Prisons Strategy

– in the House of Commons at 1:19 pm on 7th December 2021.

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Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement 1:19 pm, 7th December 2021

Today, the Government have published our prisons strategy White Paper to build the places, support our staff and transform the prison regime to cut crime. Prisons play a vital role in protecting the public by keeping the most prolific and dangerous offenders in custody and rehabilitating those who deserve a second chance.

As the House knows, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will lengthen sentences for serious violent and sexual offenders to keep them in prison and away from the public for as long as possible. We are therefore determined to build modern prisons to protect the public. We secured almost £4 billion at the spending review to carry out the biggest prison-building programme that this country has seen in more than a century, creating 20,000 additional prison places by the mid-2020s—but buildings are only one part of our plan, because of course most offenders will be released back into the community. To protect the public, we also need to strengthen the prison regime to reform and rehabilitate offenders throughout their sentence, which is the most effective way to reduce reoffending and cut crime overall. The White Paper sets out a seven-point plan to deliver it.

First, we will support prisons in taking a zero-tolerance approach to the drugs, weapons and mobile phones that disrupt and destabilise prisons, allowing organised crime gangs to run their empires beyond the prison wall. We will make greater use of our recently installed X-ray body scanners, which are now operating across the closed male estate and which prevent drugs, weapons and phones from getting into our prisons and create safer conditions for our prison staff and for offenders to focus on reform and rehabilitation.

Secondly, prisoners will be assessed on arrival for any drug or alcohol addictions so that prison officers and health teams can support offenders to map out a sustainable recovery from addiction, enabling offenders to go clean, which we know is pivotal to going straight. We will shift the focus to longer-term recovery, including through abstinence-based treatment, drawing on the best examples of incentivised substance-free living areas, such as at HMP Styal, where prisoners commit to live without drugs and undergo regular drug testing. Crucially, we want continuity of treatment once an offender is released into the community, so that they do not slip back into using drugs and into the life of crime that so often follows.

Thirdly, prisons will assess an offender’s numeracy and literacy skills and their level of qualifications as soon as they arrive in prison. Prison governors will be expected to develop a plan for each prisoner to improve these core skills and raise their level of qualifications so that we better equip offenders for work when they are released. A new prisoner education service will put vocational skills such as construction and computing at the forefront of learning so that offenders get the opportunity to improve their job prospects, giving them credible hope that they can take a second chance, turn their life around and lead a better life after prison for themselves, their families and our communities. I have seen what can be achieved by prison staff and prisoners working together, for example at HMP Lincoln, where prisoners are able to gain their construction skills certification scheme card—it is currently the only prison in Europe where prisoners can be assessed inside the prison walls so that they are ready to go once they are released—and at HMP Downview, where female prisoners work with the London College of Fashion, developing skills, confidence and great clothes.

Fourthly, we want to transform how prisons get offenders into work—one of the best ways to cut re-offending. We will introduce a new digital tool to match candidates to jobs. We will ensure that prisons have dedicated employment advisers to help offenders to find work. There are some brilliant examples, such as the marketing call centre run by Census Life at HMP High Down, or Lyons Haulage, a firm working with offenders at Ford Prison, but we need to do far better at spreading best practice across the estate. Prison governors will be expected to make their work programmes central to the way they operate their prisons, subject to appropriate vetting and security considerations.

The Government will support the changes needed to adapt prisons to accommodate the needs of employers, including through better links with businesses in surrounding areas. We are also designing smarter prisons such as HMP Five Wells in Wellingborough and Glen Parva in Leicestershire, which the Deputy Prime Minister recently visited with my hon. Friend Alberto Costa to mark the last major phase of construction at the site. These new prisons are being built with large-scale workshops so that offenders can get straight to work in those locations.

Fifthly, we will ensure that prisoners have the support they need to plan properly for a successful release from custody, because it can be a disruptive and potentially precarious moment for many offenders. Our new resettlement passports will help to prepare offenders before release by bringing together everything they need to settle back into the community, such as a CV, identification and a bank account, and start looking for work straightaway. Health and home matter, too; programmes for drug rehabilitation, skills and work will be more closely linked to the support services available in the community when offenders are released, and the new community accommodation service will help to tackle the challenge of homelessness, which disrupts an offender settling back into society and increases the risk that they will resort to crime.

