HC Deb 28 June 1999 vol 334 cc21-33 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the report of an inspection of Her Majesty's Prison Wormwood Scrubs which the chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, is publishing today. Copies have been made available in the Library and the Vote Office. Given its serious nature, I thought that I should report to the House the failings exposed by the report at the prison and the urgent remedial action that I expect to see taken.

Before coming to the report itself, let me first deal with the question of the prosecution of certain prison officers. On 15 June, after a detailed police investigation, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that 25 prison officers from Wormwood Scrubs were to be charged with offences of assault on prisoners. The House will understand that I am therefore unable to comment on those allegations today, but there can be no place in the Prison Service for any abuse of prisoners. That is a fundamental principle. The Government and the new Director General of the Prison Service, Martin Narey, will take whatever steps are required to maintain it.

Let me now come to the report itself. The chief inspector of prisons undertook an unannounced full inspection of Wormwood Scrubs from 8 to 12 March 1999. The report of his inspection, published today, makes deeply disturbing reading. In his preface, Sir David recalls that he had already been highly critical of what he had found when he last visited the prison in 1996. In that earlier report, he made a large number of recommendations and called for a determined Prison Service response to reform the prison. However, on his return in March, Sir David found that that reform had not occurred. While individual staff were carrying out excellent work, in what Sir David said were extremely difficult circumstances, he considered that overall the treatment of prisoners remained "profoundly unsatisfactory".

In his report, Sir David sets out a number of specific failings: the needs of prisoners appeared to be inadequately understood; there were examples of the statutory rights of prisoners being denied; induction procedures were poor; prisoners spent too long in their cells; regimes were inconsistent and impoverished; health care had been cut back; there were allegations of abuse, including racial abuse; and arrangements for the discharge of prisoners were not systematic.

Sir David found a destructive, unco-operative, and self-seeking attitude among a minority of staff which had been very difficult for managers to combat. Those are serious criticisms and Sir David makes a large number of recommendations for improvement. I have asked the new director general, Martin Narey, to put in place a robust action plan to respond to them. He is to report to me within 30 days. I expect the overwhelming majority of the recommendations to be accepted and implemented.

There is one significant exception—Sir David recommends that Wormwood Scrubs should be market tested. I am keeping that option open but there are new managers in place at every level of the Prison Service responsible for Wormwood Scrubs and in my view they should be allowed an opportunity to put the prison back on an even keel. However, should rapid progress not be made in reforming Wormwood Scrubs, all options—including market testing or the closure of the prison—are open.

I shall now tell the House of the changes already under way. Those include a thorough overhaul of the procedures of the segregation unit; improved prisoner complaint procedures; more efficient deployment of staff; expansion of the regimes of the prison, including additional offending behaviour programmes, increased constructive activities and a new education contract; a restructuring of health care management; and finalising and implementing an effective drugs strategy.

The report points out that, at the time of the inspection, 46 per cent. of prisoners at Wormwood Scrubs came from the ethnic minorities, compared with 11 per cent. of staff. The chief inspector makes six recommendations relating to race relations, and I accept them all. In addition, as the House knows, the Government are setting the Prison Service overall challenging targets for the recruitment, retention and promotion of ethnic minority staff. That reflects our commitment to eradicating racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.

All those, however, remain small beginnings, and much is still at a planning stage. What I require is a radical overhaul of Wormwood Scrubs, its culture and its working practices. I firmly believe that the overwhelming majority of prison officers will welcome the improvements that the Prison Service needs to implement at the prison. I expect the Prison Officers Association, both nationally and locally, to work constructively with the service to secure reform.

The senior POA official who, a few days ago, publicly described prisoners at Wormwood Scrubs as the scum of the earth has now expressed bitter regret for his gratuitously offensive remarks. Last week, the national chairman of the POA gave the director general a categorical assurance that his members would work with the governor and senior Prison Service managers to transform Wormwood Scrubs. I welcome that assurance.

I have, however, made it absolutely clear to the director general that change must be delivered at Wormwood Scrubs. I very much hope that that will be done with the full support and co-operation of the staff at Wormwood Scrubs and of all Prison Service trade unions, including the POA—but there will be change, either with or without that co-operation. Wormwood Scrubs has the staff and the resources to meet the challenges laid down by the chief inspector. To ensure progress, I have asked Sir David and his team to conduct a further inspection of the prison in six months' time, the result of which will, of course, be reported to the House.

