Prisons: Overcrowding - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:43 pm on 7th September 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 1:43 pm, 7th September 2017

My Lords, I would like to begin by thanking the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, for securing this debate. He and other noble—and in some cases noble and learned—Lords have raised some very important points, which I hope to address. I will certainly write to address detailed and specific points, as so many have been raised today, and I am extraordinarily grateful for the quality of this debate.

Our prisons have been overcrowded for well over a decade, with the rate stable at around 25%. Overcrowding has been a long-standing issue for successive Governments. In November last year, to tackle overcrowding and other problems facing the prison system, this Government launched the Prison Safety and Reform White Paper. This programme will transform the prison estate and the experience of prisoners in it. It includes a £1.3 billion investment to make prisons safe and secure—and, in turn, places of rehabilitation. To reduce overcrowding, we must act in two areas. We must reform the prison estate and manage prisoner numbers.

Turning first to the prison estate, we need to make sure that we have the right number of prison places of the right type in modern or modernised buildings. There remain large parts of the prison estate that are old and inefficient, as noted by my noble friend Lord Colgrain. Prisoners are housed in poor physical conditions. Our transformative prison building and redevelopment programme will put this right. We are replacing old, inefficient prison places with 10,000 modern and better-designed places that support prisoner rehabilitation. Reducing overcrowding is a central aim of this estate modernisation, and the new prisons will be designed with this firmly in mind—so I believe that what we are doing is in line with the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown. We are not building significantly more, but we are building better. We are also making sure that places are available now by bringing unused cells back into use.

I turn to the number of prisoners in our prisons. The Government are clear that there will always be enough prison places for offenders committed to custody by the courts, but many of the opportunities for achieving a better outcome for prisoners and the public may result in a reduction in prisoner numbers and will therefore help us tackle overcrowding. Firstly, we must reduce reoffending. Many noble Lords have mentioned reoffending or the factors that lead to it: a lack of education and training, a dearth of employment opportunities, drug or alcohol addiction, poor mental health, and so many more. Reoffending costs the country £13 billion a year and puts a huge strain on our prisons.

The Government are committed through the prison safety and reform programme to improving the education, training and employment opportunities for prisoners, including encouraging prisoners to get qualifications in English and maths, providing access to apprenticeship programmes and teaming up with employment partners such as National Rail, Timpson, Halfords and so many more, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Lee. There will be more on these when we launch the education and employment strategy later this year.

The Government are also working to help prisoners beat addiction by ensuring access to trained providers of specialist addiction services. We have also announced measures to crack down on the availability of drugs in prisons. We believe that these actions will reduce reoffending and aid rehabilitation.

IPP prisoners have an impact on prisoner numbers, of course, and were mentioned by many noble Lords. We are committed to helping the remaining IPP prisoners to progress through their sentences towards safe release. IPP sentences, introduced by the previous Labour Government, were imposed a long time ago and were abolished by the coalition Government in 2012. Since then, the Prison Service, the National Probation Service and the Parole Board have taken up a range of work to speed up IPP sentence progression. This has included diverting recall cases away from the Parole Board so that it can focus on reviewing IPP prisoners; enhanced case management, with a view avoiding IPP cases becoming stuck in the parole system; increasing the provision of places on new progression regimes; and improved access to interventions and programmes. Last year alone, 576 IPP prisoners were released—the highest number of annual releases. The Parole Board gave a release decision to almost half of all IPP prisoners considered, and recommended a move to open conditions for a further quarter.

There are a number of other areas it is worth mentioning with regard to prisoner numbers. The first is our focus on deporting foreign national offenders. Last year we deported 6,171—a record number. Electronic tagging, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, is an effective offender management tool, which can give suspects and offenders a chance to maintain their ties with a community while imposing additional safeguards to protect the public. The work to deliver the new service is complicated and has taken longer than originally anticipated, although lessons have been learned along the way. Our changes will introduce location monitoring and the flexibility to bring in an even greater range of monitoring in the future.

There is also the use of release on temporary licence as part of rehabilitation, where we will maintain improvements recently made to ROTL and allow governors greater discretion to help prisoners get the skills and training that they need. We will, however, continue to use recall where appropriate for breaches of conditions, particularly where there is a risk to the public—but we are taking action to ensure that more is done to help offenders complete their licence period successfully without reaching the point where recall becomes necessary.

