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14 Feb 2001 : Column 108WH

Wandsworth Prison

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Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting): I welcome the opportunity to open this short debate on Wandsworth prison, which is in my constituency. I have visited the prison many times over the years, and have had debates in the House and asked many questions about it. It is an old building, and over the years there have been changes in the role that it plays in the prison system. At present, the prisoner roll at Wandsworth is 1,300 inmates.

Over the years, the prison has often been criticised, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. I have read several times the report on the prison by the chief inspector of prisons for England and Wales. I am talking not about the Wandsworth prison of yesteryear but about the prison that I have seen on my visits, and the prison that my right hon. Friend the Minister and I saw when we visited it in the latter part of last year.

Last week, the press and television gave great coverage to the speech made by the Director-General of the Prison Service, Martin Narey, at the Prison Service conference 2001. He was highly critical of many aspects that still exist in the prison system. He is right. I know it, and my right hon. Friend the Minister knows it. What did the director-general say about Wandsworth? He said that Stephen Rimmer, the governor,

I welcome those comments, as do the Prison Officers Association and the board of visitors. In Stephen Rimmer, a young man, the prison has a constructive, progressive and fair governor. Those qualities are reflected in everything that he does as governor and in his dealings with officers and inmates in the day-to-day life at the prison. I have seen him at work, using those skills, on visits to the prison.

I also warmly congratulate the prison officers at Wandsworth. Their work is difficult and sometimes dangerous, but they do an excellent job. They show good will and are totally committed to the changes taking place. The board of visitors and the chairman, Mr. Akerman, deserve great credit for their time and commitment, week by week, in the prison. As I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister would agree, the board of visitors spends many hours each week in the prison. That is work that no Home Office, under any Government, would be able to do, in terms of either time or cost. I am sure that that applies to prisons throughout the country.

I have commented on Martin Narey's remarks. When the chief inspector of prisons reported in December 1999, there were 88 recommendations, which were translated by the prison into a 147-point action plan. All those action points have been taken up and are either completed or in the process of being completed. That has been done with the full support of the governor, prison officers and the board of visitors.

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Those of us who take an interest in prisons know that the worst aspect for prison inmates is the time that they spend in their cells. To Wandsworth's credit, it has increased the number of hours per week that inmates are out of their cells, and that applies to all prisoners. More provision has been made for exercise, association and phone calls. As we all know from our daily lives, making a phone call to family or friends is crucial.

The role played by each of the prison wings and their inmates, be they short-term or long-term prisoners, has been enhanced. The induction system for inmates entering prison has been improved, and programmes are being developed for resettlement and advice on housing and employment opportunities on leaving prison.

Each month, the governor, Mr. Rimmer, meets prisoner representatives from each of the prison wings for a general discussion of prison issues, and he should be commended for that. The gym, which as we all know can be popular with men in prison, is now open at weekends, which is greatly appreciated. The governor and his staff have revised the prison's incentive and earnings schemes, which are, again, a matter of great importance to someone serving a prison sentence.

When the next inspection of the prison takes place, I am sure that striking comments will be made about the major changes that have taken place in the operation, care and structure of what was the segregation unit. Family visits have been introduced to keep families together during difficult times. As we all know, if a loved one is in prison, enormous stresses and strains can be placed on the family relationships.

I am also delighted to be able to say that Wandsworth has excellent prison officers, both men and women, some 11 per cent. of whom come from an ethnic minority background, although they were born here and this is their home. I warmly welcome that, as, I am sure, does my right hon. Friend the Minister. The prison has an excellent race relations organisation, and the officer responsible for it does a wonderful job. All those developments are supported not only by the governor, who, to his credit, initiated many of them, but by prison officers and the board of visitors.

Another important development has taken place at Wandsworth, as in other prisons. There are

As we all know, circumstances can change if the commitment is made. That commitment for change has, as I briefly outlined, been made at Wandsworth prison, which looks to the future and the way forward. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister is also committed to that, but the future will not just happen: it must be planned and financed. The prison operates on a tight budget. What will the budget be this year, and will the staff and governor be asked to make any cuts in their budget for the coming year?

