Prison Violence

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the House of Commons on 4th June 2019.

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Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

What recent assessment he has made of trends in the level of violence in prisons.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham North

What recent assessment he has made of trends in the level of violence in prisons.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

Violence against our dedicated staff will not be tolerated. Levels of violence in prison remain too high, but I am pleased to say that the number of assaults from October to December last year decreased by 11% from the previous quarter. We know that positive relationships between staff and prison officers can make a big difference. That is the aim of the new key workers scheme, and 60 of the 92 closed male adult prisons have now completed implementing it.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

Prison officers work in what their trade unions calls one of the most hostile environments in western Europe, with assaults on staff quadrupling since 2010. Does the Minister not think it is a bit unfair for a prison officer at 68 years of age to be forced to manhandle people and physically control them? Surely he could do something about early retirement for them.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

It is important to remember that for many years prison officers have daily faced that sort of challenge. It is unacceptable, which is why I am glad to say that numbers of prison officers have increased. With that important work with prisoners, I strongly believe that prisons will become safer places. Let us not forget the roll-out of body-worn cameras as well: 6,000 have now been provided. I believe that that will not only protect prisoners, but protect prison officers from false allegations.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham North

HMP Nottingham remains a particularly violent place for staff and inmates. The previous prisons Minister made improving this prison a personal priority. Will the new Minister commit to doing the same, and will he meet me to hear some of our local concerns?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I know from my previous role that the hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in criminal justice issues in his city. I share the same commitment as my predecessor to reducing violence at Nottingham. A new violence reduction strategy was launched by that prison. We provided funding for physical alterations to set up a new violence reduction landing, and two safer custody leads are now working in the prison to improve physical security. Of course I will meet him as part of that developing progress.

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield Conservative, Lewes

The recent prison inspector’s report on HMP Lewes in my constituency found systemic failure, even after it went into special measures, with an increase in the number of assaults on staff and a quarter of inmates feeling unsafe. What more can the Department do to support the new governor, Hannah Lane, in turning around that prison and making it a safer place for inmates and prison officers?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

My hon. Friend is quite right to chart the issues at HMP Lewes. I am glad to say that the prison is now fully staffed and performance has begun to improve in the second half of last year, but I accept that things have not recovered to the position that Lewes had been in when the inspectorate made a previous visit. However, the number of assaults has fallen to a level similar to that of three years ago, and work continues to be done. From the centre, both I and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service will continue to support the new governor in her work.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Is the new prisons Minister prepared to repeat the pledge of his predecessor that he will resign if there is not a significant reduction in violence in prisons within 12 months?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

As I have said already in this House in an Opposition day debate, I am going to do it my way.

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)

I have been taking part in the Prison Service parliamentary scheme at HMP Swansea, where over only two days I witnessed one dirty protest and two incidents at height. These were handled professionally by prison staff, officers and management alike, but surely the Minister shares my concern that prison officers are now expected to respond to such physically demanding and risky challenges as everyday workplace hazards? Will he meet the POA to discuss the absolute anomaly of our expecting emergency services officers to work until they are 68?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady for taking part in that important and valuable scheme. HMP Swansea was the very first prison I went into, nearly 30 years ago, and I pay tribute to the staff there. I take on board the point she makes. I have already spoken to the POA about that very issue, and I will continue a dialogue on that and many other matters.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Conservative, Corby

How about this as a deterrent to violence in prisons: a prisoner who assaults a prison officer is simply not eligible for early release?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

My hon. Friend will be reassured to know that that sort of conduct and criminality is dealt with in two ways. The first is by the criminal courts. The recent Act promoted by Chris Bryant covers prison officers, and I pay tribute to him for that. The second is via an internal process by which prisoners face consequences such as privileges being removed and categorisation changed.

Photo of Imran Hussain Imran Hussain Shadow Minister (Justice)

I congratulate the hon. and learned Gentleman on his appointment. By now, he will know that since 2010 our prisons have been driven into a spiral of violence and a state of emergency as a direct result of his Government’s cuts, leaving staff, prisoners and the public less safe. Will he answer one simple question: when will our prisons return to being as safe as they were in 2010?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I think the work being done to recruit extra prison officers and the extra finance and resource given to my Department by the Treasury are allowing us to return to a position of greater safety. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks, but I have to say to him that my experience of prisons stretches back a generation, and I know that many of the issues relating to prisons take a long time to resolve, but that will not stop me having a sense of urgency when it comes to dealing with problems of drugs, violence and safety more generally.