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Prisons: Staff Safety

Volume 774: debated on Monday 11 July 2016


My Lords, I now wish to repeat a Statement on prison safety. The Statement is as follows.

“A central duty of the Ministry of Justice is security in our prisons. It is imperative that the dedicated professionals who work in our prisons are kept safe. It is also critical that we safeguard the welfare of those in custody who are in the state’s care. It is of profound concern to me that serious assaults against staff in prison have been on the rise recently, particularly in the last 12 months, when there have been 625 incidents.

Those who work in our prisons are idealistic public servants who run the risk of assault and abuse every day but continue in their jobs because they are driven by a noble cause: they want to reform and rehabilitate offenders. Our prisons depend on a network of professionals, including teachers, chaplains, volunteer members of independent monitoring boards and probation officers. But above all our prisons rely on the selfless and courageous work of our prison staff.

I know that members of the Prison Officers’ Association want action to be taken to make their work safer. I understand their frustrations and I am determined to help. Violence in prisons has increased over recent years for a number of reasons. The nature of the offenders currently in custody is one factor; younger offenders who have been involved in gang-related activities pose a particular concern. Another factor is the widespread availability of new psychoactive substances, or NPS, synthetically manufactured drugs, which are more difficult to detect than traditional cannabis and opiates. The former Chief Inspector of Prisons has said that new psychoactive substances are now the most serious threat to the safety and security of our jails. NPS consumption and, indeed, violence in prison are also often a consequence of prisoners’ boredom, frustration and a lack of faith in the future. All of these factors must be, and are being, faced honestly.

There is no single solution to the problem we face, but we are taking significant steps to reform our prisons. To take account of our changing prison population, more than 2,800 new prison officers have been recruited since January 2015, a net increase of 530. To keep them safer, we are deploying body-worn cameras as additional protection for staff. In May, we outlawed new psychoactive substances and dramatically reduced the opportunities for easy profits to be made from their trade. In June, I allocated an extra £10 million in new funding for prison safety, and the money has gone to the governors of those prisons with the biggest safety challenges.

All these steps will, I believe, help improve safety but there are two more critical points to make. First, I stress that my department’s door will be open to staff and their representatives to ensure we work collaboratively together to improve conditions for all in our prisons. Secondly, it is because I have seen for myself how important it is to change our prisons for the better that I have initiated a major reform programme. We will be replacing ageing and ineffective prisons with new establishments designed to foster rehabilitation. We will give governors greater scope to design regimes that encourage purposeful activity and make prisons calmer and more orderly places, and we will ensure that prisoners are more effectively incentivised to turn their lives around. As we press ahead with this reform programme, I am confident we can ensure that our prisons can become what they should always be: safe and secure places of redemption and rehabilitation”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

The Question asked in the House of Commons related to the safety of staff in prisons following walk-outs and protests last week by between 5,000 and 6,000 officers protesting about the rising tide of violence threatening both staff and prisoners. Assaults on prison officers reached 5,500 last year, an increase of 36%, while last year there were 32,000 incidents of self-harm, up by 74% since 2010, a shockingly high number given that the prison population is around 85,000. There were 100 suicides in 2015-16.

Is it not clear that our prisons are both chronically overcrowded and dangerously understaffed? The Howard League for Penal Reform has chronicled the deteriorating position in a worrying number of prisons. In Lewes, for example, 50% of its 640 inmates were being locked in their cells during the working day, some of them for as much as 23 hours a day. In February, staff at Wetherby young offender institution refused to let 300 prisoners out of their cells for a day because of rising violence. We recently had a Statement on the dreadful conditions in Wandsworth prison in which assurances, albeit of a rather vague character, were given about rectifying the situation revealed in a television programme. The Lord Chancellor talks a good game about improving conditions and replacing old and unsuitable prisons, but then he is the Lord Chancellor who set out on the road to his political Damascus in support of Boris Johnson, only to recant and discover at the very last minute that if Boris was the answer he had been asking the wrong question for weeks.

When will the Lord Chancellor, or whoever succeeds him—I rather hope it might be the noble Lord, Lord Faulks—recognise that the crisis in our prisons cannot sensibly be tackled without a significant reduction in the number of prisoners and a significant increase in the number of properly trained staff with adequate support in relation to issues of mental health? Will he now revisit his decision to spend just £10 million to increase safety, approximating to around all of £125 per head of the prison population, which is not of course, a static number?

Is it not time for another high-powered review of the state of the service, along the lines of the inquiry into Strangeways conducted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, 26 years ago, but extended to the entire custodial system?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his thorough criticism and the questions that he raises about the state of our prisons and the safety of staff and indeed of other prisoners. We freely acknowledge that there is a problem and that we have to do something about it. It is not a problem that is easily solved and, as the Statement indicated, there are a number of factors. There is an increase in the number of violent offenders in our prisons. Substantial problems have been caused as a result of the use of psychoactive substances. It is clearly far less than desirable that prisoners should be locked in their cells for long periods and not engaged in purposeful activity. The Secretary of State clearly wants to involve as many people as possible and as many organisations as possible in trying to improve the situation. That was why he invited the BBC into Wormwood Scrubs to see the conditions there.

