Rehabilitation of Prisoners: Prison Estate

Justice – in the House of Commons at on 9 January 2024.

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Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the prison estate for the rehabilitation of prisoners.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

In December last year we completed an estate-wide programme of surveys to assess the condition of each public sector prison, and I look forward to seeing the findings of those surveys. By the end of the current spending review period we will have invested nearly £4 billion towards the delivery of an additional 20,000 modern prison places to ensure that the right conditions are in place for the rehabilitation of prisoners, and in the last full financial year we spent more than £200 million on maintenance and upgrades—alongside, of course, our continued investment in purposeful activity within the prison estate.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I was delighted to receive an invitation from the Minister’s colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Gareth Bacon, to join him on a visit to Wormwood Scrubs Prison in my constituency this Thursday, but less delighted when the invitation was withdrawn yesterday on the basis that it had been “issued in error”. Had I been permitted to attend, I would have raised the subject of the letter sent to the Lord Chancellor on 7 December by 10 chairs of independent monitoring boards for London area prisons, including Wormwood Scrubs, which stated that

“prisons are overcrowded, not safe and most of those in prison do not lead a ‘useful’ life”.

In the absence of a reply to that letter, can the Prisons Minister tell us how he intends to make prisons fit for rehabilitation, given that, according to trade union sources, there is a maintenance backlog amounting to £3 billion?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

If the hon. Gentleman would like to visit the Scrubs with me—and I am not issuing this one in error—I shall be happy to accompany him on a visit to his local prison.

As I have said, we continue to invest in our prison estate. We also continue to invest in increasing the number of prison officers—to whom I pay tribute for the work that they do day in, day out; I suspect that those on the Opposition Front Bench would join me in that—and to invest in purposeful activity. The efforts that we have put in across the estate are working, as is shown by the proportion of prison leavers who are in employment six months after their release, which has more than doubled in the two years to March 2023. I look forward to discussing this further with the hon. Gentleman in his local prison.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I understand from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State that the invitation was sent in error by the office—it was not meant to be sent—but I am happy to honour that invitation.

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

I will not go on about how I might have got people into Wormwood Scrubs in the past in one way or another—[Interruption]—and, indeed, got some of them out!

I am sure the Minister will know that a key point that comes up time and again in reports from His Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, and when issues are raised by the Justice Committee, is the lack of purposeful activity. The physical estate is part of that problem, but so are issues relating to staffing and access to education and other provision. Is it perhaps time for a strategy for the whole of the Prison Service with rehabilitation at its centre, and might not one solution to the problem be a statutory definition of the purposes of prison, of which rehabilitation—along with protection of the public—would be a key part? Would that not be a way of holding people’s feet to the fire in order to deliver rehabilitation in the public interest?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I shall certainly be happy to have that discussion with my hon. Friend if he feels that it would be useful. He is right to highlight the importance of adequate staff numbers, but I should point out that they have increased by 6.7% in the past year. I am also happy to tell him that this month we are launching the national regime model, which will require prisons to set out ambitious plans for dedicated purposeful activity—time out of cell. That will indeed hold their feet to the fire, because, as we know, such a regime is central to rehabilitation.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Shadow Minister (International Trade), Shadow Minister (Justice)

The latest figures show that the reoffending rate among those leaving prison has increased. That is partly because prison is failing to rehabilitate—which is no surprise, given how overcrowded, understaffed and dangerously unsafe many prisons are. In one case, after heavy rain, prison officers were having to wade through raw sewage while prisoners remained locked in their cells. Does the Minister accept that the appalling state of our prisons is not only failing to reduce crime, but breeding it?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

The hon. Lady will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree with her assessments. I would highlight that reoffending rates are down on where they were when we inherited them in 2010. I have highlighted to the hon. Lady the investment in new staff and in our buildings. I would also highlight to her, and I hope that we will enjoy her support on this, the success of tough community sentences in reducing reoffending, compared with sentences of fewer than 12 months. I look forward to her support in delivering those changes.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Shadow Minister (International Trade), Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am going to remain on the subject of the prison estate. The Minister made a valiant attempt to defend the Conservatives’ woeful record on prisons, but they are failing to build the prison spaces we need to reduce this cycle of crime. Just last week it was revealed that the Government had built only 380 of the 1,000 pop-up prison cells that they promised by the end of 2023. Therefore, can the Minister at the very least confirm when the remaining 620 pop-up places will be built?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I would gently say to the hon. Lady that we will take no lessons on prison building from the Labour party—the party that promised three Titan prisons, with 7,500 places. How many were built? Zero. This is a Government who are committed to building 20,000 new, state-of-the-art prison places. Two prisons have already been built. One is in construction. One has just received planning permission, and I am hopeful that the other two of the six will receive that in due course.