Justice Questions

18th December 2018

David Gauke answers questions in the House of Commons.

Prison Officers: Retention

6. What steps the Government is taking to retain experienced prison officers. [908250]

Recruiting and retaining engaged and motivated staff is critical to making our prisons safer and stopping reoffending. We have spent an additional £100 million to ensure we have thousands of extra prison officers at the frontline, allowing us to run better regimes and improve staff-prisoner relationships. From October 2016 to September 2018, there was a net increase of 4,364 full-time equivalent prison officers. We know that the retention of staff will take more than a one-size-fits-all approach. Specific action is being taken where attrition is most acute.

Morale among prison officers is at an all-time low because of low pay, understaffing and soaring violence, and now a retirement age that could go as late as 68. Police officers get the same protection as prison officers, and they are allowed to retire at 60. Why can prison officers not?

Of course, a deal was offered to prison officers and rejected a couple of years or so ago, but to come back to the point about morale, it is important that we address violence in prisons. That is why we have increased the number of staff, why we are giving prison officers the tools that they need—for example, PAVA—and why we are determined to ensure that we can turn this increase in violence around.

It is clear that we have an issue with experienced prison officers leaving the service. Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that, in line with best human resources practices, exit interviews are being conducted with staff before they leave so that we can address the issues that are causing them to leave the service?

My hon. Friend is right to say that that is best practice, and it does happen within the prison service. We are looking at the evidence of the effectiveness of that to ensure that we make best use of it. It is important that we learn from the experiences of prison officers and get their feedback, so that when prison officers do leave, we understand the reasons why.

The independent monitoring board at HMP Birmingham has said that standards have improved as a direct result of the reduction in the prison population and the addition of much needed staff. Already this year, urgent notifications have been issued at Nottingham, Birmingham, Bedford and Exeter prisons. How bad do things have to get before the Government launch a specific plan to re-recruit experienced prison officers who have left the prison system due to the Government’s austerity?

I am glad that the hon. Lady acknowledges that progress is being made at Birmingham, and it was right that we stepped in in August last year to turn that prison around. I reiterate that we have increased prison officer numbers very significantly, by 4,364, when our target was to recruit an additional 2,500 prison officers. We achieved that well ahead of schedule, and we have got the numbers increasing. We are seeing some signs of improvements in our prisons—not just at HMP Birmingham—but we need to build on that. It is still the early stages, but we are making progress.

Prison officers in HMP Lewes tell me that the scourge of mobile phones in the prison, which are used to co-ordinate violence and drugs, makes their job much more difficult. Does the Secretary of State therefore welcome the news that the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Bill, which will block mobile phone signals in prisons, is likely to get Royal Assent this week?

I am delighted to do that and to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that she put in on that Bill. It is an important step forward. She is right to highlight the problems with mobile phones. As a Government, we are determined to take action to address that, and her work helps us.

Hansard

 

Offenders: Access to Education and Employment

7. What steps the Government are taking to improve offenders’ access to education and employment. [908251]

8. What steps the Government are taking to improve offenders’ access to education and employment. [908252]

In May, we published the education and employment strategy to create a system where each prisoner is set on a path to employment, with prison education work geared from the outset towards employment on release. We have launched the New Futures Network and appointed a CEO to drive its roll-out. The NFN identifies where skill gaps exist and works with employers to fill them. We are also empowering governors to commission education provision that leads to work. Activity to appoint the new education suppliers who will deliver the curricula that governors have designed is almost complete.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the New Futures Network. Will he expand a bit more on how that is achieving employment for offenders upon release?

The New Futures Network brokers partnerships between prisons and employers in England and Wales, which help businesses to fill skills gaps and prisoners to find employment on release. The NFN has a central team based in London that works with large national employers. We are also placing employment brokers across England and Wales to work with small and medium-sized enterprises and regional businesses. I am pleased to say that since the publication of the strategy in May, more than 100 new organisations have registered an interest in working with offenders.

