Thursday 15 September 2016
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered in the Sixth Report from the Justice Committee of Session 2015-16, on Prison Safety, HC 625, and the Government response, HC 647.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and to welcome the Minister to his place. I think this is the first time he has had the chance to reply to a Westminster Hall debate on this topic.
I am grateful to the House for this opportunity to debate the Justice Committee’s report; I thank all my Committee colleagues for their work, and other hon. Members from across the House who have a long-standing and informed interest in justice. I am particularly pleased to see the former prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), to whom I pay tribute for his work in an always difficult and intractable area of public policy.
Indeed. I was referring to the immediate former prisons Minister with whom the Committee worked. The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) graces us on the Select Committee and we have had the benefit of his input.
Let us be blunt. Prison safety is terrible. Those are not my words, but those of the former Secretary of State, my Friend the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), in a prompt and frank response to our inquiry. He is entitled to credit for that.
The difficulty, which the current Minister will recognise and accept, is that prison safety was terrible when our report came out and it has got worse. I have hesitated until now to talk about a crisis in prison safety, but I think we are now at that stage. I say that because on every measure, safety has deteriorated and has continued to do so over a long time. That cannot be regarded as a one-off blip and we see no sign yet, despite considerable Government endeavour and intervention—which I do not dispute—of the situation or the underlying reasons being turned around. The situation has become grave and our report is particularly timely. That is important for two reasons.
First, whatever one’s view about the purpose of prison and how much emphasis we place on rehabilitation on the one hand and retribution or prevention of danger to the public on the other—all legitimate considerations to put in the mix—when the state legitimately takes it upon itself through proper process to incarcerate someone for their wrongs against society, there is an element of punishment in doing that properly, but we also take on board responsibility for ensuring that they are treated not only humanely, but safely. If the state fails in that, it fails in one of its primary obligations.
Secondly, in respect of broader policy, the current Secretary of State, like her predecessor, and the Minister, like his predecessor, are committed to a policy of prison reform. I hope that all of us in Westminster Hall today are committed to a policy of prison reform. The reality is that the less safe the prisons are, the harder it is to achieve reform. If we want real rehabilitation, real change and to reduce reoffending, a raft of interventions in prison is required, which can be properly delivered only if prisons are safe to start with.
In the context of what my hon. Friend is saying, does he share my disappointment with the Government response? It seems to paraphrase what we said in our report without giving any substance to our recommendations or to what we want to achieve.
I agree. Although the response runs to several pages, the substance is not yet there. As I will say to the Minister in due course, I am glad that the Secretary of State has talked in terms of a prison reform and safety plan. That is good. There is movement on publishing statistics, but what are absent are the matrices that we said are critical to any proper monitoring. There is also a disconnect in the timeframe of those statistics being available and being made available to the House for scrutiny.
Those were important parts of our report—I will develop the point—because, for a number of reasons, many of us are increasingly questioning the sustained ability and capacity of the National Offender Management Service, as currently constituted, to bear down on this issue. Frankly, NOMS needs a continuing light of scrutiny on it and I know the Secretary of State is keen to achieve clear delivery markers against which progress can be measured. She is right to want that and it is disappointing that we have so little detail so far. I will return to that issue in more detail. My hon. Friend is entirely right.
We have seen a period of decline, not just in the view of the House and the Committee, but independently. Report after report from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, the prisons and probation ombudsman and a raft of criminal justice non-governmental organisations have all spoken of the real difficulties and decline. We have had debates in the House and urgent questions. NOMS has put in place various measures, but the truth is that it does not seem to be delivering on some of the key issues. That is why I say we have reached a crisis point. We need urgent action to identify those difficulties.
My other concern about the Government response is that there is no sense of urgency that, if I may be blunt, we did get from the initial response of the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath, in his swift reply to us. I am not insinuating that good will and good intentions have gone away. It is classically said that there are no votes in prison reform, and one of the tasks of a Justice Department is to keep it at the top of the agenda, to make the case publicly and perhaps to challenge some long-entrenched practices. A sense of urgency must be engendered, not least because the deliverability of the whole broader prison agenda depends on getting safety right so that there is a stable environment in which to deliver it.
On deliverability of the ambitious and welcome programme, does my hon. Friend agree that a healthy and safe ratio between staff and prisoners is vital and that ultimately we must grasp the nettle? There must either be more prison officers or fewer prisoners to get the ratio back into equilibrium.
My hon. Friend is right. There is no other solution but to grasp the nettle. Some will assert that we should increase the staff, and they have to grasp the nettle that that means more public spending. I do not think most of the public are in the mood for that, but I think the public mood towards prison reform has changed markedly in the last 20 years. It has changed during my time in the House. It was apparent in debates during the last Parliament that people are, rightly in my judgment, much more open-minded now about the need for prison reform. No one is beyond rehabilitation—that is an exaggeration: precious few people are.
I spent 25 years practising at the criminal Bar. I dealt with some very nasty people indeed and some dangerous people, some of whom needed to be locked up and kept away. I also dealt with some stupid people. [Interruption.] I leave aside members of my profession or even the judiciary, but I dealt with some people who were stupid and got themselves into trouble because of that. I dealt with people who did not have an education or skills and who made certain choices. They got their lives into a mess through drugs, alcohol and disrupted families. I suspect that they make up the majority. Whenever I visit the women’s estate and talk to women prisoners, I find that the vast majority of one kind or another have certain issues in their lives—often mental health problems and related issues.
We cannot treat this matter in a simplistic fashion. Simply saying, “Keep the numbers up and just produce more staff” makes no sense to my mind as a Conservative given the need to keep public spending under control, because we would be giving a demand-led blank cheque; it also makes no sense in terms of the ambitious agenda for social reform that the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State, the Minister and I believe in.
It seems to me that the answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), based on his own considerable experience as a practising barrister and his having seen exactly the same people, is yes, we must grasp that nettle. It is pretty obvious to my mind that the answer is a greater emphasis on rehabilitation, education and reform, and that is why getting safety right is all the more critical.
I think that all or almost all of us share the same objectives, but the question now is about willing and providing the means to achieve them, and that is what our report was about. I hope that the Minister will tell me that the Government response was a measure of work in progress. I quite understand that when a new ministerial team come in, they need to reflect, take stock, review priorities and consider, in the light of the circumstances that they have inherited, the shape that they want progress to take, but if he told me that, it would be further reassurance that the progress will be genuine and speedy. The Secretary of State talked about reform proceeding “at pace”. Can we have a bit more flesh on the bones of what is there? We ask that in a spirit of complete good will towards the Government’s intentions.
My hon. Friend may recall that at a recent Justice Committee meeting, I asked the Secretary of State how she would deal with the legacy of the previous Secretary of State’s reforms and the actions that he had taken to deal with prison safety. The response that she gave caused the press to argue that she was going back on the commitments that he had made. Does my hon. Friend share that view?
When I was a Minister, I was sometimes portrayed unfairly in the press, so I shall adopt a practical approach: let us see what happens. But I do think it important that we do not, any of us, send any signals that reform is less pressing or less important. Were that to be the case, it would be disappointing and, I think, an error. I am conscious of the clarification that the Secretary of State issued after her appearance before the Justice Committee, and I will take her at her word on that, but we need the measures that we talked about to be brought forward swiftly. If Brexit means Brexit, to adopt a phrase, pace means pace, but pace requires detail in order for there to be credibility in how things are delivered. That is the approach that I take—we want to be constructive and assist the Government on what I think is the right path, provided that it is followed through consistently.
I shall touch on just a few more matters before I finish so that other hon. Members can speak—this is a well-attended debate. First, I have referred to the matrices showing that everything is going in the wrong direction at the moment, such as on assaults, self-harming and deaths in custody. All those figures are going the wrong way. The data are set out well in a report that is readily available in the public domain, so I shall not cite a raft of figures, because I suspect that that would not add a great deal, but the trend is clear.
Secondly, despite genuine efforts by NOMS to recruit staff, the number of new staff coming in is significantly offset by the lack of retention. The problem is that we are very often losing some of the most experienced officers—some of the coolest heads. When there are difficulties to do with safety, such as dangerous situations arising on a wing, one wants to have experienced prison officers around to deal with it.
The fewer there are, the greater the risk that things will escalate rather than being brought back under control, so there is a direct link between retention and safety, which we highlight in our report. That is one thing that the Government need to do more to address. We are not convinced that NOMS has a deep-seated understanding of what causes that lack of retention, why recruitment is increasingly difficult and what underpins both those factors, so we need more flesh on the bones of that.
Let me deal briefly with some other matters. Steps have been taken—again, let us recognise that—on the possession of knives and new psychoactive substances in prison, but I am not sure that we are fully on top of that issue, either, particularly in relation to those new substances. The issue is one of technology: the ability to fly in substances and a raft of other things with drones is enormous.
Of course, that brings us back to the circular issue referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham. If, as we have seen on our visits, people are locked up in their cells for 23 hours a day, and if there are illegal substances in prisons, prisoners’ ability to make use of them is all the greater given their close confinement and the growth of gang culture and peer pressure. The more that people are out of their cells and doing something purposeful, the better it is to combat the misuse of substances. That cannot be done sustainably with the current prison population, which is a very important issue.
The direction is right, but we need to be more vigorous and radical in tackling some of those important issues. That brings me back to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell): we are disappointed about some of the detail in the Government response. We called for the Ministry and NOMS jointly to produce an action plan on prison safety, addressing the underlying factors behind violence, self-harm and suicide. We said that that plan should include preventive and punitive measures, because those two things have to be in the toolbox of any prison governor. We also wanted objectives and indices. The Secretary of State is right to commit to a prison safety and reform plan—that is good—but it is the missing detail that people need to see urgently.
We asked for quarterly reports on progress on the plan, rather than the six-monthly reports suggested in the Government response, not as a matter of caprice but because we wanted the reports to coincide with the publication of the quarterly safety in custody statistics. Otherwise, frankly, they are pretty meaningless. The whole point of transparency and scrutiny is to have the two sets of figures together so that we can compare and contrast. That is why I urge the Government to rethink their response on that matter. The information is collated, and there is no doubt that it is available—I am sure it is available to Ministers on a regular basis. There is no practical reason at all why it cannot be made available in the way we suggest in our report. It is not an expensive or a difficult ask, in other words.
We are also looking for specific information on incidents of disorder in prisons, including the deployment of the national tactical response group; a more comprehensive set of data about staffing; and performance ratings for individual prisons. We do not know yet whether the previous Secretary of State’s league table initiative will continue, but certainly we want performance ratings for prisons. I accept that it is not always easy to make complete comparisons, but on safety it is, actually. We can compare data on safety even if we cannot do so for rehabilitation in a particular prison, so there is no reason why those data cannot be available.
The same goes for data on the average number of hours each day that prisoners spend locked in their cells—I stress that in particular. I mentioned this earlier, but the amount of time that people spend locked up is entirely linked to safety levels. Boredom, the abuse of substances, the internet and a raft of other things, and the peer pressure of groups of people locked up together in a confined space for long periods all contribute directly to a deteriorating safety environment.
Is it not also the case that meaningful rehabilitation does not take place inside a prison cell? It is only when people are outside their cells and engaging in courses—be they on anger management, substance abuse or whatever—that they can truly come to terms with the problems that may, in some cases, be the reason why they got into prison in the first place.
That is entirely correct. Heavens, one would have thought we had learned that lesson from the failures of the old Victorian silent and solitary system. Rehabilitation can only ever work when people are out of their cells and in workshops and education classes. Unless they do that, they will not get anywhere, and the regime has to be safe for the officers to get them out of their cells. That is why we have to tackle this problem at root.
That is not yet the redrawn boundary—my constituency is Ealing Central and Acton at present, although it may be changed.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and pay tribute to him for his sterling work chairing our Select Committee. He mentioned how things are interlinked with education. That point has been vividly brought home to us on the many visits we have made, in particular to Aylesbury and Wandsworth, where we heard that prisoners sometimes want to go on educational courses but there are not the staff available to relieve others so that they can do it. It seems to be a Catch-22 situation, and people are locked into a cycle. They want to get education, but there are not enough staff to supervise the groups travelling across the courses. That means that courses are often cancelled, which is an unacceptable situation.
The hon. Lady is right. I am probably so old in politics that I can remember a constituency configured that way in the past. She is quite right—it comes back to this same circle.
