Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic on the prison population and offender rehabilitation programmes.
The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
My Lords, in this debate the Government have three big questions to answer. First, have they failed in their duty of care to prison staff and prisoners? Secondly, have their actions to date been too little, too late? Thirdly, are the Government’s actions sufficient to safeguard the public from the community spread of coronavirus, and have they adequately ensured that the safety of the public has not been put at risk?
I thank all the organisations that have provided me with supporting evidence to understand these key questions, in particular the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison Reform Trust and Women in Prison. I also acknowledge that the Government have limited room for manoeuvre, given the systemic problems over many years in our prison system—problems of overcrowding, maintenance backlogs and inadequate support to prepare people for release.
On my first question, of whether the Government have failed in their duty of care, we have just to look at the statistics on virus transmission to identify the scale of the problem. The first reported coronavirus case in a prison in England and Wales occurred on 18 March. By 1 April there were 88 cases among staff and prisoners. By 8 April that number had risen to 177; by 15 April it had risen to 300; and on Tuesday this week it rose again to 534. These figures demonstrate an exponential rise and no sign of a flattening curve. In fact, in the last week alone, the number of cases has risen from 269 to 534. That is six times higher than it was on 1 April. Sadly, prisoners, prison officers and staff have died from coronavirus. I ask the Minister to provide us with the latest details.
Isolation, social distancing, testing and wearing of protective equipment are the actions we would expect to be undertaken by the Government to protect prisoners and staff alike. Our overcrowded prisons make it very difficult to isolate or to develop social distancing. By way of example, Swansea, the most overcrowded prison in England and Wales, is supposed to hold no more than 250 men, but at the end of February it held 436. The Government’s response is to create three cohorts of prisoner and to try to isolate one from the other: those with coronavirus symptoms; those who might have been exposed to the virus or are new to prison; and the vulnerable group to be shielded.
To create the space for this to happen, the Government announced that they would build 2,000 temporary cells. How many of those have now been built and how many are occupied? Also, how many prisoners are currently required to share a cell or sleep in a dormitory? Is the wearing of PPE compulsory for staff? Can the Minister confirm reports of woefully low numbers of available equipment?
For example, in our largest prison, HMP Berwyn in Wrexham, where 60% of the cells are designed to hold two people—built in breach of United Nations minimum standards—social distancing is impossible. I am afraid that the conclusion reached is that, because of a failure of testing, availability of PPE, isolation and social distancing, and the exponential rise in coronavirus cases, our prisons are incubators, pumping the virus and spreading it to the communities both within and outside their walls. For the 17,000 prisoners sharing cells, whether the virus is contracted is truly a terrifying lottery.
On my second question, of whether government actions have been too little, too late, I turn to the Government’s key proposal to reduce the spread of the virus by creating more space in the prison system through the early release of prisoners. There is confusion about how many prisoners are to be released: the Government say 4,000, plus pregnant women prisoners, but we are told that Public Health England and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service have recommended a reduction of 15,000 prisoners to properly safeguard both prisoners and staff. Either way, progress has been painfully slow to reach even the lower government target. Only 17 of the 70 pregnant women have been released and the end-of-custody temporary release scheme had released only a handful—just four—by 14 April. If that is still the case, it gives us a grand total of 21, nowhere near the 4,000 the Government say and nowhere near the 15,000 the prison service says.
This rate of release is too slow and too late
“to save lives and avoid a public health catastrophe both within prisons and beyond.”
Those are not my words but those of the Secretary of State for Justice announcing the release scheme earlier. Has the ECTR scheme been restarted and how many have now been released? Do the Government have sufficient powers to facilitate early release and, if not, why have they not taken them? Meanwhile, new prisoners are being admitted. Can the Minister tell the House how many have been admitted to prison in the last month and how many are being held on remand? All around the globe, countries are releasing prisoners under strict conditions. The Ministry of Justice response falls way below any international comparator and indeed, in the UK, below that of Northern Ireland and probably Scotland.
The scientific advice is quite clear: the risk of infection is much higher in congregate settings such as prisons. The fewer the people in those settings the better. A similar situation applies in immigration detention centres. By definition, these people are not criminals and are certainly vulnerable. So, to my third question: is public health adequately safeguarded by the Government’s actions? Prisons are not places of total isolation. Some 50,000 staff and workers enter and leave daily, and goods and services arrive and leave. Prison staff have woefully low numbers of PPE and nearly a quarter of staff are self-isolating at home. The reduced numbers serving the prison population have resulted in lock-ins for 23 hours at a time, often with more than one person in a cell. Testing of staff has only just started, and those tested are a tiny proportion of staff overall. As the expert adviser Professor Coker says:
“Closed environments contribute to secondary transmission of COVID-19 and promote superspreading events. Closed environments are consistent with large-scale COVID-19 transmission events such as that of the ski chalet-associated cluster in France and the church- and hospital-associated clusters in South Korea.”
