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6 Dec 2001 : Column 566

Downview Prison

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Angela Smith.]

7 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I am very pleased to be able to secure this debate on Her Majesty's prison Downview. The debate is extremely timely this week because it coincides with the retirement of Downview's governor, Mr. Bob Chapman, and it provides an opportunity for me to put on record my appreciation of his service to Downview, its staff and its inmates during the past few difficult weeks and his lifetime's commitment to public service.

The debate follows a meeting that I had yesterday with the Minister and the Director General of the Prison Service. I have to say, and I suspect that the Minister will agree, that it was perhaps not the most satisfactory meeting that a Member of Parliament will have ever had with the Minister. I hope that the perhaps at times disagreeable tone of our discussions will not be replicated here, and I wish to conduct this debate in that spirit.

The issue arises because of Downview's change in role from a male to a female prison and the way in which that decision was made and handled by the Prison Service. I want to focus first on the wider issues for the Prison Service that relate to the way in which the decision was handled and then to deal with the specific issues that relate to Downview's future as a prison for female inmates.

No one disputes the fact that the Government and the Prison Service face a problem in the steady and relentless increase in the number of women sent to prison. The exchange that I had yesterday with the Minister on the number of women prisoners was rather sterile, and I hope that we do not return to that issue in detail; suffice it to say that on the basis of the figures that I have received from the Minister in parliamentary answers, especially on 7 November, there appears to be a relentless increase of about 8 or 9 per cent. in the size of the women prison population, year on year.

I am slightly concerned that the decision-making process in the Prison Service currently appears to be based on a projected increase of 4.5 per cent. I want to place on record what I said privately to the Minister yesterday: there is a problem for the Minister and the Prison Service, and I hope that they will re-examine it. If they do not do so, the sort of decision making that has led to so many problems at Downview will continue. The problem has also occurred at two other prisons whose role has changed from male to female very recently—at Send and, most recently, at Buckley hall in the north-west.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to speak directly to the Minister and the director general and to put my concerns directly to them, but I am afraid that my conclusion from that meeting is that serious concerns remain about the way in which the decision-making process works in the Prison Service. Downview illustrates the problem, and it had to deal with its consequences.

In May this year, the Prison Service was contemplating changing prison roles, and the area manager informed the governor of Downview that it was not one of the prisons being considered. Obviously, it came as a surprise when it was announced by written answer on 17 July that Downview would indeed be re-roled. I understand that the governor had only a week's notice of that decision.

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On the basis of all the information that I have been able obtain, there is no evidence that the director general considered the proper information in coming to that decision, which was formally endorsed by the Minister. There should have been a proper cost-benefit analysis of exactly how much changing the prison's role would cost the Prison Service and therefore the public. I believe that that decision was taken by the higher management, the director general and the Minister in ignorance of the facts on the ground.

Yesterday, I asked the Minister for the advice, on whatever basis she would like to provide it, that she and the director general received in taking that decision, which was published on 17 July. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide some comfort when she replies, because I want to be reassured about the quality of management in the Prison Service. Given all the challenges that the director general and Ministers face in managing the service, I am happy to give Ministers the benefit of the doubt.

This is a unhappy story. The decision was announced in a written answer on 17 July and, on 25 July, the governor got the staff together to tell them that the prison had to start emptying itself of male prisoners at the beginning of August. That process was to be completed by the end of August. I am informed that pressure was placed on the Prison Service to empty the prison immediately and that some people wanted to send a fleet of buses to move the male prisoners out straight away. Within one month, the prison started to fill up with female prisoners.

On 3 October, the board of visitors was so concerned that it wrote to the Home Secretary. It also wrote to me to draw my attention to the problem; I regret that it had to do so because the Prison Service did not realise in whose constituency the prison sits. My engagement with the prison has been entirely pro-active since I made a visit to it in 1998. I also went there on a later occasion when I visited it in conjunction with a visit to the prison across the road at High Down. I suspect that I did not receive any information from the Home Office or the Prison Service about Downview because they had failed to plot it in the correct constituency. I hope that that mistake has been put right, and I have accepted the apology that the Minister made on behalf of the Prison Service.

To a degree, my concern arises out of my visit to the prison in 1998. Category C and category D prisoners were placed alongside each other and the Rehabilitation of Addicted Prisoners Trust—RAPT—programme, which was founded in Downview, was working effectively. Prisoners elsewhere in the prison estate were queuing up to get to Downview to get on to the addiction programmes, to become clean of drugs and to be able to return to society free from the problem that probably resulted in their going to prison in the first place.

