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7 Feb 2001 : Column 294WH

Strangeways Riot (Woolf Report)

1.30 pm

Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough): In April 1990, Strangeways prison in Manchester was the scene of the worst penal disturbances that this country has ever witnessed. Prisoners took over the chapel and defied the authorities in a roof-top siege lasting 25 days. It was the longest riot in prison history, during which 47 inmates and 147 police or prison officers were hurt.

On 5 April 1990, Lord Justice Woolf, as he then was, was appointed to lead an inquiry into Strangeways and 10 years ago last week, on 31 January 1991, he handed his report to the then Secretary of State for Home Affairs. The 10th anniversary of publication of the Woolf report was commemorated by Lord Woolf last week when he gave the Prison Reform Trust lecture. I am a trustee of that trust. The lecture was one of three speeches that we have heard during the past week about prisons and the penal system. It was made alongside the speech of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on the same day and that of Mr. Martin Narey, director general of the Prison Service, the day before yesterday. It seemed a good idea, 10 years on, to review progress since the Strangeways riot.

Lord Woolf found a sorry picture when he reviewed the prison system 11 years ago. At the time of the riot, 1,647 prisoners were held in Strangeways, which was intended to accommodate only 970. It was overcrowded by almost 70 per cent. and that was not unusual in prison establishments. In 1989-90, the 40-odd local prisons and remand centres were overcrowded by an average of 37 per cent. Some were overcrowded 100 per cent. and holding double the number of prisoners that should have been held.

The effects of overcrowding at Strangeways and elsewhere were many and serious. Prisoners were held three to a cell without sanitation or washing facilities. They were allowed just one shower a week They were forced to share a single bucket for a toilet. With too few staff and too many prisoners, there was a lack of purposeful activity for prisoners. They were locked up and left idle, often for 23 hours a day. There was a lack of decent visiting facilities, so contact between prisoners and families was severely limited. There was low morale among prison officers and when prisoners had grievances--they had many--the arrangements for addressing them were inadequate.

Lord Woolf found those factors to be the cause of the Strangeways riot. In his landmark report on the events of April 1990, he recognised that change was desperately required and provided a blueprint of a just, humane and secure prison system. The following questions should be asked 10 years on. What has been done? Has the blueprint been fulfilled? Have Lord Woolf's recommendations been implemented? Some of the recommendations have indeed been implemented and progress has been made. However, others have been implemented only partially or with only partial success; some have not been implemented at all or their progress has been lamentable.

I shall start with the good, because Lord Woolf called for more visible leadership by the Prison Service and the director general. He stated proudly last week in his Prison Reform Trust lecture that that had been achieved

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and he referred to Mr. Martin Narey. I want to put that on the record in the light of Mr. Narey's speech two days ago.

However, similar progress has not been made elsewhere. For example, Lord Woolf recommended that compacts or contracts should be used for each prisoner to develop a personal sense of responsibility. Although some establishments have made progress with compacts, especially with drug reduction strategies and the earned privilege scheme, it has been impossible across the Prison Service as a whole to deliver what the compacts should provide. The use and benefits of the compacts have not been as widespread as they should have been. The good practices of some establishments have not been shared and become the good practices of all.

Likewise, there has been some, but not enough, progress in respect of the recommendation for an improved standard of justice in prisons. At the time of the Strangeways riot, justice stopped at the prison door. Lord Woolf thought that to be one of the worst aspects of the prison system 11 years ago. As he said in his lecture last week, for the justice system to send somebody to prison, only to treat him unjustly when he is there is simply intolerable.

There have been significant improvements since then. We now have a prisons ombudsman and a grievance procedure has been established. However, there remains room for real improvement. The delays in the grievance procedure are excessive--justice delayed is often justice denied. Last week, Lord Woolf said that an ineffective grievance procedure is probably as bad as no grievance procedure at all. Unless more is done to speed up the system, it risks falling into disrepute.

In respect of many of the other recommendations, progress has been negligible. For example, Lord Woolf recommended that there be a national system of accredited standards--it has not been established. Worse still, last year the Prison Service's own key performance indicators were met in less than half of the cases and that, as Lord Woolf said, is hardly an impressive record.

Lord Woolf also recommended that slopping out should end, with all prisoners having access to sanitation not later than February 1996--five years ago this month. Officially, slopping out has ended: its demise was formally announced in 1996. But when the Chief Inspector of Prisons visited Exeter, he found that in the segregation unit not one of the cells had integral sanitation or a water supply. At Portland young offenders institution, he found that slopping out had not ended in the induction and the therapeutic wings. Five years after the announcement that slopping out was ended, cells in four wings at Strangeways still have no integral sanitation. These are buildings that should have been razed to the ground, but they are still being used.

