Skip to main content

Serious Disturbance at HM Prison Birmingham

Volume 777: debated on Monday 19 December 2016


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

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the serious disturbance at Her Majesty’s Prison Birmingham on Friday. I want to begin by paying tribute to the bravery and dedication of the prison officers who resolved this difficult situation. I also want to give thanks to West Midlands Police, who supported the Prison Service throughout the day, and to the ambulance crews and the fire service who also provided assistance.

This was a serious disturbance. I have ordered a full investigation and have appointed Sarah Payne—adviser to the independent Chief Inspector of Probation and former director of the Welsh Prison Service—to lead this work.

I do not want to pre-judge the outcome of the investigation. As we currently understand it, at 9.15 am on Friday at Her Majesty’s Prison Birmingham, six prisoners in N Wing climbed on to netting. When staff intervened, one of them had their keys snatched. At that point, staff withdrew for their own safety. Prisoners then gained control of the wing, and subsequently of P Wing.

G4S immediately deployed two Tornado teams. At 11:20, Gold Command was opened, and a further seven additional Tornado teams were dispatched to the prison. At 1.30 pm, prisoners gained access to two more wings. Gold Command made the decision that further reinforcements were needed and dispatched an additional four Tornado teams to the prison. At 2.35 pm, the police and Prison Service secured the perimeter of all four wings, which remained secure throughout the day. Shortly after 3 pm, there were reports of an injured prisoner. Paramedics and staff tried to intervene but were prevented from doing so by prisoners.

During the afternoon, a robust plan was prepared to take back control of the wings, minimising the risk to staff and prisoners. It is important that in this type of situation the right resources are in place before acting.

At 8.35 pm, 10 Tornado teams of highly trained officers swept through the wings. Shortly after 10 pm, the teams had secured all four wings. The prisoner who had previously been reported injured was treated by paramedics and taken to hospital, along with two other prisoners.

Throughout the day, the Prisons Minister and I chaired regular cross-government calls to make necessary preparations and ensure that the Prison Service had all the support it needed. I want to thank the Tornado teams, prison officers and emergency services for their exemplary work.

As I have said before, levels of violence are too high. We also have very concerning levels of self-harm and deaths in custody. That is why we are reforming our prisons to be safe and purposeful places and taking swift action to deal with drugs, drones and phones. It is important to remember that these problems have developed over a number of years and it will take time and concerted effort to turn the situation around. While these reforms take hold, we are continually working to reduce risk and ensure stability across the prison estate.

The Prison Service is leading Gold Command to collect intelligence, deploy resources and in particular manage the movement of prisoners. This includes managing two incidents at Hull yesterday morning which were quickly dealt with by staff. To date we have moved 380 prisoners out of Birmingham and we are continuing to assess the level of damage on the wings. The Prisons Minister chairs daily meetings with the chief executive and senior members of the Prison Service to monitor prisons for risk factors that might indicate potential violence and unrest. Where necessary, we are providing governors with immediate and targeted support ranging from extra staff and resources through to the transfer of difficult prisoners and speeding up repairs or replacements to facilities.

As we manage the current difficult situation, we are implementing our reform programme which will reduce violence and cut the £15 billion cost of reoffending, as laid out in the White Paper. In September, we rolled out tests for dangerous psychoactive drugs in prison, the first country to do so. We are rolling out new technology starting with three prisons to prevent mobile phone use. We are recruiting for a new £3 million national intelligence unit to crack down on gang crime. We are increasing staffing levels by 2,500 officers and taking steps to train and retain our valued staff. These include a new apprenticeship programme, a graduate entry scheme, fast-track promotions and retention payments; we are putting an extra £100 million into this.

We are modernising the estate with a £1.3 billion investment programme. We are also empowering governors to manage their regimes locally to get people off drugs, give them the skills they need and get them into work. Importantly, for the first time ever, in the prison and courts reform Bill next year we will be making clear that the purpose of prisons is about not just housing prisoners, but also reforming them. Together, these reforms are the right way to address the issues in our prisons so that they become purposeful places where offenders get off drugs and get the education and skills they need to find work and turn their back on crime for good.

