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HM Prison Bedford

Volume 741: debated on Thursday 30 November 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Jenkinson.)

I am pleased to have secured this Adjournment debate on conditions at His Majesty’s Prison Bedford. I thank the Commons Library, the Howard League, the Prison Officers Association, the residents living by the prison, the Prison Reform Trust, the independent monitoring board, Victim Support and Charlie Taylor for their helpful information and data, which will inform the debate.

HMP Bedford, which is also a young offenders institution, was inspected on 9 November, and the findings by His Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons are shocking—shocking, but not surprising. In 2018, I was granted an urgent question when Bedford Prison was last issued with an urgent notification. The same problems —inexperienced staff, extreme violence, overcrowding, drug use, mouldy and filthy conditions, self-harm, and rat and cockroach infestations—are cited in the last report and the recent report. It is as heartbreaking as it is deeply frustrating to see the degrading and totally unacceptable conditions in which prison officers, staff and residents are expected to live and work.

HMP Bedford continues to have the highest level of violent assaults against staff in adult male prisons in England and Wales. Self-harm and drug use is excessive. I am sorry to say that the amount of force used by staff was also found to be high. Inspectors saw examples of inappropriate and excessive force alongside unprofessional behaviour. Many prisoners are locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day, and even the minority who are in education or training find that it is often cancelled because there are no staff to cover those services.

I have been told that prisoners sleep with covers over their mouth to stop cockroaches crawling in while they sleep. The inhumane segregation unit, once described as a rat-infested dungeon, was supposed to be shut down years ago, but endless delays to the new unit mean that it is still in use. Will the Minister explain what he believes prisons are for? Locking people away in those conditions does not keep society safe. Where is the rehabilitation in the system?

Who can leave those conditions a better person, or less likely to reoffend? Overcrowded, squalid and unsafe prisons will never help or allow people to turn their lives around and move on from a life of crime and hurting others. According to the report, staff and leaders are doing their best, and the POA has told me that staff at Bedford feel safer now than they did when the last urgent notification was issued. However, while many problems, such as problems with staff retention, inadequate prison capacity, too few and inexperienced staff and too much staff churn at leadership level, are symptomatic of a wider crisis, questions must be asked about why HMP Bedford has not learned the lessons of the past or been able to implement sustainable changes.

As His Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons said in his report, many of the issues found at Bedford

“reflect wider problems across the estate.”

HMP Bedford is the fifth prison in a year to receive an urgent notification and the third reception prison. That is a damning indictment of not just the prison system, but the whole British justice system. Prisoners on remand are waiting far too long for trials because of the court backlog, which means that victims are waiting too long and are not getting justice.

In an ideal world, Bedford Prison would have been shut down years ago. It is a Victorian jail in the middle of an urban area and totally unfit for purpose. Residents living by the prison have had to tolerate unacceptable disturbances for years, with intruders breaking and entering gardens to traffic drugs over the walls and regular drone flights delivering contraband. The noise and disturbance from prisoners in solitary confinement cells mean that nearby residential windows are kept closed and some constituents have reported hearing sexual assaults and violence left unchecked. However, because the prison estate is full to the brim, it looks as though a more modern appropriate prison to detain offenders is not an option, even though it should be.

Despite all that, the Government have not improved the conditions, because they cannot or will not tackle the root causes of the persistent issues at HMP Bedford. Currently, 377 male prisoners are on roll, although the “in use certified normal accommodation” number is 229. More than 45%, or 170 men, are awaiting trial. Some reports say that that figure is higher, so I would be grateful if the Minister clarified the number of men currently waiting to be put before a judge or magistrate and how long the average wait is for a trial date.

It is totally unacceptable that prisoners languish on remand for months and even years in an overcrowded prison, all because this Government have decimated the criminal justice system. The Crown court backlog has hit a new record high of more than 65,000 cases and the magistrates court backlog is also rising. Does the Minister agree that his Government’s target of reducing the backlog to 53,000 by March 2025 is very unlikely to be met?

Serious questions are being asked about whether Bedford can remain as a remand prison. Will the Minister consider a complete re-role of the prison? Our prisons are so overcrowded that judges are being asked to delay sentencing convicted criminals. In HMP Bedford, 46 men have been convicted but are awaiting sentencing. How is that delivering justice for victims or perpetrators?

