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Courts: Escort Drivers

Volume 702: debated on Thursday 12 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How many prisoner escort drivers are also employed as court orderlies.

My Lords, no escort drivers are permanently employed as court orderlies. The contracts permit contractors to use escort staff for custodial duties. This enables them to make the best use of their staff and to service the variable workload of the courts. Contractors report that they regularly use escort staff for custodial duties, but they do not keep records of the number of occasions on which escort drivers undertake those duties.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. My concern is that all too often one hears that drivers do not leave courts until after the courts have closed, as drivers acting as court orderlies are unable to start the journey until then. Recently, for instance, a boy was taken from a court on the south coast. He had nearly reached Feltham when the van was turned round and had to go back to court to collect a suicidal woman, who was taken to Holloway. The van finally arrived at Feltham after midnight. The point is that, if vans leave too late, they arrive at prisons late and there is not proper time to assess prisoners, particularly the vulnerable, the suicidal, women and children. I hope that the Minister will make certain that no escort driver should also act as a court orderly. Will that be put in contracts in future?

My Lords, it will not, because it makes absolute sense that staff who have essentially the same training and are multiskilled are used as flexibly as possible. The specific instance that he raises has, of course, been investigated. My honourable friend Maria Eagle has written to appropriate Members on that issue. In general, the contractors are dealing with considerable challenges at the moment because of prison population pressures. However, I am satisfied that we have the appropriate monitoring in place and that they are doing everything that they can to make sure that incidents such as the one that the noble Lord mentioned are as rare as possible.

My Lords, if the appropriate officials are, as the Minister put it, “multiskilled”, will he comment on the recent report in the papers of a van being summoned from 60 miles away to take a prisoner 200 yards from one court to another in the same town? Would it not have been possible on that occasion for the court officials to have walked that prisoner from one court to the other?

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord is referring to Northampton magistrates’ court and Northampton Crown Court. Let me make it clear that the vehicle did not make a special journey to Northampton solely to move one prisoner from the Crown Court to the magistrates’ court. The vehicle left the contractor’s base in Leicester to collect prisoners from Her Majesty’s Prison Bedford and to deliver them to Cambridge magistrates’ court. The vehicle was then routed to Northampton to transfer the prisoner from the Crown Court to the magistrates’ court and to collect prisoners from the magistrates’ court and escort them to Her Majesty’s Prison Glen Parva in Leicestershire before returning to the Leicester base. That seems to be a perfectly appropriate thing to have done.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that prisoners are at their most vulnerable just after sentencing? Is he aware that, of the 92 suicides reported in 2007, 41 involved prisoners on remand and 20 per cent occurred within the first seven days, in comparison with 8 per cent within the first seven days in 2006? Does he accept the importance of ensuring that prisoners arrive at their designated institution in time to be assessed, because that is when they are at their most vulnerable? This is a serious matter.

My Lords, it is indeed a serious matter. I accept everything that the noble Baroness says. However, despite the current pressures in the system, the figures for 2007-08 show that 97 per cent of prisoners were delivered to the prison before reception closure. I very much take the point that she raises about the importance of the assessment that then needs to take place.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm to the House that, if a young person, woman or, indeed, any offender, for whatever reason, arrives late at night and there is clear evidence to everyone on the scene that there are mental health problems or a risk of suicide, someone with mental health expertise of a sufficiently high calibre will be available to come to the prison to give the appropriate treatment?

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises some of the pressures involved in ensuring that a proper assessment can take place if a prisoner is delivered to a prison or young offender institution late at night. That is why we have set a challenging target that 100 per cent of prisoners should be delivered before reception closes. When that is not possible, great care is taken to liaise with the appropriate establishment to ensure that an appropriate assessment takes place, but I accept that this is a considerable challenge.