HC Deb 23 April 1996 vol 276 cc339-46

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McLoughlin.]

1.37 am
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Next to each other on what was a wartime airfield in my constituency are two prisons—Her Majesty's prison Acklington and Her Majesty's young offenders institution Castington. They are the northernmost outposts of the prison service, and their staff, who are valued members of our local community, deal with increasingly difficult and disruptive offenders.

Indeed, since the prisons were first built, both have increased the range of offenders they take beyond what was first suggested to the local community—a process that began when life sentence prisoners were placed at Acklington. Relations between both institutions and the community are generally very good, although there are inevitably anxieties from time to time. Both Acklington and Castington have been successful in achieving Prison Service targets.

The reason for this debate is the enormous anxiety among prison officers and other staff about the likely impact of the cuts that the governors are being forced to implement. They threaten not only to undo much of the good work that has been commended by the authorities but to jeopardise security, both directly and indirectly. Security will be endangered if there are not enough officers to patrol, supervise and search. It will be undermined if, because of cuts, prison activities that keep offenders occupied have to be cut back. The devil makes work for idle hands.

The background to the debate is the Government's decision to impose cuts of more than 13 per cent. across the board in the Prison Service over the next three years. That is astonishing from a Government who believe that they can find the additional money for a huge increase in the prison population in coming years as a matter of deliberate policy. It is also deplorable, because the Government can claim to have achieved some significant improvements in the prison system. However, the gains from new or improved facilities and the end of slopping out will be wasted under the cuts programme.

I want to consider in more detail the two institutions in my constituency and the way in which the cuts will affect them. The older of the two, Acklington, is a category C training prison with more than 600 prisoners. It was the subject of a recently published inspection report, although the inspection took place a year ago, and several critical points have been dealt with since then.

The inspection team commended many of the areas of work that are likely to be affected by cuts, such as education, employment training, physical education and the chaplaincy. Work to tackle drug addiction among prisoners was praised as a triumph of staff enthusiasm over heavy odds", that needed more officer time and training support.

However, the inspectors said: that Acklington has avoided serious incident is a tribute to managers and staff because such large campus style prisons are notoriously difficult to manage". That is a striking reminder of the high staffing needs imposed by the layout of the prison. There was concern that officers felt intimidated and were not able to prevent squalid conditions from being created by some prisoners. Higher levels of supervision were needed to prevent bullying among prisoners.

How will the cuts help to deal with those problems, create the more progressive regime for which the inspectors called, and build on the achievements? The cuts planned for Acklington are large, involving the loss of more than £600,000 from budgets over the next three years. If first indications are correct, more than 20 posts are likely to go, including discipline officers, two principal officers, seven senior officers, and a night patrol staff officer.

The entire complement of prison officers in the works section, and the whole health officer section, are expected to go. The health section officers staff the hospital and sick bay for both Acklington and Castington. All officers are to be withdrawn from catering, and there are cuts in chaplaincy and in instructional staff.

It is impossible to set those staffing losses against the background of the inspection report without concluding that the problems and difficulties will be made significantly worse. There will be fewer trained officers around to maintain and handle problems in the kitchen, where there is considerable potential for trouble. As one officer wrote to me: The type of inmate that is now coming to prison does not reason like normal people, they abuse any trust given and are very quick to become aggressive and violent.

How on earth is health cover to be provided satisfactorily with the complete disbandment of the team of officers that provides it? It cannot all be managed by visiting doctors and officers on the wings. How much of a reduction will there be in workshop activity, education and probation work? It is clear to all who know Acklington that, with those cuts, it cannot be expected to maintain the good things mentioned in the inspector's report and deal with the points that called for improvement.

Castington is a young offenders' institution that deals with many extremely difficult and violent offenders, including a significant number of serious sex offenders, for whom it is a national resource. Its work has been praised in the service for security, cleanliness, control, staff-inmate relationship and excellent results in the drug-testing programme. Area management seems to be of the view that efficiency savings had been made, and that present staffing levels were necessary to maintain the regime.

