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Prisons: Strategy For Tackling Drug Misuse

Volume 590: debated on Monday 1 June 1998

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2.57 p.m.

What action they propose to take on drugs following the report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons on HM Prison Featherstone.

My Lords, the Prison Service published its new strategy Tackling Drugs in Prison on 12th May. The strategy has been informed by a full review, including independent research. The strategy builds on a record of success in reducing drug misuse in prison in recent years. It will maintain an appropriate balance between control measures and treatment and rehabilitation and will enable access to voluntary testing for all prisoners who request this.

My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord for his reply, I remind him that my Question is concerned with a report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons on Her Majesty's Prison Featherstone. Many of us have been reassured by the generally positive message contained in that report. Is the noble Lord aware that 96 per cent. of the staff of Featherstone, according to the Chief Inspector of Prisons, felt that the level of drug misuse in that establishment was either fairly or very high? Does the Minister agree that that is a very disturbing figure? Specifically what can be done to deal with that situation?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that the level of drug misuse at Featherstone was higher than at most other establishments. I believe that at Featherstone the figure was 40 per cent. whereas at most establishments the figure was 20 per cent. I thank the noble Lord for referring to the good things that are taking place at Featherstone, for example the efficient running of the prison, the range of training provided, the level of healthcare and the good staff relationships at that establishment.

Referring to the noble Lord's comments on the chief inspector's claims, a good number of these are based on anecdotal evidence and not hard evidence. The independent research commissioned by the Prison Service in 1996 does not support the claim that widespread switching between soft drugs and hard drugs is taking place. Many of the recommendations that have been made are being implemented at Featherstone. The problem of drug misuse is being taken very seriously. Extra staff are being trained to deal with it. Special training is being given to staff. Special provision is being made for voluntary testing, including the setting up of a unit. HMP Featherstone and its governor are treating drug misuse very seriously.

My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Harris, in offering congratulations to Her Majesty's Chief Inspector on his report. I make it clear that I agree with the noble Lord that the report is generally positive about the prison. It says that it is a good Category C establishment, with a sound industrial base and good relations between staff and prisoners. If that is the case, why are the Government cutting funding to that prison by some £600,000?

My Lords, that may be so, but we have to look at expenditure at all prison establishments. It would not be right to look at Featherstone in isolation. What is more important is what is being done at Featherstone, particularly in relation to the drug problem. As I said, it is setting up a multi-discipline team of officers to look at the problem. It has participated in projects in relation to drug information leaflets. It has issued information to prisoners. It is taking the matter extremely seriously. If there is any cut-back in expenditure in the prison, I do not believe that it will affect the effectiveness of this programme in relation to drug misuse.

My Lords, what is Home Office policy on the use of sniffer dogs to seek out drugs in prison? Are they not sometimes more successful than people at finding drugs?

My Lords, indeed they are. The use of dogs is taken seriously. At present 168 dogs are being used in prisons. In addition to those, as the noble Baroness will be aware, passive dogs are also being used. They are good at indicating whether visitors to prisons have drugs. Prisons, including Featherstone, are co-operating among themselves in the use of those dogs. We find that they are a useful instrument.

My Lords, will the noble Lord please explain what a passive dog is?

My Lords, it is not passive in the sense that it would attack, but in the sense that it is trained to detect whether people visiting the prisons are carrying drugs. That is what they are used for. In other words, they are in the visitors' centre, and if the dog believes that there are people with drugs it draws the attention of its attendant to that.

My Lords, do prison governors have discretion about whether or not to invite police to prosecute serious cases of drug misuse? How many successful police prosecutions have been brought, according to the latest available figures?

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have the evidence in relation to that question. The noble Lord asks a serious question. I hope that I may write to him with that information.

My Lords, is not the Minister worried that, despite the evidence of the recent Home Office research study that mandatory drug testing resulted in some reduction in the level of drug misuse at the four prisons where the study was undertaken, nevertheless, the levels were still extraordinarily high? Has the Minister no further advice to give the House on how that is to be tackled, other than by the use of these multi-discipline teams that he mentioned? For example, could not the Government consider having separate drug-free prisons to which inmates could go if they undertook never to use drugs, so that they would be separated from the harmful influence of those who try to persuade them to indulge in those bad habits?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord's last point. If people agree to voluntary testing, it is important that they are placed in units which are, as far as possible, comparatively drug free. Indeed, that is what I said was happening at Featherstone Prison. It is a positive result. One unit is being set up there to which people who declare for voluntary testing can go. Mandatory testing was a great success. It brought down to 20 per cent. the number of prisoners using drugs. Nevertheless we must have these other positive measures alongside it.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that on an occasion such of this it is right to pay tribute to the outstanding work done by the Chief Inspector of Prisons who has made a major contribution towards improving conditions in Her Majesty's prisons?

My Lords, I join with the noble Lord in praising what has been done by the Chief Inspector of Prisons and what was done by his predecessor in relation to the Prison Service.