Bob Neill: Our prison crisis cannot be swept under the carpet
The recurring themes of failure across our prison system must no longer be tolerated, writes Bob Neill
During the course of the last Parliament there was arguably only one issue to escape the growing shadow of Brexit with the urgency and scale to compete, quite rightly, for Westminster’s attention: prisons.
Indeed, Parliament seemed awash with statements, urgent questions and debates concerned with the (very much ongoing) crisis across our prison estate. With this focus noticeably tapering off since the General Election, we run the risk of giving the impression that the situation has improved in recent months. The Justice Committee has been very clear – all evidence points firmly to the contrary.
In fact, as the Chief Inspector of Prisons noted in his annual report in July, the status quo has only deteriorated further. Of the 29 local prisons and training prisons inspected during the year, 21 were judged to be ‘poor’ or ‘not sufficiently good’ in the area of safety. Taken with the soaring levels of self-harm and suicides, the considerable increase in violence (with 6,844 assaults in 2016 on staff alone), and the continued failure to provide offenders with a meaningful education or support the treatment of acute mental health needs, this problem should certainly remain high on the government’s agenda.
That is precisely why the Justice Committee has tabled a debate this Thursday on prison reform and safety. We have conducted a considerable amount of work on this issue since 2015, and our report last year helped secure an immediate increase in funding for those prisons most in need.
The government’s subsequent Prison Safety and Reform White Paper set out a framework for addressing the immediate challenges, announcing a series of ambitious proposals to modernise the prison estate. It also crucially brought forward a number of very welcome legislative measures, including clarifying in law the primary purpose of custodial sentences – rehabilitation – and placing the role of the prisons ombudsman on a statutory basis.
It was disappointing to see these plans dropped from the previous Prisons and Courts Bill following the Queen’s Speech, and while I do not doubt the intentions of my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, I must be frank in saying that the government has kept alarmingly quiet on this matter ever since. We have sought to probe its priorities, including through an evidence session with the Secretary of State at the end of October, and in the absence of any meaningful progress, or even significant discussion, on this issue, will press again for answers during this debate of the whole House.
Our timing is no coincidence. We are shortly expecting an action plan on prison safety and reform, and specific strategies on employment and women are also in the pipeline. A timetable is now needed for these.
We must also look again at the powers available to the Chief Inspector of Prisons and the Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO). As the latter aptly put it when giving evidence to the Committee last year, ‘it can be depressing how little traction we appear to have on occasions.’
It is simply not good enough that one-third of the prisons inspected over the past year have not implemented the recommendations handed down by these bodies, and recurring themes of failure should no longer be tolerated.
Efforts to tackle this problem, and properly monitor the work of the Ministry more broadly, are frustrated by a lack of data. As a case in point, despite its claims to be ‘data-driven’, the government has been unable to provide the Committee with a five-year breakdown of budgets for education, training and family services.
This crisis in our prisons is not going away, and it cannot, and should not, be swept under the carpet.
I hope Members will join me and my Committee colleagues in holding the government to account and pushing for action on this most important of subjects.