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Prison safety and reform

Minutes of the Meeting of the All-Party Group on Penal Affairs, held on 14 December 2016 in Committee Room 3


Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice
Peter Dawson, Director, Prison Reform Trust


Lord Ramsbotham (in the Chair)
Lord Beecham
Lord Beith
Lord Fellowes
Dominic Grieve QC MP
Lord Hailsham
Earl of Listowel
Lord McNally
Baroness Masham

Lord Ramsbotham welcomed everybody to the meeting. He said that the Secretary of State would not be arriving until 5.15, and would have to leave early. Peter Dawson of PRT would therefore be speaking first, and would be discussing the White Paper. He added that the Secretary of State had rung him on the day the White Paper was published, to ask if she could bring forward her planned address to this group, so that she could benefit from members’ expertise. The last White Paper on prisons, Custody, Care and Justice, had been published in 1991 following the riots in Strangeways. Included in it was the direction from Kenneth Baker, then Home Secretary, that prisons should be grouped into community or regional clusters, in order to safeguard the three things most likely to prevent reoffending – a home, a job, and a stable family relationship. But that, in common with most of its recommendations, had never been realised. In fact the only recommendation to have been implemented was the ending of slopping out – though even that had not completely ended. Here was another White Paper, with the promise of legislation, though quite when that would be taken forward and what it would contain remained to be seen.

Peter Dawson thanked Lord Ramsbotham for the opportunity to contribute to the meeting. He said that copies of the PRT’s response to the white paper were available to the meeting, together with latest Bromley briefing on prison statistics. He continued: ‘Our response to the White Paper contains a great deal that we think the Secretary of State needs to deliver by way of detailed policy development over the coming months . But I want to take the opportunity to talk briefly this evening about the responsibilities of Parliament, rather than the executive, in achieving lasting prison reform

The last Prison Act was passed in 1952. It allowed for no more than five prison commissioners to be appointed by the Sovereign on the advice of her Secretary of State (maybe rather fewer than those who currently make a living by “commissioning” services in prisons). I have an extract from their report to the Secretary of State from 1957.

Some of this may sound familiar: some 68% of prison sentences passed on men (85% on women) were for six months or less which the Commissioners noted “allowed little possibility of constructive training”. The population rose from around 20,000 to around 23,000 during the year, prompting the commissioners to say that “Unhappily many of the prospects towards which we were looking [last year] became increasingly dimmed by the shadow of overcrowding...Efforts have continued to secure contracts for the use of prison workshop labour by outside firms, and additional orders have been obtained which should provide work for 700-800 men throughout 1958. ”So, plus ca change...

But some of it is markedly different. This in particular caught my eye. They said that the total number of deaths in prison in 1957 was sixty; … there were forty-seven deaths from natural causes, thirty of whom died in public hospitals. Of the remaining thirteen, eight were due to suicide, two to judicial execution, and three to other non-natural causes

We can celebrate the fact that we no longer execute prisoners. But while the overall population was around 23,000 as against the 86,000 we now imprison, just 8 prisoners took their own lives in 1957 compared to the 107 who did so in the year to September 2016.

It is safe to conclude that our current prison system still fails to deliver the ambitions of those who legislated for it in 1952. So what needs to be different in a Prison Act 2017? As it happens, PRT has addressed this question, albeit 20 years ago. A draft bill from 1996 can be found on PRT’s website and it remains quite remarkably relevant. But I suspect its 53 clauses would get short shrift from the business managers in the light of Parliament’s Brexit preoccupations, so here is a shorter list of priorities Parliament might wish to set itself for a Prisons Bill next year.

We are promised a statutory purpose for prisons, and that is welcome. But there must also be a set of statutory principles which govern what life is to be like in prison. These might start with a statutory expression of the case law from Raymond v. Honey (1982) that prisoners retain all civil rights not taken away expressly by Parliament (such as their right to vote) or by necessary implication of the fact of imprisonment (such as freedom of movement). The principles might also include a requirement of fairness and transparency in the exercise of authority within prisons, so that prisoners know the reasons for decisions that affect them and have the ability to challenge them appropriately.

Secondly, Parliament should give itself the ability to make detailed rules describing the minimum standards of decency and respect for human rights within prisons. These should include the provision of accommodation to a specification guaranteeing the cubic space within a cell, the circulation of fresh air, standards of heat and light, and access to showers; the prevention of overcrowding other than in an emergency and then only with a time limited authority conferred by Parliament; entitlements to minimum periods each day of time when the cell door is unlocked; and minimum standards governing the ability to communicate with individuals outside prison.

