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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 17 June 2015

[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Safety in Prisons

9.30 am

Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): Before I call Rachael Maskell to move the motion, it might help colleagues to know that I intend to call the winding-up speeches at 10.30 am at the latest. There are three Front-Bench spokesmen.

Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op): I beg to move,

That this House has considered safety in prisons.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I am grateful to have secured this important debate on the growing risks to personal safety in our prisons.

My interest in penal matters was instilled in me in early childhood by my late uncle, Professor Terence Morris. He was a great penal reformer who played an active role in the Longford committee, which advised Prime Minister Harold Wilson on penal reform. Terence Morris’s seminal work “Pentonville: a Sociological Study of an English Prison” transformed the prison service, and he was a leading member of the movement to abolish the death penalty. Beyond being an academic in criminology, to me he was my mentor, and he continued to be so until his untimely death two years ago.

I made my maiden speech on the subject of mental health, due to the rising risks in my local services. For the past five years, I have been representing people who work in our high-security psychiatric hospitals, as Unite’s head of health. I have campaigned alongside members who are challenged by the increased risks they experience due to skill-mix, the rise in pension age, cuts to staff and the threat of other changes to their terms and conditions. Therefore, I am well aware of the physical and mental dangers faced by staff working in such environments.

However, today I will focus on Her Majesty’s prisons and the risks that are increasing as the environment grows ever more dangerous. The changing demographics of our rising prison population—that is taking place against the backdrop of cuts—are escalating the challenges faced by prison officers and staff. I want us to examine why our prisons have become ever more understaffed and overcrowded, resulting in high risk and even violence to prison staff.

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on her election to Parliament and on securing this important first Westminster Hall debate. She will bring huge experience to Parliament on these matters.

The Government say they are providing new prison places, yet today new statistics show that there has been an increase in the number of prisoners forced to share cramped accommodation. More than a quarter of all

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prisoners now do so. Does my hon. Friend agree that that can lead only to greater tension in prisons and will further put safety at risk?

Rachael Maskell: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. Overcrowding is affecting safety in prisons, and I will set out how it is having an impact. The sharing of cells is one of the problems being faced in our prisons today.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does she agree that another issue that is increasing risk in prisons is the change to the conditions relating to earned privileges and the crackdown on release on temporary licence? Such changes make prisoners feel more stressed, which affects behaviour and risk.

Rachael Maskell: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the opportunities prisons have to rehabilitate people and enable them to reform their lives. I will pick it up later in the debate.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on being elected to Parliament and on securing the debate. In 2013, £45 million was spent on redundancy packages, and the staffing of the service is now dangerously low, to say the least. Will she comment on that problem?

Rachael Maskell: I thank my hon. Friend for making that important point. The reduction in prison officer numbers is having a serious impact on safety in prisons. Again, I will return to the subject, because it has greatly contributed to making prisons so unsafe today.

I want us to consider why Labour’s 1997 ambition to be tough not just on crime, but on the causes of crime, is rapidly fading in the ideological drive to cut public services. Urgent investment and resolution are required to bring an end to those unnecessary trends.

Our prison infrastructure, as is the case in all public services, has shifted towards the private sector, which has resulted in a landscape through which to steer change that is fragmented and which forever draws resource from the service into the market. That has particularly failed where private companies have bid for and won loss-leading contracts, resulting in severe cuts to staffing. The Sodexo contract with Her Majesty’s prison Northumberland is one such example, where a staggering 50% cut to staffing has had profound effect. Since 2010, 18 prisons have closed—many of them smaller prisons and some high-performing centres, despite the evidence that demonstrates that smaller prisons correlate to safer environments. New prisons have been built. A Titan prison is being built in Wrexham, which is to house 2,000 prisoners, despite the research on the effect of the size of prisons on safety.

Putting that evidence aside, the issue of overcrowding across the prison estate is now at crisis point and we must seek urgent redress. It is reported that 80 out of 118 prisons are now categorised as overcrowded. For example, Wandsworth prison was running at 177% capacity in 2014—nearly double what it was designed for. Other full prisons are being ordered to make emergency space available for prisoners. Therefore, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) said,

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prisoners are doubling up in cells designed for one person. In some cases, three prisoners are sharing one cell.

There are 20,672 prisoners—more than a quarter of the prison population—living in overcrowded accommodation, and the number is increasing. That is clearly putting a serious strain on our prison infrastructure and facilities. Only half of prisons inspected are achieving “reasonably good” or “good” standards.

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): I also congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As she knows, I have two prisons—a privately-run prison and what we still call a Government-run prison—in my constituency. She may be aware of the death of a prisoner in custody at Altcourse prison. Does she agree that serious incidents involving staff or inmates should be reported to the local MP, so he or she can assure their constituents on the safety of the prisons and address any issues surrounding serious incidents in prisons in their area?

Rachael Maskell: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that tragic situation. Of course reports should come to Members of Parliament, because it is important that we scrutinise the environment we are responsible for overseeing in our communities. We are able to raise such important matters and drill down to find out why such incidents are occurring in our prisons and get some real answers. He therefore makes an important point.

With the overcrowding of our prisons, violent tendencies are being exacerbated. Overcrowding is now cited as one of the major risk factors for prison staff and prisoners. The toxic mix of overcrowding and financial and staff cuts is causing the penal system to fail those who are incarcerated, and it also has a longer-term impact on the public and wider society.

Over the past two decades, the prison population has nearly doubled to 84,485. The number of women in prison has also doubled. Since 2010, staffing has been cut by 28%—a staggering loss of 12,530 personnel—and over the past three years resources have been cut by £263 million. The impact of the cuts has been observed not only by Her Majesty’s Opposition, but by the chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, who considered it extremely serious and concerning. He said that the system is not coping, and warned that, because of staff shortages, men are locked up together for 23 hours a day, causing huge tensions.

Nick Hardwick also highlighted that extra resources were needed or the prison population would have to be reduced. He said that

“this is a political and policy failure. This isn’t the fault of... staff… the demands on the system have… completely outstripped the resources available to… them.”

The annual report of the chief inspector of prisons at the end of last year highlighted the significant decline in safety and the enduring impact of time spent in custody. The average sentence has risen to 15.5 months or, for those on mandatory life sentences, up to 17 years. Punitive incarceration, which is all that can be achieved through long periods of detention without opportunity for rehabilitation, restoration and the development of skills, worth and value, does not break the crime cycle.

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That is evidenced by the extremely high, although now fairly static, reoffending rates, which put the public at further risk.

The previous Government had to take a U-turn on banning guitars in prison, and on banning other basic functions, such as being able to take a shower or make phone calls. Banning those provisions dehumanises prisoners, which has consequences. Minimal time out of a cell does not provide a prisoner with sufficient release but instead contributes to the escalation of risk, whether violent or otherwise. Physical, sexual and verbal assault rates remain unacceptably high and the number of violent incidents in prisons has increased. The number of serious assaults last year rose by a third.

The national tactical response group, which deals with serious incidents and riots in prisons, has seen an 89% increase in demand since 2010, with 223 calls in 2014 compared with 129 two years earlier. Only this week, we witnessed a riot involving 60 prisoners at Her Majesty’s prison Stocken. An officer was stabbed and hospitalised. The Prison Officers Association states that prisons throughout the land are on the brink of such incidents due to the dangerous staffing levels and the challenges caused by overcrowding. Substance abuse, the sharp rise in the availability of legal highs and alcohol abuse are challenging safety in prisons, and are now at serious levels in a third of prisons, with a marked prevalence found particularly among women prisoners, leading to negative behaviours and creating risks.

To dwell a little more on staffing numbers, they have fallen dramatically despite the number of those held in custody rising. That has not only put a tremendous strain on remaining staff, but led to an unsafe skills mix. Staff without sufficient competencies are now being required to take on responsibilities beyond their scope. That is not only a failure of the duty of care that prison management have to their staff, but it impacts on safety standards and increases the risk to staff.

The lack of staffing and changes in skills mix has a direct correlation with the number of violent incidents in our prisons. From 2013 to 2014, assaults between prisoners rose by some 14% and have reached the highest level ever recorded. Serious assaults on inmates have risen dramatically by 38%. In 2013, there were 11,397 assaults on prisoners; in 2014, there were 16,196. Serious assaults rose from 1,588 in 2013 to 2,145 in 2014—an increase of a third.

Four homicides took place in prison in 2013. Some 41% of prisoners now feel unsafe in their environment. Incidents against staff rose by a third—including the highest ever level of serious assault—and staff now have an unacceptable level of sickness, averaging 10.8 days compared with the national average of 4.4 days. These are not statistics, but lives being put in danger. Prisoners are being put at risk, as are staff who are going to work and carrying out their duties day by day. We must never forget that.

The number of prisoners at risk of suicide and self-harm is at an alarming high. Over the past year, the suicide rate has risen by 69%. Eight of those suicides were carried out by prisoners placed in segregation, four of whom were known to be at risk. The rate has risen significantly for the first time in five years. The proportion of prisoners at risk of suicide—21% of men and 46% of women—is substantially higher than the rest of the

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population, in which 6% are at risk. A staggering 23,478 prisoners self-harmed last year. The time officers can invest in building relationships has depleted; there is no time to sit down to have a conversation and a cup of tea, and to talk through the stresses and strains on prisoners. Instead, prisoners are turning on themselves in desperation.

Our youth justice system also faces challenge. Because of the shortage of appropriate placements, young offenders are often placed in those dangerous environments.

Steve Rotheram: Before my hon. Friend moves off the point, and as there is a Minister here, the Government know the statistics that she is quoting. The Government have to provide a safe working environment for staff. Does she believe that they are failing in their duty of care?

Rachael Maskell: Clearly, staff working in prisons—officers and other staff—are being failed. It is not acceptable that people are put at risk day by day when they turn up in their duty to serve. Therefore, I call for urgent attention to the issue and for a resolution. It is not acceptable just to read and listen to statistics. We have to take action.

With the right facilities, staffing levels, support and approach, much of the problems can be avoided. The impact of cuts to our public services has led to this perfect storm, failing people who then end up in a life of crime. We have no less than a moral duty to properly resource our services now to ensure that the prison populations fall in the future. Societal and Government failure has led to too many challenged individuals ending up in a life of crime.

Let us look at who the people behind the bars are—we have to look at what is happening in wider society to understand why people are ending up in prisons. Some 39% of the prison population experienced neglect or abuse as a child. Three quarters had an absent father; a third had an absent mother. A third of looked-after boys and nearly two thirds of looked-after girls end up in crime, which I hope is addressed in the Education and Adoption Bill.

Half of women prisoners have experienced domestic violence and a third have experienced sexual abuse. Some 66% of female prisoners and 38% of male prisoners committed offences to buy drugs. Half of all violent crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol. Some 49% of prisoners have anxiety and depression, and 25% of women prisoners suffer from psychosis. Some 20% to 30% of prisoners have learning difficulties and 47% have no qualifications, which emphasises society’s failure—Government’s failure—in providing steps and measures early on, and making interventions that can turn around the life course of those individuals. Those people should not be in our prisons and we have serious questions to ask.

It is a shameful story that the state has not intervened and given those people the hope and the opportunity that many of us have had. The fate of ending up in prison must be addressed. Not providing the right support at the right time is a crime of the state, which is why today’s debate is crucial. If we do not change the course of those people’s lives across the country, the prison population can only rise.

