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House of Lords Hansard
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09 May 2016
Volume 771

Statement

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My Lords, I wish to repeat as a Statement an Answer given to an Urgent Question in the other place by my honourable friend the Prisons Minister. The Statement is as follows:

“Before I move on to the substance of this question, I should like to update the House on events which occurred at HMP Wormwood Scrubs this weekend.

On the morning of 6 May, prison officers refused to enter the prison citing health and safety grounds. Later that day, an agreement was reached between the National Offender Management Service and the Prison Officers Association. All officers have now returned to work and the prison is running a normal regime. NOMS and the POA are jointly committed to resolving any outstanding health and safety concerns at HMP Wormwood Scrubs.

On Sunday 8 May, two members of staff at Wormwood Scrubs were assaulted and taken to hospital for treatment. We do not tolerate any violence against our hardworking officers. The alleged perpetrator is now facing a police investigation, which could lead to criminal charges.

Moving on to the wider question, I take the issue of safety in prisons very seriously. Reducing the harm that prisoners may cause to themselves or others is the Government’s top priority in prisons. The most recent statistics on safety in custody show that levels of self-inflicted deaths, self-harm and violence in prison are too high. The figures demonstrate the very serious challenges facing the Prison Service.

There is no single, simple solution to the increases in deaths and violence in prisons. These trends have been seen across the prison estate, in both public and private prisons, and in prisons both praised and criticised by HM Inspector of Prisons. We have already taken a number of steps to address these problems: we have recruited 2,830 prison officers since January 2015, a net increase of 530; we are trialling the use of body-worn cameras in prisons; we are strengthening case management of individuals who risk harming others; we have introduced tough new laws which will see those who smuggle packages over prison walls, including new psychoactive substances, face up to two years in prison; and we have reviewed the case management process for prisoners assessed as being at risk of harm to themselves, known as assessment, care in custody and teamwork, and are implementing the recommendations. However, it is clear we must do more. We need to reduce violence and prevent drugs entering prison. We have to do better at helping prisoners with mental health problems. We have got to ensure prisoners can be rehabilitated so they are no longer a danger to others. That is why this Government are committed to fundamental reform of our prisons. We have secured £1.3 billion to modernise the prison estate, and we will give greater autonomy to governors so they are truly in charge. I look forward to setting out our plans in greater detail shortly.

These problems are deep-seated and there are no easy answers, but I can assure the House that this Government will not waver in their determination to reform our prisons, so that they become places of decency, hope and rehabilitation”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

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My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Given the long-standing concerns about overcrowding, self-harm, violence and suicides in prison, last week’s revelations about the use of synthetic cannabis and the damning reports on the misuse of force and restraint of young offenders in Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre last March and Medway Secure Training Centre last week, is it not time for a judge-led review of the management of custodial services and the Youth Justice Board along the lines of the report from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, published in 1991? Should that not include reconsideration of the outsourcing of provisions to overseas private companies and palpably overstretched organisations such as G4S?

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My Lords, of course, any outbreak of violence, wherever it takes place, is concerning. The noble Lord referred particularly to Medway and Rainsbrook. On Medway, I hope to be able to update the House shortly, following the inquiry into how Medway Secure Training Centre had been run in the wake of the “Panorama” programme.

In the Statement, I said that there was no single solution. It is significant that there is violence in all sorts and types of prisons, so one must beware of thinking that there is one particular solution. I take the noble Lord’s point about the very useful and seminal report prepared by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, following the Strangeways riots in Manchester, which provided a lot of guidance to prison management in future. We will learn from that and from all these events. As the noble Lord will be aware, reports are shortly to be published on education and mental health in prisons. All that will help to inform the substantial reform that I mentioned, and we hope that that will contribute to stamping out the violence.

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My Lords, there are two aspects that are matters of concern. One was mentioned in the Statement: the use of psychoactive drugs and the extent to which that could destabilise the control of discipline in prisons. The Minister has not mentioned the other one, though, so I wonder if he could throw some light on the extensive use of severe and harsh sentences. They are one of the causes of overcrowding, which ultimately results in the type of violence that we saw in Wormwood Scrubs.

