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July 2018 — Rory Stewart MP

Minutes of the meeting of the All-Party Group on Penal Affairs, held on 10 July 2018

Guest Speaker

Rory Stewart OBE MP Minister of State, Minister of Justice


Lord Ramsbotham (in the chair)
Lord Atlee
Lord Bradley
Sarah Champion MP
Kate Green MP
Rt Hon Dominic Grieve MP
Lord Hailsham
Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots
Baroness Howe of Idlicote
Lord Judd

Mark Day, Clerk to the group, started the AGM by announcing that Dominic Grieve MP and Lord Ramsbotham had both confirmed their willingness to stand again as Co-Chairs. No other nominations having been received, he was delighted to confirm them both in post. Lord Ramsbotham then took the chair.

Lord Ramsbotham said that there had been four nominations for Vice Chairs: Sarah Champion MP; Kate Green MP; Norman Lamb MP; and Andrew Selous MP; and that Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots had been nominated again as Secretary. The AGM had been advertised in the All Party notices and there had been no further nominations. Therefore he proposed the nominations should stand and this was agreed. In accordance with the rules on all party groups, an income and expenditure account for the year had been produced and circulated to officers and agreed by the registered Chair, Dominic Grieve. He thanked fellow chairs, officers and members for their support during an interesting year. The officers were due to have met before this, but Commons business had prevented attendance by some of the Vice Chairs. So a meeting would be held in early September to discuss meetings for the coming year. The group was bound to hold one meeting on prison health, and one on education, because this group had taken over those dealing with these topics. Otherwise the group had a free hand, and he was sure it would be an exciting year.

Lord Ramsbotham thanked the trustees of the Barrow Cadbury Trust for their continued funding; and the Prison Reform Trust for providing the secretariat, Julia Braggins for preparing the notes, Mark Day, Clerk to the Group, and Zoe Burton for her administrative support. He asked whether there was any other business. There being none, he welcomed the guest speaker, Prisons Minister Rory Stewart MP. Whilst waiting for the Minister, he asked whether members of the meeting had attended that morning’s session, where David Gauke, Justice Secretary, had unveiled his prison reform agenda. It had been a good session, with a lot of questions. He was glad that recent government upheavals had not involved changes to the Justice Ministry. The group welcomed some ministerial stability.

Rory Stewart MP expressed his appreciation for the invitation to address this distinguished group. He continued:

‘Let me begin with an anecdote. I found myself in a busy local prison recently, 300 men stacked up on four landings. Coming towards me was a man trailing two prison officers behind him, shouting ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck’ as he approached us. Finally he got to us, stuck his head between me and the Governor, and shouted: ‘Fuck the Governor’. The Governor kept talking to me, and he repeated: ‘I said, fuck the Governor’. And then he wandered off. The Governor said to me: ‘Johnny has had a bad day this morning. He had a difficulty in the GP’s surgery.’

There is a very interesting question there around that story, what’s happening in that situation, and how one responds to it. One of the interesting questions is that within the community – civil society, the NGO community, prison officers themselves, other people working in prisons – you get many different answers to that question. Let me ask people in the room: does anyone want to give some reflections on that incident, and what should have happened with Johnny, what’s going on, and how one deals with it?’

Paula Harriott from PRT suggested that this was ‘a key illustration of the tension between maintaining order and approaching mental health difficulties with compassion that face prison staff every single day, that the public don’t really comprehend, in how the dynamics operate within a prison environment. It’s an illustration of how people manage to hold that level of hostility, that level of aggression, and still maintain a vision of what they are doing there.’

Rory Stewart MP commented that that was a profound observation. He continued: ‘There are many different types of observation that are made. One group of people will say: Why is Johnny saying this? We really need to dig deep. Another group will say: That shouldn’t have happened. The prison officers should have intercepted Johnny before he got to you. A third set of people will say: I’m not sure you could have intercepted Johnny because if you had done that you might not have had enough prison officers to confront him. A fourth set of people would say: There’s no point in intercepting Johnny because if you put him in the segregation unit he will destroy his cell, and if you move him to another cell he will destroy that one, and so on. Another group of people would say: This person should not be in a prison in the first place. He should be in a mental health institution.

Oddly, what nobody tends to say in this conversation, which is illuminating, is that this isn’t just about Johnny. There are three hundred people watching that interaction. The question is, if you are a prisoner on that wing, watching that happen, do you feel safe? Do you feel that there are predictable, clear boundaries that are being respected? What do you feel, when you watch Johnny being able to go up to the Governor and do that? What might be the benefits for the regime as a whole in having a clear predictable response to Johnny? And actually what might be the benefits for Johnny? Because it’s also important to understand that if Johnny does that and you behave as though he doesn’t exist, you are simply re-enforcing in Johnny’s life a basic view that he may have had for thirty or forty years that he doesn’t really exist and that nobody pays any attention to him.

