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House of Commons Hansard

Safety in Custody and Violence in Prisons

09 May 2016
Volume 609

  • (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on safety in custody and violence in prisons.

  • Before I move on to the substance of the question, I would like to update the House on events that occurred at Her Majesty’s Prison Wormwood Scrubs over the weekend. On the morning of Friday 6 May, prison officers refused to enter the prison, citing health and safety grounds. Later that day, an agreement was reached between the National Offender Management Service and the Prison Officers Association. All officers have returned to work, and the prison is running a normal regime. The National Offender Management Service and the Prison Officers Association are jointly committed to resolving any outstanding health and safety concerns at HMP Wormwood Scrubs. On Sunday 8 May, two members of staff at Wormwood Scrubs were assaulted and taken to hospital for treatment. We do not tolerate any violence against our hard-working officers. The alleged perpetrator now faces a police investigation that could lead to criminal charges.

    Moving on to the wider question, I take safety in prisons very seriously. Reducing the harm that prisoners may cause to themselves or to others is the Government’s top priority in prisons. The most recent statistics on safety in custody show that levels of self-inflicted death, self-harm and violence in prison are too high. The figures demonstrate the very serious challenges facing the prison service. There is no single, simple solution to the increase in deaths and violence in prisons. Those trends have been seen across the prison estate, in both public and private prisons and in prisons both praised and criticised by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons.

    We have already taken a number of steps to address the problems. We have recruited 2,830 prison officers since January 2015; that is a net increase of 530. We are trialling the use of body-worn cameras in prisons. We are strengthening the case management of individuals who risk harming others. We have introduced tough new laws under which those who smuggle packages, including packages containing new psychoactive substances, over prison walls will face up to two years in prison. We have reviewed the case management process for prisoners who are assessed as being at risk of harm to themselves, and we are implementing the recommendations.

    It is, however, clear that we must do more. We need to reduce violence and prevent drugs from entering prison. We must do better at helping prisoners with mental health problems. We must ensure that prisoners can be rehabilitated so that they are no longer a danger to others. That is why the Government are committed to fundamental reform of our prisons. We have secured £1.3 billion to modernise the prison estate, and we will give greater autonomy to governors so that they are truly in charge. I look forward to setting out our plans in greater detail shortly.

    The problems are deep-seated, and there are no easy answers. However, I assure the House that the Government will not waver in their determination to reform our prisons, so that they become places of decency, hope and rehabilitation.

  • I thank the Minister for that response, but I fear that it was exactly what we have heard time and time again at the Dispatch Box. I hope that he will concede that the situation in our prisons on the youth estate is very serious, and that the recent incidents are part of a pattern of unacceptable conditions and unacceptable violent behaviour. It cannot be right that prisoners, staff and, ultimately, the public are at risk from the Government’s failure to get a grip on the crisis in our prisons. That makes it all the more surprising that the Secretary of State is not here today. We are all, whatever our view, engaged in the referendum campaign; that is no reason for him to neglect his responsibility as Secretary of State.

    Yesterday, as the Minister said, two prison officers were hospitalised after being assaulted while they were on duty at Wormwood Scrubs prison in my constituency. Our thoughts are with them and their families. That is a reminder of the difficult and dangerous job that officers do every day, often hidden from the public gaze and without the acknowledgement that they deserve. The attack was entirely predictable—so much so that two days earlier, as the Minister acknowledged, 70 members of staff at Wormwood Scrubs had walked out because they did not feel safe. Although Tornado officers were sent into the prison on Saturday, they were withdrawn on Sunday, which was when the attacks happened. What specific steps are being taken to ensure safety in HMP Wormwood Scrubs? I am told that drugs, phones and even knives are being thrown over the walls because of insufficient patrolling of the grounds and cell searches caused by insufficient staffing numbers. Will additional officers be provided to undertake these basic tasks until order is restored and a review of staffing at this and similar prisons is undertaken?

    What happened at Wormwood Scrubs is not an isolated incident; it is typical of the dangers and problems across the prison and youth estate. In the past few days, reports on Lewes and Leeds prisons have told a similar story. Last week, it was revealed that the Department is about to take over the management of Medway secure training centre following the “Panorama” exposé of the appalling conduct of G4S and some of its staff in running that institution, including allegations of serious violence against children.