Sixthly, we will make much greater use of smart technology to support reform and rehabilitation. Digital technology will enable inmates to access education and training courses online, as well as addiction recovery and healthcare services.

Finally, we will deliver this ambitious strategy with the hard work, determination, ingenuity and dedication of the brilliant staff who work in our prisons every day to keep us safe. We will recruit up to 5,000 more prison officers across public and private prisons as part of our expansion plans. We will upskill our existing staff throughout the estate so that they are better equipped than ever with the skills required to be a prison officer in the 21st century.

Prison leadership will be critical, too. We have some truly exceptional governors working across the estate today. We will empower those trailblazing governors who deliver the best results by giving them more autonomy over how their prisons are run to meet the strategic vision set out in the White Paper. We will also set out key performance indicators and league tables, and evaluate performance so that we can spread the very best innovative practice right across the estate.

The Government put public protection at the heart of everything we do. We are recruiting more police officers, we are putting serious offenders behind bars for longer, and now we are building state-of-the-art prisons, bolstered with a regime that will drive down re-offending by making sure that every day that an offender spends behind bars involves purposeful reform and rehabilitation to help them to go straight, turn their life around and a make a positive contribution to society. That is how this Government are cutting crime and making our communities safer as we build back better, stronger and fairer after the pandemic. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Shadow Minister (Justice) 1:28 pm, 7th December 2021

I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement.

We all want to see safer prisons that rehabilitate and reduce reoffending, so investment in providing purposeful activity and preventing drugs from getting into our prisons is welcome, yet the Government have a broken track record on prisons. In 2016, they promised 10,000 new prison places by 2020, but they managed to build only 206 in that time. They simply cannot be trusted on prisons.

Many of the measures announced today treat the symptoms of our broken prison system but do not tackle the root causes of the problem. Drug use in prisons is not a new problem, and it has soared by a shocking 500% over the past decade, so why has it taken so long for the Government to take action? The announcement of airport-style security in prisons is not a new policy—the Government announced it in 2019, in 2018 and in 2017, and it was even a commitment in their 2015 manifesto—yet it has still not happened. Why should we have any confidence that it will happen now?

This is a Government who have failed to get even the basics right in our prisons. After a decade of cuts in the justice system, prisons are currently understaffed, dilapidated, dangerous and overcrowded, with prisoners spending up to 23 hours a day in their cells with no purposeful activity. I remember a visit that I made to Rochester Prison a few years ago. That Victorian prison was so run down that it was marked for closure and services were decommissioned, but then the Government changed their mind in order to cut costs. When I visited, the drug and alcohol treatment programme had stopped running, and the education programme could not operate when it rained because of a leak in the roof. This happened on the Government’s watch, so how can we have confidence in their current plans?

Since 2018, eight prisons have been issued with urgent notifications, most recently Chelmsford Prison, which is housing 700 inmates when it is supposed to hold no more than 545, and where there have been reports of filthy prison cells with a rat infestation. The Howard League described the prison inspection report as the worst that it had ever seen.

We welcome the recruitment of an extra 5,000 officers and measures to upskill staff, but there are now 2,900 fewer officers than there were in 2020, and more than one in 10 frontline prison staff were lost last year. Among band 2 staff, the leaving rate was a shocking one in six. A survey conducted by the Prison Officers Association in early 2020 found that 48% of members believed that the quality of their on-the- job training was poor or very poor, and nearly half the staff reported that they were seriously considering leaving their jobs soon. How will the Minister tackle the issue of retention in the Prison Service, and will she commit herself to the pay review body’s recommendation of a £3,000 uplift for band 3 prison officers, previously rejected by the Government?

The Minister mentioned Downview Prison, which I have visited twice. The work done in that prison is commendable, but many of the women there are victims of domestic abuse, and the majority suffer from mental health difficulties and addictions. Although the Government’s own female offender strategy promises a focus on early intervention and community-based solutions—not only are they more cost-effective, but they reduce reoffending—the Government are investing £150 million to build 500 new prison cells for women instead of investing in what works: women’s centres and community sentences. Can the Minister tell us when they will finally implement the female offender strategy?

