishments is nine years, whereas the tenure in prisons is about three years. That has to change, and it would not require additional money. The Minister could instigate that kind of change very quickly.

We would like boards to be established to provide an opportunity for stakeholders across the community to get their expertise in the running of prison establishments. We have seen that boards can be very effective for colleges, schools and hospitals. It would change completely the way in which an establishment is managed. Prisons should be managed with continuity and expertise and should be inspected rigorously. The Government could make that change quickly and at no cost, and it would be an effective way of changing the culture within our jails. We know that prison culture is important in preventing violent incidents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made a good observation about stress at work and the dangerous and monotonous work that prison officers often undertake. We would not tolerate nurses, health professionals or teachers being subjected to violent incidents, but often, precisely because it is a prison officer affected and the incident takes place in a closed environment, the press do not get so agitated, the issue is rarely debated properly in the prison and the Government do not feel moved to do much about it. We need a change in attitude from the Ministry of Justice. It is not tolerable that people should be asked to go to work in such circumstances, and it has gone on too long. The Minister is nodding, but this is not new—we have not suddenly noticed it happening. It is a trend that has been getting worse and worse for a long time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) always speaks with great passion. He quite rightly identified the problem with probation. The chaos and the looming crisis are not restricted to the closed prison estate. We are not resolving issues inside prisons, and so those issues are being left to the probation service, which is under increasing strain and has endured a completely needless and distracting reorganisation in the past two years. It is less and less able to deal with the more difficult problems with which it is confronted.

Rehabilitation is not a light bulb moment—it is not a case of holding one course and then someone is somehow mended. That is not what happens. It is day after day of challenges and problems, of slipping back, then making progress, then slipping back again. When we say, “There will be more courses, we will have work in our prisons and that will somehow solve deeply rooted psychological problems,” it shows that we do not properly appreciate that. We need to get real.

The way to help put people back together is having good behaviour modelled day after day by prison officers, yet more and more they are being shut out of the rehabilitation process. Prison officers are there on the wings when someone’s visit does not take place, or when someone has clearly been taking drugs, or is doing things they should not, or losing their temper. Yes, we need professionals—psychologists, social workers, educational experts—in there as well, but prison officers are there all the time, and should be showing people how to keep their temper, how to treat people with respect or how to deal with difficult conflicts without resorting to violence. However, they are not able to that, because there just are not enough of them, and the ones we have are too often less experienced about prison life than the prisoners they are supposed to be holding. We have learned that from governors and from Nick Hardwick, the excellent inspector of prisons. I urge the Minister to look at that with a great deal more urgency than he or his predecessors have shown to date.

Last week, a report from the prison and probation ombudsman showed a rise in deaths of inmates in segregation units. That was deeply shocking for people who work in the system. I encourage the Minister to think carefully about the impact that working on a wing on which someone has committed suicide will have on that unit’s staff, and to look at the support those staff receive from their employer.

I welcome the Government’s important plans to ban legal highs and prohibit their production. They are a significant and growing problem in our prisons, leading to bullying, intimidation and violence. The inspectorate has found that they are increasingly a great risk in our prisons—it estimates they have posed that risk in around a third of prisons in the past year. Legal highs do not show up in mandatory drug testing and are not being caught in the way they should because of staff shortages. Will the Minister tell us what, beyond all the usual stuff that we have all heard before, the Government are going to do about legal highs inside the prison estate? This is an issue of prison culture. There must be a zero tolerance approach, and we have to mean that—I have been in too many debates in which a Minister has reassured me on just about everything and then nothing seems to change.

On staffing, will the Minister tell us how many prisons are currently reliant on detached duty? Officers on detached duty go into prisons where they are not familiar with the establishment, with the other staff or with the inmates. It is a big, expensive problem that he needs to turn his mind to very quickly.

Most importantly, will the Minister tell us what he is going to do to tackle the rising level of violent assaults on prison officers? It is unacceptable to send public servants into a dangerous workplace, day in, day out, in fear of their safety. No wonder so many are either leaving the service, taking sick leave or becoming ill at work because of stress.