The issues in our prisons are long-standing and are not going to be completely solved in weeks or even months. We are working to ensure that our prisons are stable while we deliver our reforms. Of course this is a major task. I am committed to this and so is the Prison Service, and I know that governors and prison officers are as well. The next few months will be difficult, but I am confident that we can turn this situation around and turn our prisons into places of safety and reform. That is my absolute priority as Secretary of State. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, another week, another crisis for our underfunded, understaffed Prison Service, this time of a magnitude unmatched since the Strangeways riots 26 years ago. They prompted the seminal Woolf report. Last week I suggested that we needed another Woolf Report and I repeat the suggestion today. Thankfully, we still have the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, among us, although I am unsure whether he would be willing to undertake the task, especially if there is to be no commitment by the Government to implement any recommendations which might emerge.

As matters stand, we have an unprecedented level of violence, self-harm and drug abuse, and several riots or near-riots occurring in what should be and must be quintessential places of safety. We are told that the Secretary of State was warned two months ago of the risk of a riot at Birmingham. Was she, and if so what action if any was taken to forestall trouble? For that matter what is the Government’s response to the charge of Nick Hardwick, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons and now chair of the Parole Board, that:

“Successive ministers cannot say they weren’t warned about this”,

adding that he had been sounding warnings for several years?

Birmingham, a once renowned establishment, has been made a dangerous laughing-stock by the vacuous ineptitude of G4S, fully illustrated by the removal of a third of the prison population back to a state-controlled establishment away from the indiscipline and naive ideology of G4S and its hopelessly over-promoted and inexperienced management structures. These are not my words, but those of Michael Kelly, a retired senior manager who worked at Birmingham for nearly 30 years.

Last week I commended the Secretary of State for her presentation of a White Paper on prison reform, but voiced regret over her stubborn failure to acknowledge that at the heart of the problem lies the fact that we have far too many people in prison and too many of those are jailed for too long. We need to reduce our prison numbers—the fourth highest, in proportion of population, in Europe. This should include reviewing the length of sentences.

Several Members, across the House, have tried to pursue this issue. My noble friend Lady Smith, for example, tabled two Written Questions on 22 November, respectively on drug use and violence, and on the ratio of staff to prisoners. She should have had an answer by 7 December. She has not. There are seven other MoJ Questions beyond their reply date. Nor can the adequacy of any reply be taken for granted. I asked about the number of prisoners on remand and how many of them ultimately did not receive custodial sentences, only to be told that the information was not available and would be too expensive to collect. There remains, of course, the oft-challenged failure of the Government to deal with the vexed question of IPP prisoners held long after the tariff for their sentence has been exceeded. Both these groups contribute to the overcrowding which places such enormous pressure on prisoners.

There is widespread scepticism about the Government’s plan to recruit extra staff. Some 2,500 are promised, but this would still leave the workforce down 4,500 from what it was just a few years ago. In addition, it is estimated that some 5,000 more will have to be recruited to replace officers retiring or securing jobs outside the service—numbers which may well be enhanced by recent events.

Pay for the men and women willing to work in this challenging environment clearly needs to be reviewed. New starters can expect to earn all of £20,544 and qualified officers £21,166. G4S, I understand, recruits on a weekly basis from the jobcentre. In these circumstances, the Secretary of State’s call for officers to be recruited might be compared to the captain of the “Titanic” telegraphing the ship’s owners for additional crew members after the iceberg has struck.

We need to reduce prison numbers. This means looking at sentencing policy with a view to reducing the length of sentences, and investing in well-run probation services—where there are also signs of growing pressures—and health, especially mental health, services. We need the Secretary of State and the Ministry of Justice to exercise greater oversight of the system, listen to the advice of the Chief Inspector of Prisons and the Parole Board and cease to rely so heavily on providers such G4S, with a reputation as providers of everything and masters of next to nothing.

My Lords, in thanking the noble and learned Lord for repeating the Statement I ask him to recognise that, but for the skill, courage and day-to-day resourcefulness of prison officers and governors across the prison system, there would have been even more serious and violent incidents than have occurred. The prison system is holding far more prisoners than it is resourced to manage. As a result, rehabilitation programmes are disrupted or not in place at all. To make matters worse, when there are riots those prisoners who want to do their time peaceably, take the courses and train for a job are prevented from doing so and therefore more likely to reoffend when released.