Even at present staffing levels, it has proved impossible to maintain normal levels of evening association. There were insufficient staff to maintain association for five nights a week. Even before the latest cuts, inmates were locked in their cells on three evenings a week, which is more than elsewhere in the prison system. Castington is being required to take cuts of around 15 per cent. over three years, including a cut of £202,000 this year. That is well above the figure that was originally suggested. The likely consequences are frightening.

A reduction in fence and ground patrols at nights and weekends would be a direct threat to security. The evening and weekend patrols were introduced as a direct result of an internal inquiry, following an escape attempt which was spotted by an officer who happened to be in an upstairs cell when he saw inmates trying to climb the fence.

The removal of the senior officer from the segregation unit and the regular withdrawal of officers from the unit to meet staff shortages on wings means that more violent bullies will be sent back on to the wings, where they can operate a reign of terror over other inmates.

If officers are reduced, visitor searches cannot be adequate. Already there is an acute problem because there are no female officers at Castington, so searches of women visitors can be carried out only with police assistance. Drug-smuggling visitors are ready to take full advantage of this loophole and destroy Castington's much-commended record in stopping drugs from coming in.

Education, with a budget already cut by 35 per cent. since 1993, faces further cuts. Training workshops for painting and decorating and motor body repairs will close. Idle and discontented inmates are more likely to cause trouble inside the prison, and more likely to go out ready to commit further offences.

At Castington, as at Acklington, it should be remembered that the cuts do not follow a period of expansion. They follow several years of staff reductions which have already led to regular cancellation of cell searching, evening classes and gym sessions, and to the segregation unit being left undermanned. In fact, the cell search figures have not achieved the contract target. Shift systems depend on overtime, which is expensive and wasteful. The staff increases promised under fresh start did not happen, even though the efficiency savings intended to match them were achieved.

If the Minister is looking for areas in which savings could be made, she could look, for example, at doing more joint administration between Acklington and Castington. When two institutions are so close together, there must be some scope for increasing the amount of administrative work that is done jointly, without going into front-line operations in the way that I believe is being done.

The Government are prepared to spend about £28,000 a place on their boot camps scheme. Other young offenders institutions cost up to £24,000 a year per place. A place at Castington costs less than £15,000 a year—so why is Castington facing such severe cuts?

I beg the Minister to think again. I do not believe that she can defend this level of damage to widely commended regimes and programmes. She cannot justify threatening security, which is the No. 1 priority, by making reductions in key areas of control and discipline and by creating aimlessness by abandoning so much of the education, work and activity programme.

I do not intend to speculate about what could happen in Acklington and Castington if these cuts go ahead, but officers and staff on the front line have very real fears. They know just how great a cost, human as well as financial, can result from short-sighted cuts in the essentials of the custody system.

1.47 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Miss Ann Widdecombe)

May I first congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on securing this Adjournment debate on two of the prisons in his constituency. I cannot say that I congratulate him on the seasonable hour that he has chosen, but I thank him for the courteous and constructive tone that he adopted during the debate. It may help the right hon. Gentleman if I offer to visit his two prisons. My timetable will not allow me to do so this side of the summer recess, but if he can spare a day in the summer recess to come with me, I shall be delighted to visit his prisons.

I shall deal with the specific issues that the right hon. Gentleman raised in a few minutes, but I must say that it is rather a pity that the Opposition parties seem to table items on the Prison Service only ever to draw attention to difficulties and perceived weaknesses. That gives the public the wrong impression of an increasingly efficient service, one which has in the past three years met its targets in increasingly difficult circumstances.

The difficult circumstances to which I refer include the ever-growing prison population, which today reached a new record of 54,045. That represents a 6.38 per cent. increase in the population since the end of April last year, and I have to add that the population is growing most rapidly in the north.

Despite this, on 12 April the Prison Service announced—the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed alluded to it—that the degrading practice of slopping out has ended in all prisons in England and in Wales. In addition, no prisoners have been held in police cells since June 1995. Between April 1995 and February 1996, escapes fell by 59 per cent. compared to the same period in 1994–95, and by 78 per cent. compared to the same period in 1992–93. Assaults have also fallen by 8 per cent. on the 1994–95 figures over the same period.