Once again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for York Central for securing this debate, which has given us the chance to put serious concerns to the Minister. I am pleased to see so many Members here. We have given the Minister enough time, so he needs to respond to the questions we have raised. I also hope he will take some interventions.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on a very polished opening speech. She raised a number of important issues, which I will do my best to address in the time I have.

The hon. Lady talked about the importance of probation supervision. The transforming rehabilitation reforms mean that people with sentences of under 12 months now get probation supervision—they did not in the past. She also talked about mental health issues, so I am sure she will warmly welcome the liaison and diversion services that are spreading across the country; they were introduced by the previous Government and we are continuing them. We would all agree with her that prevention is better than cure, and we all want to see fewer people committing crime and going to prison.

The hon. Lady talked about prisoners being locked up for 23 hours a day. That relates only to a very small proportion of prisoners in operational emergencies. Even in planned restricted regimes, prisoners get considerably more than one hour out of their cells.

In a second. I want first to ask the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for York Central to use the term “lethal highs” when they talk about new psychoactive substances. That term is more helpful. We are all determined to try to get those dreadful things out of our prisons, and the language matters, so perhaps we can all agree to call the substances “lethal highs”.

The Minister is quite correct to encourage us to use that term. On the issue of work, he is fond of saying that there is more work in prisons, but, again and again, inspection reports indicate that there is not and that prisons overestimate time out of cells and underestimate time in them. He needs to challenge his officials more on those data. The prisons inspector seems to be encouraging us to question them, so I want to ensure that the Minister does as well.

The hon. Lady is pushing at an open door on work in prisons. The number of such hours has gone up. Do I think it satisfactory? Absolutely not. Of course I want to increase it much more. If prisoners are gainfully employed during, roughly, the hours the rest of the population have to work, that will aid rehabilitation and make them more likely to get employment on release. I want more of that, and I will say more about it if the hon. Lady bears with me.

Reoffending was mentioned. Since 2002, the proven reoffending rate has remained stable, and it stands at 26.2%. For adults released from custody, the rate is 45.2%, and it has remained relatively stable since 2004, although it was slightly higher in 2002 and 2003.

Let me turn to the other excellent speeches we have heard. I commend my hon. Friend, as I often call him, the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on raising the issue of drugs. I share his horror of drugs in prison. Drugs destroy lives in the community and in prison. I will say more about that.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) talked about the stress on staff, and I know he cares deeply about that, as I do. The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) raised a harrowing case. I did not have warning of it, but I can tell her that the prisons and probation ombudsman’s recommendations are being addressed, mostly by the healthcare provider involved. There is also an ongoing investigation of what happened by the Nursing & Midwifery Council. The hon. Lady might be aware that healthcare in prisons is provided by the NHS, not the Prison Service. If she would like to write to me, I should be more than happy to receive a letter from her.

The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) talked about his concerns over Sodexo. He is right that its parent is a French catering company. I would just say that another Sodexo prison won the Elton prison industries award, which has been mentioned. The prison I recently visited in Salford had pretty low levels of sickness absence among its staff.

The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) mentioned mental health. He was absolutely right to do so, not least because of the horrific incident in his constituency. He talked, quite properly, about the need for suitable accommodation for prisoners on release. If he wants to correspond further on that, I would be more than happy to do so.

The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) told us about the Scottish prison system. I will ensure that National Offender Management Service officials have close contact with the prison service in Scotland. NOMS does things very well, but I absolutely believe we can learn lessons from other parts of the world. I will make sure that that contact happens.

The hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) spoke about the importance of the governor’s role, and I agree. As has been said, this is a leadership issue. She rightly referred to the daily interactions of prison officers, and I will say more about that. She also asked about longer tenures for governors, which is a fair point, and the idea might have merit. I will look into it, within the constraints of normal career planning. We need governors with the right experience, particularly in some of our larger establishments.