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Will the Government stop and appraise the next wave of £30 billion of cuts and address the root causes of why our prisons have become overcrowded and unsafe? I challenge the Minister to resolve the reoffending rates. Such a punitive penal system as we have now, ever stripped of rehabilitation and resettlement opportunities, results in increased uncertainty and diminished hope for prisoners, and in a reoffending rate as high as 45.2% within a year and, for children, 68.2%.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She has touched for the second time on reoffending rates. Does she agree that addressing high reoffending rates—the reason that many of the profound problems that she has outlined continue to prevail in our prisons—is a fundamental part of what the Government need to do?

Rachael Maskell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making an important point. There is a revolving door, with people leaving prison without support and rehabilitation and ending up back in the criminal justice system. That is a failure of our finances and of our investment in the lives of those individuals, who are then marked, with a life of crime ahead of them.

Picking up on that point, too many people are leaving prison without having the support they need, whether incarcerated or on leaving prison. Some 50,000 prisoners who were released last year did not get any support and post-release supervision. I heard from a woman in my constituency who left prison with no discharge support and ended up on the streets, exposed to exactly the same risks that she was exposed to before being placed in jail. She was fortunate to be picked up by the voluntary sector, which was able to address some of those issues. However, the voluntary sector is seriously under-resourced and it could make only a little step towards making her life a little different.

Alex Cunningham: The previous Justice Secretary talked about a rehabilitation revolution, but does my hon. Friend agree that some basic things need to happen for that to take place? If people are to be prepared for a better life outside prison, they need education, including basic literacy and numeracy, and, of course, supported training.

Rachael Maskell: We are not seeing any revolution in rehabilitation. Prisoners are locked up in their cells for 23 hours a day, unable to have chances in life and without the investment they need. The reduction in prison officer numbers is such that prisoners have no alternative opportunities until they reach the prison door and then, of course, people return to the life they knew before, without the turnaround that they desperately need, or the support, that would change the course of their life. We need to address not just that revolving door, but overcrowding, because the reality is that, as people return to the penal system, we are building on the overcrowding crisis.

We must also look at our probation service, which has also experienced severe cuts as it has been taken on its own journey around privatisation and out into the market, meaning that it is not able to integrate fully with the rest of the criminal justice system. We have to ask serious questions about that.

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Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. The probation service is not just fractured from the rest of the criminal justice system; it is fractured within itself due to an unnecessary, pointless, destructive and quite dangerous separation.

Rachael Maskell: I was talking yesterday to Napo, the trade union representing probation officers, about further cuts that are going to be made to the service at a time when, including in this debate, we are hearing that we need investment rather than cuts, without which we will not be able to break the cycle. This reorganisation of the probation service is yet another that has no purpose or point in respect of feeding into the bigger picture.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Although we understand that there is overcrowding in our prisons, does the hon. Lady not agree that a lot of the responsibility for running prisons has to be at the top, from the governor and management down? She mentioned some investment in a number of prisons. In Northern Ireland it is perhaps slightly different; it is political. For example, some £10 million has been spent on Maghaberry prison in the past four years, because prisoners have damaged it and some infrastructure work has been done. Surely it starts with the management of the prison as well.

Rachael Maskell: This is about not just management, but providing leadership throughout the Prison Service. The Government have an important role to play, as do leaders in prisons, whether directors or governors. There is such churn in the number of governors that they are in post for only about three and a half years before moving on, so they do not build relationships with the organisations they have responsibility for, which has a serious impact on providing leadership for the organisation to follow.

Another big question is why so many people end up in our prisons in the first place. We know that the number of community orders has fallen, despite their effectiveness, and that many people are held in prison while awaiting trial, with 27% not returning to prison afterwards, having been given other sentences.

I challenge our incarceration of so many people who are experiencing mental health challenges or addiction and substance abuse. I question whether it is right for people struggling with health issues to be locked up for 23 hours a day and whether, if that is not the right environment for them, we cannot find alternatives that will really help to address their health issues and issues around reoffending.

There is a clear correlation between safe staffing levels and safety in prisons. That is most evident in the 28% cut in the number of prison staff. The ratio of prisoners to prison officers is 1:4.8, whereas in 2000 it was 1:2.9. Prison officers are carrying so much more responsibility. Therefore, the effectiveness of their interventions is diluted.

Staff are enduring an unacceptable number of assaults, although I must say that all assaults are unacceptable. In 2014, prison staff experienced 3,637 assaults, 477 of which were serious—an increase of a third—and 10,000 working days were lost due to absence, mainly for physical reasons, but also increasingly because of

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work-related stress. Is it not the worst environment imaginable to fear for your life every day at work? Those 10,000 days lost could be dealt with by increasing the number of prison officers, making the workplace safer, but we also need to think of the real cost of that situation.

Of course, staff have been challenged by the higher levels of violence in their workplace and prison officers have to face risks that few in our population can even begin to understand. The prison population is becoming more violent and dangerous. Violent incidents have risen from 32 to 42 a day, eight of which are to members of staff. In 2012, there were 213 hospital attendances by officers, compared with 170 in just the first two quarters of 2013. These officers are experiencing injuries so serious that they have to be taken into the care of our emergency services.

David Simpson: The hon. Lady mentions the commitment and sacrifice of prison officers. I would like to put on record the assassination of Prison Officer David Black, in my constituency, on the road to Maghaberry prison, by republicans. Some 31 prison officers have been murdered over the past number of years. They have made the supreme sacrifice.

Rachael Maskell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to that tragic situation, where the lives of prison officers are being put at such high risk that many do not return to their families at the end of their working day. That is unacceptable. Early intervention to ensure that people have safe passage to and from work, as well as at work, is crucial for our public servants.

We know that the reward is not great for our prison staff. They are stretched regarding cover and there is work intensification, and they are challenged when dealing with the emotional demands of the work, because they are not able to fulfil their ambitions for those they serve, such are the pressures put on them.

We also hear from the Prison Officers Association that there is a lack of support from management. There are high levels of bullying in an already tense and violent environment. We have seen cuts to pay in real-terms, cuts to pensions and a real fall in morale. The report into health and safety shows that 30% of officers have been physically assaulted in the past four years. Many more experience psychological distress or emotional exhaustion. We know that there are real challenges with recruitment and the retention levels of prison staff. Given the environment I have described, we can see how that can come about. Prison governors are not in one place for long enough. They are moved on before they can provide the stability that staff need and build the relationships of trust necessary to provide that prison with a vision, a sense of purpose and direction.

The Labour party is calling for some clear measures to be taken. Starting with leadership, we need governors to be established in prisons for longer to bring stability and the leadership necessary to ensure that reforms can take place to make prisons safer. We believe that that should be accompanied by better governance by prison boards, rooting jails in their local communities with representatives from councils, charities, the probation service, the police and other organisations. That would

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provide the opportunity to build the bridge back into community living, which is so important for the future lives of prisoners.

We need to refresh Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, so that inspectors are truly independent of political interference and so that they publish their action plans and demands for the resourcing necessary. We need to see those plans supported so that actions follow. That way, we will not just have action plans, but results coming to fruition from them, and we will be able to scrutinise the process behind that. Above all, by breaking the cycle of crime we can ensure that prisons stop fuelling crime. That will be achieved only by properly resourcing early intervention measures to prevent people from falling into crime in the first place. For those who do fall through the net, we need evidence-based rehabilitation programmes that focus on developing education, training and skills, on improving health, wellbeing and self-worth and on re-orienting prisoners to life after prison, where they will not be exposed to the same risks they faced before their convictions. That will only be achieved by giving prisons the best facilities and adequate staffing levels to facilitate such transformation. Such a programme will secure staff and prisoner safety and cut spending on the prison service in the longer term.

To conclude, we come into politics not just to talk about issues or ideas, but to exercise every moment to bring transformative change to the lives of the people we are sent here to represent. Our prisons are in a very dangerous situation. Is the Minister willing to challenge the system and ensure that the service is made safe and effective? I thank you, Mr Bone, for allowing me this time today.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): Order. It might be helpful for Members to know that five Members are seeking to catch my eye from the Back Benches and we have just over 25 minutes until we reach the winding-up speeches. I should have reminded the Minister that the Member who introduced the debate will get two minutes at the end.

10.3 am

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to speak on this matter. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on outlining the issues so well and in such detail. Issues of staffing, safety and security are not limited to England and Wales, and I would like to give a Northern Ireland perspective to the matter and refer to the Select Committee on Justice’s report in the short time I have available.

The issues in Northern Ireland are no different from those on the mainland. Prison guards feel that they have no ability to restrain or confront dangerous inmates who damage televisions and wantonly break and vandalise equipment that they know will have to be replaced. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) referred to the £10 million that has been spent on repairs and infrastructure. With some inmates, there is a sense of, “They cannot do anything to me. There are no consequences to my actions.” Issues in England and Wales are pertinent to Northern Ireland, and I spoke to the Minister before the debate to make him aware of the issues to which I wanted to refer.

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I am not sure whether the availability of drugs in prisons will be touched on, but something is seriously wrong. People who are not addicted when they go to prison become addicted while they are there. How can that be? I have read some correspondence between the Minister and the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland. Scanners are being introduced to prisons, but they sit gathering dust in offices. I understand that they are not used because prison staff do not want to offend the people who are smuggling drugs into prison. There has to be a method of change, and that has to start at the top with the governors.

Last week, I intervened in the debate on lenient sentences to say that there is a problem when stronger sentences are not handed down for crimes. Let us be clear: people are in prison for a reason: they have done something wrong. The law of the land has laid that down. We need to ensure that funding is available to staff prisons adequately. It is a vicious circle: we need more officers to staff the inmates and to keep things under control, but we also need a legal system that adequately reflects the seriousness of the issue. I am not in any way asking for a call-back to the days when prisoners were kept in their cells day and night; we should be rehabilitating prisoners, and giving them the skills to turn their lives around in the outside world, but we cannot do that by fostering a gang mentality.

Some constituents told me last week about the situation at Maghaberry prison. The dissident republicans can go outside and have their physical exercise and enjoy the sun, which we do not get very often in Northern Ireland, but the Protestants and loyalists in the other section are on 23-hour lockdown. I know that that issue is not the Minister’s responsibility, but I want to have it on the record, because it has been brought to my attention and I am concerned.

There has to be honesty when it comes to the prison system. I have known some people who had a time in prison due to the troubles and came out changed men. They own their own businesses, take care of their families and have become upstanding members of the community. As the hon. Member for York Central said, prison can change people, if things inside are done correctly. It is important that we rehabilitate and skill people to give them a different focus and direction when they get out.

I want to comment on family visits. Accessibility to prisons is so important for families who are unable to travel as much as they would like. It is only right and proper that the Justice Committee’s report expressed grave concern over the increases in assaults, and the hon. Lady referred to that, but we cannot ignore self-harm and suicide among inmates. I will quote from the background notes. One lady referred to her son, who was a suicide victim. She said:

“The Prison Service has our loved ones and they don’t know how to cope with them, they are not trained properly to deal with mental health and they haven’t got the staff to cope.”

Another lady said:

“I didn't expect them to love him, but I did think they would look after him until he came home to get proper treatment.”

We have to look at those issues. They cannot be ignored, because suicide and self-harm does happen.