People who say that the only answer is more and more imprisonment and more and more lockdown perhaps ought to go into prisons more. There are an awful lot of people—even people who, frankly, deserve to be in there for some time—who are none the less interested in engaging in purposeful activity. That makes them less inclined to behave in a way that threatens safety and gets them involved in gangs or other forms of violence. It is a win-win at every level. Whatever the level of the sentence, providing such activity is a good and, basically, a morally right thing to do. However, we cannot put prison officers or instructors into environments where it is not safe for people to be out of their cells to get that education and personal activity. That is why getting the regime safe is critical to everything.
I add my voice to those of others on the sterling work that the hon. Gentleman has done in leading the Justice Committee since my election in May last year.
I reiterate the point about the vicious cycle that the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) touched on. The lack of resources means that prisoners are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day and cannot get purposeful activity—there are not enough prison officers to construct it. The lack of purposeful activity then means they are predisposed to violence and to not being rehabilitated through the system. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is a vicious cycle. The key, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) said, is to grasp the nettle by either reducing the prison population or resourcing prisons properly, so that prisoners come out into society rehabilitated.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. I am grateful for his support for all our work on the Justice Committee, because although justice and prison matters are devolved to Scotland, we can learn lessons from each other about how things work across the whole of the United Kingdom. We do have to break that vicious circle. Resource is important, and to be fair, when our report was published, the Government did put in extra resource, which is welcome and to be commended. We are now saying that we have to see the detail of how we can monitor the use of that resource, so that it is used to the very best advantage. That is the most important thing that we need to be saying as we go forward.
I know many Members wish to speak, so I will conclude. I am glad that there is going to be a prison safety and reform plan in the autumn, and I gather that legislation is likely to be brought forward. I understand that the shape of it is not always possible to commit to greatly in advance, but it is really important that we maintain the pledge made in the Queen’s Speech that prison reform would be a key part of the Government’s agenda. I hope the Minister will bear that in mind. I am not going to press him now to say what the shape of the legislation will be, but he could give us commitments to provide more details following the Government response.
I thank the Chairman of the Justice Committee for giving way to me so early in the debate. I assure the Select Committee that prison reform, which was a key plank of the Queen’s Speech for this Session, remains so. That commitment still exists.
I am grateful to the Minister for a considered, and therefore authoritative, intervention. That is appreciated, and I think it will be welcomed by everybody on the Committee and everybody in the sector. I promise the Minister that the Committee will continue to work constructively with him and his colleagues in delivering that; it is an important message, for all the reasons that I have set out.
The Minister provides an appropriate point for me to bring my remarks to a conclusion. I hope we will soon have an idea of what shape the legislation is going to take. Are we going to continue along the route of governor autonomy? Will we progress down the route of reform prisons? Are there alternative routes?
In particular, we urge the Minister to do some things that would not require primary legislation, such as working on earned incentives and privileges regimes, and making appropriate use of the release on temporary licence scheme. Those things could be delivered fairly quickly and could be consistent with the thrust of the forthcoming legislation. I apologise if I have taken some time outlining the Justice Committee’s report, but we regard this as an important issue. I commend the report to the House and look forward to the Minister’s response.
I echo the support for the Chairman of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), for helping to steer the members of the Committee to produce this report on a very important issue. Prison safety is important for the people who are arrested and sentenced and are in the state’s care in prison. It is also an extremely important issue for those who work in the estate, be they formal prison officers or people working in health, education or associated trades in the prison service. That is a key driver of the Select Committee’s decision to look at prison safety.
Let me say at the outset that nobody says this is easy. Ensuring prison safety is a very difficult task. Let us look at the performance measures. The Select Committee has drawn the attention of the House to concerns over prison safety because some key performance measures drawn up by Her Majesty’s inspector of prisons, the prisons and probation ombudsman, our own inquiries, and the Prison Officers Association have deteriorated over the recent period.
If I may, I will add some flesh to the bones of the concerns about prison safety. If I said that there were, for example, six homicides in prisons in the 12 months to 2016—the highest number on record—that would be a matter of concern to the prison estate and to this House. If we added to that the fact that serious assaults in prisons have more than doubled in the last three years, to over 2,197 prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and 625 serious assaults on staff in 2015, that would be of concern to the Prison Service and to this House. The number of sexual assaults has doubled since 2011 to more than 300 cases in 2015.
The Chairman of the Committee—my hon. Friend, if I may call him that—mentioned the national tactical response group, which has dealt with 400 serious disturbances in the financial year. The tactical response unit is not brought out unless the incident is extremely serious. Emergency services were called out to prisons more than 26,000 times in 2015 and the number of fires in prison has increased by 57% in the past year.
The rates of self-harm in prison are at the highest level ever recorded, with 32,313 self-harm incidents in 2015; in itself, that is a 40% rise over the previous two years. The Minister particularly needs to think about a policy issue relating to sentences of imprisonment for public protection, which were introduced by the Government I served in—although not when I was there.
The highest level of self-harm in prison is currently among those who are on IPP sentences. I suspect that that is largely because they do not have any date for when they will be released, which creates additional pressure on their mental health—never mind the challenges that brought them into prison in the first place. Women—even though the number of women in the prison population is small—now account for 23% of all incidents of self-harm across the board.
Those are difficult, staggering statistics, which show a deterioration over a number of years, but which are backed up by the position taken by the former chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick. In his 2014-15 annual report—this is damning stuff—he said:
“You were more likely to die in prison than five years ago. More prisoners were murdered, killed themselves, self-harmed and were victims of assaults than five years ago. There were more serious assaults and the number of assaults and serious assaults against staff also”—
increased in that period. The former independent chief inspector of prisons also said, and I will return to this point in a moment:
“It remains my view that staff shortages, overcrowding and the wider policy changes described in this report have had a significant impact on prison safety.”
As hon. Members have indicated in interventions, there are two reasons why prison safety might deteriorate. The first is changes in the cohort of prisoners. We undoubtedly have prisoners with more drug problems and more mental health challenges, who are in for more serious crimes. However, when that is coupled with the reduction in staff and the pressures on staffing and on the Prison Service to meet those objectives in a time of great change, there are additional strains.
Nick Hardwick said:
“I share the conclusion of the Justice Committee report”.
I do not need to repeat it all, because the Chairman has outlined it, but it states:
“We believe that the key explanatory factor for the obvious deterioration in standards over the last year is that a significant number of prisons have been operating at staffing levels below what is necessary to maintain reasonable, safe and rehabilitative regimes.”
The hon. Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) have indicated strongly in interventions that the purpose of prison is not just punishment but rehabilitation. If we cannot provide rehabilitation and work and monitor some of the challenges that people face every day as a result of prison numbers, the challenges and frustrations will grow, and ultimately they will be taken out in prisoner-on-prisoner attacks, prisoner-on-staff attacks, self-harm, deterioration and in very tragic cases, suicide.
The current chief inspector of prisons said on the release of his annual report this year that the “simple and unpalatable truth” is that
“too many of our prisons… have become unacceptably violent and dangerous places.”
That is a very damning statement, which the Government should, will and, I hope, can respond to.
The prisons and probation ombudsman joined in the commentary on the current state of prisons, backing up what has been said so far. He said:
“resources and staffing in prisons are undeniably stretched”
“it is disappointing how often—after invariably accepting my recommendations—prisons struggle to sustain the improvement I call for.”
This is a difficult, challenging area, as anyone who has ever worked in the prison system will understand. I know that hon. Members who have held the post of prisons Minister in the past, or hold it now, will want to see improvements, and the key thing we need to look at is what those improvements are.
The hon. Member for Henley said that the Government’s response was a bit thin. Without being tedious in my repetition, it was indeed a bit of a thin response to the challenges identified in this report. The Government said—this is valuable and welcome, and the Minister will no doubt repeat this later:
“Prison safety is the Department’s top priority and is fundamental to making the radical reforms…We need decisive action to improve upon the current unacceptable levels of violence, self-harm and self-inflicted deaths.”
In saying that, the Minister confirms not just the statistics that we have—the statistics that, for example, the Prison Reform Trust have brought before us, and what the Minister’s chief inspector of prisons and the prisons and probation ombudsman have said—but what is common knowledge among prison officers who work in the system. They have said that assaults are rising and prisons are more dangerous, with more deaths and more self-harm.
I hope that the Minister can put some flesh on the bones of the Ministry of Justice’s thin response. Let me start with the statement that:
“The autumn plan will include specific steps for improving safety in prisons. It will detail the urgent steps required to improve the security in our estate”.
Well, leaves are falling off trees now; we are technically into autumn. Could we have some indication—not just in the future—of what will be in that plan? What are the plan’s key features and its direction of travel? If urgent steps are required, they were required when the prisons inspector’s report was published, so will the Minister give some indication of what that means?
The response also says that the Government are:
“Monitoring the effectiveness of the recent investment of an additional £10 million in the Prison Service”.
Monitoring the investment they have put in place is hardly an action plan. I would like to know what that £10 million has been spent on, whether it is sufficient to meet the existing challenges and whether the Minister has secured further investment to increase that £10 million. Presumably that £10 million is meeting some objectives to help reduce the challenges we face, but I am not clear what they are.
The response then gets a little more disingenuous. The Government say that they will enhance
“the recruitment, and training, of prison officers. We have appointed more than 3,100 new Prison Officers since January 2015”,
and that the overall number, therefore, will rise “by 300”. From January 2015, the number of prisoner officers is rising by 300, but it is not unknown to the Committee that prison officer numbers in March 2010 were 49,230 and that the prison officer numbers in March 2016 were 43,530, which means approximately 7,000 fewer prison officers are in place now than were in place six years ago. The Government say that prison officer numbers have increased by 300 because of their investment, but that is not really making a dent in the real issues and challenges that have been identified by the chief inspector of prisons, the prisons and probation ombudsman, the Prison Officers Association and not least, by the Chairman of the Select Committee and ourselves as Members.
My right hon. Friend is painting a very compelling picture and giving a timeline. Does he agree that the logical consequence of the bleak picture he paints is more incidents such as the walkout in May at Wormwood Scrubs prison by staff, who felt so unsafe that they downed tools? That prison is on the border of my constituency—it is next door, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). The situation has been described as “Dickensian squalor” by the current chief inspector, Peter Clarke, whom the Committee interviewed. I know this lot—the Government—are into Victorian values, but this is the wrong value to go for.
Self-evidently, if prison officers feel so unsafe in their place of work that they walk out, it is for them to express that concern. I hope they find mechanisms other than walking out because not being there does not make the prisoners any safer.
The key thing—this is linked to the previous point—is that six years ago there were 1.73 prisoners for each prison officer. Now, there are more than 2.015 prisoners for each prison officer, which affects the amount of investment and time they can put in. The Government’s response shows that a lot of people are walking away from the Prison Service. We have appointed 3,100 new prison officers in the past year but, overall, there has only been a rise of 300 officers. As well as the Government dealing with the issue of having sufficient prison officers, I would welcome their view on retention. Ultimately, we face a situation whereby some prisons have experienced prisoners and inexperienced prison officers, which is not a good mix if the system is to be managed effectively.
If we are losing the number of prison officers that the Minister’s report says we are in just one year—we have a net increase of only 300 prison officers after recruiting 3,100—what steps is he taking to incentivise people to stay, to ensure we retain recruitment and to keep experienced officers in place? Given the age profile of prison officers, will the trend be such that the Minister really has to ramp up recruitment because people will want to retire as they approach natural retirement age? What profiling has he done and will he confirm to the Justice Committee that his recruitment numbers will have a real impact given the number of prison officers we have lost?
The Government’s response puts in a word about mobile phones, which is a perennial problem that we have all dealt with during our times in the Ministry of Justice. They also make points about drugs in prison and about detection, which is equally important. They then come to the next issue, which is:
“Building five new prisons by 2020 to modernise the prison estate and close the most inefficient out of date jails.”
Perhaps the Minister will tell us, apart from Her Majesty’s Prison Berwyn, which is 10 miles down the road from my constituency, which are the other four prisons? When will he put bricks on the ground and which are the inefficient and out-of-date jails? At what stage will those predominantly Victorian prisons, possibly even some that have been mentioned today, be closed and what is the transition period for that? What measures, including staffing numbers, design, education and input, is he building into the new prisons, such as HMP Berwyn, to make them safer?
