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Prisons Strategy

Volume 817: debated on Thursday 16 December 2021


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 7 December.

“Today, the Government have published our prisons strategy White Paper to build the places, support our staff and transform the prison regime to cut crime. Prisons play a vital role in protecting the public by keeping the most prolific and dangerous offenders in custody and rehabilitating those who deserve a second chance.

As the House knows, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will lengthen sentences for serious violent and sexual offenders to keep them in prison and away from the public for as long as possible. We are therefore determined to build modern prisons to protect the public. We secured almost £4 billion at the spending review to carry out the biggest prison-building programme that this country has seen in more than a century, creating 20,000 additional prison places by the mid-2020s—but buildings are only one part of our plan, because of course most offenders will be released back into the community. To protect the public, we also need to strengthen the prison regime to reform and rehabilitate offenders throughout their sentence, which is the most effective way to reduce reoffending and cut crime overall. The White Paper sets out a seven-point plan to deliver it.

First, we will support prisons in taking a zero-tolerance approach to the drugs, weapons and mobile phones that disrupt and destabilise prisons, allowing organised crime gangs to run their empires beyond the prison wall. We will make greater use of our recently installed X-ray body scanners, which are now operating across the closed male estate and which prevent drugs, weapons and phones from getting into our prisons and create safer conditions for our prison staff and for offenders to focus on reform and rehabilitation.

Secondly, prisoners will be assessed on arrival for any drug or alcohol addictions so that prison officers and health teams can support offenders to map out a sustainable recovery from addiction, enabling offenders to go clean, which we know is pivotal to going straight. We will shift the focus to longer-term recovery, including through abstinence-based treatment, drawing on the best examples of incentivised substance-free living areas, such as at HMP Styal, where prisoners commit to live without drugs and undergo regular drug testing. Crucially, we want continuity of treatment once an offender is released into the community, so that they do not slip back into using drugs and into the life of crime that so often follows.

Thirdly, prisons will assess an offender’s numeracy and literacy skills and their level of qualifications as soon as they arrive in prison. Prison governors will be expected to develop a plan for each prisoner to improve these core skills and raise their level of qualifications so that we better equip offenders for work when they are released. A new prisoner education service will put vocational skills such as construction and computing at the forefront of learning so that offenders get the opportunity to improve their job prospects, giving them credible hope that they can take a second chance, turn their life around and lead a better life after prison for themselves, their families and our communities. I have seen what can be achieved by prison staff and prisoners working together, for example at HMP Lincoln, where prisoners are able to gain their construction skills certification scheme card—it is currently the only prison in Europe where prisoners can be assessed inside the prison walls so that they are ready to go once they are released—and at HMP Downview, where female prisoners work with the London College of Fashion, developing skills, confidence and great clothes.

Fourthly, we want to transform how prisons get offenders into work—one of the best ways to cut reoffending. We will introduce a new digital tool to match candidates to jobs. We will ensure that prisons have dedicated employment advisers to help offenders to find work. There are some brilliant examples, such as the marketing call centre run by Census Life at HMP High Down, or Lyons Haulage, a firm working with offenders at Ford Prison, but we need to do far better at spreading best practice across the estate. Prison governors will be expected to make their work programmes central to the way they operate their prisons, subject to appropriate vetting and security considerations.

The Government will support the changes needed to adapt prisons to accommodate the needs of employers, including through better links with businesses in surrounding areas. We are also designing smarter prisons such as HMP Five Wells in Wellingborough and Glen Parva in Leicestershire, which the Deputy Prime Minister recently visited with my honourable friend the Member for South Leicestershire, Alberto Costa, to mark the last major phase of construction at the site. These new prisons are being built with large-scale workshops so that offenders can get straight to work in those locations.

Fifthly, we will ensure that prisoners have the support they need to plan properly for a successful release from custody, because it can be a disruptive and potentially precarious moment for many offenders. Our new resettlement passports will help to prepare offenders before release by bringing together everything they need to settle back into the community, such as a CV, identification, and a bank account, and start looking for work straightaway. Health and home matter, too; programmes for drug rehabilitation, skills and work will be more closely linked to the support services available in the community when offenders are released, and the new community accommodation service will help to tackle the challenge of homelessness, which disrupts an offender settling back into society and increases the risk that they will resort to crime.

Sixthly, we will make much greater use of smart technology to support reform and rehabilitation. Digital technology will enable inmates to access education and training courses online, as well as addiction recovery and healthcare services.