The Prison Service is doing well on running positive regimes for prisoners in its custody, so that they now spend 8 per cent. more time in purposeful activity than in 1992–93. At the end of February 1996, 36 per cent. of prisoners were unlocked for more than 12 hours per weekday, compared to 24 per cent. at the end of March 1993—immediately before the Prison Service became an agency. Everyone who works in the Prison Service is to be congratulated on their efforts to achieve those targets and to maintain the high standards they represent.

I turn to the main thrust of the right hon. Gentleman's speech: the cost reduction strategy that is being applied to the Prison Service. Hon. Members will be aware that the Prison Service has been asked to achieve a 9.5 per cent. real-terms reduction in cost per place over the next three years. The Prison Service has responded to that request by drawing up a cost reduction strategy, and savings will need to be made across the service, including at headquarters and at central services.

Having heard the right hon. Gentleman, I need to set the record straight on a couple of issues. First, it is not true that the Prison Service has imposed cuts across the board without differentiating between those prisons that are already running efficiently and those that are not. In fact, Acklington prison is a good example of just the reverse—it is one of the most efficiently run category C prisons in the country.

Because of this, and the extra work that Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons' report identified, the governor of Acklington was not required to make as significant savings as other and rather less efficient prisons. Indeed, an increase rather than a decrease in prison officer grades is planned at Acklington.

Secondly, let me put the terms "efficiency savings" and "cost reduction" in context. Efficiency savings can be made with little perceptible change to the regime. For example, by allowing prisoners to get up at 8.30 am at weekends rather than at 7.30 am, a governor would save the equivalent of two prison officer posts.

Thirdly, it is not helpful to suggest—as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed did—that security and control will suffer as a result of these measures. A major part of the cost reduction strategy is for governors to look at the way work is done in their prisons and by whom it is done, to ensure that trained prison officers are deployed where they will be most effective—in contact with the prisoners.

Jobs that do not involve contact with prisoners can then be carried out by civilians. This means that levels of supervision can be maintained—indeed, improved—while ensuring that the required efficiency savings are made. For example, at Acklington the governor has gone through this process, and has decided that, by flattening management structures, sharpening the operational line and introducing civilians into the prison's services, he can afford seven additional prison officers—the grade of staff that has the most direct supervision of prisoners.

Fourthly, I assure the right hon. Member and his constituents that cost reductions will not put prisoners, staff or the local public at increased risk in the event of a major incident. The Prison Service has tried and tested contingency plans to deal with such events, and has a system of mutual aid under which, in the event of an incident at a prison, staff from neighbouring prisons are called to assist until the situation is under control.

I welcome the suggestion that Acklington and Castington should share facilities to help provide quality services to both prisons efficiently. I can tell the House that this is already the case at Acklington and Castington, where one health care team and one works department serve both prisons. Sharing the facilities is one of the strategies recommended by the Prison Service to its governors, and the operational director for the north has asked his area managers to explore where that can be done in their areas.

Thus the area manager for the north-east is actively examining other ways in which Acklington and Castington might share facilities.

Mr. Beith

In that case, how will the gap be filled that will be left when the five prison officers in the health care team are removed as, to quote the document, "surplus to requirements"?

Miss Widdecombe

If health services are shared, there is room for increasing economies of scale and increasing rationalisation.

I shall now discuss staff losses. The right hon. Gentleman asked what staff would be lost at each prison as a result of the savings. Castington will lose 10 uniformed staff posts and seven support staff posts in the next two years. Some of those losses will be achieved by natural wastage, others by not filling vacancies when they arise, and the remaining reductions will probably be achieved through the Prison Service's voluntary early retirement and severance package.

The cost reduction strategy at Castington will result in a reduction in regime activities in the prison, but steps have been taken to minimise the effect of those reductions by, for example, the planned introduction of part-time education to ensure that as many prisoners as possible continue to have access to education.

