HC Deb 16 July 1997 vol 298 cc499-506

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

10.17 pm
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking)

I am glad to have the opportunity—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. The hon. Member may like to wait a moment. Will hon. Members leave the Chamber as quickly and as quietly as possible?

Mr. Malins

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise the important matter of drug and alcohol abuse in prisons. The problem gets worse by the day, and may reach crisis level unless urgent action is taken.

I shall make two preliminary points. First, I declare an interest as a practising solicitor in the field of crime for many years, a former acting metropolitan stipendiary magistrate, and a recorder of the Crown court. Secondly, I shall not seek to score party political points. The problem that faces this Government was faced by the Conservative Government. As with many other issues, it would benefit from an all-party approach by hon. Members who wish to be constructive and who have some knowledge of and an interest in this subject.

The problem of drug and alcohol abuse in prisons is much more acute than the public realise.

Let us go back a little in the offenders cycle and understand that drug and alcohol abuse is a major contributor to criminal offending. Some 50 per cent. of property crimes in this country are related to substance misuse. Most burglars who appear before me have taken the goods simply to sell them to raise the money to fund their drug habit, some of them needing as much as £500 a week. More than half the criminal cases in London's magistrates courts are drink or drug-related, and 20 per cent. of people who are arrested in police stations test positive for drugs.

A defendant who is addicted to drugs or alcohol may be sent to prison. What next? Incredibly, his problem may get even worse. There are more than 130 prisons, and 150,000 people pass through our prison system each year. Some 25 per cent. of receptions are on drugs at the point at which they enter the prison system. Drug use and distribution in prison can and often do become the focus of daily activity, filling the vacuum left by the regrettable absence of work and education opportunities.

Are drugs of all sorts and alcohol freely available in prison? In a written reply on 14 July, the Minister told me that, in the year 1996–97, some 21,700 mandatory drug test samples were positive. That figure includes results from both random and targeted tests that led to 16,757 adjudications for misuse of controlled drugs. Information on the number of instances of alcohol consumption was not available, but, anecdotally, I hear that it is very high.

How do these substances get into our prison system, and what should we do about it? There are perhaps four main ways. First, they enter through social visits by the friends and families of prisoners who are allowed contact visits, who I understand are not intimately searched. Secondly, prisoners themselves can and do bring drugs back into prison after collecting them on some outside trip, perhaps to court for a remand or on a hospital visit.

Thirdly, there are clearly some breaches of the perimeter walls of our prisons, and drugs are occasionally thrown over them to be collected at a preordained point. Fourthly—one is reluctant to say this, because by and large our prison staff are dedicated and excellent—it is likely that in the system there are some corrupt staff and, indeed, some corrupt professional visitors—lawyers and the like—who abuse their preferential access by bringing in drugs.

I recently asked the Minister whether he would make it his policy to see that prison officers, before they came on duty, were subject to the same search policy as that which applies to visitors. The answer was no. I was told that professional visitors, including prison officers, would be subject to a modified search, while general visitors would continue to be subject to a full rub-search procedure. That follows the Prison Service assessment that, although there are exceptions, professional visitors and staff generally pose a lower risk.

It may not be possible to eliminate these substances entirely in prisons, and perhaps I am naive in hoping that we might. Let us not forget that more than 1,300 visitors were arrested trying to smuggle illicit drugs into prisons in the past year. The Minister should consider the introduction of even more draconian measures to make the problem of getting drugs and alcohol into prisons, which is fairly easy at the moment, nearly impossible in times ahead.

I have four suggestions for the Minister, which may help. First, prison officers, all professional visitors and all prison staff could, and perhaps should, be subject to a full rub-down search on entering a prison. Secondly, any prisoner who tests positive after a mandatory drugs test should receive only non-contact visits for the remainder of his or her sentence.

Thirdly, any such prisoner should also receive a substantial loss of remission of sentence. Fourthly, in addition to any other penalty, any visitor who is caught attempting to smuggle drugs or alcohol into prison should not be entitled to a further visit to that prison or the prisoner during the remainder of the prisoner's sentence.

Many of those in prison who are addicted to alcohol or drugs cry out for help, and it is that area on which I shall now concentrate. Alcoholism and drug dependency are arguably illnesses which can never be cured. However, I am convinced that substantial investment to help to get addicts off drink or drugs is money well spent. It will ultimately save this country's criminal justice system and people much money and personal anguish.

