His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service

– in the House of Commons at 3:06 pm on 4 July 2023.

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Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the year ending with 31 March 2024, for expenditure by the Ministry of Justice:

(1) further resources, not exceeding £6,418,705,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 1383 of Session 2022–23,

(2) further resources, not exceeding £1,528,277,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and

(3) a further sum, not exceeding £7,350,811,000, be granted to His Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Scott Mann.)

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee 3:10, 4 July 2023

It is a pleasure to open this important debate, and I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to debate this part of the Ministry of Justice estimates. I am glad to see the Minister and the shadow Minister in their places.

I want to raise succinctly, but in some detail, a number of pressing areas that trouble the Select Committee on Justice. Despite the funding increases that have recently been achieved, there is a background that causes real difficulties to the Prison and Probation Service.

I will highlight four areas in particular where the Minister ought to seek to persuade the Government to prioritise and increase their efforts, for the sake of both those who work in His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and the offenders it is meant to manage and hold safely but humanely, with a view to reform wherever possible.

I will flag up the following issues: prison capacity, the projected prison population and overcrowding; the quality of the prison estate; the prison and probation workforce, and workforce shortages; and the youth custody estate. The Select Committee has looked at these matters on a number of occasions, and we are currently carrying out an inquiry into the prison workforce—I am grateful to everyone who has given evidence so far, and I appreciate the engagement we have had with Ministers.

I will start with one of the most pressing issues facing the Prison Service today. We now have the latest prison population projections and the reasons for their increase. The reality is simply that the prison population has grown substantially over the past 30 years. As of last Friday, there were some 85,851 people in prison. The number has changed a bit even since then.

Despite the Government’s efforts to manage the population, England and Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe and, of course, it is projected to grow further. We see no sign of the imprisonment rate falling. At the same time as having one of the highest imprisonment rates in western Europe, we also have one of the worst reoffending rates. Successive Governments have failed to address that ironic dichotomy.

Photo of Conor McGinn Conor McGinn Independent, St Helens North

The hon. Gentleman, the Minister and the shadow Minister know my bona fides on matters of law and order. Bad and dangerous people should be in prison to protect the public, but we do not talk often enough about prevention and rehabilitation. It would cost far less to keep people out of prison, and to stop them going back into prison, than to keep them in prison.

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

I could not agree more. The current Lord Chancellor has said previously that prison is there for the people of whom we are entitled to be afraid, not for the people with whom we are annoyed or angry. That is an important distinction, because prison is there to deal with those who are a danger to society or who have significantly harmed society; it is not there, in an ideal world, to deal with people who, for any number of reasons, have got their life into a mess. Such people can be a nuisance to society, but there is surely a better way to handle them than incarceration in the closed estate at a cost of some £40,000 a year.

The Justice Committee held an inquiry into the prison population back in 2017. There was about a 15% reduction in the prisons budget between 2015 and 2020, and it was found that had an impact on the safety and decency of the estate, following a reduction in the number of prison officers between 2010 and 2015. In truth, there has been underinvestment in prisons and, I would argue, underinvestment in the whole justice system for decades, under Governments of all complexions. Because the Ministry of Justice is both an unprotected Department, in budgetary terms, and a downstream Department, it often picks up the consequences of things that have gone wrong elsewhere in society and elsewhere in Government. The Ministry of Justice is particularly vulnerable.

In 2017 we saw there had been a 20% increase in the prison population over 15 years, and future projections indicated growth to 2022. There was, at that time, a transformation programme committed to expanding the prison estate by 10,000 places and to closing outdated prisons. Sadly, the truth is that the programme was not fully delivered. The Public Accounts Committee reported that just 206 places were delivered by the programme.

In 2018 the Ministry of Justice decided not to deliver the prison estate transformation in full because of budgetary pressures. Around 6,500 places were removed from the programme, but nothing has been done to reduce demand. Indeed, a number of changes to sentencing policy have, in fact, increased demand in a number of areas.

The 2017 inquiry found clear evidence that the reduction of spending in prisons had had a major destabilising effect. Reducing staff numbers put more pressure on remaining staff, and the way in which facilities management services were outsourced through block contracts meant the operation was very remote and very unresponsive to the day-to-day needs in prisons. It was very frustrating for governors, who were frequently finding that it took months to get basic repairs done. The nature of the contract was seriously at fault. I do not have a problem with contracting out in the right circumstances, but the way it was done was extremely inefficient.

Six years on, the Prison Service faces largely the same issues. The population has continued to increase, there is still an issue with the recruitment and retention of staff, and the estate still has capacity pressures. There was another prison expansion programme in 2019, and the “Prisons Strategy” White Paper said the provision of prison places would make a “more modern and secure” estate.

There was an ambitious target of 20,000 additional prison places as part of that programme, but we now know that planning permission has not been granted for three prisons—either it has been refused or no decision has been made—and the Ministry of Justice is having to appeal those planning decisions. That is hardly joined-up government. Surely the risk of delays in planning should have been foreseen at the outset.

On behalf of the Committee, I wrote to the permanent secretary at the MOJ following the publication of its main estimates, and I am grateful to her for responding yesterday. Disappointingly, only 8,200 new prison places will have been created and made operational by May 2025. We are about 11,800 short of the Government’s target of 20,000 by the mid-2020s. Given that background, is the Minister convinced that the current prison expansion programme is genuinely deliverable? When are we going to get to the 20,000 places? What steps are being taken to speed up a rate of delivery that, so far, will not get us there?

Prisons in England and Wales are reaching breaking point; the growth in the adult male population has forced the Government to use police cells to accommodate prisoners, through Operation Safeguard. The Government have said that would be in place for no longer than is necessary, but how much longer does the Minister anticipate that will be? How frequently is Operation Safeguard being used?

I mentioned the changes to sentencing policy, which have put more pressure on prisons. For example, we have seen changes to magistrates’ sentencing powers; there was an increase to two years and then, suddenly, a temporary reduction back down to one year. That is not good lawmaking, and it is not fair or just sentencing policy to have a lottery whereby when a defendant appears before the court decides whether he is dealt with by the magistrates or committed to the Crown court. As we all know, that move was done not because magistrates sentence more heavily—there was no evidence to suggest that—but because if people are sent to the Crown court for sentence, as the magistrates deem their powers insufficient, it will take longer before they end up in prison. There is a bit of sleight of hand here, as that was done to ease out the demand in the prison system, pushing people’s arrival in prison back down the road a bit, in the hope that somebody else will have left by then and so a bit more space is available.

That is not the right approach and it puts more pressure on another part of the MOJ’s responsibility, the Crown courts, because more cases are then being sent to them when they could have been dealt with more quickly by the magistrates. The Government need to address that situation. What is going to be done to deal with it? How long does the MOJ envisage this reduction in sentencing powers lasting? What is being done to consult the judiciary on whether that is a proper approach to the use of judicial resources and sentencing policy? I know that there has been a temporary response in respect of rapid deployment cells, which may offer some support. It may be of some assistance, but what is the long-term plan? How long do we envisage those cells being in use? What is the plan eventually to integrate them with the rest of the estate?

We have the plans for the 20,000 prison places, but the delay is significant. That means there is significant overcrowding in the estate, which is the second point I want to address. The overcrowding is such that it is difficult for prison staff to carry out rehabilitative work, which is one of the objectives of prison. That feeds into that high rate of recidivism and reoffending that I have referred to. It also creates real challenges on our basic duties of care towards both prisoners and prison officers. When the state removes someone’s liberty for the broader public good, it has the duty to commit to keep them safe and in decent conditions.

