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Volume 675: debated on Monday 27 April 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Covid-19: Prisons

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.

Public Protection from Serious Offenders

Protecting the public is the primary duty of any Government and we have acted swiftly to stop the most serious offenders being released halfway through their sentence. Our recent changes mean that anyone given a standard determinate sentence of seven years or more for the most serious sexual or violent offences must spend two thirds of that term in prison. We have passed legislation which means that terrorist offenders will no longer be released early without Parole Board approval and not before the two-thirds point of their sentence.

All too often, we hear that the time offenders spend in prison simply does not reflect the severity of the crimes they commit. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to restore confidence in the criminal justice system among victims and the wider general public?

I have outlined one measure that we have taken. It came into force on 1 April, but that is just the first step, because we will also be bringing forward a sentencing White Paper, which will include further proposals to deal with serious violent and sexual offenders, and we will be introducing further terrorist legislation to ensure that the most serious and dangerous terrorist offenders spend longer in prison and face tougher licence conditions.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Many of the serious offences are occurring within people’s families. We know that this is a Government who care about domestic violence because tomorrow the Domestic Abuse Bill comes in for its Second Reading, but since the lockdown, arrests for domestic violence have increased by 25%. We know that in the first two weeks of the lockdown, 14 women and two children have been murdered in their families. I know that when the coronavirus made its way towards our shores, the Secretary of State and his team and Department started making preparations for a strategy to keep people safe in their homes. Can he tell the House how successful he believes that strategy has been, and what he will be doing in the next few weeks to keep people safe that was not happening in the last few weeks?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and welcome him to his new position. I am sure he will be taking a keen interest in tomorrow’s debate on the Domestic Abuse Bill, which I shall be leading for the Government. He will be glad to know that, as a result of the recent announcements on the £5 billion covid-19 fund and the £750 million support for charities, we have already made available about £600,000 of funding to be used for the expansion and national roll-out of digital and helpline services. I take his point about the number of cases being pursued. I am glad to note that the police are pursuing these cases, and we are already talking directly with them to ensure that our courts system can deal with those cases expeditiously and that victims can be supported. This is a tough time for victims of domestic abuse, and we are there for them. “You are not alone” is the message that we have to send, time and again, to give them the support that they deserve.

Covid-19: Crown Prosecution Service

What steps he is taking with the Attorney General to ensure the continued operation of the Crown Prosecution Service during the covid-19 outbreak. (901939)

Covid-19 poses an unprecedented challenge to our criminal justice system, but I am pleased to say that we have successfully implemented contingency plans, including in the CPS and our criminal courts, to ensure that justice continues to be administered. Important hearings such as custody cases continue to happen. We have consolidated physical hearings into a smaller number of open courts and introduced additional measures to make them clean and safe. I am in regular contact with my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General and the national Criminal Justice Board, which has set up a strategic command to oversee our response to covid-19.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his answer. Across both England and Wales and in Scotland, private companies such as GEOAmey work in close proximity to and with the CPS and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service to provide vital court services. What discussions have gone on and, indeed, what work has been done to ensure that employees working for those companies have the correct PPE, so that they can continue to do their work as safely as possible, which is vital to ensure that our justice system can continue to function?

I thank my hon. Friend. He of course knows that the GEOAmey contract in Scotland is managed entirely by the Scottish Government, but we recognise how vital it is for all frontline staff to be supplied with PPE. Arrangements are in place, for the management and movement of any prisoner who is suspected or confirmed as having covid-19, to make sure that PPE is available for those responsible. In England and Wales, HMPPS is supporting GEOAmey in its procurement of PPE, and PECS—prisoner escort and custody services—contractors are able to access the various HMPPS hubs around the country to collect additional equipment, as required.

Gwent police are hard at work, I know, in tackling criminality, including domestic violence, but with the lockdown added to the existing backlog in our court system, the people they arrest now might not be brought to court for many months and may go on to commit other crimes, so will the Secretary of State be specific about how we are going to speed up the justice system?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. She will be glad to know that daily work is going on between my officials and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, the senior judiciary and the senior magistracy to make sure that we can progress more cases through both the magistrates and the Crown courts. Of immediate importance are magistrates court hearings: I want to see more of them come forward. We can do a lot of them virtually, and I know that the work being done by my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime and Policing, together with my Department, will help improve the speed of the delivery of these important cases.

Covid-19: Prison Staff and Prisoners

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.