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Prisons Policy/HMP Long Lartin

Volume 629: debated on Thursday 12 October 2017

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on prisons policy and the recent disturbance in Her Majesty’s Prison Long Lartin.

I can confirm that there was an incident at HMP Long Lartin last night and that it has now been resolved without injury to staff or prisoners. The incident is of course of concern, and we will need to investigate properly what drove the actions of a relatively small number of individuals. It will take a number of weeks to ensure that all the intelligence is properly examined and that we learn lessons and apply them to prevent any reoccurrence.

We cannot speculate on the cause of this incident, but we know that the prison was running a full regime and that this was not linked to any shortfalls in prison officer staffing levels. Its last inspection report found the prison to be “calm and controlled” and that, although there were improvements to be made, it was “both competent and effective.”

The incident remained contained on a single wing of the prison, and it involved 81 prisoners. I want to commend the actions of the staff, who acted swiftly in response to the incident. They locked down the wing, ensured the rest of prison remained settled and prevented any public protection issues or escalation. Our specialist staff were deployed to the prison from across the country. They swiftly resolved the incident in just over an hour, securing all prisoners without injury. Once again, they demonstrated their bravery and professionalism, for which we should all be very grateful.

We do not tolerate violence in our prisons, and we are clear that those responsible will be referred to the police and could spend longer behind bars.

I thank the Minister for his remarks. It is unfortunate that the Secretary of State has more pressing problems than prison disturbances and the axing of Conservative manifesto prisons policy, which I shall come on to shortly.

Last night’s disturbance at HMP Long Lartin marks another low point in the prisons policy of this Government. The House will no doubt recall the frightening scenes on our televisions from HMP Birmingham last year. That was no one-off, with many other disturbances in recent months, but when it involves a high-security prison housing some of our most dangerous prisoners, it is especially concerning. Does the Minister believe that forcing through hundreds of millions of pounds of budget cuts to our prisons in recent years has left our prisons more safe or less safe?

Seven in 10 of our prisons are now overcrowded, and the situation is getting worse. The former director general of the Prison Service has warned that the recent surge in numbers is adding to the pressures on a prison system that he says is

“already woefully short of space”.

Does the Minister believe that prisoners spending more and more time locked in their cells is making our prisons more safe or less safe?

Government cuts have seen over 6,000 frontline prison officers cut. Despite recent Government boasting about new recruits, one in three of our prisons has lost frontline staff this year alone. Does the Minister believe that fewer and fewer staff dealing with more and more dangerous prisoners leaves prisons more safe or less safe?

Yesterday, the head of the Prison Service ruled out shutting down and selling off dilapidated Victorian jails across England and Wales. This amounts to shelving a 2017 Conservative general election manifesto promise. Does the Minister believe that housing more and more people in Victorian conditions will leave our prisons more safe or less safe? Finally, will the Government apologise to the country for yet another broken manifesto promise?

Let us be clear about what happened yesterday and remind ourselves that we are dealing with category A prisoners in Long Lartin, which contains some of the most challenging and difficult prisoners within the estate. Prison staff work incredibly hard to deal with these prisoners—many of them are extremely difficult individuals—and to manage them successfully on a day-to-day basis.

Last night’s disturbance was an incredibly rare occurrence, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Inevitably, the nature of our business is such that the situation can become volatile. This situation was isolated—isolated to one wing—and, as I have said, the prison was running a full regime. When situations become volatile, staff in prisons sometimes need extra support, and in this situation our specialist trained prison staff were needed to support the staff in the prison to resolve the incident. They did that very quickly, without harm to staff or prisoners.

In response to the questions about staffing, the shadow spokesperson will be aware that we are investing in our staff in prisons. We are investing £100 million to add 2,500 prison officers by the end of next year. We are on track to deliver that commitment. This year alone we have added a net 868 new prison officers.