We can all sit here and pontificate on what should be done, but it is clear from the tone of the debate and the information to date that there has been serious deterioration over a range of measures and indices over the past five—and particularly the past two to three—years. A range of things can be done regarding staffing ratios, retention, drugs, mobile phones, education, mental health and the cohort of prisoner numbers, but it comes down to points made by my fellow Justice Committee members, the hon. Members for Cheltenham, for Henley and for Bromley and Chislehurst. If we are going to continue to imprison people at the rate that we are, sufficient resources must be put in to manage that in an effective way to provide rehabilitation.
Looking into ways of taking people out of the Prison Service and into short-term community sentences might take some of the pressure off prison numbers. We cannot have a situation whereby there is an increased cohort of difficult, challenging prisoners with mental health, drug and alcohol problems, who are in for violent offences, and for longer sentences for a range of offences, when the way in which prison operates is dealt with by an ever-diminishing number of staff who are more poorly trained than and not as experienced as the people they are replacing, and whose safety, along with those who are in prison, is paramount.
Will the Minister put a bit more meat on the response now or indicate to the Justice Committee at what stage a bit more meat will be put on it? I look forward to the Committee being able to assess indices of success so that we have clear measurements of where improvements will be made.
With due respect to the document, rather than blind assurances that the Government will produce a plan, monitor effectiveness, look into increasing the number of prison officers, deal with drugs and phones, and build some new prisons, I would like a bit more detail. If the Minister is not able to give that today, will he commit to reporting back to our Committee at a time of his convenience with a detailed plan, including detailed indices for improvement and detailed financing for those indices, so that we can measure what happens in the future, rather than just take assurances, which, while well meant, may not actually meet the objectives we have set?
It is always a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and to follow the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), for whom I have a great deal of respect. As others have done, I commend our Chair of the Justice Committee, who does a great job in martialling sometimes disparate viewpoints on the Committee.
When I say “disparate viewpoints”, what I am really referring to is me. As on many issues, I tend to have a very different view of the world—particularly the world of prison and sentencing—from that of many of my colleagues, so I might put a slightly different viewpoint from theirs. That is not to say that I do not have a great deal of respect for their views and expertise on these matters; we just happen to draw different conclusions.
One thing that never gets talked about with regard to prison safety that I want to talk about, and that I raised with the Secretary of State on her initial performance before the Justice Committee last week, is the change brought in under the last Labour Government: it has done immense harm not only to public confidence in the criminal justice system, but to safety in prisons.
That Labour Government passed a law, and this is a welcome opportunity to make a public service announcement to the many people who are not aware that it is on the statute book. The law stated that everybody who had reached halfway through their prison sentence had to be released from prison, irrespective of how disruptive they had been and whether they were still considered a danger to the public. Those prisoners have to be released halfway through their sentence.
The law had nothing to do with any great rehabilitation revolution, or with making our prisons or streets safer; it was introduced because the last Labour Government got themselves into a crisis over prison numbers and could not meet the capacity. They were desperately looking for ways to reduce the prison population. Anything would do.
One method they used was letting everybody off 14 days before the end of their prison sentence. The second method was to say that people had to be, by law, automatically released halfway through their sentences. It does not take a genius to work out that that will have—and this has proved to be the case—a negative impact on safety in prisons.
If prisoners have a six-year sentence, become eligible for release after three but could still serve the whole six years, the chances are that there will be an incentive for them to behave themselves in prison, get their heads down, work hard and do the things that are asked of them; if they do, the parole board may well let them out of prison when the three years come up. If they know they will be released from prison after three years no matter how well or badly they behave, what on earth is the incentive to behave in prison? There is none at all. It does not take a genius to work out that that is pure common sense.
If the Government want to get to grips with safety in prisons—and, as a by-product, instil a bit more public confidence in the criminal justice system—they must deal with that issue. They must repeal that terrible law and say to prisoners once again, “You become eligible for release halfway through your sentence, but only if you are considered to be safe to release to the public and if you have been behaving yourself in prison.”
I remember when the last Labour Government introduced this law—the Conservative party was apoplectic. What have we done in our six years in government? Absolutely nothing. That is a disgrace—certainly for the millions of people who have gone down to the polling station to vote Conservative at a general election. Those people would expect a Conservative Government to deal with this, and I hope the Minister will not only address the issue in his remarks but will act on the situation in his time as prisons Minister.
My hon. Friend is setting out his characteristically robust and principled position, with which I do not disagree. But even if that welcome repeal were to happen, is not the difficulty that it would lead to such additional pressures on the prison system that, frankly, we would not be in a position to absorb the extra numbers at this juncture?
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but he is looking at it from a perspective different from mine. My view is that we should not manage the prison population to fit an arbitrary figure that we have decided is the limit that we will allow in prison; we should imprison the people who should be in prison, and it is the Government’s job to build the capacity in the prison system to cope with those people. That is the bit on which the Government need to get a grip.
I was going to come to this later but, as we are on the subject, I will deal with it now. One area on which I happen to disagree with the Chairman of the Select Committee, although it pains me to do so, is the size of the prison population. We have to address the myth that has been perpetuated that the UK has a very high prison population. The fact of the matter is that we do not, and I will explain why. Yes, the absolute number of more than 80,000 represents a high prison population, but the UK is a very highly populated country so of course we have a high prison population. That is a meaningless measure.
If we look at the number of people in our prisons as a proportion of the population as a whole, we are not at the top of the table by any means, but I concede that we are above average. We are in the highest quartile but, again, it is a meaningless measure. The only meaningful measure of prison population is the proportion of criminals that we send to prison. In other words, for every 1,000 offences committed in the UK how many people go to prison? That is the most meaningful measure of whether we send a lot of people, or not many people, to prison. Comparing those figures with the figures for other countries across the world shows that we have a very low prison population. For every 1,000 crimes committed in the UK, we send some 18 people to prison. I challenge anyone to name four or five countries that send fewer people to prison, because they will be hard pressed to do so.
Our prison population is very low, so we have to end the myth that has been built up by these prison reform groups, which frankly just do not like anybody being sent to prison. We have to address the myth that has built up over the years that we have a high prison population. We send very few people to prison. Everyone knows that it is difficult to be sent to prison in the UK. People get community sentence after community sentence—the only people sent to prison are either very persistent offenders or very serious offenders. Courts bend over backwards not to send people to prison. We have to nail that myth.
Contrary to what my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) said in his opening remarks, I do not think that public opinion is that we should have fewer people in prison. I do not think public opinion has moved an awfully long way. Clearly, my hon. Friend is much more expert than I about public opinion in Bromley and Chislehurst, and I bow to his superior knowledge, but I invite him to come up to Shipley. He can knock on the door of any 100 houses he wants to ask people, “Do you want to see more criminals or fewer criminals in prison?” I suspect that a number in the high 90s would say that they would like to see more criminals in prison, not fewer. I accept that Bromley and Chislehurst may differ, but I am here to represent Shipley.
I respect my hon. Friend’s point, but I want to put my point to him in a different way. I suspect that both his constituents and mine would like to see fewer victims of crime and fewer crimes being committed, so they also might like to see people in prison being more effectively rehabilitated so that they reoffended less. Does he accept that overcrowding in our prisons prevents rehabilitation? Reducing such overcrowding would be in his constituents’ interest.
I agree with one part of what my hon. Friend says, which is that we should be doing our best to rehabilitate people while they are in prison. I do not see how anyone could possibly disagree with that. What I do not accept is that we should have fewer people in prison. I want more people in prison.
The Minister and I were discussing this not too long ago, and we observed that the UK prison population has increased quite substantially over the past 20 or 30 years. Lo and behold, what has also happened in the UK over the past 20 or 30 years is that the crime rate has gone down. Members here might want to try to pretend that those two things are alien to each other, but I contend that one follows from the other.
To be honest, it is not rocket science. It is blindingly obvious, certainly to most of my constituents, that the more criminals there are in prison, the fewer criminals there are out on the streets committing crimes. It is obvious that the more criminals we lock up, the less crime we will have. I accept that we want people to be rehabilitated while they are in prison, but I do not accept that the answer is to send fewer people to prison in the first place. In my opinion, it is too hard to be sent to prison and most people are not sent to prison for long enough.
The idea that short sentences do not work is another myth. The reoffending rate for people on short sentences is 60-odd per cent. Virtually every single person in prison on a short sentence has had community sentence after community sentence. The reoffending rate for that cohort while they were on a community sentence was 100%, which is why they ended up in prison in the first place, so a 60-odd per cent. reoffending rate for the cohort on short sentences is actually a rather good record compared with the alternative. We do our prisons a disservice. The longer people spend in prison, the less likely they are to reoffend. That point is made clear by all the Government statistics.
Prison safety is also undermined by fixed-term recall, which is little known. We have a system in the UK whereby people are released halfway through their sentence. If a prisoner reoffends, most people would expect them to go to prison to serve the remainder of their original sentence, but I am afraid not. The last Labour Government did for that, too. They introduced fixed-term recall, whereby people are sent back to prison not to serve the remainder of their sentence but to serve 28 days. Again, people have no incentive to behave themselves when they go back because they know they will be out in 28 days, come what may—that is the whole principle of fixed-term recall.
There is no incentive in our sanctions for these people to behave themselves when they go back into prison, and there are lots of them—I think there were some 7,000 people on fixed-term recall last year. In fact, many of them make a point of going back into prison just to see how their illicit operations have been doing while they have been out. They know that they will get only 28 days if they commit another offence, which gives them enough time to see what is going on before they are back out again. The whole thing is an absolute scandal. These are the things that the Minister needs to get a grip on if he is to do anything about prison safety.
Drugs are clearly a massive issue in our prisons, and the number of people who take drugs for the first time in prison astounds me. It cannot be beyond the wit of the Government to address drugs in prisons. They have to be much more robust on that, too.
Members will know that I have an interest in the comparative treatment of men and women in prisons. More women than men, per 100 of the prison population, have been punished for disciplinary offences while in prison. There were 130 adjudications per 100 women prisoners, compared with 106 adjudications per 100 men prisoners, according to the Ministry of Justice’s publication “Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System 2011”. We have a massive problem with violence by women offenders in our prisons. This is not a men- only problem.
The other thing that I wanted to mention is radicalisation in our prisons, which is a massive cause for concern. I put in a freedom of information request to the Ministry of Justice a year ago asking which prisons had reported instances of or concerns about religious radicalisation in the last year. The MOJ’s reply did not tell me which prisons had had such reports; it told me which prisons had not, because there were so few of them. When I totted them up, there were only seven prisons in the whole UK that had not reported instances of or concerns about radicalisation. If we are to do something about prison safety, tackling radicalisation in our prisons must be a top priority for the Government. It is a massive area of concern. We cannot let political correctness be an excuse for inaction; we must get to grips with that particular problem.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Delyn about prison officers. We clearly need more of them in our prisons. To me, that is blindingly obvious. They do a valiant job of trying to keep order in our prisons in difficult circumstances; we cannot keep cutting their numbers, as has been done in recent years, and expect there to be no consequences. We must invest in our prison officers.
In summary, I look at the issue from a different point of view from the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. He said that he did not think the public wanted more public spending on prisons. I disagree; I think that our constituents do want it. They want less public spending on things like international aid and more spending on locking up criminals in our prisons. I genuinely think that that is the public mood. They do not think that too many people are being sent to prison; they think that it is too easy for people to get out of prison, or not to be sent there in the first place. We should be wary of getting out of touch with public opinion on this issue.
There are many areas that the Minister can attend to in order to improve prison safety while also improving public confidence in the criminal justice system. He must not be seduced by the bleeding-heart liberals whose basic agenda is that they want fewer and fewer people in prison because they do not believe in sending people there. He must be robust and stick up for public opinion a bit more, ensuring that criminals are in prison and that they serve the sentences handed down by the courts, preferably in full.
The Minister certainly should not allow them to be released halfway through their sentences when they are still a danger to the public and have behaved badly in our prisons. That is not fair to the public, and it is not fair to the prison officers who have to deal with such people and see them released halfway through their sentences, much to their disgust. I welcome the Minister to his position, and I trust he will tackle some of those issues and not be seduced by the bleeding-heart liberals.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Stringer. Although it is tempting to enter into debate on the alternative worldviews of crime and punishment in Shipley and Bromley, I think I will return to the report and the subject of the debate.
I thank the Chair of the Justice Committee and its other members for the report, and I thank him for his remarks today. I also thank the Minister for already having made a clear statement that prison reform remains a priority for the Government. I hope that we may hear—I think we are all waiting to hear—a bit more in his response, and that there will be some flesh on those bones.
