VICTORIA CONTRIBUTES TO URGENT PRISON QUESTION

On Thursday 13 September, Victoria Prentis MP contributed to the Urgent Question on the Government’s plans for HMP Bedford.

Mohammad Yasin (Bedford):

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on the Government’s plans for HMP Bedford.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Rory Stewart):

May I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this urgent question? We spoke briefly on the telephone yesterday. I know that he is a champion of the interests of the people of Bedford and Bedford prison, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss this in more detail.

I begin by setting the broader context of what is happening at Bedford prison and then talk more specifically about what we need to do to resolve the serious issues in Bedford prison.

A number of local prisons with significant challenges have come before the House in the past six months, of which Bedford is the latest. I want to clarify a number of things before I focus specifically on the issues at Bedford. The first is that some of these issues are fundamental to any prison. Prisons are challenging places to run at the best of times. By definition, the people inside a prison do not want to be there, and we are now facing a cohort of people in prison who have multiple needs. Nearly half the people in prison have a reading age of under 11, and nearly 30% have a reading age of under six. Very large numbers are coming to prison directly out of care at the moment, and only 18% of people coming into prison had a job beforehand.

There is also a rising tide of violence in prisons. I am pleased that Royal Assent has today been given to the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). The Bill clarifies that this is not just an issue in prisons. Assaults against police officers have risen to an all-time high, and assaults on ambulance workers have risen to a very disturbing level. It would have been almost inconceivable 30 years ago for someone to get into an ambulance and assault the paramedic who was trying to treat them. It was almost unheard of 30 years ago for prisoners to assault prison officers, yet last year there were more than 9,000 such assaults.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, in relation to Bedford prison, I will return to the question of how we address violence in prisons and how the new legislation brought in by the hon. Member for Rhondda, which we on this side of the House are proud to support, will help to address some of the issues.

The second thing I want to put on record is that although there are many challenges in prisons, there have been improvements. It is worth remembering in this difficult atmosphere that some things are getting better. The situation relating to escapes and security is much better than at any time in the past. Similarly, while any suicide is a tragedy, because of our understanding of the drivers of suicide and the evidence that we gather, the measures that we are taking are beginning to work. The suicide rate is now considerably lower than it was a year ago, two years ago or indeed in the historical past, because we are beginning to address that issue. We also have a much better idea about how to deal with some of the underlying issues around reoffending. Our ​first night reception centres are much stronger, as are the family links that we are able to promote. More prisoners are now actively in work or education than before, and the education strategy ensures that the education they receive is much more relevant to the workplace.

Nevertheless, as the hon. Member for Bedford and the chief inspector have pointed out, there are three very significant challenges in Bedford. The first is a big problem around decency and conditions in Bedford. The second is a problem around drugs in Bedford. The third is a problem around violence, particularly assaults against prison officers in Bedford. How do we deal with this? Bearing in mind that there are underlying problems in all local prisons and that the problems we are talking about—decency, drugs and violence—are familiar from inspections in other places, what is it that gives me some hope that we can turn this around? Do we have a plan to turn this around?

The answer is that there are prisons out there in the country—local prisons with similar problems to Bedford—that are already showing that we can tackle these issues. Hull is a good example, as is Preston. There has also been a significant improvement in tackling exactly these kinds of issues in Leeds over the past three months. In Bedford, we put the prison into special measures some months ago, and we are now beginning to see some key improvements. We are seeing improvements in the physical infrastructure, more investment is going into windows, the mental health provision is better than it was, areas such as the showers and the segregation unit are better than they were, and we are now bringing in a more experienced management team.

However, that still leaves those three fundamental problems to be dealt with. How do we deal with them? Addressing the issue of drugs is first a question of technology. We have done a lot to understand the criminal networks through gathering intelligence on how the drugs are getting in, but there is much more we can do to get the right scanners in place to investigate the drugs being carried in in people’s bodies, and to spend money on the scanners to investigate drugs being put in the post that is getting into the prison.

Decency is fundamentally a question of spending money, which is why we are putting an extra £40 million into addressing basic issues, such as windows. That is not just about producing decent living conditions for prisoners—

Victoria Prentis (Banbury):

This report is particularly damning, and it is the fourth such report in recent times. It talks of men who are locked up for 23 hours a day without food or lavatory paper.

I accept that the Minister is doing his level best to sort out the situation, and I wholeheartedly support his reforms, including those to increase the number of prison officers and to work hard on rehabilitation, but if we are to continue incarcerating this number of people, we simply have to ask the Treasury for more money so that we can do it safely. Does he agree?

Rory Stewart:

We are definitely putting in more investment, and we need to put in more investment. That is why we are spending £40 million on additional improvements in the existing infrastructure, and that is why we will spend well over £1 billion on building new prisons, but the urgent problem we face will not be addressed overnight by new prisons. These prisons will take serious time to build, and the problem will have to be addressed on the landings and outside the cells by legislative measures such as the Bill tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda, by body-worn cameras, by CCTV, by training and, above all, by management and support for staff.