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Prison and Youth Custody Centre Safety

Volume 627: debated on Wednesday 19 July 2017

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on safety in prisons and the findings of Her Majesty’s chief inspector’s annual report.

Independent scrutiny is an essential part of our prison system, and I thank the chief inspector of prisons and his team for the work they do in delivering this, including through his annual report. His report raises important issues in relation to safety and security in prisons and youth custody. We have been clear that a calm and ordered environment needs to be created to ensure effective rehabilitation, and that achieving this is our priority.

The current levels of violence, self-harm and self-inflicted deaths in the adult estate are unacceptable. The issues in our prisons have deep roots and, while they will not be addressed overnight, we are combining immediate action to stabilise the estate with significant additional investment. For example, we are investing £100 million a year to bring in an additional 2,500 prison officers by the end of 2018. We are already making significant progress, with a net increase of 515 prison officers in post at the end of March compared with the previous quarter.

Turning to youth justice, the annual report highlights particular issues regarding the youth estate. I reassure the hon. Lady that the safety and welfare of every young person in custody is of paramount importance to me and we are clear that more needs to be done to achieve this.

In response to Charlie Taylor’s review of the youth justice system last December, the Government acknowledged the serious issues the youth justice system faces, and that is why we are reforming the system. Let me give three examples of the progress we are making. First, we have created a new youth custody service, with an executive director, for the first time in the Department’s history. Secondly, the development of a new youth justice specialist officer role is ensuring that more staff can be specifically trained to work with young people, boosting the numbers on the operational frontline in youth offender institutions by 20%, and recruiting workers specifically trained to work within the youth sector. Thirdly, there is the introduction of a more individualised approach for young people focused on education and health, enhancing the workforce, improving governance, and developing the secure estate.

Finally, in his report the chief inspector expressed disappointment about the implementation rate of his recommendations. I recognise this concern, and to address this, we have created a new unit within Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service to help ensure that recommendations are taken forward in a timely manner and to track how they are being implemented by prisons.

The issues within our prisons will not be resolved overnight, but we are determined to make progress as quickly as possible, and I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will support our plans for reform.

Last year, the chief inspector reported that too many of our prisons had become unacceptably violent and dangerous. This year, he reports that the situation has not improved, and that it has got worse. Staff assaults increased by 38% in the 12 months to December 2016. Of the 29 local prisons and training institutes inspected last year, 21 were judged to be poor, or not sufficiently good, in the area of safety.

Only two weeks ago, here in the Chamber, I raised the issues at Feltham young offenders institution, but this devastating report is a cause for even greater concern. The jump in violence in our prisons is a crisis of the Government’s own making. The warning signs have been there. The Government have been warned by MPs, by the staff in our prisons and by charities. Now they are being condemned by this damning report. The budget for prisons has been cut by more than a fifth over the past six years, and those cuts have now been proved to be a false economy. Prison staff numbers have been cut by a quarter and those who remain are being put at risk. The human impact of Tory austerity is now being laid bare in our prison system. Effective prisons should be about rehabilitation, so that people come out less likely to reoffend. Drugs, debt and bullying are contributing to the violence, but this has been found to be compounded by staffing levels described as being simply too low to keep order and run a decent regime.

In the last Parliament, the Government introduced a Bill to address some of these safety concerns. However, the Bill was lost on Dissolution. Despite recognition of prison safety being in the Tory manifesto, no prisons legislation was announced in the 2017 Queen’s Speech. Will the Minister tell the House whether there is any intention of bringing back that legislation? Will he also tell us why a third of prisons have been found not to have implemented the prisons and probation ombudsman’s recommendations on reducing the risk of self-inflicted death? What action is being taken to address governance concerns and the extensive use of force and segregation? Will the Minister also update the House on the implementation of progress on recruitment and the action being taken to keep experienced staff and retain new staff? Our prison system is no longer fit for purpose and the Government must take urgent action.

We fully recognise that there are difficulties in the prison system—we have been honest about that ever since I have been in the Department—and yes, the staffing issue has been indicated as a problem. It has been addressed in the last year and, as I have said, we have appointed more than 500 to March and we are on course to fulfil our target of 2,500 extra prison officers by the end of 2018. I would argue, however, that the unforeseen exacerbant in prisons has been the use of Spice and other drugs. This was not anticipated by any previous Government and it is undeniably causing difficulties in terms of the behaviour of prisoners and the corruption of prisoners and some staff with regard to the trade in those substances.