Equally, the state has a duty to provide decent, safe and reasonable working environments for those who supervise the prisoners and run the prisons. I fear that in a number of our prisons we are simply not getting there at the moment. We are simply failing in that, and repeated reports from His Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons have flagged that up. The growth in the number of urgent notifications that have been issued by the inspector to the MOJ is also evidence of that. I appreciate that the Minister has always responded promptly to those urgent notification procedures, and I am grateful to him for that, but it speaks to an underlying problem that needs to be resolved. I suspect that that can be done only through sustained investment and by thinking about whether we are using the alternatives to prison effectively. To go back to the point made by Conor McGinn, we need to make sure that we use it for those who are dangerous, where there is no other safe means of dealing with them and we cannot use cheaper and often more effective rehabilitative alternatives.

We still have many Victorian prisons—the “local prisons”, as they are often called—some of which are in a very poor state. They have been described as “not fit for purpose” and “dilapidated”. There has been historical under-investment in maintenance and we have a backlog of maintenance work in the prisons. In March 2021 this was estimated to be about £1 billion-worth. His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service is regularly taking prison cells out of use because of their state of disrepair. In the decade between 2009-10 and 2019-20, some 1,730 prison cells were permanently out of use for failing to meet the required standards. The lack of money going into basic maintenance therefore adds to the capacity crisis.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Solicitor General

The Chair of the Justice Committee is making an excellent critique of the system. There is something ironic about prisons being so undermaintained and needing £1 billion spent on them, such that their accommodation is not available, when some £4 billion is being spent on new prisons at the same time. It looks as if we are just forgetting the ones that we have, particularly the remand and the local prisons.

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

I have a lot of sympathy with that point. The irony is that the chief inspector of prisons, in his 2021 annual report, describes some of those old prisons as

“cold, dark and shabby cells…often plagued by damp and cockroaches, leaking pipes and toilets, and broken or missing furniture and windows” but, at the same time, as we have already observed, the new prison building schedule is way behind and, because of the planning situation, so far we have no assurance about when those spaces will be delivered. In any event, they will not replace the dilapidated prisons, as we had originally hoped, but will simply increase capacity, because we have a tap that nobody seems able to find the means of properly turning off, in terms of those coming into the system.

The original plan was to close old prisons as part of the prison estate transformation programme, but that has not happened. In 2019 the Minister’s predecessor said that they would need to be kept open. Well, how long do we expect to keep those prisons open? What is the long-term plan for those prisons? What is the plan to ensure that the risks in relation to planning permissions and restrictive covenants, which plagued the potential redevelopment of Holloway, for example, are recognised and sorted out well in advance of the commitment of the capital?

It is worth observing that we have had an increase in the capital departmental expenditure limits for prisons, which is welcome, but if we are spending only a fraction of it so far—as I recall it is about £4 billion, and we have spent about £1.6 billion so far—clearly we have resource being allocated by the Treasury that we cannot have confidence that the Ministry is able to spend and use to deliver in a timely fashion. What steps is the Minister taking to deal with that? What reassurance can he give us? What is the plan to speed up that programme and get the resource spent where it is needed?

The other issue I want to deal with is the operational workforce—as I said, the Committee is currently running an inquiry on that. I pay tribute to the men and women who work in our prisons. They do a very tough job, which probably no one in this House would want to do. They do it on behalf of society, frequently in difficult and unpleasant conditions—sometimes unacceptable conditions—and at some risk to themselves. They deserve to have the recognition that I do not think they always get. On behalf of the Justice Committee, I recognise and salute them for what they do, but we need more than just recognition and warm words; we need some real support for them.

As part of the inquiry, the Justice Committee undertook a survey of serving prison officers. Some 6,582 staff responded to it, which was a decent number. The responses were striking. We found that half of band 3 to band 5 staff do not feel safe at the prison they work in. Feeling safe at work is surely a basic right for anyone. Half is a frightening statistic. Reports from the inspector and the independent monitoring boards have highlighted the growing number of assaults, both on staff by prisoners and between prisoners. That is a result of the cramped, overcrowded and stressful conditions in which many prisoners are held, so perhaps it is no surprise that the prison officers feel so concerned about that.

Band 3 to band 5 and band 2 are the key operational grades—the frontline people who do jobs on the wings. Only 15% of band 2 operational staff felt they had proper, regular training; 25% of band 3 to band 5 staff said they had regular training. That means the majority of staff do not think that they have such training. Surely training people is a basic part of making sure that we professionalise and keep the workforce up to scratch? We are bringing in various protective equipment for them; they need to be trained to use it.

It is no surprise that morale is low. More than 70% of staff in band 2 and 80% of staff in bands 3 to 5 said that staff morale was not good at the prison in which they worked. If that is the position with the frontline staff, is it any wonder that we have a problem not just with recruitment, but with retention? It is clear that there is a real issue with experienced officers leaving the service. When things get difficult in prison, when those tensions threaten to boil over, and when there is potential dispute or violence on the wings, it is exactly those experienced officers—the old hands, the men and women who have been around the system—who know how to deal with sometimes quite damaged and challenging individuals. Their experience is more necessary than anyone’s to calm things down and to prevent things from escalating. Therefore, unless we have a proper strategy for retention, we are creating a potential powder keg for the future.

Ultimately, we have both to retain and to increase the number of staff. Unless we do that, we will not get the purposeful activity that is necessary to make prisons beneficial; otherwise we end up just warehousing individuals with no benefit at the end of it. That pressure on staffing and overcrowding in prisons is reflected in the concern of the president of the Prison Governors Association, Andrea Albutt, who said that the prison system faces an immediate crisis and could run out of prison places as early as mid-July. What is the Minister’s assessment of that? Does he agree with the president of the Prison Governors Association that, in a few days’ time, we could run out of space? If so, we are in a very grave situation indeed.

What, too, about the observations of the Shannon Trust—I am very grateful for its information—pointing out that statistics from the Office of National Statistics, HM Prison and Probation Service and the voluntary sector suggest that some 62% of all those incarcerated have a literacy level lower than an average 11-year-old? Given that we have some 85,000 people in prison, that potentially equates to about 53,000 people who have real literacy deficits. Without that being put right, what is their hope of getting a job on release? How do we then get them out of that cycle of reoffending? Because it is so difficult to carry out education activities in those cramped and inadequate facilities and to attract staff to do the tough job of education work in prisons, all too frequently, the level of courses is not being delivered in the way that was intended. What will the Minister do to increase the amount of education and purposeful activity that we see in our prisons? We all say that it is the objective, but so far we are not delivering on it in any consistent manner.

Let me look beyond prison to the critical issue of probation, which is sometimes, I fear, regarded as the poor relation of the two. The bulk of the budget goes on prisons because of the very high fixed costs, but probation is essential and we should pay tribute, too, to the probation officers who work so hard. It is essential to give alternatives to prison in the first place and, secondly, to have a proper means of transitioning prisoners back into society when they are released, without the risk of reoffending.

When we carried out our inquiries, we found high staff vacancies, overloaded probation practitioners working overcapacity, poor staff retention and inaccurate risk assessments, all of which were flagged up by the chief inspector of probation, who said that many services are experiencing exceptional staff shortages, with half the positions at key grades in some areas being unfilled. It is no wonder, therefore, that things are being missed. That is a risk not only to prisoners, but, potentially in the worst case, to the public as well. What is being done to deal with staff pressures in the probation service?

We met many probation officers. They want to improve their service, but they need decent and sustained funding to do so. You cannot have it being switched on and off like a light switch. We know that three fifths of the HMPPS’s expenditure is on prisons. We need to concentrate on and not forget the other two fifths of the budget as well.

