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Bedford Prison

Volume 646: debated on Thursday 13 September 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on the Government’s plans for HMP Bedford.

May I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this urgent question? We spoke briefly on the telephone yesterday. I know that he is a champion of the interests of the people of Bedford and Bedford prison, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss this in more detail.

I begin by setting the broader context of what is happening at Bedford prison and will then talk more specifically about what we need to do to resolve the serious issues in Bedford prison.

A number of local prisons with significant challenges have come before the House in the past six months, of which Bedford is the latest. I want to clarify a number of things before I focus specifically on the issues at Bedford. The first is that some of these issues are fundamental to any prison. Prisons are challenging places to run at the best of times. By definition, the people inside a prison do not want to be there, and we are now facing a cohort of people in prison who have multiple needs. Nearly half the people in prison have a reading age of under 11, and nearly 30% have a reading age of under six. Very large numbers are coming to prison directly out of care at the moment, and only 18% of people coming into prison had a job beforehand.

There is also a rising tide of violence in prisons. I am pleased that Royal Assent has today been given to the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). The Bill clarifies that this is not just an issue in prisons. Assaults against police officers have risen to an all-time high, and assaults on ambulance workers have risen to a very disturbing level. It would have been almost inconceivable 30 years ago for someone to get into an ambulance and assault the paramedic who was trying to treat them. It was almost unheard of 30 years ago for prisoners to assault prison officers, yet last year there were more than 9,000 such assaults.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, in relation to Bedford prison, I will return to the question of how we address violence in prisons and how the new legislation brought in by the hon. Member for Rhondda, which we on this side of the House are proud to support, will help to address some of the issues.

The second thing I want to put on record is that although there are many challenges in prisons, there have been improvements. It is worth remembering in this difficult atmosphere that some things are getting better. The situation relating to escapes and security is much better than at any time in the past. Similarly, while any suicide is a tragedy, because of our understanding of the drivers of suicide and the evidence that we gather, the measures that we are taking are beginning to work. The suicide rate is now considerably lower than it was a year ago, two years ago or indeed in the historical past, because we are beginning to address that issue. We also have a much better idea about how to deal with some of the underlying issues around reoffending. Our first night reception centres are much stronger, as are the family links that we are able to promote. More prisoners are now actively in work or education than before, and the education strategy ensures that the education they receive is much more relevant to the workplace.

Nevertheless, as the hon. Member for Bedford and the chief inspector have pointed out, there are three very significant challenges in Bedford. The first is a big problem around decency and conditions in Bedford. The second is a problem around drugs in Bedford. The third is a problem around violence, particularly assaults against prison officers in Bedford. How do we deal with this? Bearing in mind that there are underlying problems in all local prisons and that the problems we are talking about—decency, drugs and violence—are familiar from inspections in other places, what is it that gives me some hope that we can turn this around? Do we have a plan to turn this around?

The answer is that there are prisons out there in the country—local prisons with similar problems to Bedford—that are already showing that we can tackle these issues. Hull is a good example, as is Preston. There has also been a significant improvement in tackling exactly these kinds of issues in Leeds over the past three months. In Bedford, we put the prison into special measures some months ago, and we are now beginning to see some key improvements. We are seeing improvements in the physical infrastructure, more investment is going into windows, the mental health provision is better than it was, areas such as the showers and the segregation unit are better than they were, and we are now bringing in a more experienced management team.

However, that still leaves those three fundamental problems to be dealt with. How do we deal with them? Addressing the issue of drugs is first a question of technology. We have done a lot to understand the criminal networks through gathering intelligence on how the drugs are getting in, but there is much more we can do to get the right scanners in place to investigate the drugs being carried in in people’s bodies, and to spend money on the scanners to investigate drugs being put in the post that is getting into the prison.

Decency is fundamentally a question of spending money, which is why we are putting an extra £40 million into addressing basic issues, such as windows. That is not just about producing decent living conditions for prisoners—

Order. It is always a pleasure to listen to the mellifluous tones of the Minister of State. I simply advise him that, in delivering his disquisition thus far, he has exceeded his allotted time by only 100%, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman is approaching his peroration.

