I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. For many months, we have all been engaged in hand-to-hand, all-encompassing national combat with the coronavirus. We are deep, deep in the trenches. In our fear of the virus, we must not lose ourselves—our compassion, decency and humanity, our sense of right and wrong, our very values as a nation and the progress we have made as a society.
We stand at a crossroads as we face down the next wave. In our mission to save lives from the virus, we are increasing the risk of physical and mental health harm, and no person is more at risk of such harm than the very poorest and most vulnerable in our society, including those who are most dependent on others: the homeless and destitute, the mentally ill, those in care homes and hospitals and in our prisons.
As Winston Churchill said, the test of a civilised society is how it treats its prisoners. Since the pandemic hit, prisons have been in severe lockdown. Just this week, the chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, described the dangerous situation in very bleak terms. He has raised real concerns about long-term damage to prisoners’ mental and physical health, as prisoners are locked up for 23, 23 and a half or even 24 hours a day, day after day in the name of covid.
To avoid any misunderstanding, I have researched the position in prisons from Swansea to Stafford and beyond. I have taken note of contributions from the other place, as well as speaking to many involved with prisoners, including current prison chaplains, prison charities and many others besides. In raising this national matter in this debate, my remarks should not be taken to refer to the situation of my son Thomas or his father’s prison.
There is no doubt that the report of the chief inspector of prisons should be considered with grave concern, because it also affects the lives of those outside prison, particularly the children of prisoners. The National Information Centre on Children of Offenders estimates that there are more than 300,000 children of prisoners. Of those, around 10,000 each week had prison visits before covid. That is 10,000 visits by children to a parent each and every week. For thousands of prisoners and their children, these vital visits in person and by video call have stopped or can be scheduled only during school hours during the week, so school-aged children are cut off from their parent entirely.
Despite assurances that secure phones will be made available during covid for prisoners without access to phones in their cells, several thousand prisoners have no such access to a cell-based phone, so they are unable to speak to their children, sometimes for days on end. As covid continues, days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months. Now they look to turn into years. This is an inhumane, dangerous and unsustainable position.
In addition to family visits and calls, in many prisons there is no access to a library or a gym. There is no daily exercise hour of exercise, walking around that small yard in the drizzling rain. There are no skills courses, no education, no English language lessons—there is nothing at all to help prisoners in that situation. I hope that, by raising this matter today, we will take urgent steps to avoid long-term physical and mental health harm in our prison population.