We will no doubt hear about more plans, promises and initiatives to turn the place around, but I have heard them all before. We have had the 10 prisons project and the prison performance support programme, just two years ago, where Bedford Prison was supposedly going to

“benefit from a new intensive support programme to help challenging jails to improve safety and rehabilitation.”

All have failed.

Will the Minister explain why, after years and years of action plans and interventions, the problems at the prison persist? What will his Government do differently this time to resolve the distinctive and systemic failures at HMP Bedford and across the wider prison estate? What will he do to support the governor to manage an overcrowded prison, to implement basic levels of cleanliness and to tackle a toxic culture, where prisoners are locked up for too long in squalor and do not seem to bother trying to keep their surroundings clean?

In 2017, when HMP Liverpool was described as having the “worst living conditions” ever seen by inspectors, the prison was successfully turned around through a significant population reduction. Huge investment and resources were channelled towards the prison. Bedford needs that level of sustainable investment now. In the context of the current capacity crisis, however, will the Minister confirm whether such a decanting measure is even possible? There is absolutely no excuse for any prison not to meet basic standards of decency.

The quality of leadership is vital. Governor Ali Barker has not yet been there a year, and I hope she gets all the resources she requires to achieve the higher standards needed at HMP Bedford. Meanwhile, nearly half of the prison officers working at the prison have less than two years’ experience. Being a prison officer is one of the most challenging of the uniformed professions. What plans do the Government have to support prison officers and tackle the huge lack of experience in the profession? Leadership and experience are key to improving the outcome at HMP Bedford, but leadership in Government also matters. Since the last urgent notification five years ago, there have been 10 changes in Prisons Minister. Amid such chaos and churn, there cannot be a serious plan for reforming the penal system and delivering justice for victims.

The decision to privatise the estates maintenance contracts has had a particularly detrimental impact on older establishments such as Bedford, where the maintenance needs are substantial. Those contracts were poorly funded and understaffed, and basic routine repair and maintenance work has suffered. What plans has the Minister to improve that and, at the very least, demand a better service from those contracts?

Full use of the recently announced measures, including the emergency release scheme and provision to delay the sentencing of individuals on bail, should be made in the Government’s response to the urgent notification. A presumption to suspend short sentences would also relieve pressures on reception prisons once the relevant legislation has been passed and enacted. Those measures are not about being tough on crime, but about implementing a justice system that works for victims—because today, the justice system is failing victims.

As Bedford Prison serves a number of courts, including in Bedford, Luton and London, there is a lot of intake churn. Because Beford hosts a prison, my constituents are too often the victims of reoffending criminals in the area, and many are understandably losing faith in the justice system’s ability to deliver justice to victims of crime, including violent crime.

The thorny question of what sentencing is for was tackled by the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which codified for the first time the principles and purposes of sentencing: the punishment of offenders; the reduction of crime, including reduction by deterrence; the reform and rehabilitation of offenders; and the protection of the public. Apart from punishing prisoners—remember that many Bedford inmates have not yet been convicted of a crime—no other remedies in that list are being met.

A report by Victim Support cites a study conducted for the probation service that reveals that 94% of victims of crime said that the most important thing to them was that the offender did not commit the crime again. The same study found that 81% would prefer an offender to receive an effective sentence rather than a harsh one. The first recommendation of the report is:

“Effective rehabilitation has to be at the heart of the prison system.”

The second recommendation says:

“Though victims accept that any reforms have to be cost-effective, if individual sentencing decisions are seen to be motivated by concern for cost more than justice, they will not inspire the support of victims or the general public.”

Victim Support backs the reduction in short-term prison sentences, but wants evidence-based alternatives to stop reoffending put in place before they are abolished. It wants robustly enforced community sentencing to be applied as a meaningful and effective alternative to custodial sentences. It says that if alternatives such as drug or alcohol treatment programmes, or treatment for mental health problems, are ordered, they need to be adequately funded and proven to prevent reoffending.

