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Prisons and Courts Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:46 pm on 20th March 2017.

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Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Labour, Halifax 7:46 pm, 20th March 2017

It is an honour to follow Sir Henry Bellingham, whose speech was very articulate. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate ahead of serving on the Bill Committee over the next few weeks.

Between the Government’s White Paper, which was published in November last year, and the Bill before us today, I welcome many of steps being undertaken to get to grips with the challenges in our prisons and the justice system more widely. Greater scrutiny and more transparent allocation of responsibility are positive steps but, as others have already said, the Bill will succeed only once we have comprehensively got to grips with overcrowding and safety in our prisons. Without an effective, functioning prison system with reform at its very core, the wider justice system simply fails to function. When he appeared before the Justice Committee back in November, the Minister for prisons and probation admitted that all the numbers relating to prison violence, self-harm and deaths in custody are pointing in the wrong direction. I shall therefore use my role as constructively as possible to make sure that the Bill goes far enough and fast enough in improving those numbers.

In part because of several high-profile incidents, Members will be well aware of the prevalence of overcrowding in prisons, which is so commonplace that it sadly now seems to have become institutionalised in the justice system. When they gave evidence to the Justice Committee, both the Minister and the chief executive officer of the National Offender Management Service were in agreement that overcrowding has been a sustained problem for the past decade. The prison population rose from 43,000 in 1993 to just over 84,000 in 2016. Despite this increase, the number of uniformed prison officers tasked with managing and caring for those in prisons has decreased. Following the closure of 18 prisons since 2010, the prison estate has seen a reduction of around 6,000 places, at a time when the prison population is increasing. Although there are plans for new prisons and extensions at existing sites, at this rate such measures will not alleviate overcrowding in this Parliament or the next.

Overcrowding is a problem in 69% of prisons—that is 80 out of 116 establishments. My nearest prison, HMP Leeds in Armley, is one of the most overcrowded in the country. The Prison Reform Trust found that although it was built to accommodate 669 men, as of October 2016 it held 1,145, meaning that it is populated at 171% of its intended capacity. What is the impact of overcrowding on the conditions inside prisons? We have already heard statistics from the House of Commons Library, which reveal that, in the 12 months to September 2016, the number of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults increased by 31% on the previous year, with just over 25,000 recorded incidents. There were nearly 38,000 incidents of self-harm, which is an increase of 61% compared with 2006. In the 12 months to December 2016, there were 354 deaths in custody, 34% of which were self-inflicted and 1% the consequence of homicide.

A report by the Prison Officers Association revealed that there are more than 42 incidents of violence in prison establishments every day. Given, as the Minister said, that all the numbers by which we measure the effectiveness and safety of our prisons are pointing in the wrong direction, it is perhaps surprising that we have seen a reduction of 7,000 prison officers since 2010. I appreciate that the Government have closed 18 prisons in that time, but the prison population has still increased. In fact, it peaked at an all-time high in 2011. By any analysis of prisoner to prison officer ratios, the number of officers will surely be found to be inadequate to meet the challenges, and I support the call from my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman to look at ways that we can introduce ratios into the Bill.

I welcome the decision announced in the White Paper to recruit 2,500 more prison officers, and I am glad that the Secretary of State was able to tell us more about that recruitment process, and that 400 more prison officers have been recruited for the 10 most challenging prisons, but I hope that the Minister can go further in outlining what the next steps will be in recruiting for the remaining 2,100 posts.

Michael Spurr, the chief executive officer of the National Offender Management Service, confirmed to the Justice Committee in November that the rate for new prison officers leaving within their first year is 13.5%, and has been as high as 16% in the past three years. I would be interested to know whether the Secretary of State has factored in that retention rate when recruiting those new officers. If 13.5% of the 400 already recruited leave within their first year, we will need to find 54 additional officers. I have set out the context not simply to make the case for sufficient prison capacity to meet demand, but to make the case for my amendments on prison officer safety, which is an area in which this Bill could go much further.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham talked about how two officers were left to cover a wing of more than 150 prisoners. Members can appreciate that sense of being outnumbered when they think about the reality of those figures. What needs to change to make sure that prison officers do not leave in their first year, are safe at work and are staying in post until retirement? Colleagues will be aware that, since having had an eye-opening experience while shadowing a lone police officer in my constituency last year, I have been campaigning for greater protections for emergency service workers, and prison officers are no less deserving of those same protections.

A report by the Prison Officers Association revealed that eight staff members are assaulted every day and that, in 2010, there were 24 sexual assaults against prison staff. That is just unacceptable. Section 8 of the Prison Act 1952 says:

“Every prison officer while acting as such shall have all the powers, authority, protection and privileges of a police constable.”

In the event that a prison officer is assaulted, and where the evidence affords, the prosecutor has a choice between pursuing common assault charges, under section 39 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, or assault police charges under section 89 of the Police Act 1996. Assault police is a summary only offence and as such carries a maximum of 24 weeks custodial sentence, with community resolution orders and fines the most common outcome. I will not share the details now, but I can recommend the report “Prison Violence—How serious does it have to get”, which is published by the Prison Officers Association, for harrowing testimonies from prison officers, complete with photos of their injuries. It is well worth a read if anyone is in any doubt about the need for having the toughest possible deterrents in place to protect prison officers.