A shocking 75% of prisoners reoffend within five years of release, so we welcome measures on training and education and resettlement, but how can they be implemented when there are not enough staff, when prisoners are kept cells for up to 23 hours a day, when assaults in prisons have doubled since 2010, when the prison budget has been slashed by £6 million since 2010, and when self-harming incidents in prisons have increased by 132%? The Conservatives call themselves the party of law and order, but the figures speak for themselves: they have allowed reoffending to rocket because of the dire state of our prisons.

Today’s announcements are a sticking plaster over the fundamental crisis facing a prison system that has been neglected for more than a decade. All that we have had from this Government are warm words and broken promises, when what we need and what is long overdue is real action.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady, whom I welcome to her new position. If I may, however, I will start by correcting some of the statements that she has just made. In case she missed this information in the statement, I can tell her that 74 body scanners have been rolled out across the male closed estate and have already produced impressive results, spotting more than 10,000 instances of prisoners trying to bring forbidden objects into prisons and thereby helping to safeguard both staff and prisoners.

The hon. Lady asked about the state of the cells. We have said that many of the establishments, some of which date back to Victorian times, are not what we would wish for in the 21st century, and not commensurate with what we know works with prisoners when it comes to rehabilitation and cutting crime. That is why we are upgrading safety standards in 35,000 existing cells. In addition, our unprecedented plan to build major new prisons across the country will incorporate many of the modern technologies that we want to see rolled out over the next few years.

The hon. Lady rightly raised the issue of recruitment and retention. As I said in my statement, buildings are but one part of our plan. We must have dedicated and committed members of staff in those buildings, not only delivering the safety that prisoners within the walls expect but keeping members of the public safe outside those walls. The hon. Lady also raised the issue of recruitment. We take very seriously the recruitment challenges faced by some prisons across the country, which is why prison officers in our 31 “hardest to recruit” sites receive an additional payment of between £3,000 and £5,000. Since the end of October 2016, we have recruited a net increase of more than 4,000 staff.

We do not shy away from the fact that the role of a prison officer is extremely difficult, and does not suit everyone. These are people who bear a great deal of responsibility and who must work with some very dangerous and difficult people, as several highly publicised cases have demonstrated in recent weeks. That is why in the White Paper we have put such an emphasis on supporting our staff and enabling them to develop their careers in the Prison Service, so that they feel fulfilled and are helping to contribute to our nationwide effort to cut crime.

The hon. Lady asked me about women in prison. I am sure it was not deliberate, but she overlooked the fact that the number of women in custody has fallen by 24% in the last decade, since Labour was last in power. We very much stand by the female offenders strategy, as I said in evidence to the Justice Committee only recently. We want to ensure that only women who must be in custody are in fact so sentenced, and we are helping magistrates and judges to find alternative sentences for those women when that is appropriate.

Throughout my statement run the golden themes of education, rehabilitation and reform, but protecting the public is another important theme. I look forward greatly to working with the hon. Lady and other colleagues on both sides of the House to ensure that we keep our constituents safe, while also ensuring that justice is served for victims of crime.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

Anyone who takes justice issues seriously will welcome this statement and these initiatives, and I congratulate the Minister on what she has announced. I might also observe that it builds on work done by my right hon. and learned Friend Robert Buckland, who set much of this in train. I am also glad that the Minister picked up a number of themes that the Justice Committee has raised with Ministers over the years.

Does the Minister agree that it is important for us to have an honest conversation with the whole of society about the need for prison to focus more on rehabilitation and the prevention of reoffending, something that we have not done for decades under any Government? Does she also agree that to make this work, we must put resources behind it? Can she tell us what proportion of the welcome increase in funding received by the Ministry of Justice in the current spending round settlement will be devoted to rehabilitative measures?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

No doubt I shall have a chance to thank my right hon. and learned Friend Robert Buckland for his work in a moment, but I agree with the Chair of the Select Committee that rehabilitation is critical. Reoffending costs us some £18 billion a year, let alone the terrible human costs which often sit alongside that. This prisons policy should be seen as part of our cross-governmental work to tackle crime, support police officers and ensure that justice is delivered.