When I last visited the prison, I attended the monthly meeting of the board of visitors and we discussed various issues. Much has been done concerning education, but much more could be done. We all know that, sadly, men and women who are sent to prison often

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have poor educational ability, but if that can be improved, their whole lives start to improve, not only while they are in prison but when they leave. I believe, as does the board of visitors, that education must be a top priority in prisons. It costs about £19,000 a year to keep someone in Wandsworth prison, and if education facilities are provided to help people to find employment, the chances are that they will not return to prison. Wandsworth wants to develop its education facilities. How does my right hon. Friend expect that aspect of Wandsworth's continuing development programme to progress?

Asylum seekers are now a major issue. Some 500 asylum seekers will be housed in prisons throughout the country because of immigration irregularities. I understand that there will be 60 at Wandsworth, which will cause pressure and strain on the system, as it already houses some 250 foreign nationals. Asylum seekers should not be put in prison without proper facilities, because they will have special needs. Asylum seekers may have broken immigration rules, but they are not convicted criminals and it is crucial to learn from my right hon. Friend what funding will be available for the extra stresses, strains and responsibilities that Wandsworth prison will be asked to take on.

Prisoners used to be housed in police cells, and successive Home Secretaries said that that was not a problem. However, there was indeed a problem, and in time the practice was stopped. I speak in friendship and with a desire for the progress to which my right hon. Friend is committed, but I do not believe that this aspect of policy has been properly thought through or properly funded.

Another matter that concerns us greatly in Wandsworth is category C prisoners. Wandsworth currently has about 480 such prisoners, many of whom are waiting to be moved to other prisons. The governor has told me that category C prisoners often have to wait 12 to 18 months before being moved. My right hon. Friend's Department must examine the matter and find out why there is a delay in moving them.

At present, some 210 inmates are working in Wandsworth. The hope is that during this year there will be opportunities for another 200 to work. That can only be welcomed. We have improved the safety of inmates and reduced self-harm through the national pilot scheme. That, too, can only be warmly welcomed and again is fully supported by all sections of the staff and the board of visitors.

As I have said, Wandsworth prison has changed greatly, and all the changes have been supported, but one issue remains: staffing levels. That may apply not only to Wandsworth but to many other prisons in London and this part of the country. As my right hon. Friend knows, there are serious problems of staff recruitment and retention. I should be interested to hear what he thinks can be done about that.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have this short debate, which outlines the changes that have taken place: changes that, as I have repeatedly said, have been supported by the governor, the POA and the board of visitors. I am glad to have been able to put on record the support for the efforts that the governor has made, and will continue to make, to make Wandsworth one of our model prisons.

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The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng ): My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) brings to this subject a lifetime in the House of championing the cause of Wandsworth prison and, at the same time, of constantly challenging that institution to improve its game. His tribute to the governor, the staff and the work being done there is therefore all the more valuable, because he is a not uncritical friend of that institution or, quite properly, of the Prison Service.

We have had an opportunity to hear of the gains made in Wandsworth recently in improving regimes, conditions, management and industrial relations between the management and the staff, and all credit goes to those who have been responsible for bringing about those improvements. My hon. Friend rightly singles out the governor, Stephen Rimmer. I would add a word of recognition for the Prison Officers Association chairman, Richie Keller, who has demonstrated commendable qualities of leadership.

You will know, Mr. Winterton, that to bring about change in an institution is no easy matter. It requires determination and resolve as well as a willingness to face and speak some unpalatable truths. That has happened in Wandsworth, and we should reflect on the lessons that the Prison Service can learn about how best to bring about change. Although we have seen marked improvements at Wandsworth, there is no room for complacency in the Prison Service. That is why the director general made the speech that he did at the recent Prison Service conference.