I put two questions to the noble and learned Lord. First, will he say whether G4S had fallen short of its contracted staff numbers at Birmingham? Then, on the wider question, when will Ministers accept and cease to deny that there are offenders in prisons who could be better dealt with by tough community sentences? Unless we use the expensive resources required for prison places more sensibly, as most other European countries do, and unless we address sentence inflation we will build up even more potential for future violence in prisons. Getting the numbers down is not a quick solution to the immediate crisis, but if Ministers do not begin to deal with it now the problems in our prisons and outcomes on release will just get worse.

I am obliged to noble Lords. I begin by responding to some of the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. Staff in all our prisons, whether public or private, work hard to keep prisoners safe and to address the causes of reoffending. Our recently published data show no obvious differences in performance levels between public and private prisons. There are of course issues across the entire prison estate, seen in both public and private sector, and there is no question but that these are attributable to a mix of factors, including the increased use of psychoactive substances, the increased availability of mobile phones within prisons, the increased level of gang violence within prisons, as well as issues about retention of staff and numbers of staff, all of which we are seeking to address and have addressed already by virtue of the White Paper. So far as G4S is concerned, we robustly monitor the performance of all contractors providing services to the Ministry of Justice, and privately managed prisons are subject to the same rigorous external inspections as those in the public sector by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons.

With regard to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Beith, as to the precise number of staff at Birmingham, I do not have those numbers to hand but I am quite happy to write to him and will place a copy of that letter in the Library once I have the relevant information.

On sentencing, since 2010, the prison population has remained relatively stable and static, at about 85,000. There has been a marked decrease in the number of those serving short sentences, by 1,500, but there has been an increase in the number of those serving longer sentences, especially for sexual offences and offences involving violence. Public safety must be at the forefront of our minds when we address these issues.

We are seeking to increase staffing levels across the entire prison estate and are investing in the prison estate itself—a £1.3 billion programme is under way. In February next year, Her Majesty’s Prison Berwyn will open in Wrexham. It will be the second-largest prison in Europe and will ensure that we have enough capacity within the prison estate to address overcrowding.

So far as an investigation is concerned, as I indicated previously, there is already a proposal that an inquiry should be undertaken by Sarah Payne, adviser to the independent Chief Inspector of Probation. We will await the outcome of that investigation before we decide what further steps should be taken.

My Lords, while those who have been involved in the disturbances must clearly be punished appropriately, does my noble and learned friend accept that what has happened demonstrates the evils associated with overcrowding and the lack of purposeful activity? Does he agree that we must take urgent steps to reduce the prison population? In the short term, I suggest an urgent review of all the IPP prisoners who have served their tariff. I also suggest that he consider executive release for those short-term prisoners who have served a substantial part of their predicted period in custody.

I am obliged to my noble friend. With regard to those serving IPP sentences, further considerable progress is being made. For the first time, during 2015, more than 500 IPP prisoners were released, compared with only 200 or 300 in previous years. In 2015-16, 38% of IPP oral hearings completed by the Parole Board resulted in a release decision. For the first time, the number of IPP prisoners has fallen below 4,000, and we are continuing to increase our efforts with regard to those prisoners. So far as the prison population is concerned, there are from time to time strains; there are from time to time pressures on prison capacity. However, as I have said, steps are already being taken in the form of the opening of new prison estate in the new year, which will relieve any such pressure. On sentencing policy, there are no further steps at this stage that I can comment on, but clearly we have in consideration the question of how the prison population is maintained. So far as work is concerned, increased efforts have been made to provide useful, constructive work for those within the prison estate, not only so that they can work during their period of sentence but so that they have an opportunity to move into work as they move through the gate of the prison at the end of their sentence. However, we must remember that something like half the prison population enter prison with unacceptable levels of numeracy and literacy. There are formidable challenges ahead. We are prepared to meet them—and intend to.