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

I will give way one more time and then I shall move on.

Photo of Conor McGinn Conor McGinn Independent, St Helens North

I am sorry to intrude on the hon. Gentleman again. He is making an excellent speech. I think he will agree that the privatisation of the probation service was a disaster and it is right that that is being reversed, but that does not mean that probation cannot work with the private and voluntary sector, particularly around employment. There are some great examples of that, with firms such as Timpson, the voluntary sector and organisations such as the Prison Advice and Care Trust. It is important that the service works collectively with all those groups to ensure that we stop people from reoffending, and help them rebuild, get on and be successful in their lives.

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

Yet again the hon. Gentleman is spot on. I join him in paying tribute to Timpson, for example. The work of the Timpson family and their firm has been consistently quite exceptional over a long period; I have constituents who benefited through their endeavours and many others in the House will have similar cases.

The hon. Gentleman’s point is an important one. The Justice Committee was critical of the way the probation service was privatised. As he knows, I do not have an ideological objection to privatising services, in the right circumstances and in the right way, but the simple truth is that the way it was done in probation was absolutely the wrong way to do it, splitting up and dislocating the service, with a mixture of that which was retained nationally and that which was with various outsourced companies. It was wholly unsatisfactory and created some dire results.

I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland, who, when he was Justice Secretary, took the tough but right decision to reverse the process and unify the service once more. That was welcome. None the less, that privatisation is still affecting morale, it has affected retention and it has created considerable dislocation in data sharing between various services. It also broke a number of the local ties that had been developed between the probation service and local authorities and other providers in the area.

Ironically, as the hon. Member for St Helens North says, there is a role for the private sector. The privatisation of probation was intended to have more private sector groups coming in to the provision of probation work and more smaller-scale charities. What happened instead is that it went on bulk contracts to some of the usual big outsourcers and defeated its own object.

We need to work hard now to ensure that we give charities, not-for-profits and small-scale organisations real access to provide services where they can bring a unique perspective. Again, I would be grateful for the Minister’s observations on what the Government will do to encourage those providers into the sector, where they can work collaboratively with the new unified service. We currently have 220,000 people on probation and 16,000 staff in probation. The service has been through any amount of upheaval. It now needs stability and support—both practical financial support and recognition for the work that it does.

I have only a couple more points, Mr Deputy Speaker. I turn now to the youth custody estate. Youth custody, it should be said, has been a real success. We imprison far fewer people now than we used to. That is a real win that all sides involved can take credit for. The service does not face the same pressure of numbers and we have seen a steady decline in the number of children in custody.

One is tempted to say, “Why, if we can do that for children, largely because of a more holistic approach and far more early interventions, can we not apply the same philosophy to the adult estate as well?” The principle is not different: it is getting in early when we see the first signs of the problem in someone’s life that is likely to make them more vulnerable to falling into offending. If we can do that successfully for youngsters, why should we not at least do much more of it in the adult estate too?

However, although the numbers are not an issue, safety is a real concern in the youth estate. Staff retention is a problem in the youth estate too, which has an impact on safety. Lack of staff and training is also a matter of concern and recent inspection reports from His Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons have raised concerns about education in the YOIs.

Safety concerns extend beyond physical harm. If the institutions fail to provide adequate educational programmes, vocational training and rehabilitative regimes, young offenders will not receive the tools they need to reintegrate into society. Instead, they will be all the more vulnerable to being sucked back in to the leadership model of their criminal friends on the outside, whom in many cases they joined up with because of the gaps elsewhere in their life. I wrote to the Minister in May about the woeful findings in relation to His Majesty’s Prison Cookham Wood in the urgent notification procedure there, and I am grateful to the Minister for his response. However, it is pretty disappointing to see yet another urgent notification being issued in relation to a failing prison—particularly one where children are involved. We must see improvements for those children. They have been entrusted to the state’s care, and we have a duty to them to ensure that they are safe and that when they leave those institutions, they are in a better place than when they went in.

I recognise the Government’s attempts to stabilise prisons and probation by injecting funding, but they are trying to make up for the great deal that was taken out earlier. I recognise the Minister’s commitment, and I appreciate the personal courtesy and determination in his words. I recognise in particular the commitment of the new Secretary of State, who understands these issues very well from his own professional background. They will both know that we have a lot of ground to make up to get prisons and probation back to where they should be. The fact that there is some increase in the estimates is good news, as I have demonstrated, but I fear, first, that it may not be enough and, secondly, that we need an assurance that funding will be sustained over a period of years and that the Ministry has the capacity to spend the money wisely and successfully to deliver on all that.

I hope that the Minister will respond on those matters with his usual care and courtesy, but we need not just words but a clear programme of action. Frankly, we need to increase and raise the extent and awareness of public debate about the Prison and Probation Service, as we need to with the whole criminal justice system. It ought to be a decent prisons system and probation system—a means of protecting the public but also of rehabilitating those offenders who can be rehabilitated—and that ought to be as central a mission to any Government as a decent education, health or social care system. It does not get the same level of attention. Perhaps this debate will help, if only in a small way, to flag up some of the issues. We all have a duty to talk about those issues with our constituents, in a measured and calm way, more than perhaps we currently do.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Solicitor General 3:41, 4 July 2023

It is a real pleasure to follow that forensic speech by the Chair of the Justice Committee, Sir Robert Neill. He took us through many of the problems, particularly those in the Prison Service. I will be rather more selective about the issues I speak about, but I will concentrate in particular on prison conditions.

Three weeks ago, I visited Wormwood Scrubs prison in my constituency. It is a prison that I have visited on and off for the past 30 years as an MP, a councillor and a criminal barrister. Despite meeting many dedicated officers and determined governors, I have never changed my mind about it being an unsuitable institution in the 21st century, particularly for the rehabilitation, or indeed the punishment, of offenders. On my most recent visit, I saw that many of the men were sharing one-person cells with unshielded toilets, making their living conditions cramped and unpleasant with no privacy. In addition, the Scrubs, like many prisons, is still operating a 23-hour lock-up regime, in which some prisoners get only one hour a day outside their cells. Is it any wonder, then, that self-harm and poor mental health are at a high across the prison estate?

I recently asked a series of written questions of the Minister’s Department, mainly on the topic of time out of cell. The MOJ responded that it does not hold those statistics centrally and that it was not practical for it to record the data. How does the MOJ hope to have an overview of the wellbeing of the prison population in its care if it does not know what each prison’s time-out-of-cell regime is? I followed up to inquire about why the MOJ does not collect that data centrally, and I was provided yesterday with a response that said that the MOJ would need to record data for each prisoner individually, based on his or her movements each day, to understand time out of cell for each prison. If I may say so, that is a ridiculous response and the Minister has misunderstood the question—not intentionally, I hope.

To get an understanding of each prison’s time-out-of-cell regime, the MOJ need only ask each prison to report that data to it. As the data is about the time out of cell rather than the individual schedules of prisoners, it will be much simpler to collect than the Ministry pretends. [Interruption.] The Minister is chuntering from a sedentary position. I am sure that he will, when he responds, deal with that point in more detail.

A couple of weeks ago at Justice questions, I also asked about the overcrowded conditions in prisons. That data is held and published by the Government, but I do not think it is an accurate representation of what is and is not an overcrowded prison. For example, when I visited Wormwood Scrubs, the governor told me that she had just been asked by the MOJ to increase operational capacity. How will we ever know if a prison is overcrowded if the MOJ keeps moving the goalposts of operational capacity? If the MOJ keeps asking prisons to increase operational capacity, overcrowding will become an even bigger problem, as well as something of a hidden one.

