Safety in Custody and Violence in Prisons

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:39 pm on 9th May 2016.

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Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice) 3:39 pm, 9th May 2016

I thank the Minister for that response, but I fear that it was exactly what we have heard time and time again at the Dispatch Box. I hope that he will concede that the situation in our prisons on the youth estate is very serious, and that the recent incidents are part of a pattern of unacceptable conditions and unacceptable violent behaviour. It cannot be right that prisoners, staff and, ultimately, the public are at risk from the Government’s failure to get a grip on the crisis in our prisons. That makes it all the more surprising that the Secretary of State is not here today. We are all, whatever our view, engaged in the referendum campaign; that is no reason for him to neglect his responsibility as Secretary of State.

Yesterday, as the Minister said, two prison officers were hospitalised after being assaulted while they were on duty at Wormwood Scrubs prison in my constituency. Our thoughts are with them and their families. That is a reminder of the difficult and dangerous job that officers do every day, often hidden from the public gaze and without the acknowledgement that they deserve. The attack was entirely predictable—so much so that two days earlier, as the Minister acknowledged, 70 members of staff at Wormwood Scrubs had walked out because they did not feel safe. Although Tornado officers were sent into the prison on Saturday, they were withdrawn on Sunday, which was when the attacks happened. What specific steps are being taken to ensure safety in HMP Wormwood Scrubs? I am told that drugs, phones and even knives are being thrown over the walls because of insufficient patrolling of the grounds and cell searches caused by insufficient staffing numbers. Will additional officers be provided to undertake these basic tasks until order is restored and a review of staffing at this and similar prisons is undertaken?

What happened at Wormwood Scrubs is not an isolated incident; it is typical of the dangers and problems across the prison and youth estate. In the past few days, reports on Lewes and Leeds prisons have told a similar story. Last week, it was revealed that the Department is about to take over the management of Medway secure training centre following the “Panorama” exposé of the appalling conduct of G4S and some of its staff in running that institution, including allegations of serious violence against children.

Fourteen prison staff are assaulted every day. There were 4,963 assaults on staff by prisoners in 2015, compared with 3,640 in 2014, which is a 36% increase in attacks. Prisons are now violent and dangerous places. Serious self-harm and suicides are at record levels. We have heard for a year that the Government wish to transform our prisons, but words are no longer enough. Now is the time for action before more prisons become ungovernable and there are more serious injuries or—God forbid—the death of an officer on duty.