Tuesday 14th May 2024

(1 week, 5 days ago)

Lords Chamber
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Commons Urgent Question
17:13
Lord Bellamy Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bellamy) (Con)
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My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend Minister Argar to an Urgent Question in another place on the situation at HMP Parc. The Statement is as follows:

“Ensuring that our prisons are safe and secure for both prisoners and staff remains our priority. I extend my sincere condolences to the families and friends who have lost a loved one, and my gratitude to the staff at HMP/YOI Parc.

There have been nine adult deaths at HMP Parc since March 2024. It is important to note that these deaths are not all drug-related. However, four have so far been linked to substance misuse, with another potentially so. Any death in prison is thoroughly investigated by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and is subject to a coroner’s inquest. Until the results of these investigations are available, I must be a little careful not to pre-empt the detail of their findings or to comment on individual, identifiable cases, so there is a limit to what I can say with certainty.

I am able to say that we believe that the two deaths this month have not currently been linked to substance misuse. The deaths at HMP/YOI Parc should be considered in the wider context of the threat that synthetic opioids pose to His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, to those in our custody and, indeed, to the country more widely, recognising the broader societal issue.

Our work at the prison can provide vital learning as we respond to this challenge in custody and in the community, where I understand this challenge has also occurred. HMPPS and G4S, the prison operator, are working closely together, using the latest technologies, to gather intelligence on drug entry points and movements within the prison. There have been extensive searches of prisoners and staff, and any suspicious substances are tested on site with Rapiscan. Drug amnesties have been run to improve safety, and X-ray scanners are being used on entry to prison.

We have also expanded the use of naloxone at the prison, focusing on duty managers and night staff. In total, around 400 members of staff at HMP and YOI Parc are now trained to carry this drug during working hours. We also have specialist teams in HMPPS, including the substance misuse group and intelligence, supporting staff in the prison”.

17:15
Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Answer to the Urgent Question. It was only yesterday that the Minister was answering an Urgent Question at that Dispatch Box about overcrowding in our prisons, and it was less than a week ago that Wandsworth prison received an urgent notification from the chief inspector about its unsatisfactory regime. Drug abuse and drug deaths form a common theme, from HMP Parc to HMP Wandsworth and across the prison estate. That is notwithstanding that, as the Minister said, not all the deaths at HMP Parc were drug related. Nevertheless, a majority of them were. Recently, the prisons ombudsman issued a stark warning telling prisoners at HMP Parc to throw away their drugs immediately due to the severe risk that they posed to their health.

The number of drugs found in our prisons has surged. There have been more than 90,000 drug finds over the past five years, according to the latest figures. Synthetic opioids are becoming a growing problem as part of the overall increase in drug use in our prisons. Prison staff are being targeted to smuggle drugs into our prisons. More than 1,000 officers and staff were investigated in 2023 alone. Can the Minister outline what further steps the Government are taking to crack down on this route of smuggling?

One way to stop drugs getting into our prisons is through physical security measures, yet reports in the Times newspaper found that body scanners to detect drugs in another prison were not being staffed, or were being staffed in an absolutely minimal way. Does the Minister believe that body scanners should be put to better use?

The problem with illegal drugs in our prisons is endemic and growing. It requires a systematic, wide-ranging response to drive drugs out of prisons. Can the Minister update the House on what the Government are doing about prison security, mental health support, working with third-party providers in education and health and getting prisoners out of their cells so they can be engaged in purposeful activity? Of course, underpinning all this is the key role that the Probation Service must have in preventing reoffending. What is the Government’s strategy to reduce this endemic problem?

Lord Bellamy Portrait Lord Bellamy (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord for those questions, which are entirely relevant and reasonable. The Government and, indeed, the country must face the fact that we have a very considerable problem arising from the increased availability of synthetic opioids in the community. Noble Lords will be aware of how widespread this problem has been and still is in the United States, and we are now seeing that problem in this country. The difficulty is that such drugs are approximately 500 to 1,000 times stronger than heroin and it is particularly easy to overdose on them, so there is a very high risk of prisoners almost accidentally causing themselves great harm or even of giving rise to fatal incidents.

This is a very considerable challenge of which the Government are aware. We are redoubling our efforts to stop these drugs entering the prison, bearing in mind that, once the drugs are in the community—and they are in the local community in various areas around a number of prisons—that is not a very easy thing to do. Obviously, one must have searches—that must include staff searches, due to the risk that staff may be importuned to carry these drugs—as well as on-site drug testing. Handheld devices are particularly effective in this area and body scanners play an essential role. I agree with the noble Lord that body scanners should be fully manned. If they are not being fully manned, that must be addressed.