I think that every Member who has taken part in this debate knows how serious the matter is. We are probably all familiar with the statistics quoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), so although I have them in front of me, I will not repeat them. We are also well aware of comments like the one that he quoted from the current chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, who said in his very first annual report that prisons had become unacceptably violent and dangerous places, and that it was a grim situation that had become even worse during the short time that he had been in charge. We are also aware, as the Chairman of the Justice Committee said, of the candour of the previous Secretary of State, who was always prepared to admit that safety conditions in prisons were terrible and getting worse. Most of all, I suspect that those of us who visit prisons regularly or have prisons in our constituencies are aware of that from those experiences and from talking to prison officers and governors.
I have asked three urgent questions on the matter this year, as well as a whole book of written questions. We also had a major debate about it. Members from all parties are now paying it a lot of attention, which is a good thing. The former Secretary of State, although he was in the job for only a year, was well informed on the issue, took it seriously and appeared committed to resolving it. He proposed a number of initiatives, including taking old prisons out of use and building new ones. He talked about governor-led prisons and prison reform in general, and he engaged with many leading prison reform groups, including the Prison Reform Trust, the Howard League and the Koestler Trust, which exhibits fantastic prisoner art and is based just outside Wormwood Scrubs in my constituency. He was a breath of fresh air compared with his predecessor in the job, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). The caveat to that praise is that we did not see a lot of action in that period. We saw a lot of general statements and specific ideas, but not a great deal of action. However, I like to think that we would have done if he had continued in post.
I fear—I hope that the Minister will reassure us on this—that we have not yet seen the same level of knowledge or commitment from the current Secretary of State. I have read the proceedings of her interview before the Justice Committee and have been present for some of her performance in the House so far, and I, personally, do not feel that she has quite grasped the seriousness of the issue yet, or exhibited the same zeal for reform as her predecessor. The Government response to the Select Committee report might be an indication of that. I think that the Chairman of the Committee said that there were “a number of pages” in the response; that number is two and a bit. I have written my notes for this debate on the back of those pages, and I think that I have doubled the length in doing so. We need to know a bit more from the Government. I am sure that we will not get everything from the Minister today, but I hope that we get some of it.
I have two specific matters to raise. One is the issue of where the Government intend to go on this issue. What specifically can the Minister say about legislation and policy, and about the continuation and implementation of the policy that has already been introduced? The other is the detail of the issue. The immediate former prisons Minister, the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), is here. He was a master of detail, and when he came to the House to answer questions, he was always well informed about the particular circumstances of individual prisons. I think the current Minister will learn that that is important in his job. It matters what happens in every one of our individual prisons.
I say that as someone who has in his constituency perhaps the most iconic prison in the country, certainly visually—Wormwood Scrubs. Unfortunately, during the 30 years or so for which I have been involved with it, it has shown some of the worst aspects of the prison system. Of particular concern are some of the disastrous recent reports. It has a new governor, who I know is trying to improve matters, and some incredibly dedicated staff. Despite the cull of prison officers, it still has some long-term staff, who are doing a very good job. However, just this week, the chairman of the Prison Officers Association at Wormwood Scrubs wrote to me about violence against staff, saying that there are an average of 15 staff assaults each month, three to four of which are serious. At that rate, each officer at Wormwood Scrubs is likely to be assaulted at least once a year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) referred to what I think she described as a walk-out. More properly, what happened on 6 May this year was that prison officers would not enter the prison on health and safety grounds. An arbitrated meeting was held outside the prison gates, and they went back to work. I think that they behaved responsibly on that occasion. Two days later, indicating the depth of their concern—it was the occasion for one of my urgent questions—two prison officers were hospitalised in a serious assault. In the last two weeks there has been another serious assault, in which three prison officers were hospitalised—as I said, it is a very common occurrence.
At the moment, Wormwood Scrubs has slightly better staffing ratios than other prisons, but I am afraid that in October we are about to see a reduction of 14 deployable prison officers a day, with staffing levels being reduced in some key areas by 20% to 30%. I ask the Minister to look at that. It is not going to help the situation in a volatile prison that is recovering from some very serious circumstances.
Wormwood Scrubs continues to lack provision for things that I would think basic, such as searches of the grounds to find contraband goods thrown over the wall or full searches, with prison lockdowns, when there are serious assaults involving weapons. Those are the basic but detailed things that the Prison Service has to get right if we are to get the epidemic of violence under control.
A recent BBC documentary about Wandsworth prison showed, pretty shockingly, prisoners openly smoking cannabis because there were so few prison officers available to do anything about it. That is not happening at Wormwood Scrubs at the moment, because prison officer numbers are slightly better than elsewhere, but if we continue to make cuts, it is inevitable that the prison officers will lose control of the prison. That would be an absolute disaster.
All hon. Members agree that we are seeing a downward spiral: with fewer and fewer officers—my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn set out the numbers—prisoners are locked up for longer periods and levels of stress and violence increase. There is little or no association, education or work—all things that the first Secretary of State in the coalition Government told us would be priorities in rehabilitation. No doubt that goes for the current Government too.
Something has to be done to relieve the situation. The shortage of staff is not the only issue, though it is probably the most crucial. I do not want to take up too much time, but I will mention some others. We should be concerned about the high turnover of prison officers—experienced officers have left and rather more junior officers, who may not be able to cope in the same way, have come in—and about the mismanagement of some prisons, young offenders institutions and secure training centres. We saw the incidents at Medway last year and the withdrawal, which I was pleased to see, of G4S from the secure training centre contract.
The Minister may wish to say something about how we ensure good governance in prisons, and how prison governance that is not working is dealt with at an early stage, particularly in cases of violence and unsuitable behaviour by officers against prisoners, especially young people. That must remain a priority for the Government.
I apologise that—with your permission, Mr Stringer—I have to leave before the end of the debate so I will not be here to hear the closing speeches. Members of the Justice Committee, and indeed anybody who has met me for longer than 10 minutes, will know that very few things could drag me away from a debate on prison safety, but I am afraid a meeting about the Boundary Commission and boundaries is one of them. I thank hon. Members for their indulgence on that score.
Serving on the Justice Committee is an enormous privilege and most of the time it is a pleasure. However, as is clear from the passion of Members’ contributions today, it is not always a pleasure, because we have heard some very disturbing facts and figures about safety in our prisons. I am not a stranger to the Prison Service, having conducted litigation on its behalf for many years—it is nice to see some former clients in the Box today. I know that the Prison Service is staffed by many dedicated individuals, who work hard to ensure that people in their custody are safe, and to rehabilitate them. I also know that the spotlight has never shone so brightly on what is happening inside our prisons.
Although our predecessor Committee felt that the Government and the National Offender Management Service had underplayed the seriousness of the situation, our Committee does not now feel that is the case. This year, the former Prime Minister and former Member of Parliament for Witney gave strong leadership in his speech on prisons. Both the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), and the former prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), were aware of and open about the appalling state of prison safety.
The reform programme is bold and motivated by all the right reasons. In our report we praise the considerable efforts made by the Ministry of Justice and NOMS to alleviate the situation, but political will is very far from being enough. The previous Secretary of State’s response to our review was characteristically robust; he acknowledged the extent of the problem and found an extra £10 million to deal with aspects of it.
It has to be said that, in its short time in post, the new prisons team has made it clear that it is fully live to the issues. In its response to our report, it says that prison safety is the Department’s top priority. The new Secretary of State told us last week that the position was unacceptable, and the Department has confirmed that legislation will be put in place to continue the reforms set out by her predecessor.
So with all this light, why is the situation getting worse? In my view, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) was right: the ratio of staff to prisoners is critical. I also agree with the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter)—despite the boundary changes, I will not call him the hon. Member for Wormwood Scrubs.
This is not a time for a debate with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) about whether the size of the custodial population matters, but it is clear that unless we are going to pour new resources into our Prison Service, we have to reduce numbers if rehabilitation is to be effective. I do not say that through a wish to be soft on criminals; rather the opposite. It is in all our interests for those in prison to be changed to stop them offending again. If the upshot of that is that tough diversionary sentences have to be used as an alternative to prison, effort should be put into piloting them. Restorative justice, as the Committee said in a previous report, may well have an important part to play.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of our problems as a society is that we have not quite solved the problem of how to generate a community penalty that is sufficiently robust that gives members of the public genuine confidence that it is a proper punishment? As soon as they feel that community penalties are a proper punishment, there will not be such an imperative to send so many people to prison.
My hon. Friend is right. He will remember that, on our excellent Justice Committee trip to some restorative justice schemes in the United States, we saw some really good new alternatives to prison that we are extremely keen to see taken up and piloted here. They may well be part of the solution, but public opinion will have to be brought along with us. If results can be shown to be good, I am confident that public opinion will come along too—even in Shipley.
I do not see how it is possible to run safe prisons, let alone rehabilitative prisons, with insufficient staff. Prison officers have only limited time to give to supervision and to building up the relationships that we know help people to change. It is often difficult to find sufficient staff to move prisoners to the classrooms for desperately needed education. We have heard examples of wings where only one officer is now on duty when there were previously two. A body-worn camera, while welcome, is not the same as two sets of eyes. There is concern that lack of patrolling perimeter fencing is making it too easy to smuggle contraband.
We applaud the Department’s efforts to recruit more staff, but experienced officers take years of training and greater efforts must be made to retain them. The former prisons Minister, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), has covered that issue fully; I emphasise his point that it is the net gain in numbers that should always be considered when looking at staffing levels.
The second reason, in my view, for the continued decline in safety is the exponential increase in the use of new psychoactive substances. The prisons and probation ombudsman says that 61% of prisoners use them regularly and that they have overtaken tobacco as the currency of choice inside.
During an excellent session at Reform earlier this summer, a prison officer told us about an inmate who had been found unconscious in his cell. Four officers went inside to assist him and all four of them needed hospital treatment for secondary inhalation. These drugs are not cannabis as some Members of the House may have known it; they are cannabinoids and they are very dangerous mind-altering substances, which are doing extraordinary damage to our prisoners.
The Government have criminalised possession of these substances, but a great deal of resource needs to be put into testing these drugs and searching for them if we are ever to hold back the tide of them. Blocking mobile phone signals, which we now have the ability and the powers to do, is surely a good step to consider, while we fight the organised providers of these drugs. I hope that the body scanner being trialled in Wandsworth works and that this device can be rolled out very speedily to other establishments. The Committee looks forward to hearing further details about it.
As others have already said, it is now for the new team of Ministers to put the flesh on the bones of the reform programme. I am grateful for the taster that we have had of that programme in the Government’s response to our report. In my view, prison reform is not a place for dogma, and there is considerable consensus across the House and on our Committee about what needs to be done. Forgive me for saying so, but we have a captive audience and it should be possible to pilot the best schemes, and to assess quickly the extent to which new ideas work. Historically, a shameful lack of data have been produced by the Ministry of Justice, but slowly that issue is being addressed. Nevertheless, the new ministerial team needs to be very vigilant about it.
To add to the list of those reforms currently under way, which are set out in the Government’s response, I would also suggest focusing on improvements to assessment on entry to prison, and asking new prisoners about previous head injuries and traumatic experiences surrounding bereavement, all of which are proven, as we know, to indicate a greater propensity to self-harm. Those prisoners who are recalled should be properly assessed, however many times they have been inside prison before, as we know that they are particularly vulnerable.
Busy prisoners are safer prisoners, and real resource must go into both education and employment. Almost half of prisoners lose touch with their families, yet it has been shown that those prisoners who maintain family relationships through visits demonstrate a 39% reduction in reoffending. Better visits, Skype and in-cell telephones should be seen not as “nice to have” luxuries for lily-livered liberals or prisoners but as a useful tool in the fight against future crime.
Of course, all these ideas need testing and evaluation, and the Daily Mail and Shipley will not like them all. I accept that it is difficult to push through major reforms at the same time as managing a dangerous and—quite frankly—unstable situation, but unfortunately the Department does not have time on its side.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.
At this stage in the proceedings, there is perhaps little that one can say that has not already been said, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the Chairman of the Justice Committee. However, I will add my comments to the excellent work that my hon. Friend does in that capacity.
I was also a member of the previous Justice Committee and I say that for a number of reasons. It is not simply because Ministers come and go, whereas we members of the Justice Committee continue examining these issues, which we inherited and which we return to, time and again. I also say it because in the report that we produced at the end of the last Parliament—“Prisons: planning and policies”—we examined safety issues. Indeed, I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), as I think the Government and the National Offender Management Service completely underplayed the deterioration of safety in the prison system.
