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20 Oct 2009 : Column 774

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the appropriate response of the Israeli Government to the Arab peace offer would have been an unequivocal commitment to an immediate settlement freeze, as all the settlements are illegal under international law. What can be done to ensure that they do this now?

Mr. Lewis: I agree with my hon. Friend. President Obama has made it clear that the trigger for comprehensive negotiations that will lead to a two-state solution are, first, the freezing of illegal Israeli settlements, which has long been the British position, and, secondly, a positive gesture towards the state of Israel from the Arab world. We believe that there is no time to waste in responding positively to President Obama's initiative.

T9. [293934] Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Last year we provided £339 million in overseas development assistance to India. We even provided £97 million to China, but Afghanistan on the other hand received only £178 million. The brave men and women of our armed forces are fighting to defeat the Taliban. Should we not be providing more aid to win the hearts and minds of the civilian population?

David Miliband: We are providing more aid: Afghanistan is going to become the second largest recipient of British aid this year. It is also worth pointing out that, to put it mildly, Afghanistan is a much smaller country than China or India. By definition, the aid that we give to a country of 20 million people will be much less than our aid to some other countries. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Afghanistan will become the second largest aid recipient this year.

David Cairns (Inverclyde) (Lab): One small cause for optimism in the middle east is the security improvements on the west bank, which have been brought about by the Palestinian Authority finally getting a grip on security there and the Israelis responding by opening road blocks. Will the Foreign Secretary continue to provide full support and backing to General Dayton and his largely British team, who have done so much to bring about that improved state of affairs?

David Miliband: Yes, I have worked closely with General Dayton, who has done an important job, with support from his British No. 2. The commitment to improving Palestinian security was to be found in phase one of the road map, and the Israeli commitment was meant to be to freeze the settlements alongside that. The fact that the Palestinian Authority are determined to follow through on their commitment to improving Palestinian security is right, and it is also reaping dividends in the form of the economic benefits that can be seen by anyone who goes to Ramallah or anywhere else in the west bank.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I am mindful of the earlier exchanges about Sri Lanka and the work being done by the Government. Is it not therefore high time that we had a cast-iron programme from the Sri Lankan Government for the disbanding of those awful camps and the repatriation of the Tamil people?

David Miliband: Yes.

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Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend tell me whether he thinks that the pressures on freedom of expression elsewhere in the world have an impact on our own freedoms of expression and our safety in the UK?

Chris Bryant: Freedom of expression, wherever it may be in the world, is a vital subject that we try to raise in many countries. Part of our diplomatic effort in Colombia, Russia, China and many parts of Africa involves trying to ensure that the freedoms that we rejoice in here in this country can be shared by people in other parts of the world.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Zimbabwe has fallen off the Foreign Office radar, yet the tragedy and the crisis there continue. What initiatives are the Government taking to try to bring some form of African democracy to that wonderful country?

David Miliband: I am glad to have the opportunity to assure the hon. Gentleman that Zimbabwe certainly has not fallen off our agenda. There is intensive work going on, not least through our contacts with the new South African Government, to ensure that the crisis that he has rightly described is not forgotten. He will also be aware of our continuing humanitarian work. The vital need, however, is to support the global political agreement and the transition that it promises to a proper election that will recognise the real winner of that election. He will have seen that members of a European Union delegation went to Harare and delivered a simple message without fear or favour to President Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangirai. The message was that they would support the Zimbabwean people in delivering and
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administering that global political agreement, but that it must lead to an effective election to resolve the country's future.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that any massacre, big or small, by whomever, of Jews during world war two was a crime against humanity? To whitewash such a massacre and to try to make it relative is intolerable, unacceptable politics, and those who associate with those politicians shame this House and our nation.

David Miliband: My right hon. Friend has done fantastic work with colleagues across every party on anti-Semitism and the need to combat it. There is no room for hair-splitting when it comes to the massacre of 300 or 400 people in a Polish village in 1941, and I would have thought that every single Member of this House would be able to condemn that atrocity without any hesitation.

T10. [293935] Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): In his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), the Foreign Secretary implied that our grand abstention was part of a cunning plan involving President Sarkozy. What was the plan?

David Miliband: The plan was very simple, and I would not describe it as cunning. I would describe it as principled and clear. It is to ensure that there is an independent inquiry into the allegations at the heart of the Goldstone report, that humanitarian aid gets into Gaza and that there is a restart of peace talks on the basis of President Obama's UN General Assembly speech. That is something that the hon. Gentleman should be supporting, not mocking.

