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Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree): I know that the hon. Gentleman is very aware of the circumstances surrounding the murder of Christopher Edwards in Chelmsford prison and the chain of human error, misjudgment and lack of system which led to that extremely unfortunate and tragic death. Since the inquiry into it, has the hon. Gentleman been able to assess whether there are now systems in place that recognise the mentally ill when they are in Chelmsford prison, and that those people are protected by them? Will he be seeking an assurance from the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), that this matter is being assessed and monitored?

Mr. Burns: In a way, the hon. Gentleman has anticipated the next paragraph of my speech.

Although the terrible tragedy to which the hon. Gentleman has referred occurred in a prison in my constituency, it was the family of the hon. Gentleman's constituent, including his parents, who still live in the constituency, who were most directly affected by what happened. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall certainly be referring to a number of the problems that he has highlighted in his intervention. I am sure that the Minister will seek to address some of them when she replies.

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Probably the most important problem to arise at the prison, which has focused so much attention on it, was the tragic murder of Christopher Edwards by another prisoner on his first night in the prison. The chief inspector's report states in paragraph 2.39:

I find it inexplicable and unforgivable that the chief inspector should have to report after his unannounced visit:

    "We found it was working but that staff failed to answer any of the cell calls we made."

What is the point of having a cell call system if nobody will pay the blindest bit of attention to any calls for help from prisoners using that system? That is unforgivable and I trust that the Minister will be able to tell the House what is being done to ensure that the system works physically and in practice by officers responding to calls for help.

Rightly, the chief inspector states that that failure to respond was

I am sure that nobody in the House would disagree with that.

Although the report does not specify the explanation for that crass failure, in the light of the Edwards tragedy I would appreciate it if the Minister could tell me whether any reasons have been given for an abject failure of a critical part of the system.

As for cleanliness and hygiene, I find it unacceptable that the chief inspector found a cell infested with mites from the pigeon population and pigeon corpses lodged in gutters and poky alleyways. Pigeons are roosting on A wing and, apart from that, it is unacceptable that the ventilation fans have caused the sucking of dust, excreta, feathers and the occasional bird into the wing. Why were no mesh guards placed over the ventilation fans? Those conditions are more reminiscent of Victorian times rather than the approach of the new millennium. That is unforgivable.

I am concerned that the holding room was dirty at the time of the inspection, with a strong smell of urine. To my mind, it is demeaning for prisoners not to have any proper privacy when using the lavatory by the holding room, though one fully appreciates that security must be an important consideration. However, surely a system could be devised that afforded some human dignity to individuals without a gross lack of privacy.

In general, the entire process of reception should be greatly improved. As the chief inspector stated in his report:

He described the procedures as "appalling failures". He has categorically stated of those procedure that "this was not acceptable." I could not agree more.

Equally scathing are the chief inspector's comments on health care services in prison, a matter raised by the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) in his intervention. As a former Health Minister, I can fully understand the problems, though I do not necessarily accept that they should be allowed to continue within our prisons. However, I accept that there is always a tension between

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the Department of Health, the Home Office and the Prison Service over the question of health care within prisons. Sadly, that is not unique to the present Government. It applied also to the previous Government and the Government before that. It boils down to a tension over the funding of health care in prisons. I do not say that to score points. I am stating what is a fact under Governments of all political complexions.

I urge the Minister and the Prison Service to give careful consideration to the problems and the recommendations and to take positive action to improve things, particularly in respect of mental health care. Everybody knows for a fact that there are many people among the prison population who are suffering from mental health problems who arguably should not be in a conventional prison but rather in a secure unit where proper and dedicated medical treatment could be provided for them.

In chapter 5 of the report, the chief inspector deals with the management of the prison. On reading the report, one gets a sinking feeling about low morale among staff and an undervaluation of the work that is carried out at the prison. The Minister is probably aware that during the past 10 days prison officers at Chelmsford have passed votes of no confidence in both the governor and the chief inspector of prisons. I am not convinced that that is conducive to improving the situation at the prison, where everyone should be working together rather than in conflict to improve conditions. I would be grateful if the Minister would tell us of her views on that situation.

On 11 March, I asked the Under-Secretary with responsibility for prisons, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), what action the Government plan to take to deal with and rectify the problems and to respond to the recommendations that were set out in the chief inspector's report. The Minister encouragingly replied:

He added:

    "The Prison Service will, within 30 working days of the date of publication of the report, prepare an action plan addressing all the recommendations made by the Chief Inspector."--[Official Report, 11 March 1999; Vol. 327, c. 333.]

