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7.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Beverley Hughes): I welcome the opportunity to put on record some of the facts surrounding the issues raised by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) in this debate and, more publicly, on previous occasions. As he said, I have had several brief discussions with him and provided information in answer to a number of parliamentary questions. Yesterday, the director general and I met him to discuss some of his main concerns. Although I shall try to answer some of his additional questions, I have nothing to add to the facts, but as I said, I welcome the opportunity to put them on record.

I repeat to the hon. Gentleman publicly what I said to him yesterday and previously. Notwithstanding his remarks, to which I shall turn in a moment, I welcome his great interest in the prisons in his constituency. That is not something that every Member of Parliament demonstrates, and I do not criticise him for expressing his concerns; indeed, as I said, I welcome that interest. However, his interest does not entitle him to make wider allegations about management and decision making in the Prison Service. He may reach a conclusion from the limited perspective of his concern about a prison, but the director general and I have to take into account the condition of women prisoners throughout the prison estate and the Prison Service more generally. The hon. Gentleman needs to understand the decision in that context.

The hon. Gentleman knows that it is essential to change prison accommodation from male to female to provide sufficient spaces for the increasing number of women who, as he acknowledged, are being committed to custody by the courts. Downview was selected on the basis of a range of criteria, including not only its geographical location relative to where in the country the demand for places was arising, but the availability of female staff and the ability to relocate the existing male population. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that the Prison Service did not know of the quality of Downview as a prison for men. Clearly, the Prison Service was aware of that, as was I, but the factors that had to be taken into account to meet this need were many and varied, and decisions were not taken in the absence of knowledge about Downview.

Unfortunately, the demand for prison places for women, which represents about 11 per cent. of all places between May 2000 and May 2001, increased sharply again in the middle of this year, with the result that Downview had to take in women prisoners faster than the Prison Service would have liked or, indeed, was planning for. That meant that, once the decision had been taken, there was no alternative to moving women prisoners in before all the desirable works had been completed. Those included some redecoration, changes to bathing and sanitation arrangements, the extension of in-cell electricity, and staff recruitment. I am glad to say that the changes to in-cell sanitation and much of the refurbishment have been completed. A suitable mix of male and female staff, including those with experience of working with women, has been achieved, as the hon. Gentleman says, by transferring staff from elsewhere on a temporary basis.

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The hon. Gentleman concludes from his experience at Downview that the haste resulted from mismanagement by the Prison Service, which should have foreseen the need and managed it better. As I said to him yesterday, although I accept that part of the process of change was not as we would have wanted, the reasons for it were outside the control of the Prison Service and were not due to mismanagement.

In the three months between July and September, in the context of a general upward trend, the number of women in prison rose by 7 per cent. That represents an annualised increase of 30 per cent. That sharp increase, on top of an existing upward trend, was totally unexpected. The Prison Service had no indication that that would happen. The hon. Gentleman expressed surprise yesterday, but that can be the pace at which cumulative sentencing decisions make themselves known to us. The Prison Service is required to accept those prisoners committed to custody by the courts. We must make the best arrangements that we can, sometimes in difficult circumstances, to increase the availability of places—in this case, women's places—as a matter of urgency.

The alternative of increasing overcrowding elsewhere in the prison estate was not acceptable because of the lack of privacy and the risk to the safety of women prisoners that it would present. As it was, women from the south-east of England were being sent to the far north of England, away from their families. That is another factor that we had to take into account. It would have been equally unacceptable to resort to the use of police cells for women prisoners, because of conditions, the lack of a regime of activities, the diversion of police resources, and so on. The alternatives were examined and found to be unacceptable across a range of objectives, including decency and contact with family.

The seasonal slowdown that we usually experience in December is just beginning. The population at Downview has allowed us to stop taking new prisoners for the past two weeks—the first time that the rate of increase has allowed us any respite. In response to one of the hon. Gentleman's questions, I can confirm that we expect to be able to empty C wing quickly to allow the recruitment of permanent staff and the completion of works, subject to the population trend for December continuing as we expect.

