[Relevant documents: Sixth Report from the Justice Committee of Session 2015-16, Prison safety, HC 625, and the Government Response, HC 647, Session 2016-17; oral evidence taken before the Justice Committee on 15 July 2016, HC 417, on radicalisation in prisons and other prison matters, and on 29 November 2016, HC 548, on prison reform; and letters dated 19 May 2016 and 30 June 2016 from the Secretary of State for Justice to the Chair of the Justice Committee on prison safety.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered prison safety and security.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. This is a very last minute debate; it was only on Monday that we knew it was going to take place. I am grateful to the Deputy Speaker for finding time for the debate and to the Minister for making time for it.
In the introduction to the White Paper on prison safety and reform, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice made a very important statement:
“We will never be able to address the issue of re-offending if we do not address the current level of violence and safety issues in our prisons.”
Today’s debate aims to focus on some issues around that and to try to tease out what the Government’s objectives are on prison safety and prison violence. The Minister has been round the House quite a bit on this matter, not least at the Justice Committee on Tuesday. I know that he will want to do his best to respond to the issues. I know also that those who work in the service, from Michael Spurr through to the prison officers on the wings, will also want to do their best to ensure that we improve prison safety and security. However, I start from the premise that something is not quite right.
All the indicators on key issues of prison safety and security that the Government look at have been going in the wrong direction over the past few years. Let us look at some of the issues in our prisons at the moment.
In 2015-16, nine men absconded from category B prisons, four women and 80 men absconded from open prisons and eight prisoners absconded from male open youth offenders institutions. In the last few weeks—I know these individuals have been recaptured, for which I am grateful—two men, in the early hours of the morning, hid dummies in their beds, sawed through bars with metal drills brought in illegally, avoided CCTV, climbed over a wall and escaped from Pentonville prison; as the Minister confirmed to the Select Committee this week, that was not discovered until 12 noon the following day. These are serious issues.
As of 29 July 2016, just over 60%, or 76, of our prison establishments were officially listed as overcrowded. In total, overcrowded prisons held 9,700 more prisoners than they were originally designed to hold. Cells meant for one person have been accommodating two people, while those meant for two people have been accommodating three, and that has added to the stress in prisons.
I know, accept and understand where the Government are coming from; they have announced large amounts of increased prison capacity and are looking at closing older prisons and opening newer prisons, such as HMP Berwyn, which is shortly to open in north Wales near my constituency. The removal of old capacity is, however, well ahead of the replacement in terms of the building of new capacity. The chief operating officer of the National Offender Management Service, Michael Spurr, said to the Justice Committee this week that it will be a considerable time before the overcrowding is dealt with.
More seriously, and more challenging for the prison system as a whole, there were 324 deaths in prison in the 12 months to September 2016, which is a rate of 3.8 deaths per 1,000 prisoners: an increase of 57, or 21%, on the previous year. Many of those deaths were due to natural causes—that is to be expected because of the growing population of elderly prisoners—but 107 were self-inflicted deaths, an increase of 13% from the previous year’s total of 95. There were five apparent homicides, including one in Pentonville recently. Some 33 deaths are currently awaiting further information before being classified.
I am grateful to the House of Commons Library for these figures. On the issue of self-harm in prison, in the 12 months to June 2016, 36,440 reported incidents of self-harm occurred, an increase of 7,509 or 26% on the previous year—a rate of 426 self-harm incidents per 1,000 prisoners, compared with 338 incidents per 1,000 prisoners the previous year. Some 10,544 prisoners self-harmed last year, up 1,943, or 23%, on the previous year.
The indicators on hospital attendance show that there were 2,500 hospital attendances, an increase of 35% on the previous year. The proportion of self-harm incidents requiring hospital attendance has thankfully remained consistent, but the indicators are showing that there are more deaths in custody, more self-harm incidents and, sadly, a significant number of homicides in prison at the moment.
The indicators on assaults show that in the 12 months to June 2016, there were 23,775 assaults in prison, an increase of 6,078, or 34%, on the same period in the previous year, and a rate of 278 assaults per 1,000 prisoners, up from 207 assaults per 1,000 in the previous year. There were 3,134 serious assaults, an increase of 26% on the previous year. There were 17,782 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, up 32% on the previous year; 2,462 serious prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, up 28% on the previous year; and 5,954 assaults on staff, up 43% on the previous year, from 4,177. That is a ratio of 70 incidents of assault on staff per 1,000 prisoners, up from 49 per 1,000 in the previous year. Of those assaults, 697 were classified as serious assaults on staff, up 20% on the previous year.
Those indicators are not going in the right direction. All those indicators have seen a significant increase—not one of 1% or 2%—in a 12-month period. I will be fair to the Minister; I know that in the recently published document, recognition of that fact is paramount. I will return shortly to further figures.
What is lost in the figures on assaults are the significant increases in certain types of assault. Let me point the House to three particular issues. The use of dangerous liquids as an assault mechanism on prisoners and staff has gone from zero incidents in 2010 to 193 in 2015. The use of blunt instruments in assaults on prisoners and staff has gone from 246 incidents in 2010 to 666 in 2015: a 170% increase. The number of spitting incidents—an issue, given some of the conditions that many people will have in prison—has risen from 12 recorded in 2010 to 394 in 2015: an increase of 3,000%. Knife and blade incidents—prisons are not supposed to be places where knives and blades are available in the first place—have risen from 212 to 491 last year over a five-year period: an increase of 131%. I am grateful to the Prison Officers Association for some of those figures. Again, those are serious issues, and the trend is in the wrong direction.
There is an argument that some of those issues are related to drug abuse and new psychoactive substances. In 2010, there were 16 recorded incidents involving new psychoactive substances in prisons, but in 2014, the last year for which I have figures—the Minister may have more up-to-date ones—the figure was 436: a 2,625% increase. Spice has gone from 15 to 430 cases; mephedrone has gone from zero to two cases; and ketamine—kat—has gone from one to four cases. Again, that is the wrong direction of travel.
I held the Minister’s job for two years and one month some time ago, so I know how difficult it can be and about the challenges, but the level of disturbance in prisons has increased in the past few months and is causing noticeable pressure. It is greater than it was in the past. There have always been prison disturbances, and there probably always will be, but in the past couple of months alone there has been, for example, the incident in Lewes prison. The chairman of the Prison Officers Association said that at the time of the incident there
“were only four staff on that wing and all four had to retreat to safety”
because they were concerned about their safety.