I have been concerned by the changes that have taken place to the prison since 1998 and since 2000 when category C and category D prisoners were no longer placed alongside each other. The institution was working well and I had every reason to believe that it was a flagship for the Prison Service. The then governor, Colin Lambert, frequently appeared at events—not least, here in the House—to promote the RAPT programme and the

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excellent education and rehabilitation work that took place in the prison. I had no reason to believe that it did not represent a decoration for the Prison Service.

Tragically, things began to change when the Prison Service began to remove category D prisoners from the prison and to turn it into solely a category C prison. The desire of people to get on and through the programmes has regrettably changed in the past year as a younger cohort of prisoners go into the prison.

The chief inspector of prisons noted that, in the wake of those decisions, the Prison Service had not seemed to have identified properly a clear role for the prison. It is a great shame that the Prison Service did not, at a senior level, understand just how effective an institution it had in Downview. That partially explains why I am so exercised by the decision to take it out of the male estate and away from the role that it had so successfully pursued.

The real concern, however, is about the cack-handed way in which the Prison Service managed the change. To give people in a prison private notice of only one week about its change in role is unacceptable. That is not just my view; it is the view of the board of visitors. In its report on Downview to the Home Secretary, it said:

It goes on to say:

I wholly agree with that conclusion.

From what I have seen—I hope that this impression is corrected—the decision-making process inside the Prison Service is centralised and autocratic, and responds almost directly to crisis management. At the moment, I do not have confidence in the management of the Prison Service. I know that the director general has just been reappointed. I hope that the Minister, and the director general in the years to come, will reassure me that my lack of confidence in the Prison Service management, especially with regard to the two prisons in my constituency, is misplaced.

The victims of the Prison Service's decisions are the staff and the inmates. I note that the director general has given a reassurance that all the male inmates who were so rapidly displaced from Downview have completed their programmes of education and rehabilitation at other institutions. I have tabled a written parliamentary question on that. As the director general has given me an answer, I look forward to the Department confirming that that is the case.

I want to express my gratitude to the Minister for the compliment that she paid the governor and the staff on the way in which they coped with the decision that the Prison Service imposed on them. In her letter to me of 13 November, she said:

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I am sure that the governor is grateful for her kind words.

For my own part, I very much regret the retirement of Bob Chapman in the middle of the process this week. The timing is most unfortunate. I understand that the staff equally regret that, and that they gave him a generous and moving send-off. I commend them for the support that they gave him in the past difficult months. I am sure that they will continue to give that support to the new governor in the months ahead.

Let me turn to the future challenge for Downview. One of the satisfactory outcomes of my meeting with the Minister and the director general yesterday was the director general's promise that in three years' time Downview will be a state-of-the-art prison for female inmates. I hope that the Minister will confirm that.

I want the Minister to address specific issues that affect Downview. There is real concern about the suicide risk among women prisoners. They are at greater risk of suicide than male prisoners. Apparently some 40 per cent. of female inmates are identified as being at risk of suicide or self-harm. That is a particular interest of Jean Casale, the mother of the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale), who is in the Chamber. I commend her for the work that she has done.

I also commend the work of the rest of the board of visitors, led by Simon Morrison and Terry Cushing who accompanied me when I visited the prison on 26 October. They do an unpaid and unsung job, which is of critical importance to our community and, in particular, the prisoners.

On the future of Downview, will the Minister confirm that the prison will be a local prison, taking remand and recently sentenced women prisoners, which is what it was designed to be when the director general took his decision, on the basis of its location? The director general will be all too aware, as is the Minister, of the requirement to get the prison into proper shape so that it can carry out that role. The first thing that I want is for the Minister to confirm that that will be its role. Will she also confirm that C wing, which has two thirds of the prison's capacity, will be emptied so that it can be properly rebuilt and turned into state-of-the-art accommodation for women prisoners, as the director general promised?

In my judgment, the comparison between High Down, across the road from Downview, makes it clear that if Downview is to become a local prison, it will need a new reception centre. I do not believe that the existing facilities are adaptable, and I would be grateful for the Minister's confirmation that she will examine that issue. The medical centre and prisoners' health requirements have been of grave concern to the board of visitors, and I hope that the Minister is able to reassure me that there will be proper, separate health provision for women inmates, who, on average, need more health care than male prisoners.

When will the Prison Service reach the stage at which it no longer requires detached duty officers to serve at Downview, as they have done for the past few months, at some considerable expense to the service? May I draw to the Minister's attention the condition of the buildings that house the education facilities? They are temporary buildings with a roof that leaks on to IT equipment, which is obviously not satisfactory. Frankly, they need rebuilding if this is to become a state-of-the-art facility.

I am grateful to have had the attention of the director general and the Minister focused on the prison, and I hope that that will continue until the work to turn it into a

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state-of-the-art institution is complete, which, with the scale of rebuilding that is required, will take two or three years. I wholly regret the way in which the decision was reached, and I hope that lessons have been learned.

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