Justice Committee

– in the House of Commons at 11:57 am on 22nd February 2018.

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Select Committee statement

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee 12:16 pm, 22nd February 2018

This report results from what was described by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons as one of the worst inspection reports of a prison that he had ever seen. It was certainly the worst inspection report that our Committee had ever seen and, because of the gravity of the situation, we took the unique step of holding a specific evidence session on that individual inquiry. It highlighted conditions at Liverpool prison that the chief inspector described as “squalid”, a history of deterioration over a two-year period, and a history of management failure at local, national and regional level over time. It also highlighted a number of systemic problems that we believe need to be addressed by the Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, and the need for approaching afresh the way in which we deal with Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons itself.

I pay tribute to my Committee colleagues, a number of whom are present today, for their work on this report, and I also welcome the Minister to his place. I particularly appreciated that he came to give evidence to our inquiry so early on after being appointed to the post in which he now serves.

I will briefly give an outline of the report against that grave background. Liverpool prison was inspected in 2015, and it was failing then. It was re-inspected in 2017, and it had got worse. Some of the conditions—a man with mental health problems was in a cell that was not fit for habitation; there was a serious maintenance backlog, which had doubled from 1,000 to 2,000 over that period; and the prison’s markings against various tests had gone backwards—indicate that there was not only a gross failure of management locally and of regional and national oversight, but that the detailed recommendations of Her Majesty’s inspectorate that were made in 2015 had not properly been addressed. That is the first systemic matter that we deal with.

It is pretty clear that the national leadership was not alert to the situation on the ground. The head of the Prison Service, Mr Spurr, told us that he had been informed by the local management that some 60% of the recommendations in 2015 were on track to be met. That was wrong. In fact, only 25% or so were met, and 60% were not met. The leadership nationally was out of touch. What was the role of the deputy director of corrections, who is supposed to have oversight of 12 prisons in that region? Clearly, there was not just a failure of communication, but a breakdown in how the system operates there.

This is not unique. Her Majesty’s chief inspectorate indicated to us that it is a regular occurrence for its recommendations not to be acted on. The Minister rightly said to us that much greater use should be made of the inspectorate’s recommendations to drive changes in behaviour. He is right. We recommend therefore two specific matters to effect that.

First, at the moment, the Prison Service marks its own homework. That is not satisfactory and it can breed complacency. We therefore recommend that HM inspectorate of prisons be given additional resource so that it can follow up on the implementation of its recommendations and hold the prisons to account. This is not a large sum in the overall scheme of things; perhaps one inspection team would be sufficient to do that task and probably the overall saving would mean that that would be offset. Secondly, Ministers should take personal responsibility for seeing that inspections reports are acted on and should account to the House for that, perhaps through a letter to the Justice Committee. That is the first of our practical recommendations, which we believe would offer a way forward.

There is also the whole question of the oversight itself. Given that there were these failings, we believe that greater work should be done to ensure the transparency and accountability of the above-establishment teams in the Department. There was also a clear problem with the facilities management contract. Not only had the backlog got worse, but it is pretty clear that basic issues that should have been picked up in the contract were not. The fact that there were rat and cockroach infestations shows the level of the problem. We are not satisfied with the explanations we were given for the failures in that contract and we therefore believe that there is a need for greater transparency, so we recommend that major contracts—this is a national contract with Amey—should be subject to a public framework outlining the expectations, performance and penalties levied against a provider for failure. If there are penalties, there should be a system of naming and shaming, frankly. There should be a public notification of where failures occur and how much of a penalty is levied against the provider as a percentage of the contract. That is the whole point of outsourcing—to drive changes in behaviour—but we need transparency and openness to do that.

We also noted that part of the problem derives from persistent overcrowding. Liverpool prison was not understaffed—it was up to establishment—but it was nevertheless pressed for numbers. We therefore recommend that the Ministry and the Prison Service publish a plan to resolve the persistent overcrowding of the estate to take some of the pressure off governors. The new governor at Liverpool is clearly doing a very good job under difficult circumstances, but we need an overall plan to deal with overcrowding and that must aim to reduce the prison population and/or increase safe and decent capacity. We cannot have it both ways.

We were also concerned about the poor situation with healthcare that was discovered. We were glad to see commitments from the Prison Service and NHS England to publish a partnership agreement on how they are working together. However, the last partnership agreement expired in April 2017 and the new one will not be in place until 2018. The gap of a year is not satisfactory in that regard and we need steps to be taken to ensure that that does not happen again.

Finally, we need a commitment to ensuring that there is decent healthcare. It was explained to us that the overcrowding and the nature of the regime meant frequently that prisoners could not be brought from their cells to healthcare appointments. We need a much more joined-up approach to that.