And finally Parliament should make it a priority to establish in statute the critical mechanisms for holding the executive to account day to day for its adherence to what Parliament has described. In particular, it must renew or give for the first time statutory expression to the offices of the inspectorate of prisons; the prisons ombudsman; and the Independent Monitoring Board for each prison. But it must also describe the mechanism by which the Secretary of State is to respond to concerns raised by any of those offices, and Parliament’s role in ensuring that the response is both prompt and delivered on the ground.

We know that legislative time is at a premium. But the state of our prisons is a touchstone for our democracy, and Parliament should take the opportunity to make these basics a matter of business as usual rather than political controversy. It has been a task neglected for far too long.’

At this point the Secretary of State arrived, and Lord Ramsbotham welcomed her to the meeting.

Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP ‘Thank you very much, Lord Ramsbotham, for inviting me, and also for your advice in advance of the publication of the White Paper, which is very much appreciated. We have all seen that prisons are greatly in the news at the moment and we do have serious issues in our prison estate, in terms not only of the level of violence but also of the levels of self-harm and suicide. We have seen a 43% rise in attacks on prison officers in the past year. I have said publicly that this is not acceptable and that is why I have taken urgent steps to deal with it.

But we have also got another long-standing issue, of re-offending, which is a huge problem in this country. The fact is that almost half of people in our prisons will reoffend within a year of leaving those prisons, and if we look at some crimes, for example theft, the rate goes up to 66%. So two thirds of all the people in prison for theft will reoffend within a year. Both of those sets of statistics are more than just statistics, because what they mean is harm, both to prisoners, and to officers, but also to the public, when we fail to properly reform offenders and then they then end up in the community committing more crimes. That huge harm is something that we are not getting right at the moment. That is why we do need serious reform to our prisons and our prison system.

I am aware that there are lots of people in this room who are serious reformers, not least you, Lord Ramsbotham, and a number of others who have made the case over the years for prison reform. In fact Elizabeth Fry almost 200 years ago was making the case too. So one of the questions I ask, as Secretary of State is: with all these fantastic people coming up with all these excellent policies, why haven't we made the progress we should have made? I think there has been a fundamental issue: we haven’t had a common agreement about what the prison system is for, and we haven’t had a framework, and measurement, that encourages the system to deliver that. Whilst we have had fantastic programmes, and I have been round the country seeing great employment schemes, great education taking place, and great drug rehabilitation programmes, we haven’t had the system in place making sure that that is delivered.

As Secretary of State for Justice – previously it was the Home Secretary’s responsibility – I am accountable not just for housing prisoners, which is what the current legislation says, but also for how those offenders have reformed when they are in the care of the state. It is quite extraordinary that our prison legislation at the moment doesn’t say that. It doesn’t say that there is the explicit purpose that our prisons should be there to reform the offenders who are in them. It is obviously hugely important, both to make the most of those people who are in the system, but also for society as a whole. It is one of the reasons that I have made it a clear part of the White Paper that the Secretary of State should be accountable for how offenders are reformed and also that Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons is there to make sure that that happens, and also to point out where prisons are failing. The Secretary of State then has a proper role to intervene and has to make sure that action is taken; because another thing that I have heard is that whilst there are excellent reports produced by HMIP and indeed the IMBs, often it is not clear how those reports are being followed up, or what action happens as a result.

So I think it is important that we have the system and the framework, and that is what we are seeking to do in legislation early next year with the Prisons and Courts Bill. Beyond that, we then need to say what standards we want to hold prisons to. What do we want to see in our prisons? Clearly prisons need to be safe places. The current level of violence is not acceptable on a human level. The vast majority of those prisoners are going to go out into the community. Do we want that level of violence spilling over into our communities? No we do not. So making our prisons safer, and measuring that properly, is very important.

I also want to see measures on health. How effective are governors in terms of getting prisoners off drugs? How successful are they in improving and providing mental health services? How successful are they at making sure that prisoners have basic education? We know that 58% of prisoners do not have basic mathematics, and that almost 50% do not have basic English. We know how hard it is to get a job if you don’t have those basic skills, so we are also going to measure the progress made in English and maths.