Noble Lords referred to other issues that may ultimately make it less likely that a prisoner will be rehabilitated and go on to become a successful returning citizen. I have mentioned that we are taking steps to tackle drug addiction and reduce the availability of drugs. These are important to improve prisoner rehabilitation and reduce violence and instability in our prisons. We want prisons to be places of hard work, rigorous education and high ambition, with incentives for prisoners to learn and for prison staff to prioritise education and work. We need to put the tools to drive change into the hands of those in the front line, who know best what works. Progress is being made on a number of recommendations, including giving governors the budget and flexibility to spend their resources appropriately in order, for example, to help prisoners keep up important family ties—which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins.

To support prisoners and enable each to reach his or her new potential, the new offender management model included as part of the prison safety and reform programme ensures that each prisoner has a key worker with time to engage one to one, act as a mentor and support changes in attitudes and behaviour. Each prison officer will have no more than around six cases. That will ensure that prisoners have the means to develop a programme of support that meets their needs: from access to education to getting ready to leave prison, from getting treatment for poor mental health to enrolling on a training programme.

Many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Murphy, the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Rochester and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, mentioned the problems of suicide, self-harm and poor mental health. On suicide and self-harm, we have put in place a range of measures to support prisoners who are at risk of self-harm or suicide, especially in the first 24 hours, when they are at their most vulnerable. We are rolling out new training that will help staff identify the risks and triggers of suicide and self-harm and understand what they can do to support prisoners at risk. We have put in place specialist roles, including regional safer-custody leads in every region to provide advice to prisoners and spread good practice. We are using experts, including providing extra funding to the Samaritans, to provide support for prison staff and prisoners directly.

On mental health more broadly, we need a more systematic, nationally consistent approach that provides quicker and more certain access to mental health treatment. We are working with the Department of Health and NHS England to develop a new health and justice protocol so that courts are able to increase their use of mental health treatment requirements, alcohol treatment requirements and drug rehabilitation requirements as part of a community sentence. This will mean that we can intervene earlier to deal with mental health and substance misuse issues. We are also working with the judiciary and the Health Secretary to make sure that courts have better access to psychologists and registered mental health practitioners. These liaison and diversion services—for which we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, for his work—are being trialled at police stations and courts across nearly 70% of the country. NHS England is leading a cross-government programme to expand these services to the whole of England by 2020-21.

Finally, prison must be safe. The level of violence in our prisons is unacceptable. We are fully committed to making prisons safer and addressing the significant increase in violence and assaults by increasing staffing levels and improving ways of working. In all of this, the work of prison staff is supported by close working relationships with a range of partners. Prison chaplains of many faiths, for example—mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark—are critical in providing pastoral and spiritual care to those in our care. They offer valuable support to governors in delivering decent and humane regimes. We recognise and welcome the valuable pastoral care that our chaplaincies provide to staff and inmates across the prison estate.

There is much more to be done—much new thinking to be had and innovation to be found. That was mentioned by my noble friend Lady Bottomley and the noble Lords, Lord Wigley, Lord Alton and Lord Bird. I hope that we can continue these discussions going forward.

In order to achieve our goals and provide prisoners with the support that they need, we need to back the hard-working prison workforce already in place and bolster its numbers over the next 18 months. That is why we are investing £100 million a year to recruit an extra 2,500 prison officers by the end of next year. The most recent figures show that the number of prison officers has increased by 868 compared with the previous quarter. Prison officer recruitment numbers are at their highest level since records began. We believe that these new prison officers will meet the forecast needs of the prison system.

Targeted recruitment activities, such as higher starting pay and additional allowances of up to £5,000 a year, support the process in those establishments that have the most difficulty with recruitment. These new recruits will join thousands of dedicated prison officers who undertake such important work day in and day out to keep our prisons and the public safe. We will need their experience, which is why we are rolling out retention programmes across the estate and providing financial incentives to reduce attrition.

It should be noted that the role of the prison officer is developing. It is changing and on training, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, We are making improvements. We have increased our prison officer training capacity to be able to deal with the significant boost in numbers. Existing staff are undertaking key worker training. We are providing tailored support to governors and their teams to introduce this model and train staff, beginning with 10 pathfinder prisons. This investment in additional prison staff, plus more effective training and the greater autonomy we have given to governors—