I also take seriously the issue of mental health in prisons. Only yesterday I had further meetings with the Department of Health, which carries responsibility for that. We recognise that we need to improve mental health services for offenders, including the services relating to substance misuse, both in custody and in the community. We are working hard to make those improvements because we know that those issues are contributing to the problems that the hon. Lady has raised.

In relation to the youth estate, and particularly to Feltham, which is in the hon. Lady’s constituency, the use of segregation is an issue. It has been an issue recently in the case that has been raised, but I cannot comment on that case because there is an appeal. This indicates how difficult it can be to manage young people. Over the past 10 years, the number of young people being held in custody has fallen from 3,000 to 1,000. That is something to celebrate. What we cannot celebrate, however, is the fact that when that target was set, before 2010, no plan was in place to change the infrastructure to meet the demands of dealing with and managing 1,000 extremely difficult young people at any one time. We are seeing problems not just at Feltham but across the youth justice system. I am fully aware of those problems, and that is why we are bringing forward two new secure schools over the next two years.

The Minister is right to be frank, as he always has been, about the dire state of affairs in our prisons, which the Select Committee highlighted in a number of reports during the last Parliament. On a constructive note, does he recognise that although the Queen’s Speech contained no prisons legislation for the current Session, it would none the less be appropriate for the Government to take forward much of the prison reform agenda that does not require legislation? In particular, will he commit to ensuring that data and updates are provided to the House—through the Select Committee or otherwise—on the progress of the implementation of Her Majesty’s inspectorate’s recommendations? We do not need legislation for the Government to be transparent about that, and we need to track the progress that is being made.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his reappointment as Chair of the Justice Committee. We are committed to transparency on this. We recognise that there is a series of challenges and problems within the system, and I would be more than happy to come before his Committee to discuss this further. In regard to legislation, we have not ruled out future legislation on prisons, but I would argue that there is quite a lot we can be getting on with that does not require legislation. We are eager, keen and determined to reform our prison system.

Yesterday’s scathing report by the chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales represents a watershed moment in the national debate on our prisons. Prisons should be places not only of punishment but of rehabilitation. They should be making us all safer in the short run and in the longer term. I believe that the whole House will be alarmed by the chief inspector’s view that

“too many of our prisons had become unacceptably violent and dangerous places.”

Members on both sides of the House are all too well aware that there is a crisis in our prisons, and yesterday’s report revealed that, despite the Government’s warm words, the situation is not under control, and it is getting worse.

In the light of that, I believe that the Minister has some serious questions to answer. Does he agree with the remarks by his former colleague, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and former next Prime Minister, that prisons are approaching an “emergency”? What role does he think the substantial cuts to the prisons budget since 2010 have played in this, and what measures will he undertake to address the situation? The chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales has warned that this crisis

“has all been compounded by staffing levels in many jails that are simply too low”.

Does the Minister agree that prison officers deserve a pay rise, and that that will be necessary if we are going to increase numbers and improve retention?

The chief inspector has also said that he is

“appalled by the conditions in which we hold many prisoners”.

What measures is the Minister taking to address this and to reform our prisons so that prisoners leave prison as less, rather than more, of a danger to society? Most shockingly, the number of self-inflicted deaths has more than doubled since 2013. What strategy will he adopt, and what specific resources will he allocate, to reduce that number? The chief inspector said that he had

“reached the conclusion that there was not a single establishment that we inspected in England and Wales in which it was safe to hold children and young people.”

He added that the speed of decline had been staggering, given that in 2013-14, nine out of 12 institutions were graded as good or reasonably good for safety. What explanation does this Minister have for this? Everyone knows that the Government have created a crisis in our prisons. What yesterday’s report shows is that they are failing to take action to solve it.

I do not accept that the Department has lost control of the prison system. That is nonsense. We have a full grip on the issues that we need to face. I would like to talk about the £1.3 billion that we have invested to transform the estate. By transforming it, we are going to improve the quality of the accommodation for prisoners, which will have a direct impact on the problems that we are encountering among the small volume of people who have mental health and suicide issues. We recognise that parts of our estate are antiquated, and that is why we are investing the money.

As I have already said, we know that there are many difficulties in the youth justice system, where the violence rate is 10 times higher than in the adult prison estate. I give my full support to the staff who continue to work in the youth estate because I have seen it with my own eyes: I have visited the majority of the youth estate and it is extremely difficult. I would argue that the genesis of the problem goes back many years. As I alluded to earlier, the admirable intention to reduce the number of people being locked up in the youth estate has brought us to a point at which we have a very challenging population that is particularly violent and difficult to manage. That is why we have the problems we have.

