Grahame Morris – 2022 Speech on Violence in Prisons

The speech made by Grahame Morris, the Labour MP for Easington, in the House of Commons on 19 January 2022.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a duty on Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and private prison operators to minimise violence in prisons; and for connected purposes.

I will endeavour to follow your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker, about good temper and moderation.

I would first like to express my gratitude to all staff working in prisons. It is an incredibly challenging job, and even more so with covid and the many challenges they face with the latest omicron wave. Over 90% of prisons are currently outbreak sites, and I am told by the Prison Officers Association trade union that this is up from just three establishments a month ago. That has caused critical staffing shortages, as well as all the dangers to public health that follow.

On top of this recent threat to the health of staff and prisoners, there is the ever-present threat to their safety from prison violence. The sky-high level of violence plaguing our prisons makes rehabilitation inside practically impossible, meaning that offenders often leave prison more damaged and dangerous than when they arrived. That leads to more reoffending, costing tens of billions of pounds a year and causing misery for millions of victims and their loved ones who have to live with the consequences of even more crime. The prison lockdowns throughout the pandemic have thankfully reduced assaults from the all-time highs that we saw in 2019, but Ministers must now learn the right lessons and not rely on long lock-ups in future or revert back to a business-as-usual approach.

The new “Prisons Strategy” White Paper is a golden opportunity for urgently needed change if Ministers will only commit to doing whatever it takes to tackle both prison violence and, indeed, the causes of prison violence. My Bill aligns with the White Paper’s stated aim of reducing prison violence and uses the paper’s framework of key performance indicators—“management targets” in common parlance—to achieve this. KPIs are already used in private prisons to reward or penalise their operators, but the Government’s new strategy extends these targets and adds new ones to public sector prisons too. It is obvious that the new KPIs need to include safety for both prisoners and staff but, curiously, this commitment is entirely missing from the White Paper. My Bill seeks to correct that omission. It would enshrine a statutory duty on prison management—whether in the public or private sector—to minimise violence. If KPIs are the Minister’s preferred method of choice, that is the method we will use here too.

Currently, the only prison safety targets involve serious assaults, and such assaults must involve hospital treatment. This needs to be extended to all kinds of violence, if Ministers are serious about a zero-tolerance approach to bad behaviour. Penalties could include fines for both public and private sector operators, with the money raised going towards making injury compensation schemes fit for purpose by widening the scope for claims, removing the unfair barriers throughout the process, and lifting awards to reflect the bravery and commitment shown by prison officers and other staff working in our prisons system.

Even Ministers accept that staff cuts of more than 25%—in the name of austerity— have triggered the crisis. This is evidenced by the recent rush to recruit more prison officers, but resignation rates have gone through the roof, with more officers now leaving the service each week than joining. The White Paper actually calls for an extra 5,000 prison officers to run the new generation of private prisons, but how will the Minister do that in the light of the last failed recruitment drive?

The second part of my Bill would enshrine in law a range of initiatives designed to protect staff and prisoners from violence and to encourage staff, especially prison officers, to stay in the job. The most wide-ranging of these is the “Safe inside prisons” charter. This set of reasonable and straightforward principles for safe systems of work is endorsed by the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance, a coalition of nine prison unions: the Prison Officers Association; the University and College Union, which represents prison educators; the Royal College of Nursing; the British Medical Association; the National Association of Prison Officers; the Public and Commercial Services Union; Unison; the GMB; and Unite the Union. I am more than happy to declare that I am chair of the Unite the Union parliamentary group. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Thank you. Those unions have long called for the Ministry of Justice to adopt the charter and mandate other prison employers to do the same. Unfortunately, it seems that Ministers will not consider this until every recognised union signs up. That seems to me to be a rather flimsy excuse for inaction. Instead, let us make it the law—we might call it the “safer inside” law.

Some other vital steps that we could take in order to hold on to staff may be beyond the scope of my Bill, but I will outline them anyway. First, the Government could accept all the pay review body recommendations, including the £3,000 pay rise for entry-level prison officers, and make sure that future advice is legally binding on Ministers. Secondly, we could cancel all plans for new private prisons until we get to grips with why they are up to 50% more violent than publicly run prisons. Thirdly, we could bring the prison officer pension age back down to 60, because 68 is simply too late. There are many other ways to make prison staff feel rewarded and not exploited, but I am afraid I do not have the time to go into that today.

Above all, my aim with this Bill is to focus minds on the terrible conditions that face both staff and prisoners in our prisons, and to start a national conversation about how we may solve this crisis. It is time to replace warm words with action. If Minister will not act, we must work together across party lines—I am grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members from across the House who have indicated their support for my Bill—to pass the “safe inside” law ourselves. I therefore humbly request that my Bill be given due consideration and passed into law.