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Covid-19: Prison Staff and Prisoners

Volume 675: debated on Monday 27 April 2020

What steps he is taking to ensure the safety of (a) prison staff and (b) prisoners during the covid-19 outbreak. (901940)

What steps he is taking to help prevent the transmission of covid-19 among (a) prison staff and (b) prisoners. (901961)

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all our prison and probation staff for the outstanding work that they are doing on a daily basis. They are some of our hidden heroes.

We are working very closely with Public Health England to ensure that our approach is based on the best scientific advice available. We are putting in place a number of measures to ensure that the regime in prisons satisfies requirements for social distancing, shielding and household isolation. We are also working with providers to ensure the supply of PPE for staff and ramping up staff testing.

I thank the Minister for her answer. In relation to the comments made earlier by the Secretary of State, will the Minister acknowledge that there can be a difference between what the Minister is told and how officers on the ground feel about access to PPE—not only quantity, but quality? Certainly, prison officers at Wandsworth are telling me that they are concerned about both those issues, together with having the facilities for putting on their uniform at the beginning of the day and taking it off at the end to keep themselves safe.

I appreciate it is very important to get a view from the ground as well as to understand what is said by officials. As the Secretary of State has already identified, we are confident in our supplies of PPE, except in relation to coveralls, of which we have a flight coming in from China this week. I do regularly speak to a large number of people in relation to a vast number of issues—from the unions to prison group directors and those who work in the sector—to try to ensure that we get an overall picture of what is happening on the ground.

There is grave concern about the potential transmission of covid-19 among both prisoners and prison staff. Organisations such as the Prison Governors Association, the Howard League and the Prison Reform Trust are all urging the Government to go further and faster in reducing the prison population. Will the Government consider urgently ending overcrowding by releasing prisoners who are on short-term sentences and suspending any new short sentences to slow the spread of covid-19?

As the Secretary of State has outlined, we have a many-pronged approach to ensuring that we reduce the headroom in the estate. We are, as the Secretary of State mentioned, following Public Health England advice, which is that we have to reduce the headroom, and we are on track to do that by a variety of means, including release, natural reduction in the population and additional accommodation on our prison estate. That is not all we are looking at, though. The hon. Member mentioned short sentences; we have done a considerable amount of work to ensure that people do not come into prisons unnecessarily. We are looking at people on remand and trying to ensure that those who are on remand and have served their sentence have their court hearing quickly. It is about ensuring that we have good mechanisms in respect of bail and good offers in relation to non-custodial orders. We have a variety of work strands and are looking at all such issues carefully.