HC Deb 27 March 1996 vol 274 cc994-1001 12.59 pm
Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale)

Buckley Hall prison was opened in my constituency of Rochdale on 14 December 1994. It is a male category C prison. By the end of January this year, it had 339 inmates. It is privately run by Group 4, on a five-year contract. The original contract to run the prison was worth £33 million.

I and many of my constituents supported a prison coming to Rochdale, mainly because we wanted jobs to come into the region. I would have preferred the Prison Service to run it. When the contract was put out to tender, I would have preferred the in-house bid to win, but it did not and Group 4 won the contract. The reason for this debate, however, is not to talk about whether privately run or publicly run prisons are best—I did not ask for the debate because of that. All I am concerned about is the worrying incidents at the prison that have been reported to me. As Member of Parliament for Rochdale, I have an obligation to investigate.

The more information I gained, the more worried I became. That is why I tabled a number of written questions, from which I found out that 10 prisoners—although the number is now nine—were given authorised leave and were still on the run. They are not petty criminals: they are people convicted of wounding, conspiracy to rob or burglary.

It is extremely worrying that the problem is far worse at Buckley Hall than at other prisons. The average for such incidents at other male category C prisons is 1.6. It causes concern if even one prisoner does not return, but when nearly 10 times that number do not do so, the alarm bells begin to sound. I should like the Minister to tell me today how many prisoners from other category C prisons have been on authorised leave and did not return. Thirty Buckley Hall prisoners overall did not return, of whom 21 have either handed themselves in or been captured.

There have been three unsuccessful escape attempts from Buckley Hall prison. For other male category C prisons, the average is 1.6. It appears from the written answers that I have received that Buckley Hall prison is understaffed. In November, I visited the prison with my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), the Liberal Democrat spokesman on prisons. He and I and a member of the prison staff went to one of the accommodation blocks. I stood there while prisoners had free access to table tennis tables and free association.

I was extremely worried because I could see no prison officer around. I asked that member of staff where the prison officers were. He said that there was one on the corridors above. I was worried that, if I could not see that officer, obviously, he could not see what was happening below him, so anything could happen if prison staff generally had a blind spot in that area of the accommodation block.

As the Minister is aware, the answers that I have received show that Buckley Hall prison has one officer per 3.7 inmates and other category C prisons have one officer per 2.7 inmates. It was explained that the difference lay in the fact that there were different ways of defining prison officers. I would be happy if the Minister reassured me about that. Even if that is the case, my constituents and I need assurances that the number of prison officers on each shift, in each block and on each wing is the same at Buckley Hall as at other male category C prisons.

As the Minister knows, I have received all that information from written answers. Another reply concerned assaults on staff in 1995. For the first two months of this year, the position is a little better, but the figure for Buckley Hall was 7.1 per cent. compared with 2.5 per cent. for other category C prisons. My most recent written question involved concerted indiscipline. From 14 December 1994 to 20 March 1996, the number of incidents at Buckley Hall totalled seven compared with 0.6 at other category prisons.

Those statistics are worrying by themselves, but I have received many more disturbing details. A prisoner got out of the prison with visitors and was recaptured in the car park. On Friday, I was told by people at the prison how wonderful it was that he had been recaptured, but he should not have been allowed out in the first place. I want to know how a prisoner could go out with visitors and be recaptured only in the car park. He should not have been allowed to reach the car park.

On 19 February, a 22-year-old serving two and a half years for burglary escaped over the prison fence. An alarm went off, but I was told that prison staff did not know that a prisoner was escaping because of strong winds. That is not good enough.

In the same week, an allegation was made that a prisoner was having an affair with a prison officer outside the prison. The prisoner had been given permission to go into town or further afield to Oldham, to train with Oldham rugby league club to try to get a job after he had served his sentence. The police investigated, the prisoner was transferred and the officer resigned. If that had been just an isolated incident, we might think, "That may happen in other prisons," but it is not.

Buckley Hall has an appalling record on smuggling, especially drug smuggling. I know that it is a problem nationwide and that we must do something about the whole prison system, to stop drugs getting into prisons.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Lynne

No. I do not have much time.

Prisoners and visitors go to great lengths to smuggle in items, especially drugs. Prisoners on authorised leave swallow balloons. That is a well-known practice, not just in Buckley Hall, but in prisons throughout the country, whether they are publicly or privately run. I have heard that prisoners are scared to return to Buckley Hall. I appreciate that drug smuggling is difficult to stop, but most of it is done by throwing packages over the fence.

