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I appreciate that a number of factors have contributed to the situation highlighted in the report. One is overcrowding. Given the pressures on our prisons at present and the time it takes to find extra capacity in the system, I accept that we cannot reverse the overcrowding problem immediately. However, in view of the pressures on staff and the tension in the prisoner population caused by overcrowding, what can be done to try to alleviate the problem on a short-term basis until a longer-term solution can, we hope, reduce overcrowding and return the prison to the situation of about seven or eight years ago?

I have a further plea to make to the Minister. The independent monitoring report requests a response from her on its recommendation that the time that elapses between a death in custody and the holding of an inquest should be speeded up. Although the report accepts that steps have been taken to try to reduce the time between deaths in custody and inquests, the writers felt that nothing had actually happened to reduce the time, so I urge the Minister to address the problem. Does she have any ideas or recommendations as to how one might expedite the process so that inquests are heard far nearer to the time when the tragedy occurs? That would be in the best interests of the system as a whole: it would help to give closure to the parents, families and friends of those who die so tragically, and it could also help to identify precisely what went wrong in individual cases, and what recommendations could be made to try to ensure that no tragedy occurred again as a result of whatever cause led to the suicide in question.

I should like briefly to touch on another area highlighted by the HMI report: education and employment in the prison. I personally believe that prison serves two purposes: punishment for the individual and, equally importantly, an opportunity for rehabilitation. However, rehabilitation can be achieved only if prisoners reach a certain level of education. The HMI report shows that nearly a third of people in Chelmsford prison had been unemployed and a further third had been involved in activities that provided no skills or qualifications. It is critical, to assist with rehabilitation and minimise reoffending rates, that levels of literacy and education be raised among prisoners. That will give those prisoners a golden opportunity to make a fresh start on release and to minimise their opportunities to reoffend. They will have gained a level of literacy and education that not only incentivises them to try to find employment but makes them more attractive to employers, so that in the very difficult circumstances of released prisoners, they can secure jobs.

In that respect, Chelmsford prison has been extremely fortunate, because it has benefited from the work of Jackie Hewitt Main, who has created the Mentoring 4 You programme. Using research on the prisoners, she has identified that a significant number of them suffer from dyslexia, which is, of course, the root of a great deal of illiteracy in the prison system and, for that matter, outside the prison system. She has established a programme in which other prisoners are engaged to help prisoners who suffer from dyslexia and dyspraxia to overcome or minimise their literacy problems. It is an
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exciting and potentially very beneficial programme, but like many other good ideas, it suffers from funding problems.

I urge the Minister to liaise with her colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) —I hope to do so, too, personally if I can secure a meeting with him. He is responsible for the funding of such programmes in our prison system, and we could try to persuade his Department to provide funding for that imaginative and important scheme. I also urge her to study the reports that have been conducted on the Mentoring 4 You programme in Chelmsford prison, because they are very positive and hopeful. If she were to agree with my analysis, and that of Ofsted, that the project is positive and worth while, she should consider rolling out the programme to other prisons, so that other prisoners can benefit from that sort of programme and enjoy the same benefits as those enjoyed by prisoners in Chelmsford prison. That will help to enable prisoners with dyslexia and dyspraxia to reduce their illiteracy and give them an opportunity to take positive steps forward, so that when they are released there is the beneficial impact of minimising the likelihood of their reoffending.

In conclusion, I believe that the HMI report has highlighted some important problems and issues at Chelmsford prison, especially given the suicides in the prison in the past nine months. We must move forward; we must ensure that best practice is employed and that everything is done to minimise a repetition of what happened. We must never lose sight of the fact that the management and prison officers are doing an extremely good job, often in difficult circumstances. We must give them the support and assistance to rectify the problems highlighted in the report, so that when Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons revisits the prison, it sees serious improvements in the regime.

We can talk for as long as we like about the problems and how to identify them, but what is important is getting solutions. We have to make sure that talk leads to action, and that we ensure a better, safer environment not only for prisoners but for prison officers, so that they can carry out their job and serve society.

10.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): I congratulate the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) on securing the debate. He is well-known for taking an interest in the prison in his constituency. I thank him for that, because visiting prisons and making sure that one is fully aware of what goes on in them is not top of every hon. Member’s list. However, it clearly is close to the top of his list, and I congratulate him on that.

