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Covid-19: Prisons

Volume 675: debated on Monday 27 April 2020

We have taken significant and unprecedented action during this very difficult period to save lives and to protect the NHS. We know that further progress is needed if we are to continue to strike a balance between limiting the spread of covid-19 and protecting the public. We have restricted regimes in prisons and minimised inter-prison transfers to reduce the spread of the virus, and we are implementing units to protect the sick, to shield the vulnerable and to cohort new arrivals to reduce risk. There are positive signs that our carefully implemented approach is limiting the impact of this initial phase of the pandemic. The number of cases and deaths is much lower than originally predicted, but we will continue to do everything possible to ensure that that remains the case.

Prison officers, including those from Havant, are working on the frontline to tackle covid-19 on the prison estate. Can my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that they have the right protective clothing and equipment to keep them safe?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Indeed, we continue to focus effort on ensuring that we have an adequate supply of personal protective equipment in all its forms and reliable supply chains too. Our reporting shows that we have a sufficient level of supply to meet our current forecast demand position on most items, including aprons, eye protection, gloves, masks and hand sanitiser. We have stock of most of those items in the tens of thousands, with further deliveries scheduled to allow us to meet forecast demand. We are currently running low, however, on coveralls, where there is a shortfall in the low thousands. We have a large delivery on order, and it is expected this week or next.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. The feedback that I am receiving from officers working in prisons in Suffolk and Norfolk is that social distancing guidelines are not being adhered to and that there is a limited amount of PPE, with a notable absence of face masks. Can he assure the House that he will work with prison officers and their representatives to address those understandable worries?

My hon. Friend can be assured that my officials work closely with the Prison Officers Association. The restricted regimes we have put in place mean that prisoners are spending more of their time in their cells, to support social distancing. When they are allowed out of their cells—for example, for exercise, association or showering—it is on a rota basis, in small, manageable groups supervised by officers, allowing for social distancing to be maintained. The message to stick to the guidance is being reinforced through gold command as part of the command and control structures that now operate right across our prison estate, and we are reinforcing that message through a range of activity—for example, via posters and prison radio.

While most prisons are taking every precaution to prevent the spread of covid-19, union sources report that some rogue governors are attempting to return to business-as-usual practices, such as unlocking large numbers of prisoners and restarting training courses. Does the Secretary of State condemn that reckless behaviour and agree that all governors should be following official guidance, without exception?

The hon. Lady is right to point out the danger of over-enthusiasm going ahead of the guidance. It is clear that the work that has been done by governors, staff and, indeed, the prisoners themselves in our institutions has helped to minimise the sort of explosive outbreak that we were quite rightly worried about. My advice—my instruction—to everybody involved in this is to stick to the guidelines. We are not in a position yet to change that regime. Please follow the guidelines that have been set out clearly by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service.

Tomorrow the nation will mark International Workers’ Memorial Day with a minute’s silence, to pay tribute to workers—including prison officers —who have lost their lives while protecting us. Will the Secretary of State join me in recognising the dedication and sacrifice of our prison staff and thank them for performing a vital public service while putting their own health and safety at risk?

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding the House and the country of the sacrifice made by many dedicated public workers, including our incredible prison staff. I will be speaking again to the Prison Officers Association later this afternoon to extend my continued thanks to them and their members for their dedication. I pay tribute to those who are unwell and I remember those members of our prison and probation service who have sadly died because of covid-19.

I know that all members of the Select Committee will wish to associate themselves with the Secretary of State’s tribute to prison staff and their work.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that although the rates of infection are mercifully much lower than expected and anticipated—we are glad of that—very great strain is none the less being placed particularly upon overcrowded, older and Victorian and local prisons, which are frequently carrying far more prisoners than they were intended for? Will he confirm that the Government will use all measures, including, where appropriate, targeted early release, to meet our legal responsibilities in domestic and European law to protect the welfare of prisoners in the state’s custody and that of staff employed to carry out their duties in safeguarding those prisoners?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, for pointing out the vital importance of maintaining HMPPS’s current approach of making sure we do not end up with explosive outbreaks of covid-19 on the estate. He is right to point out the early release scheme. It is but a part of a co-ordinated strategy that has included the compartmentalisation of prisoners to prevent the seeding and feeding of the infection, and that, together with the increased capacity we are developing at pace, plus a reduction in the overall number of prisoners in the estate, has helped us reach a position where, while we are not out of the woods, we are coping and dealing well with the threat of covid-19.