My apologies for taking up so much of the House’s time on this issue. To return in my final minute to the serious issues that we are dealing with today, this is about decency, drugs and violence. Dealing with violence fundamentally has to be about having the right training and support for the prison officers on the landing. They need the right legitimate authority to challenge acts of violence. They need training and equipment—body-worn cameras and CCTV—to do that. They need the law that has been introduced by the hon. Member for Rhondda. Above all, however, prison officers need management support, standing with them day in, day out, to challenge the acts of violence, to take the action to punish them and to do so in a calm, legitimate fashion. Only by restoring order and control will we be able to address the many other issues, including education, rehabilitation, decency and drugs, that we need to deal with to protect the public.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and I thank the Minister for his phone call yesterday and his answer today. I have been raising concerns with his Government about levels of violence in HMP Bedford since my election. In May, it was placed in special measures, and officers fear serious assault every day. The situation is getting worse, not better. Will the Minister explain what the Government are doing differently this time to resolve the systemic failures at the prison?

Bedford prison is designed to hold 300 men, but at the last count it was holding more than 420. How can any prison operate safely with such overcrowding? Will the Government take urgent steps to reduce pressure on the system? The prison building itself is not fit for purpose, and I have been to see it for myself. The cells are cramped, I could smell drugs, and the building is very old. How can we expect to rehabilitate serial offenders if we cannot provide them with even basic facilities and dignity? The consequences of not getting things right are far reaching for society.

The people who live around Bedford prison are affected, and our emergency services are frequently tied up on long call-outs. Reoffending levels are high. Prison officers fear for their lives at work and are leaving the profession in droves. The Minister told us that he is putting in new managers, but how will that solve the recruitment and retention crisis among frontline prison officers? Will the Minister commit to an action plan that will make Bedford prison safe, bring in experienced officers, vastly improve facilities and properly invest our penal system before we have another riot on our hands?

Bearing in mind your warning, Mr Speaker, I will try to deal with those four quite different questions briefly, but they are serious questions that are worth spending a little time on. The question about numbers is a good one. During the previous Labour Government, the number of people in prison rose from about 40,000 to nearly 80,000—the prison population nearly doubled—so we inherited a prison estate with an enormous number of prisoners. That involves a serious conversation right across the House about the number of people we wish to put in prison, and that goes beyond this question about Bedford. However, we will undertake to look carefully at the population of Bedford prison and at the ratio between prison officers and prisoners, and we will come back within 28 days to the chief inspector of prisons with an answer laying out a plan.

The second question is on the building at Bedford, which of course dates from the early 1800s, as the hon. Gentleman said. Although we have a new wing in place, a lot of the physical infrastructure is very difficult, which is unfortunately true not only of Bedford. A third of the current prison estate was built before 1900—these are Victorian prisons—which is why we will be spending the money to create 10,000 new prison places with modern accommodation. There is a very clear relationship between old buildings and this type of problem, and only new investment and new builds will solve it.

On recruitment and retention, Bedford has, as the hon. Gentleman knows, quite a challenging job market. Wages have been rising, employment figures are quite high and Bedford is relatively close to the commuter belt, which means we have had some struggle recruiting and retaining.

We now have 3,500 more prison officers in place than we had in 2015. We need to invest more in training them, and we need to invest more in making sure they stay.

The hon. Gentleman’s final point returns to the question of violence. We do not want to fool the House. Turning around violence in prisons like Bedford will be a long, hard road, and that violence has deep roots. Part of this is about historical staffing numbers, and a lot of it is about new attitudes in society—the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill, tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda, addresses the assaults—and a lot of it is about new types of drugs.

There is no magic wand, but investing in making sure that we reduce the number of drugs coming in, making sure we have decent living conditions and, above all, building up experienced staff with the right management to challenge that violence on the landings day in and day out, hour in and hour out, is the only way that we will make these prisons safer.

This report is particularly damning, and it is the fourth such report in recent times. It talks of men who are locked up for 23 hours a day without food or lavatory paper.