However, that situation was partially improved—indeed, it became a much better situation—by the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who focused on the issue of safety and admitted that our prisons were in a serious crisis. All the speakers today have acknowledged that. Also, a common theme has emerged throughout this debate and it is about the Government response to our report. I will come to that shortly.
Other speakers have already asked whether we have a higher or different prisoner population, compared with the low staffing numbers that we have in prison. Nevertheless, the point that we made in one of the Justice Committee reports—namely, that those factors had been there all along—means that they are not the answer to the problem and none of them is the overriding factor that determines that the situation is as bad as it is. We have to consider other reasons why the situation is so bad.
If we consider what action has been taken so far, we see that it has principally been around legislative change, without much emphasis on implementation of legislation. It is very easy for us as legislators to introduce legislative change and then just believe that the job has been done, whereas the real job comes in ensuring that any new legislation is implemented.
One issue that the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) raised—fortunately, he did not amplify it, because that means that I can amplify it now—was mental health needs, which fully illustrates this point. It is not operational action that is required to deal with mental health needs, particularly the prevention of suicide; the needs in question go beyond the drugs that are available to treat them, whether those are traditional drugs or new psychoactive drugs. Indeed, the prisons and probation ombudsman, Nigel Newcomen, has said:
“It remains the case that I am frequently obliged to repeat recommendations and lessons and it can be depressing how little traction we appear to have on occasions”.
That statement applies not only to the issue of mental health but to the whole of prison safety. As a Committee, we ourselves have frequently issued “recommendations and lessons”, but there is “little traction” to them and they are rarely taken up. Nevertheless, the mental health needs of the prison population must be taken very seriously. The big area of untapped resource, if you like, is being able to deal with those needs.
Since we are also considering the issue of self-inflicted deaths, I will comment on the Government reaction to the Harris review, which I also found to be a disappointment—indeed, Lord Harris himself found it to be a disappointment. It is a disappointment because the Government have not sought to take into account a number of the recommendations that Lord Harris made and so the issues involved have not been addressed. At a recent session that our Committee had with the Secretary of State for Justice, I asked her whether she was aware of Lord Harris’s report or had talked to him. She was aware of the report; I do not think that she had talked to him at that point, but she needs to do so.
[Valerie Vaz in the Chair]
Let me re-echo the point that others have made by saying that I found the Government response to our report flimsy; it was no more than a holding reply. There was a lot of talk about monitoring and some operational improvements; there was the use of what I would call the bogus figure of a net increase of 300 officers, which disguised the reduction in officers; and there was also the hint that we were building five new prisons. I ask the Minister who is here today to comment on those five new prisons and the progress being made on them, to say when we are likely to see them come into operation and to explain how they will improve prison safety.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Vaz.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the Government response to the Committee’s report was thin and “flimsy”; it would be impossible for anyone to disagree with that assessment, really. However, is he being slightly harsh on our ministerial colleagues, given that the Minister who is here today and the Secretary of State have only just taken up their new positions? Perhaps we should give them some opportunity at least to examine these matters themselves before they rush to a conclusion on the Committee’s report. Perhaps we should just give them a bit of time to get their feet under the table and give these issues serious consideration themselves.
I thank my hon. Friend for those comments, but I take a different view. We are still the same Conservative Government who were elected to deal with these issues. Whether it is a new Secretary of State or an old one, the issues are the same. A list of actions was put in place to deal with the issues. I cannot understand why a series of new Ministers want to take the time to throw all those things up in the air and start again. That is precisely what I meant by saying that the Committee has the longevity with these issues to see their continuity on the ground. I do not think I am being too harsh. I bear no grudge against the Minister; I appreciate that he is new to his job, but there are some things that should be continued, and we should be able to pick them up.
One thing that I stress is the changes proposed to the role of prison governor, since those could be introduced pretty quickly. There is a lot in the Government response about empowering prison governors. Can the Minister provide more information on that? I do not mean the detail of how we will empower prison governors or the detail of exactly what powers will be transferred. We should be looking for broader areas of principle to be set out and discussed with the Committee, to show where those are going to go, because governors feel completely left out.
As a Committee, we have come across that issue quite a lot in our visits to various prisons. They see themselves as bit managers of a whole range of different resources that are brought in to their prisons. That situation does not help them get control of their prisons or prison safety. I would like some information about how the role of prison governors will be defined and circumscribed. It will need to be circumscribed, but in the definition we will get the detail of what the Government want for that. What will the nature of the measures be to hold prison governors to account? That is the other side of the question. I do not yet want the specifics of how that will work, but in what areas will that work and how will it continue?
Finally, I want to comment on the action plan. We need considerably more flesh on the bones. That expression has been used by many speakers in this debate. I repeat what I said in an intervention: when we had a meeting with the Secretary of State, I asked how she would take forward the previous Secretary of State’s plans. Her response caused the press to argue that we were going back on our commitment.
I fully accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has said about the role of the press, but there is an issue here, and there was no need to put the whole thing into reverse and suggest that we were going backwards on this matter. As the Minister said, dealing with this issue remains a high priority for Government. I am happy to wait to see the detail of the action plan and how it will control safety, but I would like some more information about whether it will move beyond the legislative and the obvious to empower prison officers to take action and get to grips with a major problem in our prisons.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Ms Vaz. I assure my hon. Friend the Minister that I will speak as a critical friend who will be willing him and the whole ministerial team on to success in this important area. I completely agree with what the Chair of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), said at the start of this debate about the duty of care that we all owe to prison officers and prisoners. One of the most upsetting parts of my job as prisons Minister was to read the daily operational reports and see that prison officers had sustained broken jaws, broken noses and black eyes in the course of their duty.
Yet again, I put on record the fact that our prison officers are some of the finest public servants in our country. When we talk of public servants, we often mention teachers, doctors, nurses and police officers—rightly so, as they do outstanding work, too—but we need to remember that even though prison officers are behind those tall walls, they are on the frontline of duty in keeping us all safe. We have a duty to keep prisoners safe, too.
I will concentrate on what the Government said in response to the Select Committee. They mentioned a number of specific actions that they are taking to deal with violence. We have had brief mention today of body-worn cameras. I went around HMP Glen Parva to see their use there, and I was told by prisoners and prison officers that they felt that the cameras were reassuring and helpful. I understand that the advice is that body-worn cameras are even more effective if the five-minute intervention—the measure by which every interaction between a prison officer and a prisoner is meant to be rehabilitative and positive—has been rolled out. I know that work is being done on the violence diagnostic tool to understand in detail the different areas of prisons where violence is happening, and the times of the day. There is increased staff training to equip staff better to deal with those issues.
I was pleased to see mention in the Government’s response of the important work that the Crown Prosecution Service and the police need to do to protect our brave prison officers. I was upset to hear from prison officers in some prisons that on occasion they have gone down to the front counter of the local police station to report assaults, because it was bureaucratic to do so within the prison.
Just occasionally, the view has grown up within police forces that, “Prisons have prison officers, and we are out there to protect the public and the open community.” That is not the case. Police officers have a duty to ensure that order runs within and without the prison wall. Prison officers and prisoners need the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to take that duty seriously. In my experience as prisons Minister, the relationship between police and local prisons was variable. If there was a good relationship between the borough commander and the prison governor, things were good. Sometimes, that relationship was not as good as it should have been.
The Government rightly talk about the importance of getting the early days in custody, the critical first month, right for prisoners. We know the preponderance of self-inflicted deaths—suicides—within the first month. It is important that we help people, particularly those who are in prison for the first time, to cope with the overwhelmingly strange and traumatic experience of going to prison for the first time. Those are all positive things that the Government have mentioned.
One thing that the Government could do on recruitment is to try to speed up the process from the moment someone expresses an interest in joining the Prison Service. If people have to wait too long—of course, proper checks need to be done—their enthusiasm may wane. They need to put bread on the table to feed their families, so they may go to do something else. We need a speedy process that captures people’s enthusiasm to do an outstanding job of public service. We need to ensure that prison officers can get real job satisfaction from doing rehabilitation properly.
On Monday morning, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) and I had the pleasure of meeting a former prison officer from HMP Northumberland. He was talking with enormous pride of how, when he walks around Newcastle, people come up to him and say, “You helped me 20 years ago in prison. I now have a job. I am paying a mortgage. I know I was a difficult prisoner, but you showed me the right way.” That is why prison officers join. It is an outstandingly important job in which they can make a difference. But new prison officers get frustrated. If they come in and are not able to do the rehabilitative work, they leave to do other things. Empowering prison officers to do the job that they joined to do to the best of their ability is really important.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making such an important point, which is reflected in a concerning statistic. One of the growth areas we have seen in retention issues has been the number of people leaving the service through resignation as opposed to other reasons—it is up from about 37% to 39%. He may know better than I, but perhaps that relates to people coming in and getting frustrated because they are not able to do the job they want to do, and so not being retained in the way we would wish.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. We have improved prison officer training. It is now a 10-week course. It is an increasingly good course and, quite rightly, within that training there is a lot of focus on rehabilitation. The ability to turn lives around and prevent people becoming victims by changing lives is the purpose of the Ministry of Justice. If people cannot do that job, it will lead to frustration, which may lead them to resign and take up other work.
Mobile phones that get into prisons illegally are a cause of violence that makes prisons less safe. They are used to help get drugs into prisons. It is not just inhaling psychoactive substances that is a problem but the extreme violent behaviour caused by such substances, which give an adrenalin rush that enables prisoners to fight prison officers for longer. That is why such drugs are so evil. Cracking down on phones, which the Government are starting to do by working with mobile network operators, is really important.
I was pleased to see that one of the good things in the Government’s response was the recognition on page 3 that phones should be used for legitimate family contact. Phones can be provided in the prison, or perhaps in time there could be a type of in-cell telephony that can be listened into in a legitimate manner using the PIN phone system to enable prisoners to contact their families. Prisoner voicemail could help with that. That is all part of creating a safer environment for prisoners and prison officers.
I have talked about the terrible evil of drugs and the extra violence caused by them. The Department is engaged in developing world-leading technology to detect drugs. We should not underestimate how difficult that is. I was glad to see mention in the Government response of the body scanner at Wandsworth. I am keen to know how the scanner has been assessed. It has been there since just before May 2015, so more than a year and a quarter. I understand that similar scanners are in widespread use in the United States of America. I hope that we will shortly have a full evaluation so that we can decide whether they are value for money, whether we roll them out and whether they are effective in dealing with the terrible scourge of drugs that leads to violence in prisons.
I am pleased to see the commitment to building new prisons. In time I am sure we will be told where they will be built. Equally importantly, new prisons will enable us to close prisons that are not fit for purpose.
There were two issues that I had hoped to see more reference to in the Government’s response. The first was jobs for prisoners on release. I remember a prisoner saying to me in HMP Ford, “When I left the prison, I could mop a floor bloody well”—excuse my language, Ms Vaz—“but it wasn’t going to pay the bills.” I thought that encapsulated powerfully the shift that we need to make within prison industries. Of course we want prisoners out of their cells and doing something productive—that is 100 times better than having them locked up—but I am not satisfied with that, and I want to go a stage further. I want work in prisons to be related to getting a job on release. I could not see reference to that in the Government’s response. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will reassure me that prisons will focus on making sure the work that is done there will help prisoners get jobs on release.
We have some good academies involving individual employers, but why not go a stage further and have sectoral academies for the construction industry, for butchery or for engineering? There are huge skills and labour shortages in the British economy, and prisons can absolutely be at the heart of helping to solve that. When prisoners have a purpose and see the prison regime engaging with them at the start of their sentence, I passionately believe that will help cut down some of the frustration that leads to the violence that makes prisons less safe—the subject of this debate. An increasing use of release on temporary licence, which I hope the Department will continue, is absolutely part of that.
The Government’s response makes reference to the importance of education. People deserve a second, third, fourth or fifth chance in life. If prisoners have not had a good experience of going to school when they were younger, we must not lose the opportunity to give them the education they did not get the first time round. I hope the Government will take forward Dame Sally Coates’s excellent recommendations.
I was pleased to see that the Royal Society of Arts has just published a paper by Professor James Crabbe called “Unlocking Skills Inside”, which talks about the possibilities of further education colleges linking up with local prisons. I was interested in the five broad themes that Professor Crabbe draws attention to: prison cultures, wellbeing, human capital, social capital and knowledge, and skills and employability. The first four of those relate to the importance of helping prisoners change their mindset so that they engage with the employability agenda as well.