The Government’s response to the pandemic in respect of the Prison and Probation Service has been inadequate and lacking in urgency. What we have witnessed has been too little and too slow. Urgent action is needed to save lives. In these exceptional circumstances, the Government must accelerate and widen the release scheme, including vulnerable offenders, children and pregnant women. Only then will prisons have the space to isolate and undertake some social distancing. We need a presumption against short-term prison sentences, which do not generally work anyway. The Government have been looking at this very carefully. Sending more people to prison for a short time is a double whammy against beating the pandemic.
The prison estate is now a perfect crucible for the disease. The dangers have been pointed out to the Government, but they appear reticent to act. This has put prisoners and prison staff in danger. The Government have failed in their duty of care and are sleep-walking into a crisis that they must avoid. Prisons were already overstretched and overcrowded before coronavirus. Adding this crisis on top makes it a perfect storm for our Prison and Probation Service. I therefore look forward to the Minister’s response to these problems.
My Lords, I live just outside Bedford, the home of John Howard, the prison reformer. It has a very old prison, with some modifications. It is supposed to hold 500; the latest figure that I have is that it holds 900-plus. That reflects all the points that the noble Lord, Lord German, said.
I ask the Minister: why, when provision is made that there should be no visitors and no education, is Scotland allowing prisoners to have some form of communication with their loved ones? Why on earth can we not do that in the rest of the United Kingdom?
I come also to this key point about the Prison Governors Association figures. It is recommending that 15,000 be released because it knows about the staff shortages, the difficulties and the challenges. I say to your Lordships, in particular the Minister: why can we not be brave for once and have some real urgency? I have had to do it in my life with the three-day week; I remember that very clearly. It was done in Calcutta when I worked there and there was a particular problem.
I ask the Minister to take 15,000 as his target figure. He might not quite make it, but so be it. If he can get somewhere near it, every one of us in the House of Lords and in the Commons will thank him. We will have done some good for the poor souls who are worried stiff at this moment.
My Lords, I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak, albeit very briefly, in this debate. I expect that some will be surprised that time is being devoted to this topic, yet what happens in our prisons must not be swept under the carpet and ignored. People in detention are totally dependent on the state for their treatment and care. Article 2 of the ECHR places a special duty on the state to protect those in custody.
Winston Churchill, then the Home Secretary, speaking in the other place 110 years ago said:
“The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.”—[Official Report, Commons, 20/7/1910; col. 1354.]
Those words set a context for today’s debate.
Six years ago, I conducted a review for the MoJ. Our prisons were grotesquely overcrowded and staffing levels were inadequate. I concluded that prisoners were being kept in grim environments that were bleak and demoralising to the spirit. One can only imagine what it is like now, with permanent lockdown and disease stalking the corridors.
Given the stretched staffing, can the Minister tell us what proportion of prison officers are ill or in quarantine? I understand that, as of Sunday, 278 prisoners had tested positive for Covid-19 across 64 prisons. What are today’s figures? If the Minister does not have them, why not? There is a duty of care there.
How many deaths have there been? What are the numbers of prisoners who have died from respiratory or other illness but were not tested for Covid-19 in the last two months? Are prisoners’ families being informed that their relative has the virus or has symptoms? What steps are being taken to keep worried families informed?
Given the Article 2 obligations and notwithstanding the provisions in the recent Coronavirus Act that Covid-related deaths are not notifiable, will all deaths of prisoners be subject to proper, effective external investigation and scrutiny? I look forward to the noble and learned Lord’s response.
My Lords, between 2010 and 2017 I spent seven years at the Ministry of Justice, first as Minister of State and then as chair of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales. I visited many prisons and young offender institutions and never left any of those bodies without a sense of awe for those who work in them, doing a difficult and sometimes dangerous job on behalf of us all.
A month ago Sir Bob Neill, the chairman of the Justice Committee in the other place, called for the immediate publication of contingency plans to deal with what he called the
“potential hotbed for viral transmission”
in our prisons. The reason we are having this debate today—and that the noble Lords, Lord German, Lord Naseby and Lord Harris, have opened with such passion—is that there is a growing feeling that Ministers in the Ministry of Justice are not up to responding to that call for action. The Minister will be aware of the briefings that noble Lords have received from Nacro, the Prison Reform Trust, the Howard League, the Quakers and others. It is impossible to cover all their concerns in a two-minute speech, so will the Minister deposit in the Library a comprehensive response to the concerns raised in those briefings by these expert organisations?