    Fourteen prison staff are assaulted every day. There were 4,963 assaults on staff by prisoners in 2015, compared with 3,640 in 2014, which is a 36% increase in attacks. Prisons are now violent and dangerous places. Serious self-harm and suicides are at record levels. We have heard for a year that the Government wish to transform our prisons, but words are no longer enough. Now is the time for action before more prisons become ungovernable and there are more serious injuries or—God forbid—the death of an officer on duty.

  • This Government are not in denial about the situation, we have not been idle in seeking to address it and we do not lack vision or political will on the issues that the hon. Gentleman has quite rightly raised. I assure him that the Secretary of State takes this issue extremely seriously, and it is our top priority as far as prisons are concerned.

    The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the work that prison officers do—day in, day out—across our country is, by its very nature, hidden from public view. They are outstanding public servants who do amazingly good work, which, unfortunately, is not seen or perhaps not as fully appreciated by most of us as it should be.

    The nature of the offenders in custody has changed. Today, about 30% more people are sentenced to prison for violent offences, and prisoners often act more spontaneously and more violently to achieve their objectives than they did in the past.

    On recruitment, I repeat what I said: we have been recruiting at full strength for the past two years. We have recruited an extra 2,830 officers since 2015, and we are continuing to recruit at that level to make sure that our prisons are adequately staffed.

  • The Minister knows that we are gradually understanding more and more about the violence that affects our prisons. Violence can sometimes be due to the inappropriate handling of prisoners with mental health problems or, indeed, those on the autism spectrum, and just small changes can make a difference to the behaviour of such individuals. Does the Minister welcome the National Autistic Society’s initiative for some of our prisons to have autism awareness accreditation, particularly Feltham young offenders institution, where it is making a difference, and will he assure me that he will look at fully rolling out this programme across the prison and custody system?

  • First, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for her extensive knowledge of this issue and, indeed, for the legislation that she initiated in this House. It was a great pleasure to visit HMP Feltham with her. I can tell the House that Feltham is now the first autism accredited prison in the whole world, which is something I am extremely proud of. This good work must not stop at Feltham: we need to spread it across the prison estate. She is absolutely right that this is one part of reducing violence across the estate.

  • Inspectors have warned of “Dickensian squalor” inside Wormwood Scrubs, following a scathing report that revealed that the jail is rat-infested and overcrowded, with inmates spending up to 22 hours a day locked in very squalid cells. Overcrowding and poor conditions exacerbate the risk of violence not only to staff but to other prisoners. It is clear from a recent statement from the Prison Governors Association that understaffing is still an issue. Will the Minister assure us that the ideological drive to cut public services and to shift to private sector provision will not further jeopardise staff and prison safety?

    Will the Minister also look to the example of the Scottish Government? Their approach of recommending a presumption against shorter sentences of three months or under has led to the numbers of such sentences plummeting, and the reconviction rate is at a 16-year low. Will he take steps to follow their lead in creating a presumption against short sentences and investing instead in robust community sentences in order to address the underlying causes of crime more effectively?

  • I visited HMP Wormwood Scrubs a week or so ago. We have an excellent new governor in the prison, who has a good record and I believe has the best possible chance of making sure that it improves on those issues. There are 15 officers over and above the benchmark level within Wormwood Scrubs. The drive to greater governor autonomy will help to deal with a number of the issues. The Government are currently consulting on sentencing issues.

  • I thank my hon. Friend for the interest he has in prison security, and, indeed, for the action he has taken on it; the Justice Committee shares his interest. Today I met the prisons and probation ombudsman, who told me that on current estimates 61% of inmates take psychoactive substances. What consideration has my hon. Friend given to enlarging smoke-free zones in prisons, and to what extent does he feel that that might help with the problems?

  • My hon. Friend, who is very knowledgeable on these issues as a member of the Select Committee, is absolutely right to point the finger at the terrible damage caused by new psychoactive substances. I agree that rolling out smoke-free prisons across England and Wales will help us to reduce that damage—we know that those psychoactive substances are sometimes smoked openly, with prisoners pretending that they are smoking tobacco. I am with her in wanting to see the roll-out progress, but we will only do that in a measured and safe way.

