Prison Reform — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:31 pm on 21st January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench 12:31 pm, 21st January 2016

My Lords, in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on obtaining this debate, agreeing with his five points and thanking him for giving me and other noble Lords an opportunity to applaud the listening and learning style adopted by the current Secretary of State, Michael Gove—in stark contrast to the rushed and unresearched approach of his immediate predecessor—I have to admit that, other than statements of intent, we do not know much more about the Government’s proposals for prison reform than that they include the selling-off of some old Victorian prisons and reviews of education and youth justice. Currently, 84,550 prisoners are held in 117 prisons, 70 of which are overcrowded. These were described by the outgoing chief inspector, Nick Hardwick, to whom I pay tribute for a job outstandingly well done, as,

“places of violence, squalor and idleness”.

In agreeing that this was correct, Michael Gove said that no one should be held in such conditions, no matter what their offence—which is why those of us who have been campaigning for improvement for years share the hope for the future expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, in his magnificent opening speech.

Let me briefly illustrate some of what those three words of description hide. Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults went up by 13% last year, and serious assaults by prisoners on staff by 42%. Suicides were up by 14% and self-harm by 21%. It is not hard to see why. There are now 13,730 fewer prison staff than there were five years ago, looking after 1,200 more prisoners. Purposeful activity was at its lowest recorded level, being adjudged “good” or “reasonably good” by the chief inspector in only one-quarter of prisons. All this points to the urgent need to reduce the numbers in prisons which, as my noble and learned friend Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood said, could begin by tackling the disgrace of the 12,053 currently serving indeterminate sentences and increasing both the numbers of staff and the amount of activities available to prisoners.

In making his plans, however, I am aware that Michael Gove is faced with some painful realities. First, holding a prisoner for a year costs on average £35,237, yet the Ministry of Justice is required by the 2015 spending review to cut its running costs by a further £600 million by 2020. Secondly, the changes made to probation by his predecessor, which are already running into serious trouble, limit the effectiveness of community sentence alternatives. Thirdly, the Prison Service lacks an effective operational structure, which is an essential of day-to day working, let alone implementing reforms.

However, three changes are in the Secretary of State’s gift. First, he should implement the recommendation of my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf, in his seminal report following the riots in Strangeways and other prisons in 1990. This was included by the then Home Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, in the only White Paper on prisons, Custody, Care and Justice, published in 1991 but never implemented. The Secretary of State should also group prisons into regional clusters, so that no prisoner is held too far from home, with regions under a Director of Offender Management who would be made responsible for the rehabilitation of their own.

Secondly, as in every business, school and hospital, named people should be made responsible and accountable for directing each type of prison and prisoner, ensuring, inter alia, consistency of purposeful activity and in the selection and training of staff. If the Secretary of State does not do this, little or nothing will happen—as little or nothing has happened over the 20 years since I first made this recommendation. The best evidence of this is the Prison Service’s failure to exploit the countless examples of good practice initiated by good staff, who see their improvements dropped when either they or the governor of their prison move.

Thirdly, the Secretary of State should abolish the expensive and unnecessary bureaucracy that is the so-called National Offender Management Service and change his useless contracts branch, which awarded G4S a contract to run Medway secure training centre, as seen on “Panorama” last week, at the same time as cancelling its contract to run Rainsbrook secure training centre. One bureaucracy is quite enough for any Ministry, and he could then give staff to those responsible for running prisons.