(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on trans prisoners.
I begin by offering my sincere condolences to the family and friends of Vicky Thompson. Her death, like all others in custody, is a tragedy, and we are totally committed to reducing the number of deaths in prison. Each one is investigated by the independent prisons and probation ombudsman and is the subject of a coroner’s inquest. We believe that Vicky Thompson was being looked after in accordance with the relevant procedures, but that is now a matter for the ombudsman and coroner. While their investigations are ongoing, it would be wholly inappropriate for me to comment on the circumstances of her death.
I would also like to mark the fact that today,
On the specific issue of transpeople in prison, prison service instruction 7/2011 sets out the National Offender Management Service’s policy on the care and management of prisoners who live, or propose to live, in the gender other than the one assigned at birth. Prisoners are normally placed according to their legally recognised gender, which means either the gender on their birth certificate or the gender on their gender recognition certificate. However, the guidelines allow some room for discretion, and senior prison staff will review the circumstances of every case in consultation with medical and other experts in order to protect the physical and emotional wellbeing of the person concerned, along with the safety and wellbeing of other prisoners.
While the most appropriate long-term location for a transgender prisoner will be considered in accordance with the procedures outlined above, the usual practice is for them to be held in a supportive environment, away from the main regime of the prison and protected from risk of harm by other prisoners. The risk-assessed daily regime will be structured to give the prisoner exercise and recreation and some measure of planned, supervised contact with other trusted prisoners. Where relevant, clothing and toiletries are provided to enable the prisoner to present in their acquired gender, consistent with the arrangements set out in the prison instruction.
More generally, prisoners who are transitioning are entitled to live in the gender they seek to acquire. Prisons must produce a management care plan outlining how the individual will be managed safely and decently within the prison environment, with oversight from psychologists, healthcare professionals and prison staff. A review of the current policy began earlier this year, and revised policy guidance will be issued to reflect NOMS’ responsibilities to transgender offenders in the community, as well as in custody. The intention is to implement the guidance in due course.
The management and care of transpeople in prison is a complex issue, and the review is using the expertise developed by NOMS practitioners, as well as engaging with relevant stakeholders, including those from the trans community, to ensure that we provide prison staff with the best possible guidance. The Government are committed to tackling all forms of discrimination and the underlying cultural attitudes that underpin inequality, so that everyone, regardless of gender, race or background, is given the opportunity they deserve.
I can also announce to the House that Kate Lampard has been appointed interim chair of the independent advisory panel on deaths in custody. She is a former barrister previously appointed by the Secretary of State for Health to provide independent oversight of the NHS investigation into Jimmy Savile and by Serco to lead the Yarl’s Wood investigation.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question, on this, trans memorial day, which, as I am sure you know, given your interest in the matter, is when we remember all those who have lost their lives because of prejudice and persecution of the trans community, on which issue the shadow Women and Equality team is working closely with the shadow Justice team. I am grateful for their support. It is unfortunate that the Secretary of State could not be here, but I would like to thank the Minister for the tone of his response. On behalf of the Labour party, I want to put on the record our sincere condolences to the family, boyfriend and friends of Vicky Thompson, who died on
Statistics released last month by the Ministry of Justice show that 186 people took their own lives in prisons in England and Wales in the 12 months to the end of September 2015. That equates to one prisoner taking their own life every four days. Will the Minister confirm that tackling the issue of suicides in prisons is a serious priority for his Department? With the number of prisoners who have died in prison having risen to the highest level for a decade, it must be right for the Government to take action and assess what steps should be taken to address the problem.
The safety in custody statistical bulletin also revealed that the number of self-injury incidents reported in prisons in England and Wales rose by 21% in the 12 months to the end of June 2015. At a time when the prison population is increasing with overcrowding in cells on the rise, and the number of individuals coming forward for gender reassignment surgery is also increasing, placement of transgender prisoners on the prison estate is likely only to increase. The Minister has already touched on the issue, but will he confirm whether the National Offender Management Service will begin to record the number of transpeople who are in custody in prisons, and will he commit himself to making those figures public?