Finally, we will deliver this ambitious strategy with the hard work, determination, ingenuity and dedication of the brilliant staff who work in our prisons every day to keep us safe. We will recruit up to 5,000 more prison officers across public and private prisons as part of our expansion plans. We will upskill our existing staff throughout the estate so that they are better equipped than ever with the skills required to be a prison officer in the 21st century.

Prison leadership will be critical, too. We have some truly exceptional governors working across the estate today. We will empower those trailblazing governors who deliver the best results by giving them more autonomy over how their prisons are run to meet the strategic vision set out in the White Paper. We will also set out key performance indicators and league tables and evaluate performance so that we can spread the very best innovative practice right across the estate.

The Government put public protection at the heart of everything we do. We are recruiting more police officers, we are putting serious offenders behind bars for longer, and now we are building state-of-the-art prisons, bolstered with a regime that will drive down reoffending by making sure that every day that an offender spends behind bars involves purposeful reform and rehabilitation to help them to go straight, turn their life around and a make a positive contribution to society. That is how this Government are cutting crime and making our communities safer as we build back better, stronger, and fairer, after the pandemic. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, the prison strategy White Paper can most charitably be described as a missed opportunity to tackle the escalating prison crisis. While presenting the biggest prison-building programme in more than 100 years as a way to improve public protection, the strategy contains next to no credible solutions to the multiple problems plaguing our existing estate, which have made rehabilitation nigh-on impossible and have led to record levels of reoffending.

Unusually for a White Paper, the document contains very few direct legislative proposals and instead asks numerous consultation questions, many along the lines of:

“Do you agree with our … vision?”

Old ideas from previous papers are repeated and recycled, through the 76 pages of vague aspirations and feel-good gimmicks, such as resettlement passports and workforce drug testing. Yet key drivers of violence and instability, such as widespread squalor and the collapse in staff retention, morale and experience, are glossed over and ignored.

Worse, there is no recognition that government policies over the last decade have caused the current crisis, including cuts to staffing and other resources, leading to the degradation of pay, terms and conditions, a haemorrhaging of experience and the surge in violence, especially against prison staff. The paper’s headline pledge to recruit 5,000 new officers seems optimistic in light of the current recruitment and retention crisis and the lack of ministerial interest in the reasons behind the record resignations—from poverty pay to an unrealistic and cruel pension age of 68.

The long-promised prisoner education service gets a few mentions, but with no real detail apart from praise for the potential of in-cell technology. We agree that in-cell technology could be a game changer in rehabilitation and the whole incarceration experience.

One glimmer of hope, however, is the recognition that mass unstructured social time can make some prisoners feel unsafe and inhibit the ability of staff to manage the risks of violence and bullying. This is a key lesson from the pandemic that trade unions have consistently highlighted—as did the then Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland in July, when he insisted that there could be no going back to pre-Covid regimes. However, running smaller-scale regimes with higher staff-to-prisoner ratios will be at the discretion of governors, rather than required by national policy. As far as I can see, the strategy shows no understanding that such initiatives need significant staff investment and will be simply unsustainable with current staffing capacity.

Very little in this White Paper requires primary legislation: only the proposals to bring forward release dates, potentially—we debated this yesterday on the PCSC Bill—and to strengthen the powers of scrutiny organisations. What will all these extra prisoners do all day? The White Paper states that

“opening up the estate to employers”

will deliver a step change in the number of prisoners who work in prison. It seems likely that new legislation may be needed to create a presumption in favour of adapting the prison estate and regime to facilitate work in prison for appropriate prisoners. As important as a sense of satisfaction from doing a proper day’s work must be to prisoners, it seems unlikely that, with a minimum wage of £4 a week, they will earn enough to buy the things they need day to day in prison and also save for their release.

In praising prison officers as “hidden heroes”, the White Paper’s strategy commits to making

“the prison officer role one which is understood and valued in society in the same way that police and other core frontline roles are”.

But it concedes that attrition rates are simply too high, which is

“causing an unsustainable level of turnover in the system”,


“new staff feeling unsupported, contributing to a vicious cycle of staff dissatisfaction and lack of retention.”

Even the Prison Service’s new retention framework, referenced in the White Paper, admits that poor pay is a key driver to attrition and accepts that there are limits to what governors can do locally to improve pay and rewards. In other words, the solutions to the problem are well known; we are just seeing a lack of political will from the Government.

What about the existing teachers and how they will operate within the new prison education service? We are told that there will be two overriding strategic priorities: improving the numeracy and literacy of all prisoners, and incentivising them to improve their qualifications to increase their prospects of finding work. These are both admirable aims, but involve very different types of teaching, alongside additional resources and a break from the current private commissioning model, which is not recognised in the strategy document that I was reading earlier.