The conditions at HMP Bedford, and indeed across the prison estate, are not conducive to the rehabilitation of prisoners—far from it. In fact, the recent urgent notification found that the preparation for release was “Not sufficiently good”. What will the Minister propose in his response to His Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons that will finally turn Bedford Prison around, so that I am not standing here again next year asking the same questions? Will he find a solution that finally puts victims at the heart of the criminal justice system, a big part of which is to ensure that prisons rehabilitate offenders, rather than create reoffenders and more victims of crime?

If I may briefly crave your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish to put on the record my tribute to the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, on the news of his sad passing. He was a man of intellect, integrity and ability, and had a deep commitment to public service. He will be missed by all in this House. We send our condolences and sympathies to his family.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) for securing this important debate. As he knows, I am deeply concerned by the recent findings of HM inspectorate of prisons at HMP Bedford, particularly in regard to safety and living conditions, and I have been clear that the situation needs to improve quickly. This is, as he set out clearly, the second time that an urgent notification has been invoked at HMP Bedford. I agree that the circumstances leading to it are not acceptable. Before I turn to the specifics that he raised about the situation at Bedford, I hope that he will allow me a moment to remind the House of the context—his speech rightly ranged more widely than Bedford alone—and of the steps that we are taking to improve prisons and justice across the country, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor set out in his statement of 16 October.

On prison capacity, the House will be aware that we are building six new prisons as we create an additional 20,000 places to deliver the biggest prison expansion in over a century. We have already delivered just shy of 6,000 of these additional places, and the brand-new category C resettlement prison, HMP Fosse Way, opened its doors in May this year and will house up to 1,715 prisoners. At the same time, we are creating thousands of places through the expansion of prisons with additional house blocks and major refurbishments at existing prisons, and by rolling out rapid deployment cells across the estate—the first 380 or so have already been delivered at six sites.

The hon. Gentleman raised a specific point about Bedford. There are no plans to re-roll Bedford Prison at this point. I appreciate that he may be disappointed by that, but it is important that I am open with him, as I will seek to be throughout my speech. I would gently say, in respect of prison capacity, that we are getting on with delivering that increase in modern, effective rehabilitative prison places through those six new prisons. By regrettable contrast, the plans under Jack Straw in the last Labour Government were to build 7,500 places in three Titan prisons, and, to the best of my recollection, they never got built at all.

In respect of staffing, I join the hon. Gentleman in rightly paying tribute to all those who work in our prisons—prison officers and all the staff in a range of capacities—for their work. Since March 2017, we have also increased the number of prison officers in public sector prisons by 4,655, and we made a commitment in 2021 to hire up to 5,000 prison officers across public and private prisons by the mid-2020s. As he alluded to, the increase in numbers means that, as we grow the workforce, which is a positive thing, we are also bringing new joiners and staff to the prison service, who will, by logic, have fewer years of service under their belt. It is important that we continue doing what we are doing to retain experienced officers alongside them as part of their mentoring and the development of their skills.

We have improved starting salaries for officers, which have risen from £22,000 to £31,000 since 2019. The staffing picture is improving in prisons across the country: in the 12 months from last September—the latest figures I have—the number of officers has increased by 1,441 full-time equivalents. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight that we are also improving the retention of staff: the resignation rate among frontline prison officers is down by almost three percentage points compared with last year. There is more to do, but that is progress, and it is important that we continue on that trajectory.

The hon. Gentleman also rightly highlighted prison safety, which I will address in a broader context before I turn to his local prison. We continue to take the necessary action to make our prisons safe both for frontline staff and for prisoners. The overall rate of assaults is 26% lower than prior to the pandemic. Of course, every assault is one too many, and we continue to work to improve the security of our prisons and reduce violence and the number of assaults within them, but I highlight that degree of positive progress to him.

The measures that we are putting in place to reduce violence in our prisons estate include our £100 million security investment to clamp down on the weapons, drugs and mobile phones that fuel violence and crime behind bars, and the continued rollout of PAVA—a synthetic pepper spray—in the adult male estate to protect staff and prisoners from incidents of serious violence, alongside de-escalation training for officers, which is also playing an important part.