We are bringing forward plans on secure schools—there are two in the pipeline—and we intend to make them a completely different regime with a completely different curriculum balance, including getting people outside more because I am particularly passionate about the use of sport, so that we can deal with the issues we are confronting. I am under no illusions about how difficult this issue is, but we have a plan and we are going to implement it.

I know the Minister appreciates the fact that people with autism are disproportionately represented in the custodial system. Notwithstanding the issues at YOI Feltham, it was in fact the first prison to receive autism-friendly accreditation, and the governor and staff there report that that contributed to a diminishment in violence levels across the whole estate. Some 20 prisons have indicated interest in such accreditation. Will the Minister look into the programme and consider making its roll-out compulsory throughout the entire prison estate? It would be of benefit to prisoners and prison staff alike.

Yes, I am more than happy to consider rolling out that programme. There are positive schemes, and not only with regard to the diagnosis, treatment and management of autism; various sports clubs, rugby clubs and football clubs are also involved, such as Saracens at Feltham. The work they are doing and the evidence of its outcomes are all positive. That is why I am passionate about this: if we can get the management of autism and mental health right and broaden the curriculum so that more time is spent outside cells, I am convinced that we can change the behaviour and atmosphere in each prison and institution so that staff can feel safe while they are at work.

The combination of rising prisoner numbers and shrinking budgets is a major factor that affects the welfare of prison officers and prisoners. In that context, it is regrettable that the UK Government dropped prison reform from the Queen’s Speech and continue to cut budgets and staff numbers. In contrast, the Scottish National party Government in Scotland have continued to invest in modernising and improving the prison estate. They have also committed to significant penal reform, aimed at reducing reoffending by moving away from custodial sentences in favour of community sentences, which have been proven to be better for rehabilitation. Does the Minister agree that he should follow the Scottish Government’s example and concentrate his efforts on schemes that will reduce prison numbers and overcrowding, thereby reducing pressure on prison officers and prisoners?

Yes, intellectually I agree with the hon. and learned Lady that it would make life a lot easier if we could reduce the prison population, and I know that the Secretary of State agrees with that position. The difficulty is the constant balance with the justice issue: if people have committed crimes, they have to serve the time. The question is where they serve that time. I am responsible for women’s justice, on which a strategy is coming out by the end of the year. I very much want that strategy to concentrate on the provision of community sentences and for us to move to that model of prison—in future years it could be rolled out to the adult male estate, but I am just looking at the female estate. I think that we can learn a lot from where we hold people when they are serving their time. I am going to Scotland in the autumn and am looking forward to seeing a few programmes up there, because I gather that some good work is being done.

The Minister is right to say that legislation will not solve this crisis by itself—many other measures are necessary—but will he tell the House why the Prisons and Courts Bill, which was drafted and had made some progress in the previous Parliament, has been dropped? If the Government are committed to prison reform, why have they dropped a piece of legislation that was ready to be considered by the House?

We can deliver our reform package without any further legislation. We will not rule out further legislation if there is a requirement for it in future, but the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that there are pressures on parliamentary time and this is something we are having to accommodate. Nevertheless, there is absolutely no reason why we cannot continue with the reform programme we have planned.

Does the Minister agree that although there are challenges, dedicated officers are doing much positive and transformative work in prisons on issues such as mental health, as well as through chaplaincy services and restorative justice programmes? An example is the work I have seen being done at Thorn Cross Prison over many years by Shawn Verhey and Lorraine Turner. Will he join me in thanking them, and the many dedicated officers like them who do such a tremendous job?

Yes. That is another example of how, throughout the system, positive schemes are being followed. People who work in a variety of areas, particularly mental health, are delivering care to the prisoners who need it, so that they can rehabilitate properly before they return to society.

The Minister referred to the advent of drugs such as Spice as an unknown quantity for the Prison Service to have to deal with, but the fact that there are a quarter fewer prison officers than in 2010 hardly helps to address new challenges. Assaults on staff are up by 70% since 2009, and in 2016 alone one in five justice staff members left the sector. Will the Minister confirm that there is a retention crisis, which is being fuelled by the disgraceful rise in the number of assaults on Prison Service staff?

