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As always, it is a pleasure to follow my good and hon. Friend Bambos Charalambous. This is an important debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for us to discuss these issues. I must declare an interest, in that I am a member of the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group and I am proud to represent the interests of prison officers campaigning for a basic right: the right to a safe working environment. I also want to pay tribute to the dedicated and hard-working staff throughout the justice system—in the prisons, in probation and in every aspect of the Department’s work—whose work is often overlooked.
Time is short, so I shall touch on just three issues: other Members have covered the financial cuts to the Ministry of Justice, so I will refer to them only briefly; I want to talk briefly about the loss of experience in the Prison Service because of budget cuts; and I will address the consequences of cuts for prison staff who are trying to maintain a safe working environment.
I read a most disturbing article in my local newspaper, the Evening Chronicle, entitled “Seven staff stabbed at North East jail as prisoners leave officers ‘black and blue’”. That is from
“The Government is taking unprecedented action to improve safety in prisons.”
In the light of those comments it is important that, as part of our responsibility to hold the Government to account, we consider their record on law and order.
The Department has suffered cuts of more than 40% since 2010 and, according to some work that I have read by the New Economics Foundation, the indications are that that proportion will rise to more than 50% by 2023. My concern is that the cuts are a false economy. Several Members, including the Chair of the Select Committee, mentioned that the Ministry of Justice budget was around £8 billion and the estimated annual cost of reoffending is now more than £18 billion.
Ron Hogg, the police and crime commissioner in Durham, is a wonderful man who is currently struggling with a most debilitating illness. He pioneered the Checkpoint scheme in an attempt to address the issue of reoffending. Ron joined me on a delegation—in fact, he led the delegation; I joined him—to see the Secretary of State for Justice and put forward a powerful case for taking a new approach to tackling reoffending.
Private prisons are inefficient and are wasting resources. Although private prisons accommodate approximately 15% of the prison population, the Government spend nearly a quarter of the total prison budget on them. The main aim of a private prison is clearly to make profit for shareholders. Public service and staff safeguarding are secondary. Private companies aim for a profit margin of around 8% to 10%, so for every pound paid to a private prison operator, 10p is immediately top-sliced, to be given to shareholders rather than being spent on making our prisons safer.
The other method that the private sector has used to improve prisons’ profitability is to reduce wages, cut staffing levels and accommodate more prisoners. A report by The Guardian newspaper, based on parliamentary questions, found that private prisons are up to 47% more violent than public prisons, as a consequence of understaffing and overcrowding. Put simply, private prisons cost more and deliver less.
The House will remember that the Secretary of State said:
“The Government is taking unprecedented action to improve safety in prisons”,
so let us look at the evidence in the little time I have left. The Tory-Liberal coalition cut 7,000 prison officers, leading to the loss of more than 80,000 years-worth of prison staffs’ accumulated experience. The recruitment of new prison officers, to which I understand the Minister will refer, even if to the same level the Government inherited from the previous Labour Government, will not replace the lost years of experience for many decades to come. The Government’s unprecedented actions over the past decade have damaged prison safety and increased violence, through the loss of prison officers and the valuable experience that they have in running our prisons.
At Holme House near Stockton, which is the prison nearest to my constituency, seven staff were stabbed. Meanwhile, 11 staff at HMP Northumberland suffered fractures and another 22 needed stitches. Across the north-east, there were 46 incidents of prisoners spitting at staff, and 29 other serious incidents that resulted in injuries to staff were recorded. Indeed, the annual report of HM inspectorate of prisons for England and Wales found that among category B and C prisons staff shortages have
“been so acute that risks to both prisoners and staff were often severe, and levels of all types of violence had soared.”
The Government are failing in their duty of care to prison staff: their workplace is unsafe; prison officers’ wages have been cut in real terms for a decade now; and their retirement age has been increased from 60 to 68.
This Government, facilitated by the Liberal Democrats in coalition, are to blame for our prisons being unsafe and for failing in their primary duty of reducing re-offending and rehabilitating prisoners. Unless prisons are safe, secure and decent, rehabilitation is simply impossible. Our prisons have become, in many cases, universities of crime, with career criminals in control of prison landings.
In my opinion, the Secretary of State, or his Minister, should start by apologising to prison staff for a decade of failure. He should apologise for devaluing their jobs through real-terms pay cuts, and apologise for creating an unsafe working environment by cutting the number of officers, losing valuable experience, increasing the retirement age and expecting prison officers approaching 70 to tackle and deal with violent inmates who are in their 20s, 30s and 40s. He should apologise for allowing private prisons to profit at the expense of staff safety, for undermining our criminal justice system, for imposing a decade of cuts at every level—to policing, to legal aid, to our courts and to our Prison Service. I was frankly aghast to hear Conservative Back-Bench Members at the start of this debate wringing their hands about cuts to legal aid. I must have dreamt that Tory Members trooped through the Benches into the Division Lobby in 2012 to vote for cuts to legal aid. I do hope that the Government will acknowledge their role and start immediately to repair the damage they have caused over the past decade.