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Prison Suicides

Volume 777: debated on Monday 28 November 2016

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what urgent action they are taking to tackle prison suicides in the light of the latest figures showing a suicide within the prison system on average every three days this year.

My Lords, I add my welcome to the noble Lord on his return to the Front Bench, and beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that very kind remark. This is a serious issue. Prison safety is our main priority, and we are determined to tackle the problem. Our £500 million Prison Safety and Reform White Paper will help recruit an extra 2,500 officers, helping to reduce self-harm and violence and allowing greater individual supervision of offenders. We provide vital support to prisoners at risk of suicide every day, including on reception to prison and through our hard-working prison staff, health partners and the prisoner Listener programme.

My Lords, it is blindingly obviously that our overcrowded and understaffed prisons are in crisis. The number of suicides this year has already surpassed the highest number previously recorded, in 1978. Self-harm and mental health problems continue to increase. All of this places intolerable pressure on staff, who will, even after the additional 2,500 are eventually appointed, still be 4,600 short of where they were four years ago. In their prisons White Paper, the Government devote all of four paragraphs to health issues and promise a review. Given the role of NHS England and Public Health England, they promise a joint approach to the commissioning of prison health services, with responsibility for budgetary and clinical decisions and for quality remaining with commissioners and providers, and with governors taking joint responsibility. But, crucially, there is no mention of any additional funding in the context of the NHS, which is also in the throes of a growing crisis, and for which no extra funding was promised in the Autumn Statement. Has the Ministry of Justice made any estimate of the cost of tackling the health crisis in our prisons? Will the Department of Health foot the bill, thereby increasing the pressure on the NHS? Is it not high time for the Government to recognise that extra funding needs to be found for the prison health service, but not at the expense of the mainstream NHS budget?

My Lords, I accept that we are in a very serious situation. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has publicly acknowledged that the level of violence in our prisons is too high. She has also said that we are addressing it—and that is what the White Paper set out to do, with a comprehensive reform of our prison system. That is why she made it quite clear that there would be an extra 2,500 officers by 2018. I accept that 2018 is some way off, which is why she made it clear that, starting with the most challenging prisons, there would be an extra 400 officers by March next year.

In the White Paper—the noble Lord will probably be more familiar with the White Paper than I am, as I am very new to the issue this afternoon—we set out a number of matters to ensure that prisons are safer and more secure, that standards are raised, that we will see a further empowering of prisoners and we can introduce greater accountability and scrutiny.

On his questions about extra funding from prisons to the health service and from the health service to prisons or vice versa, I will certainly take those on board and make sure that my right honourable friend is made aware of them.

My Lords, there is a new report from the Howard League and Centre for Mental Health. That report and the statistics mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, strikingly demonstrate the shocking crisis in our prisons. The White Paper that the Minister mentioned, Prison Safety and Reform, contains much that is valuable on renewing the prison estate, tackling the flow of drugs and bringing more education to prisons, but these are long-term measures. The crisis requires urgent action: many more staff in weeks and very few months, not years; an end to prisoners having to spend 23 hours in their cells; an end to mental health prisoners being placed in segregation when we need more secure hospital places; a serious attack on overcrowding, starting immediately with an end to IPP prisoners and their release; and guidance given on an end to short sentences. When will the Government start taking the measures that are needed to solve this very urgent crisis, which is far worse than simply a “serious situation”?

My Lords, I was aware of the new report by the Howard League because I heard news of it on the radio this morning. At that stage I did not realise I would be at the Dispatch Box responding to the noble Lord about the matter some hours later. I am very grateful to him for drawing it to the attention of the House.

He makes clear, as did I, that a number of long-term measures are set out in the White Paper, and I hope the House is grateful for that. But I also acknowledge that short-term measures are necessary. That is why I wanted to highlight the fact that we are doing something in the 10 most challenging prisons to get 400 extra officers by March next year. The noble Lord will accept that that is something for the short term and something that we can do quickly.

At this stage, all I can say is that I note what the noble Lord said and that it will be taken on board. We are not complacent on this matter. As I said in my second response, we accept that this is a very serious situation, which is why we are trying to respond in both the long and short term.

My Lords, I wish Ministers would stop talking about “extra staff”. They are not extra; they are replacing staff who were wilfully cut, as the noble Lord, Lord Marks, said. I also wish Ministers would stop taking a long-term view of what has been exposed as being a crisis by successive chief inspectors of prisons over many years but has been ignored. Most recently it was raised by the Prison Governors Association, which called for a public inquiry into the state of our prisons. That organisation should know because it is on the receiving end of what is happening in prisons.

The disgraceful figure of suicides owes much to the situation that, frankly, the Government have created. So when will they show a sense of urgency in getting out of the situation rather than talking all the time about the long term?

My Lords, the noble Lord implies that we are being complacent and that we are not doing enough. I think I have stressed that my right honourable friend accepts that there is a very serious situation. I also stress that she accepts and values the work done by the Prison Officers’ Association. As the noble Lord well knows, my right honourable friend recently met the association and has a great deal of respect for what it does; I think that the meeting was constructive. With meetings of that sort and what my right honourable friend has proposed, I hope that we can take these matters forward and that the noble Lord, who I know has more expertise in this than anyone else, will accept that we are doing all we can in this matter.

My Lords, declaring an interest as a former Minister for the Prison Service and, before that, in the Department of Health and Social Security, will my noble friend recognise that, in the long term, the effective, humane and cost-effective solution to this does not lie inside prison or how you treat prisoners at all; it depends on how you treat young people so that they do not become criminals? The path to criminality is easily detected as it begins—frequently, simply by being excluded from school and driven on to the streets without supervision. Small resources there would have big results.

My Lords, I well remember my noble friend when he stood at the Dispatch Box answering for Her Majesty’s Government on these matters. He offered us a great many thoughts that ought to be taken on board and he is right to stress the important fact that it would be better if people never went to prison in the first place.

My Lords, the Minister will have gathered that the majority view in your Lordships’ House is that the Government’s response to a desperate situation will be too little, too late. I asked his noble and learned friend Lord Keen to write to me when he justified the reduction of more than 4,000 officers by saying that prisons had closed. I asked him which benchmarks were being used to assess the number of prison officers needed. It is clear that many in your Lordships’ House think that the Government are not justifying the meagre increase mitigating the effects of their massive cuts. Will suicides, overcrowding and the reduction in staffing and lack of access to training be part of the Government’s new benchmarks? I await the answer from the Minister’s noble and learned friend as to what is used to calculate staffing levels, and which are the miraculous new benchmarks that seem to be leading to chaos in our prisons for the foreseeable future.

My Lords, I have not had the pleasure of seeing the noble Baroness’s letter to my noble and learned friend. I will certainly make sure that it is answered as soon as possible and will make a point of having a look at it myself—but I hope that she will accept that, having not seen it myself, I cannot yet respond to it in detail.