Will prison staff and prisoners now be given the testing and safety equipment to manage the threats of the coronavirus safely, as is happening in hospitals and care homes? Will the Secretary of State take one of the Downing Street press conferences, accompanied by the head of the Prison Service, so that he can explain to the media and the British public what is happening in our prisons on his watch? Unless we hear an “action this day” response from the Minister, there is a very real danger of prisons being added to the list of too-little-too-late responses that have blighted this Government’s record in response to this pandemic.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord German, on asking this important Question and look forward to the Minister’s response.
At Second Reading of the Coronavirus Bill, I raised the point that although 84 of the 121 prisons are overcrowded and a draft operating model for the future of probation services had only just been published, there was no mention of either prisons or probation in the Bill. Summing up, the Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Bethell—assured me that the Secretary of State for Justice
“has advised that powers exist that are considered sufficient for the needs in prisons and for the probation service at this time.”—[Official Report, 24/3/20; col. 1736.]
Yet only a week later, the emergency release of 4,000 remand and low-risk prisoners was announced—but nothing was said about probation services.
A number of prisoners have fallen victim to the virus, from which some have tragically died. Like the noble Lord, Lord Harris, I ask the Minister whether families are being kept informed of the well-being of relatives who are suffering. Public Health England experts are said to advise single cell occupancy—to achieve which, the chief executive of HMPPS told the Justice Select Committee on 7 April, would require the release of between 10,000 and 15,000 prisoners. My second question to the Minister is whether single cell occupancy is the Government’s intent.
My Lords, I echo what has been said already. I draw attention to my interests in the register, particularly the fact that I am president of the Nelson Trust. I will make just a few points.
The Secretary of State has argued that the public would not accept the early release of certain categories of prisoners. The Government need to be clearer with the public about the risks in a pandemic to prisoners, key workers and their families. The potential risk of low-level, non-violent offenders being released on licence is far outweighed by the risk of inaction and delay. Will the Government commit to put into the public domain as soon as possible substantial and transparent information about how the release programme is working and publish daily statistics about coronavirus in prison, including the impact on staff and those in custody?
My second point concerns the slow release of pregnant women and those with infants. What is the Government’s plan to maximise use of the voluntary sector’s capacity and experience? I urge the Government to fully involve the community. Women’s centres specialise in this sort of work. Charities such as Children Heard and Seen and Birthrights are doing remarkable work, as are faith groups. In this pandemic, good things are happening in the community and the justice system should be no exception.
Finally, one burden of this situation weighs heavily on prisoners’ children, who may be too young to understand why they cannot visit or have contact as usual. When mothers in particular are given a short sentence for a non-violent offence, surely we do society far more harm than good by keeping them in custody rather than allowing them out on licence during the pandemic. At the very least, can the Minister ensure that all children with a parent in prison will be able to have regular, free telephone contact with their parent? These are difficult times and urgent action is required.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord German, on initiating this important debate. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester has just mentioned, maintaining family and other relational ties is indispensable to prevent reoffending. Having people to go straight for provides the all-important motivation to engage in other rehabilitation activities.
Therefore, while cancelling visits was necessary, I am relieved that mitigating this appears to be an overriding government priority, with 900 handsets provided for establishments without in-cell telephony. The Prison Service is also piloting video calls at six prisons. The rollout of virtual calls across the whole estate can and should be done at pace, because there have been various previous trials of video-calling technology on which the new pilots can build. As 60% of female prisoners have dependent children, their estate should be prioritised.
Learning from other government programmes, could the Prison Service not deploy an ongoing test-and-learn approach, rather than waiting for perfection? Safety and functioning can be constantly improved in the current crisis, when time is of the essence. Progress should then help to ensure widespread, business-as-usual use of the technology that we have all rapidly become very accustomed to using.
Obviously, public opinion can be antagonistic, but there has never been a better time for people to grasp that deprivation of liberty is the punishment for those in prison, not the disruption of family relationships or prohibited access to the means of communication that are becoming indispensable to most of us and are similarly vital to prisoners’ successful reintegration in mainstream society. Will the Minister update us on the progress being made in the provision of virtual visits? Also, how will suspension of prison visits be lifted? Will this happen across the board, or by establishment, dependent on infection rates? Finally, what is being done to ensure safer custody hotlines are working so that families can express fears about prisoners and receive a response? Thank you.
My Lords, the Government must act now and release women in mother and baby units, and pregnant prisoners.
We know how urgent it is to reduce the overcrowded prison population during this pandemic, to prevent the deaths of inmates and staff. Already, 13 inmates and four prison officers have, sadly, died. Hundreds of prisoners and staff have tested positive for Covid-19.