I also want to see the progress made in terms of getting people into work. I have visited a number of prisons where there are activities going on: not enough activities, and unfortunately we are not seeing enough time spent in purposeful activity, and out of cell. Quite often the activities that go on in prison do not necessarily lead to a job on the outside. We need to look at it the other way round. We need to bring the outside in, and ask what are those jobs available on the outside? Whether it is being a barista for Costa Coffee or being a scaffolder working for Land Securities – these are real examples going on in our prison estate – then the training starts in prison. We start the apprenticeship in prison and it continues when they leave prison so that they have a continued apprenticeship to go to. Because we know that being in employment is one of the best ways of reducing reoffending. Again we want to measure that and we want to be transparent about how well prisons are doing at getting people into work.

Another area is family ties. Some of you were at the event we held last week with Lord Farmer. He is doing a study for us on how we improve family ties, because families are the best resettlement agency. An awful lot of offenders will say: ‘it’s because I saw the look on my child’s face. They wanted me to come out, and not to go off the rails again’. And that’s what made them change. That is incredibly important. At the moment we know it is often hard for people on the inside to be able to call their families. The number one issue that has come through from the Farmer review is phones, and the inability to keep in touch with family members. That again is incredibly important.

We need to have clear national standards. That is absolutely crucial. We need to be clear about how well each prison is doing in terms of those national standards. But whilst we need to be very clear about the ‘what’ that we are asking prisons and governors to achieve, we need to be much more flexible about how they do it. Because people are different: women are different, young people come from different age groups and backgrounds, people come from different starting points, governors have different styles. We need to allow much more flexibility at a local level in terms of how those objectives are achieved. So the second part of our report, as well as having a strong framework and strong standards, is having much more flexibility in delivery.

I don’t mean flexibility over things like security or dealing with extremism. Clearly we need to have strong national leadership and excellent intelligence in areas like that. But when it comes to turning somebody’s life around, changing somebody’s mind about offending, it’s the relationship with the officer that will help achieve that; it’s the work that is done with a local employer; it’s the way the governor runs the prison and the way the prisoners feel about it. I appeared yesterday on Radio Wanno, in HMP Wandsworth, and I have just learned all the slang terms for the London prisons. So I know about The Ville, and Scrubs, as they are referred to. The radio studio had prisoners there who were working on the radio station, interested in communicating with the outside. Those are the types of activity that can motivate people to change their lives. But that might be a different type of activity from that which somebody wants to run in HMP Norwich where they have the fantastic Britannia Café, where people are getting customer service experience. So it can be all kinds of things: we need to measure the progress in English and maths, we need to measure how effective that governor is at getting people into work outside the prison, but we don’t need to dictate exactly how they do it.

We can see this with our six reform prisons. No doubt you were all here this morning. I haven’t actually caught up with the reform prison governors and the evidence they gave to the Select Committee, but I think they have been very much at the forefront of this. It shows what can be done. They have much more flexibility over the core day they offer, over the staffing. Wansdworth for example is doing local recruitment, which is really important for prison officers in terms of buying people into the local community. And in areas like education it will be for the governor to decide how they provide education in their prison, and it will be a co-decision process with the NHS about getting things like mental health services. I was at HMP Lincoln and they were telling me that one of the issues they had with the provision of local mental health services was that they were only available Monday to Friday, and if course if you have somebody with severe mental health issues who comes into the prison at a weekend that is a real issue.  What I want is for governors to be able to negotiate that flexibility so they can serve the community that they are dealing with.

We are also going to remove a whole lot of rules and regulations about the number of socks people have to have, the size of the bath mat and so on. We need decent standards in our prisons but we don’t need to define decency in such a tick box way. We need to be defining it in a way that is much more human. I think HM Inspectorate have a big role to play in that as well. I want to move away from too much specificity about how things are done in prisons to a much more human approach.

I have mentioned governors and officers and they are absolutely crucial to the reform programme. No-one is more crucial. One of the things we have announced recently, which was confirmed in the Autumn Statement, is that we are investing an extra £ hundred million in staff: 2,500 prison officers will be recruited. I recognise that’s challenging. We have already started in ten of our most challenging prisons and we have made job offers. Of the 400 jobs we have got, we have made job offers to 280. So it is possible, but it is difficult as well. I recognise that. What we need to do, and I am looking to everybody in this room to help me with this, is to communicate how prison reform is going to work, how the role is changing, the opportunities available to become a prison officer and the importance which the role plays in our society. What could be more important than turning those lives around? A prison officer I met described the role to me: ‘I’m a nurse, I’m a parent, I’m a teacher, I’m a police officer’. It’s all of those roles combined into one. When you meet officers on the front line, many of them have been working for the Prison Service for a long time. They are incredibly dedicated people, who have come into it for all the right reasons.

