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Prison Officers’ Association: Protest Action

Volume 776: debated on Tuesday 15 November 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Justice. The Statement is as follows:

“I am grateful to the honourable Member for the chance to update the House on this important issue. Prison officers do a tough and difficult job and I have been clear that we need to make prisons safer and more secure. I have announced that an extra 2,500 officers will be recruited to strengthen the front line. We are already putting in place new measures to tackle the use of dangerous psychoactive drugs and improve security across the estate.

I met the Prison Officers’ Association on 2 November, and over the past two weeks my team has been holding talks with the POA on a range of measures to improve safety. These talks were due to continue this morning. Instead, the POA failed to respond to our proposals and called this unlawful action without giving any notice. The chief executive of NOMS, Michael Spurr, spoke to POA chairman Mike Rolfe this morning, reiterating our desire to continue talks today. The union’s position is unnecessary and unlawful and it will make the situation in our prisons more dangerous. We are taking the necessary legal steps to end this unlawful industrial action.

The Government are committed to giving prison officers and governors the support that they need to do their job and to keep them safe from harm. In addition to recruiting an extra 2,500 prison officers, we are rolling out body-worn cameras across the prison estate; we have launched a £3 million major crimes task force to crack down on gangs and organised crime; in September we rolled out new tests for dangerous psychoactive substances; and we have trained 300 dogs to detect these new drugs. We have set up a daily rapid response unit led by the Prime Minister to make sure that governors and staff have all the support that they need. Taken together, these measures will have a real and swift impact on the security and stability of prisons while we recruit additional front-line staff. I urge the Opposition Front Bench to join me in condemning this unlawful action and calling on the POA to withdraw this action and to get back to the negotiating table”.

My Lords, last week in his valiant if unavailing defence of the Government's prisons policy the Minister justified its failure, even in the light of recent events, to restore staffing levels to where they were four years ago by citing the fact that a number of prisons had closed. But it is not the ratio of prison officers to prisons that is the issue; it is the ratio of properly trained and supported staff to the number of prisoners which is relevant. Given that there is no sign of any policy calculated to reduce that number, how can the reduction in the number of officers—last week’s announcement that some 2,500 will be recruited over the next few years will still leave a shortage of 4,500—be expected to transform the situation?

Will the Secretary of State sit down now with the representatives of this dedicated workforce to discuss ways in which the present crisis can be urgently alleviated? Will she initiate a comprehensive review of the whole service as thorough as the Woolf review following the Strangeways riots as long ago as 1991? Is the issue of an injunction likely to lead to the kind of discussion that will resolve this matter?

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Justice has made it clear that she will sit down with the Prison Officers’ Association to discuss this matter as soon as it withdraws this unlawful action. She would be anxious to take forward such discussions.

The noble Lord referred to prison officer numbers. That is an issue, but it is an issue that is part of a wider problem. It is not just a question of prison officer numbers; it is a matter of training, retention, the prison estate itself having to be improved, attempts to bring down the number of prisoners using psychoactive substances, the question of safety and in particular of violence in prisons, and the need to develop suitable means of education and reform within our prisons. In other words, we have to accept that this is a complex algorithm that cannot be reduced to a simple binary issue about prison numbers.

Of course we do not support the prison officers’ unlawful industrial action, but that does not mean that we do not sympathise with them over what has got us here: too many people sent to prison, particularly for short sentences, overcrowding, too few staff, too much time for prisoners in their cells and inadequate education and purposeful activity. Consequently we have what we have spoken of many times in this House: a crisis of increasing violence and deaths among staff and prisoners. It is no wonder that prison officers often feel extremely unsafe. Frankly, 2,100 extra officers by 2018 is too little, too late. We need twice that number and we need them much more quickly. When talks with the Prison Officers’ Association resume, will the Government reconsider the number of new officers to be recruited, the timing of their recruitment and those other issues that, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, the noble and learned Lord just mentioned —issues about training, about retention and about conditions for prison officers in relation to violence?

I am obliged to the noble Lord. I would point out that these issues have now been addressed by the White Paper announcement and will be taken forward in the context of that White Paper in order that they can be debated and, hopefully, resolved.