I am not sure that much has been done until relatively recently. For many years, I have visited and talked to dozens, possibly hundreds, of prisoners throughout the south-east. Many have been addicts. They have all known that drugs and alcohol were freely available. I have always asked, "What is done here in this prison to help people who wish to be helped to get rid of the habit?", and all too often I have received the reply, "Not very much."

I recently visited Coldingley prison in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), where I learned more about the outstanding work of RAPT—the Rehabilitation of Addicted Prisoners Trust. My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber) is a trustee of that outstanding organisation, and I commend him for his work and interest.

RAPT recognises that the majority of inmates continue to use drugs while in prison, and that some will develop the habit for the first time during their stay. It knows, as we know, that the use of drugs in prisons causes problems of violence, disorder and intimidation as well as the spread of infection. It points out that the average cost to the taxpayer of keeping someone in prison is nearly £24,000 a year, and that, unless the addict's problem is confronted and treated in prison, he is almost certain to return to uncontrolled drug use and crime on release. Time in prison is an ideal time to break the vicious cycle of drug abuse, crime and imprisonment.

RAPT is a charity offering treatment to alcoholics and drug addicts in prison. It was established under the name of the Addictive Diseases Trust in 1991, opening its first treatment unit in Downview prison a year later. Its aim is to help prisoners to recover from addiction while serving a prison sentence, and its programmes are based on the principle of 12-step recovery, which was first applied in prisons in the United States, but was extensively modified to fit the requirements of our system.

RAPT uses trained counsellors, many of whom are recovered addicts, some with experience of prison life. It has intensive and abstinence-based programmes. It does not offer a soft option. It is a tough course, but it is successful.

Early evaluation results have shown that more than 50 per cent. of those received on to RAPT's programmes, which are established in a number of prisons, progressed to graduation, usually after 10 to 12 weeks. Among those graduates, relapse into drug misuse and reoffending is rare. I was privileged to meet former prisoners who have successfully completed the programme and are voluntarily helping others to help to recover their self-esteem. One prisoner said: Before coming on the programme, I had used drugs almost every day for the previous 19 years of my life sentence. It is still astounding to me that I had to come to prison to find my freedom. I have not had a drug or a drink for three years, and I am still inside. It's a miracle. The RAPT programme has been praised by many people in positions of authority, and I commend it and its like to the Government.

Therefore, my message to the Government is this. Let us all strive to prevent the circulation of drink and drugs in prison: first understand the scale of the problem; next, continue the previous Government's anti-drug strategy, which has had some success and which I commend in many ways; continue the mandatory drug testing scheme, despite its problems, which we know about; increase the resources available for drug treatment programmes in the prison system; give prisoners real incentives to take advantage of treatment options; consider whether the programme so successfully undertaken by RAPT can be further encouraged and extended; improve after-prison care.

In the face of what I believe the whole House would acknowledge to be a serious problem, the Government and the Minister will need to be tough but sensitive, and, above all, thoughtful. If he is, he will have the support of the whole House.

10.29 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) for raising what I agree is an important and pressing issue. I am grateful to him for continuing the bipartisan approach that we adopted when in opposition. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to brief me on the issues that he intended to raise, which has given me the opportunity to make a better-informed response. He made a thoughtful and constructive speech, and paid generous tribute to a number of organisations and individuals, which was helpful.

I welcome the opportunity to outline the Prison Service initiatives to reduce the supply of drugs and alcohol into prisons, to deter prisoners from misusing drugs and to provide treatment for substance misusers, from whatever source the abuse arises.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Prisons (Alcohol Testing) Act was enacted in March this year. The Prison Service is currently considering the potential costs of implementing a pilot programme of mandatory alcohol testing. It is not intended that testing for alcohol will operate on the same scale as mandatory drug testing. That is not because we do not think that it is a serious problem, but it is likely to be undertaken mainly on suspicion, with the possibility of random testing under certain circumstances—perhaps where there is a known arid particular problem of alcohol misuse among prisoners released on temporary licence.

The issue about which the hon. Gentleman expressed the greatest concern was stopping the smuggling of drugs through prison visits and other means. Between 1 March 1996 and 28 February 1997, there were 2,183 incidents involving drugs in prison in which the means by which the drugs entered the prison could be determined. In 80 per cent. of those incidents, the drugs were found on visitors to prisoners. In other cases, they were brought in by prisoners or thrown over the perimeter, to be picked up at a prearranged time and place.