I welcome that, but will the Minister give us an assurance that all the recommendations will be implemented? What checks and monitoring will be carried out to ensure that the recommendations and the action plan are implemented?

Paragraph 5 of the report states that the prison budget for 1996-97 was £9.02 million. It was reduced to £8.6 million in this financial year and it is to be reduced further by £348,000 in the year 2001-02. Would the Minister be prepared to seek to reverse these reductions in the financing of the prison in the light of the problems that have been highlighted by the chief inspector's report?

I am sure that the Minister will accept that historically--certainly since I have been a Member representing the Chelmsford area--and as echoed in the report, there has always been overcrowding at Chelmsford prison. I accept that, two or three years ago, two new wings were built inside the perimeter of Chelmsford

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prison to help to overcome the problem of overcrowding, but it has persisted, which is causing strain and tension within the prison. What can the Minister do to try to overcome that problem and the other problem identified in the report--significant transfers or discharges from the establishment? That practice does so much to undermine attempts to provide long-term training and offending behaviour courses. Such problems inevitably cause disruption to the smooth running of any prison.

Does the Minister agree that the time has come to alleviate the chronic problem of overcrowding in the main prison in the county, perhaps by building another prison in Essex?

I will listen extremely carefully to the Minister's reply and I hope that she agrees that the problems at Chelmsford go far beyond excepted practice; that far more should and needs to be done, following the 1996 report; and that the time for talking is over. A properly planned, properly monitored programme must be implemented to ensure that none of us in Chelmsford ever has to read another damning and shaming report from Her Majesty's inspector of prisons, as we had to do in 1996 and as we have had to this month.

1.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Kate Hoey): I congratulate the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) on securing this debate on a very serious matter. All Members of Parliament should have an interest in what goes on in prisons, but, as Member of Parliament for the constituency containing Chelmsford prison, he has a particular and obvious interest. I welcome the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) to the Chamber.

The report published on 9 March by the chief inspector of prisons following his inspection of Chelmsford prison last October contained a number of serious criticisms. Personally, I found the report quite shocking and I can well understand the anger and concern of the hon. Member for West Chelmsford about what has been done and what is going to be done. The governor, Alison Gomme, and the area manager responsible for Chelmsford are determined to build on any progress that has been made, and to do so in the coming months and years.

As with all inspections, the Prison Service will consider all the chief inspector's recommendations carefully and produce an action plan setting out in some detail its responses and how it intends to take them forward. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the action plan will be produced within 30 working days of the publication of the report and, as is the case with all the chief inspector's reports, will be monitored by line management, with reports being made to Ministers at the nine and 15 month stage. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the action plan will be discussed with him.

I shall deal briefly with some of the hon. Gentleman's concerns and try to answer as many of them as possible. He asked why staff were not answering the cell call bells, which prisoners use in case of emergency. The events leading to the tragic death of Christopher Edwards were a matter of deep regret for the Prison Service and the other agencies concerned with his welfare. The criticisms of the Prison Service in that regard are serious and are being addressed. The inquiry into the death of Christopher

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Edwards established that the cell call system--which was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree--had not been working and that staff would not have been aware if he had called for assistance.

A new cell call system, which can be centrally monitored for response times, is being installed as part of a major electrical upgrade at Chelmsford. That work should be completed by May, but the governor was herself appalled to hear of the chief inspector's findings and has given clear instructions to staff that they must respond to cell call bells promptly. I have to say that I agree with every word that the hon. Member for West Chelmsford said about the fact that staff did not respond to those calls promptly.

Prisoners have also been reminded of their responsibility to use the system sensibly. It is being closely monitored by the manager of each wing of the prison and, on a regular basis, by senior management. The panel that inquired into the death of Christopher Edwards is to return to Chelmsford later this year to assess progress and the proper working of the cell call system will be an important part of that follow-up visit.

The hon. Gentleman raised genuine concerns about the prison's reception area and gatehouse. Although it has not been possible to provide a new gatehouse, work on a new reception facility began in December and will be completed by the summer. In the meantime, the old reception facility has been decorated, but it would be inappropriate to spend any significant funds on it because it will soon be taken out of use.