Before I turn specifically to Bedford, let me address some of the broad-brush points that the hon. Gentleman made. He was right to highlight the five key purposes of sentencing. I highlight to him—although I am doing so from memory, so I will write to him to correct myself if I am incorrect—that reoffending is down by 9%, so again, that is working, but there is always more to do. He is right about the importance of substance misuse treatment programmes in getting people off substances that may drive their criminal behaviour. Their importance extends beyond prison, to when people are on release. My recollection is that there is a 54% reduction in reoffending if those programmes are continued in the community, the treatment is sustained, and the NHS, local authorities and prison authorities work together to make sure that it is in place. We are seeing positive outcomes there.

The hon. Gentleman quite rightly talked about the approach to sentencing at headline level, and the challenges of short sentences. They are often so short that we cannot get to grips with the underlying challenges that an individual faces, but long enough to break fragile ties and affect relationships, jobs and accommodation. I am very pleased that, on this issue, he appears to be following the approach set out by the Lord Chancellor, who suggests tougher sentences for those who commit the most heinous crimes, and tough community sentences as an alternative to short custodial sentences, though obviously discretion will rest with the sentencer. Also, while there should be a clear focus in the custodial estate on people paying their debt to society, they should also be able to make positive life choices about what they intend to do when they come out of prison, so that they can make a positive contribution and live life on the straight and narrow.

I turn to the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised about his local prison, HMP Bedford. As he set out, His Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons has highlighted significant concerns about the condition of cells and overcrowding at Bedford. I reassure him that I am treating that with the utmost seriousness. He asked a number of questions about measures that we will put in place in response to the urgent notification. In accordance with our usual protocol on responding to the inspectorate, the Lord Chancellor will publish his response to the urgent notification, and the action plan, no later than 15 December; there is 28 days in which to do that. That will be the detailed response. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the time he spared me earlier this week for a conversation, in which he set out and amplified his key concerns. I hope that I can engage with him as we finalise the action plan. I also highlight my gratitude to the governor for giving me her time when we spoke last week.

The findings are, as the hon. Gentleman said, deeply concerning. Notwithstanding the fact that there will be a formal response within 28 days, I can update him—and indeed you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the House—on a number of immediate actions that we have taken to drive improvement. These include providing additional resourcing support to the prison, equivalent to 15 additional prison officers, to improve the prison’s safety and security, and to improve the regime; I think the hon. Gentleman asked for additional support for the governor. We are undertaking a cell cleaning and painting programme to improve the physical environment, and completing a joint audit with our maintenance contractor to identify works and key priority areas, so that we can ensure that the work is done. We are introducing a cell conditions agreement to ensure that all cells are in good condition before they can be occupied. Decency checks to address concerns about cleanliness will be overseen by the governor; that will help directly with improving living conditions.

A working group has been set up, led by the governor, to understand issues regarding fair treatment. The hon. Gentleman raised that point when we spoke. The group will particularly focus on allegations of racism and other inappropriate behaviours. He has highlighted his concerns on that issue to me. We have made a number of new senior appointments at the prison; they include a new head of violence reduction, a new head of reducing reoffending, and a new head of education, skills and work.

His Majesty’s chief inspector noted in his letter to the Lord Chancellor that Bedford has

“consistently failed to provide good outcomes for prisoners”

since the inspection in 2016. The series of concerning inspections at Bedford is, of course, deeply troubling, and it may be useful if I briefly set out the improvements that we have made in response to previous inspection reports. Of course, they clearly have not resolved all the underlying issues, hence the hon. Gentleman’s securing this debate, but it is important that we highlight what has been done.

In response to His Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons’ first urgent notification about HMP Bedford in 2018, a comprehensive safety strategy was implemented to support violence reduction, and a dedicated young adult unit was introduced to provide targeted support for prisoners and upskilling for staff. That resulted in lower levels of violence for that demographic group. We also provided additional staffing, including a safety hub manager, and a dedicated use of force co-ordinator in the safety team. In addition, we upgraded the head of safety post from a band 7 to a more senior band 8. Refurbishments also took place to improve decency and living conditions; they included improvements to showers and flooring.