A great deal of energy has been devoted to improving the supervision of visits. Improvements have included the use of passive sniffer dogs—I have seen them in some establishments—which are trained to sit in front of a person carrying the drugs, blocking their way. There are clear notices at entrances and in other parts of the prison, setting out the consequences if people are intercepted and prosecuted for carrying drugs. On Thursday, I visited Feltham young offenders institute and saw how effective and clear the notices are. No one is left in any doubt that the police will be brought in and firm and swift action taken.

Other improvements include the use of locker rooms to minimise the belongings that visitors may carry into the visits. Another initiative is the use of low tables and fixed seating to make the passing of drugs more difficult. It requires a little imagination, but not much, to realise how effective that can be in certain circumstances.

Closed circuit television operates in a number of areas, as I saw in many institutions. I have seen the evidence that shows visitors passing drugs. It is often the least likely visitor who passes drugs to a family member or other prisoner he or she is visiting. The use of closed or non-contact visits for those found guilty of a drugs offence is another initiative used in some circumstances. A pilot programme of mandatory closed and non-contact visits for any prisoner found to have misused drugs is being carefully evaluated. We are certainly prepared to consider such measures.

Most important, there has been enhanced use of intelligence about prisoners and their visitors to intercept drugs that are intended for prisoners and to detect drugs that are already in prisons.

The Prison Service must consider the competing needs of security, reducing drug supply and enabling prisoners to maintain reasonable contact with family and friends, which is a difficult balance to strike. The drugs problem could be eradicated if we eliminated all contact between prisoners and the world outside their cells. Although the hon. Member for Woking said that we may need more draconian measures, I do not think that he would think that such action would be desirable in all circumstances. We must specifically take into account the difficulties of prisoners with children who visit.

The Prison Service is in the business of assessing and managing risk, best to target available resources to the source of the greatest threat. That is the sensible way in which to deal with the problem. Governors are well aware of the possibility of drugs being thrown over perimeter walls and are under clear instructions to ensure that, as far as possible, local searching strategies deal with the possibility.

After some well-publicised incidents in the past few years, and as part of wider measures to improve security, search procedures for prisoners and visitors have improved. Particular attention is being paid to searching prisoners returning from temporary release, because that is one obvious route for drugs into prisons.

The hon. Member mentioned rub-down searches. Generally, such searches are not conducted every time a visitor enters any prison, although they are carried out in category A prisons. Visitors to prisoners are given a full rub-down search that involves a visual check of the ears, nose, mouth, hair and shoes. Professional visitors—including probation officers and lawyers and staff—from whom there is thought to be a lesser risk do not have ears, nose, mouth, hair or shoes searched.

It is self-evident that there is a greater risk of smuggling from visitors to prisoners. Under pressure from a spouse or son, many visitors will be under enormous pressure to smuggle drugs into prison, particularly if they believe that it will make life easier for their loved ones. I realise that other types of pressure can be brought to bear—such as, for example, if groups target friends or relatives outside prisons. At non-category A prisons, the level of searching is decided by the governor, depending on the risk and the category of prison. By no means will all visitors always be subject to a full rub-down search.

The hon. Member for Woking mentioned intimate searching—by which I assume that he means searching of body orifices. Such searches of visitors by prison staff is unlawful. Strip-searching of visitors is permitted, but only on the basis of reasonable cause—which the hon. Gentleman, as a lawyer, will understand. Governors are empowered to refuse visits by close relatives and others on the grounds of security, good order and discipline, or in the interests of prevention or discouragement of crime.

The hon. Member paid proper respect to those who work in the Prison Service, but felt that perhaps attention should be paid particularly to prison officers as a source of drugs in prison. The difficulty with such an argument is that there is not a great deal of evidence to support it. Centrally held records kept over the past four years show that no members of staff have been disciplined for involvement in drug supply in prisons.

In six cases, staff have either been dismissed or resigned because of drugs-related behaviour, but that behaviour occurred away from the prison. Seven staff members have been disciplined for bringing alcohol into prison without authority. Of those, two were dismissed and four resigned before the matter could be brought to a conclusion. Nevertheless, it is impossible to deny with absolute certainty that drug smuggling by staff occurs. The available evidence, however, does not suggest that it is a significant problem. If the hon. Gentleman has any evidence, or is aware of any evidence, that would take us further, I should of course be glad to receive it. The Prison Service certainly takes a most serious view of any staff involved in such activities, and the police would become involved in those circumstances.