I am determined to ensure that we have a Prison Service that both protects the public and provides a secure and decent environment for staff and for prisoners.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

Again, I thank the Home Secretary for allowing me early sight of his statement and for the prompt delivery of the report. It makes a change from the standards to which I have been used over the past year.

The Opposition support the Home Secretary's decision not to close Wormwood Scrubs. Given the pressure on the London Prison Service, we believe that that would have been long on drama and short on common sense. On the question of market testing, I accept that as it would involve decanting, and given the present numbers in prisons, it could be impractical. Nevertheless, given the chief inspector's recommendations in paragraphs 17 and 18, can the Home Secretary tell us about his overall plans for market testing?

In his report in 1997, the chief inspector detailed a large number of remedial measures that needed to be taken, and which he says in his current report have been virtually ignored. To whom does the Home Secretary attribute responsibility for the failure to take such action over the past two years? I am sure that he will accept that, while the House is grateful for his assurances about the future, it needs far more detail about what has been going on since the last report, and, in particular, what action has been taken by Ministers, by the then director general, by the area manager and by the governor to implement the recommendations.

Can the Home Secretary tell the House why the prison was left without a governor for six months? Can he also help us with a passage in paragraph 4 of the report? The chief inspector says that the prison was left for six months without a nominated successor, during which time the first specific allegations of brutality were handed to me by a solicitor, and by me to the Home Secretary. What did the Home Secretary do when he received those allegations? Will he put on record the number of complaints of assault on prisoners by members of staff that have been made since the report of March 1997? How many of those complainants asked to see the governor? Is he satisfied that normal procedures were followed? What specific steps were taken to implement the Prison Service's anti-bullying strategy at Wormwood Scrubs?

How many inspections or visits have been carried out since May 1997—other than the one now under report—by the former director general, Ministers and the area manager? How many of those visits, if any, were unannounced? Has the Home Secretary visited Wormwood Scrubs since his appointment? Since the specific allegations of violence were made, has he asked for and received regular reports from the director general on the state of affairs at Wormwood Scrubs? In his regular meetings with the director general, has Wormwood Scrubs been specifically and regularly discussed?

In 1997, the chief inspector's report criticised, among myriad other things, the failure to introduce a personal officer scheme, the failure of the regime over and above the basics, and the absence of sentence planning, which he described as "non-existent". Particular criticism was levelled at the use of special cells and restraints. What remedial action was taken specifically on those points?

When the allegations of violence were first made, was the prison designated as in need of special managerial attention by the Prison Service, and if not, why not? If it was, how could so much have gone unattended to for so long?

What representations about resources and staffing levels has the Home Secretary received from the Prison Service in relation to Wormwood Scrubs? Is he satisfied that resources have been adequate? Will he place in the Library—I do not expect him to know it off the top of his head—a statement of Wormwood Scrubs's performance against each target set for the Prison Service? What are the implications for other reports of the way in which the 1997 report on Wormwood Scrubs was ignored? Will the Home Secretary order a review of all the reports that he has received in his term of office and write to me about their implementation?

The current report points out the difference between the performance of the private sector as against the public sector. I accept that the Home Secretary has already reversed his pre-election pledges on privatisation, but, given what is said in the report, what plans does he have for introducing the standards of the private sector into the public sector, or, optionally, for expanding the private sector?

Mr. Straw

I thank the right hon. Lady for her opening remarks. I am always ready to accept a bouquet from her. I am grateful to her for what she said about the decision not to close the prison. Given the fact that prison numbers are rising—they may have been 800 fewer last Friday than this time last year, but the pressure on the Prison Service is still significant—it would have been impractical.

We do not regard market testing as impractical; it remains an option. If there is not the significant change that Sir David has set out in the report, which I have said we accept, and clear evidence of that change within six months, market testing is one option that we will certainly pursue.