We have to address assaults. The report said that evidence gathered from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, the Government’s performance data and other sources

“all indicate a deterioration in standards of safety and performance across the prison estate over the last two years”.

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Those issues have to be addressed not only here on the mainland in England and Wales, but in Northern Ireland. I will send the Minister responsible in Northern Ireland the Hansard transcript of this debate and outline the things that we have recognised. The issues are similar in Northern Ireland, and we need to do something.

We also need to recruit more prison officers. We cannot ignore the experienced officers who have left. I am conscious that other people wish to speak, so I will leave this concluding remark: experienced officers have the knowledge and qualities that enable them to deal with things. New officers come in and have to learn how that works. Perhaps more should be done to keep our experienced officers and to ensure that they can mentor and bring on the new officers coming in. I again congratulate the hon. Lady on giving us all a chance to speak on this massive issue, which is important to me, the prison officers I represent, and those who are in prison because of their deeds, but who we hope will come out better people.

10.9 am

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I will be extremely brief. I have to leave soon because I am chairing another meeting, so I apologise to the Minister.

Six months ago, we had a debate in the main Chamber on a report by a number of specialist psychologists from the University of Bedfordshire on stress at work for prison officers. The levels of stress and, to be frank, mental health issues were appalling. The Minister offered to meet us at the time, but we have never been able to take up his offer. Can we bring in the experts and have that meeting, so that we can be properly briefed on the issues raised by that report?

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) gave an excellent exposition of where we are at. I was a member of the Justice Committee that prepared the report that has been mentioned, and we documented the chaotic nature of the management of the Prison Service over the past five years. At one point, the Government laid off 800 prison officers, then realised that there were critical problems with officer safety and a rise in assaults, suicides and self-harm, and there were all the problems with security as well. The inspector said of one privatised prison that it was easier to get drugs there than a bar of soap. The chaos was displayed, and the Government realised some of their mistakes and started to recruit again. Interestingly, some of the officers who had been sacked the year before were recruited into a reserve force.

The chaos of the past five years is also reflected in what is happening in the National Probation Service, with Sodexo laying off 600 probation officers. Who will supervise people coming out of prison now? The split in the service, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central, between higher-risk prisoners who need supervision and medium to low-risk prisoners is counter-intuitive. There is regularly a shift between medium and high risk, and between low and medium risk. People are not safe inside and rehabilitation is not taking place because of overcrowding and a lack of

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staff. When prisoners come out, they are supervised in an almost chaotic manner because of a lack of staff and the breakdown of some of the central service provision that was backing up those staff, including, yet again, the failure of computers. In addition, the private companies are trying to maximise their profits by cutting back on professional standards.

We are in crisis again. That is not a party political point—whoever was in government, I would be making the same statement in the light of this evidence, which is coming from front-line staff. They are saying, “We’re not coping with the level of staffing and the pressures on us.” The Minister takes real care in his job. He responded as effectively as he possibly could within the financial constraints under the previous Government; he must now get a grip on the issue and say to the Treasury, “We need the resources to staff these prisons, protect the probation service and enhance the service delivery we are getting from the companies that have taken over.” Otherwise, I fear that there are real risks both inside prisons and when people come out. That risk is not just to prison officers and prisoners, but to the general public as well.

10.12 am

Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on securing this important debate, and I thank you, Mr Bone, for your excellent stewardship.

In April 2013, a young man from my constituency, whom I will refer to as John for the purpose of this debate, was sentenced to several years’ imprisonment at Long Lartin prison. By June that year, he was in excruciating and debilitating back pain. He was unable to move and could not independently use the bathroom or feed himself. As a result, he stopped eating. The pain was reported to medical staff, but despite instructions from a doctor that blood and urine tests should be taken, neither was.

By July, the pain was unbearable, but despite repeated requests for pain relief, pain scoring and examination, none were forthcoming. I am led to believe that not even basic pain relief, such as Panadol or ibuprofen, was made available to him. His repeated requests for hospitalisation were met with scepticism about the validity of his illness. It was suggested that his symptoms were only a malingering tactic and, indeed, a ploy to give him the opportunity to escape.

In August that year, John passed away. A post-mortem discovered a lesion that, had it been tested, would have been shown to be cancerous. At an inquest in January this year, it was determined that John was let down by the prison system: he was denied life-saving treatment and as a result died a very painful and uncomfortable death. The ombudsman stated that it was the worst case of medical negligence he had encountered.

So where are we now? No action was taken against the prison authorities. No one has been held to account for this gross negligence. The family are left in disbelief that this preventable death has occurred. They believe that this is not an isolated case and that similar cases are happening in other prisons—that may well be because of the severe cuts.

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John’s safely was jeopardised in the most fatal way, and the consequence is that a 34-year-old young man has died. How can the family of my constituent rest, knowing that his death was probably preventable? He did not receive due respect and protection while in Her Majesty’s custody. Furthermore, he was denied the medical care that was his basic right. I ask colleagues to consider the evidence and join me in pressing the Minster to investigate John’s case in order to bring closure to his deeply saddened and angry family.

10.15 am

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on her excellent contribution on this extremely important issue. The Prison Service and the probation service, which has been mentioned by different speakers, are in total and utter chaos. We should not be surprised. I will give a number of examples from HMP Northumberland, which is not in my constituency but is in the lovely county in which I live.

It should not be a surprise that we have this crisis in prisons when we look at how we have sold off the Prison Service to private companies such as Sodexo, which is, after all, a French catering company running prisons in places such as Northumberland. The fact that that type of organisation is running prisons does not inspire any confidence among the public. When Sodexo took over HMP Northumberland, it immediately made one third of the staff redundant. What happened? The prison was in chaos. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said, the prison then had to get a bank of people it had just made redundant to make themselves available, and that is still the case. There have been horrific situations at HMP Northumberland. Whose safety are we looking at? Not just that of the staff. I want to put on the record what a fantastic job prison officers do under tremendous pressure. The level of stress-related illness among prison officers is beyond all imagination, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Central described.

Look at what has happened because of staff reductions. Throughout the country, a third of the staff has been made redundant. In some prisons, the staff has been reduced by 50%. Are we surprised that there are problems in prisons? Are we surprised that there has been an increase in assaults on prisoners of around 10%? Are we surprised that there has been an increase in assaults on staff of 11%? Are we surprised that serious assaults on prisoners are up 35% and serious assaults on staff are up 33%? Of course we should not be surprised when there is no one managing prisons as they should be managed. I mentioned that there are a lot of people on bank working, if and when they are needed; we have lost a lot of experience in the Prison Service as well.

On 27 January, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, gave a damning report on HMP Northumberland, saying that

“not all prisoners received a thorough initial risk assessment or induction… prisoners said they felt less safe at Northumberland than at comparable prisons… recorded assaults were high and work to confront bullying and violence lacked rigour… there had been three self-inflicted deaths since 2012”—

the list goes on and on. I understand from the way that you are looking at me, Mr Bone, that others want to speak, but that list shows clearly what is going wrong and why there is a crisis in Her Majesty’s prisons.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington mentioned Sodexo, the French catering company that runs HMP Northumberland. Members of the Prison Officers Association have come to see me to explain what is happening in the prison. If anyone here likes “Porridge”—it is one of my favourites—let me tell them that I have been told that the prison is run on the basis of that fantastic comedy, and that is frightening. Sex offenders who have been put in open wings and had their lives threatened have come to see me, as have prisoners across the board and lecturers and civil servants working there who are afraid. That situation is absolutely unacceptable.

My good colleagues have mentioned lots of figures and I would love to mention lots more. How can those in prison have mobile phones? How can they readily get alcohol? How can they get drugs, when they want them, more easily than they can purchase soap and toothpaste? That is totally unacceptable; that should not be the case.

On reoffending, there has been privatisation of the probation service, which is in utter chaos, to say the very least. In Northumberland, Sodexo runs the probation service and the prison, so for Sodexo it does not really matter if people are rehabilitated in prison, or if it fails to rehabilitate them under the probation service, because there is a merry-go-round of finance, and that company can make a fortune from doing absolutely nothing. It can make a fortune from failure, which must be a conflict of interests. Will the Minister look at that? With increases in the prison population, in overcrowding and in violence and reoffending, it is of major importance that we get this right.

10.22 am

Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), who brought passion to the debate, as he does to every issue we discuss in this House. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on her district and analytical speech. It is important that we bring safety in prisons to the fore.

The No. 1 issue for me, as it was when I served on the Select Committee on Justice, is mental health in prisons, which is not being treated properly. I will say something controversial: I do not believe that there is such a thing as an alcoholic or a drug addict—I say that as the son of an alcoholic—but there is an underlying mental health issue that is not being treated.

The figures speak for themselves. In 2013-14 an average of 19,383 prisoners were held in overcrowded accommodation, which accounted for 23% of the total prison population. What happens to prisoners with mental health problems? In 2013, 25% of women and 15% of men in prison reported symptoms indicative of psychosis, in stark contrast to the 4% figure for the general public, and 26% of women and 16% of men said that they had received treatment for a mental health problem in the year before they went into custody. With that knowledge, prisons should do more to ensure that prisoners with mental health problems receive appropriate support.

Personality disorders are particularly prevalent among people in prison, with 62% of male and 57% of female sentenced prisoners having such a disorder. Can we imagine how that must affect someone serving a sentence

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and in life afterwards? Sadly, in my constituency last November, the failure to address mental health issues both in prison and on release came home to me and the small, tight-knit community of Argoed. Cerys Yemm was a young girl on a night out when she met Matthew Williams. As we know, she was brutally murdered at The Sirhowy Arms and he was to die after being tasered by the police.

Mr Williams was said to have had all the symptoms of a paranoid schizophrenic. He had been sent to The Sirhowy Arms by Caerphilly Council having just been released from prison. Following his release he was not properly monitored, even though he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia from an early age and he was an habitual criminal. His mother told the press at the time that he was unable to access medication on his release. She said:

“He should have been in hospital. Every time he came out of prison we’d go through the same process. He would be placed in a hostel somewhere with very little supervision and no psychiatric help”.

Even though a serious case review is ongoing, I asked the then Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) to launch an urgent review into mental health in prisons. I will speak to his successor and seek a meeting at which we can talk about mental health and the rehousing of prisoners.

Last night the BBC Wales programme “Week In Week Out” revealed that two men went on to kill and several sex offenders were sent to a bed and breakfast on their release without the landlady’s knowledge. That is banned in England, as is sending 15 and 16-year-olds to B and Bs, yet that is still prevalent in Wales. Even though that is not a devolved issue, I call on the Welsh Government to ensure that that practice is stamped out by its councils.

I see what the time is, so I will try to wind up, Mr Bone. In 2009, Lord Bradley, a former Home Office Minister, called for adequate community alternatives to prisons for vulnerable offenders where appropriate. His report recommended that the Department of Health introduced a new 14-day maximum wait to transfer prisoners with acute, severe mental illness to an appropriate health setting. There has been progress in access to healthcare for prisoners who require special treatment, but the 14-day target has not been implemented. It continues to be vital that we get reform for communities such as Argoed—if the Minister ever wants to visit a community where everyone knows everyone else, he should go there.

The family of Miss Yemm have called for the Sirhowy Arms to be demolished so that it does not become a monument to ghouls like 10 Rillington Place or 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester. I support the family in that, but I hope that the Government will listen to the prison and probation ombudsman for England and Wales, Nigel Newcomen, who said that lessons need to be learned.