Women on short sentences do not need a risk assessment in this time of national emergency; they just need to be released. More than half have children under 18. What has happened to the promised release scheme for 4,000 prisoners announced on 4 April and then suspended on 18 April? Can the Minister say how many pregnant women prisoners have been released? We know of only 17 so far. Does the Minister know how many babies and toddlers are currently in prison with their mother? Urgent action must be taken to ensure their safety.
Women in prison are also mothers of children in the community who are suffering great anxiety. With schools closed and grandparents self-isolating, they need access to their mother. Yet all visits were stopped on 13 March. How can this Government say that they believe families are the key to rehabilitation? There are not enough phones in cells, despite government claims, for children to contact their mother, and the use of communal phones increases the risk of infection.
Short sentences are increasingly criticised. Now is the time to abandon them, to cease sending more women to prison, especially on recall, and to ensure that suspended sentences or community orders are the norm.
The Government now have a chance to make a difference: to save more lives, to help the NHS and to allow the Prison Service to concentrate on the rehabilitation of prisoners by implementing the promised early release scheme.
My Lords, Parliament as well as the Government has a duty of care to those in the prison system—staff and prisoners alike—so I am grateful to my noble friend for securing this debate.
In an already very complex situation, Wales’s devolution settlement adds another layer of complexity. Justice and therefore responsibility for prisoner release, for example, are reserved to the UK Government, whereas primary and secondary healthcare related to public sector prisons in Wales is devolved. At this point, I acknowledge the role of Public Health Wales and the Welsh Government in this crisis. They have a vital role to play in providing funding and looking after the well-being of prisoners as they are released. I know they are working closely with the Prison Service, the probation service and local authorities to ensure that suitable accommodation is in place.
Overcrowding in prisons in Wales, as we have already heard, is an ongoing problem, with HMP Swansea being the most overcrowded prison in England and Wales. In view of this, can the Minister tell us how many prisoners have been given early release from Welsh prisons and how many more such releases are planned? The UK Government have apparently announced plans to install 500 temporary single-occupancy cells in seven prisons in England in an attempt to expand capacity. Will we see at least one similar project in one of Wales’s overcrowded prisons? Will the Minister update us on the number of Covid-19 cases in prisons in Wales? It would be very useful if statistics could be produced individually for both countries in future so that the performance of both Governments in their respective areas can be monitored and both can be held to account.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord German, for securing this debate and for his excellent introduction. Many of the questions I had have already been asked, but I want to focus on the excellent suggestion from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester that we should see daily reports on the numbers in prison, the numbers released and the numbers of infections, so that we can monitor what is happening. I also second the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Healy, regarding female prisoners and their particular vulnerabilities. However, I want to spend this brief time focusing on a group of people who are not prisoners, criminals or accused of any crime—people in immigration detention centres, and those who seek asylum and are housed in often very inappropriate housing conditions, being forced by the Government to be in those locations.
Portugal has given full citizenship rights to migrants and asylum seekers for the course of the virus. Is that something the Government will consider? Will they look specifically at freeing everyone from an immigration detention centre and providing them with appropriate accommodation, housing and support? I express the concern that the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group has expressed about the conditions at Urban House in Wakefield, where 180 people share one group of toilets. Cleaning has gone up from once to twice a day, but some people do not want to be there, for obvious reasons of concern.
We need to focus on detention centres, but I have a final question on prisons. How many of the 82,000 residents in jails now are scheduled to be released in the next 12 months? Is there not an argument for releasing all those, given the expected duration of the coronavirus crisis?
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord German, on this excellent debate. It has given a very clear picture of the tragic situation that exists at the moment in prisons. This month sees the 30th anniversary of the Strangeways report which I made into the prison. I am sad to say that the conditions we talked about, and which have been clearly stated by those who have gone before me in the debate, have not improved at all. It is a disgrace that they have not done so and it was bound to happen that, sooner or later, we would have a combination of intolerable conditions in the prisons, which in itself is a risk to the public.
I shall confine the rest of my time to one matter, which is remand prisoners. These have not been found guilty of any offence. The fact that they are on remand speaks for itself. As I understand it, the guidance given to prison governors does not cover remand prisoners, so they are not included. I also refer to one specific case that was brought to my attention and that of the noble Lord, Lord McNally. Like me, he is aware of a father desperately worried about an asthmatic son of 35, who at present has been remanded in custody awaiting extradition to the USA at Wandsworth prison. Conditions are such that they fall within the descriptions we have heard. At Christmas 2015, for four days, he removed his daughter from the care of her mother. He recognises and accepts that what he did was wrong and contrary to a court order, but he was lonely and foolish. He was released on bail there, and negotiations took place with him and his father. What they offered was that if he pleaded guilty he could have a sentence of only eight years in prison; that is on top of the time he has spent in custody.
Will the noble and learned Lord please bring his speech to a close?
I shall stop.