I welcome the moves being made and the fact that the prisoners will not be allowed access to certain areas near the prison fence and that perimeter fences will be strengthened in particular areas, but why has it taken so long? It has taken 15 months to do that. Why was not additional fencing built into the plans when they were drawn up?

There is a massive problem with drug taking. I have received several letters from prisoners and given copies to the Minister. For obvious reasons, I have taken the names out, but one ex-prisoner at Buckley Hall asks me to consider the following: An inmate climbs on the hospital roof to protest at being refused a home leave, after much skilful negotiation it is decided his home leave application will be fully supported by the management if he comes down, he did and went on home leave the following day, duly returned, and absconded while on an escorted day out a few weeks later. The same prisoner also says: In the recent figures I noted from the radio, 10 inmates had failed to return from home leave"— as I said, the figure is now nine— in a two year period. I am therefore sure, having spent 10 months at Buckley Hall, that these figures must contain people who I had come into contact with, like the lad who was in the next cell to me who made the choice not to return to Buckley Hall from home leave. This was he says due to the fact they refused to help him to come off heroin. The figures must also contain at least two inmates with whom I had personal contact. They could not return from home leave unless they could meet their heroin debts within the prison of £250 and £600. He goes on: Buckley Hall is a time-bomb ticking away and releasing back into society people with far greater problems than which they already had. People who have no doubt come to the stark realisation that money conquers all. Buckley Hall must have a full investigation to safeguard all. Another ex-prisoner says in a letter: there was no prison regime at all at Buckley Hall … The majority of inmates take heroin there … The majority of drugs and booze gets thrown over the fence of a night. He says that he has witnessed three escape attempts, all unsuccessful, but only through sheer bad luck on the prisoners' side. He also claims that in August the prison hospital unit was broken into and all the drugs taken. I understand that that is correct; I have received confirmation of it. I also understand that no drugs were recovered. Will the Minister tell me whether that is true? I also understand from two different sources that one prisoner overdosed on those drugs and from another source that two prisoners overdosed on those drugs. Will the Minister confirm or deny that today?

It is also claimed that 120 door handles were broken off cell doors. One prison officer was apparently so worried that he contacted my local newspaper, the Rochdale Observer, and was quoted as saying that there was a major drugs problem and that 95 per cent. of prisoners on one wing were using smack. He said that, because of mandatory testing, prisoners had gone from cannabis to hard drugs, because cannabis stayed in the body longer. He told the paper that two Buckley Hall prisoners had given themselves up at Strangeways because they feared being returned to Buckley Hall. That is confirmation of what the prisoners have told me. The prisoners who are bullied, the officer said, are shipped out, not the bullies. Indeed, I have been told that the prison relies on the bullies to keep the lid on everything. Will the Minister comment on that?

The prison officer also said that one officer had his jaw broken and that a second had had four stitches because his eye had been slashed. The article continued: We don't fear for a major riot, most officers want a major riot to close Buckley Hall down … It is a dangerous prison to work in". I do not know how true any of those allegations are; I have no idea. My duty as a Member of Parliament is to bring such matters to the House's attention. Prisoners have written to me, and I have received information from prison officers and other sources. I also heard from one source that prisoners who were detailed to clean up outside the prison on a regular basis slipped off for a drink in the town. Will the Minister confirm or deny that?

The list of events is disturbing. I know from the Minister's response to an oral question that I asked her, that she takes the subject very seriously. I am not attacking Buckley Hall prison because—as the Minister is well aware—it is privately run. It is immaterial whether it is privately or publicly run. I am concerned about the running of it. Regardless of who runs it, my constituents have a right to be reassured about security measures. I am therefore asking today for a full public inquiry into the prison.

Is Buckley Hall properly staffed? Are prison officers trained well enough? Are junior prison officers properly supervised? Why was the prison fence inadequate? Who was responsible for its design? Who makes decisions on authorised leave? What has gone wrong with Buckley Hall prison? I want to know the answer to this specific question. How has the prison performed in official assessment? We need to know the answers to those questions today. Is it true that Buckley Hall has been financially penalised because of bad reports? We need answers as a matter of urgency. As one prisoner said, Buckley Hall is a time-bomb ticking away. There is no time to lose.

1.15 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Miss Ann Widdecombe)

Although I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) on obtaining the debate, I am somewhat disappointed by her tone. I was not present for her introductory remarks, for which I apologised in advance to the hon. Lady and to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was in Standing Committee B and could not be in the Chamber at 1 o'clock. I do not therefore know whether she paid tribute to Buckley Hall prison staff and their efforts. I do know, however, that since becoming a Minister with responsibility for prisons, I have become very conscious of the huge amount of bashing of public sector prisons, private sector prisons and the Prison Service in general, and of the fact that at the same time people totally fail to recognise achievements.