There is at least an admission that the current education system is not fit for purpose. The White Paper insists:

“Despite recent changes, the current quality of education provision is not good enough, with 60% of prisons in England receiving Ofsted grades of ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’ over the last five years.”

However, the proposed solution is to

“work with our providers to improve the delivery and quality of training in prisons to drive year on year improvements to Ofsted grades, so they are much closer to those achieved by Further Education in the community.”

This is a laudable aspiration, but if it is not backed by new investment it will be an empty promise.

One area that will see a boost, thankfully, is in-cell technology. There is no question but that this could dramatically change learning and rehabilitation more widely, as well as help maintain and improve family engagement, and, of course, promote stability and good behaviour when used as a reward or incentive. Can the Minister say whether virtual visits via in-cell kiosks should be treated and charged as a phone call or as an in-person visit? Of course, in-person visits are free at the moment. Moreover, will Parliament, and indeed the public, get to express a view on this? It is a very specific question that I suspect parliamentarians would have a view on.

In reality, it is the probation service that is responsible for keeping new releases on the straight and narrow. The new strategy makes no mention of Transforming Rehabilitation, which was the failed probation privatisation experiment that caused so much misery.

To address the scandal of homelessness among prison leavers, the White Paper proposes extending

“a new provision of temporary accommodation and support for up to 12 weeks after release”

to all prison leavers, but it is not resettlement passports that new leavers need; it is front-door keys. Where is the commitment to helping them on to housing benefit with deposits paid in advance to trusted landlords?

The understanding that prisons

“cannot support rehabilitation unless they are safe, stable and secure”

is to be welcomed, as is the pledge to

“provide safer working conditions for staff”,

but the proposed

“new ministerial prison performance board that will hold the system and Governors to account for ensuring prisoners and staff are safe”

will have key performance indicators and “appropriate league tables”. The KPIs are

“security and stability; substance misuse and mental health; and resettlement and family ties.”

It is worrying that the crucial metric of staff safety seems to be missing from the KPI list. One simple way for Ministers to send a clear message to staff that they are on their side would be to ensure that all attempts at potting are prosecuted and for the Government to back the amendment from the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, to the PCSC Bill.

Bizarrely, the strategy calls for

“modern desktop computers, devices and software to benefit the people who work in our prisons”,


“will allow for increased productivity and a reduction in time wasted by users waiting for systems to boot up”.

Why does it need a White Paper for prison staff to get new PCs? Just how long does it take for their current systems to turn on? This seems ridiculous.

Finally, the strategy looks at rolling out a two-year programme of future regime design to let governors design their own regimes. The highest performing governors will receive “earned autonomy” and

“greater flexibility to deviate from nationally set policies.”

This includes

“greater freedoms to deviate from prison service instructions and policy frameworks”,

as long as KPIs are met. This begs the question: why will governors be rewarded for hitting targets by being given the opportunity to break the rules? That is maybe a rhetorical question, and I approve of giving governors greater flexibility and managed autonomy, but this cannot be allowed to shift responsibility and accountability from Ministers who have put this new regime in place.

Forgive me, my Lords, but I understood that it was five minutes for each Front Bench and then 10 minutes for the Minister to respond to our questions. Hopefully, with the leave of the House, we will give the Minister appropriate time to respond despite the Labour Front Bench.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, we believe that the White Paper is disappointing. The Statement gets off on the wrong foot as far as we on these Benches are concerned. It says:

“Prisons play a vital role in protecting the public by keeping the most prolific and dangerous offenders in custody”—

although, as we see from the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, even peaceful protesters are going to be subject to custodial sentences—

“and rehabilitating those who deserve a second chance.”

Can the Minister explain which prisoners do not deserve a second chance? On what criteria are the Government going to decide who does and does not deserve one?

The Statement says that the Ministry of Justice has secured enough money in the spending review to build an additional 20,000 prison places by the 2020s. The Nationality and Borders Bill intends to criminalise asylum seekers entering the country through irregular routes, with a maximum penalty of four years’ imprisonment —again, not

“the most prolific and dangerous offenders”,

but on current numbers every one of those 20,000 new prison places is likely to be filled by asylum seekers.

When I was a police commander in charge of Brixton, the governor of Brixton Prison told me that illegal drugs were more freely available inside his prison than they were outside on the streets. I am pleased to see that action is being taken to deal with that, but why has it taken over 10 years for this Government to act?

