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Prisons in Wales

Volume 741: debated on Wednesday 29 November 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered prisons in Wales.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Cadeirydd—thank you very much, Mr Gray. I am pleased to have secured this debate, which is based on a report by the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University. I sincerely thank colleagues at the university, the justice unions and the probation development group for their contributions. I must put on the record my role as joint chair of the justice unions parliamentary group.

Dr Robert Jones of the Wales Governance Centre has told us time and again that Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe. Nothing has changed in the latest set of figures, and I think that matters. When offenders leave prison, they return to our communities, and the criminal justice system has a duty of care to everyone in those communities to reduce reoffending and ensure that returned ex-offenders are healthier and better able to find work, and that they are released from prison to somewhere with a roof over their heads. Too often—I have come across constituents in this situation—ex-offenders are released to live in tents, cars and vans. I think we know how ineffective that is in helping people to rehabilitate and in the prevention of reoffending.

Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in the UK, in terms of both in-country and home-address rates. In-country means, of course, those who are held within the borders of a country. In September this year, 177 people were held in prison within the borders of Wales for every 100,000 of the population. By contrast, the number is 146 in England and Scotland and 100 in Northern Ireland, so there is a striking difference across the four nations of the United Kingdom. It is also striking that we have the England and Wales jurisdiction; in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the management of justice and offenders is devolved.

I commend the right hon. Lady for securing this debate. I spoke to her beforehand, and although I know the debate is about the prison system in Wales, she gave some stats for Northern Ireland. I understand what she is going to ask for, so may I, through her, ask the Minister for whatever is done in Wales to be done in Northern Ireland? I know he is always responsive to requests, and it is important that we have co-ordination of legal systems across the whole of the United Kingdom.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I take the opportunity to welcome the Minister to his place. This may well be his first debate, but I imagine we will be debating issues relating to prisons and to Wales, of course, in the future.

I mentioned the in-country rate, because we know that many prisoners from England are present in Wales. I will come back to that. It is also interesting that per 100,000 of the population, there are 151 people with addresses in Wales in prison, whether in Wales or England, compared with 134 in England. That matters. Something is going on in Wales, and the England and Wales way of approaching justice does not reveal it or seem to be solving it.

The average number of people held in the Welsh prison estate—that is, the five prisons of Berwyn, Cardiff, Parc, Swansea and, considered together, Usk and Prescoed—surpassed 5,000 for the first time in 2022. Berwyn almost surpassed 2,000 for the first time, and answers to my written parliamentary questions show that 2,000 is Berwyn’s operational capacity. I know from contacts there that it is not full; it would be, but there are cells that have been trashed and have not been fixed. Those are the sorts of numbers we are talking about.

Such overcrowding brings problems. There are legitimate safety concerns, including problems relating to prescription and illicit drugs, and failures to provide basic medical care. The number of assaults in the first six months of 2023 were higher year on year—

I thank the right hon. Member for securing such an important debate, which concerns an issue that I have spent a lot of time looking at since my election. I have especially looked at the physical and mental health and wellbeing of prisoners. Does she agree that the provision of healthcare to prisoners in Welsh prisons is inadequate, and that that has resulted in a number of avoidable fatalities? I call on the Minister to deal with that; it is a UK issue that affects Welsh prisoners.

That is exactly why it is important that we have the data that allows us to scrutinise what is happening in Wales, which appears to be different from what is happening in England. We have higher numbers of prisoners and, as I will return to, not surprisingly, Wales operates in a social policy context that is different from that anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Health, housing and much of the social policy framework have been devolved since 1999. This is not just a constitutional anomaly; it is affecting outcomes for offenders in prisons. I emphasise that that then affects our communities: people return from prison to communities in Wales, and if they return less healthy, less able to work and without a roof over their heads, the likelihood of reoffending appears to be higher, as we see from some of the crime figures.