It is quite right that hon. Members should bring to the attention of the House criticisms and serious concerns, to which they demand ministerial responses. I do not have a difficulty with that, but it should be done in the context of wider achievements, and the good should be acknowledged with the bad. I say that for a good reason. Prison officers, whether in the private or public sector, have tremendously hard jobs, which require much dedication, courage and skill. It is totally unfair that they should be consistently demoralised by an endless flow of criticism that does not at the same time recognise their efforts.

I should like therefore to pay tribute to the staff at Buckley Hall, who are trying their best, and I hope that I shall have time to pay tribute to some of their achievements in comparison with other prisons in that group, to show that the situation is not quite as bad as has been suggested.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Will my hon. Friend confirm that all the prison staff at that privately run prison have been certified by the Home Office? Will she also confirm that, on a broad range of indicators, that private prison compares very favourably with a similar category C prison in the state service, and that it is costing the public purse 25 per cent. less to run than an equivalent state prison?

Miss Widdecombe

I can confirm all that. I suspect that many of the staff have not only been certified by the Home Office, but are constituents of the hon. Member for Rochdale, and I am sure that they will be most interested to hear what she has been saying about them and the way in which they run their prison.

Opening a new prison is very challenging. There are always teething troubles with plant and buildings, but that is nothing compared with a prisoner population that is intent from day one on testing the system. For example, it is quite common for a new prison to have a high assault rate when it first opens, and for the level to fall as the regime settles. That has happened at Doncaster and we have no reason to suppose that the same will not be true of Buckley Hall, which has, after all, been fully operational only since June.

Secondly, we need to recognise that publicity from the media inevitably concentrates more on early failures than on subsequent successes. It is not only Buckley Hall that has attracted negative, distorted and often inaccurate treatment, but the contractually managed prisons generally. Only last week Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons, who is not known for being backward when it comes to criticism, said that the press had given Doncaster prison a very very unfair reputation". Indeed, he described some of the coverage as "absolute nonsense." Like him. I think that it is time to be positive about the real achievements of the contractually managed prisons as examples of good practice and value for money.

Ms Lynne

What about Buckley Hall?

Miss Widdecombe

Indeed. The rapid construction of Buckley Hall by the Prison Service's own construction organisation was a tremendous achievement. Permanent accommodation for 350 inmates was made available within 10 months of construction starting. Before that, 90 prisoners had been housed in temporary cells located in what are now the workshops. Why? Because the alternative was police cells.

However, in bringing prisoners into what was still partly a building site, we made extra demands on the contractor, and certainly on newly recruited prisoner custody officers. I am grateful for the way in which Group 4 helped us to avoid a return to the prolonged use of police cells in the north-west.

My fourth point is also obvious, but it needs recognition. It is that most of the staff are new to prison work. They are nearly all local people. About 90 per cent. of them have been recruited locally, and the new prison has created 150 jobs. I had hoped that the hon. Member for Rochdale would join me in paying tribute to the dedication and thoughtfulness that the staff have brought to their new work.

My last general point is that the hon. Lady is not alone in taking a close interest in the initial period of operations at Buckley Hall. During the period from November to January, the Prison Service undertook a contract audit. The purpose of that was to review progress since the opening of the prison in November 1994. In particular, the auditors were charged to assess overall security and control.

The Prison Service planned to identify any steps that would need to be discussed with Group 4 management with a view to consolidating and building on what had already been achieved to date, to monitor audit compliance and to establish whether the contract was being complied with in full. From all that, only two improvement notices, covering workshop places and sentence plans, were issued. Those matters were remedied in what the Prison Service judged to be a satisfactory manner, and it was also content with Group 4's plans for the next phase of the prison's operational life.

That is because, in addition to responding to points that the Prison Service raised, Group 4 had done its own internal management review of Buckley Hall, resulting in an action plan to strengthen local management, increase the supervision of staff and expand and enhance staff training.

The hon. Lady made comparisons between Buckley Hall and the average performance of other category C male training prisons. I want to spend some time on that subject. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady's persistence in tabling a long stream of parliamentary questions, but such comparisons are not valid. Male category C prisons cover a wide range of prisons and prisoner populations, ranging from hutted accommodation converted from former RAF bases and former open prisons—for example, Haverigg and Ashwell—to other prisons with cellular accommodation built specifically to category C standards, with a secure wall—Risley, for instance.

For the purpose of comparison, therefore, we take the group of category C male training prisons to which Buckley Hall most naturally belongs. Those are prisons with good control capability, based on judgments about the ease of supervision, the internal zoning within the prison, the site size, whether buildings are spread out or compact, and special programmes.

