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HMP Northumberland

Volume 600: debated on Wednesday 14 October 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered safety at HMP Northumberland.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to bring to this place my constituents’ concerns about the safety of those involved in activities at HMP Northumberland. As the newly elected MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed and a long-time campaigner in the county, I have met and talked to employees at HMP Northumberland for more than 10 years. I have also met many individuals who form the voluntary groups that work in the prison providing literacy skills, addiction support, chaplaincy services and support for life after prison in its multitude of areas. I declare a personal interest as a trustee of the Oswin project, a charity that supports HMP Northumberland prisoners, creating second chances for them through training, support and employment as they become ex-offenders, in order to break the cycle of reoffending.

The prison has been under constant change pressures for the past four years, first from a merger in 2010 of HMP Acklington, a category C men’s prison, and HMP Castington, a category B young offenders institution, into one adult male prison on two sites that were physically merged into one unit in 2013. This has created one of the largest prison estates in the country: a site of some 800 acres with a perimeter fence of more than four and a half miles.

In December 2013, the newly formed prison was put into the private management of Sodexo Justice Services. Management changes have only now settled this year following a turbulent 2014 in which some 200 staff of nearly 600 were invited to take voluntary redundancy between February and April. During this time there was no change in the prison population; the prison continued to be 99% full.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this really important issue to the House. As she said, once Sodexo took over and the privatisation of the prison, there was a massive decrease in staff while the prison population continued to increase. That surely says something about the privatisation of HMP Northumberland. As a result, there have been some horrendous occurrences and serious incidents at the prison. Does she agree?

As I will discuss later, I am informed that the present staffing levels are what the National Offender Management Service would expect for the number of prisoners in the prison estate—or slightly more, owing to the new intake into the younger end of the officer grouping. Realistically, being in private hands or public sector ownership would have made no difference to the numbers, but there is a challenge for HMP Northumberland and I will set out why.

As I said, the prison has continued to be 99% full. It has a mixed population of some 880 main prisoners and 450 vulnerable prisoners—quite a complex mix. As a result of my many links with the prison, I have been privy to many conversations with staff about their concerns over safety issues. It is perhaps unsurprising that, following the loss of one third of the staff in the space of a few months in 2014, there would be immediate pressures on all those working and living on the prison estate. That certainly seemed to be the case last year.

Newspaper reports talked of the prison as a “powder keg” and as “failing miserably”. In my view, the use of social media to inflame the situation and spread discontent was real, and some in the Prison Officers Association have referred to the concerted media attacks as “Operation Certain Death”, which time has—thankfully—proved to be misplaced in large measure.

The new director, in post since early 2015, has brought stability and clear focus to the challenges of getting HMP Northumberland back on its feet in practical ways. Although the media storm has passed, continued anxieties reach me from those still working or volunteering on the prison estate. There seem to be good relations between management and the Prison Officers Association, which is most encouraging, and all the staff have a strong and committed work ethos.

However, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, there has been a cut of more than 50% in prison officer grade staff over the period from 2010 to 2015. These reducing levels of experience among prison officers means that the difficult situations that the mix of main and vulnerable prisoners brings is quite challenging to deal with. Again according to statistics from the Howard League, there were three deaths in 2013, five in 2014 and four to date this year. Younger officers tell me that these deaths and the more frequent suicide attempts from vulnerable prisoners is traumatic for the staff who have to deal with such situations.

The Howard League states that there was a 50% increase in prisoner on prisoner assaults between 2013 and 2014, perhaps due in part to the destabilisation caused by the huge and sudden staffing cut creating the opportunities that some prisoners took to cause mischief. Staff tell me privately that there were noticeably increased levels of bullying among fellow inmates, leading to increased suicide attempts: a situation not only appalling for the prisoner, but really hard for the prison officers to have to deal with on a personal level. I have been hugely impressed by the caring attitude towards inmates that our prison officers show as well as their deep understanding of the local communities that they come from and of the problems resulting from chaotic and complex family lives.

There has been a history of drug use in our local prison for many years. Given the four-mile boundary fence, a half-decent cricketing arm can easily get a tennis ball or other object over the fencing to be collected by prisoners at an appropriate moment. Until the privatisation process, the prison used drugs dogs to scan visitors as they came into the visitor centre. I spent the day with this team a couple of years ago and it was an eye-opening experience. The dog handlers asked me to hide vials of a variety of drugs in my clothes and asked the dogs to indicate where they were in turn. It was an extraordinary thing to watch and they had a 100% success rate. An extraordinary relationship with and training of those dogs was a really vital tool in identifying and stopping the entry of drugs into the prison from visitors, as well as locating drugs falling over the perimeter fence through regular walking tours.

