Prison Service

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:11 pm on 16th October 1995.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department 4:11 pm, 16th October 1995

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about prison security.

I am today publishing the report by General Sir John Learmont into prison security. I am extremely grateful to Sir John and to his two fellow assessors, Sir John Woodcock and Mr. Gary Dadds, for their comprehensive and authoritative report.

Let me begin by reminding the House of the circumstances which led me to ask Sir John to conduct his inquiry. In September 1994, six exceptional risk category A prisoners escaped from Whitemoor prison. I asked Sir John Woodcock to conduct an inquiry into the escape and I presented his findings to the House on 19 December last year.

I also asked General Sir John Learmont to conduct a comprehensive and independent review of physical and procedural security in the prison service in England and Wales, and to make recommendations.

On 3 January this year, two category A and one category B prisoner escaped from Parkhurst. All three were recaptured on 8 January. I pay tribute again to the police for that successful operation. An immediate inquiry was carried out by the Prison Service director of security. As I told the House on 10 January, this immediate inquiry highlighted very serious deficiencies in procedural and physical security at Parkhurst.

I asked Sir John Learmont to extend his own inquiry to include an independent assessment of the events surrounding the escape. The report makes the most serious criticisms of Parkhurst and its management. On security procedures, Sir John found that the prison service's own security manual was disregarded and that the most basic security measures were not observed. Sir John also makes a number of criticisms of the physical security of Parkhurst, including the failure of the prison service to provide the prison with the full benefits of technology.

I am also publishing today the report of the inspection of Parkhurst by Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons, Judge Stephen Tumim. The inspection took place in October 1995 and the report was submitted at the end of February 1996.

Judge Tumim also makes a number of severe criticisms of the situation at Parkhurst, including weak and inadequate security, unacceptable conditions in health care, and drug dealing which pervaded the whole sub-culture of the prison. There was a reluctance by staff to assert proper control in areas such as searching and accounting for inmates. The judge considered that the problems were so serious that he wrote to the Director General, before he left the prison, with a copy to me, drawing attention to the serious shortcomings that he had found. As I told the House on 10 January, I immediately spoke to the Director General and asked for a full report. He assured me that all Judge Tumim's recommendations had been implemented.

Sir John Learmont recommends that Parkhurst should be taken out of the dispersal system as soon as possible and consideration given to its replacement by a more appropriate establishment. I accept that recommendation. Parkhurst has not in practice operated as a dispersal prison since April, when all category A prisoners were removed from normal location. I have asked the prison service to identify another prison in the south-east of England to take Parkhurst's place in the dispersal system as soon as possible.

Sir John's inquiry was not a disciplinary inquiry. Sir John has recommended to me that no disciplinary inquiry should be undertaken into the escape from Parkhurst. He is of the opinion that such an inquiry could finally break the resolve and commitment of many of the staff at Parkhurst, with the very significant possibility that the secure running of the establishment could be severely compromised. He is also of the opinion that it is difficult to see what a disciplinary inquiry would achieve. In considering that recommendation, I have been influenced by the fact that more than one of those concerned will not be staying in the prison service. I have therefore decided to accept that recommendation.

The Learmont report makes it clear that responsibility for the Parkhurst escape was not confined to management and staff at Parkhurst. On the contrary: the report says that alarm bells should have been … ringing throughout the Prison Service". and that many of the ingredients can be traced along the lines of communication to Prison Service headquarters". In his covering letter, Sir John Learmont makes it perfectly clear that responsibilities ultimately reach the level of the Prisons Board and that that is where criticism stops. Sir John has not found that any policy decision of mine, directly or indirectly, caused the escape.

I turn next to the organisation of the prison service and its relationship with the Home Office. It is now about two and a half years since the prison service became a "next steps" executive agency. The decision to make the service an agency was taken on the recommendation of an independent inquiry conducted by Admiral Sir Raymond Lygo. Sir John Learmont does not recommend that there should be any change in the agency status of the prison service. He does recommend that someone with wide experience of the workings of agencies should undertake an in-depth study of the relationship between the prison service and the Home Office. That work is under way and I shall report on it to the House when it is complete.

