HMPPS Update

– in the House of Commons at 10:32 am on 7 September 2023.

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Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means) 10:32, 7 September 2023

Before we come to the statement, I remind the House that the individual in question has been charged with criminal offences, and that the House’s sub judice resolution applies to those charges. Members should therefore take care to avoid referring to the details of those charges or saying anything that assumes the guilt or innocence of the individual concerned.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice 11:36, 7 September 2023

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. With your permission, I would like to make a statement on the escape from HMP Wandsworth yesterday morning, Wednesday 6 September, of a prisoner by the name of Daniel Abed Khalife.

Daniel Khalife was remanded in custody at HMP Wandsworth on 28 January this year, having been charged with offences alleged to have taken place in 2021 while he was serving in the armed forces. As you have already indicated, Madam Deputy Speaker, the House will understand that, while a live criminal investigation is in progress, there are limits on what I can properly say. Daniel Khalife will be caught in due course and will face a trial. Nothing should be said in this House or elsewhere that might prejudice those proceedings, so let me assist the House with what I can say.

At approximately 7.30 am yesterday, a vehicle that had made a delivery to the prison’s kitchen left HMP Wandsworth. Shortly afterwards, local contingency plans for an unaccounted prisoner were activated and, in line with standard procedure, the police were informed. The prison was put into a state of lockdown while staff attempted to determine Daniel Khalife’s whereabouts. The vehicle was stopped and searched by police after the alert was raised. Strapping was found underneath the vehicle, which appeared to indicate that Daniel Khalife may have held on to the underside of it in order to escape. The search is under way. His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service is giving every assistance to the Metropolitan police’s operation to recapture Daniel Khalife and return him to custody. As has been made clear by the Metropolitan police, there is no reason to believe he poses a threat to the wider public.

Yesterday, when I was first briefed on this grave security breach, I spoke to the governor of HMP Wandsworth and senior HMPPS leaders to establish what was known about the escape and seek assurances about the immediate measures being taken to ensure the security of the prison. I made clear then, and I reiterate now, that no stone must be left unturned in getting to the bottom of what happened. Who was on duty that morning, and in what roles, ranging from the kitchen to the prison gate? What protocols were in place, and were they followed? Secondly, I have ordered an investigation into the categorisation decision by HMPPS: were all relevant matters taken into consideration in determining where in the custodial estate Daniel Khalife should be held? In both cases, I have asked for the preliminary findings to be with me by the end of this week. An assessment will then be made of what can properly be put into the public domain. I have also decided that there will need to be an additional independent investigation into this incident, which will take place in due course.

I now turn to the wider prisoner cohort held by HMPPS. In the light of these events, I have ordered two urgent reviews: first, into the placement and categorisation of everyone held in HMP Wandsworth and, secondly, into the location of all those in the custodial estate charged with terrorism offences.

Let me turn now to the issue of prison security. As the House will no doubt be aware, escapes from prison are extremely rare and the numbers have declined substantially in the last 10 to 15 years. This has been due in considerable part to sustained investment in improved physical and intelligence security. That includes investment of £100 million in the period since 2019 on measures, such as enhanced gate security with X-ray body scanners, which has driven up the finds of drugs, weapons and other contraband, including tools that could be used to aid an escape from prison. HMPPS has also enhanced intelligence and anti-corruption operations in prisons, working more closely than ever with partners, including the intelligence agencies. This has involved productive initiatives, such as setting up the joint counter-terrorism prisons and probation hub.

Daniel Khalife will be found, and he will be made to face justice. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Shabana Mahmood Shabana Mahmood Shadow Secretary of State for Justice 11:40, 7 September 2023

I thank the Justice Secretary for advance sight of his statement, and I reiterate our support for the police and all those who are involved in the search to recapture Daniel Khalife. I very much hope that that search will be brought to a swift and successful conclusion so that the rest of the legal process may take place.

This is an extremely serious matter, and it has highlighted catastrophic and multiple failures in respect of not just this case, but our wider criminal justice system. It simply beggars belief that a man being held on suspected terror charges was able to escape prison by clinging to the bottom of a food delivery van. The simplest question for the Justice Secretary today is: how on earth was that allowed to happen? How is such an escape even possible? Nothing that he has said to the House so far gets us remotely close to a full answer to that central question.