  • The independent monitoring board for Leicester prison published a damning report about conditions there this morning. The report pointed to all the matters that the Minister has raised—rising levels of violence, use of drugs and mental health issues. This issue is about increasing staffing. Although the Government have increased the number of prison officers, there are clearly not enough. What further steps can be taken to help the officers at Leicester prison?

  • My commitment to the House is to carry on recruiting at the increased level of activity that there has been for the past few years. It is proving successful. It is a challenge, at some specific sites in London and the south-east more than at others, but we are managing to make progress. There is the budget to carry on employing prison officers and I am determined to carry on with our recruitment objectives.

  • My question was already ably asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis).

  • What an extraordinary and novel development—an hon. Member who does not indulge in superfluous repetition. The hon. Gentleman is in danger of winning a medal. It is an extraordinary development, and very welcome, I am sure.

  • The Minister mentioned the importance of dealing with mental health in prisons. On Friday I met a justice of the peace in my constituency who talked about the good work done by the liaison and diversion services. He encouraged me to encourage the Minister and the Secretary of State to extend those services and ensure that more community orders have as a condition that people get the help they need.

  • My hon. and learned Friend, who is also extremely knowledgeable on these issues, is absolutely right. The Government are committed to making sure that there is universal access to a mental health assessment from the moment that anyone encounters the criminal justice system. I also point her to the co-commissioning that is going to happen between governors and NHS England on mental health and drug abuse services. That will also be very beneficial.

  • I have no doubt that the Minister wants to sort this problem out, and his account of a passion for reform, decency and hope was compelling, except for the fact that it has not worked. Since 2012, the number of assaults in prisons has doubled, as have the number of assaults on staff. Although he talked about recruiting more staff recently, total numbers of staff have fallen. Those staff are frightened—brave prison officers are scared to go to work. What can the Minister say to stop them feeling frightened?

  • The right hon. Lady is right to say that confidence is an extremely important commodity as far as the day-to-day work of prison officers is concerned. She has been involved with these issues for many years, and she will know that the Prison Service has been affected in a major way by waves of drugs. In the early 1990s, and before that, such things had serious implications for prisons, and led to riots and serious assaults in high numbers. We have a two-year violence reduction project. It would not be helpful now to give the House a shopping list of individual measures, but detailed, serious work is taking place across the estate, including the violence diagnostic tool and many other measures to help back up hard-working prison officers. The body-worn camera initiative is also proving valuable, and we hope to say more about that soon.

  • Does the Minister agree that the prevalent use of lethal highs, in particular “spice”, in HMP Northumberland in my constituency, is one clear cause of the increase in violence and unpredictable behaviour among our prison population? What are we doing to try to reduce dramatically the numbers of those goods?

  • It was a great pleasure to go round HMP Northumberland with my hon. Friend not long ago, and I commend her for calling these terrible drugs “lethal” highs. From 26 May they will all be completely illegal when the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 is enforced. That is very welcome, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We will not waver in our determination to crack down on those substances.

  • I thank the Minister for an amicable meeting last week about HMP Northumberland. The common denominator throughout the whole prison estate across the country is simply a lack of manpower. That is causing the violence—whether it be prisoner on prisoner or prisoner on staff—mental health issues and the problems with alcohol, “spice” or whatever. The Minister has said that this issue is challenging. What extra measures can he take to ensure that plenty of staff are employed in prisons to maintain a safe environment for everybody on the prison estate?

  • My door is always open to the hon. Gentleman, and if he has further concerns about HMP Northumberland, he is welcome to come and see me again. If we analyse what has happened across the prison estate, we see that the increase in violence has taken place in prisons where there has been an increase in the number of officers and in prisons where numbers have stayed the same, and where there have been reductions. He is right to say that we need adequate levels of staff, which is why I give him the commitment that I have already given the House that we will carry on recruiting at our current level, which included a net increase of 530 officers last year.