In addition to those measures, particularly at HMP Parc, drug amnesties have been used from time to time, especially recently, to persuade prisoners to surrender their drugs. There is a national operational response plan; I will not go into detail but it is supported by the national substance misuse delivery team. The use of intelligence in the local community to identify weak points—particularly, again, in relation to those who may be deliberately or inadvertently carrying drugs into prison—is also important.

I gather that HMP Parc is currently rated green/amber on the issue of security, which is not a bad rating in the circumstances. However, I fully agree with the noble Lord that we have to work as a society to combat this. I pay particular attribute to the Gwent Police, NHS Wales and the Welsh Government for their very close collaborative working on these tragic matters.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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My Lords, deaths in custody are always a tragedy, and we join with the noble and learned Minister in extending our deep sympathy to the families and friends of the deceased.

Such deaths represent a failure of the prison system to keep prisoners in its care safe, so we need to take them very seriously indeed. I am not saying that the Government are not taking this seriously—the Minister’s answers show that they are—but with nine deaths in 10 weeks at one prison, Parc, the failure can properly be described as catastrophic. No one wishes to pre-empt the outcome of the coroner’s inquests, but it seems abundantly clear that a number of these deaths—at least four—were caused by the use of drugs, notably Spice. As the Minister pointed out, this is a significantly dangerous drug and capable of causing harm accidentally to prisoners who use it.

In a supplementary question in the other place, Stephen Crabb MP, himself a former Secretary of State for Wales, pointed out that there was evidence—of which we are all well aware—that the largest source of drugs entering prisons was staff, who were bringing them in. He asked why it was that staff were not routinely scanned for drugs. In answering, the Minister of State, Edward Argar MP, pointed out that we have body scanners for visitors—as the Minister here pointed out—and for others coming into prisons, as well as handheld detectors for use in the cells, but he did not address the direct question about the routine scanning of staff on entry. The noble and learned Minister mentioned the use of body scanners for staff but did not address that question either.

In the light of the serious and increasing effects of drug importation into prisons, is it not time for the MoJ to consider the routine scanning of staff on entry to prisons? I accept that that may not be popular with everyone, or with prison officers, as it may be said to betoken a lack of trust. However, as the Minister pointed out, the vast majority of prison staff are law-abiding and careful, and do not bring drugs into prison. Such staff have nothing to fear. What consideration is the MoJ giving to the routine scanning of staff on entry? Of course, it would have to be carefully and tactfully considered, after a period of consultation. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the time is now right to give that consideration, given the really serious effects of the drugs that we are now seeing imported into prisons, of which these are nine terrible examples.

Lord Bellamy Portrait Lord Bellamy (Con)
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My Lords, I again associate myself and the Government with the condolences we have already extended to the families of all those affected. We recognise that we are dealing with a very tragic situation.

On the noble Lord’s direct question about body scanners, the Government are considering all possible measures to reduce this problem. The issue of body scanners for all staff as a routine matter is clearly one that needs to be taken under advisement and given the most careful consideration. I think that is as far as I can go today.

I should add, in case your Lordships are wondering, that despite this very unusual situation at HMP Parc, the Government consider that the prison is fundamentally sound. It has more than 1,800 inmates. The youth offender institution, which is separate, is recognised as one of the best in the land. The prison has strengths in supporting, in particular, neurodiversity and autism; it has rehabilitation and resettlement functions, as well as a remand population. There are many positives, and I would not want to give the impression that everything at Parc is going wrong; it is not.

Lord Wigley Portrait Lord Wigley (PC)
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There have been no Back-Bench questions.

Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Portrait The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Watkins of Tavistock) (CB)
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I regret that, but unless I am advised otherwise, it was a 10-minute Question and it has been completed.

Lord Wigley Portrait Lord Wigley (PC)
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It is totally unsatisfactory that we are in this position. Normally, the 10 minutes kicks in after the Front-Benchers have spoken and there is an opportunity for Back-Benchers to ask questions. Why is that not the case now?

Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Portrait The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Watkins of Tavistock) (CB)
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I acknowledge that it appeared to be unsatisfactory. The guidance is absolutely clear that it is 10 minutes, and both Front-Bench spokesmen spent considerable time in asking their questions. There can be no further debate on the matter and we will continue with the other proceedings.