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Prisoners: Disabilities

Volume 707: debated on Thursday 29 January 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will include in the training of governor grades and of prison officers the needs of prisoners with disabilities and long-term medical conditions.

My Lords, prison officers receive specific training in diversity issues, including disability, as part of their initial eight-week prison officer entry-level training course. Self-taught basic health awareness modules have been developed on a range of disabilities and physical health issues and will be available for all staff via the intranet. Diversity is an integral part of training for governor grades, and the practicalities of meeting the needs of prisoners is covered in other learning programmes

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. He will be aware that prison officers only get about six to eight weeks’ training, whereas in Norway they get two years. Is he aware that when I was a monitor at a young offender institute a young man of 17 died of asthma, having told the prison officers that he might die, and they did not believe him? Only this morning I heard that a prisoner in Wormwood Scrubs has died recently of asthma. Will he look into that case? There are so many different disabilities, such as diabetes and epilepsy, in prisons.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, who, by her questioning and interest in this subject, has assisted the Government to move forward in making this more of a priority than perhaps it has been in the past. I am grateful to her for telling me about the recent death in Wormwood Scrubs. I shall of course write to her with information about that.

I am happy to be able to tell her that, since 2006, when the PCTs took responsibility for healthcare in prisons, prisoners with medical conditions such as the ones she is very concerned about—asthma, diabetes and epilepsy—have been under the care of the healthcare department within their prison and have a care plan. Part of the role of healthcare professionals—in other words, nurses—is to train, support and educate those responsible for the care needs of individual prisoners. I am happy to tell her that guidance will be published very shortly informing staff in each prison wing what should be done for prisoners with those long-term illnesses.

My Lords, while I appreciate the reasons for disbanding many years ago the National Prison Medical Service, which was led with distinction for some years by the late Dr Ian Pickering, it is crucial that prison officers and governors are trained on the issues raised by my noble friend. Can we have an assurance that doctors now contracted to provide medical services to prisons are involved in the training programmes relating to the management of individuals with these types of long-term medical condition and disability?

Yes, my Lords, I think I can give the noble Lord that assurance. I will check with the department and write to him about the position in regard to doctors and nurses who work in prisons and their relationship with the prison staff who have to look after prisoners every day.

My Lords, will the Minister consider bringing in external voluntary agencies, dealing particularly with disabilities, to provide input to training programmes for governors and prison officers? Similar examples exist in relation to race relations training and so on, where such agencies have considerable input to training.

My Lords, the noble Lord will know that there is a revised and strengthened Prison Service Order 2855 dealing with prisoners with disabilities. It provides that all prisoners with disabilities must, of course, be treated with decency and without discrimination and be offered equality of opportunity in all aspects of prison life. Other principles are set out that have to be followed; for example, there must be a nominated disability liaison officer in each prison. I shall take away his idea that outsiders should come in, but I am sure that there is outside influence now.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the report of the independent monitoring board of Birmingham prison? I declare an interest as president of the Association of Members of Independent Monitoring Boards. The report notes failures to collect mandatory statistics on disability so that the numbers are not known, low levels of staff commitment, wheelchair users being located on the upper floor when the lift is not working and no one being trained in British sign language. Can the Minister tell the House when the situation in Birmingham, which is reported in similar prisons, is likely to improve?

My Lords, I cannot tell the noble Baroness when the situation in Birmingham prison is likely to improve. That shows the huge value of the monitoring groups in all Her Majesty’s prisons. Overall, healthcare in prisons is improving. Huge extra resources have been put into that aspect. It is a priority for the Prison Service along with the new Prison Service order and the commitment to a single equality scheme that is to be published in April this year.

My Lords, on that point, the Minister will recall that in a recent debate on the treatment of women in prison I asked him whether the Government would apply the single equality duty, when it comes in, to prisons. He replied that, if and when it is enacted, it will apply to the National Offender Management Service. Can he confirm that it will also apply to individual prisons in the way that the existing duties in education apply not just to umbrella bodies but to individual schools?

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot inform the noble Lord that that will happen. The single equality scheme will be published in April 2009 and a single impact assessment is being developed to cover all the seven diversity strands. However, there is no single equality scheme for each police station, for example. This matter was debated at length in this House a couple of years ago. I believe that there is general support for a single equality scheme along with a much strengthened Prison Service order.