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Prisoners: Sanitation

Volume 730: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to speed up the ending of “slopping out” in prisons in England and Wales.

My Lords, the use of slopping out as the primary method of prisoner sanitation ended in 1996. Currently, less than 3 per cent of the prison population are required to use unacceptable alternatives to in-cell sanitation. All new build has in-cell sanitation and, in some cases, in-cell showering facilities.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. In September 1991, the then Home Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, assured everyone, at paragraph 6.8 of his White Paper Custody, Care and Justice, that,

“no prisoner will have to endure the inhumane and degrading practice of slopping out after the end of 1994”.

The announcement made by the Prisons Minister Ann Widdecombe in 1996, which the Minister quoted, was premature because there have been, and are, cases of slopping out. The Scottish Prisons Service has admitted that the practice breaches human rights. Recently, the Scottish Court of Session has agreed that prisoners can sue for damages for being made to slop out. Might the prospect of literally thousands of British prisoners taking the same route encourage the Government to fulfil the assurance given 20 years ago that slopping out would end 15 years ago?

No, my Lords. The figures I have given are accurate: less than 3 per cent of prisoners have facilities that do not comprise in-cell sanitation. The main alternative is electronic unlocking, which is not a perfect system but is certainly not degrading in the terms that the noble Lord suggested. As far as we are concerned, it is compliant with humanitarian and human rights legislation. The truth is that we have a prison estate in which it is extremely difficult to meet the full commitment to in-cell sanitation. Therefore, I cannot be enthusiastic at present about promising a rapid reduction in the numbers. As I say, as new build comes on stream, there will be more in-cell sanitation, but that will not happen quickly. We are down to almost an irreducible minimum whereby electronic unlocking is the alternative to in-cell sanitation.

My Lords, given the Scottish experience, what provision is being made in England and Wales to prevent a similar situation developing here, where, in round numbers, 1,973 prison places are still affected by this disgusting situation?

It is not helpful to suggest that it is disgusting to ring a bell to open the cell door in order to use the toilet. As my noble friend said, that applies to fewer than 2,000 prisoners in a prison estate of nearly 88,000. They have to do that because in certain prisons it is physically impossible to put in the facilities that would be desirable.

The independent monitoring board makes no mention of women. Will the Minister confirm that this grossly offensive practice—I stress those words—of slopping out does not apply in women’s prisons? If that is so, does not equal treatment mean that this should be an equally unacceptable practice in all men’s prisons?

It is an unacceptable practice. I understand that the only time people are asked to use a removable bucket to slop out is if there is a breakdown in the system. I am assured that in no part of the prison estate do women have facilities other than in-cell facilities.

My Lords, could we be told who has to do this job, when it is necessary for it to be done, if prisoners do not do it?

I am told that when it is necessary to carry out some slopping out it is done by a unit of prisoners. Individuals are not asked to slop out but, as happens in many prisons, it is part of the cleaning or other duties that a group is asked to do. It is done by prisoners. But I again emphasise that where there is in-cell provision and electronic provision, slopping out will take place only when there is a mechanical breakdown of one or other of the systems. When that happens I am told that most prisons use a cleaning squad of prisoners to carry out that job.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that reducing the prison population would be one way of tackling this problem? Reducing the adult prison population would be helpful in addressing this problem. Will he consider the success of the Youth Justice Board which, in the past three years, while the adult prison population has increased, has decreased the child prison population by 30 per cent? Rather than abolishing the Youth Justice Board, will he consider whether that model of governance might be applied to the adult estate?

We will have learnt a lot that is beneficial from the role of the Youth Justice Board. Indeed, we will take those lessons to the Ministry of Justice and continue to work along those lines with the youth system. The noble Earl is right and that is why my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor has drawn attention to the central part in government policy of our programme of rehabilitation. We have far too many of the wrong people within our prison system. If we could reduce prison numbers it would be a win-win situation for taxpayers and a way of getting more civilised accommodation within the prison estate.