Earlier this week, the Justice Secretary confirmed in a letter to the Justice Select Committee that he had nominated a preferred candidate for the role of Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons. Will the Minister confirm that whoever is ultimately appointed will make tackling the rise in prison suicides a top priority? Will he agree to meet the Opposition Front-Bench team and leading trans awareness organisations to discuss the issue?
Prison understaffing is a serious problem. Will the Minister confirm that the spending review will not lead to more cuts from the MOJ staffing budget and that adequate transgender and equality training will be offered to all MOJ staff who need it? I welcome the fact that the Minister has confirmed that his Department is reviewing these matters, but will he go further and publish the terms of the review so that the House and the public can be reassured that the issue is being assessed with the seriousness that it deserves?
Finally, does the Minister believe that the policy guidelines on placing transgender prisoners in the estate are adequate? If so, does he think that the guidelines are being applied consistently and appropriately?
I shall do my best to respond to all the points that the shadow Minister has raised. I must correct one figure: she said that there were 186 suicides, but that figure is likely to include natural-cause deaths as well. She will know that we have an increasingly elderly population in prison, which accounts for part of that rise. Of course, even one self-inflicted death in prison is one too many. I want to assure her and the House of the seriousness with which the Secretary of State, I, and the whole of NOMS take the issue.
Let me repeat that we are currently reviewing prison service instruction 7/2011. I hope that the hon. Lady will be reassured by the fact that members of the trans community are involved in the process. I stress that rehabilitation is at the heart of what we do in prisons, so it is hugely in our interest to have every prisoner in an environment where they have the best chance to rehabilitate. We need to be mindful of the safety of trans prisoners, and of all prisoners, and of our wider legal obligations. I repeat that rehabilitation is at the heart of everything we are trying to do within our prisons.
The hon. Lady mentioned overcrowding and prison officer numbers. Our sustained recruitment campaign for prison officers is bearing fruit in a significant net increase in prison officers, as I told the House at the last Justice questions. We continue to recruit prison officers, which will make it easier to deal with a number of the issues that the hon. Lady raised.
The hon. Lady asked if she could come and see me. My door is always open to Members, and I would be more than happy to meet her on this issue. I repeat that decency for everyone we have care of in custody is at the heart of what NOMS does. I recently visited Leeds prison, where the tragic event took place. I have every confidence in the governor, Steve Robson, of whom we can all be proud. He is a decent, humane man, who I am sure will have tried very hard to do the right thing.
On self-inflicted deaths in prisons generally, we are taking a number of actions because of the seriousness with which we take the issue. We are reviewing the assessment, care in custody and teamwork process, and we hope to implement improvements to it early in the new year. We have put additional resource into our safer custody work, which deals with these issues, and we have held a number of national learning days, run jointly with the Samaritans, who are expert in this area, and I attended one of those days myself.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I am keen to accommodate the interests of colleagues, but we do not want the exchanges to be unnaturally prolonged, as we need to return to other important business. Short questions and short answers would help.
LGBT prisoners are among the most vulnerable in the prison population. One of the biggest challenges of the review is how to overcome ignorance. Will my hon. Friend reassure me that he will implement in full any recommendations of the review that seek to tackle and raise awareness and understanding of transgender issues?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I hope that she took heart from what I said at the end of the statement about dealing with the cultural attitudes that can cause problems in this area. I have also had discussions with my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller in her capacity as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee.
I also express my condolences to Vicky Thompson’s family. Without making any judgment about the circumstances of her death, I simply restate the concern about her being put in a men’s prison in the first place. Although I welcome the Minister’s tone, I want to press him a bit further on the statistics and say that it is important that he commits himself to publishing information about the number of transpeople in prisons. Also, given the experience in the United States of sexual assault on trans prisoners and how they are treated, will he look not only at the numbers, but research the experiences of transpeople in prison and make that information publicly available?
Does my hon. Friend believe that we can do more to show how much we value the work of prison officers? This distressing case illustrates the challenges that they face every day, and I am not sure that people outside understand how difficult their job is.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. We should all spare a moment to think of the prison officers who daily try to prevent these tragic events and have to deal with them when they happen. When such tragic events happen, it has a huge emotional impact on prison officers. We should do our best to ensure that we look after prison officers in such circumstances.
