Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
My Lords, the prison strategy White Paper can most charitably be described as a missed opportunity to tackle the escalating prison crisis. While presenting the biggest prison-building programme in more than 100 years as a way to improve public protection, the strategy contains next to no credible solutions to the multiple problems plaguing our existing estate, which have made rehabilitation nigh-on impossible and have led to record levels of reoffending.
Unusually for a White Paper, the document contains very few direct legislative proposals and instead asks numerous consultation questions, many along the lines of:
“Do you agree with our … vision?”
Old ideas from previous papers are repeated and recycled, through the 76 pages of vague aspirations and feel-good gimmicks, such as resettlement passports and workforce drug testing. Yet key drivers of violence and instability, such as widespread squalor and the collapse in staff retention, morale and experience, are glossed over and ignored.
Worse, there is no recognition that government policies over the last decade have caused the current crisis, including cuts to staffing and other resources, leading to the degradation of pay, terms and conditions, a haemorrhaging of experience and the surge in violence, especially against prison staff. The paper’s headline pledge to recruit 5,000 new officers seems optimistic in light of the current recruitment and retention crisis and the lack of ministerial interest in the reasons behind the record resignations—from poverty pay to an unrealistic and cruel pension age of 68.
The long-promised prisoner education service gets a few mentions, but with no real detail apart from praise for the potential of in-cell technology. We agree that in-cell technology could be a game changer in rehabilitation and the whole incarceration experience.
One glimmer of hope, however, is the recognition that mass unstructured social time can make some prisoners feel unsafe and inhibit the ability of staff to manage the risks of violence and bullying. This is a key lesson from the pandemic that trade unions have consistently highlighted—as did the then Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland in July, when he insisted that there could be no going back to pre-Covid regimes. However, running smaller-scale regimes with higher staff-to-prisoner ratios will be at the discretion of governors, rather than required by national policy. As far as I can see, the strategy shows no understanding that such initiatives need significant staff investment and will be simply unsustainable with current staffing capacity.
Very little in this White Paper requires primary legislation: only the proposals to bring forward release dates, potentially—we debated this yesterday on the PCSC Bill—and to strengthen the powers of scrutiny organisations. What will all these extra prisoners do all day? The White Paper states that
“opening up the estate to employers”
will deliver a step change in the number of prisoners who work in prison. It seems likely that new legislation may be needed to create a presumption in favour of adapting the prison estate and regime to facilitate work in prison for appropriate prisoners. As important as a sense of satisfaction from doing a proper day’s work must be to prisoners, it seems unlikely that, with a minimum wage of £4 a week, they will earn enough to buy the things they need day to day in prison and also save for their release.
In praising prison officers as “hidden heroes”, the White Paper’s strategy commits to making
“the prison officer role one which is understood and valued in society in the same way that police and other core frontline roles are”.
But it concedes that attrition rates are simply too high, which is
“causing an unsustainable level of turnover in the system”,
“new staff feeling unsupported, contributing to a vicious cycle of staff dissatisfaction and lack of retention.”
Even the Prison Service’s new retention framework, referenced in the White Paper, admits that poor pay is a key driver to attrition and accepts that there are limits to what governors can do locally to improve pay and rewards. In other words, the solutions to the problem are well known; we are just seeing a lack of political will from the Government.
What about the existing teachers and how they will operate within the new prison education service? We are told that there will be two overriding strategic priorities: improving the numeracy and literacy of all prisoners, and incentivising them to improve their qualifications to increase their prospects of finding work. These are both admirable aims, but involve very different types of teaching, alongside additional resources and a break from the current private commissioning model, which is not recognised in the strategy document that I was reading earlier.
There is at least an admission that the current education system is not fit for purpose. The White Paper insists:
“Despite recent changes, the current quality of education provision is not good enough, with 60% of prisons in England receiving Ofsted grades of ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’ over the last five years.”
However, the proposed solution is to
“work with our providers to improve the delivery and quality of training in prisons to drive year on year improvements to Ofsted grades, so they are much closer to those achieved by Further Education in the community.”
This is a laudable aspiration, but if it is not backed by new investment it will be an empty promise.
One area that will see a boost, thankfully, is in-cell technology. There is no question but that this could dramatically change learning and rehabilitation more widely, as well as help maintain and improve family engagement, and, of course, promote stability and good behaviour when used as a reward or incentive. Can the Minister say whether virtual visits via in-cell kiosks should be treated and charged as a phone call or as an in-person visit? Of course, in-person visits are free at the moment. Moreover, will Parliament, and indeed the public, get to express a view on this? It is a very specific question that I suspect parliamentarians would have a view on.
In reality, it is the probation service that is responsible for keeping new releases on the straight and narrow. The new strategy makes no mention of Transforming Rehabilitation, which was the failed probation privatisation experiment that caused so much misery.
To address the scandal of homelessness among prison leavers, the White Paper proposes extending
“a new provision of temporary accommodation and support for up to 12 weeks after release”
to all prison leavers, but it is not resettlement passports that new leavers need; it is front-door keys. Where is the commitment to helping them on to housing benefit with deposits paid in advance to trusted landlords?
The understanding that prisons
“cannot support rehabilitation unless they are safe, stable and secure”
is to be welcomed, as is the pledge to
“provide safer working conditions for staff”,
but the proposed
“new ministerial prison performance board that will hold the system and Governors to account for ensuring prisoners and staff are safe”
will have key performance indicators and “appropriate league tables”. The KPIs are
“security and stability; substance misuse and mental health; and resettlement and family ties.”
It is worrying that the crucial metric of staff safety seems to be missing from the KPI list. One simple way for Ministers to send a clear message to staff that they are on their side would be to ensure that all attempts at potting are prosecuted and for the Government to back the amendment from the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, to the PCSC Bill.
Bizarrely, the strategy calls for
“modern desktop computers, devices and software to benefit the people who work in our prisons”,
“will allow for increased productivity and a reduction in time wasted by users waiting for systems to boot up”.
Why does it need a White Paper for prison staff to get new PCs? Just how long does it take for their current systems to turn on? This seems ridiculous.
Finally, the strategy looks at rolling out a two-year programme of future regime design to let governors design their own regimes. The highest performing governors will receive “earned autonomy” and
“greater flexibility to deviate from nationally set policies.”
“greater freedoms to deviate from prison service instructions and policy frameworks”,
as long as KPIs are met. This begs the question: why will governors be rewarded for hitting targets by being given the opportunity to break the rules? That is maybe a rhetorical question, and I approve of giving governors greater flexibility and managed autonomy, but this cannot be allowed to shift responsibility and accountability from Ministers who have put this new regime in place.