My Lords, I am grateful to be speaking in the debate on the gracious Speech and to have the opportunity to raise an issue that I believe has been seriously neglected. Before I do that, I start on a positive note. I was pleased to see the inclusion of a number of reforms, including mental health legislation and on domestic violence and abuse—and, of course, the proposed consultation on social care which this time I hope will give social care charities and service users the opportunity to be heard.
I particularly welcome the focus on delivering on the Armed Forces covenant across the United Kingdom. I declare an interest having just completed a UK-wide report on veterans’ mental health needs. That report, alongside four detailed reports covering England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, were all commissioned by the Forces in Mind Trust. In fact the trust has just published an important second report on the community covenant which highlights issues of real concern. For example, there are mixed expectations about what the covenant means, especially in relation to the prioritisation of housing needs, and more worryingly, adult social care has been identified as an area where the covenant is least likely to be reflected in local policies and strategies. I hope that these and other issues will be considered in detail during the passage of the Armed Forces Bill.
However, I am confused by the proposed courts Bill. While of course I welcome a Bill to reform and modernise the courts and tribunal system, as many noble Lords have asked, what happened to the Prisons and Courts Bill that had been making its way through Parliament prior to the election? It had made good progress and was well supported across Parliament. Can the Minister say why this important work has been omitted from the Government’s legislative programme, particularly in light of the urgent and much-needed reforms of our prisons, including devolving greater powers to prison governors? By focusing almost exclusively on Brexit, are the Government failing to do their day job and ignoring a number of growing crises in public services?
I do not use the term lightly, but our prisons are in crisis. What else can you call a situation where we see soaring prison suicides, major staff shortages and rising drug use and violence among inmates? The 2016 figures from the Ministry of Justice paint a desperate picture. A record number of people killed themselves in prisons in England and Wales. There were 354 deaths in custody, including 119 self-inflicted deaths. That is only a little short of one person dying every single day. Self-harm incidents jumped by 23% to just under 38,000, which is nearly 7,000 more than were recorded in the previous year. There were more than 25,000 assaults in the 12 months to September 2016, representing a 31% rise. Of those, more than 18,000 were prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, up 28% per cent from the previous year. Assaults on staff also rose 40% to around 6,500, and 761 of those were serious assaults. This Government cannot deny that people in prison, both prisoners and staff, are less safe than they have been at any time since records began.
Yet some of the most vulnerable people in our communities end up in prisons, including people with mental health problems and learning disabilities, people from black and ethnic minority groups, lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender people and women, many of whom are also victims themselves of domestic abuse. In terms of racial discrimination, there is greater disproportion in the number of black people in prisons in the UK than there is in the United States. The most shocking figures are found in the youth estate. Around 43%—nearly half—of 15 to 17 year-olds come from black and Asian minority ethnic backgrounds, and this is against a background of youth offending dropping for the population as a whole. In 2016, the Prime Minister ordered a review into how ethnic minorities and white working class people are treated by public services; but now it appears that no action will be taken to address the “burning injustices” described by the Prime Minister and to tackle discrimination against black and ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system.
The overall situation in prisons is on a cliff edge. So I am calling on this Government to make a clear commitment to take action within this parliamentary Session to tackle these urgent issues. Without such action, I believe that we are heading towards a dangerous crisis point and placing some of the most vulnerable people in our communities at real risk.