20 Oct 2009 : Column 777

Transfer of Prisoners

3.33 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor if he will make a statement on the report from the chief inspector of prisons documenting the concerted movement of prisoners between Wandsworth and Pentonville prisons in order to avoid inspection.

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for this question. Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons, Dame Anne Owers, has today published two inspection reports concerning Her Majesty's prisons at Pentonville and Wandsworth. The inspections took place in May and June this year. The background to the chief inspector's findings is contained in a written ministerial statement that I made to the House this morning. An investigation report was received by the senior management of the National Offender Management Service on 2 October. The report found that 11 prisoners had been subject to temporary transfers between Wandsworth and Pentonville, and that those transfers had been arranged in a deliberate attempt to undermine the inspection process of Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons. Several of these prisoners were known to be vulnerable, and two harmed themselves during this process.

Following the receipt of the investigation reports, disciplinary charges under the Prison Service code of conduct were laid on 13 October against a number of individuals. Proceedings are currently under way. The House will understand that such disciplinary proceedings are not a matter in which Ministers can or should be involved.

The prisons and probation ombudsman and Her Majesty's coroner are conducting separate investigations into the self-inflicted death of another prisoner transferred to Pentonville, following a court appearance, in the week before the Wandsworth inspection. The prisoner was held at Pentonville during the inspection, before being returned to Wandsworth. During the course of the investigations, information emerged to suggest that a third prison, HMP Brixton, temporarily transferred prisoners out during its inspection. A further investigation is now being completed and we are awaiting a formal report.

There are obviously questions as to whether these practices are more widespread across the prison estate. I have therefore asked Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons to work with the Ministry of Justice's director of analytical services to investigate whether the temporary transfer of prisoners prior to inspections has occurred in other prisons.

The transfer of prisoners like this, in a deliberate attempt to undermine the inspectorate process of HM's chief inspector of prisons, was a disgraceful matter in both its intent and its execution. The individuals involved neglected one of their primary duties-to treat those in custody with decency and respect-and made serious errors of judgment, which are neither justifiable nor excusable. But for these transfers, these two prisons were

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as Dame Anne Owers, the chief inspector, commented this morning. She added that

Independent inspections and Prison Service performance standards, along with substantial investment, have led to a transformation in the nature of prison regimes over the past 12 years. Her Majesty's chief inspector has acknowledged that prisons today are more decent, more constructive and considerably more secure, which is yet another reason why these incidents are all the more inexcusable and regrettable. I will, of course, keep the House informed of further developments.

Mr. Grieve: The report by the chief inspector of prisons and the answer just given to my question today show that prisoners have been transferred from Wandsworth and Pentonville prisons with the collusion of senior staff and the deliberate intention of avoiding independent inspection without any regard for those prisoners' well-being. Dame Anne Owers concludes that this was

She is clearly right, and I am delighted that the Secretary of State agrees.

Those responsible face a disciplinary process. That, too, is right. We will await the outcome and I certainly do not wish to prejudice such proceedings today. However, if the Prison Service takes responsibility for its mistakes, will the Justice Secretary take responsibility for the failings in the prison system that are bringing this state of affairs about? The truth is that this type of incident, while totally inexcusable, is an almost inevitable result of this Government's serial mismanagement of our prisons.

Prison overcrowding is at record levels. Can the Justice Secretary confirm that in May, at the time of the inspections, Wandsworth prison was holding 50 per cent. more prisoners than its certified capacity-just seven away from its absolute emergency breaking point? Is it fair to limit responsibility to prison staff when the Government have recklessly ignored all the warnings over a period of six years that predicted this crisis of capacity in our prisons today, which was bound to impact on how individual prisoners are managed?

The Justice Secretary seems to believe that targets can make up for this most basic failure to provide enough places for all the prisoners. Both Wandsworth and Pentonville prisons are subject to 44 different top-down targets, including one for the amount of water drunk and another for energy efficiency. In the first quarter of this year, as the Secretary of State said, Wandsworth prison was evaluated as "good", yet at the same time we have these serious failings.

Does the Justice Secretary accept that we are witnessing the stark reality of the warping effect in the real world of excessive Whitehall targets set by this Government? Does he accept that prison officers would not go to such extraordinary lengths to dupe inspectors if the Government lived up to their responsibilities, and created the conditions in which they can work properly?

Then there are the specific findings of the chief inspector: the deliberate moving of vulnerable prisoners prone to self-harm which definitely led some of them to injure themselves, and the fact that two of the five prisoners from Wandsworth tried to kill themselves when told that they would be moved. One tied a ligature around his own neck and cut himself. He was forced from his cell in his underwear.