Staff working in prisons should actively identify known risk factors such as suicide and self-harm. Violent offences against family members are known risk factors for suicide, and being subject to a restraining order can be a sign of increased vulnerability. All new arrivals should promptly receive an induction, giving them information to help them meet their basic needs in prison. Mental

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health referrals need to be made and acted on promptly, and there should be continuity of care from the community. Prisoners are most at risk in their first month, but even if someone has served a sentence, they should still be monitored if they are found to have a mental health issue. I urge the Minister, on behalf of the community of Argoed, to take action, and I ask for a meeting at the earliest opportunity to discuss this issue.

10.27 am

Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate on behalf of the Scottish National party. I congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on securing the debate and I thank her for her thoughtful and erudite contribution. She clearly brings significant relevant experience to the debate and we should all be appreciative of that.

The hon. Lady asked why prisons in England and Wales are so understaffed and overcrowded, and said that that is part of the ideological drive to cut public services and shift to private sector provision. I associate myself with that conclusion. She identified various problems in the Prison Service, such as: how overcrowding exacerbates the risk of violence to staff and other prisoners; the increase in prisoner numbers and the doubling of women prisoners; and the fall in staffing levels, which self-evidently brings about problems. She also mentioned the risk of suicide and self-harm, and noted that that was at an alarming level among female offenders. She concluded that we have a moral duty to resource properly to address those issues. I associate myself with that view, as well as with her call on the Minister to stop and think before the next round of cuts.

Prison matters are devolved in Scotland, and I will say a little about how we have addressed some of them. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) discussed problems in the Northern Ireland prison sector, which are clearly particular because of the history of the Province, and the availability of drugs in prison, which other Members have touched on. Drugs are a problem throughout the prison service in the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) described a situation of chaos in the prison system of England and Wales, which is deeply concerning. The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) told us a tragic story involving a constituent of hers whose physical health was not, it seems, addressed at all, leading to his premature death. The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) spoke about an unpleasant and tragic case that we have all read about, which highlights the need to address the mental health of prisoners and of those we are trying to rehabilitate in the community. The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) expressed concerns about privatisation.

The safety of prison staff and inmates is a grave concern. We owe a duty of care to people in our prisons, and in particular to those who are vulnerable—I would especially identify vulnerability through mental health and of female offenders. I have a particular interest because, in my previous career at the Bar in Scotland, I worked for many years as a High Court prosecutor, so I was putting people behind bars. I regret to say that the first woman whom I put behind bars went on to commit

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suicide in a Scottish prison. Clearly, that is not my fault, but it has always weighed heavily on my conscience, because I felt that the young woman was in need of assistance, which perhaps she did not get in the Prison Service. However, we are taking steps to address that in Scotland. I have also worked as independent counsel for the families of people who have taken their own life in prison.

I will say something about how we in Scotland have tried to address suicide in prisons and female offending, not because we necessarily do things any better and I want to score points, but because I want to give an example of how we are taking things forward. Perhaps other prison systems in the United Kingdom can draw upon it. On suicide and self-harm, the Scottish prison service has something called the “ACT 2 Care” model, which I believe is replicated in the English Prison Service. The model tries to achieve collaboration between all involved—prison officers, the healthcare staff and the families and friends of prisoners—to identify those at risk and to deal with the risk of suicide and self-harm without putting people in solitary confinement, except as an absolute last resort.

I am pleased to report that the rate of self-inflicted deaths in Scottish prisons has reduced in recent years. In the 12 months to the end of March 2014, it was 0.8 deaths per 1,000 prisoners, which is down from 0.9 per 1,000 in the previous year, although that is still not good enough and we have a long way to go. The figures in Scotland compare favourably with the rate in England and Wales which, in the year to the end of March 2014, was 1 death per 1,000, but I do not want to score points on that. I recognise that we have a smaller population in Scotland generally, so it might be rather easier for us to address issues such as overcrowding in prisons.

No account of matters in Scotland would be complete without acknowledging what I touched on in my personal experience. We had a serious problem with suicide and self-harm among female prisoners. The Scottish Government are keen to keep vulnerable groups such as female offenders away from standard prison environments, although the most serious offenders must still be in prison for significant periods. However, the Scottish Government believe that diverting less serious offenders away from prison can lead to more positive outcomes for offenders’ health and wellbeing. The Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice recently announced a significant increase in funding of an additional £640,000 for female justice projects, as part of what he described as a “radical and ambitious” approach to female offending.

The Scottish Government intend to consult on a plan to provide smaller, regional and community-based facilities for female offenders throughout the country, rather than a national women’s prison. Interestingly, for the record, the Scottish Government were thinking about building a new women’s prison, but agreed to reconsider under pressure, among other reasons, from the feminist movement in Scotland, which has been reinvigorated by the independence referendum and by members of the Scottish Labour party who have raised the issue. Hon. Members may be aware that Kezia Dugdale, the deputy Scottish Labour leader, and I have often shared a platform on feminist issues, and I look forward to doing so again. I wish her well in her bid for the Scottish Labour party leadership.

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We have to accept that certain people must always go to prison, but one contribution to be made to the debate is the suggestion that female offenders and other vulnerable groups should be kept out of prison and in their communities, rehabilitating them there, and so addressing the problems that have led them to offend in the first place. In that way, I hope we can make progress.

I again thank the hon. Member for York Central for raising this important issue. I thank all Members for their contributions to the debate. I look forward with interest to hear what the Minister has to say in due course.

10.35 am

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.

I approach the debate with a heavy heart. The Minister is the fourth prisons Minister whom I have had the pleasure of shadowing since my appointment. Issues such as the one we are discussing have been part of our debates throughout that time. It has never been easy and I have never been able to arrive in such a debate and say, “I am glad that things are improving.” I have never felt so concerned about the situation in the prison system. I would like debates to be more focused on rehabilitation, dignity for victims and work in our prisons, because those are the things that we should be discussing. Instead, we are continually forced by the reality on the ground to concern ourselves with understaffing, overcrowding and, increasingly, violence. The Minister cares deeply about that—he often looks at me, plaintively, as if saying, “I care about this too.” I know that he cares, and I am pleased that he does. Surely the number of Members—including, pleasingly, new Members—who have felt the need to come to this Chamber for the debate shows the level of deep concern in the House. I hope he will be generous in allowing interventions.

I congratulate my new colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), on her election and on securing the debate. It was a pleasure to listen to her thoughtful opening speech. I look forward to working with her on such issues in the months ahead. Her constituents will be proud of her speech today, as will her predecessor.

The speeches we have heard from hon. Members capture the concern that is felt about the state of our prison system. Violent, overcrowded and understaffed prisons do nothing to challenge offender behaviour or to protect victims of crime. We have heard examples of exactly what was achieved by the prisons policy of the previous Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who is no longer in the Chamber, spoke about release on temporary licence and overcrowding. She is completely right. She has great experience of serving as a magistrate in Manchester, and has frequently seen the problems upon release and the difficulties in securing the important staged release. Sadly, that has been mismanaged too often and is now unavailable to too many inmates.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) spoke about death in custody, which he cares deeply about. Sadly, he is getting more and more experience of dealing with the relatives who have suffered such a tragedy.

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The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) spoke about governorship. Clearly, there is a problem with resources in the prison system, but the problems faced by the Minister will not be dealt with simply by increased resources, even if were he able to secure them. Governorship is very important. There is too high and too frequent a turnover of senior staff in our prisons. The average tenure is far too short, especially when compared with, say, the length of tenure of a leader in an education establishment. On average, the tenure of leaders in educational establishments is nine years, whereas the tenure in prisons is about three years. That has to change, and it would not require additional money. The Minister could instigate that kind of change very quickly.

We would like boards to be established to provide an opportunity for stakeholders across the community to get their expertise in the running of prison establishments. We have seen that boards can be very effective for colleges, schools and hospitals. It would change completely the way in which an establishment is managed. Prisons should be managed with continuity and expertise and should be inspected rigorously. The Government could make that change quickly and at no cost, and it would be an effective way of changing the culture within our jails. We know that prison culture is important in preventing violent incidents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made a good observation about stress at work and the dangerous and monotonous work that prison officers often undertake. We would not tolerate nurses, health professionals or teachers being subjected to violent incidents, but often, precisely because it is a prison officer affected and the incident takes place in a closed environment, the press do not get so agitated, the issue is rarely debated properly in the prison and the Government do not feel moved to do much about it. We need a change in attitude from the Ministry of Justice. It is not tolerable that people should be asked to go to work in such circumstances, and it has gone on too long. The Minister is nodding, but this is not new—we have not suddenly noticed it happening. It is a trend that has been getting worse and worse for a long time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) always speaks with great passion. He quite rightly identified the problem with probation. The chaos and the looming crisis are not restricted to the closed prison estate. We are not resolving issues inside prisons, and so those issues are being left to the probation service, which is under increasing strain and has endured a completely needless and distracting reorganisation in the past two years. It is less and less able to deal with the more difficult problems with which it is confronted.

Rehabilitation is not a light bulb moment—it is not a case of holding one course and then someone is somehow mended. That is not what happens. It is day after day of challenges and problems, of slipping back, then making progress, then slipping back again. When we say, “There will be more courses, we will have work in our prisons and that will somehow solve deeply rooted psychological problems,” it shows that we do not properly appreciate that. We need to get real.

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The way to help put people back together is having good behaviour modelled day after day by prison officers, yet more and more they are being shut out of the rehabilitation process. Prison officers are there on the wings when someone’s visit does not take place, or when someone has clearly been taking drugs, or is doing things they should not, or losing their temper. Yes, we need professionals—psychologists, social workers, educational experts—in there as well, but prison officers are there all the time, and should be showing people how to keep their temper, how to treat people with respect or how to deal with difficult conflicts without resorting to violence. However, they are not able to that, because there just are not enough of them, and the ones we have are too often less experienced about prison life than the prisoners they are supposed to be holding. We have learned that from governors and from Nick Hardwick, the excellent inspector of prisons. I urge the Minister to look at that with a great deal more urgency than he or his predecessors have shown to date.

Last week, a report from the prison and probation ombudsman showed a rise in deaths of inmates in segregation units. That was deeply shocking for people who work in the system. I encourage the Minister to think carefully about the impact that working on a wing on which someone has committed suicide will have on that unit’s staff, and to look at the support those staff receive from their employer.

I welcome the Government’s important plans to ban legal highs and prohibit their production. They are a significant and growing problem in our prisons, leading to bullying, intimidation and violence. The inspectorate has found that they are increasingly a great risk in our prisons—it estimates they have posed that risk in around a third of prisons in the past year. Legal highs do not show up in mandatory drug testing and are not being caught in the way they should because of staff shortages. Will the Minister tell us what, beyond all the usual stuff that we have all heard before, the Government are going to do about legal highs inside the prison estate? This is an issue of prison culture. There must be a zero tolerance approach, and we have to mean that—I have been in too many debates in which a Minister has reassured me on just about everything and then nothing seems to change.

On staffing, will the Minister tell us how many prisons are currently reliant on detached duty? Officers on detached duty go into prisons where they are not familiar with the establishment, with the other staff or with the inmates. It is a big, expensive problem that he needs to turn his mind to very quickly.

