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Prison Safety and Reform

Volume 616: debated on Thursday 3 November 2016

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s proposals for prison reform.

The prison system in England and Wales is under serious and sustained pressure. Rates of violence and self-harm have increased significantly over the past five years. In the 12 months to June 2016, there were nearly 6,000 assaults on staff and 105 self-inflicted deaths. Prison staff are responding to constantly evolving security threats, such as psychoactive drugs, mobile devices and drones. Too many prisoners are missing out on the chance to reform and too many are going on to reoffend when they leave prison. We owe it to our hard-working prison staff to reverse these trends. We owe it to prisoners and their families, and we owe it to our communities and victims of crime. The cost of reoffending by former prisoners to society is estimated to be £15 billion a year: £1.7 million every single hour of every single day, blighting thousands of lives.

In May, Her Majesty set out in the Gracious Speech that her Government would legislate to reform prisons, including increasing freedoms for governors, improving education opportunities for offenders and closing old and inefficient buildings. Today, I am publishing the Government’s plans for doing so. They represent a major overhaul of the system—the biggest for a generation.

Prisons punish by depriving people of their liberty. They must also reduce reoffending. My starting point is to refocus the system so that everyone is clear that safety and rehabilitation is the purpose of the prison system, setting this out for the first time ever in statute. Governors and staff cannot lead and manage change in an environment where they fear violence. Likewise, offenders cannot be expected to turn their lives around while they are dependent on drugs or in fear of being assaulted.

I will invest in 2,500 more prison officers across the prison estate. This includes the recruitment of 400 additional prison officers, which is already under way, in 10 of our most challenging prisons. Increasing the number of front-line staff will give prison officers more time to turn around the lives of offenders. Starting with 10 of the most challenging prisons, each and every offender will have a dedicated prison officer offering regular, one-to-one support. This one-to-one support model will be rolled out to every prison in England and Wales.

We will combine this new support for prisoners with a zero-tolerance approach to criminality in prison. I will send the clearest possible message that if anyone attacks our prison staff, we will treat it as a serious crime. We are rolling out body-worn cameras across the prison estate to give staff extra confidence, and we will work closely with other organisations, including the National Crime Agency and the police, to improve our intelligence-gathering function to tackle organised crime within the prison estate.

We will also take robust action to address emerging threats to prison security. We have rolled out new tests for psychoactive substances across the estate, and have trained 300 dogs to detect these new substances. We will work with industry to rid our prisons of the mobile phones that are driving up crime within the prison walls, as well as of the drones used to smuggle goods in.

Alongside investing in our staff, we will give governors the tools they need to drive forward improvements. We will push decision-making authority and budgets for the things that make a difference to offenders down to governors—whether it be education, family services or how prisons run their regime.

We are already seeing what greater authority can achieve in our six reform prisons. Launched in the summer, these trailblazers have allowed governors to reap the rewards of greater authority and empowerment in their prisons. Now we want the whole of the prison estate to benefit from greater devolution of powers to local level. In return for greater authority, we will hold governors to account for improvements. For the first time, we will publish national league tables every year, so the public can quickly see an illustration of how each prison is performing. This will include assessing the progress that offenders have made to improve their maths and English skills as well as getting into work.

The various inspection and scrutiny regimes—Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, the prisons and probation ombudsman, and the independent monitoring boards—need to be strengthened. Their recommendations need to be taken seriously and responded to quickly. When failures happen, people want to see action taken. We will strengthen the role of Her Majesty’s inspectorate, adding to its remit so that in addition to its broad focus on the treatment of prisoners, it takes account of the extent to which prisons are achieving the statutory purpose. There will be a formal process for the inspectorate’s findings to act as a trigger for the Secretary of State to intervene in the worst cases.

Finally, reform simply cannot happen in decrepit jails. Some prisons are overcrowded and no longer fit for purpose. That is why I am investing £1.3 billion in a modern, fit-for-purpose estate. In addition to HMP Berwyn in Wales, which will open from February 2017, we will build new prisons for men and women and close those prisons that do not have a long-term future on the estate. This year, we will begin the process of submitting planning applications for new sites, starting with Wellingborough and Glen Parva. As the new accommodation is opened, we will start to close old accommodation. As part of this programme, we will not reopen Dover and Haslar as prisons. Over the next five years there will be a programme of closures, and I shall make a more detailed announcement about that shortly.