Roger Casale (Wimbledon): I understand that there were serious problems with the transition from a male to a female prison at Downview, and I am grateful for the action that my hon. Friend took after I, too, raised the matter in a written question. Through my mother, Mrs. Jean Casale, who is also my constituent and a member of the board of visitors, and Simon Morrison, the chair of the board of visitors, I have kept in regular contact about the situation at the prison. I am grateful for the steps that my hon. Friend has immediately taken. I understand that the situation is improving, to the extent that some women prisoners were offered the chance to go to another prison, but declined and said that they wanted to stay. There are important lessons for us to learn for the future from the experience of Downview. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) for raising the matter.

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Beverley Hughes: I thank my hon. Friend. He, too, has raised the issue with me informally, and I know that he has taken a close interest in it. I am grateful for his interest and his remarks.

With regard to the consequences for some of the male prisoners relocated from Downview, the transfer would clearly result in some disruption to their sentence planning. Of course, we regret that, but I can tell the hon. Member for Reigate and my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale) that, as far as possible, all prisoners were given the opportunity to express a preference for relocation. We had additional recategorisation boards and about 50 men were recategorised to category D. No prisoners had their security category increased as a result; as a temporary measure, a substantial group were moved to Wormwood Scrubs, where they were accommodated in a separate wing.

I know that the hon. Member for Reigate is anxious that prisoners moved from Downview should not be prevented from completing any rehabilitation or education programmes that they were following. As he said, he has tabled a question on the matter, which is of immense concern to me too. He will understand that it will take some time to collate the information and I am not in a position to give him a detailed response today. However, we are putting the material together and I shall reply to him in due course.

The hon. Gentleman made two points about what he felt was the mismanagement of the process by the Prison Service. He talked about the use of projections and the decision-making process. As I said yesterday, projections are not an exact science, but are produced as rigorously as possible by the Home Office. They are produced by independent statisticians, not Prison Service statisticians, who produce three variants—high, low and central—for us.

The population trend in relation to projections is closely monitored and contingency plans are always in place and are periodically reviewed. It is not a matter of us not having plans in place and being surprised by changes in trends. Contingency plans are in place. Indeed, yesterday we detailed for the hon. Gentleman extensive plans for extra women's places, new prisons, new ready-to-use units and so on. In addition, we have had to re-role Downview and a number of other prisons. I explained to the hon. Gentleman that decision making is a robust and systematic process. The decision to re-role a prison is not taken lightly. The criteria for decision making and the way in which the process is executed are not unique to Downview, but are systematically applied to any similar situation. Downview, therefore, is no exception.

I wish to join the hon. Gentleman in his congratulations to the staff, who have coped magnificently with the process of change. I accept that many members of staff are unsettled by the process, but I know that they have responded to demands and put the interests of prisoners first. However, I do not accept that the way that staff were treated was an abuse of authority or was overly centralised. Prison officers are subject to transfers as a condition of their employment; that is essential to make sure that we have the necessary flexibility to cater for the demands on the Prison Service. I make no apologies for that.

The hon. Gentleman raised the important concern of health care. He is right that women's health care issues are different from men's. Indeed, the incidence, not of suicide, but certainly self-harm, is different. Since the

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prison re-roled, 35 prisoners have been identified as at risk, although there have been only 10 recorded incidents of self-harm. The staff have had to grapple with the issue of the difference between men and women. The population of women at Downview is similar to other populations of women prisoners; there is no over-representation of self-harm incidents as a result of the move. We are watching closely the impact on individual women.

We plan that Downview should be an excellent women's prison. If the hon. Gentleman visits other women's prisons like Styal, he will see what we are

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aiming for. I have told him that C wing will be emptied. He mentioned education and reception facilities. I am aware of deficiencies in those buildings, and we are looking closely at those issues. On detached duty and recruitment, we will need staff on detached duty until we are able to complete the recruitment process. However, we are pressing on with that and I am confident that, in a few months, we will be in a position to have permanent staff at Downview.

Question put and agreed to.

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