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Prisons and Youth Custody Centres: Safety

Volume 783: debated on Wednesday 19 July 2017


My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question asked in another place on safety in prisons and youth custody centres. The Statement is as follows.

“Independent scrutiny is an essential part of our prison system and I thank the Chief Inspector of Prisons and his team for the work that they do in delivering this, including through his annual report. His report raises some important issues in relation to safety and security in prisons and youth custody.

We have been clear that a calm and ordered environment needs to be created to ensure effective rehabilitation, and that achieving this is our priority. The current levels of violence, self-harm and self-inflicted deaths in the adult estate are unacceptable. The issues in our prisons have deep roots. While they will not be addressed overnight, we are combining immediate action to stabilise the estate with significant additional investment. For example, we are investing £100 million a year to bring in an additional 2,500 prison officers by the end of 2018. We are already making significant progress, with a net increase of 515 prison officers in post at the end of March compared to the previous quarter.

The annual report highlights particular issues regarding the youth estate. I reassure the honourable Member that the safety and welfare of every young person in custody is of paramount importance to me and that we are clear that more needs to be done to achieve this. In response to Charlie Taylor’s review of the youth justice system last December, the Government acknowledged the serious issues that the youth justice system faces, which is why we are reforming the system. Let me give three examples of the progress that we are making. We have created a new youth custody service, with an executive director, for the first time in the department’s history. The development of a new youth justice specialist officer role ensures that more staff can be specifically trained to work with young people, boosting the numbers on operational frontlines in YOIs by 20% and recruiting workers specifically trained to work within the youth sector. The introduction of a more individualised approach for young people is focused on education and health, enhancing the workforce, improving governance and developing the secure estate.

Finally, in his report, the chief inspector expressed disappointment about the implementation rate of his recommendations. I recognise this concern, and to address this, we have created a new unit within Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service to help ensure recommendations are taken forward in a timely manner, and to track how they are being implemented by prisons.

The issues within our prisons will not be resolved overnight, but we are determined to make progress as quickly as possible and I hope that honourable Members on both sides of the House will support our plans for reform”.

My Lords, the Chief Inspector of Prisons describes a “staggering decline” in safety in young offender institutions and secure training centres, not one of which is,

“safe to hold children and young people”.

He asserts that the current state of affairs is,

“dangerous, counterproductive and will inevitably end in tragedy unless urgent corrective action is taken”.

Adult prisons have seen,

“a dramatic and rapid decline”

in standards, with a rising incidence of violence and drug abuse, but also shocking sanitary conditions. What urgent action will the Government now take to address the scandalous state of our prisons, and in what timeframe? Is it not time to acknowledge that having the fourth highest incarceration rate in Europe contributes to the shameful state of the service?

I am obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, for his observations. First, on the safety of the youth estate, since his report was published the inspector has acknowledged that at the institution at Werrington, the standard of safety for both inmates and staff is at a scale of three out of four: that is, at 75%. Of course, the fact that one of these institutions has achieved such a level of safety takes us only so far. We will seek to emulate those standards across the entire estate going forward, but it is not the case that all these institutions have failed. I accept, however, that the failure reported upon by the inspector is unacceptable and has to be addressed.

As the noble Lord may recollect, we have already committed to spending £1.3 billion on the prison estate. In addition, I note that Her Majesty’s Prison Berwyn, which has been completed, now has 430 places in use, and, once fully operational, will have a further new 2,100 prison places. That is but a step but it is a step in the right direction. As for periods of incarceration, I note that the level of sentences imposed for violent and sexual crimes over the past decade has increased. That, of course, has an impact upon the prison estate. That is a feature that we have to take into consideration in looking at the overall operation of the system. But we cannot lose sight in this context of the issue of public safety.

My Lords, the chief inspector reports that he is,

“appalled by the conditions in which we hold many prisoners”,

and that far too often he had seen,

“men sharing a cell in which they are locked up for as much as 23 hours a day, in which they are required to eat all their meals, and in which there is an unscreened lavatory”,


“staff shortages make it impossible to provide a decent, rehabilitative environment”.

Do the Government recognise this as a crisis which disgraces Britain? The Minister’s Answer suggests complacency. We are not making significant progress. The chief inspector says that we are having,

“a dramatic and rapid decline”.