Second question: Is the basic question in prisons a question around setting clear boundaries and rules, and setting clear expectations? For example, on every wing you go to, you can see a big sign saying: No flip flops. Or is it about implementation? Because you go onto that landing and a very large number of people are wearing flip flops? What is the relationship between the poster that says: No flip flops, and the flip flops? What is the relationship between the statement: I have a zero tolerance attitude towards violence, and the fact that there is a lot of violence going on inside your institution?

Third question: how do you talk about what it would mean to be warm and strict at the same time? And how do you convey that to 23,000 uniformed prison officers from very varied backgrounds, with very different types of education? How do you convey that when 60% of the officers on your housing unit may be new in their job? How do you understand what the role of the band four officer is, in other words the SO on the wing, in terms of modelling the kind of behaviour that you want?

What kind of problem are you trying to deal with in prisons? This is where I would challenge Lord Ramsbotham. Is the fundamental problem Strangeways – the Lord Woolf problem? Is your fundamental problem that you are fighting the battles of the late 1980s-early 90s? In other words your fundamental problem is that you are trying to deal with bullying and brutality from prison officers to prisoners? Is that the biggest problem that we are facing today? Or might it be the case that that has not been our major issue for nearly twenty years now? That fundamentally the problem is no longer that prison officers are taking prisoners into the segregation units and beating the hell out of them, in the way that they were in 1988-89? That instead the problem that you are dealing with is more similar to the problem you might have had around behaviour in schools in the early 1980s. In other words the challenge you are facing may be whether people are prepared to challenge prisoners in the right way.

Next question: are we trying to do too much? Is the fundamental problem in prisons, many of which don’t have as many prison officers as they used to and have a lot of young staff, that actually we are encouraging a culture where governors are rewarded for trying to pursue a thousand things simultaneously? So that, as a prison officer on the landing, I have not necessarily a very clear idea about a few simple things that I need to achieve every day. Do I actually know, when I am on my housing unit, what I am supposed to do? Do I know what a fabric cell inspection looks like? Am I actually doing a fabric cell inspection? If I say that I have in-cell telephony, is there actually a telephone in that cell? If I say that I am searching people coming in and out of the prison, have I plugged in my scanner? If I say I am conducting searching, am I actually conducting searching?

Allied to that is the other question: what am I not going to do? I am a governor, I am under a lot of stress, I’m in one of the prisons that we are dealing with that has rising levels of violence, rising levels of drugs, serious problems around decency and cleanliness, and I am trying to prioritise dealing with decency, cleanliness, behaviour, violence. Prioritising means not doing something else. What are the things that I as a governor, or a band four officer on the landing, am not going to do while I am focusing on those things? What are the nice-to-haves in this world, and what are the absolute fundamentals that we need to deliver?

Somewhere there has to be a conversation that is ultimately about the kind of things that we are not really comfortable talking about. The kind of things we have become comfortable talking about over the last twenty or thirty years are high theory. Let me illustrate. I have just had a meeting with a very good NGO. They are reducing re-offending rates by 16% through a very intensive mentoring therapeutic process of working alongside prisoners. I say to that person: one of the things that is really irritating prisoners in this particular busy local prison is that they are not getting their socks. Answer from the head of the NGO: ‘I know what you mean. My friend has just done a Masters degree at Cambridge and he is writing his dissertation on the subject of hope’. I am talking about socks, and they are talking about hope.

What is the relationship between socks and hope? There is I suppose theoretically some academic relationship between socks and hope. But if I were a prisoner, I would be worried if that were taken to its extreme. I am sitting in my prison saying : I don’t have any socks, I don’t have a pillow case, and I don’t have any toilet paper. So I am trashing my cell and I am hammering on the door. Then somebody is saying to me: I need to understand the trauma in your childhood. You are doing this because of the way you were treated when you were five. And I might be tempted to say: No. I am doing this because you haven’t given me any toilet paper. So there is a balance between these different kinds of things, and I am not sure we are very good at talking about these things. What we are tempted to say – because we don’t like having disagreements or rows – is that we have to do all of these things together.