The hon. Gentleman is very aware, from his conversations with the chief inspector of prisons and a number of prison governors, that the long-standing challenges facing our prisons are not just about staffing, but new psychoactive substances that the prison ombudsman himself has described as a game-changer for the security and stability of our prisons. We know that staffing would make a huge difference, which is why we are making huge efforts to increase not just the number of staff but the ratio of staff to prisoners, so that one prison officer has a caseload of six prisoners to help with rehabilitation.

The hon. Gentleman asked about our commitment to close old Victorian prisons and add new prison places within the course of this Parliament. Our first priority is to ensure public protection and provide accommodation for all those sentenced by the courts, but that commitment very much remains.

Long Lartin prison is in my constituency. I thank the prisons Minister for keeping me up to date on developments throughout the night and for his comments about the professionalism of prison staff. I am relieved that nobody appears to have been seriously injured in this incident and I am very pleased by the speed at which the incident was dealt with. May I ask the Minister for reassurance that the incident will be properly investigated and that any appropriate action will be taken?

I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that there will be a full and proper investigation. There is no point in speculating today on the exact causes of the incident, but there will be a full investigation and lessons learnt. When incidents happen, it is important that we not only deal with them but learn lessons for the future, and we will be doing that.

This is not the first time in recent years that the Government have been called to account in this Chamber for trouble in prisons in England. I note that the Prison Governors Association expressed concern about the fact that this trouble took place in a high security prison and reminded the Government that it had called for an independent public inquiry into the state of prisons in England due to cuts.

In Scotland, we have been fortunate to avoid such problems due to record investment in modernising and improving the prison estate, with the Scottish National party Government spending almost twice as much as the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat Administration on modernising the prison estate. Will the Minister accept an invitation to visit prisons in Scotland to see the good work being done there to avoid this sort of trouble?

I will almost certainly accept the invitation to visit prisons in Scotland. We should always learn from best practice, wherever it is. That is not to say that what is happening in Scotland is necessarily best practice, but I have an open mind. I reiterate that we have a £1.3 billion commitment to modernise our prison estate in England and Wales over the course of this Parliament.

It is good to see twice as many Ministers on the Treasury Bench as there are spokesmen on the Opposition Front Bench. I thank the Minister for his statement and observe that this is a prison that was described by Her Majesty’s chief inspector as calm and well-controlled. That indicates an underlying issue about the volatility of the prison population. Will the Minister confirm that he is prepared to revisit some of the recommendations made in the Justice Committee’s report on prison safety in the previous Parliament? Will he look again at the way we handle security and mental health, and how we sentence and treat vulnerable offenders who go into the prison population?

I hold the recommendations of the Justice Committee very dearly to my heart. We will of course look at all its recommendations. The Chair of the Select Committee makes a very important point about the prison population. We not only hold some very difficult individuals, but some very troubled individuals. Dealing with issues such as mental health is a key part of dealing with the security and stability of our prisons. It is not just about security solutions.

Two of the three murders in the prison system last year were at Long Lartin. Last week, two individuals were convicted of the murder of a prisoner committed in June in Long Lartin. In the last four years, there have been four murders in Long Lartin. Why does Long Lartin seem to have more murders than any other prison in the country?

The right hon. Gentleman, a former Prisons Minister, will be aware that Long Lartin holds some of the most difficult individuals. It is a category A prison holding some of the most notorious prisoners this country has ever incarcerated. The prisons ombudsman investigates every death, and referring to its report will be the best way to understand what has occurred.

I am sure the whole House will want to thank the Tornado team that restored order at Long Lartin last night. I think there is considerable support on both sides of the House and among the public for our taking yet further action on returning foreign national offenders. If the Minister did that, he would create headroom to allow that extra calm that the prison system needs at the moment. I know the numbers have improved, but will he say what further action we can take in that area?