Staff retention is a significant problem in Berwyn. Staff from other prisons as far afield as Swansea and Hull are sent there to make up for recruitment short- falls. Detached duty, as that is known, is expensive and is not a long-term answer. The officers do not know the prisoners they are working with; it is just a matter of people making up the numbers. That is not a sustainable solution, and unless we draw attention to it we will not find a solution.

Staff also complain of an experience gap, because more experienced staff are exhausted and burnt out. Let us recall that the Professional Trades Union for Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers has long said that 68 is too late for officers to retire. We lose people because they cannot take it any more.

Just as Berwyn staff are brought in from everywhere else, so too are the prisoners. Berwyn was meant to serve local populations, including, fairly enough, the north-west of England. We were told that was the intention at the time. However, Berwyn has housed prisoners from 75 English local authorities since it opened in 2017, and 62% of the population came from outside of Wales in 2022. For women, the opposite is true: in December 2022, Welsh women were held in 11 of the 12 women’s prisons in England, and were on average—it would be far further from my constituency—101 miles away from home.

The situation of women is particularly acute. Until 2018, I think, there was no provision whatsoever, so women from Wales are housed in Staffordshire, Gloucestershire and elsewhere. The principle should be that prison is punishment—the punishment is not being able to leave at the end of the afternoon—but it should not be for punishment. Many women from Wales and their families are suffering a double penalty because they are held so far away.

Yes, indeed. Of course, the residential women’s centre in Swansea was first mooted in 2018, but it has yet to arrive. We have concerns about the exact nature of the services: will it effectively be just another prison, or will it be equipped to make a real difference to the lives of women?

Welsh women prisoners are on average 101 miles from home, which makes it difficult for them to maintain contact with families, children and support networks, as well as creating issues related to housing and work upon release. Welsh men struggle with issues including identity, discrimination and access to the Welsh language in jails, and Welsh women have their own distinct set of issues.

As 74% of all women sentenced to immediate custody were given sentences of 12 months or less, and one in five given one month or less, there is a real need to consider these issues and opt for alternatives to custody for low-level, non-violent crimes. When I was in Styal in May, I saw in reception that a woman had been admitted to the prison from Wales on the Friday before a May bank holiday, and was due to be released on the Tuesday. What good was that going to do her, except disrupt her life?

The Welsh Government’s women’s justice blueprint is an attempt to do that but, without the political will of the UK Government, such attempts are doomed to fail. Although the Swansea residential centre is a sweetener from Westminster, there are real concerns that it will become a pathway to conventional custody. Swansea remains, but is far away from home for those in northern areas of Wales, who will still be sent, of course, to Styal near Manchester.

The over-representation of certain groups also underlines the need for alternatives. In Wales, black people represented 3.1% of the prison population in 2022, despite comprising only 0.9% of the general population. Those from a mixed or Asian ethnicity background were also over-represented. The average custodial sentence length, between 2010 and 2022, was 8.5 months longer for black defendants than for those from a white ethnic group.

The link between incarceration and homelessness is difficult to justify, as the BBC alluded to in its recent drama “Time”. Like Orla, the character played by Jodie Whittaker, 423 people were released from Welsh prisons without a fixed address in 2022-23. That is the equivalent—this is striking—of eight people a week. The number of those rough sleeping after release into Welsh probation services more than trebled in a year.

The right hon. Lady is being generous in giving way. Regarding the release of people from prison, the prison date is well known. It is known when the prisoner goes in. To have the prison date but not have a proper plan for that person once they are out of prison seems nothing short of criminal itself. Does she agree?

That is exactly the point. We hear of people being released on Fridays; it is almost a cliché. We must ask why, if we have so many prisoners from 75 English local authorities, what is the connection between their release from a Welsh prison and the question of homelessness, let alone the homelessness of people with Welsh addresses?