  • I have asked the Minister to come and visit young offenders at Portland, and I hope he will do so shortly. There was an unpleasant riot the other day, and prison officers were put in danger. I pay credit to all prison officers who work like a forgotten army behind the scenes. Portland is a fairly old structure, and the number of floors—there are four or five—is a particular concern because there are not enough officers to man them all at the same time. That puts those officers at risk, and allows prisoner free rein where they perhaps should not have it. Will my hon. Friend look at that issue and increase the number of prison officers at the young offenders institution as fast as we can?

  • It would be a pleasure to visit HMP-YOI Portland with my hon. Friend in due course and I note what he says about the design of that particular prison. The £1.3 billion commitment provides the Government with the opportunity to get the best design knowledge from around the world to ensure that the new prisons we build are as safe as possible. That will also enable us to cease to operate some prisons where assaults and bullying take place in part because of poor design.

  • In the first five years of this Government, the number of prison officers fell by 41%. In the sixth year of this Government, assaults on prison officers rose by the same percentage—41%. The Minister mentions that prison officer numbers are increasing, but he uses a figure based on the past couple of years. Will he tell me how many prison officers there were in 2010 and how many there are today?

  • I do not have those particular figures to hand for the right hon. Gentleman, although my memory is that he has asked me that question before and that I have written to him with the answer. I will dig out the letter I sent to him; maybe it went astray. Speaking as a current prisons Minister to a former prisons Minister—I know he cares as deeply about these issues as I do—he will know that these issues are not easy. He knows that his own Government faced considerable difficulties on exactly the same issues. What is not in doubt is this Government’s utter determination, through the prison reform programme, to get on top of them.

  • The right hon. Gentleman was chuntering repeatedly from a sedentary position that he knew the answer to his own question, which is probably very wise and knowledge of which will enable us all to sleep much more soundly in our beds tonight.

  • I commend my hon. Friend for his work as prisons Minister. He takes his role extremely seriously. I think my constituents will be very surprised to hear quite how much stuff is being thrown over prison walls: mobile phones, drugs, lethal highs and knives. Surely in 2016 we have the ability to stop this happening, or at least to minimise it? What plans does the Minister have to tackle this issue?

  • These issues are not easy. Our prisons are not like the Eden Project: they do not have a dome over the top of them. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to get things over a prison wall, as I saw when I went around HMP Rochester last Thursday morning. My hon. Friend raises an important issue. All of us, particularly as Members of Parliament, have a role in getting the message out in our communities that new psychoactive substances are lethal. They do terrible harm to the loved ones of families who inadvertently bring them into prisons. We need local communities to work with us and the police to try to stop the terrible flow of evil drugs over prison walls.

  • The Minister is absolutely right: prison officers do an exceptionally difficult job. They need and deserve our fullest possible support. That has to be more than a platitude. For that to be the case, staffing levels have to be addressed. The other issue that has to be addressed is prison overcrowding. The prison population is now in excess of 90,000 inmates. In the past 15 years, the length of sentences has gone up by 33%. Can the Minister assure me that, as he tackles this issue, he will look at it in the round; that he will look not just at prisons in isolation but at how they interact with police, prosecution and court authorities?

  • I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his praise for the work of our outstanding prison officers. We are consulting on sentencing issues, which have a bearing on overcrowding. We are also determined to bring down reoffending. Our success in reducing reoffending will help to reduce overcrowding.

  • I thank the Minister for his comments today and for his support with regard to our concerns about HMP Rochester and the Medway Secure Training Centre. I also thank him for his very speedy meeting with me and the governor of HMP Rochester earlier this year. The Minister will know that Medway Secure Training Centre was at the centre of abuse allegations. Will he confirm when the Medway improvement board report will be published? My constituents want reassurance that action and improvements have taken place, so that young people are safe in Medway.

  • I commend my hon. Friend for her serious interest in and support for the three prisons in her constituency. I was in HMP Rochester on Thursday morning, and I commend, in particular, the outstanding work of its governor and head of security to combat the constant pressure of drugs coming into the prison. On Medway STC, about which we will be saying more shortly, the Secretary of State and I have met Dr Gary Holden and the Medway improvement board, which was appointed by the Secretary of State. We will be making further announcements on its findings in due course.

  • A constituent came to see me this weekend to express her fears for her son. He is in prison and every day she expects to get a phone call saying he has been murdered. What reassurance can the Minister give my constituent that prisoners, while serving their time, do not live in fear of their lives?