I am very grateful, Mr Speaker. It is nice to be back.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving me two detailed briefings since I took office. He announced on 4 April—coincidentally, the day the Labour party elected a new leader—that he wanted to introduce a release scheme for up to 4,000 prisoners. Can he update the House on how many prisoners have been released and how many prison officers and staff and prisoners have sadly lost their lives?

First, I welcome the right hon. Gentleman back to the Front Bench and congratulate him on his new position. I am grateful to him for his engagement with me, and I will indeed, on his invitation, update the House first on the confirmed cases. These figures are accurate as of 5 pm on Saturday. On the number of confirmed deaths, sadly five members of prison staff have died as a result of the virus, and we have 15 confirmed prisoner deaths. On the number of confirmed cases, there are 321 among prisoners and 293 among prison staff.

On early release, progress has, I admit, been careful and slow, but we have reached a position now where, also taking into account the release of pregnant women, a total of 33 prisoners have been released. The right hon. Gentleman will know that I did not embark upon this scheme lightly. It is the result of a very careful risk assessment to minimise the risk to the public, and of course it is coupled with the increase in prison capacity of about 3,000, which to my judgment and that of those who advise me is already making a big difference in creating the space we need to increase compartmentalisation and reduce the spread of the virus.

With just 33 released out of up to 4,000, the Secretary of State will recognise that, under the restrictive regime he talked about, prisoners cannot be kept in their cells for 23 hours a day, which puts prison staff at risk, never mind potentially seriously breaching important human rights. What is his exit strategy in terms of tracing, upping testing and moving back to a degree of order in our prisons, without which we could see rising tensions across the country?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that that is very much on my mind every day. I view the strategy as a long-term one. As conditions change in the community, the pressure will be on within the prison estate to do similar. I think that prisoners have so far understood and been brought with us in terms of the need to isolate. Our policy of compartmentalisation—which, do not forget, is not yet fully complete across the estate—will allow us the space and the room to accommodate the needs of prisoners even more widely. That policy, together with the progressive reduction in the overall number of people in the male estate in particular, will have the cumulative effect that the right hon. Gentleman wants to see, and that we all want to see, over the next several months.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor assure me and the House that all prison officers and staff who have required a covid-19 test have been able to access one in a timely fashion? Are those prison officers and staff being prioritised for the home testing kits?

My hon. Friend knows that prison staff were made a priority by my colleague the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, and I am grateful to him for that. That of course includes probation staff. In addition, HMPPS was invited to use some of the available NHS testing capacity for our prison and approved premises staff, and that is prior to the full roll-out plan. Over the past two weeks, we have referred more than 2,000 staff for testing, to which hundreds have already had direct access. We will continue to work with the DHSC to ensure that all our key workers have access to testing of all appropriate types as the weeks go ahead. Recalling the question by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), that will, I hope, extend to prisoners, too, when we have that capacity.

May I join others in welcoming the shadow Justice Secretary to his place?

The suspension of prison visits during the current crisis affects not just the welfare of prisoners but also their families and loved ones, who have of course been guilty of no criminality. The Scottish Government have committed to providing every prisoner in Scotland with a mobile phone that will be locked so as to enable outgoing calls to approved numbers only. Will the Ministry of Justice be able to match that commitment for every prisoner in England and Wales?

The hon. and learned Lady is absolutely correct to talk about the need for contact with families. I am pleased to say that as a result of investment that we have made, we have rolled out even more direct access to telephones across the prison estate in England and Wales. Wherever possible, we have—with controls, of course—issued telephones in-cell or very close to the cell that can be used safely by the prisoner. We have also provided £5 free PIN credit per week for every prisoner, whcih allows for approximately 60 minutes of free calls.

The Government announced recently that key workers would be tested for covid-19, and I am delighted to hear that the Secretary of State is making it a priority that prison officers will be tested. Can he confirm that this will be extended to members of the family who might also be symptomatic for covid-19, and will he make that a key priority for his Department?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and she is right to remind us that many prison officers are unable to go to work because they are in households where people might be symptomatic. Having said that, the current attendance figures for prison officers at work are outstanding, and fortunately we have only about 12% or 13% who are unable to come into work for covid-related reasons. That is once again a reason to thank them for their service. I note my hon. Friend’s point, and I would hope and expect to see more help given to households where we desperately need the public service worker to come in and help.