A number of those who had recently begun rough sleeping were still rough sleeping three months after release. Many of those—almost one in five—arriving at our prisons are already homeless. There is an obvious connection with reoffending, or that tragic situation when magistrates talk of putting people back in prison because that is the safest place for them to be. That is a grim indictment of the criminal justice system. Almost a third of prisoners arriving in HMP Swansea in 2022 were homeless. Given that homeless ex-prisoners are significantly more likely to reoffend than those in housing, that cycle urgently needs to be broken.

There is a glimmer of hope: 53% of those managed by Welsh probation services went into settled accommodation immediately following release last year. That compares with 48% in England. However, that is short-lived. The number of Welsh prisoners recalled to prison has increased by 58% compared with 2017. It is evidently necessary for dangerous or non-compliant offenders to be recalled. However, speaking to members of Napo Cymru, the Welsh probation union, I was interested to learn of their fear that the increasing recall numbers are not just related to public safety, which is right and proper. They are also related to an understaffed, under-resourced and overloaded service that turns to recall as a first resort, when it should surely be better equipped to engage and assist people who are struggling to rehabilitate.

That is only compounded by the backlog of court cases: more than 64,000 in England and Wales in September, clogging up prison places. Those on remand numbered 14% of the Welsh prison population in 2022. Strikingly, the figure was 52% in Cardiff—half of the prisoners there were on remand. There is a question to be asked when comparing England’s rate of improvement in Crown court sentencing after covid with the rate of improvement in Wales. Again, that is why we need the data, so we can compare what is done and have proper scrutiny of, and a proper debate on, the state of criminal justice in Wales.

Some Westminster colleagues continue to believe and argue that the system is working well for Wales, but I would urge them to consider the data provided to them this morning. The Wales Governance Centre suggests that its data is a direct challenge, and I honestly suggest it is grounds for a complete overhaul. Repeating that argument year on year does not change that call, because the evidence demands it.

That is not just coming from someone like me from Plaid Cymru. It is a call echoed by those working within prisons and the probation service in Wales. Napo Cymru is calling for the devolution of probation and youth justice, as did Gordon Brown in the report of the Commission on the UK’s Future. A devolved national probation service would allow us to start addressing structural issues in the probation service in Wales, and to focus on crime prevention in the first place. It would allow us to work with offenders to improve their post-release life chances, and would be integrated with areas that are already devolved such as health, housing and social policy. Such devolved services are already working with prison leavers, and are integrated with a wider justice and policing strategy. With focused recourses, that makes logical sense.

I will go a little bit broader, because the criminal justice system is not only within the control of the Ministry of Justice. Criminal justice also involves the police force—that is the entire arc. I must touch on this, because it is striking that in Wales we are now contributing more than Westminster towards our four Welsh police forces. Police funding, between the precept contribution and the Welsh Government-directed funding, despite changes in Home Office funding for 2023-24, is now over half-way devolved. Wales is paying more for its policing than the Home Office is contributing.

That is critical. Devolution is happening because the Welsh Government and Welsh politicians want to see a different direction of spend. We are already paying for it. Plaid Cymru is calling for the full devolution of justice and policing powers. I note that all four police and crime commissioners in Wales—Labour and Plaid Cymru—are calling for the devolution of policing.

To close, research shows that disaggregated data is key to understanding the specific complexities of the justice system in Wales, and to any related policy and strategy. I was glad to have a meeting with Lord Bellamy in February this year to talk about disaggregated data. None the less, it remains the case that much of that information had to be gathered through freedom of information requests. That is a labour-intensive and difficult way to access the basic information necessary for the creation of robust and effective policy.

This is public money. We as politicians should be able to scrutinise this; the public should be able to scrutinise this. What is happening in Wales is different from what is happening in England; we should be able to find the line between what the spend is, whether the spend per head of population in Wales is equivalent to that in England, and what the different outcomes are. As things stand, without disaggregated data, what is actually happening in Wales is effectively being concealed from us by the Government. With every year, the information gleaned by the University of Cardiff through these freedom of information requests becomes irrefutably stronger.