I can tell my hon. Friend how much we are spending on reducing reoffending. We are injecting £550 million over the next three years to support prison leavers’ transition back into society, and thus reduce reoffending.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee), Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee)

I thank the Minister for her statement. I recognise that she has a considerable track record in her previous ministerial roles of prioritising the interests and concerns of women, so I know she will be aware of the research that was recently published by The Observer showing that women in prison were five times more likely to have a stillbirth than women in the general population. She will also be aware of the terrible disruption and suffering experienced by children whose mothers are separated from them by being sent to prison.

Does the Minister agree with the Joint Committee on Human Rights that women convicted of non-violent and minor offences should not be sent to prison, especially when they are pregnant and when they have young children? There are other ways for them to serve their sentences, and that is what should happen. As she said, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is still under consideration in Parliament. Will she consider accepting our new clauses so that judges do not sentence women to prison for minor offences when they are pregnant or when it would mean separating them from young children? Let us have that in the law.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

First, I want to put on record my sadness that the right hon. and learned Lady has decided to stand down at the next election, but I very much look forward to working with her across the Floor in the meantime.

On women in custody, as I have said, we have seen a dramatic decrease in the number of women being sent to prison in the past decade. Of course we want to ensure that the judiciary and magistrates maintain their independence, but we support them in understanding that other measures are available. The work that continues through the female offenders strategy to examine women’s sentencing and women’s residential centres, as well as community solutions including drug treatment, will be critical. I very much hope that, if we can give magistrates and judges the confidence to issue those sentences, the rate of imprisonment will continue to decrease.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. We are not making brilliant progress so far, so if we want to get everybody in, we will need fairly short questions and answers.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I will do my best.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on bringing forward the White Paper, which has been long in the gestation. I am grateful for her commitment to it. Two things: first, when prisoners come into the estate, the importance of understanding neurodiversity and autism needs is very clear. I urge her to visit HMP Parc, where the unit on autism is breathtaking. Secondly, can she outline how, when prisoners leave, resettlement passports and the community accommodation service will make a transformational difference to cutting crime?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for all the work he has done on this issue. We are very appreciative of his commitment to it and of his particular commitment to neurodiverse prisoners. We are considering and learning from the joint inspectorate’s call for evidence, and we will very much take those findings into account when we are designing new prisons. The need for continuity of treatment is also central to the White Paper. We want to ensure that treatment that is given in prison continues beyond the prison gates, so that people have the best chance possible of leading lives that are free from crime and safe for the rest of the community.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Labour, Rochdale

The Minister said that the cost of reoffending was some £18 billion, but it is the victims of those crimes that we should think of first. If we know that women’s centres are more effective than prisons in cutting reoffending, we need to ensure that the necessary resources are going into those women’s centres. Also, what is good for women in this case would be good for many men as well.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

In fairness, I went on to say that the human costs were far greater. On women’s centres, only last week I was extolling the success of the Greater Manchester commitment to looking after and treating female offenders in a holistic way and the dramatic decreases in reoffending in that area. Of course there are lessons that can be applied in the male estate from what we are undertaking in the female estate. I very much want this policy to be applicable to all prisoners, but I have a particular focus on the vulnerabilities of some—not all, but some—female prisoners.

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble

I welcome the Minister’s statement today. I have many serving and former prison officers in my constituency, and I hear from them at first hand about that sinking feeling when they say goodbye to somebody and then all too soon say hello to them again. These measures to address the revolving door for prisoners are vital.

I also thank the Minister for her time on another matter, which is the proposed new prison on the site of HMP Garth and HMP Wymott between Croston and Leyland. I can see my right hon. and learned Friend Robert Buckland in his place, and I have also spoken to him about this—thank you very much, sir. Residents there understand that the planning process is under way, but can the Minister join me in urging the planning authority, Chorley Borough Council, to consider carefully its representations on the correct infrastructure for the site—it has no bus services at the moment—and on maintaining the environment and watching flooding?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I really want concise questions on just one subject, so that we can get through everybody. Otherwise, others are prevented from getting in.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I thank my hon. Friend, and I also thank her constituents who do so much to keep our communities safe. On the planning application, I regret that I cannot announce our views at the Dispatch Box; we must leave that to the council. I know that she has been lobbying hard to ensure that the plans meet the needs and concerns of her constituents.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