I know the Justice Secretary will say when he responds to me that it is early days, that he has ordered the relevant investigations and that they must have some time to conclude. But with respect, it gives me no confidence that the Justice Secretary has today arrived with a list of basic questions that, frankly, he should already know some of the answers to and be able to share with the House. I note with complete agreement both what he said and your direction, Madam Deputy Speaker, that nothing must be said either in the Chamber or anywhere else that may prejudice any future trial or indeed the live operation that is currently under way, but the circumstances and the facts of the escape itself are a separate matter that is of legitimate and urgent concern to this House and to the wider public. That is separate from the nature of any and all charges that will form the basis of future trials or other investigations. The Justice Secretary really does need to give much fuller answers to the House, rather than a list of his own questions.

On the circumstances of the escape itself, can the Justice Secretary at least tell the House when he responds how many staff were on duty at Wandsworth prison yesterday? Is he confident and can he tell us that all the relevant searches were done and, where there are failures, the number of protocols that he is concerned may have been breached? Will his investigations assess the quality of the training and the experience of prison staff at HMP Wandsworth, and will he be bringing in any additional expertise to assist with those matters while he is getting on top of the facts himself?

In respect of the categorisation of this particular prisoner, why was a suspected terror offender held at a category B jail while on remand, despite many other suspected and indeed convicted terrorists being held in the high security estate? Why was Daniel Khalife moved from Belmarsh to Wandsworth? Can the Justice Secretary at least tell us whether a risk assessment was undertaken before any such move took place? That is at least a yes or a no answer. Can he tell us how many similar suspects are in category B or indeed in HMP Wandsworth, and what is the timescale for such an assessment?

In relation to the two urgent reviews, may I say to the Justice Secretary that, with respect, it should be a relatively short exercise to get across the detail of the total number of the current prison population at Wandsworth? The fact that he has not come to the House with even that small amount of detail is unacceptable.

On the location of all those charged with terror offences, will the Secretary of State tell us the total number of individuals who are considered to be in that category as of today, across the whole prison estate? When will that urgent review of those numbers—I hope he can share the total number—take place? I accept that he cannot share any details, but does he know the number of individuals who might be of concern and may need to be moved to a different location, given yesterday’s events?

I note that the Secretary of State has ordered a fuller investigation, but can he say anything about the terms of reference for such an investigation? What timescale does he envisage for that longer, fuller investigation? On the matter of independence, can he provide some reassurance that he will ensure that it will not be a case of him, and others who are ultimately responsible for this failure, marking their own homework? What consideration has he given to the independence and identity of who might be carrying out that investigation for him?

The developments of the past 24 hours have shown us yet another example of the Conservative mismanagement that has meant they are unable to run vast swathes of the public realm, whether that is schools, threatening our children’s education and learning, or now with a terror suspect on the loose. Ultimately, one of the main functions of a Government is to keep their citizens safe, and on the Secretary of State’s watch, courts are in crisis, probation is in crisis, the Crown Prosecution Service is in crisis, and prisons are in crisis. When will he get a grip?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I begin by welcoming the hon. Lady to her place, and I will try to address the points she raises. I was pleased to hear her remarks about not wanting to prejudice a future trial, because we must keep in mind that escape is a criminal offence. She asks whether there will be inquiries into the staff on duty and the quality of training. Absolutely; that is precisely what I have asked to take place. She asks whether additional expertise is in place. Yes, that is already in place in Wandsworth at the moment, assisting with the investigation. As I indicated in my opening remarks, I want to know who was on duty in the kitchens and at the gate, what protocol was in place, and whether it was applied. If it was not applied, why not? Those are all questions I have asked, and she can be assured that they will be answered.

On timing, I have already indicated that I want to have the preliminary answers on my desk by the end of this week. I will then be able to make a decision, considering all relevant information, about what can be put into the public domain. However, we have to proceed carefully and on the basis of evidence. I say that because the hon. Lady raised a question that was factually incorrect. She asked why Daniel Khalife was “moved from Belmarsh”, but he was never in Belmarsh. With respect, it is important that we do not proceed on the basis of misinformation, and I hope I make that point clear. I absolutely understand the proper public interest and points that are being raised. That is fine, but if the hon. Lady needs to ask me any questions about matters of detail, she has my number and she can call.