  • The whole prison reform agenda speaks directly to the issue of violence. Our vision for prisons is one where prisoners engage in meaningful, relevant education and in skills training that is linked to skills needed in the local community and which will help them to get a job. Our vision also includes a commitment to keeping family relationships strong. If we can do those three things, we will reduce frustration, levels of violence and the number of assaults.

  • Wormwood Scrubs has been described by the Prison Officers Association as

    “flooded with drugs, mobiles phones and weapons”

    and by the chief inspector as having cells so bad you would not keep a dog in them. Does the Minister still think that this prison is fit for purpose?

  • HMP Wormwood Scrubs is an older, Victorian prison facing various challenges. I went around it recently, and as I said, I have confidence in its very good new governor. The hon. Lady mentioned mobile phones, which we have not talked about much so far. As the Prime Minister announced on 8 February, we are committed to working with the mobile network operators, which also need to rise to their responsibilities to help us fight the scourge of mobile phones in prisons.

  • In the last four years, there has been a rise in levels of violence against prison officers owing to understaffing and the fact that there are not enough rehabilitation programmes. Is it not time to re-evaluate how we decide who to send to prison and, when we do send them to prison, to make available proper rehabilitation provision?

  • Decisions about who goes to prison are obviously for our independent judiciary, but the hon. Lady is absolutely right about the need for better rehabilitation. We are determined that time in prison is not wasted but is productive, relevant and beneficial to prisoners and to the wider community in terms of keeping us all safe when they come out.

  • Parc prison in Bridgend has an excellent reputation for its rehabilitation work, including its drug rehabilitation work, but it needs the support of the local police force, South Wales police, if it is to tackle the smuggling in of drugs and the throwing of drugs over the wall. It gets that help. What is the Minister doing to make sure that police forces across the UK work with their prison forces and officers? The number of attacks on prison officers and by prisoners on prisoners is increasing, and unless prisons work with police forces to arrest those guilty of smuggling drugs into prisons, we will be wasting our time.

  • I thank the hon. Lady for praising the work of HMP Parc in her constituency—in particular, I would praise the outstanding family work done by Corin Morgan-Armstrong—and I am grateful to her for raising the issue of good co-operation with the local police. I am pleased it is working well in her area, but she is right that it varies across the country. It is an issue that I take extremely seriously and about which I have regular conversations with the policing Minister.

  • It is no mystery why assaults on prison officers, assaults between prisoners and suicides have increased in prisons. Only last week, a report came out showing that every factor had gone up. It is no surprise when staff are cut by a third. I was very pleased to listen to the Secretary of State and I applauded him, but I am disappointed that he is not here today. The vision for the future is good, and I support it, but we cannot wait for jam tomorrow. We need more action now. We are still 7,000 down on staff numbers. We need an increase in the number of officers now. It is not safe for them to go into work now, and it is not safe for the prisoners themselves. We need more action today. I ask you what you intend to do now as a matter of urgency?

  • I intend to do precisely nothing, other than to ask the Minister to tell the House what he and the Government will do.

  • The hon. Lady is a member of the Select Committee, is very knowledgeable and takes these issues extremely seriously. One issue not yet mentioned today is that we are significantly improving prison officer training. It has increased from six to 10 weeks, and we are providing officers with the additional skills they will need to be able to cope. Training on its own, of course, is not enough, which is why I reiterate to the hon. Lady the commitment I have made several times today to carry on recruiting at the rate we are recruiting to get up to the benchmark level. In December 2014, the number of vacancies for prisoner officers was 5%; it is now 2%, and I want to see it at 0%.

  • I have heard these sort of remarks from the Minister so many times—too often to have any confidence that he is going to do anything at all about this problem. It is a problem of this Government’s making, when they let far too many officers go in the first half of the last Parliament. Now the Minister’s problem is not just about numbers; it is about the experience of staff. We now have experienced inmates and inexperienced staff—and this is what happens as a result. What is the Minister going to do not just to get the number of officers in, but to ensure that they are properly trained, supported, mentored, developed and assisted in their early years of learning jail-craft? If he carries on as he is now, these problems will never be resolved on his watch.