I am sure the hon. Lady, like me, would heap praise on the Prison Officers Association and the people and the staff in the prison who do a marvellous job under the circumstances, but there is a huge problem not only with illegal drugs being thrown over the fence, but with legal highs, which seem to be running amok through the prison system, particularly at HMP Northumberland. They cause huge problems.

The hon. Gentleman anticipates the next part of my speech.

Sodexo has recently invested in ion scanners, which have a good track record for identifying cocaine and some amphetamines, but they are considered less accurate at picking up heroin and legal highs. I am concerned that the continuing supplies of legal highs, most especially Spice, which are making it through to prisoners, despite regular hauls of drugs—through stuffed toys, inside mobile phones and the like—means that usage is prevalent throughout the prison, putting other prisoners and officer safety at risk.

The reality is that there is a violent culture between prisoners that is heavily exacerbated by the drugs trade. A prisoner who “buys” Spice from a fellow inmate will have strict instructions from his dealer to get his girlfriend or his mum to make payment outside the prison walls to a colleague of the drug pushers. Failure to make payments ensures that a drug-addicted prisoner’s life will be made a misery and his family will be put under pressure or assaulted.

The latest HM Chief Inspector of Prisons report indicates that in prisoner surveys, more prisoners than the comparator said it was easy to get illicit drugs and alcohol in the prison. The average positive random mandatory drug testing rate for the six months to July 2014 was 11.7%, higher than the national average of 8.9%. Illicit drugs such as Spice and illicitly brewed alcohol have been identified as problems. The inspector also praised the prison staff for the drug strategy, which firmly integrates drug reduction as a key target.

I understand that suspicion drug testing has been restarted following a break due to a lack of staff last year, but I am not certain that all requested tests are completed in a timely fashion. The inspector of prisons has recommended that mandatory drug testing should be appropriately staffed to ensure tests are completed within prescribed time scales, and I would be grateful for assurances from the Minister that he is now certain that this key recommendation is being fully implemented.

I ask the Minister to investigate whether the levels of drugs seized compared with the levels of continuing drug abuse are at an acceptable ratio. Will he consider bringing back drugs dogs to increase the chances of catching those poisons before they can get to prisoners? I am keen to hear from the Minister how the Department assesses whether any prison is managing its drugs problems in individual prisons across the country’s full estate of 136 prisons, and whether there is any best practice guidance or mandatory levels that the Minister expects his prison governors to achieve in reducing the quantity of toxic substances reaching our prisoners.

On my most recent visit to HMP Northumberland, prison officers showed me the new portable body cameras that they are trialling—it is one of 30 prisons to do so. There was a really positive vibe from the officers about their effectiveness in reducing antisocial behaviour among the inmates; the threat of being recorded seemed to remind them that poor or threatening behaviour is just not acceptable. Body cameras have been used by the police for some time now, and a recently published study found that equipping them with body cameras reduced their use of force by around 50%, while complaints against them by the public dropped by almost 90%.

Those startling figures were revealed by a research study conducted by the University of Cambridge, based on a 12-month trial conducted among police officers in Rialto, California. The dramatic results have led to calls from police chiefs throughout the country who are keen to equip their officers with cameras, especially in the light of increased tensions between police and local communities. The year-long study, which began in 2012, had its findings published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology in November and answered the hotly debated topic of whether cameras can reduce both police force and the number of complaints filed.

I urge the Minister to look closely at the data from the prisons that are currently testing body cameras, and I encourage continued and extended use of the technology if the results are anything like as good as those for the police. I was pleased to hear from prison officers that Sodexo has purchased the cameras that are currently in use at HMP Northumberland. It absolutely wants to be able to continue to use them for the foreseeable future. What is the Minister’s assessment of the trial of body cameras to date? When does he intend to determine whether their use should be made permanent?

