Safety of Prison Staff

– in the House of Commons at 4:13 pm on 11 July 2016.

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Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 4:13, 11 July 2016

(Urgent Question) To ask the Secretary of State if he will make a statement on the safety of staff in prisons.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

A central duty of the Ministry of Justice is security on our prison estate. It is imperative that the dedicated professionals who work in our prisons are kept safe. It is also critical that we safeguard the welfare of those who are in custody. It is therefore of profound concern to me that serious assaults against staff in prisons have been on the rise recently. In the 12 months to December 2015, there were 625 incidents, an increase of 31%.

Those who work in our prisons are idealistic public servants, who run the risk of assault and abuse every day but continue in their jobs because they are driven by a noble cause: they want to reform and rehabilitate offenders. That is why we must stand behind them. I know that members of the Prison Officers Association, and other trade unions, want rapid action to be taken to make their work safer; I understand their frustrations, and I am determined to help.

Violence in prisons has increased over recent years for a number of reasons. The nature of the offenders currently in custody is one factor: younger offenders who have been involved in gang-related activities pose a particular concern. Another factor is the widespread availability of new psychoactive substances or NPS—synthetically manufactured drugs which are more difficult to detect than traditional cannabis and opiates. The former chief inspector of prisons has said that NPS are

“now the most serious threat to the safety and security of jails.”

NPS consumption, and indeed violence in prison, are also often a consequence of prisoners’ boredom and frustration, and a lack of faith in the future.

There is no single solution to the problem we face, but we are taking steps to reform our prisons. To take account of our changing prison population, more than 2,800 new prison officers have been recruited since January 2015, a net increase of 530. To keep them safer, we are deploying body-worn cameras as additional protection for staff. In May, we outlawed new psychoactive substances and thus dramatically reduced the opportunities for easy profits to be made from their trade. In June, I allocated an extra £10 million in new funding for prison safety, and the money has gone direct to governors.

All these steps will, I believe, help improve safety, but there are two more critical points to make. First, I want to stress that my Department’s door will be open to staff and their representatives to ensure we work collaboratively to improve conditions for all in our prisons. Secondly, it is because I have seen for myself how important it is to change our prisons for the better that this Government have initiated a major reform programme. We will be replacing ageing and ineffective prisons with new establishments designed to foster rehabilitation. We will give governors greater scope to design regimes that encourage purposeful activity. We will ensure that prisoners are more effectively incentivised to turn their lives around. As we press ahead with this reform programme, I am confident we can ensure that our prisons can become what they should always be: safe and secure places of redemption and rehabilitation.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

The situation on our prison estate continues to deteriorate, as the Secretary of State concedes, and I am sorry we have heard nothing from him today that we have not heard before.

Over the weekend, prison staff held crisis meetings across the country amid concerns about their security and safety in the workplace. Incidents of violence and disorder are reported on a daily basis. On Friday around 100 staff at HMP Liverpool met outside their prison at the start of their shift, a pattern that was repeated at many other prisons. A Ministry of Justice spokesman unhelpfully called the action “unlawful” despite admitting that it posed no security risk. I wonder whether the Secretary of State thinks that is an appropriate response to members of staff concerned about their welfare and that of the inmates. According to local staff at Liverpool prison, over the past 12 months there have been more assaults than in the previous 12 years. This includes one member of staff who was stabbed, while others have been spat at, punched and kicked and had urine and faeces thrown over them. On the same day, a squad of specialist prison service riot officers was sent into HMP Birmingham, and in a separate incident in the same prison on the same day a prisoner was found dead in his cell in unexplained circumstances. A Prison Officers Association spokesman said that between 5,000 and 6,000 prison officers had taken part in the pre-shift meetings, with the numbers showing the “strength of feeling” of its members.

The Secretary of State will also be aware that a freedom of information request last week revealed there had been five walkouts in the past five months, including from Wormwood Scrubs in my constituency. Following that walkout in May, and the serious assault on two officers and an urgent question here, the Secretary of State announced £10 million, but, frankly, he has been absent in the last few weeks and we have had an inadequate and reactive response to each crisis.

We need a full response to a growing and increasing crisis and, as the Secretary of State correctly says, a growing number of serious assaults. I hope if we do not hear it today, we will hear that full strategy, and hear it soon, for the safety of our prison officers and prisoners. If we do not have that, he is going to lose control fully of the prison estate.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the detail and tone of his remarks. He continues now on the Back Benches the great work he did on the Front Bench, making sure that the condition of our prisons is kept at the forefront of our minds.