As I hope the right hon. Lady would acknowledge, I am trying to be as candid as possible about the difficulties we face. A year ago, we acknowledged that there was a need for more staff, and we are delivering on that. I must stress, though, that there was no expectation that the drug would cause this problem. There is yet to be proper documentation on how it affects the prisoners who take it and their behaviour, and on the long-term impact that that will have on the prison population. We acknowledge that we need more staff, and that those staff need better training. In the youth justice system, we are introducing a new youth custody role, because we recognise that additional skills are needed. We recognise the problems, and we are working to solve them.

The Minister will share my concern about the impact of contraband, and particularly new psychoactive substances, on prisoners and the violence that it can cause, so will he say what measures the Department is taking to prevent such materials from getting into prisons?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We have improved the seizure of drugs; the figure for the past 12 months is about 225 kg, which is up on the previous year. We have employed dogs to detect psychoactive substances, and we were the first jurisdiction in the world to introduce drug testing for psychoactive substances. We continue to develop that service as the substances evolve.

I hope that the planned new youth custody service works, but will the Minister say how many new prison officers will join the existing service this year?

No, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an exact figure, but I will write to him with it. We are actively seeking to recruit in every single institution area, particularly in south-east England, where there are always challenges in recruiting prison staff. Perhaps more importantly, we are trying to recruit people who have a history of working with young people. Working with troubled young individuals is a difficult business, and we recognise that there may have been recruitment errors in the past. We want to recruit people who have the proper experience.

The Minister will know that I have previously questioned his Department about rehabilitation. As a result of the report, will he prioritise rehabilitation plans for offenders and employment opportunities for ex-offenders?

Yes, that is very much our intention. There are several schemes throughout the country that involve employers. I visited Drake Hall, a women’s prison, where Halfords has a bicycle repair unit, and met an offender who was leaving prison a week or so later to work for Halfords. Such schemes up and down the country are fantastic and we need more of them. We are working hard on getting more.

This is surely an issue of safeguarding. The chief inspector of prisons says that there is not a single establishment that is currently safe to hold children and young people. The Minister did not answer the specific question put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) about why there has been such a staggering decline in safety over the past year and, as the chief inspector said, such a “slump in standards”. Can the Minister explain what a “slump in standards” means, and what he is doing to address it?

I do not accept that all institutions fit that description. YOI Werrington received a positive report last week. I would argue that the slump has not happened over the past year. As I keep saying, the problem came about over a number of years. With some institutions, we are wrestling with a legacy of issues. At one institution, for example, a contract that was signed in 2004 is preventing us from making necessary changes. The idea that this problem was created by this Government is simplistic and just not accurate.

This Government are building new prison capacity, including at Wellingborough in north Northamptonshire. What difference does my hon. Friend believe that that will make in terms of improving safety?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. As I said earlier, some of our prisons are Victorian. They are antiquated, and the quality of the cells is substandard, which is why we are building new prisons. Cells in which prisoners find it much harder to commit suicide are what is needed, which is why I am pleased that we are investing £1.3 billion in the system.

Let me declare an interest as an outgoing police and crime commissioner. This report is devastating and the Minister must act on it. One way of acting very quickly would be to invest in things such as non-custodial programmes for women offenders and intensive community orders, which have better returns in terms of reoffending rates. Will the Minister commit this Government to putting money where it will make a real difference?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and I welcome him back to the House. It is good to see him here, having had a good relationship with him before. Yes, the women’s justice system is a classic example of where there is scope to devolve responsibility and indeed funds. North-west England, a part of which he used to represent, has had a whole-system approach to funding over the past year or two, so that we can try to build a system in which women can be treated holistically and in which the team understands each woman’s home, situation, partners and relationships, so that it can bear down on the number of people who are locked up. In the strategy that will be delivered before the end of the year, I hope to outline in more detail what I want to do in north-west England.

Last November, the Department outlined in its White Paper probably the most comprehensive plan for improving our prisons for a generation. Some items—a minority of them—require primary legislation. I would like to see that brought forward in due course, particularly with regard to changing the statutory definition of the purpose of a prison to include rehabilitation and reform. However, the vast majority of items do not require such legislation, so will the Minister confirm that his Department will continue to implement the White Paper in full?

My hon. Friend is very informed on this matter. Yes, he is right: the great majority of the reform package that was announced last year can be delivered without any further legislation. As I have said three times, we have not ruled out primary legislation in this area in the near future.

By what date does the Minister expect the first people to enter the new units that he has announced for the north and the south? Will he update the Justice Committee on the objectives that he has set for improving the situation, and will he agree to look again at the recommendations of Lord Toby Harris, to which the Government did not agree when they were produced early last year?