One of the things we are doing is launching a Fast Track programme for our talented existing staff, to make it easier for them to be promoted and to get the extra training within the service. In fact 80% of our employees have been with the Prison Service for more than five years. So we do have a lot of very good staff already with us. My challenge over the next year or so is to retain those excellent staff whilst bringing new people on. We are launching a new apprenticeship programme next April, which will have level 3 and degree level apprenticeships so that people can learn on the job, and we are also launching a new graduate programme, similar to Teach First, to attract some of the brightest and best graduates into the Prison Service as well. I think we need to encourage and promote our existing officers, to get people in through apprenticeships, and to bring people in through a graduate programme. This is not an either/or. We need to do all of those things.

What we are also working on – and this is very relevant to people in this room – is a support network. This is going to be a charitable network that links together voluntary organisations that work with prisons and employers who are interested in employing offenders and running apprenticeship programmes so that our newly empowered governors will be able to go to a single organisation that can broker that support, help them make links with their local companies, help them work with voluntary organisations to deliver these things on the ground. I am very interested in getting all the organisations that are here today involved.

I am under no illusions about the fact that this programme will take time. Of course we are taking immediate action to stabilise the situation within the prison estate. I have announced the rolling out of testing of NPS – new psychoactive substances; we are putting in place body-worn cameras; we are deploying resources across the estate and making sure contractors deliver, in terms of doing things like repairing cells and fixing windows, which of course is very important. It will take time to build up those additional officers in the Prison Service. But I do think we have a huge opportunity here for reform. The case is extremely clear, both economically and morally. There is a huge amount of political and parliamentary support to get this done, and there is a huge amount of support out there. I am struck when I talk at general meetings, whether it is business groups in my constituency or whether it is political meetings, by how many people want to be involved in helping reform our prisons.

So I think there is a huge appetite for change out there and I am very keen to get your support in being able to push that forward, and also your critical feedback. There are areas in the White Paper that have not yet been fully developed: I want to know how we develop those better. There may be bits that you disagree with: I want to know what those are so that we can make progress. There are also areas such as youth justice – I know Lord McNally is here as well – where we also need to do further work, and with women offenders. So there is a lot to be done. We are already getting started, and I hope that, with your help, we can make a huge amount of progress in 2017.’

Lord Ramsbotham thanked the Secretary of State for her presentation, and he threw the floor open for questions.

Dominic Grieve MP thanked the Secretary of State for her overview and her zeal for reform, but said that one of the priorities must be to reduce prison numbers in order to make that possible. He noted however that one of her colleagues was calling for a new offence of causing injury by careless driving, and for life imprisonment for causing death by dangerous driving. Statistics showed that the length of prison sentences was continuing to increase. He questioned the public interest served by some of these sentences, and wondered when we would get to grips with the constant pressure to increase them.

Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP said that the prison population had been relatively stable over the last few years. The current estates modernisation programme would reduce overcrowding. The first thing she had seen on her desk when she took up the role in July was the prison violence statistics, which were linked to the rise of psychoactive substances and also to staffing levels and experience. That had been her first priority. Increasing staff numbers would ensure one member of staff to six offenders, which would allow both encouragement and challenge. There was a need to reduce reoffending, and to intervene earlier, but sentences had to command public support. Youth justice provided good examples of the success of early intervention. However there was no magic wand.

Lord Beith said he was glad the Secretary of State had not lost her interest in prison reform, kindled on the Justice Committee. But the numbers issue was part of the answer to her question of why we had not made the progress we had hoped: it was not just a matter of housing people. No conceivable level of resource could properly manage a prison system holding approximately 90,000 prisoners. He urged her not to give up on her potential to lead a rethink on sentencing. There was evidence that what politicians said about sentences influenced what judges did, and a need for leadership to promote strong tough alternatives to custody. There was evidence that where the public had the facts and looked at real situations, most were more perceptive about sentencing than had been supposed.

Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP acknowledged Lord Beith’s chairmanship of the Justice Committee and the valuable experience and learning she had gained there. However there was an immediate issue in our prisons. They could be better managed with the deployment of additional staff and with more effective measurement, whilst sentencing reform was a longer term exercise. She compared prisons with the situation of schools in the 1970s and 80s, pre-OFSTED. At present it was hard to tell which prisons were effective and which were not. Her priority was to make the department more data-led. The burning priority was to make prisons places of safety and reform. Of course there were opportunities for wider reforms, but she was taking a step by step approach.  

