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Prisons: Violence

Volume 654: debated on Tuesday 5 February 2019

The scourge of violence in prisons must be tackled. To do this, we need to get the basics right. We have strengthened the frontline with more than 4,300 new staff so that we can run full, purposeful regimes, and we have moved to a new key worker model to support prisoners. We are also supporting prisoners with measures to tackle drugs and to make the physical environment in prisons decent and safe.

We know that a positive working relationship between staff and prisoners is key to running safe, decent prisons. Will my right hon. Friend tell us more about what is being done to improve the relationship between staff and prisoners?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to the work that she does in this area. I know that she is a frequent visitor to Chelmsford prison in her capacity as its constituency MP. In fact, I understand that she might almost have her own cell there, such is the regularity of her visits. She highlights the important relationship between prison officers and prisoners. We are introducing the key workers programme across the prison estate, and the early signs are that it is making a positive difference in terms of relationships and of reducing violence. There is more work that we need to do, but I am pleased that we are able to do that and to ensure that prison officers get the training they need to make best use of it.

Out-of-control drug use in prisons fuels violence. Yesterday I met the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), the Health Minister who is dealing with this issue. I want to know what more can be done both before a prisoner enters the prison system and afterwards, as well as how we can ensure that during that crucial period when he—it is usually a “he”—is in there, he can have proper drug rehab so that his time in prison is not wasted.

The hon. Lady makes an important point. We have formed a drugs taskforce and we are working with law enforcement and with health partners across Government to restrict supply, reduce demand and build recovery. The taskforce is developing a national drug strategy, which will provide all prisons with guidance and examples of best practice to support them in tackling drugs. I should also point out that we are investing £6 million in 10 of the most challenging prisons to tackle drug supply and reduce demand. There is a greater focus on drug detection, on dedicated search teams, on body scanners and on improved perimeter defences.

Purposeful activity for prisoners is vital to encouraging rehabilitation and reducing volatility in our jails. What steps are being taken to drive down the number of prisoners who are locked up for 23 hours a day, which does not help to bring about peace in our prisons?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The additional 4,300 prison officers will help to ensure that we can do this. A particular area on which I have been keen to focus is the education and employment strategy, which will ensure that we provide those prisoners who are prepared to take responsibility with the opportunity to educate and prepare themselves for the world of work. I am very keen that we should continue to do that.

We found out from the Secretary of State’s Department last week the alarming fact that 51% of our youth offenders now come from a black minority or ethnic background. That puts us in a worse position than the United States. Given that context in our prisons, will he revisit my review, and may I meet him urgently to discuss how we can accelerate progress?

I am grateful for that question, and I would be happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman. I know he regularly meets the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), on this subject. I am also concerned about the proportion of BAME children in custody, which is something we take very seriously. My Department has introduced a dedicated team within the youth justice policy unit with a key focus on explaining or changing disproportionate outcomes for BAME children in the justice system.

The Justice Secretary has been in post for just over a year. In that time, every set of prison safety figures has shown violence spiralling out of control. In January 2018, assaults were up 12% year on year, reaching new record highs. In April 2018, assaults were up 13%, reaching new record highs. In October 2018, assaults were up 20%, reaching new record highs. And last week we saw yet more record highs—a record high for assaults on staff, a record high for prisoner-on-prisoner violence and a record high for self-harm. Does he agree that his Government have lost control of violence in our prisons? When will they get a grip?

Clearly, the figures set out last week, which relate to what was happening in July, August and September 2018, are not acceptable and we need to bring those numbers down. That is why we have increased the number of prison officer staff, it is why we are focusing on purposeful activity and it is why we are taking steps to reduce both the supply and the demand for drugs. We are seeing some encouraging signs, but I do not want to make too much of that as yet. We need to wait to see the numbers in April, when we will have details about the last quarter of 2018. I am beginning to feel that we have turned the corner, that the additional staff are making a difference and that the measures we are taking are making a difference, but I fully accept that much work still needs to be done.