Prisons are overcrowded, single cells are being used to house two people, and most time-out-of-cell regimes are oppressively restrictive. What necessitates much of that is an insufficient number of staff on the wings. Prisons need more staff, but they cannot hire more staff if their budget does not allow it. Prison officers are leaving the profession in their droves, and it is not hard to see why. It is a very dangerous job; prison officers are at very real risk of physical injury. It is also emotionally taxing seeing prisoners at some of the lowest points in their lives, and getting very little assistance by way of productive work, education and other support. The pay does not do the job justice, and is proof that the MOJ has insufficient regard for the profession. It wastes thousands of pounds training new prison officers who then leave within the first two years due to the conditions. It is clear that something is going very wrong, and the Government need to fix the problem.

Photo of Conor McGinn Conor McGinn Independent, St Helens North

As well as prison officers, will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to prison chaplains, particularly at his local prison of Wormwood Scrubs, where Father Gerry McFlynn was the chaplain for a long time? He is now the director of the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas; my right hon. Friend John McDonnell will know him. Father Gerry celebrated his golden jubilee just last week—he is 50 years an ordained priest, and has dedicated his whole life to prisons and prison chaplaincy. I am sure my hon. Friend will join me in sending his regards to Father Gerry, as will all Members.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Solicitor General

I am very glad to have taken that intervention. I agree that prison chaplains, prison priests, prison vicars and prison imams—we have an excellent imam at the Scrubs—are in many ways unsung heroes, doing a fantastic job alongside the other staff.

I am afraid that often the problem is the MOJ itself, which is seemingly always one of the first Government Departments to offer itself up as soon as the Chancellor of the day mentions cuts. I think its budget is now 12% lower than it was in 2010. If prisons do not have the staff to unlock the prison safely for a reasonable period of time, do not have the money to provide meaningful activities and do not have the resources to provide good-quality education, mental health declines, and that can have tragic consequences for prisoners and staff.

I will come back to the issue of education in a moment, but I will briefly mention mental wellbeing in prisons. I recently met a lawyer who has been representing four bereaved families of prisoners from Wormwood Scrubs who took their own lives. Between April 2020 and February this year, there have been seven self-inflicted deaths at the Scrubs. The pain for the families must be unimaginable, and I am sure that other prisoners and the staff who found the deceased are also struggling. Any self-harm death in a prison is a potentially preventable one that deserves a rapid response to work out what went wrong and to implement learning for the future, but not one of those cases has yet made it to an inquest. An inquest for one of the families is scheduled for August this year, but that is over three years of waiting for answers.

We rightly talk a lot about the court backlog, but maybe not enough attention is paid to the coroner’s court backlog. According to coroner statistics for 2022, the average time from the date of death to the conclusion of an inquest is 30 weeks, but it is a postcode lottery; I think the worst case was at North Lincolnshire and Grimsby, where the wait was 72 weeks. One of the important outcomes of inquests is often the prevention of future deaths report. If an institution such as Wormwood Scrubs is waiting over three years for an inquest into the death of a prisoner and there is crucial learning that a coroner could uncover, how can that prison be expected to make the necessary changes? When the coroner does provide recommendations in their prevention of future deaths report, how do we know that public bodies will implement them?

I recently spoke on a panel for a campaign launched by the charity Inquest, which is asking the Government to implement a national oversight mechanism. The mechanism would collate recommendations from inquests and prevention of future deaths reports, along with the public body response, in a database. It would then analyse these responses, and produce a report. Finally, the mechanism could allow a follow-up procedure to check on the progress of implementing changes arising from the original recommendations. This sounds like a sensible and not expensive approach, and one that could help to lower the number of preventable deaths, if recommendations became centralised and easy to follow up. I am grateful that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Mike Freer, has offered to meet me and Inquest to discuss this, and I hope to hear from him soon. I realise that deaths in custody and deaths in prison are only one part of the equation, but they are an extremely important part.

I want to finish by coming back to education in prisons, In my recent meeting with the governor at Wormwood Scrubs, she explained that individual prisons have little control over their education services. The MOJ employs education providers in the Prison Service, but the quality of these providers can vary greatly from prison to prison. The governor says that she is unable to change the provider, because it has a contract with the MOJ for a number of prisons. That is only one example, but I think it is typical of the disconnect and neglect that is apparent.

I mentioned local and remand prisons. These are often the oldest, Victorian prisons and those in the worst condition. The Government boast—I am not sure why—that they are on this massive prison expansion programme and putting huge sums of money into new prisons. However, that is not to renew the prison estate, but because of the increase in population. I urge the Minister to look at the way that some of our older prisons are being run. They do a disservice not only to the people who work there and run them, as well as of course to the inmates, but to the wider community, because people are not being rehabilitated and are coming out of prison insufficiently supported and going back into prison very quickly. That is a recipe for disaster not only for the individual but for society as a whole, and it is an indictment of the failure of the prison system under this Government.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee 3:52, 4 July 2023

It is a pleasure to follow Andy Slaughter, who made some really interesting points about the collection of data both in the MOJ and in prisons, and the ability that gives us as parliamentarians to hold to account, scrutinise and understand better what is happening in our prisons and the impact that that is having, as the hon. Gentleman finished by saying, on wider society. I want to pick up on a very specific element of that, which is the impact that it is having on families.

I was very privileged last week to host an event in this place on behalf of my constituent Professor Jane Payler, who has carried out a two-year research project on the impact of prison sentences on the families of offenders. In particular, she highlights the work of Families First, which is a Worcestershire project. One could reasonably question why I was looking at Worcestershire when I very clearly represent Hampshire, but this is in fact an Open University project, led by my constituent, to scrutinise the impact of prison sentences on the children and families of offenders and what we know about that.

The answer comes back, sadly, that we know far too little, because at no point is there any coherent, strategic collection of data that gives us any indication of how many children prisoners may have, and therefore of how many children in wider society may need additional support because they are missing a parent. It is not just that the parent is absent; the children are also coping with the stigma and shame of the fact that their parent—usually their father, although not in every case—is imprisoned. There can be a reluctance on the part of the prisoner to volunteer the information that they have children, because there is a fear that those children will then have an involvement with social services that the mother—I say mother, and I am generalising, but it is usually the mother—may well not want, and there is a fear that that could result in even more adverse outcomes for the children.

I am prepared to concede that in comparison with my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill, the Chair of the Justice Committee, I know little about this subject, and I am not an expert by a long way. What struck me instantly, however, was that today is an opportunity to raise with the Minister the importance of our improving our understanding and discourse around the impact of prison, and understanding what the MOJ, and indeed the Minister, could do to improve the situation, so that there is at least some collection of this data and we know about the numbers. Estimates of the children impacted vary wildly. We can find one estimate back in 2009 of perhaps 90,000 children impacted, and if we extrapolate the numbers for the increase in the prison population we might expect that number to be in the region of 120,000 or 130,000 children now. Some academic research, relying on French data, indicates that the problem could extend to as many as 300,000 children who are impacted by parental imprisonment.

What do we know of those children? First, we know far too little, but we do know that there are considerable problems with their emotional and mental wellbeing. We know there are considerable problems with the physical impact of a child potentially being moved around the country because they are missing a parent, and the changes that there may be in schools. We know that such children have poorer educational outcomes, and that they and their families are largely forgotten, unseen, and impacted as a result of that. We know there is a lack of holistic and tailored support for those children. We know about secondary prisonisation—I am not convinced that it is a word, but we will go with it for the time being—and that there is an impact on their mental health because of the stigma and shame that they feel. Children lack an understanding of what has happened to their parent, and many are assuming caring responsibilities that that absent parent may have.

