Prisons: Overcrowding - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:34 pm on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 1:34 pm, 7th September 2017

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, on securing the debate and on his masterly review of the crisis in our prisons system.

On 23 February, a Home Office press release announced:

“Justice Secretary Elizabeth Truss unveils landmark Prisons and Courts Bill”,

and claimed that the Bill,

“paves the way for the biggest overhaul of prisons in a generation”.

In her Second Reading speech on the Bill—which of course subsequently seems to have disappeared—the then Lord Chancellor proclaimed:

“We have held the prison population stable for the last six years”. —[Official Report, Commons, 20/3/17; col. 657.]

Stability can of course take several forms. Certainly prisoner numbers remained stable, but as today’s debate makes clear, stability cannot be claimed for the rising tide of violence, self-harm and drug abuse which grew exponentially in those six years.

For a quarter of a century, under successive Governments, the number of prisoners grew inexorably, until we now have, as we have heard, the highest incarceration rate in western Europe, higher than some of the less advanced countries in eastern Europe. Also, of course, the number of prison officers has fallen substantially, by more than 25%.

The consequences include the highest number of deaths among prisoners on record in the year to March 2017. The chief inspector’s report states that a third of the 344 deaths were self-inflicted, while serious assaults more than doubled in the last three years, and, tellingly, assaults on staff rose by 88% in the last two years. Force is also used by prison staff, and the report discloses that it was found at a high level in two-thirds of prisons, while it expresses,

“concerns about the quality of documentation used to justify the use of force”.

Further, self-harm figures rose from just under 26,000 in 2014-15 to over 40,000 in 2016, a rate of 471 per 1,000 prisoners. The Howard League recently reported a 75% increase in two years of additional days in prison for breaking prison rules, to a total of 290,000 cases.

Having reduced the number of prison staff by 7,500 and saved £900 million by 2015, the Government are now seeking to recruit 2,500 new officers. However, the number of front-line staff increased by only 75 in the last year after allowing for numbers leaving the service. Can the Minister update the figures for those leaving and those joining the service, and can she tell us the average term of service for those who departed? Does she accept that, so far from prison numbers being held at the present level, let alone reduced, the forecast for 2020 is now for the numbers to grow to 90,000? If so, what are the implications for staffing and new prison places?

The chief inspector’s report of 18 July is a veritable litany of failure across the penal system. He highlights the fact that only 14% of prisoners and 4% of young adults were unlocked for at least 10 hours a day, and was shocked to discover that 30% of the latter spent fewer than two hours a day out of their cells. He was confronted by vermin infestation and insanitary toilets and showers. Too many prisoners suffered from learning disability or mental health problems, and he affirmed that it is the,

“job of the Inspectorate to point out where the imbalance between staff and prisoner numbers adversely affects the treatment of and conditions for prisoners”.

It is fair to point out that the inspector found conditions in women’s prisons to be better, but self-harming and suicide reached the highest level in women’s prisons in 12 years. Similar patterns were-reflected in young offender institutions, where the inspector shockingly concluded that,

“there was not a single establishment that we inspected in England and Wales in which it was safe to hold children and young people”.

It is particularly disturbing to learn that:

“In many cases the response to previous recommendations has been unforgivably poor”,

with,

“42% of recommendations on safety”,

not being achieved.

Worryingly, the report records a decline in the condition of secure training centres, stating:

“We have seen regimes where boys take every meal alone in their cell, where they are locked up for excessive amounts of time, where they do not get enough exercise, education or training, and where there do not appear to be any credible plans to break the cycle of violence”.

It is difficult to imagine a more damaging critique of any public service, let alone one concerning young people. Paradoxically, the report notes that large sums of money have been provided for teachers and classrooms that are being paid for but not used, because institutions cannot get boys to education in time or at all.

We are entitled to ask of the Government what notice, if any, they take of the inspectorate’s reports regarding the funding of the service and the penalties imposed for failure, especially in prisons being run for profit by the likes of G4S and Sodexo. Damningly, in his introduction to the report, Mr Clarke points out that, notwithstanding his statement of the previous year,

“too many of our prisons had become unacceptably violent and dangerous places. The situation has not improved – in fact, it has become worse”.

What are the Government going to do to rectify this dire and shameful situation? The much vaunted Prisons and Courts Bill was launched in February, claiming to be,

“paving the way for the biggest overhaul of prisons in a generation and the delivery of a world-class court system”.

I observe that we already have a world-class system—unfortunately, it is a third-world-class system. We do not know what the Government’s intentions are in respect of legislation. Perhaps the Minister could advise us. What has become of the claim in the Government press release of 23 February that the,

“Historic Prisons and Courts Bill will transform the lives of offenders and put victims at the heart of the justice system, helping to create a safer and better society”,

and that,

“new legislation underpins measures outlined in the ground-breaking Prison Safety and Reform White Paper which will transform how our prisons operate”?

Ever helpful, as is my wont, I suggest that the Government begin again and include in any future Bill on the topic—assuming there is parliamentary time in the face of the tidal wave of Brexit legislation which is about to overwhelm us—some basic proposals designed to reduce the prison population to a more manageable, and therefore more effective, level. First, in addition to the suggestions of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, there is a need to deal much more promptly with the scandal of the IPP prisoners, still numbering some 3,000. Secondly, the Government need to reduce significantly the number of prisoners on remand pending trial, a significant proportion of whom will be found not guilty or, if guilty, receive light, often non-custodial sentences. Thirdly, in discussion with the judiciary, they need to review the degree of sentence inflation which has characterised the last couple of decades, which a number of noble Lords have referred to. Fourthly, they need to reconsider their policy of building very large prisons, which in too many cases are very distant from the families and communities to which prisoners will return on their release. Lastly, they need to investigate the disproportionate number of ethnic minority prisoners relative to other offenders committing comparable offences.

We have had a broad and very well informed debate which I hope the Government will take on board. I’m not sure whether the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, has had to reply to a debate on prisons thus far?