I thank my hon. Friend, a former Prisons Minister, for his question. Yes, the number of foreign national offenders returned to their home countries has increased. I think the number is about 6,000, but I will confirm the exact number in writing. It is the highest figure in recent years, but we continue to redouble our efforts. A cross-Government group comprising the Policing Minister and the Immigration Minister, as well as Ministers from the Home Office and the Foreign Office, is working actively with foreign Governments to increase the rate at which foreign national offenders are returned to their home country.

While it is reassuring to hear the Minister say that no staff were physically hurt during the disturbance, these events are not supposed to happen and can be terrifying for the staff present. Will he make sure that staff receive the support they might need in the coming weeks to deal with what happened and that no staff member is forced to come back to work before they are ready?

The staff were brilliant last night and are brilliant today. We also have an excellent governor, to whom I have conveyed my full support. Yes, we need to give them all the support they need, and I will put it on the record again that we owe them a huge debt of gratitude for managing on a day-to-day basis not just isolated incidences such as last night’s, but a very difficult and challenging situation in our prisons.

I am grateful for the Minister’s confirmation that this was an isolated incident confined to one section of the prison and that the public were not at risk. Will he also confirm that the staffing level in that section of the prison was as normal?

I can confirm not only that there was a full regime but that the number of prison officer staff on the wing was as normal.

Andrea Albutt, president of the Prison Governors Association, said this week that our prisons were full to bursting. In the lowest-category prisons, will the Minister consider trying to deal with this overcrowding and reduce prison numbers safely and sensibly by introducing a presumption against short sentences, as has been successively implemented in Scotland?

That is a very interesting question. As a former Minister, the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is not for the Minister to pronounce on sentencing policy at the Dispatch Box. Of course, we want to reduce the prison population, but one of the best ways to do that is to reduce reoffending rates and to end the conveyor belt into crime by intervening before people end up in custody. That is more effective than arbitrarily letting people out of prison.

If the Minister wants a zero-tolerance approach, may I suggest he change the law so that anybody involved in riots in prisons or assaults or attacks on prison officers is no longer eligible for early release but has to serve the full sentence handed down by the courts? That would give prison officers some of the support they deserve and would perhaps act as a deterrent to these appalling kinds of behaviour.

My hon. Friend has asked this question of me a number of times. He will be aware that a prisoner who is a perpetrator of a crime in prison will be prosecuted for that specific crime and, if convicted, will serve that sentence, and that has certainly happened in the case of the perpetrators of the Birmingham riots last year. That is a fair and just way to deal with this kind of situation.

There is of course no procedural barrier to repeat questions, which many people regard as an example of dogged and insistent campaigning.

That was a really interesting answer, because the heroin dealer Ian Paul Manuel beat up prison officer Adam Jackson at Kirklevington prison in Stockton, and the courts gave him a conditional discharge and ordered him to pay £20 compensation to the officer. Does the Minister agree that such a slap on the wrist is totally inadequate, that it offers no deterrent at all to the thugs who turn on prison officers and that it is time the courts were given clear advice that they, too, have a responsibility to protect prison officers?

Absolutely: our prison officers do a very difficult and challenging job, and when they are assaulted or threatened at work, we should follow the course of the law to its full extent. To do that—[Interruption]—if the hon. Gentleman would listen—there are a number of things we need to get right, such as collecting evidence, making sure that the local police force is on hand to investigate the crime, and then getting the courts to prosecute it as they should. We are working to ensure that those procedures are followed, so that when a prison officer is assaulted in their line of work, the full force of the law is brought to bear on whoever the perpetrator is.

Clearly, the background to this disturbance will be investigated, but can the Minister outline what the Government are doing to prevent the use of drones to bring contraband into prisons?

Drones are an emerging and serious threat to our prisons, especially as they carry an increasing payload as they develop. We are working with a number of drone manufacturers to use technology to stop drones, but we are also focusing on the law enforcement aspect. Before I became the Prisons Minister, there had been only one conviction of a person flying a drone into a prison. This year alone there have been 11 convictions of people flying drones into prison. That is because we are working with the Home Office forensics team, examining drones that fail, going after the perpetrators through the forensic work we are doing and ensuring that they face the full force of the law. It has become apparent that those involved in serious and organised crime are often behind such activity, and we are sending a signal that we will go after them.

