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Prison Governors

Volume 601: debated on Tuesday 3 November 2015

1. What his policy is on the level of autonomy provided to prison governors; and if he will make a statement. (901957)

I believe that prisons need a new and unremitting emphasis on rehabilitation and redemption. The best way to secure that is to give greater freedoms to prison governors. I would like to give governors more flexibility in managing their budgets and overseeing work and education in custody. With greater freedom must come sharper accountability, so that governors are held to account for their prison’s performance.

Does the Secretary of State agree that a central cause of criminal behaviour and violence within prisons is an inherent sense of disfranchisement from society? What steps will he take in implementing his reforms to encourage prison governors to instil a sense of British pride, national belonging and responsibility to the wider nation?

My hon. Friend makes a characteristically acute point. It is vital that prison governors are given the right tools, particularly the capacity to play a greater role in deciding what curriculum prisoners follow, to ensure that prisoners, like any school student, have the chance, through the provision of great education, to appreciate the history of liberties that is so important to our country and our criminal justice system.

I am pleased that the Justice Secretary has said that accountability remains important. Will he consider how we can strengthen prison boards through more community involvement to give local direction to local decisions, while retaining accountability to the director general of the Prison Service and to Ministers?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It is not only independent monitoring boards that are vital; a strong inspectorate is vital too. He is absolutely right that accountability to the local community matters. Only when prisons are rooted in their communities and forge the sorts of links that ensure that offenders go on to work and contribute to their communities on release can we make sure that prisons fulfil their task of rehabilitation effectively.

Prison governors already have a great role to play in deciding whether somebody should be released on parole, yet nothing is ever fed back to the governors, or anybody else for that matter, to determine whether their judgment was good or flawed. How can we give prison governors more discretion in decisions over whether prisoners should be released when we have no idea whether those prisoners go on to reoffend?

My hon. Friend will be aware that there is a vacancy for the chair of the Parole Board. I would encourage him to—[Interruption.] I encourage others to apply for that post who can ensure that we have a much more rigorous and evidence-led approach to reviewing the grant of parole.

Given the rising trend of suicide in prisons, what advice is being given to governors to allay this serious problem?

This is a very serious problem and the hon. Gentleman is right to raise it. The work that Lord Harris of Haringey has done on self-inflicted deaths in prison has provided a series of recommendations that we are considering as part of our prison reform programme. More broadly, we are aware that the increased use of psychoactive substances in prison is leading to increased levels of self-harm and harm to others. The Psychoactive Substances Bill, which is being taken forward by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice, will play a considerable part in ensuring that our prisons are safer places.

Having listened carefully to the last reply, I should say that psychoactive substances are not the only factor. We broadly support the Secretary of State’s aim to increase governor autonomy. I have long believed that governors are the best at finding new ways to reduce reoffending. The big problem that he has—he cannot just blame it on psychoactive substances—is that prisons are becoming very dangerous. So far this year, there have been 95 suicides and seven murders in our prisons. Is it not time that he took a fundamentally new approach? Have not the last six years been a wasted opportunity, dogged by petty interference from the centre? We look forward to him changing that.

The hon. Lady is right to raise that point. One of the ministerial team’s biggest concerns is the incidence of violence and disorder in many prisons. As she acknowledges, giving prison governors a greater degree of autonomy is critical to changing things, as is a proper understanding of the mix of offenders in our prisons. As the balance of traffic through the courts has changed, a number of offenders who have violent pasts pose particular risks in prison, and we must ensure that prison officers are provided with the tools that they need to keep themselves and others safe. Those will sometimes be technical tools such as body-worn cameras, which are supported by my ministerial colleagues, but sometimes it is about ensuring that people have the support and training that they need to do their job well.