In November, 200 inmates in Bedford prison went on what was described in the press as a rampage or a riot —we will determine what it really was when the investigation is completed. It took six hours to bring the disturbance under control. That happened only days after the Justice Secretary said that she was going to introduce a range of measures to tackle violence in our prisons. The question for the House is: what can we do about those issues?
The Justice Committee, of which I am pleased to be a member—my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) are also members—has looked at this issue in detail. In their White Paper, the Government accepted this premise: in the past six years, they have presided over a reduction in prison officers of some 7,000 at a time when attacks on the workforce have increased by 41%. The prison workforce in March 2010 was 49,230, but as of March 2016 it was 43,530.
The Prison Officers Association and the assessments we heard in the Justice Committee suggest that the benchmarking figure is now 800 officers below its required level, and that the service is losing 1,600 officers every year. The level of prison officer resignations increased by 128% over that six-year period, and officer retention remains challenging, as we discussed with the Minister in the Justice Committee on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, the chief operating officer of NOMS, Michael Spurr, told the Committee that, although the Government are going to increase the number of prison officers by 3,500—although I am a Labour MP, I acknowledge that that is thanks to welcome investment for the Ministry of Justice in the autumn statement—he is going to have to recruit, with the Minister’s support, 8,000 people to get a net figure of about 3,500.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that this is about not just the number of prison officers lost and the need to recruit replacements, but their level of experience? It will inevitably take time for new recruits to learn the skills they need to do what is now an extremely complex, dangerous and demanding job.
That is a serious point. I do not want to be too flippant, but we will have a cohort of inexperienced prison officers and a cohort of experienced prisoners, which will lead to a mismatch in expectation. Those officers will lack experience when dealing with some of the initial problems. Officers need face-to-face engagement with prisoners to build the relationships that can prevent the kind of activities that I have been talking about.
Many people have expressed concerns about where we are. The Howard League for Penal Reform said that we have seen “the highest death toll” in prison
“in a calendar year since recording practices began in 1978.”
“The number of people dying by suicide in prison has reached epidemic proportions.”
The organisations that have a statutory duty to look at the Prison Service also expressed concern. Nick Hardwick, former chief inspector of prisons, said on 14 July 2015:
“You were more likely to die in prison than five years ago. More prisoners were murdered, killed themselves, self-harmed and were victims of assaults than five years ago.”
The current prisons inspector said in his annual report for this year that
“there is a simple and unpalatable truth about far too many of our prisons. They have become unacceptably violent and dangerous places.”
Nigel Newcomen CBE, the prison and probation ombudsman, who is in the process of leaving or has just left, said in his 2015 annual report:
“Unfortunately…I have identified a fundamental lack of care, but, more often, I have found caring and compassionate efforts by staff to support the suicidal. What is clear, however, is that more can and should be done to improve suicide and self-harm prevention in prison.”
He went on to say that
“what is already clear is that there is an unacceptable level of violence in prison.”
This is not scaremongering by Members of Parliament. It is a shared concern, which the Ministry itself recognises and has been expressed by the prisons ombudsman, the prisons inspectorate, external agencies, the Prison Officers Association and, indeed, the Justice Committee, three members of which are here today. We recently produced a cross-party report that was supported by the Scottish National party, Labour and Conservative Members, including the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who often has a different view to those of the members here today, and the Chair. Our conclusion was clear:
“This is a matter of great concern, and improvement is urgently needed.”
We said that
“it is imperative that further attention is paid to bringing prisons back under firmer control, reversing the recent trends of escalating violence, self-harm and self-inflicted deaths…It is a matter of particular concern that despite a sustained recruitment exercise…the net increase in public sector prison officers was only 440 last year.”
I will return shortly to how we are going to manage that recruitment exercise in the future. We want, among many other things, a regular report on safety in custody statistics to look at indicators of disorder, staffing levels, NOMS performance ratings and the activity of prisoners.
The Government have—let me be churlish—belatedly responded to the pressure. In my view, they caused the pressure themselves by reducing prisoner officer numbers and putting pressure on prisons, but they have belatedly looked at the issue. In the autumn statement, and on the back of the “Prison Safety and Reform” White Paper, they allocated additional resources to address prison safety issues. The programme of governor devolution is ongoing, which may or may not help—the jury is out on that. There will be operational improvements, which may include body-worn video cameras, staff training, a multi-disciplinary approach to violent prisoners and improvements during the early days and weeks of custody. We have looked at the recruitment issues. The Minister will no doubt talk about the 3,100 new officers, but we need to recruit 8,000 to make sure we reach the net figure. We have looked at the issue of mobile operators and illicit phones in prisons.
Ultimately, there are still challenges that we need to face. I want to look at what the White Paper means in practice. The Government have said, for example, that they will improve legislation on psychoactive substances. What does that mean? They have said that they will “strengthen search capability”. Well, that will take boots on the ground. What does that mean?
The Government have said that they will:
“fundamentally reassess our wider approach to tackling the supply and demand for drugs in prisons”;
“reduce supply and demand for illicit mobile devices; and…work with industry…to detect and block drones”.
What does that mean in practice? It is up to the Minister to spell out clearly and effectively what is in the White Paper.
The Minister has said that the Government will “enhance our intelligence capability”. Fine, but let us see what that means, what the progress is and what the timescale is. He will:
“devise and implement a strategy to address staff corruption in 2017”.
What does that mean? What is the investment? What are the intended outcomes?
We need to look at a range of measures, which we certainly can do, although the situation is complicated and challenging. I therefore want to test the Government with some discussion of at least four or five key areas, and I will start with staffing. Perhaps the Minister will reflect on my questions and, if he does not answer them directly, look at Hansard to bring something back to us later today or in the future.
Will the Minister undertake a review of benchmarking in prisons to see whether staffing rotas are right? He has picked the 10 prisons with the highest levels of violence, but will he look at other prisons or prisons as a whole? What measures will he introduce to retain staff who are in post? That means looking not just at salaries or, potentially, enhanced payments, but at valuing people’s work, or discussing with members of staff the retirement profile of those who are leaving, to see whether we can keep experienced staff.
What pay challenges are there? On Tuesday, the Minister indicated to the Select Committee that he was considering allowing governors to enhance pay and to use such things as positive inducements, but various people are sceptical about whether that can be done within the Government’s public sector pay policy and the pay cap, so will he reassure me about how Government pay policy comes into play on staffing? What autonomy will governors have on pay and retention measures designed to keep staff in the 10 or so prisons that are to have governor autonomy? After all, in future, there may be more such prisons.