We heard from the hon. Member for Hammersmith commentary on the impact that criminal behaviour can have on young people who have previously witnessed criminality, and in far too many instances the young person may step into the void caused by a father or parent going into prison. However, we cannot access up-to-date data, and the number of children impacted is simply not recorded. Freedom of information requests to the MOJ have indicated that such data is not in an extractable format, so even if it has been collected, we cannot necessarily extract it within the cost parameters that are often used.

I have one request, which I think is on quite a short list this afternoon. I thought at one point that I could perhaps stand up and make a cheeky little intervention, but I could see five minutes in that this request clearly could not be made in an intervention without testing your patience, Mr Deputy Speaker. My request is to the MOJ: please find a mechanism whereby that data can be recorded and shared with those services that are in a position to support those children, whether that is local authorities, or the excellent charity sector, just as we had with Families First in Worcestershire. It has worked incredibly hard to ensure that such support is provided to children with, I must say, some really striking outcomes.

The report, which I will send to the Minister after the debate, contains heart-warming stories of the difference that has been made to children when there has been intervention and they have been given support. Also crucial has been the difference that such support has made to parents coming out of prison; having conversations with their children who have articulated the impact on them, which has convinced their dad that the last place he ever wishes to return is prison.

Given that I have this opportunity and few other Members wish to contribute—I have plenty of time—it would be remiss of me not to raise two other issues regarding the MOJ that are of concern to me. Conor McGinn is no longer in his place, but he raised the important point that prison should be used as a mechanism to keep us, wider society, safe from people who are dangerous. I recently met two incredible women, Carole Goulde and Julie Devey, who both tragically lost their daughters in domestic homicides. They have lobbied long and hard for there to be a review of sentencing. They have welcomed the fact that the eminent KC Clare Wade has done her review into domestic homicide sentencing, but it would be remiss of me not to use this opportunity to reiterate their calls about the fact that “overkill”—a horrific and graphic term for where people, all too often women, are murdered in a frenzy by someone they may have recently been in a relationship with, or still are—still does not carry a mandatory 25 years. We need to be protected from the truly dangerous individuals who abuse women and murder their own partners. I would argue they are among the most dangerous people we can encounter.

I know that the Government’s response to the Wade review is due imminently. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister discuss that with the Lord Chancellor and the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend Edward Argar, to make sure that that Government response is not snuck out on the last day of term? It would be most helpful if Members had the opportunity to have time in this House—perhaps an oral statement or an urgent question the following day—to discuss what we think of the Government’s response to the Wade review. As I said, these are among the most horrific crimes, and it is important that this House is given the opportunity to debate that review in due course.

I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, the Chair of the Select Committee, who has led this debate and highlighted his expertise in this area.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 4:01, 4 July 2023

I pay tribute to the Chair of the Select Committee, Sir Robert Neill, who gave a comprehensive overview of what is happening on prisons and probation. I am so pleased that Caroline Nokes raised the issue of children. When we had the debate on imprisonment for public protection sentences, it focused on the fact that the whole family is serving the sentence and we do not give enough consideration to the implications for the family, and particularly to the support needed to assist the rehabilitation of prisoners as they are released.

I will declare an interest, as I am an honorary life member of the Prison Officers Association. There is no financial interest, and in fact I am told by the POA that it does not even gain me an extra pillow in a cell if I ever need it. It is as simple as that. We have had discussions over recent months—in particular a presentation in the Jubilee Room a few weeks ago, which a number of us attended—where we have been meeting prison officers working on the frontline. I want to report the conversations we have had and, on their behalf, set out some of the concerns they have expressed, which build much upon what my hon. Friend Andy Slaughter said about the state of prisons.

There are three messages that prison officers want to get across. The first is that the austerity Budgets have taken so much from the Prison Service over the past decade that prison officers have left the system. It can only be described as being in crisis, and that is not just putting prisoners and prison officers at risk but putting the public at risk of dangerous reoffending. The second message is that Ministers need to understand that they cannot run prisons on the cheap. It requires investment, particularly in staffing, to ensure safe, secure and purposeful regimes. The third message, which the Chair of the Select Committee has raised and which I will come back to, is that prison officers want the Minister to know that they are fed up. Morale is at an all-time low, and it is developing into real anger at how they have been treated. To give one quote, they felt like they were “disposable commodities” to be “worked to the bone” and then discarded. They are voting with their feet to leave the service.

Mention has been made of the budget cuts that have taken place over the years and how we have arrived at this situation. To give one statistic, at one point at the height of austerity after 2010, the Prison Service saw a 30% cut in overall expenditure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith has said, the figure is still 12% below what it was in 2010. Alongside that, we have had a number of fairly disastrous privatisation experiments—those have not just been in probation, but in the maintenance of the prisons themselves.

What happened in the first years of austerity was startling. In the early-2010s, a quarter of the operational workforce was laid off, and a crisis of violence was unleashed. Having laid so many staff off, we also got into a vicious downward spiral of insufficient staff and increasing violence, and therefore problems with retention. Recruitment drives simply failed to resolve the situation.

On one estimate, during that period we lost 100,000 years of professional experience built up over decades. As a result of that, exactly as has been said, prisons are fearful places with prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and assaults on staff, which have soared, so prison officers and support staff are leaving in droves. We have heard some of the statistics. Mark Fairhurst, the POA national chair, presented evidence to the Justice Committee, where he explained, just as my hon. Friend did, that many leave

“within the first two years”.

He said:

“We are at the highest attrition rate that the service has ever seen. We are currently running at 16% for prison officers and 19% for operational support grades. Some areas of the country have seen attrition rates of between 35% and 45%.”

The Chair of the Select Committee mentioned the survey of how prison officers are feeling. Exactly as he said, half of those surveyed do not feel safe at work and 80% said that staff morale at their establishments was bad. When we talk to officers at some establishments, they tell us that it has collapsed completely. Many have a lack of confidence in the future.

It was also raised with us in conversations that the number of prison officers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder is rising and at critical levels. Serving and ex-prison officers receive little support for PSTD, and it has an overwhelming impact on their lives. It is unfortunately becoming almost accepted as the norm that prison officers will have to go through that. Mark Fairhurst told the Committee:

“There is no support if you have mental health problems. More and more of my members are getting diagnosed with PTSD, because of the trauma that they deal with and the things they see. There is no mental health support on site for those staff. They are leaving the job with ill health or capability retirement, so there is no support there for mental health.”

This is one of his most startling statements:

“We have come across scenarios in some jails where the most experienced member of staff on that same wing has nine months in the job. It is the blind leading the blind.”

To try to give us an understanding of what that meant, he said:

“When you have inexperienced staff dealing with experienced prisoners who have been in and out of prison all their lives, it has a massive knock-on effect on stability.”

Spending during the first five years of austerity fell by 20%. That is why, as has been said, with spending levels cut so dramatically over a period, it is hard for prison officers to fully comprehend why £4 billion is being spent on building a new generation of prisons to boost capacity when our existing prisons have become mired in squalor—that is the description used—and, according to the Public Accounts Committee only two years ago, there was a £1 billion backlog of work needing to be done.

Prisons are violent places. We have, at times, reached catastrophic levels of violence. It needs to be acknowledged—not to accept that it will continue—that violence is part and parcel of prison life. Prisoner officers cannot understand that the Government will not even include levels of violence in their new key performance indicators for prisons. My hon. Friend Grahame Morris introduced a private Member’s Bill in the last Session—the Prisons (Violence) Bill. We urged parliamentarians to support it to enable that sort of monitoring to be part and parcel of the performance indicators, so that the Government could develop a full strategy.