Progress has also been slow in respect of Lord Woolf's recommendation that prisoners should be held in community prisons as near to their homes as possible. The reason for that recommendation is a simple one: research shows that good family ties can reduce a prisoner's risk of reoffending by a factor of six. We therefore know that the greatest single factor

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determining whether a prisoner is likely to reoffend on release is whether he has a stable family life to go home to. If we are going to be tough on crime and the causes of crime, a good place to start would be to implement Lord Woolf's recommendation to accommodate prisoners as near to their families as possible. After 10 years, however, 26,000 prisoners are held more than 50 miles from their committal court town; 11,000 prisoners are over 100 miles away; and 5,000 prisoners are over 150 miles from their home area.

When I visited Wellingborough magistrates court last week, Mrs. Green--the chair of the youth bench--told me that they had to send their young prisoners to Huntercombe, many miles away from their parents. Quite apart from everything else, the Prison Service currently spends over £2 million every year on fares for family visits--money that could be spent elsewhere on crime prevention.

Lord Woolf also recommended that there should be a separate statement of purpose, separate conditions and a lower security categorisation for remand prisoners. Again, that has simply not happened. As Lord Woolf said in his lecture last week, the treatment of remand prisoners all too often means that they are left at the bottom of the pack when they should, as unconvicted prisoners, be at the top. After all, of male prisoners received on remand in 1999, 53 per cent. did not subsequently receive a prison sentence; and for female prisoners that figure rose to 65 per cent. Over 20 per cent. of both male and female prisoners remanded in custody were actually acquitted or had the proceedings against them terminated early. And yet, because they may be in prison for a short stay only, remand prisoners are kept in conditions described by Mr. Narey as primitive.

Why do we have these legion problems? Why is slopping out still taking place in wings that should not even be standing? Why are prisoners still held hundreds of miles from home when we know that that makes reoffending far more likely? Why are remand prisoners held in primitive conditions when they have not been convicted of a crime, and may never be so?

In significant part, it is simply because many prisons are still grotesquely overcrowded. Lord Woolf recommended 10 years ago that there should be a new prison rule that no establishment could hold more prisoners than was certified to be its normal level of accommodation. That rule has not been introduced because, as the Minister said in March 2000, there was no prospect that overcrowding would end. Indeed in April 2000, Mr. Narey said that overcrowding was approaching the limits of what he found acceptable in terms of the risk of disorder and loss of control, and that it already surpassed what he wanted in terms of hygiene and treating prisoners decently and constructively.

Let us look at the figures. On 24 November 2000, Preston prison was overcrowded by 81 per cent, Shrewsbury by 74 per cent. and Northallerton by 70 per cent. Some 11,553 prisoners were held two to a single cell. At Leeds, 800 prisoners were held in overcrowded cells. At Birmingham and Doncaster, the figure was over 600. At Altcourse, Preston, Durham and Wandsworth, over 400 prisoners were held in overcrowded cells. Not

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just old prisons are overcrowded. Of the 24 new prisons built or re-opened in the last ten years, half are already overcrowded.

Ten years on, Strangeways is still overcrowded. One in four of its prisoners are held in overcrowded cells. That is why slopping out has not ended, why prison wings that should have been razed to the ground are still standing, why prisoners are still held far from home and why remand prisoners are still treated primitively. That is why prisoners at Northallerton remand centre are locked up for more than 19 hours a day.

The ramifications of overcrowding are wider still. The Prison Service still fails to provide adequate levels of purposeful activity. The key performance indicator of 24 hours purposeful activity a week is not met in many establishments. On average, prisoners receive just ten minutes more purposeful activity a day than they did in 1990. In Brixton, where 242 prisoners are held in overcrowded conditions, barely 11 hours of purposeful activity is provided a week.

Overcrowding is the core problem facing prisons. It has been described by Mr. Narey as a scourge, by Lord Woolf as a cancer and by Christopher Scott, the former president of the Prison Governors Association, as an obscenity. It is not the only target of reform and it must not become the excuse--the mantra--behind which establishments hide their other failings. However, when four of the six hellholes identified by Mr. Narey two days ago are overcrowded, it is a problem that must be tackled and tackled soon.