I thank the Minister for his fulsome answer; I have no doubt about his good faith in relation to the review and the work being done. However, is not the root cause and problem that there are not enough prison officers to support all prisoners, and particularly those who are vulnerable to attack or suicide?
The hon. Lady is right in that, two years or so ago, there was an unexpected increase in the prison population at a time when a quite significant number of prisons had been closed, and we were not able to move prison officers from the prisons that were closing to where the new capacity was being provided. We recognised that, and straight away we embarked on a very significant recruitment campaign. The good news is that it is now bearing fruit.
My constituents know that the Minister is taking this issue extremely seriously, as he does all matters to do with Her Majesty’s prisons. What is the difficulty, however, about publishing the number of transgender people in prisons, and what are the merits and demerits of establishing a specialist unit to deal with these extremely vulnerable people?
I committed myself to providing the information on numbers in answer to an earlier question, but I assure my hon. Friend that decency is at the heart of everything that we do. We are reviewing this issue with outside stakeholders, and if we need to think again about our provision and the way in which we deal with these issues, we will consider doing so.
Along with, I think, everyone else in the House, I am grateful to the Minister for his sober, sympathetic and serious response. Does he agree that the finest memorial to Vicky Thompson—the finest tribute to her memory—would be for us to ensure that no one else has to die such a lonely death? Does he also agree that, while the number of prison officers may be an absolute figure, we need not just prison officers but specialist helpers? We need mental health advisers and medical support. We cannot simply go to prison officers and say, “We want you to do more”; we must give them more, to prevent such an horrendous tragedy from occurring again.
I agree with every word of what the hon. Gentleman has said. We are very well supported by mental health experts in prisons, and he is right to mention the work done by, for instance, psychologists, and indeed by a range of healthcare professionals. They are integral to the prison team, whose members work hand in glove with them, and they will be at the heart of issues such as this in the future.
Vicky Thompson’s death is a tragedy. Leeds is my local prison, and a number of my constituents work there. I strongly endorse what was said by both my hon. Friend Mr Chope and the Minister about the work of prison officers. Can the Minister tell us what counselling they will receive as a result of having to deal with terrible incidents such as this, which are also tragedies for them?
I should inform the House, for the record, that Vicky Thompson was a constituent of my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour Kris Hopkins, and I have spoken to him about the case. I know that that he would like it to be made clear that if Vicky Thompson’s family need any assistance at this time, they should contact him, and he would be very happy to offer it.
I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said about our hon. Friend the Member for Keighley. I discussed this matter with him earlier, having noted his constituency interest.
We take seriously our obligation to provide the right level of emotional support for prison officers after events such as this. Help and counselling will be available to any who need assistance after this or similar events.
My thoughts are with the family and friends of Vicky Thompson. We debated the issue of the serious shortage of prison officers and mental health specialists in prisons back in the summer. Will the Minister work specifically with the trans community on the needs and risks assessments for specialists in prisons?
The hon. Lady has made a good point. I will speak to the officials who are conducting the review. As I told the House earlier, members of the trans community are involved in the review, but if we can add anything to it, I shall be open to that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the reasons why anyone decides to end his or her own life are often very complex, and that that applies just as much to prisoners—and just as much to transgender prisoners—as to those outside prisons? Should we not all be wary of reaching conclusions without being in possession of all the facts?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I note that the Samaritans has said that the media should avoid speculation about “triggers” for suicide, and I think we should be guided by what they say. As for my hon. Friend’s main point, he is absolutely right: our duty in prisons is to give everyone a hope and a future in their rehabilitation, and that is what we are determined to do.
I find it shameful, and a bad reflection on the House, that in transgender awareness week, and on Transgender Day of Remembrance, we are here not to celebrate people’s right to self-determination, but to mourn the death of Vicky Thompson. I was reassured when the Minister said that the Government were conducting a review of gender detention policy to ensure that decision making would be uniform in future. May I suggest that he work closely with the Women and Equalities Committee, which is taking evidence on issues affecting transpeople in the criminal justice system?
I will draw the hon. Lady’s helpful suggestion to the attention of the officials who are conducting the review.
We are increasing the length of prison officer training, and we have embedded our equalities duties at the heart of what we do. During the time for which I have been prisons Minister—a little over a year—I have been hugely impressed by the essential decency of everyone in the National Offender Management Service, which runs throughout the heart of the organisation.
