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Prisoners: Transport

Volume 735: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking regarding the safety and reliability of the arrangements for transporting prisoners following the two recent ambushes and escapes.

My Lords, the National Offender Management Service has taken immediate action to reinforce security procedures and staff have been instructed to ensure that these procedures are fully complied with.

I am grateful to the noble Lord; that is a helpful Answer. There is a very good record on prison security, which is why these two armed ambushes and escapes are so shocking. The week before last the Minister confirmed to your Lordships’ House that,

“escape must be made impossible”—[Official Report, 24/1/12; col. WA 220]—

for Category A prisoners. The second prisoner who escaped had previously absconded from court, was sentenced for GBH in his absence, and was given an indeterminate sentence for public protection because of the seriousness of his crimes. I find it incredible that, despite all that, he was given a Category C prisoner status and deemed to be unlikely to escape. Will the Minister look into this, and can he make arrangements to assure himself that when prisoners are transported, the security category is double-checked or reassessed to minimise any risk to the public or to staff?

My Lords, I appreciate the constructive nature of that question. I hope the noble Baroness will appreciate that a formal investigation is under way into the circumstances of both escapes, and the reports and recommendations will determine what further action may be required. A wider review is also under way into the procedures governing the escorting of prisoners outside of prisons, including the arrangements for transporting them. Her point about the categorisation of prisoners should, and I assume will be, part of that inquiry.

I cannot confirm that they are armed on all occasions, but there is an assessment of risk for Category A prisoners. The use of guns in one of these escapes is extremely worrying, but it does not happen every time. That is another thing that the inquiry will look into and report back on.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned that the National Offender Management Service was conducting what I presume is an internal, in-house inquiry into this. Can he tell us whether the Inspectorate of Prisons and the inspectorate of the security industry are also looking into it? Presumably there are wider impacts other than those on the purely internal workings of the National Offender Management Service.

Yes, the inquiry will go far wider. As I said, the wider review which is under way will look at both the public and the private sectors. The review’s aim is not just to hold an inquest into what happened but to learn lessons that will be helpful in the future.

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for his answers to this Question. Are the Government satisfied that all those with the responsibility—and it is a difficult responsibility—for transferring prisoners are trained to a high enough standard in all cases to perform their difficult task? Prison officers certainly are. Are the Government content that everyone else who has this responsibility is trained to a high enough standard, too?

Yes, I think that I can give the noble Lord that assurance. Again, standards of training is one of the things that the inquiry will be looking at. This will of course vary because we are talking about a large number of movements throughout a year and many of them are a very low category indeed. Under successive Governments over the last 15 years, the actual number of successful break-outs or escapes in transit has made this very much an exception rather than the rule. That is a sign of the improvements in transportation facilities and the training of staff. The wider review will look at this. As I said, if lessons are to be learnt, we will learn them. There is also the prospect that, with a greater use of television to allow distance interviewing of prisoners, there will be less need to transport them.

Is this really a question of training? Is it not a question of making appropriate provision in these special circumstances?

Yes, my Lords, but the fleet for transporting prisoners has recently been updated, so there should be greater security in those circumstances. There is training of staff—prisoners are accompanied by staff—and an assessment is made in advance, particularly of the transportation of Category A prisoners. The investigation under way will look at what is in place and whether those procedures were followed and, if all the procedures that were in place were followed and yet a successful break was made, what lessons are to be learnt from that.