The reception and induction wing has been brought under the control of one manager, who is conducting a complete review of the reception and induction process in preparation for the new unit. Many of the prisoners arriving at Chelmsford will be experiencing prison for the first time. The work that has been put in hand should ensure that their reception takes place in decent conditions and that they are given all the information and assistance that they need to settle into the regime of the establishment from the beginning.

A new health care standard has been developed for reception procedures and that should underpin more effectively the continuity of care between the community and prison. The aim is to ensure that the mental health needs of prisoners are identified at an early stage, that staff are appropriately trained and that all relevant information about those with such needs is shared between the agencies responsible for their care and custody.

The hon. Gentleman expressed concerns about the provision of health care at Chelmsford and, in particular, the care of mentally ill prisoners. That, as he knows, is a difficult area for prisons throughout the country. Prisoners suffering from mental disorder who require specialist medical treatment or social support should receive itfrom the health and personal social services. The commencement of criminal proceedings should not prevent or delay access to appropriate care and treatment.

The Home Office has provided general guidance to those working in the criminal justice system on how those principles might be put into practice through effective inter-agency co-operation. It has also provided funds for a number of mental health assessment schemes at magistrates courts and encourages prison doctors to identify prisoners who are so mentally disordered that

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they need hospital treatment and to recommend their transfer accordingly. I fully accept that it is not appropriate for those prisoners to be treated in prison, except on a voluntary basis pending imminent transfer.

The hon. Gentleman raised concerns about the large pigeon population, which had created a dangerous and unacceptable situation. A control programme has already been implemented and the pigeon infestation problem has, I am assured, been brought under control. All pigeon corpses have been removed from the gutters and mesh has finally been placed over the inlet for the fans.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the budget reductions imposed on Chelmsford prison. Like all prisons--and, indeed, all parts of the public service--it has been required to make efficiency savings, but, in the next financial year, it will benefit from additional resources from the settlement obtained by the Prison Service under the comprehensive spending review. The hon. Gentleman will be particularly pleased to know that, in addition, other funds have been made available to Chelmsford, which will effectively mean an increase in available resources to slightly under £8.9 million.

Funding will be provided for additional instructional officers, which will allow for an increase of 20 to 25 per cent. in prisoner places in the workshops. It should also minimise workshop closures resulting from staff sickness and annual leave. Additional funding has also been provided to extend education, which is targeting literacy and numeracy skills.

Although the hon. Gentleman referred to a rise in the population at Chelmsford, overcrowding is not a significant long-term problem. Indeed, the vast majority of prisoners in Chelmsford are in single cells. A substantial addition was made to the prison through the provision of two new wings, which opened only a few years ago. It has been necessary recently to transfer some prisoners, but that was caused by loss of accommodation due to the electrical upgrading work. There are no plans to build another prison in the West Chelmsford constituency and Chelmsford prison is expected to serve as the local prison for Essex for some time.

Finally, a word about management and staff. Staff morale at Chelmsford is at low ebb. The establishment has been subject to considerable criticism in recent months, but a largely new management team, with a determination to improve Chelmsford and address the criticisms raised in the chief inspector's report, is in place. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that continuity will help the process.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a number of changes of governor in recent years. A governor of long standing was replaced on his retirement for a short time by a temporary governor, before the current governor was appointed. The new governor, Alison Gomme, has had a period of absence on maternity leave but, during that period, continuity was ensured by temporarily promoting the deputy governor, rather than posting in a new figure. The current governor returned to duty in December, and she is committed to remaining in post for the foreseeable future and to ensuring that progress is made in tackling the problems identified by the chief inspector. The area manager responsible for Chelmsford has paid close attention to the prison, offering support and guidance where appropriate, and will continue to do so.

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I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that the report was a fairly damning indictment of what has been going on. However, as he said, the way forward is to learn from the mistakes of the past, rather than to dwell on them. We must ensure that positive action is taken to ensure measurable and solid improvements.

I hope that what I have set out will persuade the hon. Gentleman that the Prison Service takes the criticisms by the chief inspector seriously, and that action has been taken--and will continue to be taken--to resolve the problems of Chelmsford prison. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is pleased that Sir David Ramsbotham's team will be inspecting Chelmsford prison again in a year's time to see what progress has been made.

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At the end of the introduction to the report, Sir David said:

I hope that, this time next year, the hon. Gentleman is in a position to secure a debate following the report to discuss improvements. I hope that all of us together will be able to ensure that prisoners at Chelmsford are served well, and that the people of his constituency feel that the prison is being dealt with properly.

It being before Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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