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14 Mar 2007 : Column 107WH—continued

Drugs are common in all prisons in England and Wales, yet it seems that methadone substitutes are the currency of choice for dealers and distributors. To feed their habits, many addicts resort to crime such as violent robberies and the targeting of the most vulnerable in society, especially the elderly, as they seek money for drugs. When addicts request help, doctors prescribe methadone substitutes, which can be purchased illegally for between £1 and £5 a tablet, but command anything between £50 and £80 in prison. A booming trade ensues, creating an unscrupulous yet profitable business. Once an addict is in possession of a
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prescription, it is not uncommon for him to sell it or the medication separately so that the drug finds its way once more into the local community and distribution system within the prison.

Prison staff provide an essential and valuable service to the public. Working in an extremely challenging environment, prison officers risk their personal safety to confront—without appropriate back-up—volatile, abusive and illegal behaviour on the part of visitors and prisoners. Much greater, sustained public sector investment is needed in the Prison Service to address the steady increase in the availability of drugs in prisons, and particularly to combat drug smuggling. Extending treatment programmes to tackle the effects of drugs by preventing consumption is all very well, but that is of limited use without rigorous measures to stop their supply and distribution.

Drugs use in prison—the scourge of substance misuse in the community—is often framed in the context of crime figures, and the trade itself is portrayed as a problem confined to and orchestrated by a limited number of dangerous criminals. Focusing our attention exclusively on achieving unrealistic targets in the fight against crime fails to acknowledge and confront the scale of the problem, leaves prisons unable to cope and consigns our communities to decay. Urgent action is required. The Prison Service needs support, resources and an unequivocal commitment to tackle the supply of drugs in addition to any efforts to treat addiction. Eliminating the passage of drugs into prisons would enable communities inside and outside to recover from a culture of criminal violence that is intolerable, insupportable and unendurable.

The evidence clearly shows that the Prison Service is currently ill equipped to prevent the supply and distribution of illegal drugs in prison, which have reached epic proportions. At best, the Prison Service is merely holding back the tide of the drugs trade. At worst, it is being swallowed up by it. A problem of such magnitude and of concern to us all demands immediate action. It is recommended that the Government commission an investigation urgently and identify what resources can be made available to the Prison Service to fight the cause of the problem, and not just the symptoms.

That is the end of my formal brief, and I am happy to have put it on the record. I also engaged in interviews with officials from the TUC and the Prison Officers Association, who are all concerned about the matter. In my closing remarks, I shall mention some of the points from the minutes of our exchanges.

The more hardened criminals, I was told, coerce more vulnerable inmates into allowing their families to be used as mules, as they are called, to carry in drugs, and a compliant inmate and his family can earn as much as £200 to £300 a visit. The problem is not only the drugs, but the cycle of violence that they cause inside and outside the prison. I am told that it is easier to obtain illegal substances inside jails than in society. Cell searches regularly turn up large quantities of drugs, not just the odd wrap. Unofficial transactions inside are based not only on drugs but on mobile phones and, of course, the threat of violence—where would we be without the threat of violence? That leads me to point out that I would like to be part of the debate upstairs this afternoon, but there we are.

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The cameras employed are not fit for purpose. If we can take photographs from space with the Hubble telescope, and heaven knows what else, why cannot we improve the standard of the CCTV cameras to provide a more discernable image outside? I would have thought that deploying more and better cameras would be a fairly simple and, if we engage in bulk buying, cheap exercise.

I have mentioned the national uniform testing regime under Prison Service rules, where 100 randomly selected prisoners a month are, as they say, MOT’d. Of course, once those 100 have been MOT’d and been given their clearance, they can carry on, safe in the knowledge that they are hardly likely to be tested again for some time. According to the team that I interviewed, of the last sample of 100 who were tested, 44 tested positive. Some tested positive for Subutex, which is an increasing element of the problem.

Responsibility for health in prisons was passed across to primary care trusts last April. I am sure that it was done for the best of reasons, although some in the service say that there are doubts about whether it is any better now than it was before. One of the serious problems that it has led to is that inmates can now more easily obtain paracetamol. One might not think that is a problem, until a prisoner overdoses on paracetamol. That, too, might not seem to be a problem, but when that inmate has to be taken to the local hospital for attention, staff have to be taken out of the prison to engage in escort duties. The complement of staff in the prison is reduced, which places increased duties on those who remain behind.

I want the Minister to admit that the Prison Service has a problem, that it is getting worse and that it needs attention. It is not merely a question of throwing money at the problem: we have to examine critically and clinically the regimes that we have that disallow staff conducting searches and scrutinising prisoners’ and visitors’ activities in the prison. I am told that many claims are made for the Phoenix therapeutic course, which supposedly weans voluntary participants off drugs, but in many cases it has the opposite effect. Those who have signed up can go along for their test whenever they feel like it, get clearance, and then go back and continue to do what they were doing before. We must be careful about accepting statistics that are derived from such sources of information, and circumspect about the validity of the claims that are made.

