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Prisons: Violence

Volume 776: debated on Tuesday 8 November 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to address reports of increasing levels of violence in prisons.

My Lords, improving safety and decreasing the level of violence is an urgent priority for this Government. We recently set out our plans for prison safety and reform in a White Paper. We will invest in 2,500 more prison officers across the prison estate. This includes the recruitment by March 2017 of 400 additional prison officers into 10 of our most challenging prisons.

The Minister is well aware of the many issues that have contributed to the recent rise in the level of violence in the prison system, including huge disinvestment during the past five years, major staff shortages, overcrowding and lack of access to good mental health care. I shall focus my question on just one area: the misuse of drugs. The Government’s recent White Paper acknowledges that the increased use of psychoactive substances in prisons is without doubt a major contributory factor to the rise in violence. The Government’s response is to tackle the supply of drugs and improve mandatory drug testing. It is a laudable aim, but does the Minister agree that drug testing can contribute to reducing drug misuse only when it is used as part of a comprehensive drug strategy that also addresses demand?

The White Paper states that the Government will reassess their approach to tackling supply and demand. However, with the cost of mandatory drug testing and current staffing issues, what assurances can the Minister give that a comprehensive drug strategy that tackles both supply and demand, and includes class A drugs, psychoactive substances and prescription drugs, will be developed and appropriately funded, and on what timescale?

I am obliged to the noble Lord. Clearly, our concern is not only to reduce the availability and supply of drugs in prisons but to address the demand for them, which is a very complex problem. The noble Lord referred in particular to psychoactive substances. They pose a problem of their own, which is the ability to test for such substances effectively. Great progress has been made in that regard and we now have an effective means of testing for the common psychoactive substances that we find being abused in our prisons.

My Lords, I speak as head of the Sikh prison chaplaincy service. Overcrowding is a major contributory factor to violence in prisons, and a major cause of overcrowding is repeat offending. Sikh chaplains are instructed to work with local communities to break the cycle of reoffending by providing work and accommodation for released prisoners. Does the Minister agree that the National Offender Management Service and the chaplaincy council should encourage chaplains of all faiths to make rehabilitation central to their work? Does he further agree that an element of competition between different faiths to reduce reoffending would be no bad thing?

I certainly concur with the noble Lord’s observation about the need for rehabilitation. That is why the Government are addressing through-the-gate support for those who leave our prisons. On competition between various faiths, I would leave that to others.

My Lords, I have been in and out of prisons quite a lot, usually in support of the excellent multifaith chaplaincies that attest to the importance of the spirit of human beings. In recent years, there has been an alarming rise in the number of suicides, and in self-harm and violence. The recently published strategy for prison safety and reform is very welcome. Does the Minister agree that an imaginative and creative approach to education and the development of people’s spirit is an essential part of prison life for all those who have offended and are being punished?

I entirely concur with the observations of the right reverend Prelate. Self-harm and suicide are disturbing and persistent problems, which we seek to address. We are already taking steps to provide prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm with mental health support. The NOMS suicide and self-harm reduction project includes collaborative work with NHS England and Public Health England.

My Lords, as with hospitals, schools and businesses, leadership in our prisons is vital. While the average length of tenure for a prison governor is three and a half years, could my noble and learned friend outline what percentage of prison governors move on after less than two years? Do the Government have any strategy to ensure that governors stay in post for a length of time that enables there to be stability at the top?

On strategy, the Government have already indicated in the White Paper their determination to devolve greater responsibility to individual governors for their particular establishments. I do not have the figures for tenure of governors, however, and I undertake to write to my noble friend about that.

My Lords, will the Minister accept that under the coalition there were 30% staffing cuts in the Prison Service? We lost 7,000 full-time posts. The Government now propose to recruit 2,500 apparently to cover that gap, mindful of the fact that the salary for somebody in the London area is less that £21,000. Will he acknowledge that it will be impossible for those 2,500 extra people to make good the numbers so as to stop self-harm, suicide and disorder?

We must always aim to stop self-harm, suicide and disorder in our prisons. The number of prison officers has reduced since 2010 due to the closure of some old prisons which gave poor value for money, delivering the savings under the 2010 spending review and bringing staff numbers into line with benchmark standards. Of course, we have now reviewed those benchmark standards, which is why we are determined to introduce an additional 2,500 staff. Furthermore, we are addressing the issue of recruitment and retention of staff.

My Lords, our prisons are a national embarrassment and a disgrace. Many former Ministers should hang their heads in shame. Timpson, the retail chain, is an exemplar in employing ex-offenders: 10% of its 4,500 employees are ex-offenders and it runs seven prison training academies. What are the Government doing to encourage more employers to adopt Timpson’s commendable positive approach?

We are making very real efforts to ensure that not only the employer mentioned but many others engage in providing work within our prisons. This programme is extending all the time. There are demands and limitations because of the geography and nature of our prison establishment but we are investing £1.3 billion in the prison estate to make work opportunities more available.

My Lords, does the Minister think that all prison staff are adequately trained to deal with very difficult prisoners? Does he also think that gangs should be dispersed to different prisons when they are in the same prison?

On staff training, again, that is addressed in the White Paper. We are introducing an apprenticeship scheme to accelerate training for staff. We are also looking at the recruitment of staff from the armed services, with a background that will enable them to integrate more easily into the work and demands of the Prison Service.