My Lords, I should declare that some years ago, after the comparatively easy escape by Blake and the subsequent Mountbatten report, I was instructed, with a small team, to speak to prison governors to see if we could make it a little harder to escape from prison. I was most impressed with the prison governors. We had a two-day seminar with every prison governor in Britain. I will not go into the details because we are time-limited, but two possibilities came out of that which had not been considered—and I believe have been forgotten since.

First, there is a helicopter snatch from a prison. Making a prison a no-fly zone will ease that rather than make it a no-go. Noble Lords may remember a very successful helicopter snatch from the Isle of Wight prison. However, the thing that perturbed us most was the possibility of a break-in to break out a top terrorist or top criminal. That had not really been considered at that time. With our enemy within and the way things go now, that ought to be resuscitated and looked at. You need more than a Tornado team to deal with it. You are dealing with armed intervention and explosives. There are devious and clandestine ways but a prison distraction such as we have just seen is ideal for such an operation.

I am obliged to the noble Viscount, Lord Slim. It would appear that his conversations had some effect because 2015-16 saw the lowest number of absconds from prisons—105—since records began. With respect, the more immediate issue is not helicopters but drones. We have taken steps to introduce further penalties to limit the use of drones in and around prisons. Indeed, noble Lords may be aware of the recent conviction of an individual for the use of a drone to take material into prison. That resulted in a sentence of imprisonment for 14 months—not helping the issue of overcrowding, I accept, but nevertheless bringing home to people the risks associated with the use of drones in and around prisons.

My Lords, the Minister will recall my noble friend Lord Beecham’s reference to the cuts in prison staffing. The Minister in this House, answering a Question from me, said that the way the Government calculated the need for prison officers had changed as per a letter saying what factors were taken into account. Is it drugs or violence—what is it? The Minister has not furnished the House with the justification for the government cuts in the staffing ratio.

This is not to do with the number of prisons being reduced, as the Minister said then. It is the staffing. It is no good and it will ring hollow to the loyal, hard-working prison officers when Ministers “support” them but are also responsible for cutting the staff who can deal with young prisoners, many of whom are semi-literate and ill educated. If people are shut in their cells for a long time, it is not surprising that their education does not improve. This is a scandal of the Government’s making; all the professional advice warned the Government that it was looming. We do not want more reports—we want action.

With respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, that is precisely what this Government are providing. Let us not look back but look forward. We are looking forward to providing, more or less immediately, 400 additional prison officers, many hundreds of whom have already been recruited. We are looking forward to providing another 2,500 prison officers. As I say, let us look forward to what we are seeking to achieve, not look back to what has been.

My Lords, I am sure the House would be interested, if my noble and learned friend can tell us, in whether drugs played a significant part in what went on in Birmingham, although it may be that that will have to await the inquiry. However, can my noble and learned friend confirm that drugs are not only a problem because they tend to create aggression in prisoners, but because they also create an atmosphere where money is owed by one prisoner to another and gangs are set up, the combination of which is quite toxic? I note that the Statement said that the Government are rolling out tests for dangerous psychoactive drugs in prison. Will the Minister please assist us and tell us how that rolling out is going and what the Government hope it will achieve?

I am obliged to my noble friend. It is too early to say whether drugs played a direct part in the incident at Her Majesty’s Prison Birmingham. No doubt that will be the subject of inquiry during the course of the investigation, which I have already referred to. However, the development of a prevalence of psychoactive substances in prisons has been a major factor in engendering violence for the two reasons that my noble friend indicated. First, the use of these drugs engenders behavioural changes that lead to violent conduct, and, secondly, the competition for control of these drugs leads to further intimidation and violence within the prison estate—there is no question of that. We have struggled to address the issue of psychoactive substances but we have now reached the point at which we have developed blood tests that are effective in identifying their use. That has been a considerable challenge, and we are now essentially a world leader in that field. Those tests will be rolled out to control the use of psychoactive substances. It is believed that that will assist in reducing the level of violence within our prison estate.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that food, occupation and washing facilities are very important? Are these at a decent level in all our prisons? How many other incidents have there been across the country in the past year in various prisons? A few months ago, I visited HMP Moorland near Doncaster, and found it very run-down and rather dirty. Morale in prisons is so important. Does the Minister agree that well-trained prison officers can spot things before they happen, and that therefore there should be many more?