I accept that the Minister is doing his level best to sort out the situation, and I wholeheartedly support his reforms, including those to increase the number of prison officers and to work hard on rehabilitation, but if we are to continue incarcerating this number of people, we simply have to ask the Treasury for more money so that we can do it safely. Does he agree?

We are definitely putting in more investment, and we need to put in more investment. That is why we are spending £40 million on additional improvements in the existing infrastructure, and that is why we will spend well over £1 billion on building new prisons, but the urgent problem we face will not be addressed overnight by new prisons. These prisons will take serious time to build, and the problem will have to be addressed on the landings and outside the cells by legislative measures such as the Bill tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda, by body-worn cameras, by CCTV, by training and, above all, by management and support for staff.

The chief inspector of prisons has spoken of the continual and unchecked decline in standards at the prison over the past nine years. He also said that, at times, it felt like the prisoners were in control. This is the prison with the highest rate of assaults in the country. Some 77% of prison officers at HMP Bedford have less than one year’s service.

That is the reality, so I am disappointed that, in his seven minutes, the Minister said a lot but avoided the specific question at hand on HMP Bedford. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) for his tireless work on exposing the failings at the prison. As we have heard, this is the fourth jail in just 12 months to be issued an urgent notification. Formally, the Minister has to publish a plan of action for the prison within 28 days, but we need answers today.

The Government’s recent solution to the widespread failure at HMP Birmingham was to increase prison staff and reduce prisoner numbers there. Will the Minister commit today to a similar increase in staff and reduction in prisoner numbers at Bedford? There was a riot at Bedford in November 2016. What have the Government done since to improve the situation, bearing in mind what the chief inspector of prisons has said?

Whose fault is it that in the latest annual performance figures, HMP Bedford is still labelled as a prison of serious concern? It remains one of the most overcrowded prisons in the country—40% over capacity. What has the Minister done, and what have the Government done, to tackle overcrowding there since the 2016 riot?

More widely, what plans do the Government have to end overcrowding across the prison estate, given that over half of prisons are overcrowded? The proportion, by the way—people on the Government Benches will not like to hear this—is even higher in private prisons. Finally, if more staff and fewer prisoners was the answer to HMP Birmingham’s problems, will the Minister commit today to an emergency plan, with new Treasury funds, to end overcrowding and end understaffing across the prison estate?

Essentially, the hon. Gentleman posed three questions. The first is whether we recognised the problems in Bedford following the 2016 riot. We certainly did. The riot in 2016 was very disturbing, and since then we put the prison into special measures. So we absolutely agree with the criticisms made by the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin), and by the shadow Secretary of State, and indeed by the inspector. That is why we put Bedford prison into special measures; that is why we anticipated this inspection report.

The second question was, how many of these urgent notifications are coming? Fundamentally, as I laid out at the beginning of my speech, this is a problem that exists in many of our local prisons. It is not an issue that specifically exists in cat D prisons, or in the high security estate, or particularly in the female estate. This is an issue in prisons such as Bedford, Exeter, Nottingham and Liverpool, and, as we discovered, Birmingham.

What is the solution? The shadow Secretary of State asks whether the question is a private/public question. It is not an ideological question. Two of the best local prisons currently in the country, Forest Bank and Thameside, are private prisons. Bedford is, of course, a public prison. He asked whether we would look at the ratio between prison officers and prisoners, and rightly pointed out that in Birmingham, as in other prisons, when we face these kinds of problems, often we temporarily reduce prisoner numbers and bring in additional prison officers. I can undertake that that is something we will be examining during the 28 days we have; we will prepare a plan and come forward with an answer for the chief inspector. It is a very reasonable proposal, and it is one we will consider very carefully.

During my all-too-brief time working with my hon. Friend, he clearly recognised and was up-front about the real difficulties in the prison estate. Will he take the opportunity to tell the House the ambition he has for improvement, specifically work to be done in the 10 target jails, such as Hull, Nottingham—also under urgent notification—and Wormwood Scrubs?

