Prison Reform — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:39 pm on 21st January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 1:39 pm, 21st January 2016

My Lords, I join all those who congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on securing this wide-ranging debate. My admiration for him was undimmed by the occasion when he spoke in a debate on a Motion of mine and described me as having risen from “the serried ranks” of the Labour Opposition, who consisted in their entirety of me and a single Whip.

In a similar vein, it would be churlish not to welcome Mr Gove’s appointment as Lord Chancellor, although almost anyone would have been an improvement on his predecessor. Mr Gove’s announcement about secure colleges, the reversal of the decision on books in prison, a review of prison education and the replacement of old and unfit buildings are most welcome. His speech, “Rescuing Broken Lives”, acknowledged in broad terms the failings of the present system and emphasised the importance of rehabilitation as a vital element in penal policy and of our justice system.

But perhaps understandably, his brief address did not really begin to make clear the scale of the crisis in our prisons. That emerges with stark and deeply troubling clarity from Nick Hardwick’s last report as Chief Inspector of Prisons. The House will wish to pay tribute to him for his service and for my part—and I suspect many others—I regret his departure, which followed Mr Grayling’s decision not to reappoint him but to invite him only to reapply for the job that he had done so well.

The Minister will no doubt be aware of the five-page letter that Mr Hardwick sent to the Permanent Secretary in December protesting about the latter’s interference in the way that he was carrying out his responsibilities and reminding him that the chief inspector is and must be independent and is a Crown appointment. Will the Minister confirm that position and assure the House, the chief inspector and his successor that there will be no repetition of the matters about which Mr Hardwick complained?

As we have heard today, the fundamental problem in penal policy is that we have far too many people in prison—we have heard the figures: 85,000, which is twice as many as a couple of decades ago—and occupying in March 2015 97.7% of usable capacity. Even Texas, the jailhouse capital of the western world referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Beith, is striving to reduce its prison population. Furthermore, too many of our prisons are, as we have heard, overcrowded and understaffed, with the consequences that the chief inspector’s report spelt out. As he noted, assessed outcomes in prisons fell sharply last year to be the worst in 10 years. Prisoners were more likely to die in prison, be murdered, commit suicide, be assaulted or self-harm than five years ago. Serious assaults in that time rose by 55%. Such assaults on staff rose by 58% and some of this has no doubt been fuelled by increased access to drugs in prison, where the incidence of drugs found in 2014 reached an all-time high since 2000 at 5,973—a 40% increase on the previous year alone. Meanwhile, as the noble Lord, Lord Marks, pointed out, staff numbers fell by 29%. BME and especially Muslim prisoners, and those with learning disabilities, are recorded as having experienced a worse time than others. As the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, pointed out, the number of older prisoners, some of them very frail, is rising sharply.

We debated education in prison earlier this week and without going over that ground again in detail, it is apparent from the chief inspector’s report that, as the headline to the relevant section of his report makes clear, “purposeful activity” presents a dismal picture, with only 25% of adult male prisons performing well or reasonably well—the worst position in a decade. In a former life, Mr Gove would no doubt have intervened in schools that failed. What action will now be taken in relation to failing providers of this service within prisons? I hope that he will take notice of the suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, in that respect. However, to judge by the reaction to the latest of many scandals affecting G4S, one must not be too hopeful that action will be taken where the provider is a branch of the oligopolies that increasingly dominate the provision of our public services.

It is a reflection of the depths to which the service has sunk that the welcome initiative to prescribe a core day of activities,

“was fatally undermined by staff shortages and this affected outcomes in all areas”,

so that:

“It is not currently possible to say how well it will work if staffing levels increase to agreed levels”.

But will they increase given the gap in salaries revealed by the University and College Union between prison education staff and staff in other sectors?

It is also deeply disturbing that 50% of prisoners were locked in their cells during the working day and 20% spent less than two hours a day out of their cells, with exercise in fresh air only 30 minutes a day in most closed prisons. Teaching standards were found wanting in two-thirds of the prisons inspected, and leadership and management of learning and skills in 74% of prisons were found inadequate or requiring improvement. That surely raises the question of whether it is not high time for more joint working in peer review across the sector to identify and promote good practice in this and other aspects of the service.

The report also echoed the concern of HM Inspectorate of Probation and Ofsted, mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Farmer and Lord Marks, that family contact—a critical issue—was often seen as a privilege rather than part of the resettlement process. Therefore, welcome though the replacement of some of the existing prisons will be, we trust that the Government can give assurances in relation to the siting of new facilities, notably but not exclusively those that serve London, so that access will be facilitated rather than made more difficult.

Another area of concern relates to boys in custody where the use of restraint, including what are euphemistically described as “pain compliance techniques”, had increased in three establishments. Again, there were problems with access for families, which is particularly necessary in the case of young offenders, with a mere 35% saying that it was easy for family and friends to visit. While generally education and training were good, there was, again, much too little opportunity to exercise.

Two other areas outside the immediate prison service were also the subject of comment, namely; police custody and court custody. In relation to the former, there were found to be far too many vulnerable detainees for whom risk assessments were too variable, with some staff being too casual in their work and more monitoring required. The accommodation in police custody was often substandard and the quality of healthcare remained variable. I assume that that is a matter that should be taken up by the Home Office. Perhaps the Minister can convey that concern if that department has already not begun to grapple with it.

Shockingly, however, the report states:

“Court custody contained some of the worst conditions we saw on inspection. Leadership was fragmented and ineffective and there was unwillingness to … address the filthy and unsanitary conditions we often found”,

on court premises. The needs of vulnerable detainees were little understood, and I was amazed to see that a previous report had commented on the failings of the escort service, including the lack of seatbelt provision while transporting prisoners in vehicles.

The Ministry of Justice has a clear responsibility to address these issues and could perhaps learn from the good practice in military detention facilities, which were warmly commended in the report, in relation to a wide range of concerns that appear so far not to have been properly addressed within the rest of the custodial sector.

In addition to the low levels of educational attainment, especially literacy, which Mr Gove rightly stated characterised many offenders and with which he was of course familiar in his previous role, more recognition needs to be given to some other factors. Among those are the high levels of prisoners with one or more mental health problems, referred to by my noble friend Lord Bradley, and the disproportionate number and length of custodial sentences on BME defendants with comparable records to those of other offenders and in relation to comparable offences. Here, the sentencing clearly needs reviewing. The noble Lord, Lord McNally and the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, referred to that important issue.

Mr Gove has made a very promising start in his approach to the crisis in our prisons, although I hope that he returns to the important report produced by my noble friend Lord Harris, and I join others in urging him to look again at the vexed question of IPP prisoners, referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, and other noble Lords today and on previous occasions. We must hope that he secures the support of his colleagues in a major effort to build on the aspirations of Transforming Rehabilitation by indeed transforming a dysfunctional and all too frequently failing prison service and, in so doing, make no longer contestable the claim of one former Home Secretary that “prison works”.