We are in a vicious cycle. We lock up more and more people and because of that we hold them in conditions that make it more likely that they will reoffend when released. With prisons already overcrowded and overstretched, 57 per cent. of prisoners discharged in 1996 were re-convicted within two years. More than three-quarters of young male prisoners are re-convicted within 24 months. Little wonder that the prison population has increased by over 15,000 in the last 10 years and that 64,000 men and women are now in prison in England and Wales.

The Home Office predicts a prison population of 80,000 by 2007. If those Home Office figures and predictions are correct, we will spend an awful lot of money locking people up only to see them reoffend shortly after their release. The average cost of a prison place is £26,000, which is about twice as much as a place at a top public school. For every 40 additional prisoners, we spend £1 million extra a year. The 30,000 increase in the prison population projected for 1991 to 2007 will cost us £750 million every year on top of building costs, which since 1995 have amounted to £1.3 billion. To spend that amount of money and keep prisoners locked up in primitive conditions, miles from home, with adverse consequences for their potential rehabilitation, is not a progressive penal policy.

What can and should be done if simply building more and more prisons is an expensive way of making little progress? What can and should be done if--as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said in a speech on penal policy last week--we cannot and will not cut prison sentences for serious and serial offenders? Within those limitations, our options are few. I shall touch on three of them.

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First, we need to cut the number of criminals and cut crime. That is not a trite thing to say, but a policy imperative. Preventative crime reduction policies are part and parcel of a properly integrated criminal justice and penal system. In Wellingborough, car crime and repeat burglaries have fallen by 25 per cent. following Home Office investment in problem estates. Cars, houses and whole estates can be made more secure; so can mobile phones. We heard today that road deaths in Northamptonshire have been cut by 28 per cent. through the more intensive use of speed cameras. We can be tougher on pubs and clubs who sell alcohol to drunks. We can work harder to confront drug-related crime by tackling the addictions that force so many into robbery and prostitution. We can better tackle the illiteracy, poverty and helplessness in which crime breeds.

Secondly, we need to develop more effective and more flexible sentences, in which the community will have confidence. We need to invest more in restorative justice. We need to look for credible alternatives to prison, as the Home Affairs Committee unanimously agreed in its recent report. As Lord Woolf said last week, initiatives to tackle offending can often work as effectively outside prison as they can within. Indeed, short custodial sentences are a poor alternative to sentences served in the community if they place a disproportionate burden on the Prison Service and then do little, if anything, to tackle offending behaviour.

Thirdly, we need to ensure that those who should not be in prison are not sent there. No one would argue against the imprisonment of serious and serial offenders; and, when appropriate, it should be for a long time. However, because we have insufficient secure and semi-secure hospital accommodation, we are also imprisoning the mentally ill. In the 12 months before their custody started, 20 per cent. of male prisoners and 40 per cent. of female prisoners had been treated or had sought treatment for mental health problems. Nine out of every 10 young people in custody have mental health or substance abuse problems--or a combination of the two.

We are also imprisoning asylum seekers,A whole landing in Wandsworth prison is dedicated to them; yet 486 prisoners there are held in overcrowded conditions. We have even imprisoned a man in Wellingborough whose crime was to set fire to some church curtains the week after his foster parents died. He put out the fire himself and waited for the police to arrive, yet he is currently serving the 22nd year of his sentence.

We should make crime more difficult to commit. We should tackle offending behaviour effectively. We should develop sentences that, when appropriate, do not involve incarceration. We should not lock up those who should not be locked up. Only then can we stop our prisons being overcrowded; only then can we start to ensure that prisons help to rehabilitate prisoners rather than becoming universities of crime. We can break the never-ending cycle between prison and crime, prison and crime.

At the end of his lecture last week, Lord Woolf said:

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1.47 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche) : First, I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Stinchcombe) not only on securing this important debate, but on the way in which he spoke. He clearly has a passionate interest in the subject, and he also has a detailed knowledge of it. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), the Minister with responsibility for prisons, has a great deal of regard for the work that my hon. Friend has done generally, and particularly in Wellingborough, in trying to reduce crime.

My hon. Friend gave us a succinct yet comprehensive history of Lord Woolf's report and its recommendations. Great changes have taken place since 1990. Recent change and our planned future agenda have replaced the Woolf agenda. Nevertheless, the imprint of Lord Woolf's recommendations on the prison system remains clear to all. They have stood the test of time, and the Prison Service will lose sight of them at its peril. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's acknowledgement of what has already been achieved in putting many of those recommendations into effect. He is correct, of course, to say that the pressure of the prison population is the main reason why others have not yet been achieved.

