HL Deb 01 December 1994 vol 559 cc699-701

3.14 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are concerned that in 1993 there were 2,540 assaults on prison staff in prisons and remand centres in England and Wales; and, if so, what steps are being taken to improve matters.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, there will be a change of tone. Assaults on prison staff are a matter of great concern. A reduction in the level of violence in prisons is a strategic priority for the prison service. We have taken a number of steps to improve matters, including tackling violent behaviour through work with prisoners, improved procedures for the control and supervision of prisoners' movements, improving staff skills and training in dealing with difficult and disturbed prisoners, analysing and learning from incidents of assault, and operating systems which reward good behaviour and penalise bad behaviour.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I am much obliged for that Answer. I appreciate that a number of the offences are comparatively trivial, but it seemed to me that the total figure was rather alarming and apparently there is a rising trend. I am much encouraged by the Answer we have just been given. Can the Minister say whether there have been any special problems in the prisons which have suffered most from overcrowding? Can she also say whether there is enough information to form any opinion on whether there is any marked difference in behaviour by prisoners in the prisons run by outside firms?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I cannot answer the last point because those prisons are very new. No doubt we shall continue to monitor the position and come back with the information.

It is interesting that the figures are worse for those prisons which are not overcrowded. There is some evidence to support that. It is an interesting phenomenon that the greatest problem is not in the crowded prisons but in the newer, more capacious prisons.

Happily, I am also able to say that the figures do not reflect a rising trend. There are signs that the trend is now on the decrease. There is still a rise year on year, but the increase this year over last year is lower than the increase last year over the previous year. We hope that that will continue.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell the House whether any study has been undertaken to relate such attacks to drug abuse inside prisons and to the extent to which drugs are finding their way in to prisons? If not, could not such a study be undertaken?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is true that many assaults have a connection with drugs. A number of programmes have now been introduced to address that particular issue—for example, offending behaviour programmes—some of which are very successful. There is also a violent offenders' programme, since attacks can be both violent and related to drugs. It is an issue which is being taken very seriously.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, it was interesting, and indeed startling, to learn from the Minister that violence towards staff is greater in prisons which are not overcrowded. Will she be undertaking research to seek an explanation for that apparently paradoxical finding? Is it not also the case that, regardless of overcrowding, any increase in the absolute level must reflect the regrettable rise in the prison population in recent years?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, in my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, I was able to say that the percentage of the prison population involved in assaults is also decreasing. There is still a rise year on year, but nevertheless the rate of that rise is slowing, and we would like to see that continue.

The noble Lord makes an important point. If there is no correlation between assaults and crowded prisons—and as the noble Lord knows, a great deal is being done to reduce overcrowded conditions—that is a phenomenon which we must look at.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, would it not help if it were made clear that a prisoner who is charged successfully with having assaulted prison staff would not be released in any circumstances until the extreme end of his sentence?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I can tell my noble friend that where there has been a serious assault that constitutes another offence. That offence can be dealt with in the courts. It will be in addition to the offence for which the prisoner is serving a prison sentence. In the case of a less serious offence a number of measures can be taken, including adding days to the sentence which has already been imposed.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that dispersal prisons are not overcrowded because they tend to hold high security prisoners? Is that the group of prisons in which assaults are rising most steeply?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am not certain of that, but I know that the simple correlation between overcrowding and assaults is not made. Therefore, one would have to look at the reasons. I suspect that the point mentioned by the noble Lord is probably a contributory factor.

Lord Newall

My Lords, will my noble friend say whether there is any link between the threats against prison officers and the fact that prisoners are now allowed to move from prison to prison without escorts? If there is no link, can she say why such moves are occurring?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, moving from prison to prison is not usually a cause of assault. It may be the cause of people disappearing while moving from prison to prison; and that is a very different offence. This Question refers to those prisoners who gratuitously assault prison officers in the course of their duty. That is a very serious matter indeed.