My Lords, I take a generally different view from all the comments expressed so far. We all accept that coronavirus causes difficulties in prisons, since physical distancing is difficult if not impossible. Even if prisoners were locked in individual cells for 24 hours per day, coronavirus would still spread, and I think that is inevitable. I reject the view that we should release as many prisoners as possible and not send any more to prison for short sentences. First, it is our prime duty to protect the public. Courts these days send only fairly serious and habitual offenders to prison. If a judge at present thinks that someone should be in prison for even a few months, you can bet your bottom dollar that that person deserves it. Giving them a community sentence instead is not an alternative: it never has been, and it never will be.
Secondly, we must do all that we can to protect prison officers, who are far more deserving of protection. I do not know how to do that, but they are a greater priority than prisoners. Whether that means some sort of PPE, when it is available, or keeping prisoners in lockdown—the proper use of that ghastly word—then so be it.
Thirdly, it is perfectly acceptable and desirable to release pregnant women and minor offenders who are near the end of their sentence early. That should be under licence and not until they are tagged.
Finally, I read yesterday—and not in the Daily Mail —that the Ministry of Justice is considering putting released prisoners up in Travelodges or Premier Inns. That is unbelievable, as was an approach made by the Ministry of Justice to Butlin’s a few weeks ago, also looking for accommodation. I appreciate the desire to ensure that released prisoners are not wandering the streets committing more crimes, but how will the British public see it? This year, millions of our people will not be able to afford a few weeks in Butlin’s or nights in Travelodges, and they will be appalled that released prisoners should get treatment that they, as honest people, cannot afford. I urge the MoJ to drop this idea and I ask my noble and learned friend to say that it will not happen.
My Lords, I give my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord German. I must differ from the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra; he will not be surprised by that.
Over a month ago, the Prison Governors Association warned the Government that there was a high risk of Covid-19 because of overcrowding in our prisons and an ageing prison population. It is a risk both to the prisoners and to the prison officers and other staff working there. Half of all prisons in England and Wales have confirmed cases of the virus. We have already heard that, to achieve single-cell occupancy, between 10,000 and 15,000 prisoners would have to be released.
What has happened so far? The Government announced plans to release 4,000 people, but only a handful have been released to date. I think that only 17 of the 70 pregnant women and mothers have been released. For others in prison who have children at home, visiting is now impossible, which is an additional punishment to being in prison, never anticipated when the sentence was first imposed.
We need to increase the scope of the temporary release scheme. We should release pregnant women and mothers, and prisoners who are not a threat to the public—mainly category D prisoners who have already been risk-assessed —should be able to go home on extended release on temporary licence. Of course, immigration detention should be applied similarly.
There is concern that the public would not accept the early release of prisoners, but bear in mind that we are talking about prisoners who would not be deemed a threat to the community. When the courts initially sentenced a lot of the people in our prisons, there was no knowledge of the virus or that being in prison might be a death sentence. There was no knowledge that there would be a breach of family relationships because visiting would be impossible. Had the courts known that, I think they would have approached some of the sentences differently. That is why the Government should approach some of these sentences differently and release some of these people.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord German, for giving us this opportunity—
Could the noble Lord speak nearer the microphone, please?
I certainly will, as best I can. I refer to the letter sent to every prisoner by Phil Copple, director-general of prisons, at the beginning of the lockdown. It said that they needed to have forbearance, patience, self-control, restraint and tolerance. He assured them that the Prison Service would look after them with humanity and due dignity.
I made an inquiry of a number of people I know inside the Prison Service to ask how their experience was. I will quote just three. First, this is from a prisoner in Surrey:
“I have been treated poorly throughout the period of the lockdown. I have been provided with no updates as to what the lockdown means other than to remain in my cell until further notice. I have been provided with very limited telephone usage, limited sanitation and no means to cope with prolonged confinement e.g. education.”
This is from another prisoner in Kent:
“No communication or update whatsoever with what’s going on both in/outside of jail. Having 1 hot meal a day at lunchtime and getting a baguette … by 4pm … Basically being told to put up and shut up! I’ve not been seen by no member of healthcare concerning”
well-known mental health issues, skin allergies and other physical needs—no medical support of any nature.
This is a final one from a prisoner in Hampshire:
“People with mental health issues are being neglected and deteriorating because of long periods of confinement to cells with no regime.”
This is a massive failure of human dignity, abruptly disregarded. I urge the Minister to respond with dignity.
Lord Balfe? If not, I call the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester.
My Lords, we have been told that life in Britain will be different once the Covid-19 emergency is over. I hope that one change will be in the approach that we adopt towards Britain’s prisons and the men and women who are held there.
