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Volume 774: debated on Thursday 20 October 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the call by the Prison Governors Association for an independent public inquiry into the state of prisons in England and Wales.

My Lords, safe and secure prisons are a fundamental part of our reform ambitions. The scale of the challenge we face is clear from the recent incident at Pentonville. However, we are determined to modernise the prison estate and empower governors so that we can tackle issues such as drugs and violence. That is key to making prisons safe. We will set out plans for prison safety and reform in a White Paper in the coming weeks.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Tuesday’s horrendous murder in Pentonville drew yet more attention to the fact that our prisons are in crisis. I regard the call for a public inquiry into their state by the very reputable Prison Governors Association as a vote of no confidence in the years of purely in-house tinkering with the system by successive Ministers and officials. The then Home Secretary, Kenneth Baker—now the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking—called in my now noble and learned friend Lord Woolf and the then managing director of British Aerospace to conduct inquiries after the prison riots in 1990. I ask the Minister to advise the Secretary of State for Justice to listen carefully to those most affected by the current crisis and to acknowledge that an inquiry may well find that the in-house approach has been a prime contributor to, if not a main cause of, the current crisis.

It is not thought that a public inquiry is the way forward when we are about to publish a White Paper on prison safety and reform, in which we will address these issues. Of course, the Prison Governors Association has expressed concerns. Like the Secretary of State, it wants safe prisons as the foundation for prison reform. It has welcomed the fact that initial funding has recently been made available, with the announcement of a £14 million pilot scheme for new public sector prisons operating in 10 selected sites.

My Lords, since 2010, the number of assaults on prison officers has risen from 3,000 a year to 5,500, with serious assaults doubling. Assaults with weapons on officers and fellow prisoners increased by 30% to 22,195 in six years. The level of self-harming has increased in the last two years by 50% to 34,586. Suicides last year totalled 105. Meanwhile, the number of prison officers has fallen from 18,500 to just over 15,000 in the last four years. When will the Government recognise that we have a crisis in our prisons and that it is necessary to reduce the overall prison population—including those on remand, many of whom do not end up with custodial sentences—substantially increase the number of trained staff, provide appropriate medical and other support, and move from housing people in large institutions, which are difficult to manage, to smaller custodial facilities?

It is recognised that there has been an increase in violence in prisons in the past 10 years or more. It should also be noted that in the period from 2005 to 2015, the number of offenders in prison for violent conduct increased by 29%. So far as resources are concerned, we have already announced, as of 30 June this year, the allocation of an additional £10 million of new funding for prison safety. That funding is to include Pentonville prison. In addition, by March 2017 we expect to find 400 extra staff deployed in consequence of the funds being made available, as I mentioned before.

My Lords, Pentonville prison, where Jamal Mahmoud was stabbed to death, was designed to hold 900 prisoners but is now packed with 1,200. A public inquiry would bring long-term benefit, but will the new Justice Secretary now address the present crisis of too many people being sent to prison, overcrowding, understaffing, inadequate activity and squalid conditions, all of which are leading to endemic violence and any number of other disasters that are waiting to happen? Will she please act now?

The Secretary of State has already announced a £1.3 billion programme for improving and increasing the prison estate.

As a former Minister for Prisons, I recognise the difficulty that the Government are in when something like this is proposed just as a new and expensive programme is launched. However, will my noble and learned friend bear in mind that an inquiry would offer two specific advantages? One would be that he and the Secretary of State might learn a good deal that they did not know, which would be valuable to them in managing their jobs. The second is that the result is likely to give them extra ammunition for dealing with the difficulty of getting money out of the Treasury.

As I indicated earlier, there are imminent proposals for a prison safety and reform White Paper in which these matters will be addressed. In addition, it will be recalled that we had the recommendations of the Harris review; 62 have been accepted and a further 12 are under consideration.

My Lords, the Government have, I believe, acknowledged that one of the major contributing factors to the increase of violence in prisons is the use of psychoactive substances, especially Spice, and have taken steps to ensure that possession and supply is restricted in prisons. Does the Minister agree that it is important to have a co-ordinated response to tackling demand and all drug misuse—not only psychoactive substances but heroin, crack and cannabis, and the increasing misuse of prescribed drugs? If not, we will have a scattergun, reactive approach to tackling this issue. It is important to include drug misuse in the White Paper.

It is acknowledged that drugs, in particular psychoactive substances, are a major problem and a source of violence in the prison community. Indeed, a report by the Ministry of Justice in 2013 noted that more than 80% of the prison population admitted using illegal drugs prior to their incarceration. The availability of drugs in prison remains a major problem and one that we are addressing. For example, new penalties in respect of the use of drones are being introduced and further reforms have been taken to try to reduce the ability of people to bring drugs into prison. However, we have to remember that individual prisons are communities with a massive movement of people in and out, whether they be new prisoners or visitors, and control of illegal substances is a major problem.