It is a pleasure to follow Ellie Reeves. Devotees of Mortimer and the Rumpole series will well remember the Penge bungalow murders, so it is appropriate that she has spoken in this debate.
I stand to speak as neither a lawyer, a member of the Justice Committee nor indeed a former Minister, so I am tempted to say that I start with a distinct advantage. However, I particularly want to note the speech of my hon. Friend Victoria Prentis. I thought she spoke with incredible care, attention and knowledge, and we were lucky to hear what she had to say.
May I join many across the House in welcoming my hon. and learned Friend Robert Buckland? He is, I am tempted to say, one of my oldest and dearest friends in politics and personally. He is godfather to my youngest daughter and she is thrilled that he is now a Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice. He is a fan and an impersonator of Mr Francis Sinatra. He will do this job his way, and he will do it magnificently.
Let me start by stating what I hope will not be controversial: our prison estate needs more money. Since 2010, I would suggest there has been too great a willingness by Ministers to accept overly zealous reductions in departmental funding in one of the most crucial areas of social and domestic policy. Those reductions have clearly affected the physical fabric of the estate, which means that the environment in which prisoners are held and in which our devoted prison staff work has gone down. It does need new funding, and I know that the ministerial team—coming, as others have referenced, from the centre ground-based, one nation Tory tradition—will make a very strong case for that to the Treasury. In making that case, I hope the Minister will underscore what I think is a feeling, certainly across the Conservative Benches, that new departmental money should not be found by milking the probate cash cow.
Richard Burgon spoke about ideology. I have some sympathy with him, but I was also confused by his argument. There is nothing more arid, given the sensitivity and importance of the subject, than rightly to clobber, as I do, those who say, in some sort of Orwellian way, that only the private sector can do these things and we must chase out the public sector—“private good; public bad”—only then to weaken one’s case by adopting at the Dispatch Box exactly the same position in reverse. He seemed to suggest that there was neither merit nor benefit in involving either the third sector or the private sector. Given the magnitude of the task and the importance of getting it right, I suggest—I say this not as a lawyer—that we should be encouraging an attitude of, “All hands to the pump.” I very much agree that we need to ensure that there is a level playing field—for want of a better phrase—in the assessment and monitoring of private and public provision.
I am lucky to have HMP Guys Marsh in my constituency. James Lucas is its first-class governor, and I have met many of the staff there and know that they are devoted in their duty. However, like many others, the prison is infested with spice and has problems with the misuse of mobile phones and the drugs culture generally. It appeared in the national newspapers only a few weeks ago, when the entrepreneurial spirit of the criminal classes was found to be in full tilt after prison staff discovered that dead rats stuffed with SIM cards and drugs had been thrown over the fence for prisoners to find. I raised the matter with the previous prisons Minister, my right hon. Friend Rory Stewart, and I echo the point to my hon. and learned Friend the current Minister, that, given that one of the prison yards is adjacent to open farmland and a public footpath, a simple security net over the yard would make rat tennis a sport of the past.
We must take our hats off to those who devote their lives to working in our prisons. Many of those who work in our public services face threats of intimidation and violence on a daily basis, but those who work in our prisons do so in a heightened and tense environment. Prison officers face the scourge of “potting”, the uncertainty of what drug-induced state they will find a prisoner in, and worries about the impact on their own health of inhaling drug fumes in the prison environment, as the Prison Officers Association explained to me at our last meeting.
Carillion used to manage HMP Guys Marsh, and it did its best, but what sticks in my mind—this speaks to the point made by the shadow Lord Chancellor—is that a contract involving the private sector is really only as good as those who manage it. Its assessment—I have heard nobody disagree with it—is that the expertise of the National Offender Management Service in managing those contracts was pretty poor. When contract management is poor, it should not be a surprise that the outcomes of the contract are not as good as they should be.
One of the challenges, I suggest to my hon. and learned Friend, is to identify bespoke policies to drive up recruitment in our rural prisons, where property prices are high and housing is often scarce. There are some incentives that could be deployed. Certainly, having talked with the governor at HMP Guys Marsh, I think the problem is not lack of appetite for recruitment, but lack of interest from people in the immediate locality. If we are to attract high-grade prison officers, we need to do something about that.
The third sector is absolutely crucial. I have had the pleasure of meeting Clean Sheet and Astara Training, whose managing director, Victoria Smith, is based in my constituency. I have also seen the excellent work of Eva Hamilton MBE, who runs Key4Life, which has a contract with HMP Guys Marsh. Their work is focused, bespoke and attentive to detail. Those are the sorts of charitable-focused, third-party social enterprises that my hon. and learned Friend and his ministerial team should really be focusing on, to foster their support, engagement and initiative. They work in education, apprenticeships, securing vocational qualifications and drug rehabilitation.
I will close my remarks with this cri de coeur. The aridity of an Orwellian approach of “Two legs good; four legs bad”, whether from the left or the right, will not benefit our country, our society or our communities, and it will certainly not benefit those who work in our prisons or those serving sentences. The state should always have this as a final test: if it is to hold the right to deprive a man or woman of their liberty, it should always consider what impact any decision it makes will have in order to ensure that that man or woman is a one-time visitor to prison. If the state keeps that in mind when making each decision, whether it is the third sector, the private sector or public sector, and with the instincts and experience of the Lord Chancellor and the new prisons Minister, I have every hope that we can get this right.