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Prisons: Chaplaincy Service

Volume 826: debated on Tuesday 10 January 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the working of the prison chaplaincy service; and in particular, the extent to which representatives of all faiths are included in the discussions of the Prison and Probation Service’s Chaplaincy Council.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question in my name on the Order Paper, and in doing so declare my interest as director of the Sikh Prison Chaplaincy Service.

My Lords, since 1996 the chaplaincy council has helped deliver prison chaplaincy based on multiple faiths and beliefs. However, it no longer reflects the breadth of faith and belief of those in prison or on probation. We therefore propose to replace the chaplaincy council with a chaplaincy faith and belief forum representing all faiths. We will consult widely on that proposal and related reforms, including the smaller faiths in particular.

I thank the noble and learned Lord for his Answer, but until three years ago the chaplaincy council was working well. Why replace something when it is not broken? A prison chaplaincy council representing the six major faiths has not met for some three years, with Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists being excluded from policy discussions and discriminated against in grant support, visiting and educational hours and career opportunities. Widening the prison chaplaincy council will worsen that situation. Why are our concerns and complaints consistently ignored by those charged with the promotion of inclusion and diversity, who feel that all they need to do to fulfil their remit is write pronouns after their names?

First, I pay a personal tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Singh, for all that he has done over many years for prison chaplaincy and for his tireless efforts on behalf of the Sikh community. I mean that most sincerely. However, respectfully, I do not entirely agree with the thrust of his question. In the Government’s view, the chaplaincy council needs to be brought up to date to make sure that all faiths are properly represented and, in particular, to make sure that the faith and belief advisers, who assist the Prison Service, particularly in the appointment of chaplains, and who are very often on the council, are remunerated and appointed transparently and consistently so that there is no question of any difference of treatment in that regard. It is perfectly true that there has been some disagreement with the noble Lord, Lord Singh, in the past—that I accept—but I hope that the reforms that we are in the process of consulting on will remove any scope there may be for disagreement on the way forward.

I pay tribute to those who have done so much in this area. The Minister has again used the words “all faiths”. I wonder if he will include humanists in the consultation, because there are many who would welcome chaplaincy from a humanist understanding as well.

My Lords, bearing in mind that the whole purpose of prison is rehabilitation and that chaplains have a very important role to play in that context, can my noble and learned friend tell me how many prison chaplains of each faith there are at the moment, and whether he is satisfied that this number is sufficient to accomplish the very important task before them?

My Lords, to the best of my knowledge, there are approximately 1,200 prison chaplains overall and approximately 20 chaplains of the Sikh faith. I do not have other figures in front of me. Sikhs make up less than 1% of the prison population, which is extremely admirable, and the number of Sikh chaplains in particular is well out of proportion to the number of Sikhs who are unfortunately in prison.

My Lords, when deciding on the policy of the Prison and Probation Service with regards to its pastoral service, the views of all faiths should be taken into account. I was surprised to learn from my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Singh of Wimbledon, that this is sometimes not the case. I sincerely hope that the Government take these views into account and look into this matter urgently.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some 60% of our managing prison chaplains are now Muslims, while only some 17% of our prisoners share that faith? What do the Government think this imbalance may be doing for the promotion of Islamism in our prisons, and what do they feel they should do about it?

My Lords, I have no reason to suppose that the Muslim chaplains in the chaplaincy service, where they are appointed, are doing anything other than providing multifaith belief and support to the whole of that prison population.

My Lords, on Christmas Day, I was pleased to be able to visit my local prison and young offenders’ institute in Chelmsford, where I was taking a service. I had several conversations with both prisoners and members of staff who expressed concern about ensuring continued support for those who are leaving prison and re-entering the community. As the work of multifaith community chaplaincy and indeed the Welcome Directory continues to be developed to support those leaving prison, can the Minister say what discussions there have been, if any, regarding possible funding support from HMG?

As the right reverend Prelate pointed out, the Government already support and fund the Welcome Directory. That resource enables prisoners to seek help to resettle safely in the community. Each probation region may commission and fund local services, including community chaplaincy services. The Government will keep these funding arrangements under review, in view of the importance of the rehabilitation of prisoners in the community.

Over a decade’s worth of Conservative government has led to a failing prison system, with failing rehabilitation. To change this, we need an evidence-led, trauma-informed approach to rehabilitation. Prisons now contend with a revolving door of staff, with constant recruitment failing to fill the vacancies across the estate. This is a crisis made by the Government, because of cuts and a lack of investment in the justice system. What will the Minister do to retain experienced staff and recruit new staff?

My Lords, the Government can point with some pride to a fall in reoffending rates in recent years and an extensive programme of recruitment for not only prison staff but the probation service. In terms of the discussion today, which is about chaplaincy, we look forward to greater involvement of chaplains in sentencing planning, resettlement planning and the steps taken when prisoners are released to ensure that their release is successful and that they do not reoffend.

My Lords, I apologise for my earlier overenthusiasm. Prison chaplaincy provides a very valuable pastoral and counselling service for all prisoners and staff in the Prison Service. Chaplains are forbidden from proselytising and have a general responsibility to help all who seek help and advice. However, given that according to the 2021 census 37% of the population have no faith at all, has the time not now come for non-religious pastoral carers to be included in the new chaplaincy, faith and belief forum?

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister has touched on prisons and probation, but where does the role of chaplaincy sit within the “One HMPPS” programme for achieving greater alignment between prison and probation and a whole-sentence approach? There has in the past been limited joint working between probation staff and prison chaplains, even at key points in the sentence, such as when planning for release. Also, prison chaplaincy sits within HMPPS and community chaplaincy is carried out by the voluntary sector, independent of government.

My Lords, the Government seek greater alignment between prison and probation. The chief probation officer will be a member of the new council of faith and belief. A new pilot will see prison chaplains attending approved premises to which released prisoners go and there will be further collaborative work with the Community Chaplaincy Association.