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Prisons: Inspections

Volume 713: debated on Thursday 22 October 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the policy of prison agencies regarding the transfer of vulnerable prisoners during inspections.

My Lords, the general policy on the transfer of prisoners is set out in prison order 1810. This specifies that each prison area must produce and implement a local strategy incorporating instructions on the movement of prisoners in a range of circumstances, including moves on grounds of discipline and security and moves on grounds of difficult or disruptive prisoners. It is definitely not policy to transfer any prisoner solely because of a forthcoming inspection.

My Lords, the whole House will condemn the dereliction of the duty of care towards the 11 prisoners at HMP Wandsworth and HMP Pentonville, as outlined in the report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, but can we see the Government take some responsibility for the state of prison overcrowding, which results in prisoners being moved on a regular basis due to operational capacity requirements? Will they reflect on the impact on vulnerable prisoners and those undergoing medical care and reassure the House about what they will do to ensure that those kinds of prisoners are never impacted by this again?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is both right and entirely wrong. She is right when she says it was absolutely down to the behaviour of certain senior prison staff. It is clear that, as the Chief Inspector of Prisons said, the attempt was a pointless and irresponsible attempt to undermine the inspection process, and we, like her, condemn it completely. However, the noble Baroness is wrong in saying that it had anything whatever to do with the setting and maintenance of targets or with overcrowding in prisons. The fact is that in local prisons—and both these prisons are busy local prisons—there is always substantial movement in and out to court and back. Local prisons, especially those in London, are very difficult to manage, and we pay tribute to the staff. This has always been the case, but we have engaged in an extensive building programme, and, so far, we have kept prisoners out of police cells for at least the past year.

My Lords, it is one thing to have a strategy, but another thing to have it implemented, and because of the numbers of people in prison, there appears to be no way in which population management—the department of the Prison Service responsible for the movement of prisoners—can prevent what is demeaningly referred to as “horse trading” of prisoners between prisons, such as the disgraceful transfer exposed by the chief inspector. One of the Prison Service's recent successes has been a project in the north-west called “Pathfinder”, in which the population management of all male young offenders was delegated to the prison and probation regional managers. Can the Minister tell the House whether the lessons of the Pathfinder project have been learnt and whether it is intended that in future population management of all prisoners in all regions will be delegated to regional directors of offender management?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord who was, of course, Dame Anne Owers's predecessor. I know that he spoke to her about this matter earlier this week. I cannot confirm what he asked about Pathfinder, but we are always looking at ways of doing this better. As far as these incidents are concerned, they stand on their own. We are looking to see whether this has happened anywhere else, but at the moment, they stand on their own, and, as the noble Lord rightly described them, they were disgraceful.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his noble friend Lady Morgan of Drefelin is taking through this House the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill? The Bill completely changes the way in which education is delivered to young people in prison and its success is dependent on them being in one place for a considerable time. Will he therefore do his best to ensure that the lessons learnt from the Pathway scheme will be applied universally as soon as possible?

Yes, my Lords, we will do our very best to do that. There has been a transformation in the nature of prison regimes over the past 12 years. Inspections are part of that as are performance standards and substantial investment. At the risk of overquoting the present Chief Inspector of Prisoners, she said that prisons today are more decent, more constructive and considerably more secure.

My Lords, will the Minister say why he thinks two such experienced and respected prison governors felt the need to hide these 11 individuals? What was happening to these individuals that had to be hidden from the Chief Inspector of Prisons?

My Lords, it was a pointless, irresponsible attempt that would not have affected the inspections in any way, as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons has made clear, because inspections have nothing to do with performance targets; they are about looking at the whole of a prison, as the noble Baroness knows very well. However, I am really not in a position to comment on what individuals thought or did not think. There are disciplinary proceedings at present, and it would be extremely foolish of me to comment any further.

My Lords, I am surprised that the Minister dismissed the very important point raised by my noble friend Lady Falkner. It is easy to dismiss the culture in prisons that affects the results of performance indicators, performance targets and audits followed by prison inspections. I talked to a governor only this morning, and it is pretty clear that many people at that level are demoralised. Why have we created a culture that ultimately will result in many good governors leaving prisons? More importantly, will the Minister confirm that the inquiry will look not only at the vulnerable prisoners who were transferred but at their families and friends, who are concerned about the impact on them in relation to suicidal tendencies, self-harm and so on? These are very serious matters indeed.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, to whom I also pay tribute for his experience in this field, that this was a very serious matter. Self-harm and suicides in prison are serious matters and involve relatives as well as prisons, so I will consider his question.

My Lords, may I remind noble Lords of paragraph 5.24 of the Companion, which relates to Oral Questions in this Chamber? In essence, this paragraph says that we should have short supplementary questions and short ministerial answers. I recognise that the latter is my responsibility, but we all have a responsibility for the former.

My Lords, I congratulate the Leader of the House on reminding us of those points. She is absolutely right; the questions have gone on for far too long, as have the answers. If they are both short, not only is it more fun but it prevents an awful queue and people being unable to ask questions.

My Lords, is not the answer to this question for someone to intervene and to stop people asking long questions and Ministers giving long answers? Until that happens, we will have interventions from the Dispatch Box that are meaningless and lead to nothing.

My Lords, should not the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, whom we all respect and like, answer both the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and my noble friend Lord Ferrers? They have asked perfectly reasonable questions to which the Leader of the House should be able to respond. I hope that she will do that, and I am sure that we will listen with rapt attention to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, in a minute.

My Lords, I am grateful for the comments from the noble Earl opposite. Next week, we have a Question from my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, and we will leave that debate until that Question.