The right hon. Lady asked a number of questions essentially about why the recommendations in the previous report were not followed through as swiftly as they should have been. To be truthful, I cannot give her a satisfactory answer—they should have been followed through much more swiftly. Had they been, I suspect that the report that we have received today would have been a good deal more satisfactory.

Too much time was taken to appoint a successor to the previous manager. The right hon. Lady may know the present manager, Mr. Moore. He comes with a very good track record as a governor, having successfully governed both Albany and Bedford prisons. He has been in post for about a year. Since that time—I am certainly able to give this information to the House; Sir David himself recognises it in the text of the report—some of the recommendations have been implemented, including important improvements in the operation of the segregation unit.

The right hon. Lady asked what I did when I received the allegations. As soon as I received them—they were indeed handed to me; and solicitors representing quite a number of the alleged victims had made separate direct contact with me—I caused them to be investigated. As she and the House will know, consequences have followed from those investigations, so the House will understand why I am not able to go into them in detail.

The right hon. Lady asked how many inspections had been made by the director general, the area manager, Ministers and me. I have not visited Wormwood Scrubs since I became Secretary of State. The previous prisons Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin), paid a visit to the prison last year. I cannot tell the right hon. Lady—although I shall certainly write to her on it—whether that visit was announced or unannounced. Although I know that the director general and the area manager have been there on a number of occasions, I do not have specific information with me now on the number of visits, but I shall provide it to her. She asked whether I had received regular reports on Wormwood Scrubs from the director general. Yes is the answer to that question—it is a very serious and unsatisfactory situation.

The right hon. Lady asked about levels of resources and staffing at the prison. In his report, Sir David sets out some of the prison's current funding levels. What may be obscured in his report is that two of the prison's wings have now been closed: one was closed towards the end of last year, and another was closed only last week. Consequently, the prison's roll has been reduced from 1,100 to 720. Some of the staff who consequently were not needed were fairly close to retirement, so the opportunity was taken to reduce their roles. However, other staff—particularly from the wing that was just closed—are being kept to compensate for staff who have been the subject of suspensions, and to ensure that the report can be properly implemented.

The prison's resources—I could provide information on them in detail—are adequate. I am quite clear about that, as I have gone in some detail into the issue of its resource levels. The right hon. Lady will know that between 1995–96 and 1996–97, resources overall for the Prison Service were reduced. The Government have ensured that in this financial year, and in subsequent financial years covered by the comprehensive spending review settlement, an additional £660 million will be made available above the levels set by the previous Administration. That money is to improve regimes and to implement many of the actions specified in the report.

The right hon. Lady asked why the previous report was ignored—it was not ignored—and for a review of all the reports. If I may chide her, I should point out that the chief inspector's new report was published within 12 weeks of its receipt. That is consistent with a protocol that I established very quickly after becoming Secretary of State to ensure that all inspector's reports were published very soon and without requiring an action plan to be attached to them.

When I came into office, I discovered that there were about a dozen unpublished Prison Service reports. Some of them had been waiting for publication for many months, and some had been waiting for over a year. Of course I do not blame the right hon. Lady for that—at the time, she was dealing with the forces of the night. Nevertheless, I cannot tell her why the inspection was made in September 1996, but the report not published until Friday 21 March 1997—which was the very last day on which the previous Parliament sat.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

I welcome the Home Secretary's statement and the robust report from Sir David Ramsbotham. Should my right hon. Friend ultimately decide that the only way to deal with the problems at Wormwood Scrubs is a spot of market testing, he will not find any objections from me. To what extent are the problems that have arisen at Wormwood Scrubs due to overcrowding? As he knows, overcrowding is a problem not only at Wormwood Scrubs, but in other parts of the Prison Service, and it arises, to some extent, from the prison works philosophy pursued by a previous Home Secretary.

My right hon. Friend will have noted that Sir David Ramsbotham refers to the number of prisoners spending up to 23 hours a day in cells at Wormwood Scrubs and will know that the practice is not confined to that prison. In a written question last week, I asked his Department how many prisoners were confined for 23 hours a day. The answer was that the information is not kept centrally. As overcrowding is obviously a serious factor in relation to some of the problems that the Prison Service faces in Wormwood Scrubs and elsewhere, may I suggest that he has a look at this matter?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said about market testing. The report of the Select Committee, of which he is a member—which was also published before the previous election, but slightly more timeously than on the last day of the previous Parliament—has informed our thinking on the use of the private sector.