In the White Paper, the Minister indicated—he repeated this clearly on Tuesday—that he expects ratios of six prisoners per prison officer. When does he expect to reach that target? How far away from it is he now? Will it apply only in the 10 prisons, or will it apply in all prisons? What will happen with the fluctuation of numbers in prisons, and how will he plan for that in future?
One of the key issues for prison security has been mobile phones, which have been a challenge for years—since the day the mobile phone was invented. When I was the Minister, we had BOSS—body orifice security scanner—chairs and lots of other measures. Prisoners, by their nature, want to have a mobile phone, but the Minister can do things about that, which he alluded to in the prison reform White Paper. I want some more clarification. For example, what steps is the Minister taking to trial phone blocking? That has been looked at by some prisons—public and private sector.
In the White Paper, the Minister suggested no-fly zones for drones over prisons. Let us examine that for a moment: what does it mean in practice? How will he operate a no-fly zone? What does it mean? How will it work? What about additional measures on entry and security? He alluded to them with a nice easy sentence on page 48 of the paper, saying that he would:
“reduce the opportunity and attractiveness for visitors to smuggle drugs”,
and mobile phones, into prisons. What does that mean exactly? What measures back up that statement?
To look at drugs generally, the Minister stated in the White Paper that the Government would:
“ensure that the perimeters of prisons are secure and maintained in a state that can help deter items from being thrown into the prison”.
What does that mean? What policy change next year will that mean? Ensuring that the perimeters of prisons are “secure and maintained” is a nice phrase, but what does it mean in terms of resources, focus and activity?
Also, on page 46 of the same document, the Government state that they will:
“continue to pursue and evaluate technology that can detect drugs including body scanners and drug trace detectors.”
What does that mean next year? What does that mean in practical terms for the Minister at the moment?
The Minister said on page 48 that he would look at telecommunications restriction orders to disconnect mobile phones or SIM cards permanently. That is fine and good, and according to the Minister the first disconnections will take place before the end of this year, but what steps is he taking to achieve that? How many disconnections does he expect? In how many prisons will telecoms restriction orders be available? How many phones does he expect to decommission?
Over the summer the new Secretary of State produced that nice, blank statement in the White Paper, and the aspiration is great, but I am interested in the beef behind it. I share Ministers’ aspiration to block mobile phones, but what does that mean and, if I went a year ahead through the magic of a “Doctor Who” TARDIS, how many prisons would have those restriction orders? How many phones would be disconnected? The White Paper is sending out signals about aspirations, without necessarily having any beef behind them.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I hope that my intervention allows him to get in a sip of water. I am listening to his powerful speech, but he has criticised the Government for being long on aspiration. I will tackle the point he makes in detail in my speech, but I want to say up front that a team that is long on aspiration but not focused on delivery would not have got the biggest—and only—increase for six years that the Ministry of Justice has had in its budget: £100 million for staffing and £550 million overall. That underscores our commitment to deal with the challenges in the prison system.
The Minister heard me say that I welcomed the additional resource, but if the Government cut 7,000 prison officers over six years and only decide to put something in urgently once the estate starts to creak —all the indicators that I mentioned are now heading in the wrong direction—in a sense, that is backtracking on a problem of the Government’s own making. However, I am saying to the Minister, “Let’s put that to one side.” He has some aspirations, and I am trying to tease out from him what the beef is so that he can build on them.
Some things are costly and cost-effective. Simple things can be done in the prison estate to help support the aspiration of the Secretary of State. We cannot address the issue of reoffending if we do not address the levels of violence or the safety issues that exist in our prisons. For example, what assessment will the Minister make of the lock-up regime, in particular in those prisons with serious levels of violence? If prisoners are locked up for 23 or 24 hours a day, of course they will face frustrations. What if no elements of support are in place for training, employment or drug rehabilitation, or if prisoners are not out of their cells doing things that might punish them, because they are in prison, but help with their reform so that when they leave prison they are in a better place? If such things are not in place, the Minister will again have a kettle that is boiling furiously. That shows the difficulties we face.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a characteristically powerful speech. Does this not cut to the heart of the issue? If a substantial proportion of the prison population is locked up for 22 or 23 hours a day, prisoners’ frustration and the decimation of the relationship with the officers will be causing the tension. The officers are powerless to stop that, and it is directly triggering the increase in violent disorders.
I thank the hon. Gentleman—or my hon. Friend as I will call him—for his support of that particular assertion of mine, but it is one factor in a range of factors. Fewer officers are dealing with frustrated prisoners who have more and more challenging needs because of drug abuse and mental health problems and cannot participate in any important training, support or even recreation. That is part of the pressure cooker that is the Prison Service.
What strategy does the Minister have for looking at safer custody issues, the risk assessment changes or the prisoners coming in? When I was Minister, I regularly chaired a safer custody group. I do not know whether the Minister does that. Will he tell us whether he does, and if he does not, why? He should focus on what we can do to make custody safer. What assessment has he made of the pressures created by gangs in prisons? Such gangs cause difficulties, which prison officers, given their smaller number, are finding it more difficult to deal with. What innovations will he introduce to tackle prisoners’ mental health problems? We have an ageing prisoner population because of historical sex offences. What impact is that having on the care given by prison officers? Are they unable to deal with other types of prisoner because they have to invest more in that cohort of older prisoners? What assessment has he made of prisoners with sentences of imprisonment for public protection, whom we have talked about? Everyone agrees that those prisoners need to be released if they are over tariff and able to be released into society, but the assessment of support for them is not being carried out to the extent that we want it to be, so there is an element of frustration there as well.
All those things are in a difficult and challenging pot. Prison is never an easy place for the people who are in it, the people who work in it or the people who have policy responsibilities for it, but I want the Minister to put some more meat on the White Paper. I want more discussion—a discourse—with him and I want him to explain where he is heading. The Harris review made wide-ranging and simple recommendations, but the Government have accepted only 29 of those. Will the Minister revisit some of those recommendations to see whether they would help reduce the pressure on prison populations?
Finally—I have had a good run at the time available—as the Minister knows, there are measures that could be taken to help address the problems in prisons but that would be difficult to manage politically. If overcrowding is part of the problem of violence and stress in prisons, there are groups of people that we could look at removing from prison or sentencing to less time in prison. This is not an attack on the Government, who have indicated that they want to look at reducing the number of prison sentences of less than 12 months. There is no point sending someone to prison for 14 days or 30 days when they will come out and find their whole life in a skip in the centre of London, Birmingham or Newcastle; they will reoffend. There is no point giving many of the women my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston is particularly concerned about short prison sentences for not paying their television licences, or for offences linked to their lifestyle, perhaps involving drugs or prostitution, which could be tackled with a firm community sentence. The Lord Chief Justice told the Justice Committee as much last week.