In all honesty, if we were not holding this debate formally, I do not think any of us looking at the state of play in the rest of the nations of the United Kingdom would say that justice will not be devolved to Wales in future—it will. It is a matter of when, it is a matter of how effectively, it is a matter of how we prepare and it is a matter of how we work out the funds to do that. This is not a political issue. Unless the party in power, whether Conservative or Labour, chooses to allow nostalgia for the 1536 Act of Union to override 21st-century pragmatics.

The England and Wales structure is an anomaly when we compare it with the way in which justice is done, not just in Northern Ireland and Scotland, but in the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. For some reason, Wales is seen as unfit to do similar. Criminal justice, like crime, happens within a context. The institutions responsible for criminal justice cannot and do not operate in isolation from broader frameworks and institutions of social policy. To state the obvious, these are now almost all devolved in Wales. I await the Minister’s response.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. May I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)? It is always a pleasure to serve opposite her in debates, but there is always a degree of trepidation as to whether I will successfully pronounce the name of her constituency. She will recall that in 2018 to 2019, when I was last at the Ministry of Justice, not only did I have responsibility for female offenders and produce the female offender strategy, I was responsible for relationships with the devolved administrations, including Wales. I have a feeling—a vague recollection—that we may even have debated this in the past in my previous incarnation. It was indeed during that time that we put in place the initial building blocks for the Swansea residential women’s centre. I am afraid I rather selfishly got reshuffled to another Department shortly afterwards, but that is now back under my portfolio, so I look forward to discussing it with the right hon. Lady in future, perhaps outwith this Chamber.

I welcome the focus of today’s debate. It is important that we have these opportunities to debate prison, probation and justice in Wales. I am grateful for the significant contributions the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd has made on issues around justice in Wales over a number of years, and I look forward to continuing that discussion with her. In case time becomes short, I will say at the outset that I am very happy to meet the right hon. Lady, if that would be helpful, to discuss the very specific context in Wales around the prison system, probation and justice.

Could we discuss the need for segregated data in particular? That is a request that is supposed to come from the Welsh Government. I understand that it has been slow in coming forward, but it is none the less I would be grateful if the issue were taken up.

When I meet the right hon. Lady, I am very happy for her to suggest what she might like to discuss in that meeting.

Our six prisons in Wales across five sites play a crucial role in our prison estate. They keep the public safe by providing a safe and secure environment that protects the public from serious offenders and reduce crime by helping to break the cycle of reoffending by focusing on proven interventions. The right hon. Lady highlighted proportions—for example, the number of people per 100,000 of the population in prisons in Wales and the large number of local authority areas they come from. However, I gently say that the same is true of prisons in England, because we treat it as one jurisdiction. Prisoners from England serve in Wales and, on occasion, prisoners from Wales serve in England. Her point about those with an address in Wales, and the higher proportion of such people in prison, is important and worthy of further consideration and discussion.

Moving prisoners between England and Wales creates a cost in Wales, particularly because of health, and there is an additional cost if prisoners remain there. There has never been a discussion on cross-border charging. If we take so many more prisoners into Wales, what does Wales get out of it?

I will turn to healthcare, local authority support for housing and similar in a moment.

We are clear that those who pose a danger to our society must be locked up, with the worst offenders locked away for as long as it takes to protect the public. However, to continue to put the worst offenders away for longer, we must use prisons better so that there are always sufficient spaces to lock up the most dangerous criminals. That is why, last month, the Lord Chancellor gave our commitment to reforming the justice system so that it keeps the worst of society behind bars for longer, but rehabilitates offenders who will be let out and gives the least high-risk offenders a path away from a life of crime. He set out his intention for tough community sentences rather than short stints in prisons. I have to say that I share the view of the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd on that, and it was at the heart of the female offender strategy I wrote back then. I recognise that a very short sentence can often be long enough to destroy the bits of life that are vaguely ordered—a job, family relationships, or the property or flat that is rented—but far too short to make any meaningful impact on tackling the underlying causes of the offending, whether that is substance misuse, mental health issues, trauma or a whole range of other things. The right hon. Lady is right to make that point.