I am sorry, but I should have answered the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) about the use of the private sector. I have already authorised the building of a number of prisons using private sector contracts and that remains the situation. Two prisons, in addition to Strangeways, are currently the subject of market testing—Buckley Hall and Doncaster.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) asked about overcrowding. I can recall no evidence, from a detailed reading of the report, which suggests that overcrowding, in the classic sense of the word, has been a cause of the problems at Wormwood Scrubs. Plenty of other prisons around the country with a similar combination of prisoners, including remand, just-sentenced and long-term prisoners, have to cope with similar pressure from numbers. The staff of those prisons have dealt with their problems very much better—more sensitively, more humanely and more efficiently—than have some of the staff at Wormwood Scrubs. That is why what has happened there is wholly unacceptable.

It is unacceptable that many prisoners have been kept locked up for 23 hours a day. Indeed, there is alarming reading in parts of the report about how the staff had a cavalier attitude to unlocking prisoners. They also took over part of a wing to play cards rather than look after prisoners. I do not regard that as even remotely acceptable.

I will look into the point raised by my hon. Friend about data on time spent unlocked. It is certainly the case that there is a key performance indicator for the Prison Service as a whole on the amount of time which prisoners must be kept unlocked. That information is kept centrally—I assume that it is collected individually from prisons, so there must be some information—and I will follow up that point.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

What systems has the Home Secretary had in place to monitor the state of prisons such as Wormwood Scrubs during his two years in office, or has he been following the policy of his Conservative predecessor—asking no questions and taking no responsibility?

For what reasons does the Home Secretary believe the 143 recommendations of the chief inspector's 1996 report have not been implemented? I am disappointed that he has not visited the prison during the past two years. Does he have any idea why his prison visit programme does not take into account the priority that one would have expected to be afforded to a prison with such a report as the 1996 report hanging over it?

Specifically, was the Home Secretary made aware of the 40 per cent. cut in the health budget? The chief inspector says that the standard of care being provided for some mentally disordered patients is not only clinically but also morally unacceptable and unsafe. Does the Home Secretary accept that the new report and the report on Feltham young offenders institution show serious failures in the senior management of the Prison Service, specifically over allocation of budgets? Can he tell us whose head will be on the block if we find ourselves back here in two years' time to deal with a similarly shameful and depressing report on Wormwood Scrubs?

Mr. Straw

I have been responsible for the Prison Service since May 1997. I was not responsible for what happened before then. The hon. Gentleman asked whether I have a policy of asking no questions. Of course I do not follow that policy.

Miss Widdecombe

What are you going to do?

Mr. Straw

If the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald will kindly stop twittering, I shall tell her that our policy on the Prison Service was set out clearly in our manifesto. Ministers, including me, will take responsibility for the Prison Service. As Secretary of State, I am responsible, as has been made clear in changes to the framework document.

It was always absurd to try to distinguish between policy and operations as though policy were some abstraction. Policy can be tested only at the point at which it operates. There is an agency agreement with the Prison Service. There is a broad understanding that I do not undertake to lock up the cells and check the walls every evening, but I am responsible to the House for what happens in the Prison Service.

I visit as many prisons as I can, and prisons Ministers make many visits. Since my right hon. and learned Friend Lord Williams of Mostyn became prisons Minister, he has visited 46 of them. I thought about visiting Wormwood Scrubs, but it is impossible for me to make an unannounced visit to any prison. Under the circumstances, I am not sure that anything would have been achieved by my visiting the prison. The hon. Member for Sheffield Hallam (Mr. Allan) will appreciate that even if I ask to see the worst part of a prison, I cannot be sure to undergo a profound learning experience, because everyone is on his or her best behaviour.

The 40 per cent. cut in the health budget was unacceptable, and it should not have happened. The Prison Service has gone through a significant process of reform. The Woolf report introduced many changes for the better under the previous Government, and I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald. However, prisons are difficult to run. The cut should not have been made, and we are putting matters right. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security and I have published plans for complete reform of the prison health service to ensure that it works more collaboratively and, in some cases, under the leadership of the national health service, as should have happened many years ago.

