VICTORIA CONTRIBUTES TO URGENT PRISON QUESTION

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on his Government’s plans for HMP Birmingham.

I would like to begin by paying tribute to the work of the chief inspector, in particular in relation to Birmingham, and indeed his entire inspection team.

The situation in HMP Birmingham was simply unacceptable. It was shocking in terms of the levels of violence, in terms of the response to those levels of violence, in terms of the drugs, and in terms of basic decency. The situation in Birmingham has of course been of considerable concern for some time; I visited personally in the week before the inspector issued the report for that reason. The Secretary of State for Justice, the Lord Chancellor, also made a personal visit to Birmingham, and the chief executive of the Prison Service also visited Birmingham.

The reason for this is that over the last few weeks and months we have been increasingly concerned about G4S’s inability to turn around the situation. The steps we took were initially to issue a notice to improve, followed by a second notice to improve. I then held meetings with G4S in London at which it replaced its governor—who had been in place for 18 months—and brought in a new governor. It then brought in a new team; we came up with a new action plan and a new team was brought in by the Ministry to work alongside it.

Notwithstanding all the steps that Birmingham and G4S took over those months, the conclusion that we reluctantly reached in the week before the inspector published his urgent notification was that G4S would not be able on its own to turn around the significant problems of Birmingham. Therefore the decision was made to take the unprecedented step of the Government stepping in and taking over control. That means in effect three things. First, we have brought in a highly experienced governor from the public sector, Mr Paul Newton, who has taken over as the governor of the prison. Secondly, we have reduced the number of prisoners in Birmingham prison by 300, which has allowed us to take key cells out of operation and renovate them. Thirdly, we have brought in an additional 32 highly experienced public sector prison staff in order to support the team on the ground.

All of this will be done with no cost to the taxpayer, and I want to take this opportunity also to say that, notwithstanding the very significant problems at Birmingham, there are dedicated, serious professional staff on the ground who have been facing a very difficult situation. There have been real challenges around drugs and leadership. We are confident that, with Paul Newton and the new team and the reduction in numbers, we can stabilise that prison, address the drugs and the violence, and turn it around and restore the confidence to the team.

I anticipate that this could rapidly become a debate over the merits or otherwise of privatisation, and I am expecting that the shadow Secretary of State will almost certainly go in that direction. For what it is worth, we on this side of the House do not believe that this is primarily an ideological battle. The situation in Birmingham has been serious for some time. It was a Labour Secretary of State for Justice who initially decided to proceed with the privatisation of Birmingham in 2010, although it was a Conservative Secretary of State who finally let the contract. The company concerned, G4S, has clearly significantly failed in Birmingham, but at the same time, as hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) can confirm, it is running an impressive prison in Parc and at Altcourse in Liverpool, which is performing well particularly in education and work, while Parc is doing well on family services. The BBC has just produced a very positive report on its performance at Oakwood as well.

So this is not primarily about the difference between the public and the private sector. Sadly, there have been significant challenges also within the public sector, at Nottingham prison, at Liverpool and at Exeter most recently. Indeed the chief inspector of prisons himself underlined that this is not primarily about public against private, but is about basic issues primarily around drugs, violence and management. We will be focusing on those three things above all through this step-in, and, as I have said, at no cost to the taxpayer.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this debate is not about public or private management of prisons but is, in fact, about when it is appropriate for the Government to step in when prisons are failing? If I may say so, this debate is also about when it is appropriate for a Minister to take responsibility for the Prison Service, as I was pleased to read over the summer that he is willing to do.

Without getting dragged into an ideological discussion about public versus private, hopefully both sides of the House can agree that, if we are to have privatised systems, the best way for them to operate is by having the right degree of Government regulation and intervention when things go wrong. Whether we are talking about water, utilities or, indeed, prisons, we cannot have a system in which the Government do not have a clear grip. I hope stepping in at Birmingham demonstrates that the Government are prepared to do that when we reach this situation.

The above account is taken from the official House of Commons Hansard for 4 September 2018.