Most importantly, will the Minister tell us what he is going to do to tackle the rising level of violent assaults on prison officers? It is unacceptable to send public servants into a dangerous workplace, day in, day out, in fear of their safety. No wonder so many are either leaving the service, taking sick leave or becoming ill at work because of stress.

Once again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for York Central for securing this debate, which has given us the chance to put serious concerns to the Minister. I am pleased to see so many Members here. We have given the Minister enough time, so he needs to respond to the questions we have raised. I also hope he will take some interventions.

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10.47 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Andrew Selous): As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on a very polished opening speech. She raised a number of important issues, which I will do my best to address in the time I have.

The hon. Lady talked about the importance of probation supervision. The transforming rehabilitation reforms mean that people with sentences of under 12 months now get probation supervision—they did not in the past. She also talked about mental health issues, so I am sure she will warmly welcome the liaison and diversion services that are spreading across the country; they were introduced by the previous Government and we are continuing them. We would all agree with her that prevention is better than cure, and we all want to see fewer people committing crime and going to prison.

The hon. Lady talked about prisoners being locked up for 23 hours a day. That relates only to a very small proportion of prisoners in operational emergencies. Even in planned restricted regimes, prisoners get considerably more than one hour out of their cells.

Jenny Chapman: Will the Minister give way?

Andrew Selous: In a second. I want first to ask the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for York Central to use the term “lethal highs” when they talk about new psychoactive substances. That term is more helpful. We are all determined to try to get those dreadful things out of our prisons, and the language matters, so perhaps we can all agree to call the substances “lethal highs”.

Jenny Chapman: The Minister is quite correct to encourage us to use that term. On the issue of work, he is fond of saying that there is more work in prisons, but, again and again, inspection reports indicate that there is not and that prisons overestimate time out of cells and underestimate time in them. He needs to challenge his officials more on those data. The prisons inspector seems to be encouraging us to question them, so I want to ensure that the Minister does as well.

Andrew Selous: The hon. Lady is pushing at an open door on work in prisons. The number of such hours has gone up. Do I think it satisfactory? Absolutely not. Of course I want to increase it much more. If prisoners are gainfully employed during, roughly, the hours the rest of the population have to work, that will aid rehabilitation and make them more likely to get employment on release. I want more of that, and I will say more about it if the hon. Lady bears with me.

Reoffending was mentioned. Since 2002, the proven reoffending rate has remained stable, and it stands at 26.2%. For adults released from custody, the rate is 45.2%, and it has remained relatively stable since 2004, although it was slightly higher in 2002 and 2003.

Let me turn to the other excellent speeches we have heard. I commend my hon. Friend, as I often call him, the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on raising the issue of drugs. I share his horror of drugs in prison. Drugs destroy lives in the community and in prison. I will say more about that.

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The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) talked about the stress on staff, and I know he cares deeply about that, as I do. The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) raised a harrowing case. I did not have warning of it, but I can tell her that the prisons and probation ombudsman’s recommendations are being addressed, mostly by the healthcare provider involved. There is also an ongoing investigation of what happened by the Nursing & Midwifery Council. The hon. Lady might be aware that healthcare in prisons is provided by the NHS, not the Prison Service. If she would like to write to me, I should be more than happy to receive a letter from her.

The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) talked about his concerns over Sodexo. He is right that its parent is a French catering company. I would just say that another Sodexo prison won the Elton prison industries award, which has been mentioned. The prison I recently visited in Salford had pretty low levels of sickness absence among its staff.

The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) mentioned mental health. He was absolutely right to do so, not least because of the horrific incident in his constituency. He talked, quite properly, about the need for suitable accommodation for prisoners on release. If he wants to correspond further on that, I would be more than happy to do so.

The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) told us about the Scottish prison system. I will ensure that National Offender Management Service officials have close contact with the prison service in Scotland. NOMS does things very well, but I absolutely believe we can learn lessons from other parts of the world. I will make sure that that contact happens.

The hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) spoke about the importance of the governor’s role, and I agree. As has been said, this is a leadership issue. She rightly referred to the daily interactions of prison officers, and I will say more about that. She also asked about longer tenures for governors, which is a fair point, and the idea might have merit. I will look into it, within the constraints of normal career planning. We need governors with the right experience, particularly in some of our larger establishments.

One hon. Member—you will have to excuse me, Mr Bone, but I forget who—asked how many prisons still have detached duty. The answer is 15. That is not something we want longer term, because it disrupts prison officers’ lives and costs us more money. I will talk about the success we have had in recruiting more prison officers. We continue to recruit them very actively.

Steve Rotheram: Will the Minister give way?

Andrew Selous: Will the hon. Gentleman let me make a little progress? I am conscious of the fact that I have only six minutes left.

I pay tribute to the many people who work tirelessly in our prisons. Prison officers, probation staff and staff from the health, education, vocational skills and voluntary sectors work day in, day out to improve the lives of people in custody. Each time we successfully prevent an offender from reoffending, we also reduce the number of victims and make our communities safer. That is

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difficult work that goes largely unseen, and too often it is unrecognised in our public discourse, but it is vital and is making a difference.

The challenges of maintaining safety in prisons are, and always have been, significant. We are working with a challenging and complex population in excess of 85,000 prisoners, and there is a high prevalence of mental health problems. Many prisoners have had negative life events that increase the likelihood of their harming themselves or taking their own lives.

We are also holding—this is important—a more violent prisoner population. The number of people sentenced to prison for violent offences has increased by 40% in the last 10 years. In addition, the illicit use of new psychoactive substances—lethal highs such as Spice and Black Mamba—has been a significant factor in fuelling violence in prisons. Last year alone, staff responded to nearly 26,000 self-harm incidents, and they frequently prevent deaths through timely intervention.

On any given day, staff support more than 2,000 prisoners assessed as being at risk, looking after them under the assessment, care in custody and teamwork process. It is to their credit that, through their dedication and commitment, they continue to improve outcomes for offenders and to prevent many self-inflicted deaths and incidents of self-harm.

Staff and prisoners should no more face violence than should any other person in society. Violence in prisons is wholly unacceptable. We treat any assault extremely seriously. Any prisoner who commits an act of violence can expect to have action taken against them, which may include the loss of privileges, sanctions under the prison disciplinary procedures and, where appropriate, criminal charges and prosecution.

To that end—this venture was introduced by the previous Government—a joint national protocol between NOMS, the Crown Prosecution Service and the National Police Chiefs Council was published in February to ensure that the referral and prosecution of crimes in prison is dealt with consistently. The protocol sets out the requirement for prisons to submit a prison community impact assessment with each case referred to the police. The assessment will explain the impact an offence has on an establishment and ensure that that is properly understood and taken into account in the cases concerned.

In 2014, due to an unexpected increase in staff turnover and in the prison population, there were delays in bringing staff numbers up to the level required. However, we have exceeded our target of recruiting 1,700 new-entry

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prison officers by March 2015, and we are continuing to recruit officers and operational support grades across the country. We will focus our efforts particularly on London and the south-east, where there is further need.

Violence is an issue I take extremely seriously, and there have been increases, which have been referred to. NOMS has established a violence reduction project. There is a pilot involving body-worn video cameras across 24 establishments, and I am taking a keen interest in its development.

Two new offences have been introduced through the Serious Crime Act 2015: being in possession of a knife or other offensive weapon in a prison, and throwing items—anything dangerous, such as Spice, or mobile phones—over a prison wall. Both those offences will attract prison sentences. Action is also being taken on new psychoactive substances. In particular, we need a test for them, and we are working hard to bring one about.

I reassure Members that safety is fundamental to rehabilitative work, which is one reason I care so much about it. Without safety, we cannot do the education and the other work.

Ian Lavery: Will the Minister give way?

Andrew Selous: I need to give the floor to the hon. Member for York Central, who introduced the debate.

10.58 am

Rachael Maskell: I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. They have raised many of the challenges facing our penal system.

As we have heard, there are unacceptable levels of reoffending, but we have not had real answers on how we are going to turn the figures around—they have been static, but they are not coming down. We have heard many shocking statistics about the violence and abuse in our prisons, but I have not heard how we are going to address that.

We have heard evidence of how overcrowding, mixed with understaffing, is the real issue facing our prisons. I am sure no prison officers will take comfort from the Minister’s response, because they will still be at risk when they turn up for work today, tomorrow and the next day. That is the subject of the debate, and I am saddened that we have not progressed the issue.

It is vital that we get the response we need, which is about stable staffing and ensuring staff are safe. It is also about making sure our communities are safe—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

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New Nuclear Power

11 am

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered new nuclear power.

Nuclear power was promised as an energy source that would be too cheap to meter. It is now too expensive to generate. If we were planning a nuclear policy from scratch, would we choose to do a deal with two French companies, one of which is bankrupt, while the other, Électricité de France, has a debt of €33 billion? Would we also collaborate with a country with a dreadful human rights record—China, whose national investment department is coming into the arrangement—and with Saudi Arabia, with its atrocious record on human rights, where people are executed on the street? We are left with the dregs of investment from throughout the world—fragile and tainted. The sensible money deserted Hinkley Point years ago. Centrica had an investment of £200 million, and it abandoned it and ran away, because it saw the project as a basket case.

Still, nuclear power has wide support in this House, from almost all parties except the Scottish National party. I hope that this morning the new Minister, whom I welcome to her new work, can apply her distinguished forensic skills to taking a fresh look at the situation. Many people are gravely disturbed by the prospect of new nuclear power. That is particularly so among Treasury civil servants. We are in an extraordinary situation, where there is still public support in spite of Fukushima. One of the main reasons for that is that the British public were “protected” by a skilled public relations operation from knowing the terrible cost of Fukushima—between $100 billion and $250 billion. Radiation is still leaking four years after the event, and tens of thousands of people cannot return to their homes. Other populations were not protected from knowing about Fukushima by an obedient press. However, former lobbyists for nuclear power appeared as independent witnesses, such as Malcolm Grimston, who was on television every day during the Fukushima events, praising the explosions of hydrogen as something of benefit. There is ludicrous PR spin, to the extent that this week two different people from a public relations agency that works for nuclear power rang me up and offered to write my speech for me. They inquired who the Chair would be, as if that might be important. Those are lobbyists and spinners, presenting a favourable case for nuclear power.

Hinkley Point B is a European pressurised reactor. There are some under construction in Finland, France and China. Not one of them has produced enough electricity to light a bicycle lamp. They are all in serious trouble, so why do we continue with our belief in Hinkley Point C? The EPR in Finland was due to generate electricity in 2009. There has been a series of delays, problems and cost overruns, which have themselves now overrun, and the bill is €4 billion greater than anticipated. The possible opening date has been moved year after year and is now set at 2016, at a cost of €8.3 billion. However, other problems have come up. There is another station under construction at Flamanville. It was due to be completed at a cost of €3.3 billion and now has an overrun of nearly €5 billion. There is a serious problem at Flamanville which will affect all the reactors—the carbon level in the steel for the pressure

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vessel is too high. That means that the steel is brittle and could crack open, with catastrophic results. That affects the planned reactors in China, Finland, France and of course at Hinkley Point. It is a catastrophic problem and will mean a major delay. There is no way of reconstituting that steel.