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The question of sentences is difficult. As the noble Lord will know, the choice of sentence is a matter for the judge in the individual case and generally will reflect the severity of the offences that have been committed. From time to time Parliament will intervene—notoriously, for example, with IPP prisoners—and set certain parameters within which judges have to sentence certain offenders. The fact is that there is currently a higher cohort of violent offenders in prison than there has been for some considerable time. Together with the substantial difficulty caused by psychoactive substances, that contributes to the problem of violence in prisons. It is important not to generalise too much about sentences. A sentence should be long enough to reflect the seriousness of the offence but short enough to give the offender a chance to rehabilitate and give them some hope. In due course, through the work that we are doing on rehabilitation, we hope to ensure that when people leave prison they do not return, because of course the biggest increase in prison sentences is for those coming back again through the prison door.

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My Lords, are prison staff trained enough in dealing with alcohol and drug abuse and mental health?

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The noble Baroness raises the important point of training for prison officers. I can tell her and the House that the training of prison officers has increased in terms of the length of time, from six weeks to 10. I have visited the training centre at Newbold Revel, and included in the training is a greater emphasis on the very things that the noble Baroness mentions. Mental health problems are very apparent in the prison population; NICE estimates that 90% of prisoners have some sort of mental illness, so it is extremely important that prisoners are assessed on arrival in prison and that any change in their condition is properly monitored through co-operation between prison governors, who have greater power, and NHS England at a local level. Alcohol and drug problems are profound and must be treated as medical issues. Drug issues tend to last longer in prison than alcohol problems, but of course both provide challenges for the Prison Service.

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My Lords, during an extradition case recently I inspected a prison in Abu Dhabi, where I found completely the opposite conditions to here. The cells were on locked landings but every cell door was open 24 hours a day so that prisoners could get showers and have access to telephones, recreation, television and so on. There have been three suicides in prison in Abu Dhabi in the past 25 years. Having seen exactly the same conditions in Dubai and Kenya, I wonder whether in fact our locking people away for so long and not allowing them to circulate with others has something to do with the violence presently in our prisons, and whether anything is being done to look at doing things in the completely opposite way.

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I am grateful to the noble Lord for his insights from what he learned in Abu Dhabi. The Government are looking at all sorts of different indicators for why violence occurs in certain circumstances. Plainly, keeping people locked up for longer than necessary can provide a significant exacerbation of what is a tendency to violence anyway. As I say, there is no one single cause. The problem with psychoactive substances, which at the moment are a very significant cause of the violence, is that the drug or drugs not only precipitate violence in the individual, but promote an unpleasant subculture within prisons whereby debts are incurred in the buying and selling of drugs, which then promotes violence between prisoners. Therefore it is multifactorial. However, what the noble Lord says should of course be very much part of the general response to the challenge that prisoners present.

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My Lords, I am interested in what the Minister says and apologise for being a moment late—I was chairing another meeting. Within the last parliamentary working week, including the weekend, two sets of people have come to me to talk about violence that they are experiencing in prison and about which they can do nothing. One case involves a woman whose child was killed by a paedophile in a famous case. She is being harassed from prison by the person who killed her son and is being told that nothing can be done about that. The second is a case I am trying to pursue, so I will not say too much about it, in which gangs in two of our major London prisons are running extortion rackets. A woman is paying to protect her son, who has not only been badly beaten up twice—there has been no incident report—but severely radicalised while in prison. I have two questions. First, what is the management doing in our large prisons where there is gang influence and where the gangs are able to work with gangs outside to terrorise families, and secondly, what are we doing to ensure that where telephones are available—and there are reasons why they should be—they are not used inappropriately to harass families outside?

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The noble Baroness will understand why I cannot comment on individual cases, particularly when all the facts are not yet known. However, she makes a general and important point. It is perhaps significant that the problems in prisons do not come entirely from within prisons, and it is most important that prison governors work closely with the National Crime Agency and local police officers and that their intelligence reaches beyond the prison gate and walls. I have to say that from my understanding that is not consistent across the country as regards its effectiveness. However, the noble Baroness identifies an important point which we feel should be more realistically achieved once there is greater governor independence and there can be this link of intelligence which will prevent the sort of situations that she describes.