Those are the principal recommendations of our report, which I commend to the House. At the end of the day, the decency of a society is judged by how it treats those who offend against it as much as by how it treats those who do well by it. Liverpool failed in that regard. We did not house prisoners in the decent conditions that common humanity and our international and domestic legal obligations order that we should. That failure cannot be allowed to happen again. Making greater use of the inspectorate and its tools and adopting our recommendations will, I hope, be a constructive way forward in assisting the Minister in what I entirely believe is his intention to get back to getting the basics right and improving the Prison Service. It is in that spirit that we put the report before the House and commend it to the Minister.

Photo of Dan Carden Dan Carden Shadow Minister (International Development)

I welcome the Committee’s report and thank the Chair for his quick decision to hold an evidence session specifically on HMP Liverpool following the publication of the original inspectorate report. I further welcome his commitment, as stated here, to hold the Government to account when prisons fail. We have lost another life inside the prison this week. Anthony Paine, 35, who suffered with mental health problems, was found in his cell and died in hospital on Monday.

The report does not mention in detail the failure to invest in infrastructure and renovate wings or the loss and replacement of experienced prison officers and, critically, resources. Having seen the prison with my own eyes, I have no doubt that these are basic but expensive requirements, but in a written answer to me the Minister says that there is no plan to publish the costs or programme of urgent works at HMP Liverpool. Does Robert Neill agree that it is vital that we have transparency across our prison network and the improvements that are necessary if we are to see real change?

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I know that he knows Liverpool Walton jail, as it is often called locally, very well. I entirely understand the point of his remarks and I hope that the Ministry will reflect on that. The whole thrust of our report is that we need to shine the light of transparency and publicity on these matters. We also, in a separate piece of work, have in hand an inquiry into the shape of the prison population by 2020. Part of that, again, is this need to deal with overcrowding. Our recommendation on persistent overcrowding is part of that. Getting the fabric right is necessary. Walton jail—Liverpool prison—is one of the old Victorian prisons and there is a real need for work to be done there. If we are publishing the public framework on facilities maintenance, I do not see why we should not be able to have similar publicity about the capital works that are required.

Photo of Rory Stewart Rory Stewart The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

This is an historic opportunity. I think that this is the first time in more than 200 years of our Prison Service that we have had an individual prison debated on the Floor of the House. I pay tribute to the Justice Committee for bringing the matter forward.

The situation in Liverpool prison was, as the Chairman of the Select Committee has pointed out, genuinely shocking. It is very disturbing and it is unbelievably important that Select Committees, inspectors and Members of Parliament hold us accountable for prisoners. These are closed communities. They are often hidden away from the public. In many areas, they can be forgotten, and without scrutiny standards can drop. They dropped very seriously in Liverpool prison.

The condition in the cells was unacceptable, how prisoners were treated was unacceptable, and the lack of purposeful activity was unacceptable. We are now addressing this hard and quickly, but there are still huge lessons to be learned through the system. I pay tribute to the new governor, Pia Sinha, who has come in, taken cells out of commission and made it clear that she has cleaned the prison and that her objective over the next six months is to get those cells into a smart, good condition. We now have the money in place to put in the new windows and she is focused on ensuring that the education and employment activity is good.

More generally, there are lessons right the way through the prison system. We need to get the basics right. There is no point talking about rehabilitation or dealing with reoffending unless we have clean, decent and safe spaces for all prisoners. We want our prisons to be smart and well-functioning. We are bringing in more than 2,000 more prison officers, and that will relieve some of the pressures on the prison estate, but these are new prison officers and will need training and support until they have the prisoncraft to deliver what we require. We also need to invest a lot more in training. Because prisons are unbelievably complex environments, the governor needs the support and training—this could mean months of training—to ensure that they are in a position to turn around the prison. That training should also apply to the uniformed staff. Finally, the role of the inspector and the Select Committee will be vital in improving performance.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. He is very much on the case in recognising that we must get basic things: cleanliness, decency, the maintenance of the establishment, and the ability to run a regime where people can get out to healthcare appointments and rehabilitative work. All that is critical. Unless we turn the existing problems around, we will face a real crisis in our prisons.

I look forward to working with the Minister on those matters. In particular, I hope that he will take up our recommendations on the inspectorate and the constructive role that it can play. I can honestly say that this is a case of a small investment being likely to pay off in the long term.

Photo of Liz Saville-Roberts Liz Saville-Roberts Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) , Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

As co-chair of the justice unions and family courts parliamentary group, I welcome the report, but it is amiss that the Justice Committee did not take evidence from unions representing frontline professionals. I understand from the Professional Trades Union for Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers that the maintenance contractor, Amey, refused to undertake pest control at HMP Liverpool, and the previous governor—who was also not called to give evidence—had to use his already hard-pressed budget. I wonder whether the Chair would agree that governors’ autonomy is convenient cover for the Government’s failure to be accountable for the dire condition of the prison estate.

