Bishop of Rochester questions Government about staffing levels in prisons after Birmingham riots

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RochesterOn the 21st December 2016 the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff tabled and asked a question to Government on the floor of the House: “following the disturbance at HM Prison Birmingham, what measures they will take to address immediate and short-term issues of safety and security in prisons.” The full series of exchanges, including follow-up questions from other Members, is reproduced below:

The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and I draw the House’s attention to my interest as the Bishop to Her Majesty’s Prisons.

 The Lord Bishop of Rochester: I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I am also grateful for the debate and discussion in your Lordships’ House on Monday following the Ministerial Statement. In that debate, a number of noble Lords drew attention to the importance of purposeful activity for prisoners, including education, training, work and a range of other rehabilitative programmes. Such activities aid reform, encourage positive behaviour and thus enhance safety and security—but they can also be seriously compromised, not least by staffing issues. Can the Minister assure the House that such programmes will be sustained and ideally increased in the short term as well as the long term?

 Lord Keen of Elie: My Lords, 16 million hours of works were delivered in prisons during the year 2015-16. We want to see more work in prisons, leading to jobs outside prison. More private sector companies now employ ex-offenders than ever before and we are keen to increase the number of employers who can provide valuable vocational work for offenders while in prison. We intend to pursue that objective.

Lord Laming (CB): My Lords, would the noble and learned Lord agree that a good way of reducing pressure on the Prison Service is to have in place robust and effective non-custodial sentences in which the courts can have confidence? That being so, will the Minister be willing to share with the House the Government’s response to the recent devastatingly critical report on the probation service from the Chief Inspector of Probation?

Lord Keen of Elie: We are clearly of the view that we should seek non-custodial sentences wherever possible—but, of course, the facilities to support that must be available. Criticisms were levelled recently at certain aspects of the probation service, which remains so important to that element of non-custodial work. Nevertheless, we want to see this expanded, maintained and improved.

Lord Harris of Haringey (Lab): My Lords, serious concerns were raised by the independent monitoring board in respect of conditions at Her Majesty’s Prison Birmingham. Were the concerns in that report flagged up to Ministers? What consideration was given to reports from other independent monitoring boards highlighting similar conditions in other prisons? Finally, are Ministers considering giving greater independence and authority to independent monitoring boards, perhaps by making them accountable through Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons?

Lord Keen of Elie: Both Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and the independent monitoring board reports reflect the challenges that have built up in our prisons and prison estate over many years. In respect of that, we have now announced a comprehensive programme of reform.

Baroness Sharples (Con): How many writers in residence are there in prisons?

Lord Keen of Elie: My Lords, I am not able to answer that question immediately but I will undertake to write to my noble friend with the relevant figure.

Lord Beith (LD): Will Ministers address the urgent need to deal with the release of IPP prisoners who are beyond their tariff? What use is being made of the reserve list, which Mr Grayling set up in 2014 when he was Secretary of State, of former prison officers and others who could be called in during situations such as this?

Lord Keen of Elie: I am obliged to the noble Lord. Public protection remains a key priority in the context of how we deal with IPP prisoners. These people have been sentenced for offences involving serious violence and serious sexual crime. We set up a new unit within the Ministry of Justice to tackle the backlog with respect to IPP prisoners and we are working with the Parole Board to improve the efficiency of that process. We have an enhanced case-management system. We are diverting recall cases away from the Parole Board so that it can focus on reviewing IPP prisoners. In the past year, 38% of IPP prisoners who attended oral hearings completed by the Parole Board went on to be released. So matters are improving. Indeed, in the last year we released 512 IPP prisoners from custody—the largest number so far—bringing the total figure below 4,000.

Lord Ramsbotham (CB): My Lords, when a previous Government formed a judicial inquiry in 1978 to look at the state of prisons, it was largely because of concern over in-house inspection, which was causing public unease. The problems in our prisons will not be solved easily and will not be solved unless the problems facing the probation service, which my noble friend Lord Laming drew attention to, are solved. One of the results of the riots in Strangeways was the masterly report by my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf, which led to much examination of many issues. Can the Minister say whether or not the Government will consider appointing an independent outside observer, rather than the in-house person who has been appointed to examine the Birmingham troubles?

Lord Keen of Elie: My Lords, we have already made an appropriate appointment for the carrying out of a full investigation of the incident at Birmingham prison, and that investigation is now proceeding. I pause to allude back to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Beith, a few moments ago. He also asked about the reserve list of prison officers. That is maintained and relied upon. I apologise for omitting that from my previous answer.

Baroness Corston (Lab): My Lords, the Minister referred to the fact that these difficulties in our prisons have been building up for, he said, many years. As someone who has been interested in penal policy for at least 20 years, I disagree vehemently. This current problem about riots and no access to education in prisons is a direct result of the fact that under Chris Grayling as Secretary of State we had a 30% cut in the prison staff population. How on earth we expect that reduced staffing level to deal with all the problems that are being discussed today is beyond me.

Lord Keen of Elie: With respect to the noble Baroness, I observe that reference has already been made to Strangeways, one of the worst incidents in any of our prisons in the past 25 years. It did not take place under the tenure of Mr Chris Grayling.