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Prison Safety

Volume 616: debated on Tuesday 1 November 2016

Last week’s violence statistics show the very serious issues we have in our prisons, including a 43% rise in the number of attacks on officers. This is unacceptable, and I am determined to tackle it. I have already announced an investment of £14 million in 10 of our most challenging prisons, and I shall say more with the launch of our White Paper shortly.

Order. Just before we take the question, I am very pleased to announce that today we are joined by Lobsang Sangay, the Sikyong or Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government in exile. It is a pleasure and a privilege, Sir, to welcome you to the House of Commons.

What an honour that is, Mr Speaker.

We welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to prison reform, but those sitting on the Justice Select Committee are very concerned about the recent statistics that she mentioned, not just in relation to the safety of prison workers, but in respect of vulnerable prisoners. What steps is she going to take to improve assessment and screening, so that those people can be identified at the beginning of their sentence?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am extremely concerned about the level of self-harm, which is particularly high in the women’s estate. We know that the first 24 hours are absolutely vital, and we are already taking steps to provide vulnerable prisoners with immediate mental health support. Next year, we will bring out a strategy on women offenders.

Given the level of violence in Lewes prison over the weekend, will the Secretary of State update the House on what progress has been made to secure the prison, and what steps are being taken to increase staffing levels to prevent this from happening again?

The incident at HMP Lewes has been resolved and the prison remains secure with no threat to the public. The prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), spoke to the governor, Jim Bourke, offering support for him and all his staff. We are going to make sure that we have sufficient staff in that prison. I shall have more to say about staffing when we launch the White Paper.

The number of front-line prison officers has fallen by over 30% under this Government, and the Secretary of State’s own Department’s statistics show a correlation between those cuts and increased levels of violence in prisons. Does the right hon. Lady now accept that what she has announced goes no way towards solving these problems and that there needs to be a thorough investigation so that we can have the safe levels of staffing required in our prisons?

I have acknowledged that we have a serious issue. I think we have to recognise that there have been a number of causes. The prison and probation ombudsman said that the emergence of dangerous psychoactive substances was a game changer for prison security. We are taking measures to put in place proper testing for that, which we announced in September. I acknowledge that there is an issue with staffing, which is why I have already taken steps in 10 of the most challenging prisons to increase staffing levels, and why we are due to do more in the White Paper.

In addition to the staffing cuts mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), there is the problem of prison officer retention. The 400 by which the right hon. Lady has said she is going to increase staff numbers are being lost because of the number of people who are leaving. Experienced staff are leaving, and experienced prisoners are now running prisons.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that we need to make sure that, as well as recruiting prison officers, we are also retaining our fantastic prison officers. At every prison I visit, I meet fantastic people who have come into the service to turn people’s lives around. I want to encourage more people to become prison officers, which is why we launched a programme to bring former armed service personnel into the service. We will announce more about recruitment shortly.

As part of taking those important steps, will the Secretary of State revisit and act upon the Select Committee’s recommendation that we should be able transparently to measure the performance of the National Offender Management Service by publishing and making available the key data on indicators of disorder; staffing and turnover, and the reasons for turnover; its performance ratings, including those for individual prisons; and activity—the amount of time each prisoner is out of cell or in cell, and what they are doing?

The Select Committee Chairman is absolutely right that we need clear and transparent data and metrics to be able to understand what is happening in our prison system. I will outline more detail on that issue when we launch the White Paper.

Suicides in prisons are at record levels, and self-harm and violence are soaring. The situation in women’s prisons is worse than it was a decade ago. The Government’s own statistics show that the rate of deaths in England and Wales has risen to almost one a day—a record high of 324 in the last 12 months. Does the Secretary of State recognise that cutting staff and prison budgets while the number of people behind bars grows unchecked has created a toxic mix of violence, death and human misery?

I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to act on those very problematic statistics, and in particular to deal with the high levels of self-harm and suicide. One of the 10 prisons to which we have given additional money for staffing is a women’s prison. We are looking more widely at how we can ensure that women offenders are given the support that they need, because many come into prison with mental health issues and many have suffered abuse in the past. I want to ensure that those offenders have the support that will enable them to turn their lives around.

I hear what the Secretary of State has to say about funding for the 10 prisons, but Pentonville, where only last week there was a stabbing and two people were injured, is not one of them, and the events that took place at Lewes prison at the weekend also underlined the problem of prison understaffing. John Attard, of the Prison Governors Association, has written that we need

“more than the….400 extra officers in just 10 prisons.”

Will the Secretary of State listen to what is being said by that association, and by the Prison Officers Association, about the Ministry’s failings in respect of prison staffing?

I agree with the hon. Lady that violence and levels of suicide are serious issues, and I am determined to address them. That is my No. 1 priority. I have made an immediate start in 10 of the most challenging prisons, and I will be outlining more in the White Paper. Let me, at this point, express my sincere condolences to the family of Jamal Mahmoud, who unfortunately died in Pentonville.

We all need to recognise that these are serious issues, which have numerous causes including the rise in psychoactive substances. It will take time to turn the situation around—it takes months to train prison officers —but we have developed and will be launching a comprehensive strategy. I want our prisons to be places of safety but also places of reform, where we address reoffending and make our society as a whole safer.