I have been working with a constituent who has recently completed a nine-and-a-half-year prison sentence. He has reminded me that in that time, a great deal has moved online—the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), referred to initiating legal proceedings online. My constituent says that that places him at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing services and applying for jobs, so what steps are the Department taking to ensure that offenders gain digital skills and retain them?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Digital skills are already taught in many prisons. We are empowering governors to have more control over the curriculum, but we are also determined to ensure that there is some consistency, so from next April our core common curriculum will include ICT, which must be taught in every prison.

It is a good idea to empower governors to make the right choices for their establishments, either as individuals or in clusters, but does the Department intend to give them a sufficient budget to enable them to do that in a way that will actually make a difference?

We want to ensure that the path to employment is set out for every prisoner, that all prisoners have that opportunity to receive the education that they need, and that there is a focus on work. That is a priority for our Department, and I am confident that we can deliver on it.

Reoffending rates remain stubbornly high, but in Magilligan prison in my constituency, prisoners reaching the end of their sentence are allowed out under close supervision to work in the community. Does the Secretary of State agree that such action leads to a reduction in reoffending and should be replicated throughout the United Kingdom?

That is an excellent point. Workplace release on temporary licence has a key role to play in giving prisoners employment opportunities and easing the transition from prison life to post-prison existence. I am keen to ensure that we do what we can with workplace ROTL, and I should like it to be used more.

What further action can be taken to encourage more employers to offer such opportunities during the final period of a sentence? That is being done very effectively at Thorn Cross prison in Appleton Thorn, near Warrington.

Encouraging employers is very much what the New Futures Network is about. I sense a change of attitude among employers: more and more of them want to do this, because they recognise that there are benefits for them as well as for society as a whole. As I have said, more than 100 employers have signed up to the network, and I encourage those who are following our proceedings closely to do as much as possible on this front.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the disproportionate levels of often undiagnosed special educational needs and disability—especially difficulties with speech and language, dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—in the prison population. What measures has he introduced to ensure that all those prisoners are assessed and then appropriately supported in their education?

We are keen to develop specialist education plans when people come into prisons, because that is when we need to identify issues such as those that the hon. Lady has mentioned. However, the really important point that she has raised is the need for us to work across Government. It is not just about what happens in the Prison Service or the Ministry of Justice; we need to co-ordinate with, for instance, the national health service, the Department for Work and Pensions and local authorities. If we are to turn people’s lives around, we need a cross-Government approach. I am pleased that the Reducing Reoffending Board has been established, and that there is a real willingness across Government to make progress.

Hansard

 

Prison Officers: Safety

15. What steps he is taking to ensure the safety of prison officers. [908259]

22. What steps he is taking to ensure the safety of prison officers. [908266]

We do not tolerate violence against our dedicated and hard-working prison officers. We are strengthening frontline officer numbers and rolling out a key worker scheme to improve prisoner-staff relationships and to tackle the causes of violence. We are giving officers the tools they need, such as body-worn cameras and PAVA spray, to respond where incidents do occur.

The Secretary of State will know that, in the past year, there has been a 20% increase in violent crime against prison officers. Does he agree there is a disparity between prosecutions when members of the public are assaulted and prosecutions when people in the public service are assaulted? Also, is it not correct that an assault against a prison officer is just as bad as an assault against a policeman?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have to take assaults against prison officers very seriously. They are putting their lives on the frontline, and we are working closely with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to make sure that crimes committed in prison are dealt with effectively. There are good examples of work with the police and the CPS, such as at HMP Isis. The Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 came into force in November, and it increases the maximum custodial sentence from six months to 12 months for those who assault emergency workers, including prison officers.

Recent incidents at Long Lartin Prison in my constituency show that more work is still needed on prison officer safety. Can the Secretary of State assure my constituents who work at Long Lartin that the Government do not consider it job done on prison safety and that they will continue to explore further ways to improve prison safety?

Indeed, we will continue to find ways of making improvements. I visited Long Lartin in the summer and met a number of my hon. Friend’s constituents who work as prison officers to discuss this issue. The high assault figures are something that we have to address, which is why we have taken the measures I have already outlined. We will continue to focus on bringing down those numbers.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the high number of prisoners with mental health conditions is also a serious problem for prison officers? Will he look into the two separate incidents at Nottingham Prison where, even though my constituents had been independently assessed by psychiatrists as needing to be transferred to secure mental health beds, it took five months for them to be transferred?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising those cases and I will certainly look at the incidents she mentions. She is right to highlight the importance of addressing mental health issues within prisons. A very large proportion of prisoners have mental health issues and, in answer to an earlier question, I addressed the need to work closely with the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that we address such points.