On who is held on the category B estate, that is exactly what I have asked of the inquiry that has been set up. I mean no discourtesy, but I think the hon. Lady may have misunderstood what I was suggesting by means of an inquiry. This is not an inquiry into the number of prisoners in Wandsworth, which is a matter of public record; this is about whether the right people are in Wandsworth, and whether those Wandsworth prisoners should be there or elsewhere. That is what needs to be answered.

On the independence of the investigation, of course that is right, and that is precisely why I have ordered it. In summary, this is a grave incident—the hon. Lady is right about that, and plenty of the points she raises are perfectly legitimate and we will get answers as quickly as possible. But we need to proceed on the basis of evidence, coolly and calmly, so that when Daniel Khalife is caught, as he will be, he will be brought to justice and justice will be done.

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

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, for his courtesy in giving me notice of it, and for the characteristic thoroughness and care with which he has approached this matter. He is clearly going into the detail in a careful and measured fashion, which is the right approach. I also congratulate the shadow Secretary of State and welcome her to her post.

First, the Secretary of State has accepted the need for an independent element, and the Justice Committee has more than once referred to the need to avoid the Prison Service marking its own homework. Will he bear in mind in that regard the work that has already been done by His Majesty’s chief inspectors of prison and probation in relation to Wandsworth and other prisons? They have real expertise, and I hope he will avail himself of it.

Secondly, in relation to his wider inquiry into the prison situation, when on the face of it there has been a significant improvement in gate security, the failure of gate security on this occasion is all the more alarming. It is a matter of record that there is an issue with staffing at Wandsworth and with retaining experienced staff across the Prison Service. We have a large number of comparatively inexperienced staff. Evidence submitted to the Justice Committee’s inquiry on the prison workforce demonstrates concern over levels of training in some establishments. Will the Secretary of State make sure that those points are fully taken on board as part of a serious review of prison workforce on the back of this?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to these matters. As I have indicated, the inquiry must take its course and the issue of staffing will no doubt be considered. Necessarily, we cannot go into a huge amount of detail, but what I can say is that in all prisons staff take on different roles. On the specific issue of staffing at the security end of the prison, the positions were staffed and the security posts were occupied. The question is whether protocols were applied, and indeed whether people did what was expected of them under those protocols. We need to get to the bottom of that urgently.

Photo of Richard Thomson Richard Thomson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business)

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. My party hopes Khalife will soon return to custody. Leaving aside the extraordinary manner of the details of the escape, some more immediate questions arise. Mr Khalife may have been believed to pose a low risk to members of the public, but he was clearly thought to present a considerable risk to his service colleagues and to national security. As such, it will strike people as extraordinary that he was being held under category B conditions, rather than category A, pending any trial.

What is more extraordinary is that prison inspectors reported concerns in January last year about the measures in place at Wandsworth to prevent escapes, after finding what they believed to be potential shortcomings in physical aspects of security locally on site. It was also alarming to hear the former head of security at Wandsworth, Ian Acheson, on the radio this morning saying that, on any given day, some 30% to 40% of frontline staff are unavailable for duty at the prison.

The Prison Officers Association has highlighted that some £900 million has been stripped out of prison budgets in England and Wales since 2010, which will leave more prisons than just Wandsworth overcrowded and under-resourced. The Prison Officers Association’s national chair has called this morning for an urgent review of how prisons across England and Wales are run. I appreciate that the Secretary of State has announced two separate strands of inquiry from the Dispatch Box, which I am sure will be welcomed, but will he expand the scope of his questioning to allow for that inquiry into how the Prison Service across England and Wales is run, in the light of the concerns that have been expressed?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

May I deal with the hon. Gentleman’s second point first? Prison officers do an extremely important job, and I will of course listen carefully to what the Prison Officers Association has to say about this matter. I have already had a meeting—albeit predating this incident, as he might expect—and that productive and constructive relationship will continue.

Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman’s point about categorisation, because I am instinctively sympathetic to his point about why this prisoner was in the category B estate. That is precisely what I want to have some information about, but we have to proceed with caution. Although we are not going to look at the details of the specific offences, section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 is an either-way offence. There are other offences that are either-way. It is not the case, and never has been since the Terrorism Act was created 23 years ago, that everyone charged with a section 58 offence would be in the cat A estate. Were that to happen, it would turn the whole system of categorisation on its head. It is an offence I have prosecuted many times in the past. We need to ensure that we are looking at the detail of what he was charged with and the specific risk or otherwise that he may have presented.