HMP Bedford has also received support from the prison performance support programme, which offers tailored support for a maximum period of 18 months to prisons that face numerous complex challenges. The support for Bedford included over £1 million of additional funding focused on improving security and living conditions. Following the taking of those steps, the inspectorate undertook an independent review of progress in 2019 and found that although there had been some progress since 2018, progress on many of the inspectorate’s recommendations was insufficient. Inspectors found that despite the pandemic, improvements in living conditions had been made, including extensive, good-quality refurbishment of the communal shower rooms. However, previous concerns about violence and safety persisted.

In early 2022, the inspectorate visited Bedford to undertake a full inspection. It noted improvements at the prison, including strong leadership and an improved prison culture. Further improvements had also been made, such as investment in new windows and flooring and the installation of enhanced gate security. Alongside this, the capacity of the prison had been reduced by 76 spaces to allow residential accommodation to be refurbished. The inspection recognised that challenges remained, but it acknowledged that the prison was heading in a positive direction, and the oversight that followed the urgent notification of 2018 was removed from Bedford in October last year.

Even after the removal of urgent notification oversight, Bedford continued to receive support, for example through an ongoing compliance project, in which management checking systems were built to ensure that rules and regulations were fully followed by both staff and prisoners. It is therefore deeply disappointing that the latest inspection concluded that standards had slipped back at the prison, as the hon. Gentleman said, and a second UN was issued. It is also worrying that the contents of that urgent notification, which I considered very carefully, were, to my mind, similar to those of the 2018 notification. As I say, I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for discussing these matters with me earlier this week, and I hope that he will feel free to come to me with any specifics that he would like considered in the next few weeks, as we put together our response—and, indeed, if he would like more regular engagement as we work through what needs to be done to improve the prison in his constituency.

When we met, the hon. Gentleman raised a couple of points that I would like to address. He raised his concern about the impact on constituents who live near the prison; he mentioned people entering the gardens of properties that neighbour the prison in an attempt to throw things over the prison wall, and broader impacts. Speaking as a constituency MP, I entirely understand his concern when constituents bring him those issues. It is right that he makes those points to me as the Minister, and to the House more broadly. The prison has worked to enhance partnerships with both the local council and the police, so that it can tackle such behaviour; as part of that, the prison checks directly, on a weekly basis, on any complaints from residents, and follows up on them, if they have not been raised with Bedfordshire police. If it is helpful to him, he may wish to raise specific issues with me outwith this Chamber, in confidence.

The hon. Gentleman touched on his concerns about the inexperience of some staff at Bedford. Notwithstanding the benefits of increasing the number of staff in prison officer roles, we recognise the need to continue training rigorously. There is now a learning and capability manager in place to directly support all new staff at HMP Bedford. We have also provided for a full-time welfare post for HMP Bedford staff, so that they have that support, independent of local care team arrangements, should they need it. Having previously deployed standards coaching teams at the prison, I intend to redeploy them in the new year, to again help drive progress.

The HMIP findings are of course deeply concerning, and we are committed to improving the conditions at Bedford and at the other prisons where UNs have been triggered over the past year. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor will be monitoring the situation at Bedford very closely in the coming weeks and months to ensure there is sustained improvement. Although I have had this specific brief for only about two and a half to three weeks, the hon. Member for Bedford will have had experience of dealing with me in other ministerial roles, and I hope he will recognise that just as I did in those roles, I will seek to work collaboratively with him where I can. We share the desired outcome of making improvements.

I also confirm on the record that the Lord Chancellor’s response to the urgent notification will be published by 15 December, as required. The hon. Gentleman will be able to obtain it, but I will make sure that a copy is sent to him for his records. A wider-ranging full action plan will also be developed in the longer term to address all HMIP recommendations and hopefully tackle some of the long-term underlying challenges that he has highlighted. I anticipate that that will be published in March 2024, but I will inform him when we have a more precise timing for that. I am grateful to him for bringing this important issue to this Chamber for debate, and look forward to working with him and the prison in the coming months to address the issues that have been highlighted.

Following the Minister’s opening remarks, I place on record my own sadness on learning of the death of Alistair Darling. He was a distinguished Member of this House, and one who I regarded from the Opposition Benches as a friend. The political landscape of the United Kingdom will be the bleaker because of his loss.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.