The prisons most easily comparable are Risley, Coldingley, Stocken, Lancaster, Camp Hill and Wealstun. I stress that in addition, any assessment of relative performance needs to take account of the newness of the prison and the fact that most staff at Buckley Hall were on a steep learning curve.

Taking the Prison Service key performance indicators, the first comparator is the number of escapes from custody—defined as no recapture within 15 minutes. During 1995–96, of that group, Coldingley, Risley and Stocken have had two escapes to date. Buckley Hall and the closed part of Wealstun had one such escape. Camp Hill and Lancaster Castle had none.

Another comparator is the number of assaults. Any prison is likely to experience an above-average rate of assaults during its initial period. As the hon. Lady knows from a reply that I gave her recently, the rate of assaults against staff in 1995 was 7.11 per cent., and in January 1996 3.5 per cent., compared with overall averages for all category C prisons of 2.7 per cent. and 2.9 per cent. respectively.

I shall now use the proper comparator group. Using the Prison Service's KPIs—key performance indicators—which record the average percentage of average population for all assaults against both prisoners and staff, for Buckley Hall the rate is 8.8 per cent. In the comparable category C group, Risley considerably exceeds that, at 15.6 per cent., and another prison, which has been in operation for many years and is therefore not on a steep learning curve, Camp Hill prison, rates 6.8 per cent.

I am a great believer in attempting to use statistics fairly and sensibly, so I should add that the Risley figure relates to a prison with separate male and female units, the latter operating as a local prison with a high number of disturbed and disruptive prisoners.

As for regime hours at Buckley, as I have already mentioned, the prison was handicapped when it opened because the workshops were used to house temporary cells. Numbers were built up on site, but the workshops were converted back for their intended use, and therefore for constructive activity, only at the end of July. By last Friday, the average regime hours figure at Buckley Hall for the preceding week was 29. In the comparator group, the figure for Camp Hill was 29.4, for Risley 28.7, for Coldingley 27.3 and for Lancaster Castle 26.1.

One of the other issues raised by the hon. Lady was the escape on 19 February of Philip Buckley—a most unfortunate name, in the circumstances—who was serving a sentence of two and a half years for burglary. That incident was investigated by the Prison Service, and we concluded that a number of factors had contributed to the escape.

Group 4 was warned that the Prison Service intended to impose a financial remedy for failure to maintain security standards. In the event, Group 4, having reassessed physical security, is investing in the provision of additional security measures, including fencing and security cameras. I understand that that was explained to the hon. Lady when she visited the prison recently.

I fully share the hon. Lady's concern about the smuggling of illicit drugs—and, although she did not stress that aspect, alcohol—into the prison. Who would not share that concern? We face the same problem throughout the prison estate, and I am satisfied that Buckley Hall's management is tackling it with rigour.

Every person visiting an inmate is searched. A drugs dog is available. In addition, visitors are requested to leave hand luggage in locked compartments in the reception area and, unusually for a category C prison, Group 4 has installed an X-ray portal through which visitors must pass before entering the prison. Cameras have been installed in the visits room for monitoring and, if necessary, for collecting evidence of attempts to pass on drugs or alcohol.

In order to restrict illicit access to drugs, changes have also been made in the prison pharmacy. As the hon. Lady said, a quantity of drugs was stolen following a break-in during the first few days of August, shortly after the main accommodation had been brought into use. The drugs had been properly stored in a regulation steel drugs cabinet, and the lock was appropriate. However, the medical building itself proved to be insufficiently secure. Following that incident, the Prison Service improved physical security and Group 4 introduced new dispensing arrangements, to ensure no medicine capable of misuse was stored near inmate accommodation overnight.

I do not wish to spend too much more time on the details of the debate, because I want to end with some general observations. As I said at the beginning, Prison Service staff, in both the public and the private sector, have a difficult job to do. The Prison Service has a remarkable record of achievement since it became an agency—in the reduction in the number of escapes, for example, which at the end of last year amounted to 83 per cent.

I do not believe for one moment that if any private sector company had made such an improvement in its performance, people would denigrate it in such a fashion. I believe that we should pay tremendous tribute to the Prison Service—

Ms Lynne

The Minister has not answered my questions in detail.

Miss Widdecombe

From a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Rochdale is complaining that I did not answer all her questions. She asked me about drugs, about security, and about assaults, and I have addressed all those questions. If there is any question that I have not answered to her satisfaction, she has a pen and paper, and she knows very well that I shall always give her the courtesy of a reply.

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