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Does the Justice Secretary recognise that those appalling and utterly avoidable examples of mistreatment are the consequences of a prison estate that is bursting at the seams? Will he undertake to come to the House and make an oral statement once we have the ombudsman's findings on the tragic suicide of Christopher Wardally? Will he take some responsibility?

These are not isolated examples. As a result of the conditions in our prisons, incidents of self-harm rose by 10 per cent. last year. What hope can we have of reducing reoffending rates to protect the public when increasing numbers of prisoners are so desperate that they will harm themselves? [Interruption.] Did the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) wish to intervene?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): No. It was so boring that I did not bother.

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Grieve: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman takes this matter so seriously, Mr. Speaker.

Does the Justice Secretary accept that the Government's usual tactic of trying to characterise the transfers and the problems as being isolated incidents simply does not wash from what we know happened at Brixton? Will he give the House an undertaking to publish, in a written statement, a list of all prisoner transfers made within a week before inspections were due in all prisons in the last six months? That will at least give us some measure of transparency, given that there must be fears that this may in fact be a widespread practice. Although the Secretary of State has known about the matter for some time-since July-Wandsworth remains as crowded as it was back in May.

This is a Government who are on their last legs. They are exhausted, and they are bereft of solutions to problems that are entirely of their own making.

Mr. Straw: Let me respond to the series of questions asked by the hon. and learned Gentleman.

I have always taken responsibility for the prison system, and any other matter falling within my wide responsibilities as a Minister, in every Department in which I have been involved. However, there is no evidence so far-none whatsoever-that these totally unacceptable and inexcusable transfers have anything to do with the setting and maintenance of targets, or with overcrowding in prisons.

I accept, and volunteered in my statement-indeed, it was I who proposed it in the first place-that, given the evidence here, and the evidence that we have that something may have happened in Brixton, and we know no more than that, there are bound to be questions about whether the practice was widespread. That is why I have set up an independent investigation in which the chief inspector of prisons' staff will be involved alongside my staff, who, I may say, are separate from the staff of the National Offender Management Service. However, both the director general of the Prison Service-who is as appalled about this as anyone-and the chief inspector of prisons themselves said today words to the effect that they doubt that the practice is widespread, and so far there is no evidence that it is. I promise the House, of course, that any evidence that emerges from the analysis that we are conducting will be made available to the House, and that, if there is any evidence, it will be followed up rigorously.

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As for the number of prisoners in Wandsworth prison on the day of their inspections, two measures are applied, certified normal accommodation and operational capacity. No local prison in the country has ever been at its certified normal accommodation level. All work, and have under successive Governments, to their operational capacity. Wandsworth was just under it, and Pentonville was 84 under it.

On the hyperbole about targets, after years of absolute chaos in the prisons under the previous Administration-for example, escapes were running at more per week than happened last in a single year-it was they who established targets: eight key performance indicators and eight targets. There are now 13 targets for prisons, including on such matters as escapes, drugs, reoffending, staff sickness and ethnic minority staff. I would like the hon. and learned Gentleman to tell us which of them he suggests we should not meet.

As for overcrowding-

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I gently say to the Secretary of State that if he could offer us a brief distillation of his views, that would be appreciated?

Mr. Straw rose-

Mr. Speaker: Order. So far, the exchanges between the Front Benches have simply taken too long. If that happens again, I will cut them off, as we must get Back Benchers in.

Mr. Straw: As for the timing, I was informed of this on 30 July. I issued a public statement immediately, and I also wrote to the hon. and learned Gentleman on 2 September.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): What appears to have happened is, indeed, disgraceful, and it is particularly disturbing that the members of staff involved were of such high rank and of such previous high reputation. However, does the Secretary of State not feel some twinge of guilt about what happened? He says there is no connection between this and overcrowding, but the connection is as follows: because of overcrowding, every day there are massive transfers from prison to prison within the prison system, and presumably that is where the idea arose of hiding these problems behind transfers. The second thing he should feel some responsibility for is the fact that the prisons are full of inmates who suffer from mental illnesses-serious mental illnesses in many cases. There is a far higher proportion of people with mental illnesses among the prisoner population than among the population at large. We have been given to believe that some of the inmates concerned in this case were suffering from mental illness. Will the Secretary of State confirm that?

Does the Secretary of State accept that the overcrowding of the prisons and the fact that they are full of mentally ill prisoners is in the end the responsibility of the Government, who have encouraged both the greater use of prison and the increasing of prison sentences in a vain attempt to win a punitive war of attrition with the main Opposition party? Does he not see that this incident is a cause for soul searching not only in the Prison Service, but at the highest level of politics?

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