Violence in Prisons

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9th October 2018.

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Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The influx of drugs has had an impact on violence levels in both public and private prisons, which is why we are investing in body scanners, improved searching techniques and phone blocking technology. In 2017, four of the top five assault rates in local prisons and category C prisons were in public prisons.

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)

It remains the case that the prisons with the highest number of assaults are all private. In the first quarter of 2018, the top five most violent prisons were privately run. Will the Minister commit to an independent review of violence in private prisons and to a moratorium on any new private prisons in the meantime?

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

No, the reality is that there are issues with violence in both public and private sector prisons. Certainly, the numbers that I have suggest that there is a significant issue in public sector prisons such as Liverpool, Exeter and Bedford, where there have been urgent notifications. We should not take an ideological approach. There are very good private sector prisons, and there are some very good public sector prisons, and it is right that there is a diversity of prisons in our system.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the prison officers in both public and private prisons who, by and large, do an exceptional job in very, very difficult circumstances? Does he agree that we should on every occasion do what we can to encourage them and raise their status as an important part of the whole process of judicial sentencing?

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My right hon. Friend is right to make that point, and I happily pay tribute to the work that prison officers do in this country—a point that I made in my party conference speech in Birmingham last week. The work that they do in protecting the public and rehabilitating prisoners should be valued by us all. It is not often very public, because it is, by definition, behind locked doors, but they do excellent work and we should recognise that.

Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Labour, Wolverhampton North East

There is a worrying level of violence, and increasing violence, in both state-run and privately run prisons. Does the Secretary of State agree with Phil Taylor, a former governor of Wormwood Scrubs, who said:

“What we’ve got here is a reduction in prison staff by over 10,000, and the government lauding the fact that they replaced it with three and a half thousand inexperienced staff who lack confidence and ability to deal with the things that they are confronted with on a daily basis”?

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

It is the case that in the past two years we have increased the prison officer population, and we will continue to do so. That enables us to implement changes, as we have key workers—a point that I made a little earlier—and a relationship is built up between prison officers and prisoners. Alongside additional measures that we have taken to stop, for example, drugs getting in, and the announcement that we have made on PAVA, all of that is designed to assist prison officers in doing a very, very important job.

Photo of Richard Drax Richard Drax Conservative, South Dorset

The prison officers in my constituency continue to be worried about the lack of a deterrent to prevent prisoners from assaulting them. Will the Minister reassure the House that far harsher sentences should be handed down to those who dare to assault our prison officers? [Interruption.]

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Indeed, and as my hon. Friend knows there is a new law that does precisely that. We were very happy to support the private Member’s Bill introduced by Chris Bryant on that front. We are increasing legislative ability, and we want to make sure that we work closely with the police to ensure that prosecutions are brought. It is the case, as I have mentioned, that we are giving prison officers a new tool, with access to PAVA.

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

The prisons Minister theatrically announced to the press this summer that he would resign if the 10 prisons he had identified did not improve under his watch. I have been looking at the prisons that he chose. It turns out that, of the 10 prisons he identified, only three are in the bottom category of the four prison performance categories. It gets still stranger when we see that there are 15 prisons in that worst performing category. I am sure that the Minister is sincere in his desire to improve prison standards, so instead of cherry-picking prisons for a media stunt, will he agree today that if all the 15 worst performing prisons identified by his own Ministry do not improve under his watch, he will quit?

Photo of David Gauke David Gauke The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The prisons Minister has set out a plan for 10 prisons that we are going to focus on. If the hon. Gentleman wants an explanation as to why we have chosen those specific 10 prisons, I am happy to meet him, and I know the prisons Minister would be happy to meet him. This is an area where we believe it is necessary to take action, and we have a plan to reduce violence in those prisons. If it works, we can look to extend it elsewhere. The fact is that we are gripping this issue. We are putting measures in place to address it, and we will deliver.