My Lords, while condemning the unlawful action taken by prison officers, perhaps I may remind my noble and learned friend that we appear to be twice as wicked as the French and the Germans when we work out how many people are put in prison. I cannot believe that. Do we not have to address the fundamental issue that Britain locks up lots of people that no one else does and that our record has therefore not improved? Until we face that, I do not see how we will deal with a whole range of other issues, and prison officers are only making it worse.

My Lords, I quite understand the concern that we might be perceived to be twice as wicked as the French. Nevertheless, I would point out that all of these statistics are relative across the world and, if we compare ourselves with other jurisdictions, we find that our prison population is much lower per head of population than it is in many other western societies. At the present time, it is not considered that the resolution of this issue lies in sentencing policy; it lies in reform of the prison estate and those who have to work so hard to maintain it.

My Lords, can the Minister tell me how any review will look at the need for registered nurses and medics to get more involved in our prisons in order to help prison officers cope with people with long-term mental health problems, many of whom should not be in prison anyway? I stand here in my 60s, having worked in Brixton prison in my 30s from the Maudsley hospital doing just what I said, and then doing the same work in both Dartmoor and Exeter prisons. However, these kinds of in-reach programmes are actually being reduced, due to shortages in the NHS and academia, rather than increased.

I am obliged to the noble Baroness. Of course mental health issues are a major problem within our prison estate. There is no question but that a very large proportion of those in our prisons suffer in one form or another from mental health issues, some of them induced by the use of illegal drugs, in particular psychoactive substances. That breeds difficulty, despair and indeed violence. We are attempting to address this at the present time, and again I would point to the issues raised in the context of the White Paper. We are determined to make progress in this matter.

My Lords, the Minister has twice recently referred, in answer to my questions, to the fact that the staffing levels the Government are bringing in will meet their benchmark as a refutation of the need for more officers. Would he care to write to me, and put a copy in the Library, if he can think of any other issues to be addressed beyond violence, escapes, suicides, self-harm, stabbings, attacks, riots, lockdowns—stopping the healthcare work just referred to by the noble Baroness going ahead—and preventing reoffending? How did the Government calculate their benchmark and which of these issues are now being tackled successfully in their prisons?

A benchmarking exercise was carried out some time ago to determine prison officer numbers in the context of the prison estate. The benchmarking exercise is being reconsidered going forward, but I am content to write to the noble Baroness outlining what the Government position is with respect to that and where we hope that it will be taken.

Can my noble and learned friend tell us how many prisons have writers in residence? Surely if prisoners were kept occupied, this would put less pressure on prison officers.

I cannot say how many prisons have writers in residence, but I would suggest that the problems within our prisons at the present time go rather deeper than occupational therapy in the form of writing. However, I will write to my noble friend with the details she requests.

There is no question or suggestion of such a thing. In this context, I make clear there is a national response team organisation to deal with unrest in our prisons. For example, the recent incident at Bedford was resolved when the national response team moved into the prison.

My Lords, would the Minister consider a radical approach towards those offenders with mental health issues, with the possibility of probation with a requirement for residential care? That would remove a great many people from the prisons and allow them to be treated, with some ability to be rehabilitated.

The Government are of course always open to any suggestion that might improve the situation in our prisons. I take on board the observations of the noble and learned Baroness.

My Lords, to follow that question, the Minister has said there is an overwhelming number of mental health problems in our prisons. Is not the reality even worse, in that many of these people should never have been in prison at all? The experience of prison is counterproductive to their ability to build a future and to their well-being. What attention are we giving to providing alternative arrangements for mentally ill or mentally disturbed people? Would he not agree that it is a matter not just of numbers, although of course numbers matter, but of the purpose, dynamic and morale of the Prison Service? It makes nothing but economic and humane sense to have rehabilitation as the priority in safe custody. Can we please reassert the importance of this word “rehabilitation” and make it central to the purpose of the Prison Service?

I am obliged to the noble Lord. Clearly, our sentencing policy embraces more than just custodial sentences and has done for some considerable time. Clearly, the morale of those working in a difficult environment in our prisons is an issue. The noble Lord raised in particular rehabilitation. That lies at the very heart of our proposed reforms, not just with rehabilitation taking place in prisons, but with rehabilitation that will take prisoners through the gates of the prison and back into the community so that we avoid the present situation, in which more than half of those sentenced to a period of imprisonment return to prison in a relatively short period of time.