May I first say that in the limited time I had available in response to his original urgent question, I was not able to outline all the steps being taken? Thanks, of course, to his diligent work and that of the Justice Committee, a number of areas of concern have been brought to our attention or highlighted or underlined.

We have appointed a highly experienced prison governor, Claudia Sturt, formerly governor of Belmarsh, to lead work specifically to ensure that our prisons are more secure. She has set up a taskforce to visit the prisons that face the greatest challenge. Those visits have so far resulted in prison governors feeling reassured and strengthened that they have the best professional advice to help them deal with these problems. In addition, we have been rolling out something called the five-minute intervention, which is a specific intervention to help prison officers to de-escalate violent incidents. It is being pioneered by a first-rate professional, Russ Trent, who is due to be the governor of HMP Berwyn, the new prison in Wales.

The hon. Gentleman made the point that £10 million was only a start, and it is indeed only a start. I stress that the Treasury has given us £1.3 billion as part of a broad prison reform programme, but I shall not run away from the fact that we have a difficult situation in our prisons. That is one of the reasons that I invited the BBC in to visit our prisons in recent weeks. It is also one of the reasons that I have sought to work across the aisle to ensure that we tackle this problem fairly. I know that the hon. Gentleman is sincere and dedicated in his desire to ensure that our prisons work better, and I look forward to working with him to that end.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

The Secretary of State’s full and prompt response to our Select Committee report on prison safety published in May does great credit to his personal commitment to tackling this issue, and I am grateful for his frankness on the level of the challenge that we face. Will he update us on whether he is now able to take on board some of the report’s recommendations? For example, will the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service now produce a joint action plan to tackle the underlying causes of violence? Will he also address the issues of staff recruitment and retention, and will he agree to produce a quarterly report to the House so that we can measure progress on the action plan against clear, specific targets?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee for making those points. The report was exemplary, and, as I mentioned earlier, it has been a great help to the Ministry. I absolutely agree that we will bring forward an action plan and provide the House with regular updates on the steps that we are taking. He is also right to point out that the recruitment and retention of staff are critical. In response to his questions and those of Andy Slaughter, I want to underline the fact that I want to work with the Prison Officers Association and all trade unions to ensure that legitimate concerns—all concerns, indeed—are addressed. I also want to ensure that we continue to attract high-quality people to the Prison Service, because it is a vital job.

Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

The situation in our underfunded prisons is deteriorating. There have been consequences of the Government’s decision to cut £900 million from the Ministry of Justice budget. Assaults on staff and on prisoners are up. There are 13,000 fewer prison staff than there were in 2010, but there are more prisoners. The Government have made prisons less safe for staff and for prisoners. It is a service in crisis. On Friday, members of the Prison Officers Association held meetings outside prisons across the country to discuss what they call the “perpetual crisis” in the Prison Service. The Secretary of State has accepted that there are “significant problems”. The chief inspector has said prisons are “a lot more dangerous” and that staff shortages have had an impact. The Justice Committee has demanded an “action plan”. In the light of all this, will the Secretary of State tell us whether he or the National Offender Management Service have spoken to the Prison Officers Association since Friday’s meetings outside the prisons?

What is the Secretary of State’s plan to reduce staff assaults, which have increased by 36% in the past year? On the £10million that he has allocated to staff safety, if he finds, as I suspect he will, that the significantly higher spending he has experimentally allocated to Bristol, Hewell and Rochester does indeed have a much greater impact, will he increase safety spending elsewhere? In relation to the prisons identified for greater operational freedom in the upcoming prison and courts reform Bill—a process the Secretary of State has likened to school academisation—will he confirm that we will not see any watering down of staff terms and conditions or creeping privatisation? Is it not time that this Government stopped failing prison staff, failing prisons and failing our society in this regard?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new role on the Front Bench. I know that he has a distinguished legal career behind him, and that he has represented some of the most vulnerable in our society. His questions today go directly to the heart of the matter and I am grateful to him for giving me this opportunity to respond to them. We have spoken to the Prison Officers Association. Senior figures in the National Offender Management Service have been in touch with the POA, and we will continue to be in touch in the future. When the Prime Minister made a landmark speech on prisons earlier this year, I had the opportunity to talk to senior figures in the Prison Officers Association and found their approach to be constructive and cordial, and I want to maintain good relations with them.

The hon. Gentleman made the point that the £10 million may need to be increased and that we may need to invest more money in staff safety. We will of course monitor how the money is spent. It has been given to individual governors to spend as they think fit, but we will do everything possible to ensure that the resources are there to safeguard not only those who work in our prisons, but the welfare of those in custody.

