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Violence in Prisons

Volume 656: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2019

In order to tackle violence in prisons, we first have to make sure that drugs and weapons are not getting into prisons. We need more prison officers, which is why we are pleased that we now have 4,700 more prison officers in place. We also need to invest much more in staff training and support. In the end, the key to reducing violence is good relationships between prison officers and prisoners.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Clearly, preventing violence in prisons is a priority, so, to that end, will he update us on what plans he has to increase searches of cells and wings?

This is absolutely central. Getting on top of cell searching—making sure that we understand what is in a cell, what should not be in a cell, getting the mobile phones and getting the drugs—is vital to having the baseline for a safe prison, so we are investing in more dog teams, in more mobile phone detection equipment and in dedicated search teams across the estate.

In the past eight years 7,000 prison officers have been lost. That means that there is still a deficit, on the Minister’s own figures, of 2,300, with attacks on officers going through the roof. At what point will the number of officers rise to the level where safety is assured?

We believe that the current number of 4,700 is the appropriate number that we require—in particular, because it allows us to deliver the key worker system. We continue to use operational support grade staff on perimeter security. We think this is the right balance.

In order to better support our prison officers, I have suggested that anybody who is found guilty of assaulting a prison officer should lose their right to automatic early release from prison. Will the Minister take on board that suggestion?

We believe that the appropriate response to someone assaulting a prison officer is to work with the Crown Prosecution Service and the police to prosecute them. That is why we are pleased that we have doubled the maximum sentence for anyone assaulting a prison officer, and we are working much more closely to increase the number of prosecutions and the sentences for those who break the law against people we should protect.

I spent yesterday on D and F wings in HM Prison Swansea, and I was told time and again, including by the dedicated search team, that the prison desperately needs a body scanner to reduce the incidence of drugs arriving there. What are the Minister’s plans to roll out body scanners to the entire prison estate?

Body scanners can be very useful, particularly in local prisons where prisoners are coming in and out a great deal. They are very expensive bits of kit to not only install but manage, and they have medical implications; they can be used safely perhaps 50 times in a year. We are conducting a pilot with 14 X-ray scanners across the estate. Once we have looked at the evidence and convinced ourselves that that is the best way of doing it, we will move forward and prioritise local prisons in that roll-out.

Inexperienced prison officers, poor conditions and more time being spent in cells contribute to violence in prisons. What steps are being taken to address those factors?

In terms of inexperienced prison officers, it is about longer training courses and better mentoring on the wings, with band 4 officers in particular working day in, day out with new staff. In terms of time out of cells, this is why having 4,700 more staff is really important—it allows us to unlock people more and get back to a regime that allows people to get into education and work and protects the public.

The point that the Minister conveniently misses is that frontline prison officer resignations have more than tripled since 2010, and now one in three officers has less than two years’ experience, as the Minister fails to get a grip on a retention crisis caused by years of relentless cuts. Does he really think that this exodus of experienced staff will keep prisons safe, as assaults and violence rise to record levels?

There are two separate things here. The shadow Minister is correct that experienced staff are vital, but it is also worth bearing in mind that one reason why there are so many new staff is that we have recruited 4,700 additional officers; by definition, many of them will be new. Retention is vital. The development of the advanced prison officer grade, which allows experienced closed grade officers to move from band 3 to band 4, will be very important in stabilising prisons.