We now have a custody system that is redolent of “Midnight Express”. Never mind the nasty party, on prisons we are becoming the nasty country. Will the Government act now to reduce prisoner numbers, renew the prison estate, reduce overcrowding, radically raise staffing and tackle violence of all forms?

Is the MoJ powerless to persuade the Treasury to spend more on reducing reoffending to save offenders’ futures, at the same time saving much of the £13.5 billion annual cost to the public purse of reoffending?

I am obliged again to the noble Lord, Lord Marks. Complacency is not a badge that can properly be applied to the Government with regard to the issue of prisons and the prison estate.

This matter has not arrived overnight or over the past two years—in a sense, this has been a long time coming. We have seen an increase in the prison estate from 40,000 or so about 15 years ago to about 85,000 today. Again, that did not happen overnight. It reflects a number of different changes in policy, including changes in sentencing policy. But looking to what we are doing today, we are already committed to and involved in an expenditure of £1.3 billion on the prison estate. We have already opened and are developing the prison at Berwyn to provide a total of 2,100 new places. We are addressing the issue of staff shortages. We have already committed to bringing forward 2,500 further staff by 2018 and, as I noted earlier, in the last quarter, the net increase in prison officers has exceeded 500. Complacency is not a badge. Reaction and response to these difficulties are the mark of what the Government have been doing.

My Lords, what suggestions does the Minister have to eradicate gang warfare and bullying in young offenders institutions?

The issue of violence within young offenders institutions is troublesome. One of the features of the young offenders regime is that over the past decade, the numbers within our youth custody regime have reduced from about 3,000 to about 900. That is in itself a success, but in doing that, we have concentrated a greater mix of very troubled young people within the remaining estate, who often have learning difficulties and mental health difficulties. Therefore, the issues of violence which go alongside that have to be addressed in a more positive and effective way. We are addressing how we can bring forward a further and improved regime of training, education and, of course, purposeful activity beyond just education, including sport. It is hoped also that we will be able to develop our plans for two new secure schools to put education at the heart of youth custody in the course of the present Parliament.

My Lords, I have said on a number of occasions in this House that I wished that Ministers would stop talking about an additional 2,500 staff. In fact, that is 2,500 inexperienced replacements for the 7,500 experienced staff who the Government wilfully removed. When I introduced the “healthy prison concept” in 2000, the first aspect of this was safety, but that concept was introduced for the inspection of prisons. It is quite clear from the chief inspector’s report that the whole prison system fails the healthy prison concept for safety. During the Queen’s Speech, a number of us regretted that the “prisons” part of the Prisons and Courts Bill had been dropped, and I appealed to the Prime Minister to think again. Surely this report is the biggest indictment of the prison system that we have had recently. I ask the Minister again whether the Government are prepared to think again about dropping the prisons part from the legislation.

My Lords, we are not bringing forward 2,500 inexperienced prison officers; we are bringing forward properly trained prison officers to fill 2,500 places. We did not wilfully remove 7,500 prison officers; we closed 18 prisons and, in conjunction with that, there was a material decrease in the number of prison officers. Of course, we are committed to the idea of healthy prisons that can have a positive effect on the rehabilitation of inmates. With regard to the prisons Bill, I just make this observation: we are still committed to the provisions of the White Paper set out by the Government, many of which can be implemented without the need for primary legislation.

My Lords, when will the Government admit that the state has effectively lost control of many of our penal institutions, with violence against staff and prisoners at a totally unacceptable level and getting worse? Is not the only solution in the short term to call in military support to restore proper control, as I have urged before?

We do not agree that it is appropriate or indeed necessary to have regard to military intervention in the civilian prison system. That would be a wholly unprecedented step that would not be welcomed, I suspect, in any quarter. In September last year, we rolled out a new test for psychoactive substances across the entire prison estate. I mention that because the presence of psychoactive substances within the prison estate is a major cause of violent behaviour, bullying, intimidation and further difficulties with staff. We have now invested £2 million to equip every prison across the estate with hand-held mobile phone detectors because, again, the presence of mobile phones is connected to the presence within the prison estate of drugs and other psychoactive substances. In addition to reducing the number of mobile phones within prisons, we have taken steps to reduce the quantities of drugs there. In 2016, prison staff recovered about 225 kilograms of illicit drugs across the prison estate. By taking these steps, we can effectively seek to reduce the level of violence between prisoners and towards staff.