We have chosen 10 of our most challenged local prisons in order to prove that we can turn them around. One of the problems over the last few years is that we are developing a situation in which people are beginning to feel that there is no solution to these prisons. I believe very strongly that these prisons can be turned around. That is why I have said repeatedly that if I do not succeed in turning round the 10 prisons for this pilot, I will resign. Why is it that I am confident that we can turn these 10 prisons around? Because the fundamental problems in these prisons are relatively straightforward. They are problems of decency, they are problems of drugs, they are problems of support and management on the wings. I believe that we have demonstrated in the best of our local prisons that with the right support and the right investment we can do that, and that is what we propose to do in those 10 local prisons, and what I would expect the House to judge me on doing over the next 12 months.

What we see today, yet again, is the horrendous impact of austerity cuts on the state of prisons. Prison staffing levels are down by almost one third since 2010, and that contrasts, by the way, with a 14% increase in Scotland over the same period. So we join the calls for significant new resources for new prison officers, for increased staff retention and for equipment and training in the forthcoming Budget.

Specifically on overcrowding, the prisons Minister has spoken about keeping a close watch on how the presumption against short sentences is working in Scotland, but surely he must see that placing people for a few months in institutions like Bedford or Birmingham is utterly counter-productive. He has explained exactly the complex needs that prisons just cannot address, particularly in a short period of time. So instead of watching, surely the time is now for acting on short sentences.

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting question. Connected to the question of crowding in prisons is the question of how many people are sentenced. The two are clearly related. The Scottish Government have led on the question that the hon. Gentleman now raises: what is the point of sending someone to prison with a three-month sentence? What does that achieve? In effect, it means that somebody is in prison for less than six weeks. Is that really a length of time that allows them to take any kind of punishment and that will deter anybody? Above all, is it enough time to rehabilitate someone—to really turn their life around so that they do not reoffend? The evidence suggests that very short sentences are in fact likely to lead to more reoffending than a community sentence. It is an issue that we need to look at very carefully.

In May 2016, the inspectorate of prisons rated Bedford as “not sufficiently good” on the four healthy prison tests. Since then, there has been a prison improvement plan, the prison has been put into special measures, and there has been a comprehensive action plan, yet when the inspectorate went back this September, Bedford’s rating on three of those healthy prison tests fell to 1, or “poor”, while its rating for resettlement remained at “not sufficiently good”. Am I wrong to say that that seems to suggest that the people running Bedford prison are simply not up to the job?

The question is absolutely right. In 2016, when the previous inspection report was published, Bedford prison was already in trouble. It then got significantly worse. There was a riot at the end of 2016, and it is extremely difficult to recover from a riot. When a riot happens in a prison, it takes a long time for that prison to stabilise again. We put the prison into special measures, and that is a long, hard road. I have talked about some of the improvements that we have made to mental health provision and some of the support around key workers. We have now increased staffing numbers dramatically compared with where we were in 2016, and we are bringing in a new management team, but it takes time to turn around deep-rooted problems of this sort. I believe that the green shoots are there, but sadly we are not going to see them overnight. That is why I am determined that we put in more investment now.

It is a very long time since I was the shadow prisons Minister and visited a lot of prisons, including Bedford, but is it not a fact that we cannot make excuses? When a prison is in a situation like the one Bedford is in, there is something wrong with the prison’s culture, and if there is something wrong with the culture, it is to do with the quality of the management. Should we not look into that? When I was Chair of the Education Select Committee, we visited prisons and looked at prison education, and we learned a lot by going to Scandinavia, where they have similar challenges but handle them better.

That is absolutely correct. First, it is a fact that there are some very, very good, very dedicated prison officers who are doing a very good job, and it is worth paying tribute to them.

