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Violence in Prisons

Volume 658: debated on Tuesday 23 April 2019

I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing our deep horror at the recent attack against a prison officer in Nottingham prison. It is completely horrifying to see this happen. It must not happen again. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to our prison officers for the work they do in very difficult circumstances keeping us safe. There are three main things we can do to stop this kind of thing happening again. We need to improve perimeter security, which means really searching people for weapons and drugs at the gate; we need to make sure that the conditions in the prison are decent and work; and, above all, we need to provide the training and support for prison officers to have the right kind of relationships with prisoners whereby things like this do not occur again.

My hon. Friend the Minister vowed that if prison violence did not decrease, he would resign. I, for one, think that we have seen too many members of the Government resign. Could he give us an update on his own ambitions to stay in post?

As some people in the House will be aware, I promised to reduce violence in 10 key challenge prisons over a 12-month period. At the moment, the figures are looking reasonably positive. In other words, it looks as though, in the majority of these prisons, violence is coming down so hon. Members may be in the unfortunate position of still having me at this Dispatch Box in a few months’ time.

As the Minister mentioned, on Sunday 14 April a prison officer at my local prison in Nottingham had his throat slashed with a razor by a prisoner in what his union calls a cowardly, unprovoked act. According to doctors, this young public servant—a brave man in his early 20s—came within millimetres of losing his life. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to this prison officer and to his thousands of colleagues facing this sort of violence every day, and does he agree with the union—the Prison Officers Association—that this ought to be treated as an attempted murder?

I absolutely agree that these are extraordinary public servants. This is a horrifying and completely unacceptable act. We need to punish the person who did it, and we need to punish them properly. At the moment, the charge that is being brought forward carries the maximum life sentence, as it should, but there is more that we can do. That includes body-worn cameras, the rolling out of PAVA spray and ensuring we have enough officers on the landings, which is why I am pleased that we now have the highest number of prison officers at any date since 2012.

Would there not be less violence in our prisons if there was a relentless focus from the first day in prison on getting prisoners work on release? We could do that by combining training in prison with employer and college support on release.

This is not an either/or. We have to be confident and practical about doing two things at the same time. Controlling prisons—these include some quite dangerous individuals—involves serious measures on searching people for drugs and weapons, but it also involves treating people like humans and turning their lives around, because that is the way we protect the public from the misery of crime through reoffending when these individuals are released from prison.

In the light of the recent disturbances among 16 and 17-year-olds at Feltham young offenders institution, is the Minister aware of the previous episodes of violence at the prison, which were attributed to the lack of education and training facilities, 23-hour confinement in cells and the mixing of remand and convicted prisoners? Why do lessons appear not to have been learned?

A lot of lessons have been learned since that initial event, but the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; there was a very disturbing event two weeks ago. The basic challenge, as he will be aware, is getting the balance right between ensuring that people are motivated and focused on the regime and that there are high expectations around prisoners and prison officers. To some extent, it is like running a very difficult school, particularly when we are dealing with 16 to 18-year-olds. It is a mixture of being strict on the one hand and loving on the other that is the key to a good prison.

Does the Minister agree with his party’s former long-serving Secretary of State, Sir Malcolm Rifkind—a self-confessed true believer in privatisation—who wrote recently in the Financial Times:

“The physical deprivation of a citizen’s liberty should not be the responsibility of a private company or of its employees”?

Does the Minister accept that the renationalisation of HMP Birmingham heralds the end of his Government’s failed prison privatisation agenda?

I respectfully disagree with Sir Malcolm on this issue. It was absolutely right to take Birmingham back in hand, because that prison was not performing properly. On the other hand, the same company is running some very good prisons in Oakwood, Altcourse and Parc. It is doing good things on family work and on technology. Private sector prisons are often among the safer local prisons in terms of assaults per 1,000. We are not ideological on this. The private sector can certainly play a role.