I must say a few words about mandatory drug testing. When it was introduced, I was the Opposition spokesman with the relevant responsibility. The Labour party gave its full support to what has been an important innovation. Mandatory drug testing provides, among other things, a clearer picture of the levels of and trends in drug misuse in prison, which assists in the targeting of treatment resources and provides an indicator of where drug strategies are having success and where they need greater impetus. It is also important to send a clear message to inmates that drug misuse in prisons will not be tolerated. We must reinforce that message time and again.

In 1996–97, approximately a quarter of random mandatory drug tests proved positive, the vast majority being for cannabis. There is widespread concern, which the Government share, about the perverse incentive to switch from cannabis to more harmful drugs such as opiates which are detectable for a shorter time in a urine sample because they stay in the bloodstream for a shorter time.

The average figures for the estate as a whole conceal a great deal of variation in individual prisons. More work needs to be done on that. The Prison Service aims to learn from prisons with low levels of drug misuse and to apply successful initiatives in other establishments.

An option open to prisons under the mandatory drug testing programme is to test prisoners at random on reception. Some 550 prisoners were tested on reception in 1996–97, far fewer than under the random testing programme. Nevertheless, the percentage of samples proving positive on reception was 10 per cent. higher than in random tests across the whole prison population. That might tell us something. It suggests that imprisonment does not necessarily worsen drug misuse—perhaps even the reverse.

Research into mandatory drug testing effectiveness has been undertaken, most notably that commissioned by Oxford university and the National Addiction Centre. The Oxford research into attitudes to mandatory drug testing and wider drug misuse is being conducted at five establishments. I shall perhaps say more about that later.

A first phase of interviews was undertaken between February 1996 and April 1997. The researchers are now making return visits to the five establishments to gauge changes in attitudes and perceptions over time. The initial findings are that mandatory drug testing is only partly successful in deterring prisoners from misusing drugs or causing them to cut down. We need to gather more evidence, and I am not sure that we have a precise picture of what is going on. I certainly mean to keep the data under review to make sure that we get things right and that we are properly informed about what action needs to be taken. The hon. Member for Woking also mentioned treatment in prisons, which we consider very important.

The Prison Service strategy cannot be about ever-tighter controls alone, although they are important. It must recognise that we need measures to reduce demand and minimise the risks to the health and bodies of individual misusers and, in the longer term, of the public.

All prisons have for some time provided detoxification, education and counselling to prisoners with substance misuse problems via the health care centre, the probation department or community drug agencies. Many have gone further, providing, for example, rehabilitation units or drug-free areas supported by voluntary testing. These are important sources of help.

Some 59 prisons are now involved in treatment. The additional cost this year is more than £6 million. Resources are being earmarked, and work is extending throughout the prison population. There are several variations, including therapeutic communities and community-linked through-care programmes. We attach great significance to all of them.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned RAPT. I acknowledge the good work that it does, not just at Coldingley, but at Downview, Pentonville, Wandsworth and Norwich prisons. I had an opportunity to visit the programme in its early days at Downview. It is an impressive and effective way to deal with the difficulties.

That is just one of the many community drug agencies that the Prison Service is working with in a proper partnership approach. We aim to break the vicious circle of drug misuse, crime and imprisonment. All those agencies—and perhaps some others that we are not yet using—have a valuable contribution to make.

The ultimate objective is for all drug misusers in prison to have access to appropriate and cost-effective treatment. We had a manifesto commitment to introduce voluntary testing units so that all prisoners who feel able to do so can prove that they are drug-free. That could be an important contribution to help bring the problem under control. Officials are working on the practicalities. I expect to receive advice in the autumn, when we hope to bring the plans forward.

The drugs strategy is multi-disciplinary and multi-agency. We intend to keep it that way. I have met many of the staff involved, who play an important role in drug education, counselling and bringing together agencies and other resources to deal with the problems. We should congratulate them.

It is important that the strategy involves not just security and health care, but probation officers, psychologists and, when appropriate, the chaplaincy. It also relies heavily on drug workers from outside community agencies. I do not claim that improvements cannot be made, because they can, but there is a balance to be struck. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the necessary elements of that balance. I shall consider that over the next few months. We take the problem seriously and hope to get to grips with resolving it. It is important that people are rehabilitated while they are in prison, not exposed to more drug problems.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.

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