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Extremism in Prisons

Volume 624: debated on Tuesday 25 April 2017

Extremism in prisons is something we take very seriously. The Department has set up a new directorate to oversee all aspects of our work on extremism and terrorism. We have also created a new joint unit encompassing the Prison Service, the national probation service and the Home Office, with enhanced resources to deliver our extremism strategy.

Extremism in prisons means that vulnerable people, such as those with mental health problems or those on the autistic spectrum, could be at great risk in those closed environments. Will the Minister tell me what work the Government are doing to protect people from extremism within the prison system and what reasonable adjustments are being made to help those particularly vulnerable people?

My right hon. Friend, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism, understands the particular vulnerabilities of such people within the prison system. Prison staff take extra care in monitoring and understanding the threats to vulnerable people such as those with autism, and robustly intervene where there are any threats, including of extremism and radicalisation.

There has been an issue with some religious converts being drawn into extremist ideology and going on to carry out terrorist acts without knowing the true values or teachings of those religions. What specific steps are being taken to address that, and what extra support is being given to religious faith representatives to ensure that we tackle this evil issue?

My hon. Friend, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on communities engagement, makes a vital point. We have to be clear that conversion to a religion, including Islam, does not necessarily mean radicalisation but, where conversion happens in the prison estate, people are encouraged to go on education courses. There is also support for imams to make sure that people do not get drawn to the poisonous ideology that often seeks to prey on vulnerable individuals.

Ian Acheson, who reviewed this matter for the Government, told the Select Committee on Justice only last year:

“I do not have confidence that the National Offender Management Service…has the capability or, indeed, if I may be frank, the will to implement some of the recommendations that I have made.”

Does the Minister feel that his changes are not just recommendations but that there is capacity to deliver them?

Absolutely. As I said right at the start, we have a new directorate within Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and a new team across the Home Office and the Prison Service, with new funding to tackle that and to roll out our anti-extremism strategy. The right hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the Justice Committee, will also be aware that just last week we announced the separation centres that Ian Acheson recommended in his review and that will remove the most poisonous individuals from the main population of our prisons.

About 1,000 individuals have been identified as extremist or as vulnerable to extremism, so the creation of those separation units is welcome. However, the key is monitoring people when they come out of prison. Can the Minister reassure us that that will happen?

To be precise, there are actually about 700 people of concern. Of those 700, about 180 are in prison or on remand for terrorism-related offences. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about what happens when people come into the community. The multi-agency protection arrangements with law enforcement mean that those people are subject to strict licence conditions, and if they breach those licence conditions, they can and do end up in jail. The police are obviously part of that.

I take this opportunity to thank the police, especially those who protect us here as we go about our daily jobs.

Are the Government planning to provide any specific training for prison officers to help to identify those inmates with extremist tendencies?

Prison officers play a vital role in combating extremism in our prisons, given the contact and proximity they have with prisoners. Just last December we rolled out a new extensive training programme for all our prison officers to enable them to identify that threat and to help to deal with it.

Northern Ireland Ministers have had to deal with extremism in prisons over the years, with the segregation of loyalist and republican prisoners being an example. Has the Minister had any opportunity to discuss those matters with the relevant Minister in Northern Ireland in order to learn from what we have learned in Northern Ireland to help him to do his job across the UK?

We have looked very carefully at the lessons from Northern Ireland in setting up the separation centres that we announced last week. There are significant differences between what is happening in England and what happens in Northern Ireland. No prisoner will default to a separation centre. Ending up in a separation centre will be the result of a prisoner’s behaviour behind bars, and they will be selected by a panel that has been told about their behaviour. The panel will decide where those prisoners go in the prison system, so there are appropriate safeguards in place.

These units will affect only a small section of the prison population, but the rising lack of safety in our prisons is itself a potential breeding ground for extremism. Has the Secretary of State considered the extent to which that environment of violence has contributed to extremism?

The hon. Lady is right; the separation centres will hold 28 prisoners, and our evidence suggests that that is sufficient. We have a broader strategy to deal with extremism in our prisons, which includes support to imams, looking at religious texts and a range of education programmes to deal with the challenge of extremism in our prisons.

It is understood that the prisoners designated for these separation units will be able to appeal against that decision, and their places in the units will be reviewed every three months. Given the Court of Appeal’s recent decision that denying legal aid to many prisoners is unlawful, will these individuals have access to publicly funded legal advice?

We are considering the result of that Court of Appeal case, and the Government will make their position known on it. As part of due process in prisons, if an individual is selected to go into a separation centre, it is of course right that the panel tells them why they have been selected and allows them to make representations.