There is a whole cohort of foreign national prisoners, which we talked about on Tuesday. In my experience, ministerial drive is needed to secure the removal of certain foreign national prisoners from the UK to their home nations, so which countries is the Minister focusing on? What efforts is he making to secure the transfer of such prisoners? Every prisoner who goes out to a foreign country leaves a space and allows pressure to be taken off the UK system.
I hope I have not rambled too much. The Minister’s role is difficult and challenging, but every indicator is going in the wrong direction. The Government have responded in part—they have set a series of aspirations. My purpose in securing this debate was to give the Minister a chance to flesh out those aspirations and allow other hon. Members to hold the Minister to account and ask him what he is going to do in the next 12 to 15 months, so that we can see whether there is going to be a change. I say to him in a non-threatening way that if, despite the actions he takes, the indicators continue to go in the wrong direction, the House will hold him and the Secretary of State to account for the actions that they could, should and must take to alleviate those pressures.
Prisoners and people who work in prisons have a right to safety, and the public whom we all represent have a right to see the people who leave prison after their sentences—I remind hon. Members that that is ultimately most prisoners—return to society in a way that does not lead to further reoffending and prison sentences.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Nuttall. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) for creating the opportunity for this matter to be debated.
We can all agree that we are at an acutely dangerous moment in the management of our prisons. I know that the Minister and his ministerial colleagues are not in the least bit complacent about that, but it has been some years since such a cocktail of problems has created such a sense of instability, insecurity and danger in our prisons. As my right hon. Friend clearly exposed, that is being driven by several complex and interlinked factors that require both immediate action by Ministers and long-term reforms to address some of the underlying drivers of the situation we find ourselves in.
My right hon. Friend talked about some of the most pressing issues that the Minister faces. He talked about overcrowding and the difficulties that creates for managing prisons and engaging prisoners in effective and purposeful activity. He talked about the dramatic staff reductions, particularly the loss of experienced staff. The Minister has ambitious recruitment plans to replace many of the officers who have been lost over the past couple of years. That is welcome, and I join my right hon. Friend in congratulating him on securing additional funding in the autumn statement. However, as we have heard, not only will we inevitably need to over-recruit, but time will need to be spent training and equipping new staff to carry out their roles in prisons. I would be grateful if the Minister said a little about the training that new staff will undergo.
There are other factors that relate less to the decisions that Ministers have taken over the past couple of years and more to the external things that are having a bearing on our prisoners. My right hon. Friend mentioned the dramatic rise in the use of vicious new psychoactive substances and the changing make-up of the prison population, which is making management of prisons an even more challenging task. I do not underestimate the difficulty for Ministers of dealing with that range of complex and pressing problems—I understand that it is difficult to deal with those all at once with immediate effect—but we cannot tolerate another day of the current danger and insecurity in our prison system. We are sitting on a tinderbox, and urgent action is needed to get our prisons back under control.
I do not think the answer can be toughening the regime alone, although it is absolutely right that prison staff and officers have effective control of our prisons; control must not be ceded to prisoners or groups of prisoners. Our prisons work when there is a management model that emphasises consensus between those in custody and those who control them, but in the end prisons must be in the hands and under the absolute control of governors and staff.
Too often, the kinds of activities that we have seen recently—in Bedford and Pentonville, for example—give us a sense of control being lost. As the past year or so has shown, toughening the regime alone will not address that. Under previous Lord Chancellors, aspects of the regime have been toughened. The incentives and earned privileges regime was toughened, and there has been a more restrictive approach to release on temporary licence. Appropriate use of such mechanisms may have a part to play in the good management of a prison, but it is clear that in and of itself, that will not be sufficient to return our prisons to the state that we want to see them in.
My right hon. Friend talked about the particular pressures that Prison Service staff experience. I am well aware that theirs is always a challenging and difficult job, and one that perhaps does not command the respect that it should in wider society. Indeed, prison officers have said that themselves and that was referred to in the evidence that Michael Spurr gave to the Justice Committee earlier this week.
When the Minister responds to the debate, I will be interested to hear about not just what he intends in terms of recruitment, training and professional development for prison staff, but what we can do collectively and what the Government can do to enhance the professional status and regard in which prison officers and prison staff are held across wider society; that is one way in which he can fulfil his ambition to recruit more easily and recruit high-calibre staff with the skills, competences and attributes he would look to have in our prisons. I hope he will be able to say a little on how he intends to improve prison officers’ status, remuneration, incentives —my right hon. Friend talked about that—and training, and what support he envisages will be available in prisons for staff who are under great mental and physical pressures, to ensure their continued and improved wellbeing.
Overcrowding is obviously a problem that has been building up over many years. The Minister will say, quite correctly, that the prison estate still has many old Victorian, unsuitable prison premises in the portfolio. It takes time to replace those with modern, fit-for-purpose buildings. I welcome the new build programme that Ministers have in train, but no matter how much rebuilding, repurposing and refitting of our prison estate Ministers are able to undertake, the underlying problem is the size of the prison population. We need to look at a means of addressing that.
I am afraid I am one of the people who just cannot see any objective case for our prison population having gone from about 45,000 20 years ago to more than 85,000 today. I know that crime has fallen in that period—I readily accept that—and some of that may be attributable in part to the use of custody, but the case for that correlation has not been compellingly made to me or, I suspect, the wider public in a way that demonstrates that the substantial increase in custody in the past 20 years can be wholly justified or explained. It really is time to be prepared to answer some hard questions about the number of people we incarcerate—something I was concerned to hear the Minister was only half-willing to grapple with when he was in front of the Justice Committee earlier this week; in some ways, I think it is still felt to be in the “politically too difficult” box.
I welcome what the Minister talked about when he came to the Justice Committee on Tuesday: attempts to divert offenders to alternative provision, away from custodial sentences. I also welcome the initiative first brought in under the coalition Government and now being rolled out under this Government of post-release supervision for those who have undertaken short custodial sentences. We have all known for many years that, where such sentences are appropriate—they often are not—the high rates of recidivism among that group of ex-prisoners should give us deep concern. I therefore welcome programmes to put post-release supervision in place for those offenders.
However, one consequence of that approach has been, perversely, to drive up the prison population in relation to the number of those who have been released following a short custodial sentence and then breach their post-custodial supervision arrangements. If we look at the latest offender management statistics, published for April to June, we see that of 5,512 licence recalls, 2,045 were of prisoners who had been serving sentences of less than 12 months before release, which represents an increase of 79% over the same period in the previous year.