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

Let me say first that the Committee engaged with the POA on a number of occasions, and on an ongoing basis. Secondly, the issues relating to facilities maintenance were examined in some detail. We said in our report that we were not satisfied with the outcomes, and intended to return to the issue. Thirdly, it was specifically not our role to examine the position of the previous governor in terms of the future. We heard evidence from the inspectorate about the position at that stage, and we heard evidence from the current governor about what is happening now, which is an improvement, but we did not think that going into further past history would be constructive. Our recommendations are for ways to try and ensure that this state of affairs does not occur again.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

One of the most distressing aspects of the report relates to healthcare. My hon. Friend has already spoken briefly about that. Does he feel, as I do, that we can have no confidence in the partnership agreement? One thing that it will not do is get prisoners out of their cells to attend appointments.

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

I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for his work in the Committee on this and many other reports. He is absolutely right. We are calling for the partnership agreement to be published so that we can examine it, because we cannot be satisfied that it is yet fit for purpose. Previous partnership agreements have broken down, so we need to know how this will be different—in terms of both its structure and the way in which it will operate—in order to be reassured that there will be no repetition of what went wrong in the past.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Housing)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and the Committee on an excellent, timely and important report. However, while it does move us forward, if we are to change our prisons from being simply places of detention in various outrageous conditions to being places where rehabilitation is central—which is what they ought to be—we still have an awfully long journey to travel. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons should be given the resources that it needs for re-inspection, but we also need to be able to establish whether we are delivering the quality of healthcare, education and all the other things that are necessary in prisons that will allow—mainly—our young men to come out and become acceptable citizens.

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

I know how closely the hon. Gentleman followed this issue during his time as a police and crime commissioner, and as the interim mayor in his part of the world. He is absolutely right. The report is a useful step forward, but I do not pretend it can be more than that. It has to be part of a systemic change, and I hope that it will help to drive that, but we must think about the systems and about a long-term strategy that relates to the real purpose of our prisons.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

I commend my hon. Friend for his statement and his Committee for its report.

When the Care Quality Commission investigates local hospitals and makes recommendations, it returns to those hospitals at a later date to see whether they have been implemented. I do not understand why the same system cannot be introduced for Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons.

Is it not extremely alarming that the information given by Liverpool prison to the head of the Prison Service was so inaccurate? Given the speed with which the Committee’s report was produced, will my hon. Friend encourage the Minister to be equally quick in responding to its findings?

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

The quick answers are yes, yes, yes and yes. My hon. Friend is right on those points, and I am sure that the Minister will respond quickly. It would be bizarre if recommendations from the Care Quality Commission or Ofsted were ignored in the wholesale way in which those of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons have been ignored in the past, and that absolutely needs to change.

Photo of Marie Rimmer Marie Rimmer Labour, St Helens South and Whiston

I pay tribute to the Chair of the Justice Committee, which I have recently rejoined. I also pay tribute to the Minister for the quick actions that he has reported. However, we must not forget why we find ourselves in this situation.

I am pleased about the announcement—made some time ago—of the recruitment of an extra 2,500 prison officers, but we must bear in mind that we lost 7,000, so there is still a gap of 4,500. The prison population figures are falling now, but they did go up. The nature of the inmates changed somewhat. The health needs of those imprisoned for historical sexual abuse, for instance, were obviously different from those of the other, existing prisoners, but the budget was not increased to deal with such differences. There has been a drain on resources. At the same time as the loss of the 7,000 prison officers, the drug Spice appeared, and became big business. There were fewer resources with which to manage the inmates, and morale went down with the loss of those prison officers. When recruitment did begin, a baggage handler could be paid more than one of the new recruits. It is important that when we do recruit—and we are recruiting now—those people are trained properly, not for a week but for months. Resources are what is needed. Of course money is important, but there is also the issue of how that money is used. As far as I can see, there has been absolutely no contract management. When I initiated a debate on mental health in prisons, I noted that there appeared to be no communication between the prisons and the health service. Contracts were awarded and money was given, but there was no monitoring of those contracts.

As the Justice Committee said, and as its Chair has said today, this is about systems and about getting them right. However, it is also about resources. It is about recruiting the right people, training and valuing them.

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

I welcome the hon. Lady—in fact, I will call her my hon. Friend, because that is what she is—back to the Committee. I am very glad that she is with us once more.

It is true that we must look at all the issues. There is no single silver bullet. We need a comprehensive plan, and I urge the Government to work on that. I take the Minister’s assurances at face value, because I believe that he does have a desire to achieve what is needed. I look forward to working with him, on behalf of the Committee, to ensure that that happens. Staffing, resources, training, morale, the fabric of the establishment, facilities management and proper contract management are all part of the mix that we need to address.