Prisons: Overcrowding - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:06 pm on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of The Bishop of Rochester The Bishop of Rochester Bishop 12:06 pm, 7th September 2017

My Lords, I too am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, for bringing this debate. I rather wish that the slight slip of the tongue of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in first referring to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, as a former Minister for prisons had been true, but there we are.

I recall a visit in my capacity as Bishop to Her Majesty’s Prisons, to one of our prisons and encountering a young man who was visibly distressed and disturbed, sitting against a wall with his hands over his ears, unable to cope with the general noise and hubbub on a prison wing—not least an overcrowded prison wing. I talked to one of the officers on that wing, who was relatively newly recruited and new in post; he was clearly there because of a really positive motivation, wanting to make a difference and with a vocation to work in the Prison Service. However, he was very conscious that because of responsibility to the whole wing, he was unable to give that distressed young prisoner the focused attention that was required.

We have in our prisons many governors, chaplains, staff, volunteers and officers like the one I have just described, who seriously want to make a difference, have a vocation for this work and are committed, and who want to see what is the aspiration of the Prison Service come to fruition, namely to create a rehabilitative culture. Sadly, it is largely a matter of numbers, more particularly, the ratio between numbers and staffing, which frustrates that desire and aspiration in so many ways. So many of the good interventions, programmes and possibilities delivered by staff, volunteers and many others are not able to fulfil their potential in bringing transformation and in turning around people’s lives. If that ratio between staff and prisoner numbers is too stretched, then these programmes cannot be delivered, the relationships are not built and there is no such transformation.

There are two particular things I would like to take this opportunity to address to Her Majesty’s Government. One relates to those, of whom there are far too many in prison, who have serious mental health conditions. Can conversations between the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health be seriously ratcheted up to address that issue, with serious proposals about alternative provision for people for whom prison is not the right place to be because of their mental health conditions? That would have a significant effect on the prison population. Secondly, will Her Majesty’s Government give serious attention to the consultation that is being undertaken by the Scottish Government at the moment, which will bring in a presumption against sentences shorter than 12 months, and to ask whether there are lessons to be learned for the Prison Service on the back of that consultation, and for sentencing policy in England and Wales.

It is crucial, if prison is going to do what we all want it to do, that these issues are addressed, so I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown for bringing forward this opportunity for us to hear the wisdom of so many within this House.