I have some direct questions for the Minister. He is a straight man and I have known him well for quite a long time. Does he agree that there is a growing problem? Does he agree that it needs more attention? The most I can ask in such a debate, in this place and at this time, is whether he will agree to investigate the subject on our behalf.

2.56 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) has done the House a service by introducing the debate this afternoon. What came through in his comments was the considerable frustration of prison officers who have to deal with the problem every day. Sometimes we josh about the Prison Officers Association, but prison officers do a difficult
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job with great patience and are much to be commended. I have a slightly different take on the subject; one of the great advantages of being a Back Bencher is that one can have a slightly different take on things. We have to accept that a culture or subculture of drug taking has become endemic in parts of society. The test for the Prison Service is the reoffending rates.

Prisons are bloody miserable places, and that is not because people are not being properly looked after. We tend to have an image of prison rather like the television series “Porridge”, with jolly old lags having fun teasing the prison officers. Actually, they are mostly full of rather pathetic people who are addicted to substance abuse, drug abuse or alcohol abuse and who have practically no levels of literacy or numeracy.

We should start from the principle that the punishment is being deprived of freedom, that prison takes away a person’s freedom, and that society takes away that freedom for a period based on a tariff. The objective should be to try to ensure that when that person is released from prison they do not reoffend. The reoffending rates in this country are pretty horrific. Generally, people go back to the communities from where they have come and offend again—they burgle or steal to feed a drugs habit. Perhaps we need to accept that certain prisons and certain wings of prisons will be places essentially to rehabilitate drug and substance abusers.

The reason that I am taking part in the debate is that I spent part of last Friday in Oxford with a charity and non-governmental organisation called SMART, which is in part funded by the Home Office. It does excellent work. Many of the people working on the SMART project are ex-drug users who have been clean for a long time and spend a lot of time mentoring and helping people who have a drugs problem. They said to me, “Look, it’s very difficult for us. We want to help people in prison, but by the time our team has got clearance from the Criminal Records Bureau”—as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, prison governors understandably want to ensure that drug abusers do not come into prison under other guises—“it is difficult for us to exercise mentoring abilities in prison, but we have been through this. We have done it.” Bullingdon prison is in my constituency, and maybe we should just accept that one wing at Bullingdon, for example, will be a therapeutic wing for people who are there to try to get off drug abuse by whatever means are possible.

We also need to support organisations such as SMART, which themselves and with volunteers meet people coming out of prison literally at the prison gate. They say that the money that such people are given as a discharge grant often disappears in the car park, so they meet them at the prison gate and mentor them. They take them and find them accommodation, which is often not easy. They support them through those crucial few days and weeks and try to find them a job. It is not easy to find a job if one is not literate or numerate or has poor skills. Again, that needs to be addressed in prison.

We have a system that goes back, I suspect, to the late ‘60s, when there were a number of prison escapes and we classified prisoners as A, B or C under the Salmon reforms. Perhaps serious drug abusers and dealers should be in a particular category so that they spend time simply ensuring that when they leave
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prison, they have no more excuses and cannot say that they cannot get work. They should have no excuses for not going clean and staying off drugs.

I understand the frustration of prison officers—they rightly believe that someone is taking the Charlie out of them by abusing the system—but we might need to rethink what prison is about. Parts of prisons, or some prisons, should be seen almost as therapeutic centres. The punishment is taking away prisoners’ freedom and detaining them for their tariff, but the objective is that when they leave prison they do not reoffend. I do not wish to caricature the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but if the prison experience is simply a game in which prisoners try it on with prison officers, all that happens is that when they come out into society they persist in trying to take on the system for life. We need people who come out of prison and want to get on with their lives, get clean of drugs, find employment, settle down and not reoffend.

A large number of my hon. Friends wish to take part in the debate—indeed, it is so popular that not one but two members of the Opposition home affairs Front-Bench team are taking part. I wish finally to say that we all owe a debt to a report issued the other day by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. One of the most alarming things in it was the estimate that there are something like 70,000 professional drug dealers in the country—those who make drug supply a business. There should be no mercy for those people, who look upon dealing in drugs as almost an industrial enterprise.

All of us suffer, whether our constituencies have run-down housing estates or are in relatively prosperous areas, like mine. In my constituency places such as Banbury and Bicester, just off the M40 extension, are soft targets and drug dealers come in. The SMART team told me that in Banbury or Bicester people can text for drugs, and that it is as easy to get a delivery of drugs as to order a pizza. They were not being in any way alarmist, just matter-of-fact. I find that extremely frightening, and I hope that we can continue to ensure that police forces—drug squads used to deal with this issue, but it is now part of serious crime—have the resources to bear down on people, often in cities, who see the supply of drugs as a business. They are truly evil, and every effort should be made to disrupt and prevent their activities and bring them to justice. They prey on our communities and our children.