If resources were unlimited, if we had an extra 20,000 prison officers, if we worked in a completely stable regime, then possibly one could do all these things together. But if you are dealing with Liverpool prison at the moment, or you are dealing with Nottingham, or potentially with Birmingham or Exeter, really my question to you is, if you are the Governor of that prison, what are you really focused on? What are you really trying to sort out this month? Six months’ time? Twelve months’ time? And please let’s not get into a conversation about whether those prisoners should be in prison in the first place; what the ideal prison population should be; what the structure should be; what the balance should be between the youth estate and the female estate. Because I am the Governor of Exeter prison, or Liverpool prison and I get these prisoners. That’s a suitable conversation for me, or for the Secretary of State. It’s a suitable conversation at a Westminster level. It’s not a very helpful conversation when you are dealing with a situation where your mandatory drug testing rates are sitting at 30-32%; when there are 8,200 assaults against prison officers a year.

And this is why, to come back to it, I think this analogy with where schools got to in the 1980s is the correct analogy. I would like to explore this in conversation. Where this question around warm/strict, kind/strict, loving/strict is the key conversation. Clear rules, clear boundaries, manuals; meticulous implementation of those manuals; clear accountability structures. Are people actually doing these things, day in day out? And what are your structures, on the landings, to make sure they are happening? Are you just choosing one thing a week? Maybe you start with something simple. Maybe you say: for the next two weeks I am just going to focus on checking whether the telephones are actually in the cell. And if I’ve succeeded in doing that, I’ll move on in week three to check that people are not wearing flip flops on the landings. And once I have succeeded in that I am beginning to stabilise the regime a little bit more and we are beginning to have some clarity and some boundaries. I am explaining to prisoners and to prison officers what my expectations are, and the purpose of those expectations. And I am explaining that I am not punishing you because I enjoy power. These rules exist for a purpose. They exist to try to run a calm, stable regime for everybody else.

All of this is not something we need to be ashamed of. This is how you achieve rehabilitation. This is ultimately how you turn lives around. Unless we have some pretty deep cultural conversations here – and some of those go to the very heart of the question of what the purpose of this prison is; why we are holding these people; whether we ought to be holding these people; whether we ought to be building new prisons at all – it is going to be very difficult not to feel that we are talking at cross purposes. You could conceal it, by saying rather comfortably ‘This isn’t about binary choices; this is about ‘and’: this is about doing all these things together.’ But frankly if you try to managing something by doing everything together, you never get very far at all. Thank you very much indeed.’

Lord Ramsbotham thanked Rory Stewart MP very much for his presentation, and welcomed questions.

Lord Hailsham took up the issue of priorities. He said he would go for cleanliness, decency, and meaningful out-of-cell activity. He thought that if progress could be made there, a lot of the behavioural problems would be reduced.

Rory Stewart MP asked which activities or issues should be de-prioritised, in that case.

Lord Hailsham said that he could not answer that because he was no longer involved with prisons. However he was clear that a context in which people were uncomfortable, unhealthy, dirty, bored and miserable would lead to behavioural problems, followed by recidivism.

Rory Stewart MP said that a way had to be found of challenging low level, persistent, disruptive behaviour. However he agreed that it was important not to set standards that could not be enforced.

Kate Green MP wondered why prisoners could not wear flip flops. If the rule was irrational what was the point of it? Secondly it was important to remember that prisons had to be places of rehabilitation. She thought decency should be a statutory obligation, and that prisons should be purposeful. It was starting in the wrong place to say prisons should be more like schools.

Rory Stewart MP agreed that it was important to agree on purpose, both for schools and prisons. Having determined that, it was important to work backwards, to determine the preconditions. If low level, persistent, disruptive, behaviour went unchallenged, prison officers stopped feeling safe, they would stop running a full regime, and unlocking prisoners for education, so rehabilitation would not happen. This was a Maslow pyramid, but we were only talking about the top, because the bottom was boring, and unpleasant and people didn’t want to talk about it.

Kate Green MP countered that the first priority was to keep people in decent conditions. Windows were broken and there were rats running around.

Rory Stewart MP responded that that had been his first priority too, when he became Prisons Minister, and he had put extra money into cleanliness. However when he talked to prison officers at Liverpool prison and asked them why they had stopped repairing the broken windows they told him that the prisoners only broke them again and threw rubbish out of them. Cleanliness was directly related to behaviour. Perth prison in Scotland did not have this problem. When he had asked why, the Governor told him that about five years ago, when the prison started to have a calmer, more stable regime, the prisoners stopped throwing rubbish out of the window. Starting with the cleanliness issue was the wrong way round.

