Prisons and Probation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:58 pm on 14th May 2019.

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Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice 12:58 pm, 14th May 2019

That is an important point. Rehabilitation is key to an effective criminal justice system and to turning lives around and keeping communities safer. It is not just about violence; it is also about the failure to offer proper rehabilitation programmes, properly staffed and properly funded.

Opposition Members, experts and staff believe that private firms could be deliberately understaffing prisons to boost their profits. It is clearly in the public interest that staffing levels in private prisons be routinely published, just as they are routinely published for publicly run prisons.

If the Government want to reassure the public that private profit is not being put before the safety of prisoners, staff and wider society, will the Secretary of State today commit to making private companies come clean on staffing levels and publish them on the same terms as public prisons do? That is a very reasonable request.

One set of data that private prisons do have to publish is on assaults, which only adds to fears that privatisation is putting rehabilitation at risk. I put on record the shocking new figures that came to light in The Guardian yesterday, to which my hon. Friend Catherine West alluded, on the scale of violence in private prisons. The figures come from an analysis of the Government’s answers to my parliamentary questions, so there is no doubt about their accuracy.

Despite comprising just 13% of adult prisons, private prisons are disproportionately represented among the most violent. Three of the 10 most violent adult prisons are private—that is 30%—as are five of the top 20, or 25%. In the most violent category, male local prisons, four of the five private prisons have an above-average level of assaults. That is 80% of all such private prisons. The figures show that private male local prisons are over 40% more violent than their public equivalents.

Labour has made it clear that, in office, we will scrap privately run prisons. The Tories should follow Labour’s lead and drop their ideological obsession with privatisation but, if they will not, the very least they should do—in the light of these figures and the other issues of safety, transparency and accountability that I have set out—is halt plans for more private prisons and establish an independent inquiry into whether privatisation is creating a threat to safety in our prison system. Again a very reasonable request, and I look forward to the Secretary of State’s answer.

Private prisons are also disproportionately overcrowded, with the 2018 House of Commons Library briefing suggesting that, although just over half of public sector prisons are overcrowded, this rises to 85% in the private sector. The fear is a simple one: more prisoners means more money for private operators, which is one of the many perverse incentives created by running prisons for profit. More analysis is needed on those figures. Again, an independent inquiry could look into whether private prisons are, indeed, more overcrowded.

As I have mentioned, the slash-and-burn approach to prison staffing and budgets was an attempt to drive down public sector costs to those of the private sector. That was done under the tenure at the Ministry of Justice of the current Secretary of State for Transport. Perhaps he should be responding to this debate, as our justice system is full of examples of his dangerous obsession with outsourcing and privatisation. It is not too late for his successor to take a different course.

Prison maintenance, for example, was privatised in 2015, with contracts worth around £500 million handed to Carillion and Amey. The £115 million planned savings to the state never materialised, but our prisons paid the price. Cells were left with smashed windows, while inmates lived in squalor and, in some cases, were unable to access towels and even soap.

Take HMP Liverpool. Inspectors found the prison to be rat-infested, with Dickensian conditions as thousands of basic maintenance jobs had not been completed. After the collapse of Carillion, the Ministry of Justice set up a new public facilities management company to replace the work of Carillion, but it has refused to rule out reprivatising this work, and let us be clear that Amey is still underperforming in too many prisons. Will the Justice Secretary commit today to bringing all maintenance contracts back in-house when they expire?