On Wandsworth's immediate future, I assure my hon. Friend that it will have to make its fair contribution to the efficiency savings that the service as a whole must make. Discipline has led to improved management across the service. Wandsworth can expect to gain from the additional resources that the Government are putting into prison education. Today, the Minister for Education and Employment, Baroness Blackstone, and I launched a major joint initiative for Wormwood Scrubs--another improving institution that has had its problems--involving her Department and mine. New resources amounting to some £17 million over three years will be invested in prison education.

Prison education is linked specifically to addressing the numeracy and literacy deficits that affect inmates throughout the prison system. Some 60 per cent. of inmates have numeracy and literacy deficits that disqualify them from 94 per cent. of jobs. We are putting new resources at the disposal of prison education in order to improve basic numeracy and literacy skills. Those resources also form part of a custody-to-work initiative to help inmates make the transition from a custodial to a community context, so that on leaving prison they have a hope of finding gainful employment. Whether they have an actual job to go to or an appointment for one, former inmates will have the back-up of the Employment Service and, where necessary, of the further education establishments in the area to which they are returning. Wandsworth will benefit from that concerted effort.

Wandsworth will also benefit from our additional investment in prison health care. Given that this issue is dear to your heart, Mr. Winterton, you will know that it has long been neglected. However, with the full support

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and co-operation of colleagues in the Department of Health, we are tackling it in a manner that requires the national health service and the prison health service to work together for the first time in a coherent and focused way to ensure that prison health care receives the necessary investment in personnel and resources.

Importantly, there must be through-care from the prison health service into the wider mental health service. There are far too many in our jails whose main problem is one of mental health. Throughput from prison health care into mainstream NHS mental health facilities is particularly important. There will be new, additional moneys to enable Wandsworth to improve conditions, the quality of health care and the environment of its health care centre. Moreover, there will be additional resources for mental health care and psychiatric care, and for the introduction of community psychiatric workers who will work on the wings. That is good news for Wandsworth, and is in addition to the £16 million that it is due to receive.

The good work that Stephen Rimmer has started must continue and my hon. Friend and I had the opportunity to see that in action during our visits to the establishment. Central to that is the involvement of the wider community, including the board of visitors, to which my hon. Friend rightly paid tribute, and voluntary sector organisations that introduce programmes into prisons. I saw one recently that dealt with the unresolved issues that many prisoners and others suffer in terms of their relationship with their parents and which may have contributed to their offending. Innovative and challenging approaches from the voluntary sector and the prison officers are important and contribute to protecting the public by reducing reoffending. We want to build on that with mentoring and with closer community links between local businesses and prisons to aid resettlement. There will be a continuing need to ensure that Wandsworth develops those links with the wider community.

I want to refer to two matters on which Wandsworth will continue to be challenged. It must bear its fair share of the increased number of immigration detainees in prison. The Government are determined to increase the number of immigration offenders and failed asylum seekers who are removed from the United Kingdom. That is our duty to the people we serve and to the maintenance of confidence in the integrity and reliability of the immigration and nationality system. That means that we must hold a number of immigration detainees in Wandsworth prison.

I assure my hon. Friend that, in the longer term, we intend to reduce the use of prisons for holding such detainees. In the meantime, higher levels of absconding make it necessary to detain people in prison and we are determined to maintain our capacity to do so. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office will ensure that the immigration and nationality directorate puts in place the services that are necessary to meet the special needs of that inmate population, including interpreters and immigration service surgeries.

I commend the work being done at Wandsworth, not least by Mr. Hindpal Singh Bhui who won the Butler trust award, to ensure the welfare of foreign national inmates. That work has been of enormous value and we want immigration detainees to benefit from it.

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Wandsworth is an improving jail and the commitment and dedication of staff and management alike and the active involvement of my hon. Friend and the local community will ensure that that continues. The service as a whole can learn lessons from Wandsworth, which continues to play its part in meeting the challenges that face the service. It is a good-news story and I hope that it receives the coverage that it deserves. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for enabling the debate to take place.

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