Earl of Listowel talked about a visit to a young offender institution six months ago where a prison officer had been assaulted. He spoke to staff in a PIPE, a planned therapeutic environment within which the young people had a relationship with a key officer, where he was told there had been no trouble for the past year. Key-person working made a big difference, as did a high level clinician to support the staff involved. Finally, the best children’s care home manager he had ever met had had the same model, tender and firm, as the speaker had advocated.

Rory Stewart MP agreed that the key worker principle was central. He had a target of 2,500 new officers, which would allow one staff member for every six prisoners. They would spend at least 45 minutes a week one to one, and that would be a major help in dealing with violence in prisons. But the key question was the balance between challenging behaviour, motivating and understanding.

Lord Ramsbotham recalled that on his first day as Chief Inspector he had asked the Home Office for the cost of imprisonment. No-one could tell him. They told him how much money they received from the Treasury, and how much was passed to prisons. But they could not tell him how much it would cost to do all the things they wanted to do with prisoners. He suspected the same would be true today. Not doing certain things may be forced on prisons through lack of resources. The Governor of Wormwood Scrubs had told him that 60% of the violence in the prison was caused by young adults, but that he did not have a single staff member trained to deal with them, nor did he have the resources to look after them.

Rory Stewart MP added that the short-sentenced population was a major disruptive factor. Some prisons were taking in 100 new prisoners a day. 54% of the prison population were serving sentences of less than twelve months, with the majority sentenced to less than six months. These prisoners were disproportionately bringing in drugs and contributing to violence, and were destabilising the regime. If we could find good community sentences to take those people, particularly for example persistent shop lifters, that would make a huge difference to our ability to do things in prisons. Scotland had achieved this powerfully.

Lord Judd said that many people in prisons came from appalling backgrounds, had mental health problems, and had themselves been abused. There were a lot of people with different needs and challenges in prison, and there should be different places to deal with them. Being in a big institution did not help most prisoners, psychologically. He had long thought that if we could scrap our current prison system and start again, we would end up with something no more expensive, but that produced results.

Rory Stewart MP thought that many of the questions and challenges related to the same point. The rehabilitative purpose of a prison sat uncomfortably with the retributive element. Prison was not designed to turn the lives around of the 50% of prisoners who had been excluded from school, the 30% who had been in care, the 50% who had reading ages of under 11, not to mention the nearly 80% presenting with some form of mental health need and the nearly 70% with addiction issues. This paradox ran through the whole problem. If you did not have a mental health need when you went in to prison you would probably have one when you came out because prison was a very stressful environment. You were removed from your family, your job, access to the outdoor air; your communications were controlled; you were put in a cell with another prisoner you had not chosen in front of whom you had to defecate; and you were locked up for many hours a day. 70% would be brought in to some form of illicit activity, including drugs and violence, and there were many people on your wing who were noisy and threatening. None of this would help you turn your life around. But he had to navigate within the system we’d got, with 82,000 prisoners in 130 prisons. He was trying to make their lives a little bit safer, their cells a bit cleaner, with a bit more purposeful activity. The question ‘would we be starting from here?’ was not very useful, given the challenges he faced.

Lord Judd stressed the vital role of relationships.

Rory Stewart MP agreed. Family relationships were central, which was why in-cell telephony and family visits were important. Relationships with prison officers, and the key-worker system, were important. Prisoners may never have experienced clarity, boundaries, consistency and predictability, so knowing there would be consequences for certain behaviours was helpful. We had to be honest about how difficult and tested the system was, but we also had to maintain reasonable expectations. We needed that combination of love and strictness together, however we expressed it.

Lord Ramsbotham said that an experienced probation officer had told him she wished the word ‘resettlement’ was not used, since most prisoners had not been ‘settled’ before.

Victoria Prentis MP wanted to ask about categorisation. There was a tension between wanting to be local and family-friendly versus wanting specialist care.

Rory Stewart MP said that there was no right answer to these questions, because the objects and values involved were incompatible. It was hard to disagree with Lord Mountbatten (early 60s), or what HMP Albany was doing in 1963, or Lord Ramsbotham, or the distinguished Rear Admiral in 1991, or Patterson in 1924: you could read any of these and not feel we were making much progress. In his last work (Laws), Plato had set out three different purposes of prison, which we had not resolved today. The closest parallel was with education: excluding a child from class presented irreconcilable objects and values too.

Victoria Prentis MP sought to narrow the debate: would the Minister lock up under 21s with adults?

Rory Stewart MP said he would not.

Bishop James Langstaff wanted to return to the Minister’s comments on the limited value of short sentences, as opposed to community sentences. Could he begin to flesh out what a move in that direction might look like? What would need to be done to achieve this?