The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about the prison and courts reform Bill and the principle that the six reform prisons should have a greater degree of autonomy. He asked whether academisation, as an analogy, is a prelude to privatisation. The governors of those six prisons do exercise a greater degree of autonomy, but it is not intended that that should come at the cost of staff terms, conditions, security, safety or prospects. We want to ensure that staff in every prison feel that the idealistic work that they do is valued and rewarded, and that outstanding governors who are taking forward change in such prisons live and breathe respect for their staff every day.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

The Prisons & Probation Ombudsman told the Justice Committee about the “pervasiveness” of mental health issues within prisons. What is the Secretary of State doing to address that? How is he improving the response of prison staff when assessing such risks?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend makes a good point. One difficulty is that many of those in custody have mental health problems—undiagnosed in some cases. It is often the case that the prison regime by its very nature and the restrictions that are placed on individuals as part of a sentence may not be the most effective ways of tackling mental health problems and ensuring that offenders do not offend again. We are considering how we can better review mental health provision within the prison estate. More announcements will be forthcoming, but Her Majesty made it clear in the Gracious Speech that improving outcomes for individuals with mental health problems in the criminal justice system is a core mission of this Government over the next 12 months.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Justice and Home Affairs)

Is the Secretary of State prepared to acknowledge that the combination of rising prisoner numbers and shrinking budgets is a major factor affecting the welfare and safety of both prison officers and prisoners? The Scottish Government have committed to significant penal policy reform aimed at reducing reoffending by moving away from ineffective short-term prison sentences in favour of community sentences, which have been shown to be more effective at stopping reoffending.

In June, the Scottish Government announced £4 million of extra funding to allow for an increase in community sentences. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the UK Government’s policies and prisons are not working? Will he look instead to the Scottish Government’s approach of reducing the number of people in prison and making more effective use of community alternatives, rather than relying on prison sentences?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I have an enormous amount of respect for the hon. and learned Lady. She is right that England and Wales can learn much from other jurisdictions. I would not say that Scotland has got everything right on criminal justice and penal policy, but some welcome changes are taking place in Scotland, not least with respect to the care and treatment of female offenders. I hope to have the chance to talk to leaders within the Scottish Prison Service and to visit some Scottish prisons to understand better what is working and to learn from the initiatives that are being piloted.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Following that, will the Justice Secretary tell us how the number of attacks on staff in UK prisons compares with the figures for other countries? What lessons might be learned from those countries? I invite him to start by considering the punishments handed down in other countries to prisoners who attack prison staff and to extend sentences much more harshly for prisoners who attack prison staff here. I suspect that harsh sentences may lead to a decrease in attacks on prison staff.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because I know that he wants to operate in a constructive fashion. I am always interested in learning from other jurisdictions. We do not collect statistics on assaults in a way that allows for an easy comparison, but we are changing how we analyse data within the Ministry of Justice and he poses a particular challenge.

I always want to be led by the evidence when shaping policy. The evidence suggests that a lack of hope or an inability to see how actions can lead to eventual redemption often contribute to frustration and violence. My hon. Friend’s point was made in a constructive fashion, and I will get back to him with evidence and comparisons to enable us to conduct this debate better.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Labour, Darlington

One of the most distressing things that can happen to a prison officer is going to unlock an inmate only to find that they have taken their own life. The review by Lord Harris on deaths in custody made a clear recommendation that Ministers should attempt to contact and speak with the families of people, especially the young, who have taken their own life in prison. As yet, Ministers have declined to adopt that recommendation, so will they please reconsider?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Lady makes a very good point, and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Andrew Selous will be meeting the relatives of someone who took their own life in custody recently. There are sometimes sensitivities about specific cases, but as a general rule this is something that, of course, we would wish to do.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

From his experience as Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend will have worked out that there is a catalogue of reasons why the safety of prison staff is placed at risk: overcrowding of prisons; the mental health issues he has described; and the lack of purposeful activity for prisoners, which he has described. Does he also accept that the continuing uncertainty for prisoners on IPPs— indeterminate sentences for public protection—making them the most difficult cohort of prisoners to manage, is something we ought to be dealing with very quickly? Can we not arrange to have them re-sentenced quickly to determinate sentences or put before the Parole Board so that their cases can be reviewed? This is a matter of urgent priority and I urge him to look at the IPP question, which is causing such a lot of disturbance in our prison system.