The Prison Service has struggled to contain overcrowding for at least the last 50 years. Measures to reduce the prison population have been discussed continuously during that time. Governments have sometimes expressed themselves as being in favour, but far too little has been done to bring that about. The Crime, Justice and Protecting the Public White Paper in 1990, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, will remember, described prisons as an,
“expensive way of making bad people worse.”
Noble Lords will rightly recoil from the idea of executive release to cancel the effect of a sentence lawfully imposed by the court. However, we now have a situation when a prison sentence carries with it a real risk to the life of a prisoner or of prison staff because of the conditions inside the jails, in half of which the coronavirus is present.
There has always been a time when prisoners have died in prison—for some time now, there have been over 300 prisoner deaths a year, a third of them by their own hand—but we have to go back to the time of the great 18th-century prison reformer John Howard, after whom the Howard League is named and who was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, to find dangers similar to those that we have today because of Covid-19.
In preparing for this debate, I spoke to someone who works at Her Majesty’s Prison Hewell in Worcestershire, described last year by HMIP as “squalid, demeaning and depressing”. As far as spreading the coronavirus is concerned, he said that the prison was as dangerous as a cruise ship—worse in many ways, as the cells are smaller than a typical ship’s cabin.
As so many other countries have decided, and as many of your Lordships have said in this debate, the release of prisoners has now become a matter not just of compassion and humanity but of practical necessity to save lives.
I call the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, who I believe has now unmuted his microphone.
Thank you. I thought that my microphone was being unmuted centrally.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord German, for initiating this debate. I want to say a few words on behalf of what I consider to be the forgotten public service. The Prison Officers’ Association is the trade union that covers prison officers. It has some 37,500 members, of whom 7,000—roughly one in five of the membership—are self-isolating. Four of its members have died of coronavirus and 231 have tested positive for the virus.
Noble Lords will remember that I have argued in the past that it is quite legitimate to have a tough prison regime, but we have to remember the people who look after the prisoners, and we have to make sure that everyone who is in prison has a decent standard of life. There is nothing wrong with locking people up but there is a lot wrong with not giving them a decent standard of life. I want to ask the Minister to consider three issues which the Prison Officers’ Association regards as a high priority.
First, testing should be made available for all prison officers. Apart from anything else, a number of those 7,000 who are self-isolating would be found not to be carrying the disease and could be back at work, which would help the service.
Secondly, there is a great lack of PPE equipment. Most officers in most prisons do not have access to a full range of equipment; much of it is inadequate and much of what is supposed to be there is missing. Can the Minister assure us that the same priority that is being given to NHS outlets will be given to prison outlets, so that prison officers can be properly protected?
The third issue is recognition of key workers. A number of supermarkets, for instance, have refused to recognise prison officers as key workers. Can the Government make it very clear that they are key workers?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord German, for securing this important debate. I declare my interest as founder and director of the UK Sikh prison chaplaincy service.
Our prisons are grossly overcrowded, with more people being sent to prison in proportion to the population than in almost any other European country. We have spoken before about overcrowding and the need for reform, but the added risk to health from Covid-19 gives us an imperative to look again at reducing numbers, by first tackling the needs of the most vulnerable inmates.
I am particularly concerned about mothers in prison—single mothers and expectant mothers—who, in addition to their original sentence, are now deprived of visits by their children because of the pandemic. Worse, wholly innocent children are now being punished through a lack of contact. A small step in the right direction would be to give mothers with no history of violence early temporary release or early parole, which perhaps could later be extended with a community penalty. Similarly, consideration should also be given to vulnerable male prisoners. Covid-19 should be seen as an opportunity to trial long-needed reforms.
My Lords, this debate is hard to wind up in two minutes, but I thank my noble friend Lord German for securing it and for opening it so thoroughly.
Even virtually, this House has been at its best, with unanimity—minus one—in demanding humanity, compassion and a practical but civilised approach. We have consistently railed against the lamentable state of our prisons, demanding fewer prisoners, an end to overcrowding, increased staffing, improved living conditions, more purposeful activity and a limit to time spent locked in cells. Our aim has been rehabilitation. Now, with Covid-19, the same action is essential to keep prisoners and staff safe and to save lives.
The Government’s first duty is to protect our citizens—all our citizens, including prisoners. Today, we have identified the actions that we know must be taken. To end cell-sharing, enable social distancing and ease pressure on staff we must cut prisoner numbers by 15,000—and do so now—by ending short sentences and implementing early and temporary release schemes, with tagging as necessary, as other countries have done. We need more staff, intensively trained, to make up shortages and cover for the large numbers of people off work, so that prisoners can eat, work, attend training and exercise—outside their cells—for reasonable times, in safety. Being locked in cells for 23-plus hours a day is not acceptable. We must provide full testing and prompt access to physical and mental medical care, with PPE for staff and prisoners who need it.