The hon. Gentleman set out in some detail the findings of the report on the inspection that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons carried out between 9 and 13 July 2007. The report was published on 24 January this year. It made more than 150 recommendations and, as is the case with all inspection reports by the inspectorate, an action plan will be produced that responds in detail to every one of the recommendations. The action plan will be provided to the chief inspector of prisons and I will approve it. The
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chief inspector acknowledged in her recent annual report that the Prison Service responds positively to her reports and accepts over 95 per cent. of her recommendations. We are determined that, as we follow the processes, the correct lessons will be learned, and the correct actions taken.

I can report that there has been progress. The chief inspector’s report was published only recently, but the inspection took place six months ago, and the Prison Service and Chelmsford have been getting on with trying to implement her recommendations and dealing with the issues that she rightly raised. A good deal more progress is in the pipeline. In view of the concerns that the chief inspector listed, and which the hon. Gentleman has repeated, I think that it would be appropriate for me to highlight some of the things that have been done to carry out the chief inspector’s recommendations. In cataloguing the progress made, I do not seek to downplay in any way the seriousness of her findings. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind that we fully intend to continue to bear down on the faults that she identified.

The prison is coming to the end of a new building and refurbishment project that has provided a 120-bed unit and workshops for brickwork, woodwork, plumbing and electrical work. It also provides additional classroom space, and there is IT-based learning through Learn Direct. An extension to the gymnasium facilities is nearing completion. The extension will provide additional purposeful activity spaces and includes a new shower area. After numerous surveys, the governor believes that a solution to the problem of not being able to provide showers consistently on B and C wings has been found, and work is to start shortly to improve the water pressure on those Victorian wings. That should do something to improve the situation and end some of the problems that the chief inspector highlighted.

There is no doubt that the standard of accommodation varies widely across the establishment. New wings are coming into use, but there are inherent difficulties with some of the Victorian wings, which it is impossible to remove. We have to do what we can with them.

The prison has reviewed the processes in reception, which has resulted in newly received prisoners spending less time in the area, and being moved to the first-night centre to complete the process. The centre provides a better environment for staff and prisoners to complete risk assessments and medical documentation.

Listeners and insiders are used regularly in reception, but because less time is spent in reception, the need is met predominantly in the first-night centre. There are 12 listeners, who have been trained by the Samaritans, and the prison also uses insiders— experienced prisoners who receive training and provide valuable support in the first-night centre, where they interview all new receptions, and offer advice and support at peer level.

The anti-bullying policy has been reviewed, and staff and prisoners are fully aware of the processes. The prison has introduced prisoner wing anti-bullying representatives—trusted and experienced prisoners who can help staff in identification of, and support for, prisoners who are subject to acts of bullying. That has provided an opportunity for victims of bullying to report safely and freely any such acts, allowing them to be dealt with in a timely and efficient manner.

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Since the inspection, the location for vulnerable prisoners has been changed from the Victorian D wing to the new G wing, which provides the vulnerable prisoner population with a safer environment, where main prisoner moves do not affect the regime of those on the unit. Young offenders have been moved from C wing and integrated across the establishment, which has allowed the prison to manage the more volatile, gang-related culture in a more holistic manner. The area manager is seeking to reduce the young offender population, which has recently risen. Two thirds of the population are from out of the area, the majority of them from London.

The prison has looked at the use of control and restraint, and it has introduced a use of force review, in which the governor, the head of operations, the safer custody manager, the control and restraint instructor, and a representative of the Prison Officers Association meet to review the previous month’s incidents. Since the inspection, there has been a marked reduction, I am happy to say, in instances of control and restraint, adjudications, and the use of special accommodation and body belts, which were mentioned by the inspector in her report. In fact, body belts have not been used in the past six months, and special accommodation usage has also reduced by 55 per cent. in that period.

At the time of the inspection, staffing was a major problem, and the establishment had a shortfall of about 25 officers at the end of August. I am pleased to report that, as a result of a major recruitment drive, the prison is in a much more stable position, with a much more manageable shortfall of six officers, and it should be up to complement by March.