The hon. Member for Hallam asked about the serious failures of senior management noted in the report. The senior management at the prison, and those responsible nationally, have since changed. In response to questions about what will happen if there is a further failure to implement the report, I can say only that I do not want to talk about failure. The report must be implemented in full.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The report highlights an appalling situation in one of our major prisons. On the point on which my right hon. Friend concluded, does he accept the danger that if changes for the better occur—we all hope that they will—there may be a slide back into the old ways after some time? It is alarming to think that the changes may not be permanent.

More generally—I do not refer specifically to the case of racial taunting and bullying by prison officers that the Home Secretary mentioned in his statement—should it not be clear to the minority of prison officers who persist in such behaviour, at Wormwood Scrubs or anywhere else, that it will lead to their dismissal?

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend is right to say that it is always important in such circumstances to maintain the pressure for change. That is why, as well as asking the director general to report to me in 30 days, I have asked Sir David Ramsbotham to go back to the prison within six months to monitor progress. My hon. Friend is also right to say that the bullying and taunting of prisoners—racial taunting of prisoners of different racial and religious backgrounds and other taunting of prisoners of the same racial or religious group—is wholly unacceptable. Where it is proved, it will be followed in appropriate circumstances by prosecution by the Crown Prosecution Service and, where there is other evidence, by appropriate disciplinary action within the Prison Service.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

May I tell the Home Secretary that while I will read the report with interest, the description that he gave in his statement is not of a prison with which I am familiar, despite being a regular visitor to Wormwood Scrubs for a number of years? I even wonder whether I have been visiting a prison on a different planet. While the Minister will have my support for stamping out any abuse and wrongdoing, will he exercise a sense of proportion and take care to remember that a prison must remain an unpleasant place to provide an incentive for miscreants to stay out of it?

Mr. Straw

Only the hon. Gentleman can speak for the planet that he inhabits, although sometimes some of us doubt whether it is the same one as the rest of us. In my judgment this question comes back to that raised by the hon. Member for Hallam. It requires the sort of forensic, unannounced inspection by a full team of, I think, more than a dozen inspectors turning up suddenly to find out exactly what is going on in a prison; and observing that for a week. Prisons are, by definition, closed institutions. It is extraordinarily difficult for outside visitors to find out the truth of what is going on in prisons. Also, as the inspector points out—I refer to this in the report—a lot of good work is going on in Wormwood Scrubs in particular areas of the prison and by individual prison officers. That should be doubly applauded, given the difficult circumstances overall. However, it is not possible to read the report without coming to the conclusion that its recommendations are soundly based in fact.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that regimes of bullying and gangsterism are not confined to one prison? The endemic use of illegal drugs in prisons invites corruption, which is not confined to prisoners. Is my right hon. Friend not appalled that many people still go into prison as minor offenders and emerge as drug addicts? Will he take note of the fact that Sir David Ramsbotham said that 70 per cent. of women prisoners should not have been given a prison sentence? He has also drawn attention to the fact that many people who are being weaned off illegal, non-addictive drugs are put on highly damaging medicinal drugs, which may have resulted in two deaths. In one prison that practice resulted in a riot last August because almost the entire population was on sedation and it was a few hours late in arriving.

Our prison population will soon be one of the highest in Europe, and we have an atrocious record of diverting prisoners from future crime; so does my right hon. Friend really believe that prisons work?

Mr. Straw

Let me deal with my hon. Friend's last point first. Our prison population happens to be 122 per 100,000, which is at the higher end of the range of prisoner populations in European countries. One reason why we have that population is that we have a higher level of acquisitive crime than other European countries. If we want more criminals to be caught and punished—this is hardly a matter of party dispute—for as long as crime remains at its current level, the prison population is likely to go up, not down. For example, people who compare our prison population with that in the United States—that might have been implicit in my hon. Friend's comments—need to consider the facts. If our prison population, proportionate to our total population, equalled that of the United States, there would be not 65,000 but 320,000 people in prison.

