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Prisons: In-cell Sanitation

Volume 721: debated on Tuesday 12 October 2010


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the finding of the report of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards that in some prison establishments the lack of in-cell sanitation means that slopping-out, officially ended in 1996, still continues.

My Lords, slopping-out should not occur in the 21st century. However, it is simply not possible to install in-cell sanitation in all parts of the accommodation at certain prisons and electronic unlocking is the best option for the provision of sanitation.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply but, as he knows, today 20,000 prisoners may have to defecate into a bucket, which will remain with them in their cell until they are let out from that cell. The electronic system, which was used as the justification for saying that the process had ended, does not work all the time—indeed, it is switched off during the day—and too many prisoners spend all day locked up in their cells. Can the Minister assure the House that something will be done to improve this disgraceful and uncivilised situation and will he undertake to report back to the House at regular intervals as to what improvements are being made?

My Lords, I do not recognise the figure of 20,000—or was it 2,000? I thought that the noble Lord said 20,000.

He did; to err is human. I have read the independent monitoring board’s report, which prompted the noble Lord’s question, and it does not make easy reading, but I put it to him that, as he must have experienced during his time as inspector of prisons, this problem is in a small number of prisons—nine—that do not have these facilities and which, with just under 2,000 places, make up about 3 per cent of the total prison estate. We are looking at the situation and consulting about guidelines to governors to see how it can be improved, but in the present state of the prison estate we do not see the opportunity in the near future to supply in-cell toilets in these places and therefore the electronic system will continue.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that Grendon prison, our only therapeutic prison, which deals with prisoners with particularly challenging psychiatric issues, is one of the 10—I think that it is 10, but I may be mistaken—prisons without integral sanitation? Does he not agree that, given the particular challenges in that prison, it is unacceptable to be queueing or, most of the time, stuck in your cell with a pot?

It is true, as my noble friend said, that Grendon has a particular and very challenging regime—it is a therapeutic prison. It is perhaps surprising that it should be a prison that does not have in-cell facilities. However, the question is whether we keep the real benefits, which I think my noble friend would acknowledge, of what goes on there in the therapeutic approach to prison for some very difficult prisoners. The toiletry situation is a problem, but it is managed by the electronic locking system. On balance, I would prefer to keep the success of Grendon as a therapeutic prison, even with the downside of the lack of in-cell facilities.

My Lords, I gather that in-cell sanitation is covered by Prison Service Order 1900. Whose responsibility is it to oversee the application of Prison Service orders and this one in particular? What power does the independent monitoring board have in relation to NOMS to make sure that these observations are acted on?

On the latter point, it is an independent board and a very welcome independent board. As these exchanges prove, it does its job. NOMS has to respond. It is responding by reviewing at the moment the accommodation standards guidelines and updating guidance to prison governors. The overall responsibility rests with Ministers of the Ministry of Justice. We oversee, while NOMS reports to us. The dilemma that we face in 3 per cent of the prison estate is that old cells—some of them were built surprisingly recently, in the 1960s—are too small to accommodate in-cell facilities. The other side to this is that, where there are no in-cell facilities, there is only one prisoner to a cell but, where there is a toilet in the cell, there are two prisoners to a cell, which also has its downsides.

My Lords, does NOMS provide additional manpower to deploy when the electronic system is not working in order to mitigate the results?

My Lords, I understand that that is the process. If there is any failure or any increase in demand, the prison authorities redeploy guards so that the electronic system can be used and so that when, occasionally, the system breaks down, it can be operated manually.

My Lords, on the problem of providing in-cell sanitation in older prisons, I invite the Minister simply to put his foot down and say, “These cells will not be used from the end of this month”. That is the way to solve this.

Well, I can answer a question with a question. We inherited a prison population of 83,000. That also has problems in terms of accommodation.

Does the Minister accept that, whenever there is an improvement in conditions in prisons, it tends to lead to a reduction in tension between prison officers and prisoners and is invariably in the public interest?

Absolutely. I have read this report and followed it up. Prisoners lying back on their Dunlopillo mattresses watching colour television before taking a Jacuzzi is the image of prison life given in some of our popular press. Prison life is grim and sometimes downright unpleasant. Whether that meets with approval or not, it is the reality.

Having listened to what has been said today, I think that we cannot tolerate this situation and I hope that putting it right will be top of the agenda for prison governors, NOMS and everybody. At least as a temporary measure, if any of this is going on in prisons where prisoners are still locked up during the day, could I ask that we encourage the firms that the Government are thinking of encouraging to set up a business or factory within the prison so that at least the prisoners can be employed during the day?

As we have already been doing, we will certainly consider the idea of in-prison work. The dilemma is whether you have toilets in a cell, which is not itself particularly pleasant when you also eat your meals in that cell and share it with another person, or an efficient system of release to a wash block where toilet facilities are available. That is what is used in 3 per cent of the prison estate. I am not sure that I can give the noble Baroness or any noble Lord an early solution to that dilemma.