The Earl of Listowel said he was very pleased the Secretary of State had talked about family relationships. He was a trustee of a charity that worked with clinical psychologists to support teaching staff and managers as well as children, and he wondered whether this would also assist prison officers. He was also concerned about the accelerating numbers of children coming into care, and wondered what more could be done to intervene.

Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP said she was very interested in the point about clinical psychologists and would like to follow that up. She was a big supporter of mentoring, and mentors would be put in place to support new prison officers. Early intervention had been the big success of the youth justice system, and there were plans to extend this to the women’s estate. She agreed that we needed to improve our data, and thus our ability to intervene earlier in young people’s lives, before they got close to a custodial sentence.

Lord Beecham reiterated Lord Beith’s concern about prison numbers. We had the third highest prison population in Europe. However he welcomed the change of tone from that of her predecessor but one. He had asked about the number of remand prisoners who went on to receive prison sentences and had been told it would be too expensive to find out. He was also concerned about the numbers of BME prisoners, who were over-represented in the system. On the staffing side, there were some matters that needed probing: he understood that there would be a need to find 5,500 additional staff, over and above the 2,500 new staff, just to replace the existing workforce, and that would be a big task.

Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP agreed that there was a huge programme of work, and also that she was constantly probing. She had to ensure that the department could deliver, and that was why recruitment was such a priority. The work had to be phased. She had made sure the White Paper on Prison Safety and Reform came out rapidly, after her appointment in July, but of course there were other important issues on which the department was working too. She had been looking at remand, to make sure not only that the public was protected but that people were dealt with fairly. On the issue of BME prisoners, David Lammy MP had been commissioned to do a review and he had produced his interim report. There were some figures of great concern, particularly the numbers of BME young people in the youth custodial estate. Why was that and what could be done? Diversity across the legal profession and into the judiciary was also important. It couldn’t be right to have so few people of BME origin, or women, in the senior levels of the judiciary, and she thought that Lord Kakkar, the Chair of the Judicial Appointments Commission, would make some positive changes. Finally she agreed there were big recruitment challenges. As well as the initiatives already mentioned, the freedom for some prisons to recruit locally had been well received. When people were made aware of what the Prison Service had to offer, they saw it was an attractive career. In the 25% of prisons where it was harder to recruit, there were additional incentive payments, and governors were given more flexibility.

Lord Hailsham returned to the issue of overcrowding which he saw as the central problem for the Prison Service. When he had been Prisons Minister at the end of the 80s there had been 40,000+ prisoners. Now there were 80,000+. Ministers had a responsibility not to drive up sentences. He also drew attention to the matter of IPP sentences. Often the courses were not available for prisoners to allow them to earn their release in the way envisaged. He proposed that the Government should release all those who had served their tariff – he believed there were about 3,000 of them. Government had to take chances, and be braver: some would reoffend, but it was a question of proportionality.

Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP responded that Ken Clarke had abolished those sentences in the last government, and David Blunkett had admitted it had been a mistake to bring them in, in the first place. She acknowledged the difficulty, but said that the tariffs for IPPs were set in a different context – offenders may have received different sentences had IPPs not existed. The Parole Board and the Department were working hard to make sure that people were getting fair and timely hearings, and efforts were being made to ensure prisoners had access to the courses they needed to fulfil the requirements of the sentence.

Lord Fellowes said that he too had wanted to register a concern about IPP sentences. He thanked the Secretary of State very much for her presentation, and her encouragement.

Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP said it had been very good to meet members of the group. She had been very interested to hear their views and hoped they would put forward further suggestions, especially about the youth justice response, just released, and also about the White Paper. Regardless of how many people were in prison, they needed the best possible chance not to reoffend when they left. She would very much appreciate their thoughts.

Lord Ramsbotham thanked the Secretary of State most warmly for coming, and for what she said.  He knew that all present wished her very well in her work.

The next meeting of the group would be on February 28th, with the presentation of the Robin Corbett Awards, and a presentation from the Chief Inspectors of Prisons and Probation.

The following meeting in March, the tenth anniversary of the Corston Report, would be devoted to women. He was very glad the BME question had come up, as he was also thinking of inviting David Lammy MP to the next meeting in April, with Baroness Young, who had been involved with the inquiry for some time, and also Imtiaz Amin, who ran the Zahid Mubarek Trust. The three had been working closely together.

Meanwhile he thanked everyone for coming and wished them all a very happy Christmas.