There is a lot in this statement that is to be welcomed, but the challenge that faces the Minister is that we can undermine it all by continuing to allow overcrowding in our prisons. Some of the prison estate is more than 60% overcrowded. With the prison population forecast to rise by 20,000 in the next four years, why are we not linking this to sentencing policy? The bottom line is that we still send too many people to prison.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

Fundamentally, the judiciary and magistrates should be trusted in their sentencing decisions. We need to provide alternatives for people who should rightly be sentenced to alternatives, but that must be a matter for the judiciary. On the question of prison places, this is precisely why we are investing nearly £4 billion in new prisons as well as having a vast programme of work to reshape existing accommodation and put in temporary accommodation so that prisoners are treated safely and decently inside.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Kenilworth and Southam

I welcome what my hon. Friend has said, particularly about digital technology. I know she will agree that one of its benefits will be to enable prisoners to communicate with their families in a safe and secure way. That is good for the prisoners’ rehabilitation and also good for the families, particularly the children. May I ask her one specific question? In relation to league tables, which are part of this statement, can she tell us how the Government will be able to make allowances for the very different kinds of prisons with very different types of inmates, so that the comparisons can be fair?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I can reassure my right hon. and learned Friend that we of course recognise those differences. We recognise the challenges that, let us say, a local prison faces, compared with those faced by an open prison or one that accommodates prisoners for many years. That will be taken into consideration. We want these key performance indicators to tell the truth about what is happening in our prisons in a fair way, but also in a way that shares best practice around the country.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston

There is much that I welcome in this statement, but I have to say that I deplore the proclamation of the creation of more prison places, especially for women, as a success story. May I press the Minister on the role of women’s centres and in particular on their funding? Can she give the House an assurance that that funding will always be adequate, sustainable and consistent?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, because it gives me an opportunity to reassure the House about the construction of the new female facilities. We want these new facilities to be trauma-informed and trauma-responsive. That includes details such as ensuring that there are no dark corridors, which might sadly trigger memories of sexual violence and abuse, for example. We very much want these new facilities be seen as a step towards the 21st-century prison estate. She makes a fair point about women’s centres, and she will know that plans are under way for our first female residential centre, in Wales. It is taking a little bit of time, but we will get there. We very much want to explore these alternatives, to help to ensure that the figures keep reducing.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

I welcome the statement. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Select Committee on Education has undertaken an inquiry on prison education, and there is a lot of evidence on the inability of offenders to undertake apprenticeships and do on-site training, which is hampering skills development. The proportion of offenders in employment one year after release is just 17%, which contributes to high levels of reoffending, as she knows, and there is the welfare cost. The prisoner apprenticeship pathway does not go far enough. Will she support an amendment to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill and work with me to allow offenders to hold and start apprenticeships in prison?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I regret that I am unable to make that commitment at the Dispatch Box, but I join my right hon. Friend in the principle that we want our prisons to be as effective and as meaningful as possible for those who are incarcerated. Apprenticeships, training and using part of the prison as a jobcentre are different ideas for increasing the vital statistic he cites so that people do not reoffend and instead turn over a new leaf, making our communities safer as a result.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The number of drug finds in prisons quadrupled in the 10 years up to 2018, so much so that the Government introduced a £100 million package to try to address the drugs issue. Drug finds in prisons have gone up again in the two years since. What next?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