“both men and women transgender people in prison need expert and sensitive support in order to ensure that they can access the full regime and remain safe. Their identity should be accorded proper respect.”
What is the Minister’s Department doing to provide even greater support for transgender people in prison, and to fulfil those needs?
I know Frances Crook well, and I listen to what she says. We try very hard to provide appropriate and decent care for every prisoner. We are reviewing the policy, but, as I said earlier, we are prepared to learn. We want to get this right, and we will take on board all that Members have said today.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Today you allowed me to put an urgent question to the Secretary of State for Health for the second time in two months, and for the second time in two months he did not bother to turn up. Can you advise me whether a Secretary of State is normally expected to attend the Chamber when an urgent question is put by his or her counterpart? Can you also advise me on how we can get the Secretary of State out of his bunker in Richmond House so that he can answer legitimate questions put by Members?
Very well. I will take the hon. Gentleman’s point of order now, and then respond to both points of order.
In my extensive experience here, Mr Speaker, I do not think there has ever been a convention that only the Secretary of State can speak for his or her Department, or for the Government. I think that some of the words used in that point of order were pejorative, given that part of the criticism we heard earlier was based on the fact that the Secretary of State had been speaking about the issue.
There are a couple of points to be made in response to what the hon. Gentleman has just said. First, the use of pejorative comments is not a novel phenomenon in the House of Commons. The hon. Gentleman need not sound quite so shocked, or display his offended sensibilities, at the notion that a right hon. or hon. Member has indulged in that practice.
The hon. Gentleman’s second point may well be helpful to the House as a whole, but I hope he will not take it amiss if I say that it had already penetrated the recesses of what passes for my brain. [Laughter.]In short, I was myself aware of that fact, simply because I have had the rather fortunate vantage point of the Speaker’s Chair since June 2009.
I do not have the statistical analysis in front of me, but I can confirm that, first, it is commonplace for a shadow Secretary of State’s opposite number to come along, and secondly, it is also commonplace for another Minister to do so. Quite what the stats show I do not know, but if Heidi Alexander is interested in the analysis, I dare say that—no state secret is involved—it could be supplied to her or to any other Member when it has been completed.
Finally, let me say that a certain amount of speculation is taking place in the Chamber on the precise whereabouts of the Secretary of State. I do not know, I have not inquired, it does not greatly concern me, and it is not a matter for the Chair; but I hope that, whatever he is doing, he is enjoying himself.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During Wednesday’s Opposition day debate, the Secretary of State for Education may have inadvertently misled the House when she said that the last Labour Government had once funded courses in balloon artistry. A thorough investigation conducted by FE Week has previously demonstrated that when the same claim was made by a former skills Minister, it was simply made up. Can you advise me, Mr Speaker, on how best the Secretary of State can correct the record?
If anyone has given incorrect information to the House and comes to be aware of that fact, it is incumbent upon the Member to correct the record. That is an obligation that applies both to Back Benchers and to those who serve on the Front Bench, whether as Ministers or shadow Ministers. I must congratulate Members on their dexterity in raising their points of order. I have tried to give fair-minded responses. It is not for me to take sides in these matters but the points are on the record.
The day would not be complete without a point of order from Mr Andrew Slaughter.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Nicely linking the previous points of order, may I point out that, in the Minister’s response on junior doctors contracts, he said, as the Secretary of State normally says, that there is an excess of death at the weekend and that that is linked to the current junior doctors contracts? It is a matter of record that there are fewer deaths in hospital at the weekend. It is wrong that that is continually repeated in the House. I seek your guidance, Mr Speaker, on how the record can be corrected so that that is not repeated, as it is not assisting the process of negotiation and trust.
What will assist the process of trust and continued negotiation is work that takes place outside this place. Our contribution must be to show our serious interest in the matters, as reflected in continuing debate—preferably continuing debate within the context of the private Member’s Bill, rather than through the vehicle of further points of order—but the hon. Gentleman, with his customary eloquence and self-confidence, has made his own point in his own way and it is on the record. It may be that he will wish to share the record of his observations with the constituency of Hammersmith, or whatever it is now called.