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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. It is also a pleasure to have two Front Benchers in this debate who have both been members of the Select Committee on Justice. They understand the sort of comments being made by Kenny MacAskill, and I hope that they recall the report on prison governance that we produced, which covered a number of the issues.
We are in an enduring crisis of safety and decency in our prisons. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, this crisis is not something that has just happened; it has been going on for a long time. Violence is at an all-time high. Up until March 2019, there were more than 34,000 assaults in the prison system and, of those assaults, more than 10,000 were on staff. That is an increase in assaults on staff of 15%.
A major contributory factor to the level of violence and the state that prison officers must endure is working conditions. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the prisons are mostly Victorian—or earlier—constructions. We need to tackle the level of accumulated maintenance in such prisons, but the focus of Government activity seems to be on 10,000 more prisoner places, rather than on curing the maintenance problem.
I give full credit for the £100 million put into the Prison Service to improve safety and security, and we should not lose sight of that, but the concentration on providing an additional 10,000 places has meant that repairs to prisons have taken a back seat. We can address much of that, and the prison in Leeds is doing so. Working parties of staff and prisoners together carry out maintenance activity within the prison. I would like to see something similar taken on board by other prisons, to get the work done. The Justice Committee looked at this and came to the conclusion that the backlog of maintenance required in prisons came to about £900 million—an increase from £716 million in 2018. That that is an incredible backlog, and it shows that not enough is being done to tackle this.
Several things contribute to the problem. One is a real crisis of leadership in prisons. There has been a tremendous amount of activity to try to give governors more power over what happens in their prisons, but I do not think that that has gone far enough. We need governors who really have control of their prisons, because after all, they see the detail of where maintenance is required and can deal with it continually.
Another significant aspect is space being made available for purposeful activity. There is no doubt in my mind that purposeful activity plays a strong part in prisons. I have said in the House before that, with previous Justice Committees, I have been to Denmark and Germany to see how prisons there deal with purposeful activity. In Denmark, one thing that made the biggest difference was not purposeful activity in the sense of making things, but the way in which the prisoners were treated. What made the biggest difference was that they did not eat communal style, as in the “Porridge” series, but were allowed to earn their own money and to cook their own food. There were some restrictions, such as knives having to be chained to the wall, but that made a huge difference in keeping the lid on violence in that prison and making sure that the prisoners were fit for rehabilitation. The German prison I visited—this goes back to the point that the hon. Member for East Lothian made about where in a prison these issues can be tackled—had a big warehouse for making furniture. The prisoners all played a part in making furniture, which had an enormous impact on their lives.
My last point, which I will just make before I leave space for others to come in, is that there has been too much ad hoc dealing with the problems in the Prison Service over the years. Nobody has taken a strategic direction, grabbed the issue by the neck and sorted it out. If there is one message that I would give to the Minister, it is that strategic direction needs to be put into the Prison Service. The issue needs to be addressed, because it is not just a question of prisoner safety, but of prison officer safety.