There is a particular concern in my mind about the effect on women offenders, because they are more likely to be serving shorter sentences. Therefore, incarceration following breach during supervision on licence is likely to be bearing particularly harshly on them. While, as I said, I welcome the post-release supervision arrangements put in place, it is time for us to start asking the hard question of Ministers of whether we are now seeing an unintended consequence of the way in which the arrangements are implemented that means that more offenders are coming back into custody than might previously have been the case.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the long-standing concerns about IPP, or imprisonment for public protection, prisoners, which I share. I am concerned that, although four years ago the coalition Government removed the IPP sentence—that did not have retrospective effect—the rate of progress since then has been slow in releasing those prisoners in custody on an IPP arrangement, particularly because the report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons shows progress has been “painfully slow” in releasing prisoners at the appropriate time.
IPP prisoners still form 16% of the prison population, and some have experienced very long periods of incarceration over the length of their tariff, especially those—about a fifth of them as of March last year—who had received an original tariff of less than two years. Bearing in mind that no one after 2008 will have received an IPP arrangement if they had had a sentence of less than two years—it was no longer possible after 2008—we are talking about some people who now, the best part of 10 years after the sentence has been imposed, are still in custody on an IPP arrangement. I venture to suggest to the Minister that that might be a group for early attention in looking at whether there are opportunities for some to be released.
A number of approaches could be taken. Obviously the protection of the public and risk factors will be on the Minister’s mind, and I understand that, but we must look both at opportunities to identify those prisoners who could and should now be released and at those who Ministers do not yet feel confident in releasing. What programmes are being put in place in our prisons to enable them to progress to the point where it will become safe for them to be released?
We know that the Ministry of Justice has set up a dedicated unit to look at the IPP prisoners issue. I have no idea what that unit has been doing, so I hope the Minister will enlighten us on its plans for the future and on the progress and impact it has been able to make to date.
Finally, I want to talk about a group that, as my right hon. Friend rightly pointed out, I am always concerned about in our custodial system: women in prison. It is my firm view that there are many women in our prisons who are there not because they pose a risk or threat to society but because they have been driven there by a set of circumstances in which they have been victims of abuse and traumatic life circumstances. Women in custody are more prone to self-harm, and there are many with complex needs.
There is widespread agreement about the opportunity to try to bring down the number of women in our prisons and the fact that prison closures, such as the recent closure of Holloway, offer an opportunity to reconfigure the custodial estate to meet the particular needs of women offenders. It is now nearly 10 years since Baroness Corston’s seminal report on the management of women in the penal system. At that time, she recommended that it was inappropriate for women to be in large custodial institutions and that most would be much better supervised in the community, making use of, for example, women’s centres, enabling them to stay close to their home, to continue to look after their children and maintain their community and family ties. She also said that, for that small group of women for whom custody is necessary, it would be appropriate to hold them in much smaller, local, secure units.
I want to ask the Minister specifically about his intentions in relation to that group of offenders. When I asked the Justice Secretary about the issue in the Chamber on 3 November, she said that she did intend to replace some of the old women’s prisons with small, local custodial units. However, I understand that that is not necessarily the kind of secure, very small and very local unit envisaged in the Corston report. I ask the Minister to be a little more specific about how local those local units will be. Given that not many women are in custody, and that there are fewer institutions across the country, women are inevitably held further from their families in many cases.
How small will those units be? How many women does the Minister envisage will be in each, and how will they be designed and adapted to meet the specific and particular needs of women in custody? What kind of regimes and opportunities does he envisage being on offer for rehabilitation and, indeed, to address the underlying problems that have led women into offending behaviour?
The Minister has a real opportunity right now, if I may say so, because this is probably a once in a generation reconfiguration of the estate. He has a real chance to do something bold and future-proofed—particularly for that small group of women offenders who need a custodial sentence. I hope he will be bold and will be able to offer if not specific plans, at least a willingness to explore as broadly as possible what those Corston units might look like in today’s context.
My final point is about new psychoactive substances; I want to press the Minister a little more on the proposals in the White Paper around attacking those pernicious substances in our prisons. I am aware that Ministers want a more assertive testing regime, and I understand why, but those regimes have historically not been successful. They have quite often run into difficulties such as, for example, motivating offenders to switch to the use of a different—perhaps less easy to detect—substance. There is a real issue in relation to those new substances, which, as the Minister knows, are constantly mutating and changing as new forms and versions of them are developed. I am interested to know how he intends for his new testing regime to keep ahead of that curve.
In the end, the answer to the rise in the use of those dangerous substances will not be found, to any considerable extent, in mandatory testing, but in offering purposeful regimes that get prisoners out of their cells and engaged in activities that improve their learning, their employment prospects and their social engagements. The incentive for prisoners to use such substances is to combat the boredom and distress that they otherwise feel when locked in their cells—for up to 23 hours a day, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn said. The answer must lie in a change of regime, which is not to say, of course, that the Minister is not right to want to do all he can to keep those substances out of prisons altogether.
As I said, I do not think that there are simple answers to the many problems now pressing on our prison system. However, as my right hon. Friend made clear, we now need very quick answers. We cannot go on with the pressingly dangerous situation that we find ourselves in. Like my right hon. Friend, I look forward to hearing how the Minister intends to put flesh on the bones of the White Paper, and how he intends to make an immediate difference to the situation that we face.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I think this is the first time; I may be mistaken. I first pay tribute to the staff who work in our prison estate, not only in England and Wales but across all nations of this Union. At the moment, they are all hard-pressed and they feel demoralised and isolated, and we ought to recognise that—and I think we do. I hope the Minister will say something likewise to reassure them that they are in his thoughts at what is an unquestionably difficult time for them.
We have heard two speeches and on the plus side both were excellent, but on the negative side they have left me very little to say. The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) gave a characteristically powerful speech, in which he pointed out with great clarity that the direction of travel of the statistics is troubling. We ought to recognise the difficulties for prison officers, not only because it is polite and respectful, but because of the vivid statistic, mentioned by both Members who spoke, that 6,000 prison officers are assaulted each year while at work. That is up 43% on the previous year and translates, on the ground, to 16 assaults a day—three of which are serious assaults. In that context, it is no wonder that they feel demoralised.
The right hon. Member for Delyn began his speech on the premise that things are not quite right, which I think is somewhat kind. He laid out some pertinent questions, and I will be interested to hear the Minister’s replies. He was right to praise the Minister’s aspirations, because there is no doubt that this is a difficult job—a point well made by the former Minister for prisons, the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). It is not an easy job, and it is right to have those aspirations, but the right hon. Gentleman is also right to ask for some meat to be put on the bones of the White Paper. I hope the Minister will provide some clarity.