Over the course of this Parliament and beyond we will see tangible improvements in the condition of our prisons, and we will begin to see better results in what prisons are asked to achieve. I believe that over the coming years we can create a better system with pronounced and sustained improvements in results for offenders—improvements in their education, employment and health—so that those stubborn reoffending rates can come down, and fewer people will have to go through the terrifying ordeal of being a victim of crime. That will be the marker for whether these reforms have been a success.

This Government’s mission is to reform the way our public services work for the benefit of everyone in society. As Justice Secretary, I have made urgent reform of our prisons my No.1 priority in order to bring crime down in our communities and reduce harm for both prison staff and prisoners. That priority will, I am sure, be shared by all Members, and I commend my statement to the House.

This morning the Secretary of State said that it was in July that she had realised that there was a problem in our prisons. The rest of the country was aware of that reality well before then. There is a crisis in our prisons, although the Secretary of State refuses to admit it openly. The story of our prison system since 2010 is a story of spiralling violence and drug use. The root cause of the prison crisis is the political decision to cut our prison service back to the bone, and today’s announcement feels a lot like “too little, too late”. The Secretary of State wants the headline to be “2,500 extra prison staff”, but 400 of those jobs have already been announced, and, in fact, it is 2,500 “extra” after a reduction of more than 6,000 on the front line.

It is deeply concerning that it was only after a threat of unofficial action that the Secretary of State was prepared to meet representatives of the Prison Officers Association to discuss the safety crisis in our prisons. However, she has finally met the leaders of the officers of whom she has asked so much, and they have made the scale of the crisis clear to her. Will she now admit that there is a Conservative cuts-created crisis in safety in our prisons? In his annual report, published in July, the chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, described our prisons as

“unacceptably violent and dangerous places”.

Only if it is recognised that there is a prisons crisis can a prisons crisis be solved.

The Secretary of State clearly now feels that she needs to be seen to be doing something, but the provision of 2,500 extra prison officers is not a cause for celebration, given that more than 6,000 front-line prison officer jobs have been cut since 2010. We have a prison capacity of 76,000 and a prison population of 85,000, which has remained at about the same level since 2010. We had 24,000 prison officers to deal with 85,000 prisoners; now we have 18,000 to deal with the same number. Our hard-working prison staff are overstretched and overwhelmed, and what has that meant? It has meant a record number of prison deaths, including a record number of suicides. The rate is nearing one death every day. There have been 324 deaths this year, including 107 suicides. Overall, we have seen 1,416 deaths since 2010, including 473 suicides. There are now more than 65 assaults each day, and this year there have been nearly 24,000: there has been a huge surge in both prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and assaults on our hard-working prison staff. The statistics show that there have been more than 100,000 assaults in prisons since 2010.

Why is that? It is because the austerity experiment in our prison service has failed. The presence of fewer officers, overstretched and overwhelmed, means a stricter and increasingly unsafe prison regime, and it means that prisons cannot effectively reform and rehabilitate in the way that prisoners and wider society need. Working in prisons has become less appealing and more dangerous. The Government have said that they have recruited more than 3,100 prison officers since January 2015, but there has been a net increase of only 300 in that time. It is clear that they are failing on staff retention. Prison officers are now expected to work until they are 68, in conditions that the Prison Officers Association has described as

“dangerous for everyone, staff and prisoners alike.”

I am afraid that this Conservative Government have not valued hard-working prison staff; in fact, they have driven experienced staff out of our prisons.

Former Conservative Home Secretary and party leader Michael Howard famously said “Prison works.” Under this Conservative Government, prison isn’t working. Prison isn’t working for prisoners, prison isn’t working for our prison staff, and prison isn’t working for wider society. Reoffending rates are far too high, and the Government have failed on rehabilitation. Because prison isn’t working under this Government, it is not protecting our society properly.

The Justice Secretary has undoubtedly grabbed headlines by promising an increase in the number of prison officers, but she needs to tell us how she will attract new staff. She also needs to understand that building new prisons is not a panacea in itself. There are problems over how league tables would work in practice, and there is a tension between more autonomy for prison governors and new powers for the Secretary of State—

Order. I thank the hon. Gentleman very much indeed. I gave him an extra half minute, which I think was fair.