It is also welcome that the Government are going to treat illegal drugs as a health issue, but the probation service has very little financial leverage to secure support to ensure that drug treatment programmes started in prison continue through the gate when a prisoner is released. It is one thing to live without drugs when you are in prison with regular drug testing, but quite another to release prisoners back into the same environment that they came from on release and expect them to continue. What additional resources are being provided for drug rehabilitation and support outside prison specifically for ex-prisoners? Can the Minister specify how much per prisoner compared with 10 years ago, adjusting for inflation and taking into account the increase in prisoner numbers? I am reminded of shops that double the price of things for 12 weeks and then advertise them at 50% off, except that the Government make drastic cuts, put half back and then claim credit for what is in fact a reduction.

There is an increasing prison population compared with proportionately declining staff numbers. Where is the budget to recruit and retain prison officers and the other staff who will be needed to carry out the numeracy and literacy assessments and to deliver the training? I understand that the increase in prison officers outlined in the Statement is to cope with the expansion plans, but who will deliver these enhanced education and skills plans and who will backfill when staff are being “upskilled”?

What pay rises are factored in for prison officers to ensure retention, set against a record increase in inflation not seen for a decade and an increasingly difficult working environment? Wandsworth Prison today has 68 prison officers looking after 1,300 prisoners. Officers are leaving because of poor pay, and applications from new recruits are down 44% because the Prison Service cannot compete with other sectors. How can rehabilitation be delivered in Wandsworth Prison today in such circumstances?

Any measures to find ex-prisoners employment are to be welcomed, but is the limiting factor not that employers will not take them on? A

“new digital tool to match candidates to jobs”

will not help if there are no jobs to match the ever-increasing number of prisoners to. What incentive or encouragement is being provided to employers to employ former prisoners—or at least those prisoners that the Government deem lucky enough to be given a second chance?

Can the Minister explain the “new community accommodation service”? What additional funding or other incentive will local authorities and housing associations be given to provide accommodation and to what extent does this compensate for the devastating cuts to local authority budgets in recent years?

This White Paper appears to shift the balance further towards retribution and away from rehabilitation, with the only realistic, properly thought-through and funded proposals being to build and staff yet more prison places —plans one would expect from a right-wing, authoritarian Government.

My Lords, I am grateful for the contributions. I will respond to as many of the points as I can in the time I have and will reply in writing on anything I cannot deal with orally.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, started off by criticising the fact that we are asking questions, but that is a poor place to start. I do not apologise for asking questions and seeking consultation. We published a prison safety and reform White Paper in 2016 and this White Paper builds on that. We are keen to learn. There are new things and new money in this White Paper, which I will come to, and we make no apologies for asking people for their views.

On staffing, which I agree is of absolute importance, since the end of October 2016, we have recruited a net increase of over 4,000 staff. In 2020, we accepted all bar one of the review body’s recommendations on pay and, as we announced in October this year, we accepted all of the PSPRB’s recommendations relating to the 2021 pay award. To retain staff in the sites hardest to recruit for, prison officers in the 31 hardest to recruit for sites receive an additional payment of between £3,000 and £5,000.

I think everybody around the Chamber understands the importance of education in prison. I acknowledge, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, did, the work done by the former Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, in this area. Throughout the pandemic, we have kept education running. The Prisoners’ Education Trust called for major investment in digital technologies in prison. We are developing the digital infrastructure and have reintroduced classroom teaching in prisons in line with government advice on Covid. We absolutely acknowledge that improvements have to be made in prisoner education. The pandemic has obviously not helped in that regard, but we are focused on this and have put new money into it as well.

On employment, which is absolutely key, there are over 1 million vacancies in the UK at the moment. Employers must look to wider talent pools to fill them and the New Futures Network, which is the Prison Service’s network of employment brokers, now works with over 400 organisations to place prisoners in employment. The Government lead by example: we will hire over 1,000 prison leavers into the Civil Service by the end of 2023 and, as the noble Lord will be aware, in the PCSC Bill, we are focusing on the rehabilitation regime, which is also important for people to obtain employment.

On the specific question about virtual visits, I can confirm that we are committed to continuing to offer secure social video calling beyond the Covid restrictions. We are looking at future options in line with the recommendations of my noble friend Lord Farmer’s review on maintaining family ties, but the current position is that there are no charges for secure social video calls.

We will come back to the issue of potting in the new year—I look behind me to see whether my noble friend Lord Attlee is here—so that is a joy which awaits us early in 2022. If I may, I will deal with that at that time.

Autonomy and flexibility for governors are important and we will discuss with them the appropriate KPIs in this context. However, ultimately, the buck always stops with Ministers.