Governor autonomy is absolutely key. I have talked about the importance of prison officers getting job satisfaction from what they do, but giving governors their head to run their establishments is really important. To illustrate that, I went to Aylesbury prison, which is a challenging one—I think the Committee visited it—and saw that one block of that prison has an enabling environment accredited by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. The prison has a much calmer atmosphere than others. Prisoners were doing things for the prison officers. When I asked the young men in there, “What effect has this enabling environment had on the number of assaults and violent incidents here?”, they said, “We can’t remember the last time there was a violent incident.” I think we need many more such enabling environments. I know it takes time to get full accreditation, but why not learn from what has happened in Aylesbury and spread it across the whole estate? That would be valuable.
I compared the Government’s response with some of the commitments made by the previous Prime Minister in his speech on 8 February, and some areas concerned me. They were in the speech on 8 February but not in the Government’s response. The final paragraph of the Government’s response, on page 3, talks about
“a clear set of measures to hold prison governors to account”,
but it does not mention holding governors to account on employment or on accommodation outcomes, which were mentioned in the speech on 8 February. It may be an oversight—perhaps the Minister will be able to respond to that. It is critical that we hold governors to account on both employment and accommodation, because that will drive greater engagement with the probation service and the local community, so that we do better in those two critical areas.
I completely agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) said about mental health. We can be encouraged that my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), a qualified doctor, has responsibility for mental health in prisons, and I look forward to his proposals. In mental health, as in education, we should not ignore the capacity of prisoners themselves to be the answer to some of the problems.
One of the dangers of prison is that it infantilises prisoners. At Justice questions, I paid tribute to the outstanding governor of Wandsworth prison, Ian Bickers, who has taken 50 prisoners who have level 3 qualifications and said, “Right, you are now educators in this prison.” He has given them a uniform and a wage. They can lose their job if they muck up, and they are going to work on education in the prison alongside the staff coming in from outside. We can do similar things to help prisoners who are getting depressed or anxious. Prisoners can very much be part of the solution to the issues that we are talking about this afternoon.
I agree with what has been said about IPP prisoners. We have to recognise that that situation is a historic anomaly that is difficult to justify. People are now under a sentence given some time ago for a crime which, if committed today, would be given a different sentence. I know that the Department is looking seriously at that issue.
Lastly, I want to pay tribute to those carrying out the important work of chaplaincy for preventing suicide and generally improving the atmosphere in prisons. The week before last I addressed a conference of Catholic prison chaplains. They made the point that they want some of the work that they do to be allowed to take place within education. That work is important in helping to change prisoners’ mindset about engaging with education and employment in prison.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I think that it is the first time I have done so, but hopefully it will not be the last. I have something of a dual role in today’s proceedings, in that I am a member of the Justice Committee, but I am also the Front-Bench Member summing up for the Scottish National party. I shall take the latter of those roles first because, inevitably, such has been the detail in today’s contributions, much of what I was originally going to say may have been superseded. I will go through some of those speeches before I make any points on matters that may have been missing from the debate.
Ms Vaz, you were not in the Chair when the debate was kicked off by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the Chair of the Justice Committee. He captured the mood of the Committee and the report succinctly when he said that it was time to be blunt. The situation is “terrible”—to use the word chosen not by him but by the former Secretary of State for Justice, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst also touched on the fact that, to put it even more bluntly, things are at crisis stage. The report clearly indicates that and the Chair has clearly said it. I only hope that the message sinks in with the Government.
The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) gave an extremely eloquent address and provided a useful snapshot of evidence showing how much and how rapidly the situation has deteriorated. He put forward an excellent case to demonstrate that, as most people have said, the Government’s reply was thin at best. He encapsulated the frustration: on one hand the new Secretary of State says that safety in prisons and prison reform is her No. 1 priority; on the other the Government response to the report appears extremely thin, which casts doubt on her assertion about priorities.
I listened with interest, as I always do, to the speech given by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) in his typically robust and charismatically dissenting style. I must stress that I would like to distance myself from much of what he said. I am not sure that a holiday home in Shipley is for me, given some of his comments; but of course I assume that his constituents want the best for everyone, as I do. I do not think that we solve any problems by locking people up if, otherwise, they have a chance of rehabilitation. I accept the point that 69% of people who go to prison on short sentences reoffend, but I cannot understand the logic of saying that 100% of people with community sentences go to prison. Not all of them do. Of the people on short sentences, 100% had had community sentences; but that does not mean that 100% of those who served community sentences ended up on short prison sentences. I make that distinction, but I stand to be corrected if I have picked it up incorrectly.
I of course would distance myself from the views of the hon. Member for Shipley on foreign aid and on short sentences. I ask the Minister seriously to consider the example we have set in Scotland, by reducing short sentences as much as possible and recognising that placing someone in jail for the relevant types of offences dramatically reduces their life chances thereafter, with respect to re-employment and other prospects. Those things might be open to them if they had not been incarcerated, but once they have it seems difficult to pedal back. However, I dissent with respect, as always. I was both extremely perturbed and pleased, in the same breath, to have an email from the hon. Member for Shipley yesterday evening saying “I agree with Richard on all counts.” I thank him for his constructive approach.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), who is not on the Justice Committee, nevertheless has, I understand, a keen interest in the matters in question, on account of the prison in his constituency. I was interested to hear him make a point that we had not focused on in particular detail—the importance of good governance. The hon. Gentleman was right to raise that. It is an important part of the picture.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who has left the Chamber for more pressing constituency boundary issues, was right to say that the spotlight has never shone so brightly on the prison estate as it does now. She has a wealth of experience in dealing with stakeholders from the prison estate, and when she says something in such clear words, people should prick up their ears and listen. She made a poignant point: to say that reducing prison numbers is being soft on criminals gets things upside down. It shows the opposite. If we could manage the prison population and turn prisons into rehabilitative centres we would be giving more protection to wider society; because we would reduce the prospect of criminals leaving prison and reoffending. That is very important.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) gave us an excellent perspective on the continuation of themes from one Justice Committee to the next. I was not fortunate enough to be a member of the previous Committee, and I gained perspective from hearing that the current issues are not arising for the first time. There has been continuity of concern and it is excellent that we had the hon. Gentleman’s experience in the debate.
The former Minister, the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), was right to express, as most of us, embarrassingly, failed to do, his appreciation for the public service given by prison officers. I completely agree. He said that he was sad when he spoke to them, and I completely concur. We visited HMP Wandsworth a number of months ago, and when I saw the ashen-faced appearance of the prison officers, I was sad—very sad. They want to do a good job, rehabilitate prisoners and do good in society, but they simply do not have the resource support. The reason why people are being locked up for 22 and 23 hours is that there are not the staff to provide support so that they can be let out to do purposeful activity. Unless we break that vicious cycle, as the Committee Chair discussed, we will, in the colloquial phrase, be banging our heads on a brick wall.
To turn to the remarks that I had planned, I wanted to give a statistical analysis of the situation. I know that the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said that statistics do not necessarily add anything to the overview; and the right hon. Member for Delyn was very succinct in giving a snapshot of the statistics. However, I beg to differ; I think they are important, because they are the evidence that demonstrates the extent of the problem, which needs to be stated clearly. I will deal with three categories. For deaths in custody, in the 12 months to March 2015 there were 79 self-inflicted deaths in custody. In the 12 months to June 2016 there were 105. In a two-year period there was a jump from 79 to 105; that is no spike. It is a systemic failing.
For assaults, in the 12 months to December 2014 there were a grand total of just over 16,000 assaults in the prison estate. Just over 2,000 were serious. Jumping forward less than two years, in the 12 months to March 2016 the number was up from 16,000 to more than 22,000 assaults in the prison estate, of which 3,000 were serious. Again, I submit that that is not a spike but that it indicates a systemic failing.
In the third category, self-harm, there were 25,000 incidents in the 12 months to December 2014. In the 12 months to March 2016, there were almost 35,000 incidents. Again, that is not indicative of a spike, but is evidence of a systematic failing, and it is not only the Justice Committee that says so. I am very new to the Justice Committee and Committee procedure, but I am a lawyer and have listened to evidence in court cases of who is right and who is wrong. Never have I been involved in a process where the evidence is so catastrophically one-sided. In my view—I stand to be corrected—we did not hear any evidence of the positive outcomes of what the prison estate achieves for our criminals and for wider society. It was an avalanche; everybody seems to agree. After the report was published, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons’ annual report stated in its main conclusions that, as I have just demonstrated,
“There were continuing high and rising levels of self-inflicted deaths…Violence had once again increased in almost every men’s prison reported on. Support for the victims of bullying and violence was generally weak, and resulted in long periods of isolation for many prisoners.”
As we have heard, new synthetic drugs have also become an increasing problem.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the figures are out of control. There is a proposal in the Committee report to which I would like to draw hon. Members’ attention. That is the nature and frequency of the statistics that the Committee receives, which allow us to assess the situation and react accordingly to the developing challenges. We requested quarterly statistics on a range of outcomes and the Government proposed six-monthly statistics. As the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst made clear, this is not some kind of statistical pedantry—it is to coincide information with other statistical releases, so it can be properly collated. At the moment, the statistics are bad, but they might even be worse—we do not know. If the Justice Committee could get the information in a more co-ordinated, consistent and frequent manner, it would allow us to do the work that we are here for—scrutinising the Ministry of Justice—so that it can then, in turn, make sure the problems in the prison estate are fixed. With that, I conclude my remarks and welcome the views of the shadow Front-Bench spokesperson and the Minister on this important issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz, and I welcome the prisons Minister to his new role. This is our first occasion debating opposite each other in Westminster Hall and I hope it is the first of many. I also thank the chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) for bringing this matter before the House today. I will not comment on the speech of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), as much comment has already been made, but there have been very knowledgeable and expert contributions to today’s debate. There is a very large measure of agreement, which I hope bodes well for the future of prison policy implementation and scrutiny.
I am sorry that the hon. Lady is not able to engage in a debate and only wants to deal with people who agree with her. Will she set out for the public’s benefit whether she therefore agrees that people should be automatically released halfway through the sentence, irrespective of whether they are still a danger to the public and of how badly they have behaved in prison? Is that Labour’s official policy—those people should be automatically released halfway through the prison sentence by law?
People are released from prison when they no longer pose a risk to public safety and when the Parole Board considers that they are fit.
There have been some great speeches today. The Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, spoke of his concern that the less safe prisons are, the harder it is to achieve reform. I think we can all agree on that. He also observed that he does not detect a sense of urgency from the new Secretary of State. I agree with him on that point, and I sincerely hope that he and I are both wrong.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) spoke of the staggering statistics on homicides, violence, self-harm and riots, which illustrate the serious problems in the Prison Service at the moment. I am glad that he also mentioned the unique situation, as did the former prisons Minister, the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), of IPP prisoners, which is a legacy that needs to be dealt with urgently. Perhaps the best line from my right hon. Friend’s speech was that autumn leaves are falling and we are still awaiting the autumn plan.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) talked about the lack of zeal and knowledge that became apparent from the new Secretary of State’s appearance before the Justice Committee last week, which is of some concern. He also talked with great knowledge about his local prison Wormwood Scrubs and, most worryingly, the staffing reductions on the horizon in that already very volatile prison.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who has now left her place, talked about the strong leadership and statements on reform from the previous Secretary of State and Prime Minister and the then ministerial team. I echo her view that we need to see that from the new ministerial team. I am sure that we will.
I enjoyed standing across the Dispatch Box from the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire and we had many exchanges. I was pleased to hear his very knowledgeable and measured comments today, on both what is not in the response to the report and what is. I share his concern that, in terms of holding prison governors to account, accommodation outcomes and employment are missing from that response.
The state of our prisons and the growing levels of violence in them shame our nation. Today, there has been a large measure of agreement, despite party allegiances, that the current state of affairs is simply not acceptable. That is why I, along with my former Front-Bench colleagues in the shadow justice team, welcomed the former Prime Minister’s speech and the former Justice Secretary’s commitment to place prison reform at the heart of this year’s Queen’s Speech. We heard a lot about good intentions. Prison staff, prisoners and their families, stakeholders and the public had their expectations raised that finally the need for prison reform was being seen as part of a wider social reform agenda to help people change their lives for the better. It is very unfortunate that they appeared to have been let down last week by the new Justice Secretary in her evidence—but more of that later.
