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Prisons and Courts Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:37 pm on 20th March 2017.

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Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn 6:37 pm, 20th March 2017

I shall focus on a number of things in the Bill. As my hon. Friend Richard Burgon said in his opening remarks, the Labour party will not oppose the Bill, but that does not mean that we cannot take steps to try to improve it and to get clarity from Ministers about what the Bill means in practice and what its impact will be.

Like the Minister, I support the aims of clause 1, which says that prisons are intended to

“protect the public…reform and rehabilitate offenders…prepare prisoners for life outside prison, and…
maintain an environment that is safe and secure.”

Nobody can disagree with those objectives, but as my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman said in her excellent speech, the prisons system faces a number of challenges. Those challenges have not come from nowhere; they have come from deliberate decisions—from Government policy—and the Bill provides an opportunity to at least look at them, and, potentially, to rectify them.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham covered some of the statistics, but they are worthy of repetition. It is now the case that 76 of the prisons in our estate—some 60%—are overcrowded, and have been deemed to be overcrowded by the prisons inspector. We have seen an increase of 39% in the number of deaths in prison custody over the last year alone, while there has been a 32% increase in self-inflicted deaths. There has also been a massive increase—22%—in the number of self-harm incidents reported. We have seen an increase in the number of assaults by prisoners on staff and on fellow prisoners. There has been an increase in the number of psychoactive substances found in prisons. There has been an increase in the number of mobile phones found in prisons, and, therefore, an increase in the number that are getting into prisons. Sadly, as we heard from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham, there has been a reduction of some 6,335—26% in the number of prison officers in the past seven years.

I believe that those facts are linked. We have fewer prison officers and the same number of prisoners—prisoners who, for a range of reasons, are more difficult and more challenging and, in many cases, have been convicted of more violent offences. The reduction in prison officer numbers has a real impact on the other statistics. While I do not object to the aims of clause 1 —indeed, I support them—I think that we need to think about what they mean in practice, and about how the White Paper is linked to them.

In what was, as I have said, an excellent speech, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham made some positive suggestions about clause 1. As she said, the amount of time spent in cells is extremely important, and we should also think about how to establish mechanisms for the recognition and support of people with mental health problems. I would add two issues to her list: family links and distance from home.

In the past 12 months, I have dealt with two constituency cases—quite apart from my work as a member of the Justice Committee—involving people in prisons in the Isle of Wight and Norwich respectively. Let me explain to those who are not familiar with the geography that the Isle of Wight is 273 miles from my constituency—an 11-hour train journey—and that travelling to Norwich takes six hours by train or a four-and-a-half-hour drive. If one of the key purposes of the Bill is reform and rehabilitation, contact with family is surely critical to that achievement.