Photo of Mark Fletcher Mark Fletcher Conservative, Bolsover

I echo the comments of the Chair of the Justice Committee about the tone and thoroughness of the Lord Chancellor’s statement, and particularly his commitment to leaving no stone unturned. However, the presence of strapping on the underside of the vehicle would seem to indicate that some planning was involved. As well as the Lord Chancellor’s questions about protocols and staffing arrangements, is there any implication that the prisoner may have had some assistance with the escape?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I hope that my hon. Friend will not take it as a discourtesy when I say that nothing has occurred to him about lines of inquiry that has not occurred to me, my ministerial colleagues and members of HMPPS. All lines of inquiry are being considered, including all those that I am sure are occurring to hon. Members.

Photo of Rosena Allin-Khan Rosena Allin-Khan Labour, Tooting

People in Tooting are alarmed that someone could escape from what is supposed to be an extremely secure prison. A few months ago, I raised the issue of low staffing levels with the Justice Secretary because I had concerns after speaking to Battersea and Wandsworth trades union council. My parliamentary question revealed that, shockingly, only seven prison officers turned up for a night shift last December to cover 1,500 inmates. That is unworkable and unsafe. Staff are having to do double shifts, with officers facing violence and abuse and struggling with their mental health. That makes staff retention impossible. In those circumstances, mistakes will happen.

Will the Secretary of State list the meetings that he has held with the prison leadership since I raised the alarm many months ago? Will he also tell us the average number of staff per shift at Wandsworth prison and the number of staff forced to take “payment plus” overtime shifts?

Sadly, this escape is not the only significant challenge that the prison has faced recently. In November, it was without water for six days. Prisoners could not wash and had to rely on bottled water. There is an endemic problem throughout our public services owing to 13 years of Tory mismanagement. School buildings are crumbling, our prisons are overstretched and falling apart and our NHS is under-resourced. When will the Government get a grip and sort it out?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Lady began by expressing concern on behalf of her constituents. She was right to raise that. I invite her and her constituents to consider the remarks of the Metropolitan police that the prisoner is believed to be a low risk to the community. It is important to stress that in the House.

It is an overriding and overwhelming priority for me to increase staff numbers, and I am pleased that they are increasing. Of course, I want them to go up further, but it is positive to note that, since 30 June, there has been an increase of more than 700 full-time equivalent band 3 to band 5 staff—wing officers up to custody managers.[This section has been corrected on 11 September 2023, column 6MC — read correction] I accept that we have further to go. However, it is also encouraging that the resignation rate is coming down. I do not suggest for a second that the work is completed—it is not, and it is perfectly fair for the hon. Lady to raise those points—but we are moving in the right direction.

On the third point, the preliminary indications, subject to the investigations that I have ordered, are that the security posts were manned in Wandsworth at the time of the incident. We now need to know, given that they were manned, what went wrong.

Photo of Scott Benton Scott Benton Independent, Blackpool South

I welcome the assurances that the Secretary of State has given about the investigations that will now follow. Can he update the House on what steps the Government are taking to increase security across the prison estate as part of the Department’s £4 billion investment in increasing the number of prison places?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

It is worth stepping back and reflecting for a moment on the fact that the programme of infra- structure investment in prisons is second in Government only to HS2. A huge amount of investment is going into our prisons and I have seen what that can do. I have been to HMP Five Wells and HMP Fosse Way. Millsike is under construction. Those are modern, safe, secure, decent and rehabilitative prisons. On my hon. Friend’s specific point about security, as part of the overall scheme, we have put £100 million into enhanced gate security and X-ray scanners that can check for illegally concealed contraband. That is driving up seizures and driving down violence in prisons. Of course there is more to do, but that investment is yielding significant results.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I wonder whether the Secretary of State was surprised that Daniel Khalife was allowed to work in the kitchens, a role that I understand is for trusted inmates?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

That is precisely a question that has occurred to me and that I want answered, by the end of the week I would hope and expect, but certainly in very short order.

