Prisons: Overcrowding - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:42 pm on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Lord Birt Lord Birt Crossbench 12:42 pm, 7th September 2017

My Lords, people are in prison because they have offended against the rules of a civilised society—and that society should demonstrate and reinforce its own civilised values and intentions when it denies offenders their liberty, as so many of your Lordships have said. The vivid undercover filming by “Panorama” inside HMP Northumberland recently laid bare our failure to do that. It captured the anarchic reality, the Hogarthian horror, of a typical modern British prison: extensive drug use, fevered volatility, prisoners both threatening and frightened, and staff powerless and stressed—conditions in no way conducive to addressing offending behaviour.

How has this happened? It has been a particularly egregious failure of government. Since 2010 there have been five Secretaries of State and a succession of U-turns. The result, as others have said, has been: like-for-like sentence inflation; 25% of prisoners in overcrowded cells; prison staff reduced by 7,000; the leaving rate for officers in this high-stress occupation an unsurprising 10%; 25% of staff now inexperienced and in their first two years of service; and, in spite of a policy reverse and a fresh recruitment drive, a net increase in the 12 months to 31 March this year of just 75 staff. Yes, recruitment has improved since, but still more slowly than prisoner numbers have increased.

The recent prison riot at HMP The Mount occurred when only 20 officers were available over a weekend to supervise 1,000 prisoners under a severely restricted regime. In round figures, deaths in custody are up 20%, self-harm 25%, and assaults on staff 40%—all in one year. These rates of increase are truly alarming and can only prompt grave concern about the immediate period ahead.

What is needed is not more obfuscatory press releases from the MoJ, with numbers unaccompanied by any convincing narrative at all, but an integrated and convincing five-to-10-year plan that moves us ahead of the curve and contains prudent forecasts of prisoner numbers, with plans to build an estate without any overcrowding and with a plan for officer numbers that will allow our prisons to become controlled, disciplined and civilised. Will the Minister agree today to produce such a plan?