The POA has joined, as a founding member, the Joint Unions in Prison Alliance, alongside the other unions and working with the Prison Service. It fully supports the Safe Inside campaign to reduce violence in prisons. It is especially concerned about what it described as the “ultra-violence” in the youth custody estate. It warns that an urgent review is needed of the protections that prison officers need when working in that estate. It comes back to investment. The POA also said:

“Dangerous, squalid jails…make rehabilitation impossible. Prisoners are released more criminalised, more traumatised, more addicted to drugs than when they arrived. This is madness and should be completely unacceptable in a civilised society. Prisons are often the best chance that state has to turn someone’s life around, whether through education or treatment, but we’re doing the opposite—we’re making them worse.”

The POA has reached such a state of frustration that it is calling for a royal commission. I believe that was one of the proposals considered by the Conservative party before the last election. A royal commission should examine the problems in our justice system from end to end, to try to tackle imprisonment, incarceration and, more importantly, rehabilitation and, as other hon. Members have said, to look at preventing crime and preventing people reaching imprisonment.

The POA wants to raise clearly what has happened on pay and on retirement age. On pay, the unions welcome the Government’s increase in early starters’ pay, but are concerned about recent statements from the Government about not honouring the pay review rewards in future. Nothing will undermine morale more. When there is an independent assessment of pay, the POA is not allowed to take industrial action like other unions, and therefore has to rely on the pay review bodies. That the Government say they will not honour those recommendations is utterly defeating when prisons are seeking to recruit and retain.

The POA has made it clear time and again that it believes that a pension age of 68 is unacceptable for the physical job that prisoner officers undertake. It would welcome the Government returning to the negotiating table on retirement age, which they walked away from in 2016 after the POA rejected the offer to reduce retirement age. Those negotiations need to be reopened, because 68 is too late.

I have tried to give some understanding of what prison officers are going through at the moment. They ask straightforward questions: what happened to the Conservative party’s commitment and pledge of a royal commission on criminal justice? Will the Minister bring back those proposals? Will he commit to investing the resources, especially in staffing, that are needed to save the system from the current crisis? Will he look to improve workforce morale and retention by looking again at the issues of pay, terms and conditions, and the pension age, which is currently threatened? The final issue they want to draw attention to is the fact that there needs to be a clearer programme to reduce prison violence, ensuring there is sufficient support for prison staff so that they can perform their professional jobs without risk to their lives and limbs.

Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Shadow Minister (Justice) 4:15, 4 July 2023

I thank Sir Robert Neill, the Chair of the Justice Committee, for speaking so persuasively, as always, on these incredibly important issues.

Our prison and probation services do vital work to deliver justice, rehabilitate offenders and protect the public, but sadly, after 13 years of Tory neglect, they are broken: judges are being told to jail fewer people because our prisons are full; no prisons are rated as good for rehabilitation and release planning; and one murder every week is committed by criminals out on probation. It is hard to separate that declining performance from the cuts faced by the Ministry of Justice. Even a former Tory Prisons Minister recently declared that they went too far. But with what scarce resources are left, we continue to see incompetence: £1 million spent on maintaining closed prisons; £98 million wasted on avoidable mistakes on a new tagging programme; and an estimated works backlog on the prison estate of £1 billion.

When I visit prisons, I see at first hand overcrowded crumbling estates blighted by staff shortages. Last year, I visited Wandsworth prison, where inmates were locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day. While I was there, I met two prisoners who had jobs as prison cleaners. They said that in the dilapidated and run-down wings, pigeon mess created most of their work. They told me that they considered themselves lucky, as their roles as cleaners meant that both of them got to be out of their cells for around three hours a day. They explained that come the afternoon the smell of drugs in the wing is overwhelming, as prisoners use them out of boredom without fear of consequence. While there, I saw a library staffed by some passionate librarians, but there were no prisoners there. It was completely empty, because there were no available staff to move the men across the prison. I saw rooms set up for training, including opportunities for inmates to gain qualifications in skills such as dry lining. Again, they were not being used for the same reasons.

That is hardly surprising, given that prison staff have been leaving in droves. Since 2010, over 100,000 years of cumulative prison officer experience has been lost, leaving wings to be managed by smaller, less experienced teams. As a consequence, violence against staff is up by 165%. Apart from the impact that staff turnover has on the running of prisons, it also has a devastating impact on the public purse. It costs £13,000 to recruit and train a prison officer, yet one quarter of officers leave within a year of taking up the role. Why? Because under this Government being a prison officer is no longer considered a vocation. Instead, it is often just a stepping stone to move into less dangerous, more lucrative work. One thing that the Government could do tomorrow to improve retention would be to give prison governors a say over who they recruit. Currently, they do not as they have no role on interview panels for new recruits. That would be an important step in getting a best fit for their prison, but it is an opportunity that is being missed.

The same goes for procurement. If a governor wants to buy goods for a prison, they have to go through the approved Ministry of Justice supplier. Now, there is an obvious security need here, but the system would seem to be beset by delays and huge cost inefficiencies. At Wandsworth, the new governor told me she needed a new screen for their office to conduct Zoom meetings on. It took weeks to arrive, and the exact same screen was available from Argos to be delivered the next day, and it was cheaper. When I visited Leeds Prison, staff there said that they wanted to procure some wood to make raised flowerbeds for one of their rehabilitation projects. Timber from the approved supplier cost three times as much as the amount quoted by the local timber merchant. Those savings could have been made. When I visited HMP Styal, one of the house units had just been renovated: that consisted of new windows, an alarm system and a basic refurbishment. Using the approved supplier cost just under £12 million, which seemed far out of step with the work required. I strongly urge the Government to look into this issue, as it seems that there is a potential for huge savings and efficiencies—as well as the opportunity to build links between prisons and local businesses, which could provide a path towards collaboration and post-release employment.

In 2021 the Government committed more than £500 million to work and skills reform in prisons, to improve employment rates post release. Two years on, however, the probation inspectorate has found that just 8% of those available for work went into employment upon release. When classrooms remain empty, access to libraries is limited and inmates are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day, how can we be surprised when prisoners, who have had no intervention and no opportunity to learn anything new, leave and reoffend? Moreover, the effects of this are costing the taxpayer £18 billion a year.

Cutting reoffending has to be an absolute priority, but in the current overcrowded, understaffed conditions, prisons are little more than colleges of crime. Since 2015, the Government have repeatedly announced plans to build new jails and increase capacity, but in the last 10 years they have closed nearly 3,200 places, and three new prisons that were planned will not open until 2027 at the earliest. An internal Ministry of Justice memo published in June stated that even if all prison building targets were met, there would be a shortfall of 2,300 places by March 2025. Overcrowding is already having a detrimental effect on conditions and the daily prison regime. Last month the chief inspector of prisons inspected HMP Pentonville, which was originally designed to hold 520 men. Today it holds more than 1,000. How can rehabilitation take place in these conditions? It is just more evidence of a failure to get a grip of our justice system.

The fact that little or no rehabilitative work is being done in prisons is making it even harder for probation officers to do their job. When I speak to them, they tell me that what they long for is to be able to do their job properly, but case loads are simply unmanageable. Officers are having to prioritise paperwork and databases instead of spending proper time with the people they supervise. Under Labour, probation was a well-regarded service, but this Government’s ill-conceived part-privatisation wreaked havoc on the service and caused a mass exodus of experienced staff. In total, these reforms cost half a billion pounds, and they left the public at greater risk from offenders because the work was often reduced to a tick-box exercise.