In his last report as chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick stated that prisons were
“in their worst state for 10 years.”
In his short tenure, the new chief inspector, Peter Clarke has realised that the situation has got “even worse” since then. As the Government presses ahead with cuts to the Ministry of Justice’s budget, our prisons become even more dangerous places in which to live and work. I make no bones about putting this on the record—it has been said before. On a daily basis, prison staff are being attacked, prisoner-on-prisoner assaults are increasing, time out of cells for offenders is being cut, more offenders are being forced to share cells, rehabilitation and training programmes for offenders are being cut, education provision is being reduced and services are being privatised or delivered through untested payment-by-results programmes. Prison officers have been living with the reality of working within a prison system that is creaking at the seams, due to starvation of the funds it needs to function effectively and safely. Overcrowded prisons where people spend 23 hours a day locked in cells on wings with too few staff inevitably leads to violence, suicide and self-harm. We need to take bold action to reduce the size of the prison population in order to improve safety.
I welcome the Committee’s recommendation that the Ministry and NOMS draw up together an action plan to improve prison safety, but in order for prisons to be safe, secure and the places of rehabilitation that they are supposed to be, we need to employ more prison officers. I cannot stress enough the simplicity and importance of that fact, which has been repeated by many hon. Members in the debate today. There is very little that we can do with high-quality health and education services in our prisons if we do not have enough prison officers to escort prisoners to lessons, to hospital or even—in some cases—just to get their food.
I want to make it clear that I am not criticising those currently working for the Prison Service and I would like to take the opportunity to praise hard-working prison staff across the country. They are vital to ensuring public safety and their work is often overlooked. It is an extremely complex job and the role that they play in rehabilitation is one that we must never underestimate or take for granted. They are a dedicated group of public servants and they do vital work, which is why it is so disappointing that the numbers of front-line staff have been slashed in recent years to meet the budget cuts imposed by the Treasury.
As we have heard, there are 7,000 fewer prison officers than there were in March 2010. The loss of that many uniformed staff from the Prison Service continues to undermine the safety and security of our prisons and puts staff and offenders at even greater risk. We now have the toxic combination of prisons full of inexperienced prison officers and experienced prisoners, which is a recipe for violence.
I share the Select Committee’s concern about the Government’s failed recruitment drive. Given the growing prison population and the rise in staff assaults, it is no wonder that it is a struggle to recruit into the Prison Service and that retention is so poor. We must properly protect the health, safety and wellbeing of those who work in our Prison Service. I also welcome the Select Committee’s call for quarterly progress reports, and I am waiting with interest to hear what plans the Minister has lined up to ensure better and more successful recruitment and retention of prison staff.
I have heard at first hand from countless organisations and individuals about the dangers and implications that the lack of safety in our prisons has for prison staff and prisoners. Each time I raised that issue with the former prisons Minister, the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, he agreed that the current safety levels are unacceptable. He said that the new Bill, which we were awaiting, would include measures to tackle those issues.
On 6 September in Justice questions, I raised the issue with the new Justice Secretary, who said:
“I fully acknowledge that we do have issues with violence and safety in our prisons. The levels are unacceptable. I am determined to deal with this issue and I will lay out my plans very shortly.”—[Official Report, 6 September 2016; Vol. 614, c. 202.]
Yet not even 24 hours later, in her evidence session with the Select Committee, she point blank refused to guarantee that the Government would proceed with prison reform legislation to improve prison safety, much to the astonishment of the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst.
The same evidence session also revealed that, despite the fact that the report was published in May, there had been no response to it. We received the response only two days ago. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith said, it is a paltry two and a bit pages. That does not suggest that the Government really are taking the issue of prison safety seriously. If I were a member of the Justice Committee, I would be pretty insulted by it.
In the same evidence session, the new Justice Secretary said she was looking into a number of urgent issues raised by Committee members. In fact, she said that 39 times. My question for the Minister is, is the plan for prison reform shelved or delayed? When are we going to see it? As far as I can see, there is no strategy for improving a decimated, but previously award-winning, probation service, and no idea about the benefits of our Human Rights Act. What exactly has the Justice Secretary been looking into during the summer recess? It certainly does not appear to have been a proper and timely response to the Justice Committee’s report.
The response contains no commitment to meet the Committee’s central recommendation of producing quarterly progress reports on prison safety and staffing numbers. To add insult to injury, the Government said that prison officer staff numbers have risen. That is unacceptable. The numbers are clearly lower than they were 12 months ago, as I pointed out to the Justice Secretary during Justice questions on 6 September. We now have 421 fewer full-time equivalent front-line prison officers working in our public prisons than we did a year ago.
I have some questions for the Minister, in addition to those of my hon. Friends, which I hope he will answer. Where is the promised programme of prison officer recruitment, which was to deliver the real and necessary increases to officer numbers required to provide a safe, decent and secure regime? Where is the national strategy, highlighted by the chief inspector of prisons, to help to make our prisons drug-free? Where is the commitment to the plan and the timetable for increases in prison capacity that will see an end to the institutionalised overcrowding of our prisons?
It has been said that we are going to have five new prisons by 2020. I would like the name of the builders—they are obviously very quick at their job, given that they have not done much of it yet. I am very interested to hear from the Minister more detail about where, when and how that is going to happen.
Finally, time after time and at great cost to the public purse, reports into the dangers, problems and failures faced by the Prison Service have made many, often repeated, recommendations for improvements, but they have not been implemented. Will the Minister, in his new role, change that pattern? I hope he will say yes.
Today another 15 prison officers will have been assaulted at work. The same will happen tomorrow and the next day and the next day. We need to take urgent action to put a stop to that. I welcome the Justice Committee’s report, and I urge the Justice Secretary and her Ministers to implement its recommendations urgently. We cannot afford further delay on this matter. Lives are being lost, serious injuries are being sustained and livelihoods are being ruined. This issue is too big and important to be kicked into the long grass.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I congratulate the Chairman of the Justice Committee¸ my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), on securing this important and necessary debate.
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the debate, although I am filled with slight trepidation, given the number of lawyers in the Chamber, who clearly know the criminal justice system inside out. We also have two former prisons Ministers, no less. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), whom I observed closely, showed a great deal of passion and dedication to the job. His shoes will be difficult for me to fill—both literally and metaphorically.
It is encouraging to know I am not the only minority here.
The comments made by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) were music to my ears—I am referring not to his comments about early release and so on, but to his recognition that the new ministerial team is in transition. It is worth stating up front that it is eight and a half weeks since the new ministerial team came to post, and in two or three months’ time we will be having a very different debate. We are committed to coming forward with a new plan, and I am confident that its contents will be as strong, if not stronger, than the Select Committee expects on the issues that have been outlined.
I would go as far as to say that the Secretary of State should be commended for not doing what is very easy to do in a new job: seek a couple of headline-grabbing announcements that are not based on evidence. The Secretary of State is determined to look at the evidence and come up with a plan that addresses the need for safety in our prisons and also focuses on reform.
The Queen’s Speech was seminal, as has been mentioned, in that it made reform of prisons part of social reform. That reform would give governors freedom in rehabilitation but, as the statistics that have been referred to ad nauseam show, safety and security in our prisons is also a challenge. We need a strategy that deals with both those aspects of the programme. Safety and security were not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is bringing forward a plan that brings those two things together.
On the issue of reform, let me be clear that the Secretary of State and I are absolutely committed to reforming our prison system, as set out in the Queen’s Speech. I am determined to ensure that our prisons are places of safety and reform, where offenders can get off drugs, improve their education and get the skills they need so they are less likely to offend. Our prison system needs to be fit for today’s demands. The improved physical environment, which will be safer, will have better rehabilitative services and will empower governors to focus on delivering better outcomes within their prisons.
Today, a number of comments have been made about the urgency of the task ahead. I assure the House that we do not underestimate the severity of the challenge, and the Ministers tasked with such a huge responsibility feel its fierce urgency. As hon. Members know, we are investing £1.3 billion to reform and modernise the prison estate to make it more efficient, safer and focused on supporting prisoner rehabilitation. Given our commitment to swap old Victorian prisons for new ones, therefore, the great thing is that the money is available. When the Secretary of State comes out with her plan—I will come on to some of the detail in my speech—we will see how that is to be achieved.
We want to see prisons run by governors capable of providing outstanding leadership. It has been mentioned that many governors do not feel that they have the freedom to deal with challenges on the ground, and I want to see governors who have the freedom, ability, time and resources to manage safety and security risks, while rehabilitating offenders.
Our goal is to see frontline staff working in decent, ordered and well organised prisons that treat prisoners with humanity and ensure that those staff are able to spend time helping offenders to develop their potential. We want a system that is better able to identify the emerging factors and threats that will impact on prisons, a system that can address them proactively. This is a particularly important point. We have referred to drugs and to drones, and such threats, including mobile phones, will continue to evolve. In the plan that we will present, we want to address not only the challenges of today, but the emerging threats on the horizon.
Improving outcomes for prisoners is better for us all, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) so eloquently put it. Reducing offenders’ reoffending means fewer victims and less crime. The Secretary of State has already assured the House that we will be setting out the Government’s plans for prison safety and reform this autumn. Since becoming Justice Secretary, she has been clear that she wants to continue prison reform at pace.
Safety, too, is crucial in our prisons. The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), in a forensic speech, highlighted the safety statistics and how terrible they are. Safe, decent and secure prisons are a fundamental part of our reform ambitions, and I am of course acutely aware of our existing problems.
Anyone who has been prisons Minister knows that we get daily incident reports and, no matter what the time of day, we are woken up if a serious incident that Ministers need to be aware of happens. Prisons Ministers and Secretaries of State live with what is happening in our prisons day in, day out—we cannot ignore it. I am sure that hon. Members agree that the rising levels of violence against prisoners and staff, and self-harm and self-inflicted deaths, are not acceptable and require our immediate and urgent attention.
I will try, forensically, to tie the Minister down to something. In his response, he mentioned that we have had a net increase of 300 prison officers since January, on recruitment of 3,300. Given the fall of 7,000 since 2010, what is the number that he expects to recruit—net—in the next one, two and three years so as to return to some level of increased staffing?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question but he will be disappointed with my answer: I will not make a firm commitment on staffing numbers in this debate.
I will also make a general point: no one factor is driving the changes in our prisons. Staffing is one aspect of that, yes, but there are a number of safety issues across the estate, and we are still seeing the violence in prisons, with different cohorts, regimes and staffing, levels so we should be cautious not to suggest that somehow staffing is the problem. For example, dealing with the scourge of mobile phones in our prisons has a technological answer; it is not a staffing issue. To deal with the problem of violence comprehensively, we need to look at all the different issues driving it.
Even in the debate today, a number of reasons for the rise in violence have been posited. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley talked about the tariff structure and fixed-term recalls, and some people have mentioned staffing or mental health. What that highlights is that if we are to solve the problem, we need to look fundamentally at what is going on in our prisons. We cannot underestimate the scale of the challenge, and I cannot overstate the Government’s absolute commitment to deal with it.
I will come on to the incentive structure in a moment, but I will deal first with the point about staffing.
Any discussion of staffing should acknowledge the brave and invaluable work that prison officers, staff, volunteers and governors do every day. I am determined to see that they, just as much as those in their care, are safe and properly supported. The recruitment and retention of staff in prisons is a high priority and, as I have said, part of the necessary response to the problems. For example, at prisons in the south-east that have presented persistent challenges, we have launched targeted recruitment campaigns to attract and retain the right people. We are ensuring that prison officers have the skills necessary to deal with such issues, which is why training for our prison officers has been increased from six to 10 weeks. We are also examining additional ways to retain high-quality and experienced staff.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire made an important point about the task required of prison officers today—it is about not just numbers or training but what the job is. That is an important point, because we do not want prison officers simply to be turnkeys, locking people up and letting them out. We want them to have a key worker role, building closer and more professional relationships with prisoners. As my hon. Friend knows, that is very much part of the offender management model that we are looking to roll out across the prison estate.
I turn to some of the key threats that have been highlighted in the debate. The House is aware that the dynamic within prisons has changed, contributing to the rises we have seen in levels of violence, self-harm and self-inflicted deaths. In fact, what we see in prisons is a magnification of what we see in society more broadly—in particular, the proliferation of psychoactive substances, and the evolution of technology such as metal-free phones and drones, which enables drugs to be brought within our prison walls.