The way the deal was done is almost unbelievable. We agreed under pressure, because there were Government promises and political pressure, to do a deal at almost any price to justify Hinkley Point C. We struck a deal for £92.50 per MWh. That is twice the going rate for electricity now, and we said that we would guarantee that deal for 35 years. That was two years ago. Since then, the price of energy throughout the world has gone down a great deal, because of shale gas and the drop in the price of oil. The price we agreed was ludicrous at the time—far too generous. The head of INEOS, the company in Grangemouth, has struck a deal since then with the same company—Électricité de France—for less than half that price. The country was ripped off, and we cannot seem to get out of it. We must do something about the strike price that we agreed.

In the world as a whole, nuclear powered energy generation peaked in 2006. Since then it has been in decline. It has gone down by 10% in Europe. Most energy consultants say that the total cost of the project is indefensible. We omit something from our calculations of historical costs and pretend that nuclear is cheap, when we forget about the cost of waste. In fact we do not know what the cost of the waste from Sellafield is. We are still adding up the bill. The latest estimate for clearing up Sellafield—just one site—is £53 billion. It is thought that the figure will exceed £100 billion eventually. When those costs are added to the historical costs of nuclear power it will not be found to be competitive any more.

Also, we now have alternatives. We are not in a situation where nothing else is available. The world has moved towards renewables, including the clean renewables, to a far greater extent. The Government are to be congratulated on having put forward a package and the money for tidal lagoons in the Severn estuary. An enormous tide of water sweeps up that estuary twice a day. That is vast untapped energy—British, free, eternal and entirely predictable. The technology involved is simple and has been working successfully in France for 50 years, producing the cheapest electricity in the world.

It is a curious thing, but the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the previous Parliament had an impeccable record on energy some years ago, when he launched the Liberal Democrat energy policy under the heading “Say No to Nuclear”, saying that

“a new generation of nuclear power stations will cost taxpayers and consumers tens of billions of pounds”.

That is absolutely right. He went on:

“In addition to posing safety and environmental risks, nuclear power will only be possible with vast taxpayer subsidies or a rigged market”.

That was the man who, when the red boxes and chauffeur-driven car arrived, changed his mind altogether and did a terrible financial deal to get Hinkley Point on the road. We will be paying for that for many years. The cost of Hinkley Point has been estimated as an additional £200 a year for every consumer in Britain. That is billions of pounds in subsidy over 35 years. The Government have guaranteed £16 billion in subsidy for a technology

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that has not been proved to work and is not working anywhere. Almost any alternative is better than pressing on with Hinkley Point. There are older nuclear designs that we could use, but we are heading into a technological jam where there will be difficulties. We are proposing to invest tens of billions in a system that has not been proved to be effective, and has certainly never proved to be economic.

There have been many problems at Flamanville, near Cherbourg, which are not limited to the pressure vessel. There have also been problems with the valves and the whole cooling system, following a warning in April from the French nuclear safety regulator about an excessive amount of carbon in the reactor vessel. That is not a journalist causing trouble but the head of the French nuclear industry talking about a potential disaster in the making.

What is likely to happen in future? There is a nuclear disaster almost every 10 to 15 years, due to various causes. The result of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima has been great fear among the population. That is what happened in Germany, which felt the full force of the truth about Fukushima and sensibly cancelled its whole nuclear programme. Germany is now going into solar power and many other alternatives that are available to us. Tidal power is not available to Germany, but we have that great opportunity ahead.

There will almost certainly be problems in future. Some hazards today were unknown in the past. I recall going to an exhibition called “Atoms for Peace” as a young boy in 1948, when we believed that nuclear would be the answer, but experience has taught us otherwise. The possible accidents range from simple mechanical errors, such as not having enough carbon in the steel, to the simple human errors that happened at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Technical faults also occur, but the greatest risk we now face is terrorism. Older nuclear power stations were not built to withstand terrorist attacks by drones and all the means by which people could attack them. Anyone living anywhere near a nuclear power station must be in a state of anxiety about that possibility, because of the accidents and disasters we have seen.

Fukushima was built to withstand a tsunami, but it could not withstand the tsunami and earthquake that came together. Any of these natural disasters are possible. We have not had a tsunami for some time along the Severn estuary, but we had one in 1607 when part of the area that I represent and the area where Hinkley Point now stands was flooded by a tsunami that came up the Bristol channel. It is believed to have come from underwater activity out in the deep ocean, so a tsunami is unlikely but possible there. We cannot guard against it. Why on earth risk a catastrophic accident when alternatives are available?

I am encouraged to see reports that many civil servants in the Treasury are deeply unhappy about the financial situation of nuclear power. There was a story that if Labour had been elected, it would have turned its back on nuclear power. I believe that to be true. There have been reports in The Times and elsewhere—authoritative reports from serious journalists—that groups in the Treasury are saying that it will be a terrible mistake and a financial catastrophe if we go ahead. May I say to

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those civil servants that it is their job to speak publicly? We know now what happened in Scotland during the referendum debate, when Sir Nicholas Macpherson decided to leak—to publish—a report of his advice to the Chancellor. His reason for doing so was that he thought the likely effects of Scottish independence would be catastrophic for the country and for Scotland. He justified that leak, which was almost unprecedented among senior civil servants, on the basis that it was in the national interest. He was supported by the head of the civil service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, and condemned by a Committee of this House.

Look at the past; look, for example, at the commercial advantages of the steam-generating heavy water reactor, which produced nothing and was useless, but cost £200 million. That was many years ago. There was also the decision to treat Concorde as a commercial venture that would succeed. There were civil servants who quite rightly opposed those, but the ethos of the civil service is the unimportance of being right. The careers of civil servants who go along with the ministerial folly of the day prosper, while the careers of those who are right in the long term wither. It is different now. There is some heroism in civil servants speaking truth to power and saying to their masters, “This should not go on. There are alternatives. The time has gone for nuclear power.” Civil servants who know the new ethos in the civil service should regard it as their patriotic duty to speak truth, not only to power but to the nation, by saying that the time for nuclear power is over.

11.16 am

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Andrea Leadsom): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on securing the debate. New nuclear is an important topic, and Members’ challenges and questions are very much welcomed. I would particularly like to assure the hon. Gentleman that my fellow Ministers and I listen carefully to civil servants’ views. There is no sense in which they are not allowed to give their opinions, and they very much do so. I hope that reassures him. I note his interest, as demonstrated by his recent parliamentary questions on Hinkley Point C, the geological disposal facility, and safety and security at licensed sites. I hope to reassure him further on those topics, but I will first set the scene for the benefits of a new nuclear programme.

Nuclear energy plays a critical role in the Government’s security of supply and decarbonisation goals. The UK’s nine existing nuclear power plants generate around 20% of our electricity. However, all but one of them are currently expected to retire by 2030. Nuclear power is one of the cheaper forms of low-carbon electricity, reducing pressures on consumer electricity bills, relative to an energy mix without nuclear. Nuclear power provides reliable base-load electricity with lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions similar to those from wind power and much less than those from fossil fuels. New nuclear power is a vital part of the investment needed in our electricity sector that will boost the economy, create thousands of jobs and help to keep the lights on.

As set out in the Conservative party’s manifesto, we are committed to a significant expansion in new nuclear in the UK. The Government have prepared the ground for new nuclear power stations through a package of

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reforms and regulatory measures that will remove barriers to investment and give developers the confidence to take forward projects that will help to deliver secure, low-carbon and affordable energy. We have also ensured that operators of new nuclear power stations put in place robust plans for the finance and management of their waste and decommissioning from the outset.

We are seeing significant progress. The first new nuclear power station in a generation moved a step closer last year, as the European Commission announced on 8 October 2014 that it has approved the Hinkley Point C state aid case. The Government and EDF are currently in discussions to finalise the contract for Hinkley, which is expected to start generating electricity from 2023. In total, industry has set out plans for five new nuclear projects in the UK for a total of up to 16 GW of new nuclear capacity, providing around 35% of electricity generation.

Paul Flynn: I would have been grateful if the hon. Lady had left behind her civil service brief, which is the conventional one we know, with much repeated claims. Is it true that the Chinese company is threatening to withdraw its investment unless it has a stake in building Sizewell, Bradwell and Wylfa Newydd? That would mean that the new jobs in nuclear were jobs in China and France, not here, because what it is offering to provide is almost a ready-made nuclear power station, made by Chinese people with Chinese money. We are using investment to create jobs not in this country, but elsewhere.

Andrea Leadsom: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that each project is taken on its merits. Britain is open for business. We are very keen to see investment from overseas in our new nuclear, but it is very clear that the UK supply chain will provide an enormous amount of the jobs and growth that we are looking for in this country.

Paul Flynn: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Andrea Leadsom: I will not give way. I want to go on to answer the hon. Gentleman’s other questions and I will not get the chance to do that if this becomes a debate between the two of us—a conversation between the two of us.

In total, industry has set out plans for five new nuclear projects. The Government are clear that the UK is open for business. We want to see high-quality investment from overseas. The nuclear programme represents a tremendous opportunity to establish the UK as a key nuclear country, with the potential to export capabilities to other countries. That includes capabilities in decommissioning, in which we are already a world leader. This offers us an opportunity to develop our domestic supply chain and to realise economies of scale. It is also an opportunity to make the UK an even more attractive partner for international research and development collaboration.

Paul Flynn: This is utter nonsense. The person decommissioning at Sellafield is an American company. We do not have any expertise. Will the Minister give us some idea, looking at the historical cost, of what the cost of cleaning up Sellafield will be? It is already admitted to be £53 billion; it is uninsurable, so the

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taxpayer has to take the risk; and it will probably cost more than £100 billion, which wrecks her argument that nuclear power has ever been good value.

Andrea Leadsom: The hon. Gentleman is exactly right to point out that there is an enormous nuclear legacy, which this Government have been committed to sorting out, unlike previous Governments, such as the one that he was part of. The nuclear provision currently stands at £70 billion discounted and £110 billion undiscounted. That is the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s best estimate of the total lifetime costs of the decommissioning mission across the whole estate. Nobody welcomes that cost. Nevertheless, this Government have been determined to get to grips with it and to ensure that the material can be safely, carefully, thoroughly and properly disposed of.

To deliver the ambitious new build programme on time and on budget, a skilled workforce in the UK is essential. The scale of the industry’s new build aspirations, the length of time since the last new build project and the high average age of the existing nuclear workforce mean that it is essential to take action now to prevent skills gaps from developing in the course of the new nuclear programme. The Government recognise that this is a big challenge, particularly with the ongoing need to maintain and decommission existing nuclear power stations, so we have introduced the National College for Nuclear, which will work collaboratively with the wider industry, skills bodies and training providers, and will utilise international best practice to develop an industry-wide curriculum.

Moving on to the vital issues of safety and security, we are confident that the UK has one of the most robust regulatory regimes in the world. As the global expansion in nuclear continues, the UK will ensure that any technology used in this country meets the rigorous safety, security and environmental standards. The importance that we attach to safety is shown through the UK’s independent nuclear regulators—the Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Environment Agency—which ensure, through regular reviews and inspections, that operators are fulfilling their duties and that robust safety and security measures are in place right across the industry.

With plans for 16 GW of new nuclear capacity in the UK, the Government are firmly committed to delivering geological disposal as the safest and most secure means of managing our higher-activity waste in the long term. We need a permanent solution following more than 60 years of producing radioactive waste from various sources, including electricity generation from nuclear power.