The Government support the use of imprisonment for serious, dangerous and persistent offenders when it is necessary to protect the public, but we recognise that it needs to be effectively targeted. It may not be the best or the most effective option for less serious offenders, especially when tough non-custodial sentences are available. If community sentences are to be effective and credible, strong enforcement is essential. Too often, however, such sentences are seen as a soft option by offenders and the public.

The new enforcement measures set out in the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 send a clear message that flouting a court order is not an option. We believe strongly that those measures will ensure greater compliance with community sentences and give a clear signal that non-custodial sentences are real punishments. My hon. Friend will warmly welcome that. He is right to draw our attention to non-custodial sentences.

The Government have commenced a review of the sentencing framework to examine the scope for new sentencing options, especially for more flexible arrangements to combine time served in custody and in the community. We have invested more than £220 million from the comprehensive spending review and a further £200 million from SR 2000 to provide constructive regimes in prison designed to reduce reoffending, based on "what works" principles. We have established the prison and probation accreditation panel, chaired by Sir Duncan Nichol, to approve regimes that work best to reduce reoffending. Offenders serving community penalties will also be required to follow "what works" programmes.

My hon. Friend referred to the continuing need for slopping out. A programme to provide 24-hour access to sanitation was implemented by February 1996. It

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consisted of providing integral sanitation in cells, with an alternative where that was not practical of providing access via electronic unlocking. That was implemented across the estate in all cells in use for normal accommodation. There are three wings at establishments where integral sanitation and electronic unlocking are not practical. We did not intend to keep those wings in use, but population pressures have made that necessary. Staff have been provided to unlock cells should prisoners wish to use the lavatory facilities. A recent survey of all segregation and health care accommodation identified cells where it would be appropriate to install integral sanitation, and funds for that are being sought.

My hon. Friend rightly pointed out that it is regrettable that levels of purposeful activity are now similar to those in 1992-93, at 23.6 hours a week. However, that needs to be seen in the context of the prison population increase of more than 40 per cent. The Prison Service is therefore providing considerably more purposeful activity, and the average amount per prisoner was up in 1999-2000 compared with the previous year.

The quality of purposeful activity has also improved. Time is better focused on activities such as drug rehabilitation, offending behaviour programmes and basic skills education, which are known to have an impact on reducing crime. No one who visits prisons--I know that my hon. Friend does so regularly--can fail to be aware that tackling those basics, especially raising people's levels of literacy and numeracy, is essential to prevent reoffending.

My hon. Friend was right to say that prisoners, especially short-term ones, are less likely to reoffend if they have a job and stable accommodation on release. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has announced that he wants the number of prisoners who go into jobs on release to double in the next three years. We are also addressing the other factors--basic skills, drugs education and accommodation--that we know are vital to the resettlement of prisoners.

The key to effective resettlement of prisoners is an approach that works with them through the gate and into the community after release. We must ensure that prisoners are directed as far as possible to a stable address and to a job, new deal place or training place. That will be the focus of a new Prison Service custody-to-work programme, supported by an extra £21 million during the next three years.

My hon. Friend rightly mentioned the need to tackle alcohol-related crime. The amount of such crime is a matter of tremendous concern. According to the British crime survey, about 40 per cent. of violent crime is alcohol-related. Something like 13,000 violent incidents take place on or around licensed premises every week. Last year we launched the Home Office action plan on alcohol-related crime, which sets out an important programme of measures to tackle underage drinking and the problems associated with public drunkenness and related behaviour. The plan includes measures to share learning about what works in this context. We need to learn from best practice and to consider the role of education, particularly for young people, to ensure that we tackle the problem at its root.

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My hon. Friend mentioned asylum seekers in prison. He is a member of the Home Affairs Committee, which recommended increasing the removal of people who, having made unsuccessful asylum applications, have no basis for staying in the United Kingdom. The effort to meet the relevant removal targets has led to a temporary need for more prison space. We are increasing our dedicated detention space to effect removal.

The Government are not in the business of artificially reducing the prison population. We are committed to reducing reoffending. To that end, we are committed to providing the courts with an appropriate range of custodial programmes that have been shown to reduce reoffending. My hon. Friend was right to consider what those programmes might mean and to point out the need to examine them. I have seen some good ones,

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particularly in the probation service. Some of those programmes are certainly not soft options. They are focused on the prevention of reoffending, on rehabilitation and, importantly, on the protection of the community.

I commend my hon. Friend for having obtained today's debate and for the way in which he began it. It was short but important. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will be very interested to read what he said. We look forward to continuing our work in this context and to working with my hon. Friend on the matters that he raised quite appropriately today.

Question put and agreed to.

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