The Chairman of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, mentioned the £10 million investment to deal with prison safety issues secured under the previous Secretary of State. That has been distributed to the prisons that are experiencing the worst levels of violence. Over the coming weeks and months, we will provide more information on how that is working for our prison system.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury put very well the point that psychoactive substances are having a serious and significant impact on the safe running of our prisons. That view is commonly held, and many in the Chamber are aware of it, as is the chief inspector, Peter Clarke. For the communities inside prisons, however, such substances have dramatically changed the dynamic. There is the impact on an individual’s behaviour as a result of taking the drugs, and the impact on driving an illicit prison economy. The power of drugs such as spice and mamba cannot be overestimated. They are dangerous, mind-altering drugs that fuel unpredictable and violent behaviour.
What have we done? The varying ways in which substances can be smuggled into prisons—as tobacco, or even sprayed in liquid form on to paper—contribute to the challenge our professional staff face in keeping such harmful and damaging drugs out. We are, however, taking decisive action to tackle that ever growing threat, and we have introduced new legislation to combat the use of drugs and psychoactive substances in prisons.
The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 has made these drugs illegal, and we have introduced new criminal offences for the supply and possession of psychoactive substances. In addition, the Serious Crime Act 2015 introduced a new offence of throwing anything into a prison. As a result, those who smuggle packages over prison walls, including of psychoactive substances, can face sentences of up to two years.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is being very generous. Does he think that if there were more staff in our prisons, some of the problems that he has just talked about, such as the smuggling of drugs—of any type, not necessarily just psychoactive substances—mobile phones and other contraband into prisons would be reduced?
I have acknowledged that staffing is part of the response that is needed, but let me take one of the hon. Lady’s examples: mobile phones. The best way to deal with mobile phones is to ensure that they cannot work in prisons. I have with me a prop. This book—“Gavin & Stacey”—was sent to a prisoner. I did not realise that there was such a book.
Ms Vaz, I have just shown hon. Members an example of a mobile phone that is designed to avoid electronic detection and is easy to conceal and smuggle into a prison. That demonstrates the lengths to which people will go to get such things into prisons and how lucrative the market is. I was not aware of that until I got this job. In response to the intervention by the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), the way to deal with such things is not necessarily just through staffing; we also need a technological solution. That is why I say that staffing is part of the answer but not the only answer.
To take the hon. Lady’s other example, drugs, we are trialling tests for psychoactive substances in 34 prisons. That is particularly important due to the ever changing nature of those drugs. Having an appropriate test allows us to be one step ahead of the game. In addition, we have trained more than 300 dogs to detect such drugs. That is another way in which we can respond to the threats in our prison system.
I have mentioned mobile phones. Technology is a problem, and technology is therefore the answer. We are trying to deal with that problem broadly by working closely with mobile network operators—that initiative was started by the previous prisons Minister and Secretary of State. I want those operators, which are responsible businesses with considerable expertise in this area, to support us in developing solutions to deal with the use of illicit phones in prisons, and I will be meeting them to drive that work forward. However, we are not standing idle and waiting for that long-term solution. We are introducing measures to block mobile phone signals, and new legislation introduced this summer means that mobile phone operators can now block individual handsets. Our work with mobile network operators will allow us to stop any handset operating within a prison.
We do not stop there. We are also concerned about social media—both people outside prisons posting things for prisoners on social media sites and prisoners accessing sites such as Facebook and Instagram. We are already engaging with social media companies to ensure that they act responsibly and work with us to remove material recorded on illicit mobile phones.
Not much time has been spent discussing drones during this debate, but they pose a serious emerging threat that we recognise must be tackled. As I mentioned, prisoners will go to astounding lengths to get mobile phones. We need to do more, and we are exploring what new technologies might offer us against that threat.
The Minister mentions drones, and I agree with him about technological changes. Will he bear in mind that when we have visited prisons—particularly the older prisons in the estate, such as Wandsworth—one simple thing that we have been told could be done is for the repair of windows to be sped up? Very frequently, drones are thrown through broken windows on to wings, and greater rigour in inspection and repair would be a fairly cheap win in dealing with that problem.
The Chairman of the Justice Committee is once again spot on. I am particularly concerned about the rate of repairs in our prisons. Carillion is one company that has a contract and receives public funds to perform such work, and I have not been impressed by what I have heard about its response speed. I will meet its management to ensure that it delivers what we expect.
We are taking several other operational measures. They are not glamorous or exciting—not all of them will grab headlines—but they show how gritty we have to be to address the problem of safety in our prisons. We are making operational improvements, such as rolling out body-worn cameras. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire is right that we should be driven by the evidence, which suggests that having cameras does not on its own necessarily solve the problem. Some prisoners say that cameras, on their own, could actually escalate situations, so they should be used with the five-minute intervention system. We are piloting a new case management programme for violent prisoners; updating assessment, care in custody and teamwork—the care planning process for prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm, which the right hon. Member for Delyn was particularly concerned about—and creating a violence reduction taskforce to support and advise establishments with high rates of violence. We are also trialling a body scanner in Wandsworth prison, as has been mentioned.
Work and education in our prisons are also key; they are valuable in addressing reoffending, and I am committed to that. Today, we announced the transfer from the Department for Education to the Ministry of Justice of responsibility for education and training provision for those subject to adult detention in England. For anyone who was in any doubt that we are committed to reform, that is one piece of proof that we are committed and determined to proceed at pace. That so-called business of government transfer will enable us to give prison governors more power for delivering education in prisons.
The hon. Lady makes absolutely the right point. We want prisoners to have time out of their cells to engage in work, education and training. I want us to have a mature debate, so let us not try to say that staffing is the only response to the challenges in our prisons. I have acknowledged that it must be part of our response, but we need a comprehensive response.
I must admit to being concerned by the phrase “part of”. Of course staffing is part of the problem, but that could mean that it is 1% or 99% of the problem. The key thing is how big a part of the problem staff numbers are, and I think the Justice Committee would agree that it is the critical part. People cannot be rehabilitated, because staff are not available to conduct that rehabilitation. The Minister can give prisons all the new education powers, but if there are no staff to teach people, that simply will not happen. Will the Minister reassure us that he considers staffing to be critical, not just part of the problem?
We in the Ministry of Justice must ensure that we are in a position to deliver the orders of the courts. That means ensuring that there are not only sufficient prison places but adequate staffing. Of course, we cannot run a prison system without adequate staffing, but we face complex challenges and threats in our prison system and there is no simple answer.
We will work with prison governors—I have had meetings with the Prison Governors Association—and the Professional Trades Union for Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers to determine what is the right number to enable staff to do their jobs.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) mentioned Wormwood Scrubs. I was there and met the governor, Steve Bradford, on 30 August. I discussed particular challenges with him, as well as the excellent work he is doing to improve the regime. I was encouraged that he is committed to reform and to ensuring a safe and secure environment. There are a number of issues that any governor will say we need to address if we are to do that.
The nature of political debate is that we want to simplify things to one issue and deal with that. The situation is quite complex and more nuanced than that.
I appreciate the Minister visiting Wormwood Scrubs, and I think everyone in the prison is working to try to turn it around. Will he agree to look again at the staffing reductions planned for next month, which can only harm the attempt to improve the situation?
I, as well as NOMS, am in constant contact with the governor, to work with him to do what is appropriate and what works in order for the prison to function as well as it should.
More broadly on education reform, the recommendations made by Dame Sally Coates have been mentioned. We remain committed to improving prison education and supporting offenders into meaningful employment. We want to learn from the good practice that already exists in our system, such as the recently reported efforts at HMP Swaleside, where there is an ambition to change how education is delivered in prison. The prison’s A-wing is being redeveloped to create an education academy, with the hope that inspiring prisoners to learn will empower them and stop them reoffending.
A number of steps have already been taken to get prison reform under way. Six reform prisons went live on 1 July. The four executive governors, who have been unshackled, took control of their budgets and are now empowered to run their prisons as they see fit, which includes delivering bespoke services and having the option to move away from central contracts and policies.
I have seen for myself what is going on at HMP Coldingley. Contrary to some of the pictures that have been painted, every offender has a job in one of the impressive workshops at that industrious jail, and the governor, Nick Pascoe, is working closely with the community and with rehabilitation companies to help former prisoners even once they have left his care. HMP Wandsworth, which was also mentioned in the debate, is piloting a new “recruit in a day” scheme, which will radically speed up the process of getting new officers into the prison. In addition, HMP High Down has introduced a “recommend a friend” scheme to incentivise current officers to promote available roles to friends and family.
I will turn to a number of points raised in the debate before I bring my speech to a close. One was about our confidence in being able to deliver the estates programme. The Secretary of State will roll out the details, but, to provide assurance, we have closed 15 prisons in the past 10 years. There have also been two partial closures and two re-roles to immigration and removal centres. The Department has got quite good at ensuring that we can close down old prisons and open new ones, such as HMP Berwyn—new for old. As I said, the Secretary of State will set out the detail shortly, because that is a Government commitment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley made a number of points, one of which I will tackle: offenders being released halfway through their sentence. If someone has been sentenced to 10 years, they are eligible for release at five, which is a particular concern of his. I remind the House that, even in those instances, that person remains under licence, so the system still has a hold over them, and if they were to reoffend they would go back to prison. If someone were sentenced to five years, served five years and then left, we would not have any hold over them at all. I want to put that to him as a point of clarification and to add nuance to the point I made earlier.
The Minister is giving the impression that if someone is sent to prison for 10 years and are released after five, if they commit another offence they will go back to prison for the remaining five years. If that were the case, some of us may not feel so strongly about it. However, as he well knows, they do not; they go back in for a fixed-term recall of 28 days, which is pathetic. There is not the great deterrence that he suggests.
If they commit another offence, they will not only go in for a period of time but serve the sentence for the new crime they have committed. My hon. Friend suggested that somehow we are managing the prison population to an arbitrary figure, which is simply not the case. Our job, as I said, is to deliver the orders of the court.
On rehabilitation, on which I would say my hon. Friend has quite an exotic view, if we are to be a country that works for everyone, we have to fix prisons. That is particularly important.
I will give the Minister the same test I gave the shadow Minister. Is he telling me that he thinks it is absolutely right for a prisoner to have to be released by law halfway through their sentence, irrespective of how badly they have behaved in prison and whether they remain a danger to society? As a Conservative Minister, does he think that is right?
What is right is that, before any prisoner is released, there is a careful assessment of the risk they pose to society. That risk assessment is the most important thing—obviously within the confines of the sentence handed down to them by the courts.
Improving safety and reform are two sides of the same coin. We want to empower governors to tackle the challenges they face and support them to run regimes in which they can facilitate the rehabilitation of offenders in a modernised estate. However, if we are to do that, first and foremost prisons need to be safe, decent and secure places to live and work. The ministerial team understands that, and the Government are aware of it.
I am grateful to the Justice Committee for its scrutiny and its report. If there are any points that I have not covered in my speech, I will be happy to deal with them afterwards. I look forward to scrutiny in the weeks and months ahead and to discussing detailed plans to ensure that our prisons are safe and secure places.
Thank you, Ms Vaz. It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship. I think your powers of foresight are admirable, if perhaps optimistic.
It is a great pleasure to respond to the debate. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to it. It has been a generally well informed and serious debate about a serious topic—that has been true of all contributions from both sides of the House. We have been assisted in particular by the two former Ministers here, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). Both of them showed great commitment to that role, and I say to the current Minister that he has done so too. The energy and engagement that he has shown in his Westminster Hall debut in the role have made for an impressive debut, and I, like you, Ms Vaz, am grateful for the detailed and comprehensive reply he gave.
There are a number of issues that we will no doubt wish to return to, and there are specific points in our report that we will wish to press further. Important matters have been raised that I will not detain Members with now, but the Minister knows that they remain to be addressed.
We have received reassurance that the reform proceeds at pace. I will take the Minister at his word, if I may put it that way, and say that if a plan is to be ready in two or three months’ time, by my reckoning that will be before the House rises for Christmas. I hope that we will be able to have him before the Justice Committee at our invitation to discuss that plan, and that we will perhaps be able to debate it further in Westminster Hall. Debates such as this do great credit to serious topics. I am particularly grateful to all members of the Committee and others who have attended the debate. To paraphrase Captain Corcoran in HMS Pinafore, I am pleased to command a right good crew. I am grateful to them for their support.