One challenge that we face is that we have a lot of new prison officers, partly because we have been doing a recruitment drive—we have 3,500 more officers than we had two and a half years ago. A lot of these people have not developed the five or 10 years’ experience on the wings that are really needed to learn how to exercise legitimate authority. What can we do about that? We can improve the training courses, with a particular focus on violence before the officers arrive in the prisons; we need much more mentoring, with experienced officers alongside new officers; and we need to make sure that people own the wings again—that a particular designated officer is responsible for a particular wing. In the end, though, it is absolutely right that in some prisons—unfortunately, this is the case in Bedford—with some of the less experienced staff, they are backing off the prisoners. They do not have the confidence, experience and training. That is what we need to build up to get the right form of legitimate authority.

In general, the use of body cameras by police forces has produced very positive results. Will my hon. Friend update the House on what progress is being made in rolling them out across the prison estate?

The Prison Officers Association confirms our view, which is that body-worn cameras have made a real difference. One of the things that we need to do is make sure that when people are issued with them, they use them. Being able to record an assault on a body-worn camera allows the evidence to be gathered and the prosecution to happen, and it makes it less likely that a person is assaulted. That is also true of our investment in CCTV and it is true of the pilots that we have done with PAVA—pelargonic acid vanillylamide—spray. Also related is the private Member’s Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), which received Royal Assent today and will double the maximum sentence for assaults on prison officers. We cannot tolerate assaults on prison officers, because we should protect them when they protect us.

In answer to a question from the Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), the Minister set out all of the problems associated with short-term prison sentences but did not go on to say what the Government were going to do about tackling the issue. May I now encourage him to do so in relation not only to that issue, but to community sentencing as an alternative to the overcrowding that we now see?

Something as serious as changing our entire sentencing policy would require primary legislation and a lot of discussion in the House. What we are beginning to air here though is that we hear very clearly what the right hon. Gentleman is saying and what has been done in Scotland. We are looking at the matter very closely. I will be up in Scotland again talking with members of the criminal justice fraternity there to learn from these lessons. What actions we take and how English law differs from Scottish law will be the key in this.

It would be almost unthinkable for us to look at delivering any other public service using facilities that are, in so many cases, from the Victorian era. Will the Minister update the House on what plans there are to look at moving away from having a prison system that is still rooted in the Victorian era as HMP Bedford is?

Victorian prisons can be unbelievably unsuitable. They can be unsanitary, incredibly noisy and very disturbing for people in them. We have problems that come simply from living in unsanitary conditions. What we are doing about that is to create 10,000 new prison places, with a new design of prison, better accommodation and more secure facilities. We will start with prisons at Wellingborough and Glen Parva, which will be the first two of six new prisons that we will be building to provide 10,000 additional places.

The Minister said in his opening remarks that more prisoners were in work programmes than ever before, but the letter to the Secretary of State from the Chief Inspector of Prisons stated that HMP Bedford

“lacked a culture of work or learning.”

Classes and workshops had only a handful of attendees, and nearly 40% of prisoners were found to be locked up during the working day. Those who were unlocked were found to be doing nothing constructive, and Ofsted rated the provision of activities inadequate. What urgent steps will the Minister take to reform rehabilitation in our prisons so that prisoners are engaged in meaningful activity and reoffending rates are tackled?

The hon. Lady has put her finger on the issue here. These things are all connected. The reason why people do not get into education or work in Bedford is directly connected with the drugs and the violence. Unless we can create a calm, orderly, stable environment where prison officers and prisoners feel safe, all the other stuff that we want to do around rehabilitation simply is not possible. People end up being locked up for too many hours in their cells. They are not moved safely to the classrooms. The teachers do not feel safe and we cannot deliver the educational provision. That is why we have to start with the basics. It begins with addressing decency, drugs and violence and the other stuff then must follow on.

With reoffending costing society £15 billion, does the Minister agree that the debate should be about the modern prison estate and whether its purpose should be to rehabilitate, train and reduce those reoffending rates?

That is absolutely true. The big change in prisons over the past 20 years—and this has been a cross-party change brought about by Labour, Conservative and coalition Governments—is a huge shift towards a focus on rehabilitation. Above all, the purpose of prison needs to be about ensuring that when somebody leaves prison, they are much less likely to reoffend, otherwise, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, we see reoffending costs of £15 billion. More than that, it is the daily—day in, day out—misery that is inflicted on the public and indeed on the individuals themselves by being caught in a cycle of violence and crime.