The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), my friend, gave an excellent speech, and she clearly has a keen and detailed interest in the topic. She was right to say that we stand at an acute point, and that a “cocktail of problems” necessitates the change that we all want to see. She was right to say that we need to work towards a consensual model, and that toughening the regime will not work. The relationship between inmates and officers is key, and she put that point very well.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Lady for raising what is not an easy issue to raise, as it is perhaps not politically sexy or attractive—the size of the prison population. I do not believe that we serve society, our prison officers or our youth well by locking people up for short sentences. The Scottish Government have introduced an assumption that short sentences are only necessary in the most extreme of circumstances. The point she made about people going in for short sentences, coming out on licence, breaching that licence and ending up in a perpetual circle in and out of prison, does not serve anybody well. I beg the Minister to have a serious and detailed look at the use of short sentences, and to try to at least recognise that the increasing prison population is a huge contributing factor in the problems that we are speaking about. The hon. Lady deserves credit for making that point.
Why have we ended up in this situation? As has been discussed, a cocktail of factors—including synthetic drugs, mobile phones, drones and other external factors—is causing this problem. However, I want to make it abundantly clear that I see one problem—resources—as more pertinent than the others. I am honoured to be a member of the Justice Committee. We travelled to Wandsworth prison a few months ago, and we heard from both prison officers and inmates about the stress being put on the relationship between the two by lack of resources. The majority of the prison population are locked up in their cells for between 22 and 23 hours a day, simply because there are not enough officers to get them out of the cell and into purposeful activity.
Detecting drugs with new measures, introducing mobile phone blocking systems and drone no-fly zones, and getting prisoners out of their cells for more than two hours a day all depend on resources. They depend on having enough prison officers to make them happen, and clearly we do not. We have lost 7,000 prison officers over the past six years, while the prison population has increased.
It is laudable that the Minister recognises that and notes that we need to increase the number of prison officers, but we have a huge retention and training problem. To June this year, there was an increase of 500 officers, but that took a recruitment drive of nearly 2,500. There is an endemic problem with prison officer morale that will make it difficult to get the number of prison officers that we need. The right hon. Member for Delyn crystallised it perfectly by saying that although we have ambitions to recruit another 3,500 officers—which I applaud; it is the right thing to do—current problems dictate that we will need to recruit some 8,000, or perhaps even more if the situation persists.
I will finish with a quote from the Justice Committee from earlier this year, which sets it out in stark terms. Even though we have differing views on some things, all members of the Justice Committee agreed on this point:
“In particular, we conclude that the fall in staffing levels…are bound to have reduced the consistency of relationships between officers and prisoners, and in turn affected safety.”
Without the numbers on the ground, we cannot get inmates into purposeful activity. If we do not get them into purposeful activity, their agitation and frustration grow, and the manifestation of that is the violence that was so adequately demonstrated in the statistics given by Members. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say, I recognise that his is a very difficult job and I would be grateful if he, too, could pay tribute to the service of our officers, who are so hard-pressed at this time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. May I start by echoing the sentiments of the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) and paying tribute to the hard work of our prison officers, who face daily dangers and carry out valuable work? I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) for securing today’s timely and important debate, which I am pleased to be able to respond to. Given his experience as a Justice Minister and a member of the Justice Committee, his views on the current situation and what must be done are most welcome.
There is clearly an agreement that the current prison system is not acceptable. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), a member of the Justice Committee, highlighted additional areas of concern, such as IPP prisoners. The state of our prisons and the growing levels of violence shame our nation.
Prisons are becoming increasingly volatile and dangerous environments for both staff and prisoners. In the 12 months to June 2016, there have been nearly 6,000 assaults on staff, 24,000 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and 105 self-inflicted deaths of prisoners, an increase of 13% from the previous year. There are 6,000 fewer officers on the frontline than in 2010. Ministry of Justice statistics show that poor mental health and distress among prisoners is higher than among the general public. Incidents of self-harm in prison have increased by over 25% in 2016 from the previous year.
Nick Hardwick, the former chief inspector of prisons, has said that prisons are at their worst level for a decade. We have seen riots breaking out at Her Majesty’s prisons Moorland and Bedford and prisoners escaping from Pentonville. While the prison staff and the tornado teams who deal with these incidents should be commended, it is clear that prison conditions are simply not good enough. Violence continues to increase and safety continues to decrease.
The austerity experiment on our prisons has failed. Working in prisons has become less appealing and more dangerous. The presence of fewer officers, who are overstretched and overwhelmed, means a stricter and increasingly unsafe prison regime. It means that prisons cannot effectively reform and rehabilitate in the way that prisoners and wider society need.
Staff shortages meant that a prisoner was not allowed out to visit his dying mother. He was allowed a phone call, but it was too late; his mother’s life support machine had already been turned off. It has still not been confirmed whether he will be allowed to attend her funeral. Again, that is the result of staff shortages. When questioned on that issue at the Justice Committee on Tuesday, Michael Spurr of NOMS was not even aware of the incident. Will the Minister confirm when he became aware of that incident? How often do such incidents take place in our prisons?
Front-line prison officers leaving their jobs outstripped new recruits over the past year. Almost 14% of prison officers leave the prison after serving less than 12 months. The Government have failed to explain how they will deal with the problem of retention. Even more alarmingly, it appears that the number of deaths will not form any part of the assessment of how safe a prison is.
On that point about whether the number of deaths will form part of how prisons are evaluated under our reform programme, I refer the hon. Lady to the White Paper. It explicitly says that under safety, deaths in a prison will be one of the outcomes looked at.
I thank the Minister for that clarification.
Some 324 people have died in prison this year so far, which includes 107 suicides. It appears that assaults on prison officers by prisoners are not being appropriately dealt with. Although the Minister has said there is “swift justice”, and although we welcome a zero-tolerance approach to violence, it is increasingly clear that prison officers do not feel safe at work. Has there been any consideration of what impact consecutive sentences for assault will have on prison capacity and overcrowding?
It is clear that a range of hugely complex issues need to be considered in order to reform the prison system. While I welcome prison reform, I am afraid that the Government’s White Paper does not provide the rapid action that our prison system so urgently needs and has long asked for. It is a matter of particular concern that despite a sustained recruitment exercise, described by one Minister as going at “full throttle”, the net increase in public sector prison officers was only 440 last year.