Rory Stewart MP said that he had attempted to set out his thoughts to the Justice Select Committee, which the Daily Mail had represented as ‘Minister Gives Green Light to Criminals’. If this were to be achieved it would have to be done sensitively, cleverly and thoughtfully. Community sentences would have to be improved, and public perceptions taken into account, both regarding relative re-offending rates and where abhorrent crimes were concerned. Custodial sentences should already be a last resort.

Earl of Listowel reverted to the theme of relationships. Time spent one-to-one with prisoners, and time for officers away from prisoners to talk about how they were relating, might be helpful.

Rory Stewart MP agreed. However officers still had to think about how their actions would be perceived by other prisoners.

Earl of Listowel agreed that the peer group was the most powerful factor.

Baroness Howe said how stimulating the meeting had been. She asked about probation officers, whose role in her time had been crucial, but who now were privatised, if they existed.

Rory Stewart MP agreed that probation officers were central, and he wanted to ensure that probation officers were getting in to prisons. At Nottingham prison, for example, the private CRC was located in the prison. The staff had been civil servants, so now they just wore a different hat. The key was that those officers should develop a relationship with each prisoner, from sentence through to release. In Scotland, it was the prison officer who followed the prisoner back into the community. Whichever way it was done, the best examples were dependent on intense human relationships. For probation officers, the control element of their job was particularly challenging. If someone got out and was not safe in the community, there were limits to what the probation officer could do. There had been some horrible cases in which probation got blamed. But the blame could not sit solely with probation: probation officers could not monitor someone twenty four hours a day.

Baroness Howe wanted to know how we could get more probation officers of the quality we had had in the past.

Rory Stewart MP acknowledged the difficulty. The Treasury had agreed to negotiation with the unions on pay, which might help, and there was more promotion of the profession in universities.

Earl of Listowel asked about care leavers in custody. Local authorities had a duty of care to them up to the age of 25, which they found difficult to fulfil. He wanted to highlight the good work of Teresa Clarke, the Governor lead on care-leavers, who was running a conference in October. Any encouragement the Minister could give would be welcome.

Geoff Dobson (Trustee of PRT and a former probation officer) wanted to reflect on a parallel which might be helpful. Many years ago he had been in charge of a Probation Bail Hostel which faced many of the same problems the Minister had mentioned, though on a smaller scale. There had been some good interactions between his small team and some very difficult and varied individuals, and also with local prison staff. There was scope to think about extending the approved hostel estate, as both a stepping stone from, and an alternative to prison. Additionally there had been some good research on the benefits of quality restorative justice. Had the Minister had an opportunity to look at any examples?

Rory Stewart MP agreed about the value of approved hostels. As regards restorative justice, it seemed deeply appealing, but it had not developed in the way that had been hoped. He wondered why that was.

Geoff Dobson responded that the culture of the criminal justice agencies had never really embraced it. It had always been an add-on.

Dame Glenys Stacey observed that it was more often used in youth offending services, if there was a local champion for it.

William Kent (representing the Catholic Bishops) had been talking with MoJ officials on the future of the chaplaincy, and the conversation had touched on governor empowerment. How would the new arrangements replace PSIs and how would local discrepancies between prisons be avoided?

Rory Stewart MP said this was an interesting question. One way of explaining what governor empowerment should look like was a Royal Naval ship (he apologised for the militaristic metaphor). The captain of the ship was in charge – it could not be micro-managed by the Admiralty – and they sought to be the best ship in the Navy. But at another level every ship looked the same. It should not matter which ship you were posted to. This was the best model, rather than a school. In a school, the head teacher would typically be there for 8–10 years. Prison Governors could be there for a much shorter time. Also, prisoners were moved often, and needed to know what they could expect. Empowerment meant running the best prison you could, within the parameters, for all the different kinds of people you held. Obviously there was a focus on the most troubled prisoners, but those were not the only people there. In a Utopian world he would cater for prisoners of all educational levels, for example. We should also remember the prisoners who would never leave: there were some prisoners who were over 100.

In conclusion, he said he had intended to be combative, because it was necessary to clarify the sacrifices, trade-offs and tensions within the system to make progress. Good policy would only come from truthfulness and honesty. He thanked the meeting warmly for its invitation.

Lord Ramsbotham thanked the Minister and wished him good luck in his endeavours. He hoped he would return, if he was still in office in a year’s time, to tell the meeting how he had got on. Everyone was deeply interested in this topic. This was the final meeting of the session. The group would meet again in the autumn, when the programme would be published.