It is one thing to change the law—I am very grateful for the Minister’s help in achieving that today—but quite another to ensure that the law is implemented. If we really are to protect not only other emergency workers, but, in particular, prison officers, do we not need to make sure that the police and the prosecuting authorities take this new law seriously? Is there anything that we can do on a cross-party basis to make sure that that happens?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. A lot of focus to date has been on assaults on police officers, and it is unacceptable that members of the public are spitting at police officers. Nevertheless, prosecutions have been brought for spitting at police officers, but that is almost unheard of in the case of prison officers. Sadly, in many prisons, a culture has emerged of people almost taking that for granted and it does not seem to me that enough priority is given to investigating assaults and other crimes in prison. The police, who are under a lot of pressure with many other things to do, must be encouraged to get into the prisons, gather the evidence and work with the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute people who assault prison officers. If that does not happen, we will never get the calm, orderly environment that we require.

HMP Gartree is in my constituency and HMP Glen Parva is just outside it. Those who work there are good people doing a difficult job on our behalf. What more can the Minister do to drive down violence against staff and get the menace of drugs out of prisons?

Drugs can get into prison only by being flown, thrown, dragged or carried there. A secure environment with the right standards, the right checks on mail and the right bars and grilles should therefore be able to reduce significantly the number of drugs that get into a prison.

On protecting and supporting prison officers, we owe them the trials around pepper spray, the body cameras and the CCTV cameras, but above all, the staffing numbers to get the key worker schemes in place so that they can develop the relationships with individual prisoners. Prison officers also need support from their managers, particularly band 4 and band 5 managers, day in, day out, to ensure that if they are assaulted, we respond calmly and professionally and bring back order and control.

This is the fourth prison in the urgent notification process. In the past, the response has tended to involve three things: change the leaders, put more staff in, reduce the number of prisoners. All those are sensible, but they have an impact on the rest of the estate: there are only so many leaders, new staff and places to which to move prisoners. How many more times can the Minister respond in that way before it has an impact on the whole Prison Service?

That is a very good question and challenge. This is about prioritisation. As I said, many local prisons suffer from significant problems and we currently have more than a dozen in special measures. It is no coincidence that the prisons that we put in special measures are likely to be those that go on to receive an urgent notification from the inspectors. We and the inspectors absolutely agree on where those problems are—we can see them. The issue is to which of those prisons we prioritise resources. Those moves—reducing the number of prisoners, bringing in extra staff and getting extra support—are absolutely necessary, but we need to target them at the places where the need is greatest.

Does the Minister agree that we must continue to punish those who commit the most serious crimes by removing their liberty, but that prisons must be places of safety and reform?

My hon. Friend has put his finger on the key question. Prison serves three fundamental purposes and we need to keep them all simultaneously. People must be punished for committing crimes. As a society, a civilisation and a nation, we must indicate that crime is unacceptable and deserves punishment. Secondly, people must be deterred from committing crime, and seeing a serious sentence imposed is an important part of changing behaviour. However, thirdly and fundamentally, people who come into prison must have their lives changed. That is fundamental for them, the prison officers who look after them and ultimately the public, whose safety and security depend on changing the lives of offenders and preventing them from offending again.

Like all hon. Members, I was pleased to hear this morning that Royal Assent had been given to the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). That has moved the debate forward significantly, and I note with interest the steps that the Minister set out for what more can be done. Does he believe that there are any examples from around the world that we could learn from?

We can always learn from examples around the world. We have discussed some of the lessons we can learn from Scotland. There are certainly lessons we can learn from Scandinavia. Indeed, there are even some lessons—this will surprise the House—that we can learn from the United States.

Fundamentally, our emergency workers are the most courageous examples of our society. They run into fires; they run into people who are shooting them; they literally save our lives as ambulance workers and other professionals. They must not be assaulted. That is why it is absolutely welcome that today Royal Assent has been given to a Bill that says that anybody who assaults an emergency worker will immediately receive a much tougher sentence. They protect us; we should protect them.