I turn briefly—I am conscious of the time—to the points from the noble Lord, Lord Paddick. He asked, “Who deserves a second chance?” The short answer is everybody, perhaps with the exception of those who have a whole life order, because that means, essentially, that you are there for life. We can have an interesting debate about whether that means you deserve a second chance, but the nature of that sentence is obviously somewhat different. I agree about the importance of education. Some prisoners may deserve to have the book thrown at them, but all prisoners deserve to have books thrown to them. We think that prison education is very important. As to asylum seekers, can we pick that up when we debate the Nationality and Borders Bill next year?

Regarding drugs, I am grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, welcomes our strategy. He asked why it has taken so long. As it is the festive season, could I invite him to concentrate not so much on the ghost of Christmas past but to join us in looking to the ghost of Christmas future? We are putting new money in here. We have a £785 million package for treatment and delivery, and we are now investing £120 million of new money over the next three years for drug treatment in prisons. As far as drug treatment out of prisons is concerned, which the noble Lord rightly focused on as well, we are rolling out £80 million of drug treatment funding with the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that prison leavers get the support they need. I think I have dealt with his points on prison officer retention and pay.

On the community service accommodation point, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities announced this scheme on 28 July 2021. It is a pathway for prison leavers to give them a route from prison to their own private rented sector accommodation. Local authorities will be providing monitoring information to that department alongside wider monitoring information on homelessness and rough sleeping. Overall, we have allocated £13 million to 87 schemes across 145 local authorities. If there is anything more that I can say on that, perhaps I can drop the noble Lord a line. I have an eye on the Clock and am conscious that others will want to get in, so I hope the House will forgive me if I pause there.

My Lords, the roots of the issues we are talking about go back a long way and it is fair to accept that they go back to well before the present Government. The prison population has trebled in the last 50 years and it has done so under Governments and the leadership of all parties. Indeed, the Labour Government of which I was a member was not progressive on these issues at all; the prison population rose significantly, prison regimes did not improve notably, and the average length of sentences increased.

If we are standing back from this White Paper, which is now in a line of government policy statements going back to the 1980s, it is fair to ask whether we should be looking at more fundamental reforms and learning from the practice of other countries. What is undeniably true is that, as a proportion of our population, we imprison significantly more—we are a significant outlier—than almost any country in Europe. When I last checked the statistics, I think only Portugal had a higher proportion; I am not sure why it is an outlier. We are well above the average for mainstream European countries, none of which appears to have a bigger problem of disorder and lack of respect for the law than we do. The Minister is obviously constrained in what he can say, but does he not think that the time is coming for us to start looking more seriously and systematically at the experience of countries that have succeeded in dealing with issues of law and order with a much smaller prison population than we have and learn from their example?

The noble Lord is right that I am not going to make government policy standing on my feet. In so far as he says that we should look at other countries, I would always agree with that; one can always look at other countries and learn. In the PCSC Bill which is going through the House at the moment, there is a focus on a number of issues, including the use of non-custodial sentences. The critical thing about those sentences is that they have to be robust and the public have to have confidence in them. Later today, I will be making a Statement on victims’ issues. I would hope that the greater inclusion of victims in the criminal justice process may lead to greater use of non-custodial sentences, because victims will buy into the process more. However, I suspect that this is a topic with which we will continue to engage.

My Lords, I wrote down carefully what the Minister said in response to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, about charges for videocalls for family engagement: that the current position is there are no charges. Does the Minister believe that that will continue for the foreseeable future? On the broader question of the in-cell technology, does he agree that this must have full democratic oversight and control, and be run for public good, not private profit?

My Lords, on the video charges point I hope that I was clear as to what we are committed to doing in future. I also set out clearly the current position. I do not think I can go beyond that at present. On technology, of course it must be appropriate. I do not get hung up, I am afraid, on whether public services are delivered by the public sector or the private sector. My focus is on making sure that public services are properly delivered and of a very high quality.

The Minister indicated that the PCSC Bill included non-custodial sentences. Can he highlight what they are, and would he say that there will be a net increase or decrease in the number of people likely to go to prison as a result of the Government’s measures in that Bill?

I was trying to say that on a number of occasions in debates on the PCSC Bill—I think perhaps the noble Lord was not participating in them—I have explained that under the sentencing guidelines, before somebody can be sent to custody the sentencer has to be satisfied that there is no proper alternative to custody. Even when that threshold is met, the sentencer then has to be satisfied that an immediate custodial sentence must be passed. We have had interesting debates on out-of-court disposals and alternatives to custody. I am happy to continue those conversations. As to the projections, I do not have those to hand but am happy to write to the noble Lord with them.