While the commitment to increase the number of prison officers by 2,500 is much needed, it is not a cause for celebration. Four hundred of those jobs have already been announced, and it is 2,500 extra after a reduction of more than 6,000 on the frontline. Where will the first 400 go? How will they be allocated to prisons? How were the 10 most challenging prisons identified? They do not appear to be among the worst prisons for violence and self-harm. As it stands, this is far from being the biggest overhaul of our prisons in a generation.
The lack of detail in the White Paper is worrying. It is difficult to believe that these proposals have been fully thought out. Instead, they seem to have been hastily assembled. That is indicative of the lack of detail in the Ministry’s proposals on, for example, mandatory drug-testing. We are told that the drug testing regime will be enhanced,
“supporting governors to enable drug testing on entry to and exit from prison as part of a more extensive testing programme, increasing the frequency and range of drugs tested for”.
Putting aside whether mandatory drug testing has proved effective, given the widespread availability of drugs in prisons, that could add thousands more tests each year, but there is no analysis of the impact on cost and staff resources, especially as both are in short supply.
I am not disagreeing with the White Paper; I am saying that it fails to deal with a lot of issues. There are a lot of unanswered questions in it. On one level, the Government want there to be more drug testing, but the question we are asking is: what about the impact on staff and resources? The White Paper singularly fails to provide answers on the details. For example, it says there will be rehabilitation and education programmes, but who will provide those? Where will the money come from? Will there be an unlimited pot? A number of issues are not clear in the White Paper. I look forward over the course of the next few months to hearing how the Department will deal with those issues.
What do the Government think they will learn from testing on entry and release, given that prisoners will most likely simply avoid drug taking in the run-up to those periods? The argument that counting the problem—and not even counting the problem in a particularly robust way—is the same as dealing with it seems unrealistic, at best.
Overcrowding is another issue contributing to the level of violence in prisons. As of July 2016, 76 prisons—just over 60%—were overcrowded. Overcrowded prisons held 9,700 more prisoners than they were designed to hold.
The White Paper sets out a programme for building new prisons, but also points to more prison closures. Since coming to power in 2010, the Government have announced the closure of many prisons, with a combined operational capacity of over 4,100. Again, the Government’s policy is muddled. Are they trying to build their way out of overcrowding or will they address the number of prisoners coming into the system?
Finally, we all acknowledge that the prison system is no longer working and is increasingly unsafe. The Justice Secretary continues to say that prison reform is a priority, but the level of violence in prisons has not even stabilised, let alone begun to improve. Urgent action is needed now, not in a few months or a few years. The matter goes beyond politics. Livelihoods are at stake and lives are at stake, and the fact that we have unsafe prisons must not be ignored.
One of the main reasons why prisons are unsafe is the number of prison officers who were made redundant and the reduction in their number. We have been told that we need at least 8,000 prison officers to deal with prison safety and prison issues. The Government do not seem to have got anywhere near achieving that. Will the Minister think about the prison officers who have been made redundant? Has there been any consideration of the idea of re-employing them, even temporarily? The Government say they are trying to deal with the matter, but if they had not cut the number of prison officers in the first place, we would not be in the mess we are now in.
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. This debate has been conducted sensibly and the former prisons Minister, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), made a powerful case.
The challenges facing our prisons are indisputable. The statistics make grim reading, as do many reports from chief inspectors of different prisons. I do not dispute much of the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis of the problem. He rightly referred to our White Paper, which responds quite well to the challenge, although he was right to challenge us on the detail, as did the Labour shadow Minister, and to ask when implementation will take place.
The White Paper commits us to introducing legislation in the next Session on a number of measures. As I said to the Select Committee, we will introduce a Bill covering some of those measures. However, some do not need legislation and we will crack on with them. Over the next few weeks and months, the Justice Department will make several announcements on many of the issues that the White Paper touched on, demonstrating how we will implement what we have discussed in it.
Our brave and valuable prison officers work hard in our prisons and do a tremendous job. Whenever I visit one of our prisons, I make sure I spend time with the staff. I spend time with members of the Prison Officers Association and other staff to hear their experience of the challenges facing them, because I firmly believe that to understand the front-line challenges there is no substitute for speaking to those who are doing the job.
That is why it gives me great pleasure to announce—the House is aware that we have been in discussion with the Prison Officers Association on health and safety, pay and pensions—that we have come to an agreement with the association’s national executive committee on a new pay and pension package for front-line staff that it will recommend to their members. We have also agreed a significant number of health and safety reforms, as well as new powers for governors to deploy their staff. That is a big step. Many questions have been asked about retention and how we value our prison officers. Hon. Members will hear the details of the deal after the debate, but it goes a long way to show how we value prison officers and should help to retain the best officers in the service.
I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate. I was involved in parliamentary business in another part of the estate.
The Minister’s announcement is very welcome. In my constituency, I have three prisons where the staff are represented by the POA, and there is a private prison in Doncaster where the Community union, which I am a member of, represents a number of people working in the justice sector in that establishment. Has the Minister spoken to representatives of the Community union to make sure we have consistency across the prison estate, both private and public?
Obviously, private prisons determine pay and conditions. The deal we have agreed is for members of the Prison Officers Association in bands 3 to 5. I will write to the right hon. Lady with more details.
I echo the concerns raised by the right hon. Member for Delyn on this important topic. I hope the new money we secured for staffing, the new money for the Ministry of Justice and now the new deal on pay, pensions and health and safety indicate that, as I said in my intervention, our interest is long not just on aspiration. We are determined to deliver. This is all happening in the four months the new team has been in post.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly challenged us on the White Paper and on providing concrete plans to tackle drugs, phones, recruitment and the old Victorian estate. We have announced a comprehensive plan to tackle these and other crucial components of the prison system. Despite the inevitable time lag—it will take time because some of the problems have been long in the making and did not arise overnight—we are working to make sure that what can be delivered today will be delivered, and we are confident that we will see lasting benefits in the coming months and years.
As we set out in the White Paper last month, we will invest £100 million to recruit an additional 2,500 staff. Reference has been made several times to the number of staff in 2010, but we have closed 18 prisons and secure detention centres since that date. More importantly, our desire to recruit 2,500 extra staff is based on evidence. We want to create a system in which every prison officer handles the cases of six prisoners. That is what we call the new offender management model, which was recommended in the Harris review, which Members have mentioned. We are implementing it via our new staffing model.
