Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Prison Staff: Health and Safety — [Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:45 am on 18th March 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 10:45 am, 18th March 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.

I thank Kenny MacAskill for leading this debate and for starting it in such a helpful and comprehensive way. I also thank Grahame Morris, in his absence, for securing it. I entirely agree that he is doing the right thing, as is the Minister for whom I am standing in, my hon. and learned Friend Lucy Frazer, who is also self-isolating.

The debate has been genuinely excellent. One of the points made early on was this business about “The Shawshank Redemption”—the extent to which in our constituency mailbags the conditions in prisons are not necessarily the No. 1 priority. However, everyone in this House recognises that the state of our prisons is a critically important aspect of a functioning and decent society. I am grateful to all those who have taken the trouble on this most difficult day to make their points as they have.

I will add my own perspective briefly. A meeting with a constituent that I will never forget was with an experienced prison officer from Cheltenham. He had been seriously injured by an inmate at HMP Bristol, and came to speak to me about what had happened. What was so striking was that, despite that ordeal, he remained in post, undaunted, unbowed and utterly committed to his job. He demonstrated the finest values of the Prison Service, to which I pay tribute—not just with the usual platitudes about dedication, but acknowledging the values of courage, compassion, judgment and professionalism. He also demonstrated what everyone in the debate recognises as important: the determination to root out what Winston Churchill referred to many years ago as the

“treasure in the heart of every man”.

As Patricia Gibson said, being a prison officer can be a rewarding career for that very reason—being able to turn lives around.

Perhaps the most important point that I have taken away from this debate, made by both Government and Opposition Members, is that we need people like my constituent to stay in the Prison Service, because there can be few jobs in which experience is more important. Those senior officers provide leadership to others and set the culture of a successful prison. Equally, as my hon. Friend John Howell said, those governors who have been in post will make the difference too. That is just one reason why this debate is so timely and important, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Easington for bringing it before the House.

I will set the context not by way of excuse but as a fact that we have to address. The prison population is more volatile than it was 10 years ago. That is partly down to drugs and partly down to various other social symptoms, I am sure, but that population is more volatile. That is part of the context.

Let me turn, however, to the issue of covid-19, which the Opposition spokesman, Bambos Charalambous, rightly raised. Covid-19 is testing, and will test further, every part of our national life. Our prisons will not be immune from that. The most careful thought and planning has gone into preparing our prisons. That work does not emerge from a clear blue sky, but is built on existing and well-developed policies and procedures to manage outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Prevention is of course better than cure, and basic hygiene practice has been rolled out in prisons, as one might expect. For those infected, prisons are well prepared to take action whenever cases or suspected cases are identified. Plans include isolating where necessary. Turning to the point about HMP Berwyn made by Liz Saville Roberts, the issue of whether specific prison wings can be used is a matter, quite properly, for consultation with the governor. That may be the appropriate thing to do, but it is not a diktat from Whitehall. I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for raising the issue. The governor will need to be looped into any such decision.