The hon. Gentleman is mischaracterising the success of the X-ray scanners. I have seen how they work at Lincoln, and they discover objects concealed within a person that would not otherwise be found. It shows the terrible ingenuity of organised crime gangs in getting these substances, mobile phones and so on into prisons. It is precisely because we want to break down these empires that we have such enhanced security measures across our prison estate.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning the good practice at Downview and High Down. Most importantly, she has the joy of being a Prisons Minister with money, and I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend Robert Buckland on securing it. It will all go to waste if we do not address the inflation in the number of prisoners due to the addiction of this House to ever longer sentences. There are better ways of punishing people and protecting the public than prison. Her and her colleagues’ rhetoric will affect sentences and the Parole Board, which needs a lead and confidence from those charged with these responsibilities.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I encourage the House to see this strategy as sitting alongside the drugs strategy, because treatment and recovery for prisoners is key to cutting addiction and reoffending. We are committed to a meaningful journey of recovery within prison, and we want abstinence-based treatment to be the longer-term goal. Whatever work we achieve inside prison walls must continue once prisoners are released, to give them the best chance of leading fresh lives.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The House was shocked to its core when we learned of the stillbirth of an 18-year-old mother’s baby at Bronzefield. What specific recommendations does the Minister have on antenatal care? She talks about healthcare for people affected by drugs and mental ill health, but will she please set out from the Dispatch Box what we have learned not to do or to do better for pregnant women?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I am mindful of your call for shorter answers, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I cannot set out in detail everything we are doing, but I hope I can give the hon. Lady confidence that there is a vast programme of work to ensure such cases do not happen again. We are providing specific support for pregnant women, including a multidisciplinary individual care plan. We have introduced pregnancy officers and mother and baby officers in every single women’s prison. We do not want that terrible circumstance to happen again, and I genuinely believe it will be prevented through this work.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Conservative, West Suffolk

I welcome this package, and I particularly welcome the work on numeracy and literacy. Will the Minister ensure that universal screening for dyslexia and other neurodiversities is included? Will she also ensure that the data follows when prisoners are moved between prisons? Otherwise prisoners find they are sent back to square one, which is extremely frustrating.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I acknowledge my right hon. Friend’s work on increasing knowledge and awareness of neurodiversity issues. We will be looking carefully at the joint thematic report to ensure that neurodiversity is understood and that practice is followed within prisons to support those who have neurodiverse conditions. He makes a fair point about data following prisoners between prisons, which is something we must do much better to ensure we are not constantly restarting a prisoner’s journey when they are moved.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Alba, East Lothian

All this will impact significantly, and perhaps severely in some instances, on prison staff. So far the Government have refused to recognise Prison Service staff as a uniformed service, and they have required them to work until 68 or, in some instances, until they drop. Given that resources have rightly been found for infrastructure and inmates, is it not time that resource was also found for the greatest resource within the Prison Service, which is the men and women who serve? Perhaps they could have their pensions levelled up.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I hope the hon. Gentleman will take the time to read the report, as he will see our emphasis on the vital contribution made by our staff day in, day out and night in, night out to keep our communities safe. I have agreed to meet the Prison Officers Association to discuss the pension age. Prison officers are part of the civil service pension scheme, and the long and short of it is that prison staff pay between two and three times less than colleagues in the fire and police services. However, I want to listen to officers on this point and I am very happy to be meeting my hon. Friend Gordon Henderson and the Prison Officers Association to do so.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester

HMP Winchester recently marked 10 successful years of Spurgeons helping prisoners keep contact with their families, and the Minister knows how important that is in breaking the cycle. The only problem is that Spurgeons has not had any family days in the facility for a very long time because of, you guessed it, the pandemic. Does she agree that learning to live with covid must also extend to the secure estate? To enable that, what is the Government’s plan to change the currently very low vaccine uptake in prisons such as mine?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

My hon. Friend is right to say that we must learn to live with covid within the prison estate, as we do outside prison walls. We are working with NHS local services to roll out the vaccine in custody, and clearly we encourage everyone to be vaccinated, not just inside but outside prison. That will be key to our consideration of further removing the national framework. Of course, we must be led by the evidence and the data.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

I was a little surprised that the Minister did not mention family ties in her statement, as they are an important part of rehabilitation. Is she prepared to meet me and the charity Children Heard and Seen to discuss the retendering of prisoner, family and significant other support services so we can make sure they are children-focused services and are not just about prisoners’ wants and needs?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I thank the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend Steve Brine for mentioning family ties, which are critical. Family ties are in the White Paper, and we want to encourage, as appropriate, keeping those connections as best we can. I am happy to meet the hon. Lady and the charity. Through this White Paper we will be welcoming the expertise, knowledge and thoughts of charities that work with prisoners, victims and prison staff to ensure they are shared throughout our work.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