The investment will provide the capacity for prison officers to play a dedicated officer role and to build constructive relationships. As the former prisons Minister is aware, we are talking about a people business: it is about relationships and about prison officers being able to listen prisoners’ frustrations, to diffuse tensions and ultimately to reduce the level of violence. That is a vital component of our plan to stabilise and then decrease the level of violence, self-harm and suicide, as well reforming offenders more generally. With nearly half of all offenders going on to commit crime within a year of being released, we believe that giving each prisoner a dedicated officer will help prisoners to turn away from crime in the long term.
We recognise the challenge in recruiting an extra 2,500 staff. That is why, as I told the Select Committee, we will launch a number of initiatives to help us to do that.
That figure is 2,500 new staff over and above what we would ordinarily recruit. In the Select Committee, the National Offender Management Service chief executive, Michael Spurr, made it clear that in practice that means we will have to recruit 4,000 staff next year and 4,000 staff the following year. It is a challenge, but that is why we have new resources and investment. We will also do it completely differently from how it has been done historically. In the past, prison governors did not have the freedom to recruit themselves. They could not hold open days or advertise locally. People who ended up being recruited into our Prison Service had never visited their place of work or met anyone they will work with beforehand. In addition to the national recruitment effort, we will give the governors of the 28 most challenging prisons the power to recruit for themselves, and that will make a huge difference. It is a question of someone seeing an advert on the internet versus seeing that their local prison is recruiting and they could get a local job.
A question was asked about pay supplements and where they would apply. In fact, that is already happening. For example, HMP Feltham can pay £4,000 extra per person in recognition of how difficult it is to recruit there. Many of the people that Feltham would interview might be choosing between a job there and working at Heathrow airport, which they might feel is a less aggravated environment in which to work. That is why in those establishments the governor can use a supplement to attract staff. For our 10 most challenging jails, we had a target of recruiting 400 staff and we allocated £14 million for that. We are halfway to that target already, so we are making progress.
We all need to recognise that prisons today are in a very different place from where they were 10 years ago. The issue of new psychoactive substances has been mentioned, and we cannot gloss over that. Those substances are incredibly dangerous. In one incident, even the officer who went to help someone who was on those drugs had to be hospitalised because of how potent the drugs are. I mentioned in the Select Committee that taboos are being broken. Prisoners never used to attack female prison officers, but we have seen such incidents, including potting. Also, prisons magnify the community outside, so gang violence is being imported into our prisons. We are also seeing serious cases of mental illness. Yes, staffing is part of the solution, but the problem with which we are dealing, as the right hon. Member for Delyn recognises—he is nodding—is incredibly complex. We must ensure that we deal with it.
Of course I welcome the proposal to recruit 4,000 prison officers in each of the next two years. Is that a net figure and, if so, what is the gross figure that the Minister is aiming for? We have a huge retention problem, so to get to a net figure of 4,000, we would need to recruit substantially more. What is the figure?
Four thousand is the net number that we need to recruit to meet our targets. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks what the gross figure is. A lot of people are leaking through in different areas of the prison estate and I cannot give the overall gross figure.
I think the Minister means that the 4,000 each year is a gross figure and, at the end of that, there will be a net figure of the 2,500 to 3,000 he has mentioned. Otherwise, he is committing to 8,000 new prison officers in the next two years. I would welcome that, but I would not want him to commit to it because he might have to increase his expenditure significantly.
Yes. The Treasury would not welcome a commitment to new expenditure in this debate.
There are other challenges. We mentioned the challenges of mobile phones, and the right hon. Gentleman asked about the telecommunications restriction orders blocking mobile phones and other technologies. The legislation allows a prison, where mobile phone usage is suspected, to get a court order to block that specific mobile phone. It is a tool in a prison’s armoury, but we need to deal with the problem on the industrial scale that it is happening on in our prisons. The work that we are doing with mobile phone companies to block signals is the most effective way to ensure that we deal with the problem not on an incremental basis, but on an industrial scale.
We already have mobile phone blocking in some of our prisons. One challenge with mobile phone blocking is that in some prisons in urban areas we could end up blocking the mobile phones of people who are not in the prison. That is why we are developing a bespoke solution, working with the operators, and we have signed an agreement with them to go ahead with three jails early next year and then on that basis roll it out across the estate.
As for psychoactive substances, much has been said about drugs and our approach to them. We have trained more than 300 dogs to detect psychoactive substances. The point of mandatory testing, other than deterrence, is to help, because if someone is on those drugs, they need treatment, and the only way we can know that they are on the drugs is by testing and finding that they need help to come off them, or punishment where that is necessary.
I ask the Minister to keep the effectiveness of mandatory testing under careful review, particularly in relation to those substances, because if they keep being reformed and redesigned to make detection more difficult, the testing will not keep up with the changes in the make-up of the substances being used. I am not saying that he should not be doing mandatory testing and I understand his point about a deterrent effect, but I ask him to keep the effectiveness of that approach under review and to undertake to report to the House regularly on what it is achieving.
Of course we will keep the effectiveness under review. Drugs are such a problem in terms of prison violence, safety and the effect on our prisoners that we ought to do so because we have to deal with the problem, and we will keep it under review.
A question was asked about drones and no-fly zones. We are looking to work with drone operators to programme the co-ordinates of prisons into drones so that if someone buys a drone from the operator and tries to fly it into a prison, it just collapses before it reaches the perimeter. That is technologically possible. On the point about the physical infrastructure, we have seen improved netting and CCTV, which help in dealing with that challenge.
Many of these issues affect both public and private prisons. Will the Minister give me an assurance that the Government will take on board some of the issues about staff ratios just as much for contracts for private prisons as they will for public prisons? I would welcome it if he would write to me on that issue.
Of course we look at the entire prison estate when we look at all those issues. Prisons are there to protect the public. All prisons, whether private or public, have the same objectives, and the measures that we are looking at apply across the prison estate.
When it comes to drugs and phones, a lot of crime underpins that activity. People make money from it, which is why we are investing in a new intelligence hub and a search capability. We will say more about that in due course.
I would like to say something about probation, which has not been touched on and is important if we are to turn around offenders. In addition to making prisons places of safety and reform, we must ensure that prisons work hand in hand with probation if we are to achieve lasting change with offenders. It is clear that performance at community rehabilitation companies, which manage low-level offenders, varies widely, and therefore we have launched a review of operations and standards. Public protection is our top priority, and we will take the necessary action to ensure that the probation system reduces reoffending. As with our plans for prisons, I want a simpler, clearer system in which probation is focused on outcomes rather than processes and with increased transparency and accountability. I want specific outcome measures that focus on getting offenders off drugs and back into work. We will look at what additional measures—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).