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My Lords, I join the noble Baroness in congratulating the noble Lord on securing this timely debate. We have one of the highest rates of incarceration of any western European country, with offenders housed in overcrowded and understaffed prisons. There were more than 300 deaths in prisons in England and Wales between June 2018 and June 2019, with an increase of 20% in the 10 most troubled prisons.
Assaults against staff rose from 2,848 in 2010 to 10,213 in 2018—an average of 28 a day—with the number of serious assaults rising from 302 to 995 in the same period. Two-thirds of prison staff reported feeling unsafe last year and only 10% thought that the situation would improve this year. The number of prison staff members in public sector prisons resigning has grown from 1,415 in 2017 to 2,358 in the year to March 2019. A similar pattern is found in the National Probation Service, where resignations increased from 399 to 565. We have 2,000 fewer prison officers than in 2010 and 40% of those in post have less than three years’ experience—four times the percentage in 2010.
The Chief Inspector of Prisons affirms that:
“Violence leads to a restrictive regime and security measures which in turn frustrate those being held there”.
He avers that there are regimes where prisoners,
“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”.
Will the Government therefore review the recruitment and retention problems in staffing by enhancing pay and reducing the retirement age in what is, after, all, a potentially stressful service?
There is a particular concern about women in the custodial system, the vast majority of whom are there for non-violent offences. The number of homeless women incarcerated has doubled in the last four years, while BAME women are overrepresented. Will the Government take steps, in conjunction with local authorities, to address the homelessness issue with which so many of these women have to contend? Will they support and work more closely with women’s centres, which have made a significant contribution to supporting vulnerable women and have the potential to make a substantial impact in supporting women offenders? Will they also address the issue of women being consigned to prisons far from their children? Above all, will they look again at the number of custodial sentences for women and seek to promote alternatives, bearing in mind the sad fact that 100 women prisoners have died in prison since 2007?
Since 2010, the Ministry of Justice has seen its budget cut by 40%. The Prime Minister appears to want to invest in the Prison Service. Unfortunately, it would appear that the investment will take the form of more prisons and 10,000 more prisoners, rather than more qualified staff.
Will the Government look again at the issue of mental health support in the light of the rise in the number of suicides and self-harms? The Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody found that fewer than 1% of more than 75,000 community orders made last year included a mental health treatment requirement. Just as worryingly, male prisoners in the year to this June were 3.7 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population, while self-harm incidents rose to a record high of 58,000—an increase of 24%—and anxiety and depression more than doubled from 23% to 49%. What steps are being taken to ensure that appropriate staffing and access to medical care are available to tackle these problems? Is it not time for a comprehensive review of the state of mental health across the Prison Service, led by medical professionals? In this context, it is worth noting that private prisons are up to 47% more violent than public prisons and more likely to be overcrowded. It is time to exclude profit-making organisations from managing—or, perhaps more accurately, mismanaging—this critical service for profit.
The second part of this debate deals with another deplorable legacy of the unlamented Chris Grayling’s tenure as Lord Chancellor, namely in the probation service. At long last the so-called transforming rehabilitation reforms are to be dispatched and the ridiculous division between private sector community rehabilitation companies and the National Probation Service will come to an end in 2021, after seven lean years for the taxpayer and, perhaps more importantly, those involved with the service. Some £280 million has been sent out to failing CRCs, in addition to the cost of the service, while the number of serious further offences has risen by 40% since 2014—more than half of that increase coming in the past two years.
It is not, however, a clean break: the Government are set on retaining an element of CRC involvement. Yet when the National Association of Probation Officers—the probation officers’ union—raised issues over Working Links, which had the contract for Wales and the south-west, the Government took no notice. Working Links is no longer working: it went into administration in February. In the meantime, there are 1,000 unfilled vacancies in the National Probation Service, so that staff have case loads twice as large as their capacity. NAPO has four major objectives which Ministers should accept, including that: all probation work should be restored to public control; all probation staff should be employed on NPS terms; and the 8,000 community rehabilitation company staff should transfer to the NPS. It also calls for a fully integrated and unified service delivered by a single organisation, while allowing for specialist third-sector provision in partnership arrangements. Significantly, it recognises the potential of partnership with local specialist providers at local level. What will the Government’s response be to its suggestions?