I am obliged to the noble Baroness. Of course well-trained prison officers have the ability to identify problems that are developing, which those of lesser experience will not be able to do. Eighty per cent of the present cohort of prison officers have five years’ experience or more in their job. We are not only working hard to recruit new prison officers but we are working very hard on a programme for the retention of prison officers, because, as the noble Baroness indicated, experience is as important as numbers.

I am not in a position to comment on individual prisons on a case-by-case basis. However, clearly, what lies behind our intention to invest £1.3 billion in the prison estate is the desire to ensure that there are decent conditions available for prisoners during their sentence. I accept that there was an incident at Moorland. There was an incident at Bedford and there have been others during the year. Those clearly place strain on the prison estate, prison officers and staff in general. However, we are responding positively to those concerns. One of our principal aims is to ensure that rehabilitation and the opportunity for work and education are principal goals in the context of prison policy.

My Lords, I am grateful for the answers that we have had to the questions raised. As the House knows, the Strangeways inquiry resulted in my giving a report and since that time, I have followed up what has been happening in prisons, not least because of my involvement with the Prison Reform Trust. Does the Minister agree that it has to be recognised that overcrowding is a cancer that can destroy all the best endeavours in prisons? I am afraid that any answer given to the problems which does not take that into account, notwithstanding what was said about building more prisons, will not really root out the problem because the sort of things which the Minister has talked about are so much more difficult. Finally, does he agree that it is a particularly difficult time in prisons when they go through a process of reform? That was true just before Strangeways and we are, I hope, going through a period of reform now. Are Ministers conscious of that?

I am obliged to the noble and learned Lord. We are of course conscious of the demands placed upon the prison estate and prison staff at a time of change. It will be demanding as we go forward with the development of the new prison estate. Clearly overcrowding, not on its own but as part of that terrible mix of issues, can lead to difficulty, danger and violence in our prisons. That is why we are concerned to address the issue of overcrowding as swiftly as we possibly can.

My Lords, when the Minister made his last Statement I asked him how bad things have to become in our prisons before we look to the Armed Forces to help. Given the seriousness of the current situation and how critical it is, should we now consider the use in some shape or form of either elements of the Reserve Forces or recently retired members of the Armed Forces or police to help in manning the situation in our prisons? If we lock prisoners up for 23 hours a day and treat them like animals, it is no wonder if we get the sort of situation that tragically happened in the last 48 hours.

There is no requirement at this time to call upon outside bodies to assist with the maintenance of order within our prisons. That has been dealt with not only by prison staff in general but by the specialist Tornado groups that were called in and resolved the issue at Birmingham. However, in this context, as part of our recruitment programme we are looking to recruit former members of the Armed Forces who have particular training, service and expertise in areas that can come to bear upon the control of prison populations.

My Lords, could the inquiry look carefully at the role of G4S and other private contractors? There are many of us who feel that the incarceration of our fellow citizens should be the responsibility of the state and should never be contracted out. As this has occurred in such a prison, can this form a central point of the inquiry?

I am obliged to my noble friend. As I indicated earlier, all recent published data show that there are no obvious differences in performance levels between public and private prisons. We therefore consider that we should continue with our endeavour of ensuring that the prison estate can be controlled and provided across both the public and private sectors.

Does the noble and learned Lord accept that our courts could send fewer people to prison without there being unacceptable risk to the public? Has the time not come to review whether further judicial guidelines should be issued with a view to bringing this situation to an end?

My Lords, with respect to the noble Lord, there are very detailed sentencing guidelines now available throughout the magistrates’ courts, which deal with about 90% of all crime, the Crown Courts and the highest courts with regard to disposal. They are constantly reviewed and considered in order to try to ensure that we can minimise the extent of detention as a punishment. Clearly, the hierarchy begins with the forms of disposal that would prevent detention, whether they are a financial penalty or some punishment within the community. That continues to be our policy.

House adjourned at 7.10 pm.