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House of Commons Hansard
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24 January 2017
Volume 620
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4. What steps the Government is taking to support prison staff in maintaining order. [908341]

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We are recruiting an extra 2,500 prison officers and rolling out new body-worn cameras. We are also empowering governors and providing extra funding to enhance the physical security of the prison estate.

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To be fair to the Government, I appreciate that prison violence has been a problem for decades. I remember being a PPS 28 years ago when the Home Secretary was coping with a prison riot. But was it really wise to cut the number of prison officers by a quarter in the last six years, given these problems?

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I should be delighted to have a conversation with my hon. Friend about his experience looking at these issues. He is absolutely right that they have been a problem for a number of years, and it will take time to build up the front line and recruit those 2,500 additional officers. We have recently faced new challenges, with psychoactive substances, drones and mobile phones. We are taking action to deal with those, but it is vital that we have the staff on the front line who can both reform offenders and keep our prisons safe.

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Six major incidents in eight weeks is unprecedented in the 25 years I have been in this House. Following on from her reply to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), will the Secretary of State confirm that the figures to September meant a loss in that last year of 417 prison officers? When she says that she has to recruit 2,500 officers, does she not mean that in the next 12 months she will have to recruit 4,000 to make up those 2,500, and does she intend to do that?

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The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We need to recruit 4,000 officers over the next year. I announced initially that we were recruiting officers for 10 of the most challenging prisons. We have already made job offers to almost all those 400 people, so we are making good progress. We have recently launched a graduate scheme, Unlocked. Within 24 hours of announcing that scheme, we had expressions of interest from more than 1,000 candidates, so there are people interested in joining the Prison Service. It is challenging to recruit that number of officers, but we are absolutely determined to do so. It is what we need to do to turn our prisons around and make them places of safety and reform.[Official Report, 26 January 2017, Vol. 620, c. 2MC.]

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Does my right hon. Friend accept that the greatest support that we can give to prison officers is to make sure that they have the correct levels of staffing in their prisons? Is she aware that there have been significant problems, highlighted by recent reports, in Chelmsford prison, which have been attributed to the understaffing of the prison? May I ask her what is being done to get the levels of staff to the correct ones, and would she agree to the prisons Minister having a meeting with me to discuss that?

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to recruit staff at Chelmsford, in addition to other prisons. I know that my hon. Friend the prisons Minister will meet my right hon. Friend soon. I am keen to visit Chelmsford myself to meet my right hon. Friend and see the situation on the front line.

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As well as issues with understaffing and morale, we still have some old prisons that are not suitable for the kind of rehabilitation that we need, and that cause security issues. Can the Government update us on what is happening to deal with that fundamental infrastructure problem?

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is harder to reform offenders and create the safe environments that we want in old prisons that are not fit for purpose. That is why we are building additional prison places. We have £1.3 billion allocated. We will open HMP Berwyn in Wales shortly, which will have additional places. We are committed to this, and I will announce more about our prison build programme in due course.

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What has been the effect of the decisions in 2011, which were confirmed in 2016, to reduce the daily accommodation fabric checks to barely a weekly check? How has that helped to achieve the desired outcome, as stated at the time, of maintaining order and reducing self-harm?

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My hon. Friend raises an important issue. We need cells that are fit for purpose and usable. One of the things that my hon. Friend the prisons Minister has been focusing on in his regular meetings is making sure that our contractors get cells back to use and fit for purpose.

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Some prisons, including Her Majesty’s Prison Birmingham, use prisoner violence reduction representatives—prisoners who are paid to monitor other inmates—to discourage disorder. Stakeholders we have spoken to suggest that some are ensuring compliance by themselves meting out violence to troublesome inmates. What assessment has the Justice Secretary made of their use?

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The hon. Lady refers to violence reduction programmes. I have seen them in place in a number of prisons, where they can be very effective. Peer to peer support can often turn prisoners around, but it needs to be carefully managed and monitored. My expectation is that it is the role of the governor of the prison to make sure proper systems are in place.

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In December, during her statement to the House on the riot at Her Majesty’s Prison Birmingham, the Justice Secretary suggested that as many as 13 Tornado teams were deployed to the prison. Such events deprive other prisons of officer numbers. Is she confident that she has the resources to deal with disturbances of this kind, and when will Sarah Payne’s investigation into what happened be concluded?

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We are increasing the number of Tornado staff to make sure that we can deal with any incidents that arise across our prison estate, particularly while we are building up the strength of our frontline. Those officers do a fantastic job, and they did a fantastic job in resolving the incident at HMP Birmingham. I can tell the hon. Lady that the investigation into the incident at HMP Birmingham, which is being led by Sarah Payne, will report back in February.