The Government know the urgency, but they have been generally slow in this crisis; the MoJ has been hopelessly so on prisons. What action will the Government take? The delay is costing lives.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord German, who opened the debate extremely effectively. There has been a real sense of urgency and exasperation from all the Peers who have spoken in this important debate.
Since 2010, thousands of prison officers have been axed by the Conservative Government. This has driven a crisis in our prisons, exacerbating the level of violence and affecting prisoner care. Even before the pandemic started, prison violence was out of control, with 33,000 assaults recorded annually—double the level of 2010. There were over 10,000 assaults against prison staff in the last 12 months, which is more than triple what it was 10 years ago.
I want to pick up on a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, regarding prison officers, and ask a question of the Minister. A significant worry for prison officers is bringing the virus back to their home from the workplace and infecting vulnerable members of their family. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the hotel chain Center Parcs on offering free accommodation to prison officers during this outbreak, and will he urge other hotel chains to do the same?
Secondly, I understand that it is practice for some prisoners to be sent to care homes when they are near death—that is, for the last days and weeks of their lives. Can the Minister tell me whether prisoners sent to care homes to die are having the coronavirus test beforehand? Those are all the questions I have.
Like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord German, for securing this debate. If I appear to move at speed as I address these matters, it is because I want to address as many of the questions raised as possible in the time available.
Covid-19 presents a unique set of challenges that we must address to maintain the provision of custodial services. We are working very closely with Public Health England to ensure that our approach is based on the best scientific advice available. Our first challenge was to ensure that we had a safe operating procedure, and we implemented what were termed exceptional delivery models with heavily restricted regimes that implement social distancing measures. This puts in place temporary measures to restrict regimes and cease all non-essential activities involving groups of people. That includes social visits, education, non-essential work and association, which has already been touched on. We restricted movement between prisons to prevent the disease spreading from prison to prison and, most importantly, we took a range of measures to ensure that we had resilient staffing levels available, with robust contingencies—I will come back to that. Prison staff have stepped up terrifically; we are doing all we can to celebrate them through the #HiddenHeroes campaign, and we would welcome support for that campaign across government.
We have adapted the way we use the prison estate: we are putting in place units to isolate the ill, units to shield the vulnerable and units to manage the risk from new prisoners. Taking these measures required headroom between the prison population and prison capacity. We are moving towards the necessary headroom through a number of measures and developments. There has been a fall in the prison population due to the upstream changes in law enforcement and court activity; the prison population has fallen by about 2,500 since the start of the pandemic as a result. We are taking measures to expedite remand hearings, implementing the new end- of-custody temporary release scheme—I will touch on that again—and establishing alternative accommodation, including additional temporary accommodation, in North Sea Camp, Littlehey and Highpoint, and there will be a rapid expansion of that. For resilience during what will clearly be a difficult period, we are making sure that we have sufficient staff available at the front line. We are working closely with the Department of Health and have a clear PPE plan, and have commenced staff testing in line with other key workers.
I will touch on a number of the points made by noble Lords, in particular the noble Lord, Lord German. He began by referring to statistics. Let me be clear: we make a daily report and press release of relevant statistics from the prison estate. The figures that I have—which I must say differ from his—are that as of 21 April: 300 prisoners had tested positive for Covid-19 across 69 prisons; 239 prison staff had tested positive across 57 prisons; and 10 prisoner escort and custody services personnel had also tested positive. As of 22 April, 4,439 prison staff were not working due to Covid-19-related absences, which leaves us with a staffing level of about 80% against current staffing targets. Sadly, I have to report that there have been three prison staff deaths and 15 prisoner deaths with Covid-19. I hope that assists to some extent.
On the matter of cells, in the prison estate we have something like 17,000 twin cells. The temporary cells that we are bringing forward will be single cells. At the moment, we have about 200 constructed. We are proceeding with them within the category D estate as quickly as possible.
The noble Lord, Lord German, also raised the question of PPE for staff. Our position is that we have PPE available to staff. We are focused on social distancing and regular handwashing, but we are using PPE where we need to break social distancing to support close person-to-person operations with prisoners who have suspected or confirmed cases of Covid-19. As regards the actual supply, a stock is available to the Prison Service, separate from that of the Department of Health and Social Care. There have been short-term supply concerns around coveralls and gloves, though I hope that assists in explaining the position.
On overall staff numbers, I have indicated that we are operating at about 80%. We also have provision for additional staff, having invited recently retired staff to return and proposed moving about 750 headquarters staff to the front line. There is also further provision for military personnel to assist, if or when ever required.