Although it is an excellent decision for the health of prisoners and officers alike, the impending ban on smoking in prisons is going to bring some serious problems to HMP Northumberland, and no doubt to every other prison. Most legal highs are taken by being smoked, so prisoners will stop getting not only their nicotine fix but other drug fixes. I am deeply concerned about the short-term risks to officers’ safety as inmates suffer from no doubt very real withdrawal symptoms, about the new culture of smuggled smoking paraphernalia, and about the health and potential fire risks. The cigarette, the box of matches, the lighter, the bag of loose tobacco and Rizlas will no doubt threaten to become new prison currency for prison officers to manage.

The Prison Governors Association has cautiously welcomed the move to ban smoking from 2016, but has called for the ban to be implemented in a safe and staged way, because 80% of prisoners smoke. Even as the ban on smoking in cells is due to come into force before the end of this year, it is of grave concern to all those who will have to manage these changes, knowing the behavioural impact it will certainly have. I have watched family members give up smoking, and even with all the support around them it has never been easy—sometimes it was deeply unpleasant for the rest of us—so how much harder will it be for those incarcerated, for whom a tab is a comfort and boredom-filler through the long days inside? I would appreciate assurances from the Minister, along with details of the tangible policy plans that are being set in place to manage the transition to a smoke-free prison estate.

Last, but definitely not least, are my concerns for the safety, both real and perceived, of visitors to the prison, be they chaplains, readers, educationalists, or support workers for those preparing to seek work when they leave HMP Northumberland. Over the past 18 months, I have received repeated calls and emails from individuals concerned about the level of officer cover during their visits.

For example, where two officers used to be present during chapel services, there is now only one. Historically, if a prisoner started to misbehave, he would have been removed, leaving other participants to continue their faith practice peacefully. With only one officer on duty that is no longer possible, so the calm and contemplative time supposedly provided by such services is broken and continues to be disrupted. As a result, fewer prisoners now come to chapel services and have less contact time with faith leaders, who have a vital role to play in supporting their spiritual and personal wellbeing.

My concern for the safety of volunteers is a challenging issue to solve, since the director of HMP Northumberland informs me that the current number of prison staff meets—indeed, slightly exceeds—the standard NOMS ratios for prisoners in the estate. Because of the geographical size and layout of the prison—a large RAF base in a former incarnation—the need for officers to manage the movements of prisoners and to monitor them means that there just are not the numbers to provide the level of cover to get prisoners to voluntary activities like faith services or to provide support at a practical level in chaplaincy activities and other provisions.

The huge reduction in staff numbers last year has also led to a decision to provide Manchester college’s education and training programme over four days rather than five. Although prisoners are still able to access the same number of hours per week, it is done over four days, leaving Friday, Saturday and Sunday without constructive activity to focus on. I can only imagine that three long days at a stretch with little to do is less than conducive to best behaviour, and the Sunday outing to chapel might easily seem like an opportunity to release frustration—an opportunity that was previously less abused. Given that HMP Northumberland is now supposed to have a working prison ethos, does the Minister believe that it is doing enough? Can it possibly meet the aim of five days’ full working and training opportunities with staff numbers that are so physically stretched by the nature of the geography and layout of the prison?

HMP Northumberland has some unique challenges to address. Although I am impressed by the steps now being taken, after four turbulent years, to move forward and find new training and work opportunities for the prisoners, will the Minister come and see for himself how difficult that will be to achieve in practice without continued investment in manpower and training for better safety and a sense of security for all those who work and volunteer there? I am grateful to have had the opportunity to raise this issue, which is of concern to many of my constituents. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response, with the hope that some of my concerns might be unfounded or resolvable.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) on securing what I think is her first Westminster Hall debate. If I may say so, she gave a very polished performance, finishing exactly halfway through the time allotted for the debate. I will do my best to address all the points she raised. She spoke about the volunteers who visit the prison, and I gather that she is involved in helping at the prison herself. I thank and commend her not only for being a visitor but for doing something practical to support the prison.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that safety is central to everything we are seeking to achieve in prisons. I welcome this debate as an opportunity to highlight the activity that is underway at HMP Northumberland to maintain safety and decency and to tackle violence. I am aware that my hon. Friend recently visited the prison—as she has over many years—and met the director and staff. Sodexo has been running prisons for many years and has responsibility for three other prisons in England: Bronzefield, Peterborough and Forest Bank. HMP Northumberland is a category C training prison. It is a very large site holding more than 1,300 adult male prisoners and, she said, it also holds a number of often vulnerable prisoners, mainly those with a history of sex offending.