What was the result? Between 2014 and 2019, during the privatisation years, the number of serious further offence convictions increased by more than a third, and the number of serious offenders on probation found guilty of murder increased by 123%. The service has rightly reunified now, but the huge organisational changes, the staff exodus and the vast sums wasted on privatisation mean that probation is on its knees. Today only one local service has received a good report, and in December the vacancy rate was 29%.

These shortages and high case loads are leaving the public at risk. Just this morning, the probation inspectorate found that only 28% of domestic abuse offenders on probation were being sufficiently assessed for any risk of further domestic abuse. Nearly half should have had access to an intervention such as a group programme or a one-to-one meeting with a probation officer to reduce the risk of a further offence, but that had not happened. In nearly 75% of cases, significant changes such as moving in with a partner, altered child protection plans or a partner becoming pregnant are not being adequately reviewed or reassessed.

All the above failures in probation have caused judges to lose confidence in community sentences, meaning offenders who should be eligible for them are being sent to overcrowded prisons instead. Last year I visited a community payback scheme in my constituency where those on unpaid work were helping to maintain a community play space, which without them probably would have closed. They all, without exception, spoke with pride about doing work of value and having the opportunity to learn new skills. It showed just what can be achieved, but these schemes are patchy and the use of community sentences has more than halved under the Tories despite the clear benefit when they work effectively.

We need to look at how probation can be delivered as an effective local service. Labour would begin to do that by creating a system of community and victim payback boards to strengthen community and victim involvement in sentencing. Under those boards, local people and victims of crime will have a say in deciding what unpaid work offenders must undertake.

Rather than getting to grips with those issues, the Government are currently restructuring probation via the One HMPPS plan. I really hope they will take seriously the concerns raised by the sector and the findings from the damning inspection reports. Funding needs to be channelled to frontline officers, not the bureaucratic layers of organisation above them. That is the only way to reduce the burden they face and ensure they can give proper time and attention to those they supervise. Their inability to do this because of failed Tory reforms has meant that, on average, there have been six serious further offence convictions every week since 2010, including for murder, kidnap and rape.

We have had 11 Justice Secretaries and 13 Prisons Ministers in the last 13 years, so it is no wonder that the system is in crisis. They are never in post long enough to get to grips with the issues, to take responsibility for their spending and be held accountable, or to set a long-term strategy and ensure stability. No wonder the service is stuck lurching from one crisis to the next when that is exactly what is happening in its political leadership. If we are to fix that, we need continuity at the top. We need stable management that delivers a proper plan for prisons and probation, instead of rehashed announcements and gimmicks, and we need leadership that is laser-focused on reducing waste, driving efficiency and cutting reoffending. The Tories have had 13 years to deliver that, and they have failed.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 4:27, 4 July 2023

I thank my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill, the Chair of the Justice Committee, for his opening remarks and, more broadly, for securing this important debate on this estimates day. I thank everybody who has contributed to the debate.

There can be no higher purpose for a Government than protecting the public from the devastating consequences of crime and maintaining a criminal justice system in which people have confidence. We have honoured our manifesto commitment to recruit 20,000 additional police officers and, through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, we have introduced tougher penalties for the most serious crimes and removed automatic halfway release of the most violent and sexual offenders so that the worst criminals are locked up for longer. We are building new state-of-the-art prisons that will not only give effect to the order of the court to take criminals off our street, but properly rehabilitate them so that they turn their backs on crime for good. That way, we can break the destructive cycle of offending that costs the taxpayer £18 billion a year and has an incalculable personal cost to the victims and communities blighted by it.

The PCSC Act also brought in better monitored and more effective community sentences, which were just mentioned by Ellie Reeves. They punish offenders, tackle the underlying drivers of offending and support people who want to turn their lives around. Those measures include tougher and more flexible electronically monitored curfews. We aim to almost double the number of defendants and offenders tagged at any one time to reach 25,000 by March 2025.

We have recruited more than 50 new health and justice co-ordinators, who will cover every probation region and work with health partners so that offenders get the right treatment to stay on the straight and narrow. That will be underpinned by regular drug testing to monitor compliance. We are investing up to £93 million in community payback to drive up the hours of unpaid work done by offenders, so that they visibly pay their debt to society for the damage they have done.

We are achieving our vision to cut the youth custodial population, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. Roughly 3,000 children and young people were in custody in 2008-09; as of April this year, the number had fallen to around 600. It is also important to note that, in line with our female offender strategy, between 2018 and 2021, the average female prison population fell by 17%.

Our £100 million security investment programme to reduce crime inside prisons, including stemming the flow of illicit items such as drugs, mobile phones and weapons, was completed in March 2022. Enhanced gate security—including 659 staff, 154 drug dogs and over 200 pieces of equipment—has been deployed to 42 high-risk prison sites that routinely search staff and visitors. We now have 97 X-ray body scanners covering the entire closed male estate and they have recorded more than 28,000 positive indications.

To date, 89 prisons have completed their roll-out of PAVA synthetic pepper spray to stop violent prisoners in their tracks and we have introduced 13,000 new generation body-worn video cameras across the estate, with networked, cloud-based technology. These important investments rightly underpin our focus on the safety of staff and others in prison.

Linked to that, we need prisons to be a place where offenders overcome addiction, which is why we are rolling out abstinence-focused drug recovery wings and increasing the number of dedicated, incentivised substance-free living units across the estate, where prisoners commit to regular drug tests in return for incentives such as more gym time.

Alongside safety and security in prisons, we must invest in education and employment if we are to cut crime sustainably. We know that, if a prisoner can hold down a steady job, it reduces their chance of reoffending by up to nine percentage points, which is why we are driving forward initiatives to help prisoners to secure jobs on release, including through prison employment leads to match prisoners to jobs and employment advisory boards to build links between prisons and local industry, and to ensure that the skills being taught in prisons align with what is demanded and required in the local labour market.

I agree that we need to go further on education. Andy Slaughter spoke about the Shannon Trust and I pay tribute to its work. I confirm that we are extending what we do with the literacy innovation fund across 15 prisons. There is also a much sharper understanding of neurodiversity in our prison population, and I am pleased that we will have neurodiversity support managers across the estate by January 2024. I am also excited about the prospect of the first secure school, which we will be doing in partnership with the Oasis Trust. It is a different approach from those in youth custody, further elevating the role of education.

Ensuring proper support is on offer beyond the prison gates is also crucial if we are to help offenders stay on the straight and narrow, so we are improving pre-release planning and continuity of care. We want to ensure that no one supervised by probation is released from prison homeless. Our new transitional accommodation scheme—community accommodation service tier 3, so below the level of bail hostels—helps us to deliver on that commitment. It was initially delivered in five probation regions in 2021, but our investment is expanding to operate across all of England and Wales by April 2024.

We are also investing in pre-release teams, which have been embedded in 67 prisons and provide an important interface for commissioned rehabilitative services that help ex-prisoners with accommodation, personal wellbeing, employment, training and education. To improve continuity of care for prison leavers with substance misuse or wider health issues, we are recruiting more than 50 health and justice co-ordinators with responsibility for ensuring more joined-up support between prison, probation and healthcare treatment services. Where appropriate, alcohol monitoring on licence is available.