I have to say that I am disappointed by what the hon. Gentleman has said. I thought that, following our exchange on Tuesday, he would welcome the fact that the Government are committing 2,500 extra staff to the front line. We have also produced a White Paper detailing some of the most significant reforms of prisons for a generation to address the violence and the reoffending rates. We are launching apprenticeship schemes to encourage more people to become prison officers, as well as a new graduate entry scheme and a scheme that is intended to increase the number of former armed forces personnel in the Prison Service.

The hon. Gentleman asked about staffing. Our staffing numbers are based on evidence. Our new programme will allocate to every prisoner a dedicated prison officer who will be responsible for supporting and challenging that prisoner. Each prison officer will be responsible for six offenders. We know that that approach works, because we have trialled it: it is based on evidence. For the first time, we are enshrining in statute the Secretary of State’s responsibility to ensure that offenders are not just housed but reformed. Of course they need to be punished and deprived of their liberty, but they also need to be reformed while they are in prison. That is a major change, and I should have thought the hon. Gentleman welcomed it.

Of course it is right for us to give governors authority and accountability, but I have visited numerous prisons where I have met our hard-working prison officers, and they are the people who can turn lives around. They are the people who can motivate someone to get off drugs, to get an education and to get a job. It is right for us to give them the autonomy and authority that enables them to do that, while also holding them to account.

I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman has seen nothing to commend in the White Paper, which I think addresses many of the long-standing issues in our prison service.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend. I warmly welcome her prompt response to the crisis of violence in prisons, and her attractive proposals for strengthening the management of those prisons and the public accountability of the management for their results. Does she agree, however, that her overriding aim of protecting the public by reducing reoffending and preventing prisoners from committing crimes in future is almost impossible to achieve so long as prisons are overcrowded slums? Will she make the courageous decision to start addressing some of the sentencing policies of the 1990s and the 2000s, which accidentally doubled the prison population in those overcrowded slums? Will she ensure that our prisons are reserved for serious criminals who need to be punished, and find better ways of dealing with problems of mental health and drug abuse and with irritating, trivial offenders?

I am not in favour of an arbitrary reduction in the number of prisoners in our prisons. What I am in favour of is reducing reoffending rates so that we stop people revolving through the system and going in and out of prisons. We need to make sure our prisons work and reform people, and we also need more early intervention so that we prevent people from committing the crimes that lead to their serving a custodial sentence. The fact is we are seeing fewer first-time offenders, so more of our crime problem is now about those who persistently reoffend, and that is the important issue I am seeking to address.

What concerns me is that the Secretary of State appears to think it is a brilliant new idea to establish no-fly zones for drones near prisons—apparently with a taskforce of eagles to be called in at the time, although I suspect the drone will have got in and out by the time the eagle is untethered. Does she not know that drone manufacturers have for some time had the technology to establish these zones? Why have they not been given the GPS co-ordinates of prisons by now, and why is she not meeting them until December?

The prisons Minister is working closely with drone manufacturers and leading a Government taskforce to address precisely this issue.

The Secretary of State’s statement should on any objective view be welcomed as bold and courageous. Will she confirm that it is part of the important emphasis on rehabilitation reform, which is absolutely right, and that there will be specific measures to test prisons on the extent of their work around education, proper training and preparation for work, and meaningful activity, as well as the amount of time prisoners are out of cell as opposed to in lockdown?

I thank the Select Committee Chairman for his question. He is absolutely right: there will be measures on the progress prisoners make in English and maths and on employment found. I want employers on the outside with jobs available to be working backwards into prisons. I saw a very good example at HMP Brixton: Land Securities has jobs in scaffolding and is training prisoners so that when they leave they have a job to go to, which we know reduces reoffending. Our league tables will reflect precisely these things.

Is not the truth that we have 3,500 fewer prison officers in our prisons than in 2010? At the same time deaths and suicides in prisons are dramatically up, and assaults on prison officers are up as well. Will the right hon. Lady just come to that Dispatch Box and say, “I admit it: too little, too late”?