Will the Minister visit Amsterdam for a relaxing weekend, to study the special prison crisis they have in Holland, which is a lack of prisoners to fill their prisons? They have had to close 19 of them down. Will he examine the contrast between the intelligent, pragmatic policies on drugs of the Dutch over the last 50 years and the harsh, unintelligent policies that we have had in this country? The Government there have shown a welcome desire to reflect on the failed drug policies here and introduce new measures that reflect the reality of the situation, in having drug houses that can be used and possibly looking again at imprisoning people for using the medicine of their choice. Is it not time we decided who has got it right over the last five years: the Netherlands or us?

I think the Government Whips would be slightly concerned if I accepted another invitation to go abroad to visit prisons, but the substance of the hon. Gentleman’s point is very interesting when it comes to dealing with people who are on drugs in prison. It is about dealing with the supply side and the demand side, but also getting people off drugs. Holland clearly has a very different approach to its prison system. As I have said in relation to Scotland, I am willing to learn from all different jurisdictions to see how we can improve what we are doing here.

Does the Minister intend to make extra resources or help available to prison governors at high-security prisons, to ensure that our prisons are calm and well controlled?

Our high-security estate does not lack the resources that it needs for the purposes of security or maintaining a regime. In fact, such prisons have higher staffing ratios because of the difficult people with whom they deal. Of course, if situations change and they need more staff or any other resources to cope with that, such resources will always be available.

The Minister simply cannot pretend that we will not see further outbreaks of this kind of rioting in our prisons, and he cannot pretend that prisons are not in any case regularly very violent places. As long as we have overcrowded prisons and too few staff, these events will continue to take place. The Minister must look seriously at non-custodial options for the courts when it comes to low-level criminals for whom such options would be more effective, as well as being cheaper. Why is that not already being done?

I am not suggesting for a second that such incidents will not be repeated. We try to mitigate and manage risk, but there is always a chance that something like this could happen again. As I have said, what is happening in the high-security estate is a rare occurrence. Of course, as I have also said, the level of violence in our prisons is too high, but dealing with the issues that have led to the current situation—drones, drugs and illegal mobile phones—will take time. We are investing in staff and our intelligence network; we are working on drone detection equipment; and we are working on mobile-phone blockers, but there is no silver bullet to deal with the issue in our prisons, and doing so will take time.

No one here is saying that this will not happen again. We must all be frank with ourselves: prisons are difficult places with some very difficult people to manage, and because of the particular set of circumstances that we face, it will take time to resolve the situation.

Of course it is of concern that an event like this should take place at a high-security prison. However, if there is one conclusion we can draw, surely it is that the method of dealing with such events that is available to the Minister through the Tornado team is effective when tested, which, in itself, should give the public some reassurance.

That is an excellent point. The Tornado teams are the bravest of the brave. As we saw last night, they deal with some of the most difficult situations, and the fact that they can be mobilised relatively quickly to arrive at a prison and offer support to its frontline staff is testimony to their effectiveness and professionalism. Of course we would prefer not to have to deploy them, but when there are problems and a need to protect the public and prison officers and maintain stability and order in our prisons, they are second to none.

The Minister says that the Government are investing in increasing prison officer numbers, but they are only doing so after slashing funding and causing the problem in the first place. They are only 868 officers into their 2,500 target, but in any event, given an increase of more than 1,300 in the prison population in England and Wales, is 2,500 enough?

The 2,500 target is obviously based on careful analysis of what we need to deliver the offender management model, which means one prison officer having a six-prisoner caseload, and it should be capable of allowing us to do so.

I am grateful to the Minister for mentioning the measures that have been taken to tackle drugs in prisons, which are of particular concern. Will he update the House on the measures that are being taken to deal with new psychoactive substances, which have added an extra layer to the problem?

