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Prison Safety

Volume 618: debated on Tuesday 6 December 2016

Last month, we launched the White Paper “Prison Safety and Reform” and we are already implementing measures to track all drugs, drones and phones. This major overhaul of the prison system will include the recruitment of an extra 2,500 front-line officers. Our reforms will empower governors to make the changes that they need.

I warmly welcome the Government’s decision to invest £555 million to recruit 2,500 extra guards, and I hope that Lewes prison in East Sussex, where staff had to deal with a serious incident involving threats of violence a month ago, will benefit from that. The Home Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, released a report on psychoactive substances and their increased availability in prisons. Given the aggressive and violent behaviour that they cause, what is the Secretary of State doing to clamp down on drugs of all types available in prisons?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about psychoactive substances. They have been a serious issue in our prison system. That is why we have developed tests, which we have rolled out across the prison estate, to detect these substances and why we have trained up 300 sniffer dogs.

The suicide rates at HMP Hewell in Redditch are unacceptably high. May I invite my right hon. Friend to update the House on what the Government are doing to ensure the safety of prisoners and to reduce suicide rates in our prisons?

First, may I welcome my hon. Friend back to the House? It is great to see her back on our Benches looking so fit and well.

Indeed. Finally, I can agree with a comment from the Opposition.

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the issue of self-harm and suicides in our prison. The rates are too high, which is why we are taking steps to increase the number of prison officers. We will have a dedicated officer for every six prisoners and they will be responsible for those prisoners’ welfare and for helping them to turn their lives around so that they do not go back to reoffending.

The suicide rate in our prisons is the highest it has ever been in 25 years. It is absolutely shameful. Just the other week, the Health Secretary appeared before the Health Committee and admitted that he has never visited a prison mental health service. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether she has visited one, and if not, why not and when will she?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that mental health is a real issue in our prisons. I recently had a meeting with the Health Secretary on how we can improve mental health services. We are enabling governors to co-commission those health services. I was recently at HMP Lincoln discussing mental health services with the governor. Such services are available only from Monday to Friday, and he wants them to be available all week round, and we will enable that to happen.

In part due to increased attacks on prison officers, more than 200,000 days were lost through ill health by prison officers in the past 12 months. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what the figure lost through sick days is as of now, and what steps she will take to reduce that figure?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. There is an issue with sick days. The the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), who is responsible for prisons and probation holds a daily meeting in which he goes through the levels of sickness at each prison and works with the governors on what we can do. One thing we are doing is strengthening the frontline to ensure that we have more officers available for support.

I am glad that the Secretary of State recognises the importance of the number of officers, and I congratulate her on the extra moneys available. Does she agree that in potentially violent situations one of the most important factors is the availability of experienced officers who have the knowledge and the personal relationships with inmates to calm them down? Can she give us more detail about what is being done to deal with the current very high levels of wastage of experienced officers?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and the evidence backs him up that having experienced officers is vital. We have a higher proportion of experienced officers in 2016 than we did in 2010; more than 80% of our prison officers have five or more years of experience. I am absolutely determined to keep those officers in the service. Two weeks ago, we launched a fast-track programme to help people already in the service to progress in their careers. We are also offering retention payments, particularly in hard-to-recruit areas, because we certainly need to keep those very important staff on board.

In every one of Her Majesty’s inspector’s reports on closed male facilities published during the Secretary of State’s time in post—reports on Bedford, Chelmsford, Hindley, Onley, Risley, Swaleside and Winchester, and the youth facilities at Isis and Wetherby—outcomes of the test of prison safety deemed them to be either poor or not sufficiently good. When can we expect a positive report on prison safety in closed male prisons?

The hon. Lady is right that current levels of violence in our prisons are not acceptable. That is why we launched the prison safety and reform White Paper, with measures to deal with drugs, drones and phones, as well as to bolster the number of front-line staff. We are also working directly with governors to help them to deal with issues that might trigger incidents in their prisons while we build up that front-line capability. I announced in October that we are recruiting an extra 400 staff in 10 of the most challenging prisons; we have already given job offers to 280 people, so we are making progress.

The Ministry states in the White Paper that it will trial the inclusion of prison co-ordinates in no-fly zones to prevent banned items from being dropped into prisons. How will that work in practice and what is being done now to reduce demand for banned items in prisons?

The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey is working with drone manufacturers and leading a cross-Government taskforce to get in place the technology needed to do that. We are also employing solutions such as installing extra netting. Last week I was at HMP Pentonville, which now has patrol dogs whose barking helps to deter drones. We are using all sorts of solutions to deal with contraband entering our prisons.