I have been clear that staffing is an issue. That is why we are investing in 2,500 more prison officers, but it is not the only issue. We also have an issue with drugs, drones and phones, which we are dealing with, and we have just rolled out testing for new psychoactive substances such as Spice and Black Mamba, which the prisons and probation ombudsman has said have been a game-changer in the system. We are also changing the way we deploy staff, so that there is a dedicated officer for each prisoner, helping keep them safe, but also making sure they are on the path to reform—getting off drugs, getting into work and getting the skills they need to succeed outside.

Unsurprisingly, I wholly associate myself with the question of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). Does the Secretary of State understand that the prisons are in this state now because of the Faustian pact between the Prison Officers Association and the National Offender Management Service and her predecessor-but-one, in order to deliver the savings demanded by the Treasury: to agree to stripping the public sector establishments down to the bone if he stopped the competition programme? That is what happened. Will the Secretary of State now ensure that the private sector builds the new prisons, and is given a proper opportunity, in competition with the public sector, to run both the new prisons and the existing prisons?

Today’s White Paper is about the standards we expect of prisons, in both the private and public sector. I have been to some very good public sector prisons and I have been to some very good private sector prisons, and what I care about is getting the best possible outcomes so that we reduce reoffending and crime.

There is a lot to welcome in this statement, but the Secretary of State would do well to listen to the sage counsel of her right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). The root cause of prison violence is overcrowding, and the root cause of overcrowding is that we still send too many people to prison for short sentences, which will not achieve the purpose the Secretary of State now says she is going to enshrine in statute. Will she not consider a presumption against short sentences?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for welcoming elements of the White Paper, in contrast to some of the other comments from the Opposition. We face immediate issues in our prison system, and increasing staffing is part of the solution to that, as is having a much clearer purpose to the prison system. As the number of first-time offenders goes down, we need to address the rump of reoffending in order to address the problems of crime in society. That is why I am focusing on that. We have enough staff in our plans to be able to deliver safe prisons that reform offenders, and we also have a building programme creating 10,000 new spaces so we are able to house those offenders.

I warmly welcome the statement. Unless there is the necessary discipline and a reduction in overcrowding and reliance on drugs in our prisons there simply will not be the rehabilitation the Secretary of State wants. May I urge her to continue down this path to ensure we help to reduce reoffending as well?

My hon. Friend is right: being on drugs is one of the major causal links to reoffending. That is why we will test prisoners for drugs on both entry and exit, to see how effective the regime in prisons is at getting offenders off drugs.

It is almost 10 years since Baroness Corston’s report recommended women should be held in small custodial units, if in custody at all, and as close as possible to home. The Secretary of State has just spoken of substantial investment in the women’s estate, which is very welcome. Will she be able finally to take this important turning point as an opportunity to implement that Corston recommendation?

I can confirm we are developing the idea of women’s community prisons, which will be smaller-scale prisons specifically designed to address the needs of women. We will outline more about that in due course, and look at overall reform in respect of women offenders in the new year.

A little while ago a former prisoner said to me that when he left prison he could mop a floor very well but that was not going to pay the bills. In the recent Dame Glenys Stacey in-depth look at 86 prisoners, not one left to go to a job, so may I urge in particular a focus on construction skills from day one of a sentence, given that we need 300,000 construction workers to build the houses this country needs and the infrastructure for our economy?

I commend my hon. Friend for the work he did as prisons Minister in promoting employment. I have seen some excellent schemes in prison. For example, Costa Coffee is offering jobs and training people as baristas, and I have mentioned Land Securities looking for scaffolding and dry-lining workers and training them in prison. I completely agree with my hon. Friend that rather than doing work in prisons and then seeing what jobs are available on the outside, we need to look the opposite way round; we need to see what is available on the outside and make sure those are the skills we are training up in prisons, preferably with the employers who are then going to take those offenders on.

Will the right hon. Lady have a word with the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) in order to reduce her naive optimism and to recall that no party in the last 45 years has reduced recidivism? On this Government’s watch, a recent report said the number of prisoners who first took drugs in, for example, Bedford jail had risen from 4% to 14%, meaning people were going in as shoplifters and coming out as heroin addicts. What is she going to do about that?