Sir John's report makes 127 detailed and wide-ranging recommendations. I accept the broad thrust of Sir John's analysis. About half the recommendations endorse actions that have already been completed, are under way, or are already planned. I shall deal today with Sir John's key recommendations and I shall come back to the House with a full response in due course.

A key recommendation of the report is that there should be one maximum security prison to house the most dangerous prisoners in the system. That was a recommendation first made by the Mountbatten inquiry in 1966, and accepted by the then Home Secretary, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. However, the Radzinowicz report in March 1968 recommended against it and it was not implemented. Since then the policy has been to disperse such prisoners among a small number of high security prisons. Sir John concludes: The continuous development of explosives and weapons and their availability to criminals and their associates, pose a much greater threat to the security of our maximum security prisons than the Service has previously encountered. He believes, therefore, that the most dangerous prisoners should now be housed in a purpose-designed and built maximum security prison.

That is a very far-reaching proposal, which would represent a major departure in penal policy. The report makes a strong case for it. I have already asked the Prison Service to consider the feasibility, costs and benefits of building such an establishment and to report to me in six months' time. The prison service will also consider Sir John Learmont's proposal for a single control prison to hold the most unruly and disruptive prisoners. I should welcome comments on those proposals.

Sir John also recommends a fundamental review of the system under which prisoners are allocated to different security categories according to the threat to the community and the likelihood of escape. I accept that a review of that system should take place.

Sir John also recommends that minimum physical security standards should be set for each category of prison. Work is well under way on bringing the dispersal estate up to the standard of security recommended by Sir John Woodcock. National standards exist for all new prisons. Decisions on the appropriate security standards for non-dispersal prisons will be based on the outcome of the review of categorisation.

One particular aspect that I asked Sir John to consider was the extent to which visits should be closed. He recommends that there should be closed visits for exceptional risk category A prisoners other than in exceptional circumstances. That coincides with the policy that I introduced in June this year.

I turn, finally, to Sir John's recommendations on the ways in which physical security is enhanced by activities and incentives. I told the House in December last year that the prison service would introduce a national framework of privileges and incentives. That framework is already in place and implementation has begun. Sir John recommends that a system requiring early release to be earned, not granted automatically as at present, would be a significant additional inducement to good behaviour. Last week I set out proposals for ending automatic early release and for introducing a system of earned remission.

But there are two issues on which Sir John and I must agree to differ. I reject his proposal that in-cell television should be made widely available. That would not be consistent with my view that prison conditions should be decent but austere. Nor can I accept Sir John's proposal that home leave should be more widely available. In my view, the restrictions introduced earlier this year have an important role in protecting the public; and I have no plans to relax them.

Sir John Learmont has found a great deal that needs to be put right within the prison service, spanning leadership, structure, the management chain, and the ethos of the service. He says that responsibilities ultimately reach Prisons Board level—and that the criticism stops there.

Those comments, coming so soon after the Woodcock report on Whitemoor, cause me great concern. I must be able to assure the House, and through it the public, that the grave weaknesses in the service that have been disclosed will be put right.

I have come to the conclusion, with some sadness, that that requires a change of leadership at the top of the prison service. The present director general has served in his post for nearly three years. I pay tribute to him for what he has achieved, but I cannot overlook the serious criticisms in the report. I believe that the service requires a change of leadership to carry forward the programme of reforms that is needed and to increase public confidence in the security of our prisons.

The director general has accordingly ceased to hold his post with effect from today. The director of security will take over temporarily until a successor is appointed.

I believe that this report will be seen as a major milestone in the evolution of the prison service. I heartily endorse Sir John's conclusion that there is an abundance of excellent people within the Prison Service whose most fervent wish is to do a good and worthwhile job". The changes that I have announced today will help them to achieve that goal.