Paul Flynn: The hon. Lady has been very generous to me. I think that she is probably too young to remember the Flowers report in 1968, which said that the nuclear industry in Britain was being irresponsible, because it did not have an answer on waste disposal, and it should not continue. That was 1968. The solution then was to dig a hole and put the nuclear waste in it. In 2015, the British answer is to dig a hole and put the waste in it. There has been no progress on disposal of waste, except at enormous cost.

Andrea Leadsom: Let me very gently say to the hon. Gentleman that ever since I was a very small child, nuclear has been an enormous personal priority for me.

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In fact, it was the reason why I went into politics—I did so because of the threat of a nuclear world war—so I am slightly offended by his presumption that I do not know what I am talking about. I can assure him that a geological disposal facility is not as simple as digging a hole in the ground and stuffing a load of radioactive waste in it.

Paul Flynn: What is it, then?

Andrea Leadsom: As the hon. Gentleman will know, a geological disposal facility is internationally recognised as the safest and most secure means of permanently managing our higher-activity waste, and countries such as Sweden, Finland, Canada and the USA are also pursuing that route.

I would like to get on to answering the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions. He talked about delays at other sites where there are EPR reactors. I can tell him that officials have visited Olkiluoto to get first-hand experience of the build programme there, as well as the other EPR builds at Flamanville in France and Taishan in China. Experience gained through the EPR family—it is a new technology, as he points out—is now being systematically shared between the three current build sites, and Hinkley Point will become part of that arrangement. Experience in Finland and France, particularly in relation to the order in which key parts of the nuclear island are built and how they are fabricated, has benefited the project in Taishan, such that that project is now running to time and to budget.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the strike price potentially being too high in relation to the EDF plant. I can assure him that our estimate of the future price of wholesale electricity is that it will rise into the 2020s. That has been a careful assessment. Nuclear electricity is a key part of our energy mix. He will know that other technologies also involve a very high cost to the consumer right now. The mix is vital, so we believe that this is not too generous. EDF aims to have the plant up and running in 2023. We expect that, with a significant proportion of our power stations due to close over the coming decades, we will need that level of investment to replace that capacity.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about tidal power. Personally, I am as excited as he is about the prospects for marine and tidal power, but again he will accept, I am sure, that this is another new technology, as yet

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unproven. We have taken the first steps. We expect it to be a big contributor to our energy mix, but not the only one.

I emphasise that, as Energy and Climate Change Minister, I have two priorities: security of supply and keeping the lights on. In securing those priorities, I want to keep bills as low as possible. With new nuclear in the energy mix, I believe we can achieve all those things. Nuclear power is a low-carbon, proven technology that will increase the resilience of the UK’s energy system and, rather than costing more money, the full nuclear programme will, on current projections, save households about £78 on their bills in 2030.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West on his attention to this very important subject, but I want to be clear that the Government believe that developing energy from new nuclear is the right thing to do in the UK.

Paul Flynn rose—

Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): The Question is that this House has—

Paul Flynn: Mr Bone, there is some time left. It is normal to allow the proposer to use that time—

Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): Order. Will the hon. Gentleman sit down? He may not know the new procedure, but the Question is put. If we reach 11.30, the Question cannot be put. If he wants to have what I would call a Division on this, we have to do it before 11.30, and the Minister quite correctly sat down in time to do that.

Paul Flynn: There is time left.This is the normal practice. I just want to say that it was a very disappointing response from the Minister, who stuck to a civil service script that had been carefully manicured and presented by her, with a series of platitudes that we all know about. She is not facing up to the crisis that exists in nuclear power at the moment—

Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): Order. Before hon. Members go, I point out that the new procedure asks for the Question to be put. The Minister kindly sat down at the right time, but the hon. Gentleman in charge has talked himself out of that.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered Bangladesh and its future.

This debate about the future and direction of travel of Bangladesh is important, and I am delighted that it is well attended by people from the all-party group on Bangladesh.

It is worth briefly revisiting how and why Bangladesh was born, and why it emerged from the cauldron that was East Pakistan—against a background and prospect of the loss of the official language, Bangla, and against the prospect of greater Islamisation—to become the modern developing country that it is today.

Bangladesh is a young country and it has had to make a long journey in a relatively short time. No one is saying that the journey to independence and democracy has been easy, and it is easy to be too judgmental and see that journey through the prism of our own long-established democratic processes. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh has told me that Bangladesh models itself on our democracy.

It is important to remind ourselves of the dreams and ideals for Bangladesh when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led his people to victory in the battle for independence. It is important that, as friends of Bangladesh, we ask, what is the direction of travel for Bangladesh 44 years later, and what more can be done by the UK to help the people of Bangladesh on their path to fulfilling their potential and delivering a future that upholds the ideals of peaceful secularism, prosperity and political engagement?

It is vital that we, as the biggest bilateral donors to Bangladesh, act as a critical friend and offer help and support where we can. With the most recent figures showing a UK contribution of more than £250 million, it is important that taxpayers’ money is protected from corruption and is spent wisely, transparently and effectively in helping Bangladesh on its journey.

A recent Independent Commission for Aid Impact report on Bangladesh observed:

“Poverty levels have fallen to under 45% as a result of steady growth, industrialisation and greater access to finance, which has led to improvements in a range of social indicators, such as adult literacy, child malnutrition and infant mortality. The agricultural sector accounts for only... 18% of GDP... A number of factors, nevertheless, point to continuing vulnerability. Many Bangladeshis still live under the poverty line—an estimated 77% of the population live on under US$2 a day—and there is marked income and social inequality. Resilience to... shocks cannot be guaranteed.”

It is vital that we help Bangladesh to achieve its millennium goals of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality and empowerment of women; reducing child mortality; improving maternal healthcare; and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. I know that good progress has been made on those goals, and, given the criticisms from some quarters about the largesse of our aid budget, I urge the Minister to consider giving an update to the House some time soon on the progress that has been made in those areas.

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However, corruption is rife in Bangladesh, and 34% of aid projects in the countries that we support, and that are scrutinised under the ICAI, are showing amber or red, giving cause for concern. Does the Minister have any updates on how many of our aid schemes in Bangladesh are running on green, and how are the schemes being audited to ensure that we know we are getting value for money for the taxpayer and delivering real benefit in the country that we want to help?

It has been observed on many occasions that Bangladesh was born of blood and suffering, and that no election since has not resulted in blood and suffering or been delivered peacefully. That is a great shame, and I will touch on it later. Over the past few days, many Members will have had the opportunity to meet the visiting Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina. Her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, led the call to arms to fight for independence in his country in his Road to Ramna speech on 7 March 1971. It is worth looking at, because this was the goal that people set themselves:

“I am requesting you, you are my brothers. Do not make this country a hell and destroy it. We will not see each other’s face in the future. If we can solve things in a peaceful manner, we can at least live as brothers. That is why I am requesting you; do not try and run military rule in my country… Hindus, Muslims, Bangalis and non-Bangalis, all those who live in this Bangla are our brothers. The responsibility of protecting them is upon you. Ensure that our reputation is not smeared in any way... If one more shot is fired and if my people are killed again then my request to you is; build a fortress in each and every home. Face the enemy with whatever you have”.

Even then, in the call to arms, he was stating how relevant it would be in an independent country to be secular and inclusive. He went on:

“The struggle this time is the struggle for our emancipation. The struggle this time is... for independence”.

It was also the vital struggle for secularism and the wish to live in peace with their fellows.

In December 1971, Bangladesh was born. I know there are disputes and concerns over war crimes from that time and disputes over the persecution of perpetrators of those crimes, but I do not wish to explore those issues. I particularly wish to stress today that whoever is governing Bangladesh, now and in its future, it is imperative that all aspects of human rights are protected and observed, and that freedom of speech is championed. All efforts must be made to ensure forthright and fair political engagement.

I have been concerned about allegations of political harassment and about concerns over malicious destabilisation of the country through acts of violence by groups that do not hold the high ideals that Mujibur Rahman expressed in 1971. No avenues must be left unexplored in supporting Bangladesh’s avowed commitment to secularism, its avowed commitment to ensuring a fair and transparent electoral process, and, most importantly, its role in protecting the rights of religious minorities. Anything the Government could do to help Bangladesh to navigate that tricky path would be most helpful.

It is worth noting that, in October 2010, the High Court in Bangladesh declared:

“Bangladesh is now a secular state... everybody has religious freedom, and therefore no man, woman or child can be forced to wear religious attires like burqa.”

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That was a welcome public statement and a well-timed reiteration of Bangladesh’s origins, which were born out of a desire to resist the pull of fundamentalist Islam. In today’s uncertain world, with fundamentalism on the rise, we should applaud and nurture that stance. Too many young people in our own country are heeding the siren call of religious fundamentalism and travelling abroad to support terrorists and join jihad. We need Bangladesh to hold the line in an uncertain world and stand up for secularism and freedom of speech.

Only recently, there have been some widely reported attacks on individuals in Bangladesh, and they are a worry. Four bloggers have been brutally murdered since February 2014. In February of that year, Ahmed Rajib Haider was killed outside his home amid tensions over a tribunal judging war crimes. In February 2015, a Bangladesh-born American blogger, Avijit Roy, was similarly killed with machetes and knives as he walked back from a book fair in Dhaka. In March 2015, Washiqur Rahman, 27, was hacked to death by two men with knives and meat cleavers just outside his house as he headed to work in Dhaka. In May, Ananta Bijoy Das, 32, was killed as he left his home on his way to work at a bank. Four masked men hacked him to death with cleavers. Such atrocities have been linked to freedom of speech and perceived religious insults. The Government have made arrests, but that is a worrying direction of travel. Does the Minister have any views or updates on this?

On the bigger picture, we are all aware that rumbling along in the background of individual incidents is the unhappiness of the opposition parties, particularly the Bangladeshi National Party, or BNP, over the abolition of the caretaker system, as well as their lack of engagement in the current electoral process. It must be said, however, that there has been a history of unhappiness with the caretaker Governments on both sides, depending on who has been in charge, since 1991.

It will not have escaped the Minister’s notice that it has been reported in today’s edition of the Daily Star, widely ready by many of our constituents, that protesters from the BNP were demonstrating outside our own Parliament yesterday against the visit by Sheikh Hasina. The newspaper observed quite fairly that the wings and influences of the BNP and of the Awami League have spread to many countries, and that those parties campaign and protest against each other outside Bangladesh. It is regrettable that such political enmity and unhappiness is travelling so far, and indeed sweeping up supporters in our own country. We need a way forward and we need to help to break this impasse.

Whatever the outcome of any future election in Bangladesh, it is vital that all sides feel they are not excluded from it or cannot take part in it.

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): I agree with the hon. Lady. Does she agree that the priority for Bangladesh, and for the UK’s relationship with Bangladesh, is to facilitate, in some way and at some point, a peaceful transition of power from one side to the other? Like her, I have talked to many colleagues and supporters on both sides of the political divide in Bangladesh, and the sense of grievance on both sides is legitimate and real. Until there is a peaceful transition of power, the problems will simply go on and on.

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Mrs Main: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I wrote a letter to Baroness Warsi in January 2014 raising that issue. She replied:

“I called on both sides to put a stop to disruption and violence and to focus on political dialogue. They both have a responsibility to ensure a secure and stable Bangladesh. We have always made clear that how this process is managed is a matter for Bangladesh”—

she was referring to the caretaker Government system, or not. She continued:

“I issued a statement on 6 January noting that the UK, like others in the international community, believes that the true mark of a mature, functioning democracy is peaceful elections that express the genuine will of the voters.”