New psychoactive substances are a game-changer. They are particularly difficult to detect. There have been instances of letters to prisoners being impregnated with them: looking at such a letter makes it possible to inhale the drug and to suffer the adverse consequences.

We have trained 300 sniffer dogs to help us with detection, and the UK is the first jurisdiction to develop a test for such drugs. We are redoubling our efforts to deal with the supply side by increasing investment in intelligence. We are investing £3 million, not just at establishment level but across the prison estate, so that we can deal with what is essentially a product of serious and organised crime. People want to get drugs into our prisons because they sell at a higher mark-up: 10 times the price outside.

I fear the Minister might have misunderstood the situation described earlier by the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey), because the main difference in Scottish Government policy has not been to suddenly release prisoners early; it has been to give the courts a way of sentencing and punishing low-level offenders without sending them to prison in the first place. Every Member in this House representing a Scottish constituency has seen significant community benefit work carried out in the local area by people who would otherwise have been in prison. I hope the Minister accepts the invitation to meet Scottish Ministers to talk about the investment programme, and I urge him to also speak to others involved in the justice and prison system in Scotland and find out that—although I appreciate this would be a difficult decision for a Conservative Government to take—moving to a presumption against short sentences reduces offending.

No one could accuse the hon. Gentleman of excluding any consideration that might in any way at any time to any degree be judged material in his question.

I fully understood the question posed by the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey). Would we rather have a situation in which interventions in the community work and people do not end up in custody? Of course, yes. Would we rather invest there before people ended up in custody? Of course, yes. In this country we have a presumption against custody, but after several repeat offences, judges have no choice but to send a person into custody. That means we have obviously got to improve the work that happens in our community, but we cannot arbitrarily let people out of prison, which is what I assume the question of the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) to be about.

Will my hon. Friend update the House not on his aim but on the actual latest recruitment figures for prison officers and explain how that will help improve safety and security in these troublesome areas?

The 868 net new prison officers is not an aim: these are people who have been trained, who are on the payroll and who are being deployed on wings as we speak. We are on track to deliver the target of 2,500; the commitment is do that by the end of next year. We are making rapid progress, but there is still a long way to go in bringing stability and order to our prisons overall.

I rise as co-chair of the justice unions cross-party group. We all know that the numbers of assaults on prison staff have reached an all-time high in recent months. The Minister has sung the praises of the recruitment drive for new prison officers, but will he explain how new raw recruits are being prepared to cope with the frankly lethal results of long-term cuts in English and Welsh prisons?

We have some excellent trainees coming into the Prison Service. For example, one trainee I met had spent seven years in the NHS and was being deployed in HMP Woodhill, a prison where there have been high rates of self-harm and also self-inflicted deaths. That person is more experienced in dealing with the problems that prison is facing today than many who have been in the Prison Service for a long time. These are not raw recruits; in some cases, they are bringing new experience to the Prison Service. In the second world war, someone could be a bomber pilot at the age of 20, so I think someone can serve in the Prison Service at the age of 21 as well.

If we want to significantly reduce the number of foreign nationals in our prisons, we need compulsory prisoner transfer agreements in place with countries around the world, so that these people are sent back to serve their sentence in prison in their own country—rather than being sent back when they have served the sentence already in this country.

I understand that about half the foreign nationals in our prisons are EU nationals. While we are a member of the EU, we are meant to be under the prisoner transfer directive. How many EU national prisoners have been sent back to the EU countries they came from?

I do not have that exact figure to hand but am willing to write to my hon. Friend with the answer.

This month the inspectorate reported that there was a major under-prescription of methadone at Low Moss prison near my constituency and also of the anti-overdose drug naloxone. Will the Minister consider the impact that the under-prescribing of these critical drugs may have on the safety of the prison population?

If the hon. Gentleman is willing to write to me, I will be happy to look at that specific situation; it sounds as though it is a situation specific to that prison.