Key to the prison’s response to the chief inspector’s report and the implementation of her recommendations is the staff response. The hon. Gentleman was right to say what a great job the staff do, and how difficult it can be. I acknowledge the truth of what he says. Like him, I wish to place on record the Government’s thanks for the efforts of staff at all levels. He referred to individuals who have done outstanding work, which he has seen on his visits, but they all do a good job, often in trying circumstances.

One way in which prison management can determine staff morale is to look at the number of staff who engage in the annual survey. I am pleased to be able to report that the number of staff taking part in the survey rose from 26 per cent. to 65 per cent. last year, indicating a greater engagement. People think that it is useful to fill in the survey, so it is a good pointer to improved morale. The governor is right to believe that morale is improving and that staff want to be involved in taking the prison forward.

In the remaining time, I wish to deal with specific points made by the hon. Gentleman. He rightly raised the issue of self-inflicted deaths in custody, particularly the three deaths in six weeks at Chelmsford. I should say at the outset that every death in prison affects families, staff and other prisoners deeply. Ministers and the Prison Service are completely committed to reducing the number of such tragic incidents. Following the most recent death on 8 January, the Prison Service undertook an immediate review of systems and practices around suicide and self-harm at Chelmsford. The key findings were that staff across all the areas in the prison that were visited were knowledgeable about safer custody
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issues, and motivated to provide a good level of care; and that the reception was well run, although a number of suggestions have been made about its general layout and the provision of resources such as health care and listeners, and the further identification of high-risk groups.

Assessment, care in custody and teamwork documents, the care planning system for prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm, were of a good quality overall. There were common areas for development, including an overlap between the assessor and the case manager role, a lack of clarity in the required frequency of conversations and observations, and the recording of those.

Before the review, we were all aware that the four most recent self-inflicted deaths, dating back to May 2007, happened on different wings and at varying times of the day and involved a mixture of sentenced and unsentenced prisoners who had been at Chelmsford for varying lengths of time. There seemed to be no particular, discernible pattern. Thankfully, the review has highlighted no extra issues that might indicate a disturbing institutional problem. Staff at the prison are obviously very concerned and distressed at the spate of recent deaths and will continue to take that aspect of their work extremely seriously. There are numerous examples of groups of close-together deaths at various establishments, and they always have a traumatic effect. It is right for us to seek to learn every possible lesson to minimise such activity.

The hon. Gentleman made some points about outstanding inquests. Five inquests relating to deaths at Chelmsford are currently outstanding. The earliest case involved a death in October 2006. One of the issues is that the Prison Service’s and probation service’s ombudsman has to produce his report before the inquest can go ahead. The report on that case was received in October 2007. The inquest is scheduled for May 2008. The coroner is awaiting reports on the other four deaths; that is often one of the things that holds up inquests. We need the inquests to be carried out as swiftly as possible for the benefit of all—not only for
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the deceased’s family, for whom it is a very distressing time, but for staff and other prisoners, so that any lessons can be learned. We encourage the speediest possible process, so that the inquest can go ahead as quickly as is commensurate with proper investigation.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned differences that he perceived in tone and outcome between the chief inspector of prison’s report and the independent monitoring board report. We have only just received the IMB report and I have not yet had the chance to respond properly to it. However, I can say that the chief inspector of prisons and the IMB are independent and entitled to report as they see fit. The main difference between the two is that the IMB sees the prison operating day in, day out and goes in frequently to work alongside staff and prisoners. Naturally, its members develop an affinity for the establishment. Perhaps it is rather different for the chief inspector, who goes in for a few days to form a view to base her report on. She also goes to other establishments and so can compare and contrast. All I can say is that I guess they look at a prison from slightly different angles. I certainly intend to answer fully the questions raised for my attention in respect of the IMB report.

The hon. Gentleman asked what is being done to implement recommendations to minimise the opportunities for self-harm and suicide, and I have said a little about that already. We certainly intend to bear down on that issue, which was raised in both reports. It gives some clue on why there has been such a spate of self-harm. As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, such things are not easy to pin down. However, there is no doubt that we are fully committed at the establishment and Government levels, and with others, to try to make sure that we minimise the incidence of self-harm and suicide. We need to focus on that particularly, given what has recently occurred at Chelmsford—

The motion having been made after Ten o’clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at sixteen minutes to Eleven o’clock.

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