3.4 pm

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): In the limited time that I wish to take I shall not go into the report of the Royal Society of Arts, save to say that I disagree with the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). I was disappointed by the vagueness of many of its conclusions and the attempt to be all things to all people. That is the problem with drugs policy and has been for generations. It is a cross-party problem and has been for generations, and it affects our prisons significantly, as was pointed out clearly by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook), who needs to be congratulated on his initiative in securing the debate.

It never fails to amaze me that we do not learn from abroad or, in this context, from home. Scores of lessons
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can be learned from abroad, but we British seem not to bother learning them, especially on drugs policy. At home, I tell the Minister that there is a secure unit, where nobody gets out and it takes rather a long time to get in. It is in my constituency and has 1,700 or 1,800 employees, all unionised, and is the biggest Prison Officers Association branch in the country. It is Rampton, and those who go there do so with many different addictions.

Anyone who wants to study addiction in this country can examine what happens in Rampton, an environment that drugs do not get into. They do not get in because the POA members there are honest citizens. It is so difficult to get in and out, even for those who work there, that if there was ever a bad apple among them, they would have to be incredibly inventive to manage to smuggle anything in. There is little evidence of drugs circulating in Rampton, so the nature of addiction and addictive disorders can be studied there for a lifetime. We do not use that experience.

If people who have addictive personalities—a small proportion of those who are on addictive drugs—cannot get their drug of choice, they take something else. In a place such as Rampton it is boot polish, meths—the old story—or anything that is available. If nothing is available and such people are locked in their cells, they adopt a different addictive abnormality. That is documented at Rampton in individual detail, and we have not used that evidence to inform our drugs policy, as we should. There is a lot to learn, and I strongly recommend that the Minister considers that and meets the POA at Rampton. Its members there are probably more informed on the matter than they realise.

I wish to challenge one aspect of Opposition policy, not to score points but to contribute to the debate. On what the hon. Member for Banbury said, his party suggested in the Scottish elections that £100 million should go on residential rehabilitation in Scotland. We have residential rehabilitation—it is called prison. When I did my heroin inquiry I spoke to the majority of heroin addicts in my constituency, virtually all of whom had been in and out of prison regularly. I found that many of them had committed crimes in order to get into prison. Why? Because that was the one break that they could give their families from their repeated low-level offending. There were countless examples of people fighting to claim responsibility for the same crime because there was a potential prison tariff. Prison is a rehabilitation for them—I call it a comfort break from the lives that they live outside.

What does that mean for policy? The problem in prison is that there is a whole group of people who have offended and many of whom are bad instinctively. Some of them are there purely because they have a drug addiction and steal repeatedly because of it. What we do not do in this country is treat them.

Everybody wants to be an expert on drugs. If someone in prison had cancer, they would get treatment, and there would be no surprise as to how that was done. When it comes to drugs policy, all sorts of people earn a good living talking about drugs and doing things about them, but the people who should be treating drug addiction are the doctors. The evidence from my constituency, as from most parts of the world, is that doctors who treat addiction have a far better
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chance of getting rid of it. In terms of prison policy, that means that the treatment opportunities available outside prison should also be used inside prison.

I congratulate the Government on what they have done in that respect. I pushed hard to get methadone maintenance programmes into prisons, and the Government agreed to introduce them, after a lot of pressure. In that respect, I read an article today about some of the successes at Wandsworth prison. Such moves help staff in prisons, who tell me that their key fear relates to dealing with prisoners who get access not to drugs, but to needles. Such prisoners may start threatening or stabbing prison officers, and that is a particular problem where needles are shared and there is a danger of hepatitis C, which is the most common problem. I would not want to be in the position of those prison officers, with prisoners sharing needles and potentially stabbing me as I went about my everyday work, because that could be life threatening to me.

What we need is effective GP provision, but what I see in prisons is a mish-mash of vague ideas. There is this vague concept of rehabilitation, which is all things to all people, and my advice to Conservative Members is that they should define it. My definition is that people get the same treatment inside prison as they get outside and that the first thing they do when they leave prison, rather than being ferried around by countless police officers and drugs workers, is continue their treatment with their own GP, in their own GP practice, in their own community. The evidence from my constituency, like the evidence from Sweden, France, Australia and other countries, is that that approach works. It does not work for everybody, but it has the same success rate—about 60 to 70 per cent.—as with any other illness that involves relapses.

That is the policy that we need and it is a sensible policy in prisons. If it is to be effective, we should give additional punishments for what would then be the unnecessary use of needles in prison. We should target such use in particular because it would break the logic of drugs treatment in prisons and it is the biggest hurt and danger factor for prison officers and other staff.

3.3 pm

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). To pick up on his comments about Rampton prison, I was a criminal solicitor for 12 years and visited a number of prisons, including Rampton. As his remarks show, the absence of a supply of drugs at the prison and the way in which residents are treated there is exceptional in some ways. That is not least because residents in Rampton are there primarily under mental health provisions and are very much at the extreme end of offending. Rampton is also exceptional in terms of the resources that go to it, as opposed to other prisons, and resources are an issue for several prisons, not least my local prisons of Pentonville and Holloway.

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