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My right hon. and learned Friend is a busy man, so he probably will not have had an opportunity to read the speech I gave to the governing governors forum some six weeks ago. In it, I outlined the urgent case for reform of IPP sentencing and said that the former Member for Sheffield, Brightside, Lord Blunkett, had acknowledged that the original intention when he introduced those sentences had not manifested itself in the way in which those sentences were applied. I can say to my right hon. and learned Friend that I will be meeting Nick Hardwick, the new chair of the Parole Board, later this week specifically to expedite some changes which I hope my right hon. and learned Friend and others in the House might welcome.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

We all look forward to reading the speech; whether or not it is in the Library, we will get a copy. The root cause of the problem is overcrowding, which creates stress on the staff and on other prisoners. Currently, there are 13,000 foreign national prisoners in our prisons, and the prisoner transfer arrangement with the EU has been going painfully slowly so far. We have now decided to come out of the EU. What further steps can be taken to get countries to take back their own citizens?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

First, I will, of course, place a copy in the Library. Secondly, for those who are even more eager to read it, I believe a copy is available on the Ministry of Justice website. We will do everything possible to facilitate the widespread dissemination and reading of that speech.

The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee makes a very good point: there are far too many foreign national offenders in our prisons. I have been working with the Home Secretary to reduce those numbers. I am always loth to mention Albania, but some countries outside the European Union have concluded good bilateral arrangements with this country in order to facilitate the return of criminals, and Albania—outside the EU at the moment—is one such country. It is not necessary to be in the EU to have good bilateral arrangements, but it is vital, as we move to our new relationship with our European neighbours, to ensure that we return those offenders who are not British citizens.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Labour, City of Durham

The safety of prison staff is a huge issue for me, as I have three prisons in my constituency. Does the Secretary of State agree that we will not get the rehabilitation of prisoners that we all want unless prison staff have the time and resources to enable it to happen and both they and prisoners feel safe enough to achieve it, and that this process will not be helped by ongoing reductions in prison staff numbers?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Lady makes a fair point. I am delighted that we have been able to give Durham prison in her constituency an additional £220,000 in order to help deal with current problems. More broadly, she is right. Even though staff were reduced in the previous Parliament in order to meet benchmarking requirements, there has been a net increase in the number of prison staff since January 2015, and we will be making more announcements in due course about how we intend to recruit even more high-quality people into that important job.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour, Neath

How many times has the National Tactical Response Group been called out this year? Last year there was one call-out for every day of the year. Has this figure gone up?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I hope the hon. Lady will excuse me as I turn to my notes in order to give her the exact figure. The last year for which we have figures was 2014-15 and the National Tactical Response Group was called out 400 times during that year, so that was just over once every day.[This section has been corrected on 14 July 2016, column 4MC — read correction]

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

In my constituency there is no extra money for HMP Kennet because it is closing. It has been open for only 10 years. In answers to letters that I have written to the right hon. Gentleman’s ministerial colleagues, I have been told that the staff will be expected to relocate to the new super-prison in Wrexham. The problem is that that is more than 70 miles away and there is no prospect of many of those staff being able to relocate. Is that not an example of one of the problems in the planning that the right hon. Gentleman is carrying out? He is closing a prison and the staff will not be able to get to the new one that he is opening. How will that help with problems of both overcrowding and prison staff safety?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I would be delighted to meet, or have one of my colleagues meet, the hon. Gentleman in order to explain in greater detail the reasons for closing HMP Kennet. One of the things that we need to do is to make sure that we have modern and appropriate prisons for our prisoners. Of course, there will be opportunities not just in HMP Berwyn, the new prison in Wales, but elsewhere for staff who currently work in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency to continue to do the idealistic work for which I thank them.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Labour, Tottenham

I have spent a lot of time in prisons over the past few months. There are two things that staff have raised with me. The first is that they are optimistic about the reform context that the Secretary of State has created and he should be congratulated on that. However, the second topic that staff have raised at prisons across the country is staff numbers, which have fallen substantially. In the new Government that we expect to begin shortly, does the right hon. Gentleman hope to see that reform agenda continue? Now that we are moving away from austerity, is it possible that staff numbers might begin to rise again?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he says, and for the work that he is carrying out to ensure that black and minority ethnic individuals are treated fairly in our criminal justice system. On the reform programme, I have been delighted by the fact that across this House and throughout the Government there has been strong support for the reform programme that we are undertaking, and I think it will be central to the work of this Government over the next few years. I look forward to working with the right hon. Gentleman and other colleagues to ensure that we make progress.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Labour, Denton and Reddish

It is of paramount importance that the Government do all they can to ensure that prison staff are safe in their place of work. The Secretary of State will know that the recent safety in custody figures were quite shocking. Will he guarantee that when those figures are published in future, there will be fuller scrutiny of those statistics in Parliament, and will he commit to a frequent statement on what the Government are doing to improve the situation?

Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Yes, I will do everything possible to make sure that Parliament is fully informed. That is entirely in line with the recommendations, which I welcome, from the Select Committee.