I have met the Minister on numerous occasions and those meetings have always been positive. Is he aware that, because of the lack of staff, there is integration of the seriously vulnerable prisoners among the ordinary prisoners? That is causing great concern for safety—mainly for the sex offenders. One thing that has been reported to me on numerous occasions that is absolutely unacceptable is that the food given to some of these vulnerable prisoners has often contained human faeces.

I am really appalled to learn of that. The hon. Gentleman has raised some detailed points; if he will allow me, I will get back to him. In response to the request by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed that I visit the prison, I would be delighted to do so. That would give me the opportunity to look further into the specific concerns raised, quite properly, by the hon. Gentleman.

The transition from a public sector prison to a private provider is complex and should not be underestimated. A transfer from a public to a private prison has happened only once before, with HMP Birmingham. Such change is unsettling and the transition takes time. As with the experience at HMP Birmingham, the transition at HMP Northumberland presented some challenges for the new provider, which I acknowledge. That was also picked up in the report by the chief inspector of prisons published earlier in the year. The prison has taken action to address the chief inspector’s recommendations, which included completing a review of its induction unit. That has resulted in moving the induction unit to a larger location in the prison, with improved capacity and improved classroom facilities. The National Offender Management Service and Sodexo have worked closely in partnership, particularly during the transition period.

I am aware that concerns have been raised about the numbers of staff at the prison. The merging of two prisons led to a duplication in some services, such as catering and facilities management. Since Sodexo became responsible for the prison, it has implemented new structures and new ways of working that have resulted in fewer staff being necessary to operate the prison. In total, 210 staff left the prison on voluntary exit terms and there were no compulsory redundancies.

In order to provide assurance, bidders were required during the competition to submit a detailed response, which was assessed by a team of assessors made up of operationally experienced governors. Sodexo had to show that it had built its staff profiles and to demonstrate the expertise of the team that designed them and the governance process that assured the design. It had to show that it had taken into consideration environmental and other factors and operational resilience.

Sodexo subsequently reviewed its staffing levels at the prison and decided that a further 16 permanent staff were needed, and I am pleased to say that it has now filled all those vacancies. As my hon. Friend said, the current staffing levels are considered to be sufficient to run a safe, decent and secure prison, and they are kept under review. Sodexo informed us that a total of 402 full-time equivalent staff are employed at HMP Northumberland, of whom 372 worked at the prison before the transition, so their valuable experience has been retained. The majority of the existing senior managers have a wealth of custodial management experience within public sector prisons, and the new director who joined the prison earlier this year, of whom my hon. Friend spoke highly, has extensive custodial management experience, including in the public sector.

HMP Northumberland continues to take staffing issues seriously. It is undertaking a consultation programme with staff to identify and address any further issues that transpire as a result of the transition to Sodexo. HMP Northumberland is addressing the transition issues positively, and I am grateful for the leadership, resilience and professionalism that staff have shown in maintaining delivery at HMP Northumberland under these changing circumstances.

My hon. Friend raised concerns about safety. I cannot emphasise strongly enough how importantly the Government take the issue of safety for all prisoners and staff. Violence in prisons is wholly unacceptable and we treat any assault extremely seriously. Any prisoner who commits an act of violence can expect action to be taken against them, which may include a loss of privileges or sanctions under the prison disciplinary procedures. Where appropriate, they may face criminal charges and prosecution.

We are under no illusions about the scale of the issue. Assaults in prisons increased from 14,664 in 2013 to 16,196 in 2014. Some of that increase is due to an improvement in the reporting of assault incidents following changes in data assurance processes, but those reporting improvements do not account for all of the increase. Serious assaults, including those on staff, rather than other prisoners, have risen even more. They have increased by 35%, from 1,588 assaults in 2013 to 2,145 in 2014. The increase in serious assaults is completely unacceptable. We are, however, holding a more violent prisoner population: the number of people sentenced to prison for violent offences has increased by 30% in the past 10 years.

In addition, the illicit use of new psychoactive substances, or NPS, has been a significant factor. I refer to them as “lethal highs”, and I encourage my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Wansbeck to use that term. Getting the language right helps us in this incredibly important battle. There is strong evidence that the increase in the illicit trade and misuse of synthetic drugs or new psychoactive substances is linked to the recent increase in violence across the prison estate. HMP Northumberland is also experiencing the effects of such substances, as my hon. Friend said. It has increased its levels of target searching and enhanced its security procedures for visitors to help to address this issue. To answer my hon. Friend’s specific point, we will introduce mandatory drug testing for NPS for all prisons when new contracts are agreed early next year. In the interim, we will shortly trial NPS testing as part of mandatory drug testing in some prisons. NPS are also an increasingly prominent problem in the community at large, and hon. Members will be aware of the Government’s new legislation to control such substances.