Photo of Sarah Olney Sarah Olney Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury)

This escape is incredibly serious and leaves many questions unanswered. It was reported by the Metropolitan police on social media yesterday that the escaped prisoner has links to Kingston. My constituents and those of my right hon. Friend Ed Davey, naturally, will be very concerned. I appreciate that the Secretary of State will be limited in what he can say about the operation to apprehend the prisoner, but I would be grateful for any statement he can make to provide reassurance to my constituents and residents across south-west London.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising those points on behalf of her constituents. We all have a duty, which she will uphold as well as anyone else, to ensure that people are not alarmed. I draw her attention and that of her constituents to the Metropolitan police’s remarks that the man should not be approached, but that he is considered to be low risk, and not a larger risk to the wider public.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

I remind the Justice Secretary that this is a very serious incident. Any prison escape is serious, but we should put it in perspective. I remember when he was very young, and before I was shadow prisons and policing Minister, back in 1966, the notorious spy and traitor George Blake escaped from Wormwood Scrubs, in a startling and disgraceful lapse in security. He lived to his mid-90s and finished his days in Moscow.

In the present circumstances there should be a thorough inquiry, but all of us interested in the justice system know that prison overcrowding is a serious problem. The excellent men and women who work in our prisons are under tremendous stress. This is a serious incident. I hope the guy gets captured quickly and faces real justice, but can we please do something about the prison estate and the good people who man it?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I agree with all the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. Every prisons Minister and Secretary of State, whether Labour or Conservative, will say that prison officers do a wonderful job, and it is a hidden service. I believe that to my bootstraps, which is why I met the Unlocked Graduates in Leeds to thank them personally for what they do, and why we hosted a reception recently at No. 10. It is an incredibly important job that is beyond most of the people in this room, if I dare be so bold. It requires huge judgment, courage, integrity and decency. I pay tribute to them all.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

Along with other residents in south-west London, my constituents are concerned about this incident. I welcome the actions of the police, and I am sure the man will be swiftly detained. I visited Wandsworth Prison in June, and as I arrived, six members of staff were being taken to A&E because they had just been assaulted. The prison officers’ union has been raising staff shortages and inadequate training with me and others for a long time. I welcome the Secretary of State’s inquiries.

I welcome the fact that the points where the person absconded were staffed. However, I hope the Secretary of State will still look into the staffing shortages in Wandsworth and the inadequate training, which has been raised by prison officers, who I agree do a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances in Wandsworth, a very overcrowded prison.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I thank the hon. Lady for raising those points. She is right about staffing; we need to drive it up. As I indicated, we have done things that make a meaningful difference—I was down at HMP Isis speaking to a band 3 officer about precisely that—such as rolling out body-worn video across the estate. That is an incredibly important tool to dial down potentially volatile situations and, if they are not dialled down, to capture the evidence to ensure that justice is done. That is making an enormous difference to bringing down violence. It is also having an impact on recruitment and retention—the resignation rate is going down, and the numbers we are recruiting are going up. The point that she makes in principle is fair, but equally, in that spirit of fairness, it is important to note that there are some very positive trends that we will build on and develop further.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Social Care)

I thank the Lord Chancellor for his statement and his update to the House this morning. He may well have seen the media speculation that Khalife was missing for around an hour before prison staff noticed. Is that correct? If it is, what reassurances can he give that procedures will be tightened up, not just in this particular prison but across the estate?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

That is one of the very issues that is being looked into urgently.

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

I thank the Secretary of State very much for his response, which we all welcome. It is obvious that he takes this issue very seriously. I understand the tremendous pressure our Prison Service is under. However, can he confirm that the decision to hold this man in a low-security prison, after previous escapes from another prison, is not to do with space or pressure, but rather based an assessment that has turned out to be severely flawed? A review of the procedure used is needed urgently. May I also ask the Minister if the findings of the inquiry that will take place can be shared with other Administrations, for instance the Northern Ireland Assembly and the policing and justice Minister?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Gentleman asks a really probing question and makes an important point, if I may say so. The decision about where he was held was based on an assessment of the circumstances relating to that individual and the alleged offending, not about whether there was space in the category A estate. There was space to put him there, if that had been the right assessment. What we have to get to the bottom of is this: was that exercise properly conducted? That is one of the reviews. To his second point, about whether the findings can be shared, my strong instinct would be that whatever can be shared, should be, so that across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland any learning can be absorbed as broadly as possible.