I think the right hon. Gentleman is referring to the secure schools. We are committed to opening one in September 2019. There is a possibility that it could be earlier, but it depends on finding the appropriate site; as Members can imagine, these sites have to be secure. We are working extremely hard and are in negotiations with various agencies. The Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime is particularly interested in assisting us on this. When we know about the locations, we can be a bit clearer about the delivery date.

On the wider question, which I think is about the state of the youth justice system, he can probably tell that I think we need to move towards a different system of how we lock up young people. Sadly, we recognise that some young people will need to be locked up—we have a very small uptick in some serious sexual crimes at the moment—but the environment, the staffing and the manner in which we do so must change. This report confirms what we already knew, and my intention is to work hard to bring forward a plan so that in the future—in the next 10 years—we can get to a situation in which our young people are not only safe and secure, but properly rehabilitated.

I welcome the additional £2 million that this Government have invested in providing handheld mobile detectors and portable detection poles to every prison to root out the mobile phones that facilitate so many problems. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to continue monitoring this issue and to consider what more can be done in this area?

Yes. We have made some real progress; we are stopping thousands of mobile phones getting into our prisons. We are working extremely hard to stop the use of drones and to block the use of mobile phone signals over prisons. Things are not perfect; we have not finished this work, but we are continuing to press hard, because it would be fantastic to have a mobile phone and drone-free prison network.

I look forward to the strategy for women offenders that the Minister said he would introduce later this year. He will know that last year, 30% of women in custody self-harmed, and 12 women killed themselves in prison—the highest level since 2004. In reviewing the estate for women, will he take the opportunity, once and for all, to take on board the recommendations of Baroness Jean Corston? Women who need to be in custody should be placed not in prisons far from their families, but in small, secure community units. There is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do this. Please will the Minister take it?

The Corston report was one of the first things I read when I was appointed to this role in July 2016, and it makes a persuasive case. There is an issue about where some women should be held. I am not completely convinced that we can go down the path of all women being held in community provision, in residential women’s centres. However, I am persuaded that we can reduce the number of women we are locking up. This will be based primarily on the way that we deliver community provision, and on mental health care before, during and after prison.

I have met a number of women in prison, the majority of whom have displayed scars of self-harm. As the hon. Lady might know, I am a doctor and I observe these things, and it is quite distressing to see this. To deal with the problem, we need to change the environment in which these women are held and to get their mental health services improved. Those are my two priorities, and I hope that the hon. Lady will be reassured that the strategy, which will be delivered by the end of this year, will get things right.

Listening to parents of young offenders in my constituency surgeries has been eye-opening, as is listening to those working in Winchester Prison, who have seen what happens to people who have never got out of the prison system. I welcome the focus on dealing with the growing level of violence and youth justice. It is vital that we look at those issues individually and at the outcomes. How will this new unit help to ensure that the recommendations are followed?

The unit to which my hon. Friend refers has been set up by the Department to ensure that the recommendations are followed. I gather that this is the first time that such a unit has been created. With regard to youth justice and to women’s justice, the key is to build a network over time—it will take a long time—that allows people to be held closer to home, so that families, and mothers in particular, can stay in contact with their children. That is our intention. I have mapped out the country with regard to women’s justice and youth justice to ensure that what we bring forward fits the framework, so that we can deliver time in prison closer to home for women and young people.

There is a grave situation in our prisons, and the Minister is being typically frank in acknowledging that. One problem is the large cohort of prisoners languishing on indeterminate sentences for public protection. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are committed to getting that number down as quickly as possible?

That has been a long-running issue in the prison system, and the answer to my hon. Friend’s question is yes.

Reoffending rates remain stubbornly high, especially for young offenders, with nearly seven out of 10 who are sent to prison going on to reoffend on release. We know that that is to do with the conditions and the environment in our prisons and young offender institutions, but what more can be done to ensure effective rehabilitation, especially for our young people?

The recidivism rate in the youth estate is not acceptable, nor is the environment in which young people are being held. In some institutions, they are being locked up for too long, which is primarily to do with the safety and security of the institution. That needs to change. There are programmes in place—I have mentioned one already, with Saracens and other sports teams—that are showing evidence of reducing recidivism rates. I am determined to change the curriculum being delivered in the youth estate. People need to spend more time outside, on sport, for example. If we do that, we will achieve what my hon. Friend wants us to achieve. By early next year, I plan on bringing out a review of the criminal justice system and sport, particularly in the youth justice system. Its recommendations will be interesting to see.