During the transition period, HMP Northumberland retained its own drug dogs. All drug dogs at HMP Northumberland are accessed through the north-east drug dog scheme. Drug dogs will be provided to the prison in response to its individual needs. I can tell my hon. Friend that dogs have now been trained to detect new psychoactive substances. A meeting was held this month between the prison and the drug dog unit to agree the way forward and ensure that adequate drug dogs are available to the prison.

We have taken the decision to ban smoking in closed prisons. Let me assure my hon. Friend that banning smoking will be done in a way that ensures operational stability. We will draw on the lessons we can learn from elsewhere, including Canada and New Zealand, where smoking bans have been successfully introduced. The ban should also be a gain in tackling NPS misuse, and as the roll-out of the smoking ban proceeds we should see reduced NPS misuse.

Violence reduction remains a key priority for HMP Northumberland and activity to address that issue is reviewed on a regular basis. Sodexo has already made improvements, including installing CCTV in part of the prison. It has also introduced more structured interventions towards the perpetrators of violence. The National Offender Management Service has a programme of activity in train across both public sector and private prisons to tackle violence in prisons. Action taken includes issuing new guidance to governors to support the development of their local violence reduction strategy. There is currently a pilot of body-worn cameras across 24 establishments, including HMP Northumberland. We are building on the existing evidence of significant benefits in prisons that already have experience of using them. The evaluation report for that scheme will be available in March. When I have been to prisons recently and seen them, I have been extremely impressed. Staff and prisoners told me that they feel safer as a result of their use, but we must obviously wait for the full evaluation.

There were two new offences in the Serious Crime Act 2015: being in possession of a knife or other offensive weapon within a prison without authorisation, and throwing items over a prison wall without authorisation. The first of those offences is already in place and is actively being used, and the offence of throwing items over prison walls will be introduced shortly. It is aimed at the criminal gangs that are throwing packages containing illicit drugs into prisons. It will attract up to two years in prison on conviction. Both offences are intended to send a clear message to offenders that we are not prepared to tolerate that type of criminal behaviour in and around our prisons.

A joint national protocol conducted by NOMS, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police was published in February with the purpose of ensuring a nationally consistent approach to the referral and prosecution of crimes in prison. The protocol sets out a requirement for prisons to submit a prison community impact assessment, with each case referred to the police, which will explain the impact the offence has had on the establishment and will ensure that it is properly understood and taken into account in the determination of referred cases.

Deaths in prison custody have risen over time. With the overall ageing of the population, there is an increasing number of elderly prisoners. Of the four deaths in the past year that my hon. Friend referred to, three were from natural causes and one was self-inflicted. Of course, that is one too many. In every case, the prison has worked on the recommendations made by the prisons and probation ombudsman on the deaths, and action been taken. For example, the prison has reinvigorated its local personal officer policy to provide clarity for staff on their role in supporting individual prisoners who are at risk.

NOMS is also taking forward a programme of work to address the rise in self-inflicted deaths. A review of compliance and delivery of the assessment, care in custody and teamwork process has taken place and is due for completion shortly. Multi-agency work is being undertaken on the person escort record, which accompanies individuals transferred between police stations, courts and prisons.

We have heard some criticisms of the prison today. I can tell my hon. Friend that the hours out of cell are 10 hours on Monday to Thursday, with eight hours on Friday and seven and a half hours at the weekend. That is an average of nine hours during the week.

There have been some significant successes. For example, the prison has almost doubled the number of prisoner work hours since Sodexo took over. We should be grateful for that achievement. As my hon. Friend rightly said, productive work is important in ensuring that we have a safe and secure prison. The prison has achieved Red Tractor accreditation for its horticultural food produce and it undertakes various charitable works for the local Northumberland community. It runs a bicycle repair workshop on behalf of the Margaret Carey Foundation and refurbishes bicycles for use in developing countries, so some positive things have happened since Sodexo took over.

I absolutely accept the points that my hon. Friend raised, which we take seriously. I look forward to visiting the prison, hopefully with her, at some point in the not too distant future.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.