There has been new funding of £10 million for prison safety, allocated as appropriate, and that will be supplemented by £2.9 million from existing budgets so that a significant number of governors—those facing the greatest challenges—will have an opportunity to improve safety levels. There is also £1.3 billion, which the Secretary of State secured from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to modernise the prison estate. That will be a long-term project, but one which the Secretary of State is most anxious to help with.

My Lords, our prisons are overcrowded and understaffed, with the result that prisons are now less safe and less secure than ever before. Does the Minister accept that the root cause of the problem, as has just been mentioned, is the unacceptably high level of the prison population? This makes some of our prisons almost unmanageable. Now that Mr Gove has fewer things on his mind, could we have clarity about how he intends to reduce the numbers so that the prisons’ objective of rehabilitation is met?

The noble Lord, whose interest in these matters is well understood and appreciated by the House, points to the prison population. Of course, the number of people in prison is a result of decisions by judges, passing sentences that they consider appropriate for those particular offences. In my experience, judges do not send an offender to prison unless no other appropriate means of dealing with the offender can be found.

The number of people in prison clearly presents challenges to the staff. But there are other factors, as I have already indicated, which can cause this escalation of violence. We have a widespread strategy under the violence reduction project to deal with this, including the use of body-worn cameras, a violence diagnostic tool and a number of other different efforts to try to identify where pressure points are in terms of violence and how best to combat them.

My Lords, I again emphasise the importance of meaningful out-of-cell activity and the provision of appropriate courses so that prisoners who are there for indeterminate sentences can satisfy the criteria for their release.

My noble friend makes a good point. Indeed, the Secretary of State has placed and will place increasing emphasis on education, as well as courses that enable prisoners to acquire practical skills which will be of particular help outside. We very much welcome the involvement of a number of employers employing prisoners while they are still in prison, which then leads to their employment afterwards. But my noble friend is quite right.

My Lords, I refer to one sentence in the Statement on the number of staff being recruited. It says that 2,800 new officers have been recruited and mentions a net increase of 530. I ask the Minister, 530 from what? If it is an increase of only 530, this shows that the number of staff must have been run down disastrously before 2015, because this is a negligible increase.

I cannot, from the Dispatch Box, give the noble Lord a detailed account of why people left the Prison Service. Of course, he is right that that indicates that quite a number of them did leave, perhaps for reasons of retirement or simply a change in their job satisfaction. But I will endeavour to give him a more detailed analysis of those numbers.

The Minister has recognised that the present numbers are a barrier to the Government achieving the rehabilitation objectives. However, will they not remain high if we continue to regard the length of a prison sentence as the only measure of the seriousness of an offence and until we put sufficient resources into alternative punishments?

With great respect to the noble Lord, that is a little unfair. The judges will of course determine the length of the sentence by reference to a whole host of factors: the seriousness of the offence, the history of the offender, and the best way both to protect society but also to rehabilitate. I know that judges always consider alternatives and that sentencing prisoners to prison will only be the last resort; very often judges will say, “I will sentence you to the least possible sentence that I am permitted”. Therefore the judges do not, as it were, oversentence.

My Lords, I happen to know someone who is in prison at the moment, so I will pick up on, as the Minister put it, the frustration of being locked in a cell for 23 hours a day. What will be done about that?

Clearly, the prison governor at each prison will have to focus his or her attention on that. As the noble and learned Baroness will know, more autonomy will be given to prison governors, and one of the main objectives of that is to ensure that, so far as possible, prisoners have a greater time out of their cell engaged in purposeful activity or on courses or otherwise, not simply locked up in their cell.

My Lords, some years ago I had the opportunity to serve on the Home Office prison education committee, and I was always impressed by the content and variety of the courses on offer. However, it was said at the time that it was very difficult to get people to the courses because there were too few prison staff to get them there, and because they could not guarantee the security of the teachers, who largely came in from the further education sector, given that the nature of the crimes for which people were imprisoned included more violent crimes. I hope the Minister will forgive me if I say that, although that was many years ago, essentially we are being provided with the same account now. It does not seem that we have moved on enormously. Can he describe some of the initiatives that will reflect the intention to increase the amount of prison education and the rehabilitation that goes with it?

The noble Lord is of course right that the challenges are not entirely new and that the logistics of ensuring that prisoners are taken to courses and to facilities where they can obtain education will always be a challenge, particularly with a large prison population. There was a report by Dame Sally Coates into the education of prisoners. That they should be given education is clearly very much at the heart of the advantage we believe can be obtained by rehabilitation, and it will be up to prison governors in a particular prison to ensure that this happens. They will be judged by the delivery of this education. By giving greater autonomy to prison governors it will be much less easy for them simply to say, “This is all too difficult”.