I am aware that the right hon. Gentleman also expressed fears that bullying will increase as a result of cost reductions. The governor of Castington has informed me that manning levels in the residential and employment areas remain unchanged by his plans, and that he therefore does not expect any increase in bullying. Indeed, it is important, when talking about staff reductions, that we take account of where staff reductions will apply. If they do not apply on the wings and the landings, that is clear evidence that control and involvement with prisoners will remain at current levels.

Castington has had a bullying strategy since July 1995, part of which is to monitor trends in bullying and respond as necessary. I am sure that that process will continue, and that, in the unlikely event of an increase in bullying—or other misbehaviour—as a result of cost reduction, the governor and his team will take steps to tackle it.

At Acklington, two principal officer posts and four senior officer posts will be lost, but as there will be an additional seven prison officers to undertake group work with prisoners and security-related tasks, the effects of that reduction will be minimised.

The right hon. Gentleman's objections to the cost reduction strategy and the objections of the local Prison Officers Association do not seem to have taken into account that increase of the grade that has the most direct impact on supervision of prisoners and thus their secure and controlled custody. There will also be alterations in the way that support staff's tasks are staffed, including moves towards the use of civilians in catering and health care, which will allow quality of service to be maintained at reduced costs.

Part of Acklington's cost reduction strategy is to reduce hours of education available to prisoners, but it is important to emphasise that that has been done by cutting from the curriculum only those classes that were under-subscribed and could be seen as "non-essential". That has meant that it has been possible to allocate additional hours to core subjects that will most benefit prisoners on their release, while making a significant saving.

It is not anticipated at present that workshop hours will be affected. Indeed, workshop hours are currently showing an improvement, following the introduction of the incentives and earned privileges scheme in January 1996.

I can assure the House that the cost reduction strategies at both prisons have been devised carefully, bearing in mind the differential in the scope for economies at each establishment. The maintenance of good security and control has been at the forefront of the minds of the area managers and of the two governors as they have planned their approaches to cost reductions in each establishment.

I fear that the right hon. Gentleman's approach to the subject mirrors the simplistic approach often adopted to cost reductions: that they will mean a reduction in essential services. We must maintain good security and control. That is best achieved by ensuring that there is adequate direct supervision of prisoners and by maintaining officer presence on wings and on landings.

It is important to retain good regimes for the purposes of rehabilitation. Although education, for example, may have to be trimmed, that is very different from hacking into it wholesale. If cost-effective courses that serve many prisoners must be expanded at the expense of more costly courses that serve only a few prisoners, that is a reasonable reaction, which will not impact upon the quality of the existing regimes.

Mr. Beith

I seek the Minister's assurance on two points. First, where security measures have been recommended in either inspection or internal inquiry reports, will she ensure that they are not removed as a result of cost reductions? I refer, for example, to yard and perimeter night patrols. Secondly, will she confirm that action will be taken about the lack of female officers at Castington? Will she ensure that vital searching procedures are not impaired by the continuing absence of female officers?

Miss Widdecombe

I can provide assurances on both points—although perhaps not in the terms that the right hon. Gentleman seeks. Essential security will not be compromised, and necessary security measures will not be withdrawn. Both governors must make quite certain that security and control are leading considerations when implementing the cost reductions.

As to the question of searching, I accept that there is a lack of female staff, and I acknowledge that the balance is not ideal in terms of the tasks that must be carried out. Nevertheless, both prisons have made positive efforts to recruit female staff, and they will redouble those efforts during the next recruitment drive.

Prison officers must also concentrate on security methods other than direct searching of visitors. For example, visitors can be refused access, and prisoners who are found in possession of unauthorised articles may be put on closed visits and supervised closely. A number of security measures may be implemented to ensure that we supervise visits as much as possible, watch prisoner movements and take appropriate action—including prosecution—when necessary.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that, even if we are not able to produce the numbers of female staff we require immediately, we will take seriously the main thrust of his remarks about the adequacy of searching procedures and overall visitor control.

I am grateful for the support that I have received from both prison governors and from area management in preparing for the debate, and I look forward to a fruitful visit to Castington and Acklington, accompanied by the right hon. Gentleman.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Two o'clock.