I am pleased to be able to say that prisons in Wales are making a significant contribution to the delivery of our vision. They have achieved some of the strongest results in performance across 117 prisons in England and Wales in 2022-23, with all prisons in Wales rated good or outstanding within the HM Prison and Probation Service performance framework. It is important to highlight the fact that credit is due to the hard-working prison officers and the staff who run these facilities in Wales. I want to put that on record.

The Ministry of Justice has a duty to ensure that Welsh prisons maintain their strong performance ratings and operate in a safe and effective way, with offenders being held in decent and humane conditions. That means making sure that no prison exceeds a safe maximum operating limit, which currently stands at 5,592 as of October 2023 across those six prisons in Wales. The largest Welsh prison, HMP Berwyn, which can house 2,000 inmates, does not have any prisoners held in crowded accommodation, as all double cells have been purposely designed and built to hold two prisoners safely and in decent conditions.

We do recognise, however, that in line with the current pressures across our entire adult male custodial estate, that there are relatively high levels of crowding in some Welsh prisons. That is not specific or unique to Wales. That is why the Lord Chancellor set out the decisive action we are taking to alleviate this in his statement to the House last month. Additionally, I am pleased that we are taking action to improve prison safety and security through a range of measures, including supporting those at risk of violence, helping them to move away from violent behaviours and delivering on investments in security to disrupt the smuggling of contraband, such as drugs, mobile phones and weapons—the sort of things that drive violence in prison and undermine safety.

The right hon. Lady mentioned healthcare provision. That is the responsibility of the Welsh Government and the NHS in Wales, and we have an effective working relationship with them on that. The levels in that, as is the case for prisons in England, are the responsibility of the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England. There is always a separation there, we believe that the relationship is a strong one.

The right hon. Lady mentioned that 14% of the population in Welsh prisons is on remand. I would say to her that that is lower than the percentage of the prison population on remand in England and overall across England and Wales, which stands at 15%, but it is in roughly the same space across the country. Different prisons have different percentages, even in England. The remand population has gone up from about 9% of the prison population to about 15% in the past two or three years. It is one of the drivers of capacity challenges across the whole system.

Our prisons in Wales are working hard to rehabilitate offenders, enabling our lowest-risk offenders to turn away from crime and change their ways. The reoffending rate for adult males released from prisons in Wales was 34.7% in 2011. That has dropped to 28.9% in 2021. There is clearly more work to do, but the trajectory is going in the right direction. Wales has been fully committed to delivering the key principles in our strategy to tackle reoffending. Prison and probation colleagues in Wales have worked together to provide an enhanced service to males who receive custodial sentences of less than six months. It includes education skills and a new job-matching service.

HMPPS Wales has successfully introduced employment hubs and prison employment leads in all six prisons and has increased the number of men going into employment on release to 30%. We have innovative housing workshops at HMP Berwyn, rail skills courses at HMP Cardiff, and a vast array of vocational qualifications and training across the estate. For the year ending March 2023, these initiatives have resulted in 29.4% of leavers from our Welsh prisons being employed six months post release, which is an increase from 19% in 2021-22 and higher than the overall national figure of 23.5%. Learning and skills continue to perform well.

On accommodation, the right hon. Lady is right that there is an important partnership with local authorities to deliver on that. Regarding Friday release, yesterday I signed the statutory instrument beginning the commencement of the powers this House passed to stop Friday releases. I am conscious of time, so the last point I would make, as it is central to the point made by the right hon. Lady, is on her call for devolution. I respect the position of her party, but we believe that the single jurisdiction continues to work effectively and is the right approach. I suspect she and I will debate that when we meet.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.