I completely reject the hon. Gentleman’s counsel of despair. This is the first time we will ever be putting it in statute that reform is the purpose of prisons. At the moment the Secretary of State is merely responsible for housing prisoners, not making sure we improve outcomes. We have not had that systematic approach and I am determined we achieve it.

I welcome the White Paper, which rightly recognises the need to educate prisoners and help them into work. It also identifies existing good practice in the relationships between prisons and businesses. The Lord Chancellor mentioned the scaffolding work; another example would be the restaurant at HMP Cardiff. How will she build on the current schemes and incentivise employers to work more closely with prisons?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that engaging with employers is vital. We have seen some fantastic examples, such as Timpson and Virgin, which are already working closely with us. My hon. Friend the prisons Minister will be doing further work on this subject and making further announcements on it shortly.

I think I heard the Secretary of State admit that cutting 25% of prison officers had been a mistake, but restoring just over a third of that number might not be enough. Will she keep this under review, and can she tell me whether particularly troubled prisons such as Wormwood Scrubs, which have had a temporary uplift in staff numbers, will be able to keep those staff? Will the numbers there go up rather than down?

The number of staff we are putting in is based on the evidence of our new offender management model. The idea is that each prison officer will be responsible for supervising and mentoring six prisoners and challenging them to reform. There is an important evidential base for that programme, but we will of course continue to look at it as we develop it. We have measures in place in London prisons to help staff recruitment and retention.

I have been banging on about Wellingborough prison almost as much as I have been banging on about Europe, so I should like to tell the Secretary of State how much I welcome today’s announcement that it will reopen. I particularly want to thank Lynn Holcombe and the other local residents who have done such a good job in keeping the campaign going for such a long time. I must apologise to my hon. Friends the Members for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), and to the Attorney General. Over the years, I have badgered, bought them cups of tea and been a real pain. This will be a wonderful prison and it will be welcomed by the people of Wellingborough.

I am absolutely delighted to be able to announce the first phase in our programme, and delighted that we are able to make my hon. Friend’s wishes come true in Wellingborough. I look forward to being able to make more announcements about new prisons in due course.

I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to give a similarly warm and positive answer to my question. Many charities work with reformed ex-offenders, and they are transforming people’s lives. Those charities have a problem, however, in that some of the ex-offenders are unable to become trustees of a charity. I accept the importance of having safeguarding arrangements in place, but will she look into this?

I agree with the hon. Lady that we have some brilliant charities and brilliant people who are really transforming lives. I want to make that happen on a wider scale and I will certainly look into the point that she has raised.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and the continuation of a progressive agenda to ensure that prisons are places that not only keep offenders secure but rehabilitate them. Does she agree that it will be important to ensure that staff are empowered and held accountable for that objective of reducing reoffending, as well as for that of keeping people safe?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to ensure that prisons are not only places of safety but places of reform. We are wasting a huge amount of talent at the moment, and we are also presiding over problems in society, with a £15 billion bill for the crimes that ex-offenders go on to commit. We have a progressive agenda, and it is also important to prevent there being more victims of crime.

A year ago, the dear son of my friend and Stafford councillor Ann Edgeller was murdered in Dartmoor prison. Will the Secretary of State or the prisons Minister meet me to discuss the way in which these welcome reforms could ensure that this kind of tragedy does not happen again?

I am very sorry to hear about the case that my hon. Friend has mentioned, and I extend my greatest sympathy to the family. I would be delighted to meet him and his constituent.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement of more prison officers, but what my constituents really want is to see more burglars and robbers behind bars. When all the old prisons have closed and all the new ones have opened, will there be an increase or a decrease in the number of prison places?

We are going to ensure that there are enough prison places for those whom the courts are sentencing. That is our duty as a Government, but I also want to ensure that those prisons have safe, decent conditions and that they are places of discipline, hard work and self-improvement so that we can reduce the chances of those burglars burgling again.

Corby and east Northamptonshire residents will wholeheartedly welcome the reinstatement of Wellingborough prison on the existing site. As a former local councillor, I can tell the Secretary of State that this is very good news for local people. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) for his persistent efforts. Will the Secretary of State make my constituents even happier by promising to keep the use of British steel at the forefront of her mind when having discussions about these projects?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his championing of British steel, and I shall look closely at his suggestion.