The White Paper admirably reflects the need to balance punishment and public protection with rehabilitation that reduces reoffending. Does my hon. Friend agree that a key element of achieving success is trusting the best prison governors to develop the right regimes for their prisons, rather than imposing instructions on them from headquarters, however well intentioned?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

Very much so. We want to encourage earned autonomy and we want the best practices to be shared across the prison estate. Last week I was delighted to meet, with the Deputy Prime Minister, a number of prison governors who told us their experiences of what was working in their prisons and shared information and ideas. That is the way forward for prisons: we must understand, of course, that as they serve particular communities—particular groups of offenders—they have the expertise and knowledge as to what will work within their establishments.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Minister for her statement. Whether prisons are new or old, what happens inside them is the critical issue, so will she outline what steps are in place to prevent contraband such as cigarettes, drugs, mobiles and other items, which are notoriously used as leverage in prisons?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

Indeed they are. Of course, not only are those items ways for organised crime gangs to continue control within the prison walls, but people can use the mobile phones to communicate beyond the prison walls. That is incredibly destabilising not just for prison staff but, importantly, for those offenders who are living by the rules and trying their best and who want to be released as soon as possible. We have been working for some time now on our £100 million security package, which includes not only X-ray body scanners but enhanced gate-security measures to cover other ways in which prisoners can get items into prisons, and that is critical. That will be central to our work going forward.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

A sensible way to reduce prison overcrowding and free up spaces would be to ensure that foreign national offenders serve their time not in British prisons but in prisons in their own countries. How many foreign national offenders are there in our prisons? Will the Minister negotiate compulsory prisoner-transfer agreements to get these people back to their own nations?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

We very much want to return foreign national offenders to their country of origin as quickly as possible. That is not always possible, depending on where in the world offenders claim to have come from or, indeed, whether we have been able to identify them as coming from a particular country. I continue to work with Home Office Ministers to ensure that the people who can be identified are returned to their countries of origin as soon as possible.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

I thank the Minister for her investment in rehabilitation. My question is about redundant prisons, and in particular Reading jail which, as she knows, has been redundant for some time. She will have seen Banksy’s very generous £10 million offer to buy this wonderful Victorian building; will she agree to meet me to discuss the possibility and look further into the matter?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind invitation and look forward to seeing how Banksy might represent Reading prison in future artworks, but I regret to say that as the competition has just closed and the bids are being considered, I am afraid I cannot say anything further on the process. I will of course update the hon. Gentleman and the House as soon as decisions have been made.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

I thank the Minister for her praise of staff and governors, of whom we have some superb examples on the Isle of Wight.

Will the Government please make up their mind about what they want to do with Camp Hill? We already have two prisons, Albany and Parkhurst, and there is room to expand in that estate. Camp Hill has now been shut; we do not mind having another prison but, overall, we would prefer the site to be used for community housing because we have only six brownfield estates on the Isle of Wight.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I very much understand my hon. Friend’s concern for his constituents and desire for some certainty. I cannot give an undertaking today but am happy to meet him to discuss the matter further and try to make some progress.

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham

I very much welcome the statement, and particularly the measures to cut reoffending.

On the building of new prisons, my hon. Friend will know that proposals for a new 1,400-capacity prison in Buckinghamshire were met with a wall of opposition and thousands of objections, particularly in respect of the loss of greenfield sites, open countryside and agricultural land. With other parts of the Government talking about a brownfield preference, will my hon. Friend lock into the strategy the condition that all new prisons should be built on brownfield and only on brownfield land?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

My hon. Friend is a staunch defender of his constituents and assiduous in advocating their concerns about this and other matters. I cannot comment further on the particular project that he describes because it is in the planning process, but I am happy to meet him to discuss it further because I am sensitive to the concerns he has raised.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes

I have written to the Minister to invite her down to south Devon to meet Landworks, a local organisation that helps those who have been rehabilitated to re-enter society. Will she come to visit? Also, will she engage with organisations such as Landworks to ensure that they feed into the process in respect of how we can help prisoners to do their time?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Minister for Afghan resettlement

I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend and hope he will treat me to a cream tea in the process.