One hon. Member—you will have to excuse me, Mr Bone, but I forget who—asked how many prisons still have detached duty. The answer is 15. That is not something we want longer term, because it disrupts prison officers’ lives and costs us more money. I will talk about the success we have had in recruiting more prison officers. We continue to recruit them very actively.

Will the hon. Gentleman let me make a little progress? I am conscious of the fact that I have only six minutes left.

I pay tribute to the many people who work tirelessly in our prisons. Prison officers, probation staff and staff from the health, education, vocational skills and voluntary sectors work day in, day out to improve the lives of people in custody. Each time we successfully prevent an offender from reoffending, we also reduce the number of victims and make our communities safer. That is difficult work that goes largely unseen, and too often it is unrecognised in our public discourse, but it is vital and is making a difference.

The challenges of maintaining safety in prisons are, and always have been, significant. We are working with a challenging and complex population in excess of 85,000 prisoners, and there is a high prevalence of mental health problems. Many prisoners have had negative life events that increase the likelihood of their harming themselves or taking their own lives.

We are also holding—this is important—a more violent prisoner population. The number of people sentenced to prison for violent offences has increased by 40% in the last 10 years. In addition, the illicit use of new psychoactive substances—lethal highs such as Spice and Black Mamba—has been a significant factor in fuelling violence in prisons. Last year alone, staff responded to nearly 26,000 self-harm incidents, and they frequently prevent deaths through timely intervention.

On any given day, staff support more than 2,000 prisoners assessed as being at risk, looking after them under the assessment, care in custody and teamwork process. It is to their credit that, through their dedication and commitment, they continue to improve outcomes for offenders and to prevent many self-inflicted deaths and incidents of self-harm.

Staff and prisoners should no more face violence than should any other person in society. Violence in prisons is wholly unacceptable. We treat any assault extremely seriously. Any prisoner who commits an act of violence can expect to have action taken against them, which may include the loss of privileges, sanctions under the prison disciplinary procedures and, where appropriate, criminal charges and prosecution.

To that end—this venture was introduced by the previous Government—a joint national protocol between NOMS, the Crown Prosecution Service and the National Police Chiefs Council was published in February to ensure that the referral and prosecution of crimes in prison is dealt with consistently. The protocol sets out the requirement for prisons to submit a prison community impact assessment with each case referred to the police. The assessment will explain the impact an offence has on an establishment and ensure that that is properly understood and taken into account in the cases concerned.

In 2014, due to an unexpected increase in staff turnover and in the prison population, there were delays in bringing staff numbers up to the level required. However, we have exceeded our target of recruiting 1,700 new-entry prison officers by March 2015, and we are continuing to recruit officers and operational support grades across the country. We will focus our efforts particularly on London and the south-east, where there is further need.

Violence is an issue I take extremely seriously, and there have been increases, which have been referred to. NOMS has established a violence reduction project. There is a pilot involving body-worn video cameras across 24 establishments, and I am taking a keen interest in its development.

Two new offences have been introduced through the Serious Crime Act 2015: being in possession of a knife or other offensive weapon in a prison, and throwing items—anything dangerous, such as Spice, or mobile phones—over a prison wall. Both those offences will attract prison sentences. Action is also being taken on new psychoactive substances. In particular, we need a test for them, and we are working hard to bring one about.

I reassure Members that safety is fundamental to rehabilitative work, which is one reason I care so much about it. Without safety, we cannot do the education and the other work.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. They have raised many of the challenges facing our penal system.

As we have heard, there are unacceptable levels of reoffending, but we have not had real answers on how we are going to turn the figures around—they have been static, but they are not coming down. We have heard many shocking statistics about the violence and abuse in our prisons, but I have not heard how we are going to address that.

We have heard evidence of how overcrowding, mixed with understaffing, is the real issue facing our prisons. I am sure no prison officers will take comfort from the Minister’s response, because they will still be at risk when they turn up for work today, tomorrow and the next day. That is the subject of the debate, and I am saddened that we have not progressed the issue.

It is vital that we get the response we need, which is about stable staffing and ensuring staff are safe. It is also about making sure our communities are safe—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).