Small things that the rest of us can take for granted can make all the difference, for good or ill. That is why we have introduced resettlement passports, set up ahead of release, to bring together the essentials that offenders need in one place: bank accounts, CVs and the identification people need to prove the right to work and to rent a flat. We have also supported the Offenders (Day of Release from Detention) Act 2023, which recently received Royal Assent, having started out as a private Member’s Bill. It will enable offenders at risk of reoffending to be released up to two days earlier, to avoid what can be the hectic rush of trying to get round different services on a Friday.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst asked specifically about magistrates’ sentencing powers. Given the time, I should not talk about that in great detail now. We have had a chance to talk about it in the Select Committee. On his specific question about working with the judiciary, we are working with the Judicial Office as part of the review we are undertaking on the changes and plan to engage magistrates on it. We should have completed that review by the autumn.

My hon. Friend and others rightly asked about capacity, the role of Operation Safeguard and other shorter-term capacity measures, as well as the longer-term capital programme. Since October 2022, we have seen an acute and exceptional rise in the prison population. Operation Safeguard is a temporary measure to provide a short-term solution to that acute rise in demand. He asked how much of that capacity has been used. The answer is that it goes up and down; it is a facility to be drawn on as needed. The average over the period is really quite low, but there are days when its usage is greater. Standing it up has provided us with vital extra short-term resilience as we develop further that longer-term capital programme.

As of April, we had invested £1.3 billion in capital towards the delivery of the 20,000 additional, modern prison places to which my hon. Friend referred. By the end of June, about 5,400 of those places had been added to the estate. That includes the two new 1,700-place prisons, HMPs Five Wells and Fosse Way, with the latter having accepted its first prisoners at the end of May.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for that update. Those who have been to Five Wells and Fosse Way recognise what an advance they are in design and facilities. Will he give us a specific update on where we are in the stalled planning process on the other three prisons, which are still stuck in the system? When are we likely to get those moving forward?

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

As my hon. Friend well knows—he was previously a leading light in ministerial office, dealing with local government—we do not control the planning process. I am therefore not in a position to give him a bang-up-to-date update, except to say that those three projects remain part of our plan. Overall, this is a complex capital programme and we need to deal with external factors, including working through the planning process.

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

Perhaps the Minister could write to me and the Select Committee to set out where we are with those projects. Have they gone to appeal yet? If so, has any indication been given as to when the hearings will take place?

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

Of course, I will be delighted to correspond in that way with my hon. Friend.

We are also rolling out 1,000 rapid deployment cells across the estate. The first three sites, HMPs Norwich, Wymott and Hollesley Bay, are now accepting prisoners, and the majority of the 1,000 additional places will be delivered this year. We are undertaking major refurbishments at sites including HMPs Birmingham, Liverpool and Norwich, delivering about 800 cells between them. The wing-by-wing refurbishment at HMP Liverpool will see every cell renovated. Construction has also started on new house blocks at HMPs Stocken, Hatfield, Sudbury and Rye Hill, which will add around 850 places between them. HMP Millsike, the new prison of some 1,500 places by HMP Full Sutton, will open in 2025. Our new prisons have a laser-sharp focus on rehabilitation, with workshops and cutting-edge technology that puts education, training and jobs front and centre, so every prisoner gets the right opportunity to turn over a new leaf.

Like many, or most, workforces, the Prison Service has experienced recruitment and retention challenges at a time of very low unemployment. Ensuring our services are sufficiently resourced and that we retain levels of experience are fundamental for delivering quality outcomes. That is why we are targeting the drivers of staff attrition and taking steps to improve recruitment, alongside a wider agenda of development in the workforce.

We welcome the Justice Committee’s important inquiry into the prison operational workforce and we have worked closely with the Committee to provide evidence. We are now closely considering the survey of prison staff, and I reaffirm that we take the issues of the morale and safety of staff with the greatest gravity. Prison staff do incredible work and, so often, are the hidden heroes of our justice system and society. In every prison I have visited, their dedication and drive are clear to see.

We fund a range of services to support staff wellbeing, which include care teams in public sector prisons that are trained to provide support to any member of staff involved in an incident at work. We are committed to making sure our prison staff feel safe, supported and valued, and we look forward to receiving the Committee’s full report and recommendations in due course.

The 2022-23 prison staff pay award was announced in July 2022. It represented a significant investment in the workforce. Alongside an increase in base pay of at least 4% for all staff between bands 2 and 11, we targeted further pay rises for our lowest-paid staff of up to £3,000.

The probation service is in its second year of a multi-year pay deal for staff. Salary values of all pay bands will increase each year, targeted at key operational grades to improve what has been a challenging recruitment and retention position. The pay increases differ for different job roles, but to provide an example, probation officers will see their starting salary rise from around £30,200 in 2021-22 to a little over £35,000 by 2024-25.

Let me respond briefly to some of the individual points made by colleagues during the debate. Andy Slaughter asked about crowding in prisons. The most recent statistics show crowding at 20.6% in the estate; by way of comparison, in 2009, that figure was 25.3%.

My near neighbour, my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes, raised the horrific crime of overkill. I have heard what she says and I will pass on those points within the Department.

I commend John McDonnell for his close association and work with the Prison Officers Association. I confirm that I will continue to look forward to speaking with the Prison Officers Association and other staff bodies throughout the Prison and Probation Service. He was right to identify the centrality of safety and security in people’s experience of work. I reassure him that we measure those things centrally through the key performance indicators that we have in prisons.

Multiple Members rightly talked about rehabilitation. Specifically on the question about education providers asked by the hon. Member for Hammersmith, it is true that there are four education providers contracted to provide education services through the prison system. However, there is also a flexible fund that enables individual governors to draw down funds to make supplementary provision in certain ways. It is important that we get a blend—that we are able to respond to local conditions and the specifics of a prison population, and have some commonality in the provision and in the qualification studies.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am sorry, but I think that I might be starting to stretch Mr Deputy Speaker’s patience. I will be happy to follow up with the hon. Gentleman separately if he would like to do so as an alternative.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North talked, quite rightly, about the impact on families. That works in both directions—the effect on the children and what can be an adverse childhood experience, and the effect on the prisoner. Then there is the importance of having family time and family support, and the difference that that can make on release. I pay tribute to Lord Farmer for the work that he has done in that area. We have done some work on improving the maintenance of family ties, but I bring here today the good news that we are working on some data-linking in order to understand the extent and nature of these issues more closely.

We know overall that the efforts of our dedicated staff are working. The proportion of prison leavers in employment six months after release has more than doubled in the two years to March 2023, from 14% to more than 30%. Since 2010, the overall reoffending rate has decreased from 31.6% to 24.4%. As of February 2023, our transitional accommodation service had supported more than 5,000 prison leavers who would otherwise have been homeless across the initial five regions. Of course, there is still a huge amount more to do, but it is clear that we are making significant and important progress. The Government will always value and invest in His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. Our prisons must be and will be a safe place in which to work, where staff are provided with the right support, the training and the tools to empower them to do their jobs. I look forward to a continued dialogue on this matter with the Committee and others beyond this debate and the report.

In closing, let me repeat my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst for securing the debate, and to all who have contributed today. I commend the estimates to the House.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee 4:46, 4 July 2023

I am very grateful to all who have taken part in this important and valuable debate. I just wish more people had been here to hear it, but I hope that they will read at least some of what was said, because the issues raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House are important. They include the condition of prisons, and the issues raised by John McDonnell and Andy Slaughter on the legitimate concerns of the staff in our prisons, which should not be ignored. The points made by my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes about families are also critical. I, too, look forward to the report of the Wade review.

There are positive things happening and there were positive suggestions from both Front-Bench teams. In some ways, we should try to find a more consensual approach to some issues of prison policy, because to put it right will require an approach that will span the lifetime of more than one Parliament. It is an important challenge, and I am grateful for the time for this debate today.

Question deferred until tomorrow at Seven o’clock (Standing Order No. 54).