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HM Prisons Blakenhurst and Leeds

7.6 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to take following the reports of the Chief Inspector of Prisons on HM Prisons Blakenhurst and Leeds.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Chief Inspector of Prisons produces many reports which demonstrate the admirable work which has been carried out by governors and staff in our prisons, often working in the most difficult conditions. The reports seldom arouse a great deal of interest, either in the media or in Parliament. But inevitably when things go wrong the situation is altogether different. In the case of the prisons which we are discussing tonight, a great deal went wrong. Once again, we should all pay tribute to Judge Tumim and his colleagues for having produced the reports which are of high quality, fair-minded and yet rigorous.

One report deals with a brand new Category B local prison for sentenced and remand adult male prisoners which has been handed over to the private sector to manage. The other is an overcrowded local prison in the public sector, constructed nearly 150 years ago, which is in the process of being redeveloped.

I shall deal first with the report on Leeds Prison. It is a deeply disappointing analysis, for although it indicates that there is an impressive strategic plan for the future of the prison—and I recognise that substantial improvements have taken place since the inspection by Judge Tumim and his colleagues last June—the overall impression given is quite dreadful.

Let me ask the noble Baroness a few questions. Why have Ministers tolerated a situation in which little was done to rectify the severe criticisms directed in the Chief Inspector's report on the prisons six years ago? I say "Ministers"; it is not a matter for the director-general of the Prison Service. I hope that we shall not have the business of trying to argue about the distinction between operational questions and policy questions. We are talking about a report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons which goes to Ministers. It is Ministers who must accept responsibility for the unsatisfactory situation.

We all know about the redevelopment of the prison, but how can Ministers justify allowing the lamentable conditions at Leeds to persist over such a long period since the last highly critical report? Judge Tumim said that many persons were living in grossly unsatisfactory conditions. Precisely the same criticism was made six years ago.

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At the time of the recent inspection, working conditions in a number of departments were said to be "appalling". An exercise area was found to be contaminated with human waste and an underground holding and transfer area was said to be,

    "filthy, unhygenic and unsuited for its purpose".

Remand prisoners on one wing were crammed into cells for over 22 hours a day, a position said by Judge Tumim to be,

    "far removed from the model regime for local prisons promoted by the Prison Service".

The report said that Leeds staff were trapped in a warehouse with apparently no chance to put things right because of unremitting overcrowding and insufficient activity. That is the price being paid as a result of the philosophy of "prison works". Ministers again must accept direct responsibility for the situation at Leeds and, I fear, a number of other local prisons which could be subject to precisely the same criticism.

I do not doubt that the governor and many members of the staff at Leeds are endeavouring to cope with those conditions to the best of their ability. For instance, catering staff—a critically important group at a local prison—have clearly done well, according to Judge Tumim. So have the PE staff. But many serious questions remain. Why have there been so many changes to the planned redevelopment of the establishment? Why, even before the new wings were fully occupied, were significant structural alterations made which the chief inspector found to be unnecessary. I hope that the noble Baroness will deal directly with that question. Ministers speak continually about achieving value for money. How can value for money be secured when changes of such a character, costing significant sums of money, are made, which the Chief Inspector of Prisons says are unnecessary?

The difficulty is that changes of that sort, as I indicated, made at considerable public expense, have had a clear effect on the quality of life in the establishment. The report on Leeds is a disturbing document. Certainly it discloses some welcome shafts of light in an otherwise gloomy landscape. But, overall, I found it one of the most depressing accounts that I have read of conditions in an overcrowded local prison, where we should remember that a significant proportion of the inmates held have not been convicted of any criminal offence.

I turn to the report on Blakenhurst, the private sector establishment. There, the new managers had every apparent advantage. The prison was not overcrowded and facilities were incomparably superior to anything provided at Leeds. The report pays tribute to some of the successes at Blakenhurst. For instance, the education service was said to be outstanding and the treatment of inmates by staff was described as very good. There were other tributes to the character of the regime at Blakenhurst. All that was clearly deserving of praise.

But then came the criticisms, some of them of a fairly remarkable character—not, I may say, that they were set out in the press notice sent out by the prison department's press notice. As is always the case, there

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were two press notices, one summarising the position of the Chief Inspector of Prisons and the other the position of the department.

The press notice from Judge Tumim reads:

    "Inspection finds 'confusion of cultures' at Blakenhurst Prison".

That is related to the fact that part of the ownership of the prison is vested in an American company. So far as the Prison Service press notice is concerned, it reads:

    "Blakenhurst staff impress HM Chief Inspector of Prisons".

Those two documents make a rather interesting contrast.

Not until we read through the Prison Service press statement do we find, at the foot of the second page, a faint suggestion that there have been some criticisms in the report by Judge Tumim. Until that moment it is difficult to believe that the chief inspector found anything at all to criticise.

I have rarely read a more misleading summary of any government report. Indeed, it reminds me of a headline in the Daily Herald, during the 1947-48 fuel crisis; the Daily Herald at that time being as loyal to the government of the day as the Daily Express is to the present Government. At that time in 1947-48, when factories were being forced to close down all over Britain because of a severe shortage of fuel, the Daily Herald came out with the headline: "Booming Britain outpaces pits". The press notice about Blakenhurst comes well into that category.

Let me present some of Judge Tumim's other findings about Blakenhurst which did not find their way into the Prison Service summary. Judge Tumim said that custody staff were not fully in control of the inmate population. Not fully in control? We are talking about a category B prison; one of the highest categories of security that exist in the Prison Service. It is said that bullying had been a worrying feature in the establishment and conditions for vulnerable prisoners were highly unsuitable. Systems were poor. Inmates were found wandering around the corridors at times when they should have been taking part in purposeful activities. And where were the drug dealing and bullying taking place? It was taking place in the corridors of the prison, where people were wandering around without any adequate form of supervision. That seems to me to be a matter of some concern. I am sure that the noble Baroness will tell us that she shares that concern.

When the staff were interviewed by Judge Tumim and his colleagues, they told the inspectors that the training that they had received before taking up their duties had not been adequate; staffing levels were too low and managers had chosen to ignore the warnings from staff before the major disturbance in the previous year. The managers told the inspectors that they had not received adequate training, communications were poor and there were inadequate constructive activities to keep inmates occupied when out of their cells.

That last point brings me to the question of whether UKDS, the company which runs Blakenhurst, is taking compliance with the contract sufficiently seriously. For instance, in its tender submission UKDS undertook to provide commercial wage rates in one work activity area. Nothing has been done. Why not? Will the noble Baroness tell us this evening?

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But the problem is far wider. Judge Tumim states that the Home Office should have ensured that UKDS was contractually obliged to deliver all that was promised in its tender submission. That sounds unhappily like some of those applications for independent television franchises: much is offered; all too little is delivered. Quite apart from that, UKDS was not even delivering what it was legally contracted to do.

All that being so, what do Ministers propose to do about this matter? If the tendering process is to be taken seriously and not merely as an essay in imaginative journalism, what steps do they propose to take to ensure that UKDS is obliged to fulfil the assurances given at the time of awarding the contract?

I have deliberately avoided discussing the issue as to whether private prisons are acceptable. I have stated my opinions on this matter both in this House and outside on a number of occasions. I have little doubt that if there is a change of government at the next election establishments like Blakenhurst will be returned to the direct control of the state.

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