She concluded:

“As an urgent priority, all Bangladesh’s political parties must share a clear and unequivocal responsibility to work together to strengthen democratic accountability and to build the willingness and capacity to hold future participatory elections without the fear of intimidation or reprisals. The UK is encouraging Bangladesh’s political parties to support political dialogue... We will continue to work with international partners including through the European Union to help achieve this.”

I hope the Minister has an update and that there has been progress, because that letter to me was written on 24 January 2014, nearly 18 months ago.

When evaluating Bangladesh in May 2014, the ICAI said:

“Long-running political rivalries have paralysed government decision-making in recent years. Bangladesh is in need of infrastructure upgrades and advances in its public service delivery systems.”

The squabbling and disputes are hampering that, which cannot be good for the country.

The Minister sent me a response in February 2015:

“I share your deep concern about the escalating political unrest and the absence of political dialogue among Bangladesh’s political parties… I raised my concerns about the continuing violence and political harassment when I met Bangladesh’s Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs on 20 January.”

He concluded:

“Together with our international partners, we continue to urge all political parties to work together to resolve their differences through constructive and peaceful dialogue.”

As the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) said, this has been going on for a long time, and it must be brought to some sort of conclusion. We must not interfere, but we must somehow help the process.

The Minister said in his letter:

“Our High Commissioner, along with other EU Ambassadors, met Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Mr Mahmood Ali on 14 January to express our collective concern at the ongoing violence”—

this is the phrase that struck me most—

“and the shrinking of democratic space.”

Will the Minister update us on whether there has been any progress in expanding that political space, or has it been contracting even further?

Only on Monday, Sheikh Hasina addressed Members at an event in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association room, and she was warmly welcomed. She made a point of reaffirming her Government’s commitment to upholding secularism and tackling terrorism. She has been praised by Prime Minister Modi of India for her efforts to tackle terrorism, even if he somewhat spoiled the effect with his comment that she was not doing badly for a woman—she was probably damned with faint praise. What more can be done to help her to make further progress against the destabilising effects of terrorism

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and religious persecution in Bangladesh? What more can be done to encourage and facilitate full participation by all groups in the electoral process? As we know from our own democracy, strong participative opposition parties that scrutinise and hold Governments to account make for robust legislation and fairer government for all.

I have visited Bangladesh five times, so the Minister knows that I take a keen interest in the country. My most recent visit was in 2013 as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh. I am pleased to see Members in the Chamber who went on that cross-party visit to investigate and report on the Rana Plaza tragedy. That catastrophe led to the deaths of 1,100 people, with many more left crippled through catastrophic injuries. The ready-made garment industry is crucial to the prosperity of Bangladesh. The recent Independent Commission for Aid Impact case study stated:

“Economic growth has mainly come from an abundant source of largely unskilled and cheap labour. The RMG sector has taken advantage of this situation and… now employs around 4 million workers (mainly female) and accounts for 80% of manufactured exports. The recent international attention on Bangladesh’s RMG sector in the wake of safety disasters, such as… Rana Plaza… is proving… a challenge to the Government rather than an opportunity to reform the RMG sector.”

I would welcome a comment from the Minister on that, because our report was keen to see what progress could be made after Rana Plaza and our Government’s big efforts to try to support the country in developing infrastructure resilience and fairer work practices, and to ensure that Bangladesh can be proud of the garment industry, its biggest export, and that the industry has a secure future. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh assured us that much has been done, but have there been any inspections or updates on the aid and expertise we have sent?

I will conclude there, because I know many other Members will raise other issues. I wish Bangladesh well, and I think it has so much to offer. We are friends of Bangladesh, but we are critical friends. We need to ensure that aid money is being well used and well targeted, and, where it is not, that it is redirected. We need to ensure that we follow up on progress. It would help to satisfy many critics of our aid budget if they knew that the money is helping to form, mould and support a country that is independent, secular and a bulwark against the fundamentalist Islamism that is affecting so many young people in our own country today. Bangladesh may need our help, a bit more coaxing and a bit more effort, and I would like the Minister to update us on where we are in the bigger picture.

Several hon. Members rose

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): Order. Before we proceed with the debate, I would like to make one or two announcements. First, I told Jim Fitzpatrick before the debate that I thought it was getting a little warm and that it would be fine by me if Members or the Minister wanted to take off their jackets—I apologise for not making that announcement a little earlier.

We have a full list of speakers, and I hope that everyone can participate in some way. That means we are fairly restricted on time. I intend to call the three Front Benchers —from the official Opposition, the Government and the Scottish National party—from 3.30 pm, and before that we will have the debate among Back Benchers, which means about eight or 10 minutes per speaker.

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2.47 pm

Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on her measured and considered opening speech, which raised many of the necessary issues. I also congratulate her on her leadership of the all-party parliamentary group on Bangladesh. I have not been here very long, but she is clearly very well thought of in that role.

I, too, had the privilege of meeting Sheikh Hasina when she came to this place earlier this week. I strongly support her efforts as Prime Minister, in difficult circumstances, to introduce a civil society based on secularism. The hon. Member for St Albans talked about the UK being a critical friend, but we have that role not only with the Bangladeshi Government. Many British and western European corporations are working in Bangladesh and taking advantage of very cheap labour conditions to produce goods at very cheap rates. Those corporations, frankly, have a responsibility to the Bangladeshis and to the Government of Sheikh Hasina to treat their workers decently.

Christina Rees (Neath) (Lab): In 2013 more than 1,100 garment workers were killed when the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh collapsed. Many of the clothes made there were destined for the British high street. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to improve the rights, the pay and, indeed, the safety of workers in Bangladesh? Does he further agree that the Government should reverse their decision to cut support for the International Labour Organisation?

Christian Matheson: Absolutely, and I will develop that argument over the next couple of minutes. ILO standards are basic minimums, and there should not be a problem with our addressing them. Western corporations —in this place, we look at British corporations in particular—are responsible for ensuring that their employees in Bangladesh are treated decently and fairly. As the hon. Member for St Albans said so eloquently, there are siren calls from fundamentalist Islam in Bangladesh that will sound more attractive and fall on much more fertile ground if the ordinary working people continue to see exploitation in the garment industry and other sectors. I support the work of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and I know the Bangladeshi community in Britain does, too.

I was pleased to attend recently a reception at the Chester Tandoori restaurant with my good friend, Mr Abdun Noor. The small Bangladeshi community in Chester was paying tribute to a visiting police superintendent from Sylhet district, whom they had met when they were out there. They were impressed by his work as an up-and-coming police leader—in particular, his work on eradicating corruption. They simply want to be able to work fairly out there, and they want the system to work fairly. At last, the new regime is attempting to eradicate corruption, and he is in the lead on that issue. He introduced a concept and strategy that, for them, seemed novel: policing by consent. He was trying to win support for the police from across society and to develop a structure of civil society. Therefore, there is support for the kind of measures for developing civil society that the hon. Member for St Albans talked about.

Our role in Parliament is to put pressure on British and other western companies to ensure they do not exploit their employees in Bangladesh for short-term

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profit. The long-term strategic error of allowing fertile ground for extremism will be extremely damaging to those companies and to the UK’s long-term interests. We have a responsibility to the UK to ensure that the companies that benefit from such labour fulfil their responsibilities.

We also have responsibilities. I like a bargain as much as the next hon. Member. When I go to one of the large supermarkets, I feel happy if I can pay a low price for a garment made in Bangladesh, but if the price of treating poor workers in Bangladesh fairly is that we have to pay a bit extra for a shirt or a pair of trousers, it is worth paying if it ensures long-term stability.

Mrs Main: As the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde will confirm from our visit to Bangladesh, the Rana Plaza collapse was caused by poor building conditions. It would not have mattered how much those workers were being paid. Corruption around the infrastructure that had gone on previously caused those buildings to be unsafe and unstable. We need to work on those two things.

Christian Matheson: I absolutely accept that, but what the workers are paid is under the control of western corporations, and therefore under our control, because we can put pressure on them.

In the time remaining, I want to talk about my work with the shipbreakers on the beaches south of Chittagong, who are some of the worst-employed workers in the world. They have no health and safety protection and work in some of the most dangerous conditions. If they are lucky, they might have a pair of sunglasses for eye protection when using metal cutters. They are sent on to ships—big bulk carriers and oil ships—and told to cut through pieces of metal, although they do not know what they are cutting. Sometimes they cut into fuel tanks where gasses have built up.

It is common for workers to be killed on the ships. When I was there about four years ago, I was told that there was an average of three or four deaths per week in each shipbreaking yard. Indeed, the week before I arrived, it was reported that five workers had died. In fact, a sixth had been reported dead, but I was told that his body had simply been thrown overboard, so the shipbreaking owner would not have to pay compensation to his family. I hope that since I was last there the shipbreaking owners have become more responsible. Those workers’ conditions were absolutely appalling. When we are being a critical friend of Bangladesh, in the words of the hon. Member for St Albans, we must put pressure on the Government of Bangladesh to ensure that they put pressure on the shipbreaking owners.

Child labour is also a problem. I was told by workers in the shipbreaking yards that there is no child labour problem, but I could not understand that as I could see that the young boys in front of me were child labourers. It turned out that in Bangladesh the age of adulthood is 15. My hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) talked about ILO standards. Young boys of 15 are considered child labourers by international standards. Child labour should be discouraged, and we should support its eradication in those shipbreaking yards, not least because of the huge dangers those workers face.

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My hon. Friend also mentioned Rana Plaza. One of the problems is that the garment workers are fractured. There are many unions that cannot see eye to eye, and there is a lot of disagreement. In those circumstances, it is easy for unscrupulous employers to take advantage of the workers. I hope we can help to develop trade unions in Bangladesh, because the best way to improve conditions is for the workers to improve them themselves by joining together and giving themselves that collective strength.

I again congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans on securing the debate, and I echo the request for assurances from the Minister, whose response I await with interest.

2.56 pm

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): For the past six years, I have had the great privilege of serving as vice-chairman of the all-party group on Bangladesh under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main). There are a lot of ethnic and national groups in my central London constituency, including a significant Bengali population. Some are in the City of London, but a significant number are in south Westminster and Pimlico. I am therefore very much aware of the issues raised in the debate.

I have twice visited Bangladesh—specifically, I have visited Dhaka, the capital, and the Sylhet region in the north-east of the country, from where many British Bengalis come originally. We were promoting grassroots football, and in 2010 we met Sheikh Hasina and the Opposition leader, Khaleda Zia.

Half of Britain’s estimated 500,000 Bangladeshis live in London. That may account for the growing success of that community’s young people, who benefit from the education and job opportunities on their doorstep. Some 61% of Bangladeshis got five good GCSEs in 2014, compared with 51% of the Pakistani population and 56% of the indigenous white British population. I am incredibly struck by the fact that the great majority of Bengalis whom I represent in Parliament live in social housing. Many came here speaking little English and with few conventional skills, but they have a passion for education, and we should be proud of that. That applies to many immigrant populations in this country. It is unique to Britain; the experience in places such as France and Germany is very different. Many of our immigrant populations recognise that the way out of the economic difficulties that they face, and will probably face for the rest of their lives, is educating their children to give them a better life. That is something we should all work hard to encourage.