In regard to the testing of staff, I can advise that they are key workers and regarded as such. Since 9 April, we have been engaging with the Department of Health and Social Care to discuss plans to ensure that these vital key workers are prioritised in the rolling out of that department’s testing. So far, hundreds of staff have been tested and we are working on a rollout plan to deal with that. Currently, prisoners are not being tested for Covid-19 unless they are taken to hospital unwell, in which case they will be.
On the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, on communication and contact, we have implemented further steps because of isolation within cells so that prisoners have PIN credit per week allowing for approximately 60 minutes of free calls. Where there is not in-cell telephony, we have also made provision for access to locked mobile handsets so that they have that facility as well. There is also access to the “email a prisoner” facility on all sites, so I hope that assists.
With respect to the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Harris, I have indicated that the proportion of front-line prison officer staff working is at about 78% to 80%. I have mentioned those statistics already. As regards advice to families, if a prisoner is removed to hospital with Covid-19 or is so ill that he cannot consent to inform his family of his condition, steps will be taken to inform the family. But it would otherwise be a matter for the prisoner to determine whether he wished to make such a disclosure. With regard to the investigation of deaths raised by the noble Lord, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman is still investigating all deaths in prison. On 26 March, the Chief Coroner published his guidance on Covid-19, which made it clear how important it was that deaths in custody should be scrutinised carefully and that there should be sufficiency of inquiry.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, raised the various briefings that have been received. If I can adopt shorthand, I am happy to write responding to the points made in those briefings. I will write to him and place a copy of my letter in the Library.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, raised the question of single cells, which I have touched upon, and asked about families being kept informed, which I have also touched upon. There is in addition the urgent line, which can be accessed through the GOV.UK website, for families who wish to make urgent inquiries about prisoners.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester raised the question of pregnant women. They are featured in the release scheme announced on 31 March, but we have to keep public safety at the forefront of our minds. We therefore cannot simply have an unlimited release of women because they are pregnant and in custody. As regards the ability of children to contact those in custody, I have already indicated that we have taken steps to improve telephone contact.
The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, raised a number of questions. Perhaps I may touch on them briefly. As I indicated, we have improved provision for virtual visits, and improved telephony. There is also an iPad on every site for compassionate video calls and we are extending the “email a prisoner” facility to all sites.
The suspension of prison visits will be lifted in accordance with such guidance as we receive from Public Health England and in accordance with operational assessments. As I indicated before, information on how to contact a prison is available to families if they have urgent concerns about an individual in custody.
The noble Baroness, Lady Healy, suggested that there would be no need for risk assessments and that there should be release without them. I simply cannot agree with that proposition.
The noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, asked whether we have separate statistics for Covid numbers in Welsh prisons, as distinct from the rest of the prison estate. I do not have those numbers. I will inquire to see whether they can be identified as a separate statistic. If they can, I will write to her to let her know what the then-current numbers are and place a copy of the letter in the Library.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, suggested that we should have a daily report of Covid cases in the prison estate. We do have that, in fact. It is made available by way of a press release. She also asked how many people were due for release in the next 12 months. That is not the measure that we have applied under the release scheme. We are concerned with those who are due for release in the next two months, and that will remain the position.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, asked about remand prisoners. That is not a matter for the Ministry of Justice; it is a matter for the judiciary. We do not, therefore, feel that we are in a position to address this issue.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked about single cells and pregnant mothers, which I touched on.
The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, referred to the Prison Officers’ Association. Certainly, from a ministerial point of view, I commend the co-operation that we have had from it in dealing with this crisis within the prison estate. I say that without qualification. When it suggests that we should remember their staff as front-line staff, I agree entirely; they are the hidden heroes in this context.
The noble Lord also asked about testing, which I touched on, and asked about the lack of PPE, which is not critical at this stage. He asked whether such staff are key workers. They are. We regard them as key workers, the Government generally regard them as key workers, and they will be tested as key workers. I certainly hope that supermarkets will have regard to their position in that context.
It is time to wind up.
I will do so in about a minute, if I may.
The noble Lord, Lord Marks, asked about prisoners being outside cells. Clearly, we must maintain social distancing at present.
The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, whom I welcome to his new position on the Opposition Front Bench, mentioned officers worrying about taking the coronavirus home. I understand their concerns. I join the noble Lord in congratulating Center Parcs on the position it adopted with regard to that matter. Clearly, it will be of considerable assistance. However, I do not recognise his reference to the removal of prisoners to care homes. I am not aware of that occurring, but I will inquire further.
On that point, let me say that we are carrying out all the steps that we consider appropriate, as advised by Public Health England. We are developing robust contingency plans and relying on an enormously dedicated group of staff to maintain the prison estate. We are, of course, concerned with the welfare of prisoners and shall continue to be.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions.
My Lords, the Virtual Proceedings will now adjourn until 6 pm for the Government Statement.
Virtual Proceeding suspended.