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Volume 800: debated on Tuesday 29 October 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to replace Victorian-era prisons with more modern facilities.

My Lords, since 2010, 20 prisons have closed, the majority of which were built prior to 1900, and four prisons and 11 house blocks were opened. Due to predicted changes in the prison population, no further closures are currently planned, save for those that have already been announced. The Prime Minister has committed £2.5 billion to build 10,000 new additional places. I hope the noble Lord is pleased to learn that it is the Government’s ambition to close old, inefficient prisons, but we cannot yet commit to closures of specific sites.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is personally ashamed of the size of the prison population, the violence, the self-harm, the drugs, the overcrowding and the £900 million maintenance backlog. Appearing before the Select Committee last week, the Prisons Minister, Lucy Frazer, acknowledged that even more prisoners were expected. She said:

“That will mean we need to keep our Victorian prisons in operation”.

Clearly the bang ’em up brigade is back in charge. When asked about the number of prisoners who suffer from a mental health problem, she replied:

“We have that number … I do not know whether I can share the number with you; it is way too high”.

Parliament is entitled to know that number. What is it?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me advance notice. The statistic that I have been provided with from a 2015 Ministry of Justice survey is that 40% of male remand prisoners have a common mental health problem. I agree with the noble Lord that that figure is too high, but I assure him that mental health training and specific self-harm and suicide prevention have been introduced into the basic prison officer training. Over 25,000 new and existing staff have completed at least one module of that latter training and 14,000 have completed the specific mental health module. I am also pleased to tell the noble Lord that the Samaritans were given £500,000 last year, and there is a commitment to give that amount every year for three years to help vulnerable prisoners.

In every year since 2014 the Government have proposed to increase our overcrowded and all-too-often squalid prisons by 10,000 extra places. Despite having among the highest incarceration rates in Europe, they have failed both to achieve their own target, now reiterated by the Prime Minister, or even to replace dismal Victorian buildings as promised. How long are prisoners and prison staff expected to endure what the Prison Reform Trust describes as a policy that is likely to make overcrowding worse and produces an indecent prison system that puts lives at risk—and that is before taking into account the Prime Minister’s aspiration to promote longer sentences?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his question. Since 2010 there has been a net increase in the number of places of just over 1,100. It is precisely to avoid an increase in crowding that the Victorian estate cannot be closed at this time. Ten thousand new places will come on line, and an additional 3,000 are committed to at Wellingborough and Glen Parva. Central to the modernisation programme is to get back to the point in 2015 when new prison places came on line without an increase in crowding.

Would it not be very interesting to spend much more time on rehabilitation? That would reduce the need to put people in prison, as they would not be committing crime.

The noble Lord is correct that, of all crime committed, about three-quarters is due to reoffending. There has therefore been an overhaul in relation to education and employment in prisons. The budget has been devolved to governors so that they can commission the education required for their prison populations. Prisoners are now assessed in basic maths and English when they enter prison, with a view to increasing their educational attainment. In relation to the noble Lord’s specific concern—homelessness—some of the money for the rough sleeping strategy has been passed to a project within the Prison Service to identify prisoners who are at risk of rough sleeping when they are discharged. A project to provide a support worker and accommodation for two years upon release has just started in Bristol, Leeds and Pentonville prisons. Therefore, those matters are being taken seriously and rehabilitation is obviously a core part of the prison system.

I am sure that many of us will have watched some of the programmes in the “Crime and Punishment” series, which featured Her Majesty’s Prison Winchester, a Victorian prison. The programmes highlighted problems of building maintenance, staff shortages and a large number of attacks on staff—441 in the year 2018-19. Can the Minister confirm what action Her Majesty’s Government will take to address the staff shortages and training needs among prison officers generally, in addition to the prison improvements announced in recent days?

I am grateful to the right revered Prelate. I happened upon exactly that series and watched with interest the challenges faced by the—at that time—female governor of Her Majesty’s Prison Winchester. The recruitment of staff has in fact gone better than expected; 2,500 prison officers were recruited seven months ahead of schedule. However, there are increasing needs in relation to training and, particularly, violence reduction. We are keen to protect staff and have introduced body-worn cameras for them, as well as artificial pepper spray. I do accept that there have been challenges within that estate. More money is now committed to maintenance to ensure that the Victorian prisons, which we need to keep as part of our capacity, will have the repairs that they need.

I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on the clarity of her answers. Can she try, before the end of this Parliament, to find out the latest statistics? She quoted statistics from 2015 to the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, but they are surely a bit out of date.

Yes, I will undertake to obtain more-up-to-date statistics. If there has been a survey since 2015, I will of course provide that information before the end of the Parliament, whenever that may be.