In relation to my hon. Friend's point about women prisoners, apart from the relatively small minority of prisoners who are sentenced to custody for the first time because of the seriousness of the offence, the vast majority of prisoners enter prison, having had previous convictions, because the community punishments to which they were subject did not work to stop them reoffending. Prison numbers are partly a function of the relative failure of community sentences and of their enforcement.

Although I am pleased that the chief inspector has produced a very good report on Wormwood Scrubs, I do not agree that 70 per cent. of women prisoners should not have been sentenced to prison. As far as I am concerned, sentencing decisions are difficult; they are best left to independent sentencers—magistrates and judges.

The final point relates to drugs. Certainly, some bullying—though not all of it—is to do with drugs. My hon. Friend is wrong to say—the evidence is not there—that many minor offenders go into prison and emerge as drug addicts. A large proportion of offenders—especially for acquisitive crime—go into prison as drug addicts and are helped to come off their drug addiction.

As for the ingress of drugs to prisons, I hope that my hon. Friend applauds the fact that, in January, I announced a major tightening of the rules against the importation and smuggling of drugs into prisons, with a standard three-month ban on visitors who smuggled drugs and closed visits for those prisoners found to be in receipt of drugs—as well as other disciplinary action.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that grave concerns must be expressed about this statement, and that, in essence, there are two such concerns? First, the recommendations made in March 1997 were virtually ignored. Does he accept that there is ministerial responsibility for that? There would have been an action plan. It was the business of his Department—Ministers and officials—to ensure that that plan was fulfilled. Why was it not fulfilled? Will he please write to me, setting out the original action plan and, in respect of each recommendation, will he set out the extent to which each was implemented and, where it was not, why it was not implemented? Will he please also put that information into the Library?

The second concern is different but it overlaps the first. The truth is that we have learned of the shortcomings in Wormwood Scrubs only because of an unannounced visit. Does that not show that the monitoring of what happens in prisons is inadequate? Inspectors conduct a full inspection only once every three years or so. What is being done to improve inspections? Why was the board of visitors report not fully read and implemented by Ministers?

Is the Secretary of State satisfied with what has happened? Those of us who have served with the Prison Service—as Home Office Ministers—regard this statement as quite lamentable.

Mr. Straw

I hope that what is regarded as lamentable is the fact that I have had to make the statement—not the statement itself. I have already tried to explain why there was inadequate implementation of the report that was published in March 1997. As I have already made clear, I take responsibility for what has happened in the Prison Service since May 1997—including that failure. Of course, I shall write to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, as he requests—

Mr. Hogg

Item by item.

Mr. Straw

Yes, of course, I shall write to the right hon. and learned Gentleman item by item, setting out what has happened. As I pointed out, one of the changes that we made was to ensure that Ministers are responsible for the Prison Service, and are not involved in the pantomime in which responsibility was formerly shuffled between the director general and Ministers.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman refers to the unannounced visit. One of the ways we find out what is going on in prisons, which are necessarily closed institutions, is by unannounced visits by Her Majesty's inspector and his team. He has demonstrated what a valuable function he performs; that is why a proper inspectorate was established.

As for the board of visitors, I shall write to the right hon. and learned Gentleman in greater detail, but my recollection is that the board's 1996 report did not sound many alarm bells. The 1997 report did, but by the time it was received it had already been recognised that there had to be a process of change. One of the changes that was made was the introduction of a new governor and a complete change of the senior management. One of the points made in the 1996 report was that there were no governor grade managers on any of the wings; that was palpably unsatisfactory and it has been changed.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

I congratulate the inspection team on the inspection, which has clarified a matter about which people were becoming concerned. I also congratulate the Home Secretary on proposing that an inspector should go back in six months to see what progress has been made.

Does not today's statement highlight the problems with the historic method of managing the inspection process, which are, perhaps, a hangover from the time when there was a division between policy and operation? When an inspection identifies matters of concern, as the 1996 inspection did, is it not necessary to have some closer form of management of the process of removing those concerns than has hitherto been the case? I do not think that the bang-by-bang approach of the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) is necessarily the right one; but do we not need some mechanism to ensure that, in future, when problems on the scale of those in Wormwood Scrubs are revealed, the process of managing the way out of them is closely supported, monitored and implemented?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The contents of the report highlight the importance of unannounced inspections. However good the day-to-day management arrangements that are put in place by the director general—and they are improving—there will always be a need for external inspection of prisons and for unannounced inspections as well as routine inspections.