Hansard

 

Topical Questions

T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [908269]

Today the terms of reference for the review of the criminal injuries compensation scheme have been announced. Compensation has long been an important part of the Government’s support for victims of violent crime, and we are determined to ensure that every victim gets the compensation to which they are entitled. The review will look at the scope of the scheme, its eligibility rules, the value and composition of awards and how to provide easier access to compensation. The review will give particular consideration to victims of child sexual abuse and terrorism and look to ensure continued financial sustainability. We have separately announced our intention to remove the pre-1979 same roof rule from the scheme and we will table an amended scheme before Parliament as soon as possible.

We know the Government see public services as a cash cow for the private sector, but the privatisation of the probation service has been an abject failure. The contract had to be terminated two years early, despite a £0.5 billion bailout. The privatised service failed to reduce reoffending, so why is the Secretary of State proposing to privatise the service again in 2020? Is this not an example of ideology over plain common sense?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is best placed to lecture on common sense versus ideology.

The reoffending rate has fallen in the time since “Transforming Rehabilitation” and we would like it to fall further. There are issues with how the system is working, which is why we took the entirely pragmatic approach of bringing the contracts to an end and making some important and necessary changes to ensure that we can do more to reduce reoffending.

Hansard

 

Can the Lord Chancellor assist me in finding out the answer to a question that the Attorney General and the Brexit Secretary have been unable to answer: how much taxpayers’ money did the UK Government spend fighting the litigation that established that the article 50 notice can be unilaterally revoked?

I certainly cannot give that answer this morning, but of course there is no intention to revoke article 50.

Hansard

 

The Government’s ideological experiment of privatising probation has been a calamitous failure. It was such a flawed idea that even this Government have had to cancel the current private contracts, which were costing the public more and more money while leaving them less and less safe. Yet the Government are set to re-tender those contracts back to the private sector. Interserve is currently the largest probation provider, supervising 40,000 offenders, yet it is now in rescue talks, trying not to become the next Carillion. So will the Justice Secretary commit today to ensuring that Interserve is not awarded any of the new private probation contracts?

We will award the contracts to those best placed to carry them out. I have to say that the hon. Gentleman’s hostility to the private sector, in all its forms, in all contexts, is not a sensible or pragmatic approach to trying to ensure that we get best value for money for the taxpayer while making improvements to reducing reoffending.

Hansard

 

Senior managers at Lloyds-HBOS were found guilty of a scandalous fraud against their own business customers but, thus far, the bank itself has avoided or evaded any corporate sanction. Would my right hon. Friend support the Solicitor General’s efforts to make failure to prevent an economic crime a corporate offence?

My hon. Friend, who campaigns tirelessly on these issues, will be aware that we ran a call for evidence on corporate criminal liability to determine whether the current law is adequate. This is a complex part of the law and consultation responses offered a broad range of views. We are currently analysing those with Departments across Government and we will publish our response in 2019.

Hansard

 

Last week, the House passed the Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill, which is an important part of court modernisation. Does the Lord Chancellor accept that there remains a pressing need to introduce the remaining primary legislation necessary to underpin the rest of Sir Michael Briggs’ reforms?

I share the desire of my hon. Friend the Chair of the Justice Committee to do that when parliamentary time allows. Of course, there are currently some pressures on parliamentary time.

Hansard

 

It was two years ago that the then Secretary of State for Justice agreed to outlaw the cross-examination of survivors of domestic abuse by the perpetrators of their crime, yet the misery goes on. When will the Government outlaw that?

We intend to bring forward legislation on this very shortly.

Hansard

 

Surgeries

David holds regular surgeries at various places in the constituency, including Rickmansworth, South Oxhey, Berkhamsted and Tring. 
 
Forthcoming dates:

2019

29th March, South Oxhey
12th April, Berkhamsted
26th April, Rickmansworth
10th May, Tring
24th May, South Oxhey

Call 01923 771781 to make an appointment.

Record of surgeries

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