  • The hon. Lady is right about the importance of jail-craft. I point her to the recent chief inspector’s report on Glen Parva prison, in which it was noted that the new officers were treated as an asset because of their enthusiasm and the new skills that they brought, rather than being viewed as in their probationary period and thus not able to add very much. If establishments get the right attitude and use the enthusiasm of the new recruits, it will be helpful.

  • This is an interesting debate, particularly when we discuss how people on all sides are affected, whether they be people working in prisons, prisoners themselves or their families who are worried about the conditions within the prisons. In common with my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), I have had constituents coming to see me to make representations about Strangeways prison in Manchester. They fear that the culture is not in place to ensure that mental health is something to be dealt with positively by the prison rather than simply being controlled because of the Minister’s targets.

  • I recently visited HMP Manchester in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and I would like to pay tribute to the outstanding work of prison officers there, facing some challenging prisoners. We are absolutely committed to improving mental health in prisons. NHS England is taking on an extra 20 case managers this year for adult secure services. We have co-commissioning coming up, and we take mental health issues extremely seriously.

  • The Minister is well aware of the Justice Select Committee’s inquiry into prison safety, which addresses the issue of violence. Members might have noticed that on Friday, the news slipped out that the Medway Secure Training Centre, which was mis-run by G4S, has now come into Ministry of Justice hands. The next day, a report came out on Rainsbrook, showing endemic use of force and restraint. Surely the logical conclusion is that the MOJ should now take over Rainsbrook private youth prison.

  • Order. I have a strong sense that Members will be approaching the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee to seek a debate on these matters. I say that because quite a lot of what we have heard has been nearer to debate contributions than to questions. I hope I can make that point gently.

  • No Governments comment on leaks, wherever they come from. We will have more to say about Medway in due course, and, indeed, about all three secure training centres, because, as the hon. Lady has said, some of the issues that apply to Medway are clearly relevant to all of them.

  • The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) mentioned “spice”. Officers at Holme House prison, which is in my constituency, have ended up on sick leave because of the effects of smoke from this substance. Others have been injured while trying to deal with violent prisoners, some of whom are taken to hospital after using the substance, thus putting officers and health staff at risk. When will the Government put the right systems in place to stop such substances getting through security and into prisons?

  • We are investing in new technology, and we are trialling a full body scanner to detect “spice”, “black mamba”, and other types of new psychoactive substance which are concealed within the body. I believe that the smoking ban will help in time, once it has been rolled out to prisons in the hon. Gentleman’s area and throughout the country. Unfortunately, as he will know, “spice” is often smoked openly by prisoners pretending that it is tobacco.

  • Prison officers at HMP Lancaster Farms, in my constituency, will have observed the events at Wormwood Scrubs over the weekend with trepidation, because the situation there is reflected across the country. The situation at Lancaster Farms was so bad that prison officers went to the local paper to expose the issue of drugs in prisons and the need for more officers. Will the Minister commit to putting more money into prison staffing so that staff can go to work and feel safe?

  • I should point out to the hon. Lady that the Prison Officers Association reached an agreement with the National Offender Management Service. We will definitely keep all the issues at Wormwood Scrubs under review, and, as I have said, we are continuing to spend more money on prison officers in order to recruit up to the benchmark. We are continuing to recruit at the rate at which we have been recruiting for the last few years.

  • I share the concern expressed by many other Members about prisoners with mental health issues, the risks that they pose not only to themselves but to others and the effect of staff cuts on that situation.

    I have corresponded with the Minister about a constituent of mine who has endured a lengthy bureaucratic process relating to his potential transfer to a secure mental health unit that would be more adequate to his needs. I am sorry to say that his family received a call this month telling them that he had killed himself, only to be told half an hour later that he had not. That is an extraordinary situation. I should like the Minister to investigate it fully, and also to look very closely at the case that is being made for my constituent to be transferred from HMP Birmingham, where he is currently being held.

  • I apologise to the family, through the hon. Gentleman, for the fact that they were given such terrible news, which clearly was not true. If the hon. Gentleman wants to write to me again about the issue, or even to come and see me about it, I shall be more than happy to discuss it further with him.