It all comes back to the nature of the institutions: prisons are closed institutions. They deal with 65,000 of the most difficult people in this country, many of whom are, by definition, dishonest and deceitful and have lived chaotic lives. They are very ready to make any number of allegations against staff, a very large proportion of which are not provable or are wholly unfounded. What is needed are intelligent, experienced managers and good inspectors, such as we have, who can cut their way through those closed institutions and find the truth.

My hon. Friend is right to say that there need to be closer forms of management, and those have already been established. The deputy director of the Prison Service, Mr. Phil Wheatley, who works directly under the new director general, Mr. Martin Narey, whom I appointed, has full-time day-to-day responsibility for the operation of the Prison Service; and other changes have been introduced. I cannot promise that those changes will eliminate for ever the possibility of problems such as those found at Wormwood Scrubs recurring, but they should both greatly reduce that risk and ensure swifter follow-through when they do occur.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking)

The Home Secretary and I have visited a number of prisons over the years, and he knows that we can be proud of some of our best prisons. Equally, as a House of Commons, we should be ashamed of some of the worst prisons in this country, where conditions are extremely bad.

I have never been prisons Minister and I doubt that I ever shall be, but if I were, one of my first tasks would be try to ensure that prisoners were not locked up for 23 hours out of 24, a practice which has been far too prevalent for many years. I would also try to insist that every prisoner received a full day of education, training, constructive work and sport. In that way, we could move towards—[Interruption]—yes, toughness, but also a more humane and a better prison system.

Mr. Straw

I cannot speak for the hon. Gentleman's prospects as a future prisons Minister, unless he wants to follow—

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

If he comes over here, we will see what we can do.

Mr. Straw

The Whip on the Treasury Bench—who should remain silent—issues an invitation to the hon. Gentleman. However, as it comes from my hon. Friend, I am not sure that even I would accept it. Everyone knows what Whips are like, Madam Speaker.

The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) is correct to say that it is unsatisfactory to lock up prisoners for 23 hours a day. To pick up a sedentary comment made during his question, the punishment is being sent to prison. Of course prisons should not be comfortable, but they should be humane. Much effort should be expended trying to make bad people better—which is in the interests of society and of the individuals concerned. For that reason, we are investing £660 million extra—above the base line left by the previous Government—in constructive regimes for education and drug rehabilitation, for example. We believe that that is the only way to ensure that the majority of prisoners emerge as better people with less chance of re-offending.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Given the Home Secretary's acknowledgement of personal responsibility for the past two years and two months of the 1997 report, and in view of his earlier assurance to the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), that he had received regular reports, can the right hon. Gentleman explain why progress has been so tardy? Is it because the reports were insufficiently clear, or were the reports abundantly clear but the Department was woefully inadequate in heeding the lessons that they contained?

Mr. Straw

No—it is more the former than the latter. I acted as quickly as possible on all reports made to me, as any sensible Minister would—particularly in view of the allegations that were made. Until the appointment of the new governor, everyone down the track in the Prison Service—at an area level and within the prison—kept reassuring each other that things were okay and that action was in hand. As I have said—I will send the information to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and it will also be placed in the Library—

Mr. Hogg

Item by item.

Mr. Straw

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is getting a better service from me than he got from his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) when he was Home Secretary. I am glad to see that he acknowledges that fact.

Mr. Hogg

I am looking forward to receiving it.

Mr. Straw


Mr. Bercow

Do not leave me out.

Mr. Straw

I will not do that. People down the track were reassuring themselves that things were okay, partly because industrial relations in the prison were very difficult. The Prison Officers Association at Wormwood Scrubs got into a wholly unacceptable position of power, so the truth about what was happening did not emerge up the line. That is my reading of the situation. When there was better reporting of events, action was taken.

I have made it clear to the House that the change in the senior governor at the prison and the other changes that were introduced—not least following the appointment of Martin Narey as director general and Phil Wheatley as deputy director general—are designed to ensure that there is much greater accountability inside the Prison Service and better line management of institutions such as this one.