Rory Stewart, the new prisons minister, has vowed to “get back to basics” to ensure clean, safe jails after a damning official report on rat-infested HMP Liverpool said conditions were the “worst ever they could recall”.
Stewart, who has been in the job for two weeks, told the commons justice select committee on Tuesday that previous ministers had not felt it was their job to get involved in operational details, but “I disagree”.
The former foreign office minister told MPs: “My instinct is we need to get back to basics. We need to absolutely insist that we are going to run clean, decent prisons. There have been too many very abstract conversations in the past two years about grand bits of prison policy.
“We are turning up and saying, ‘Why is this a filthy prison?’ and asking, ‘Why has it not been cleaned?’, and people want to talk about grand issues of sentencing policy or reoffending policy. Making prisoners feel they are in a safe environment without broken windows is really important.”
He said that on a visit to Liverpool prison on Monday he saw that almost every window was broken on one wing.
“There’s too much saying, ‘We’re going to deal with this by setting a new key performance indicator’ and ‘We’re going to deduct some money if you don’t reach your KPI’, rather than spending time on the ground and saying, ‘This is disgusting. Sort it out.’
“If I’m not able in the next 12 months to achieve some improvements in making these prisons basically clean with more fixed broken windows and fewer drugs, I’m not doing my job.”
He was speaking during an unusual session of the committee. It focused solely on the inspection report on Liverpool prison, published last week, which revealed a filthy jail with rats, cockroaches, broken windows and piles of rubbish.
The head of the prison and probation service, Michael Spurr, admitted to MPs it was a “personal failing of mine” for not recognising the extent of the deterioration at Liverpool – despite the situation being pointed out in inspection reports in 2013 and 2015.
Spurr said the escape of a man serving a 30-year sentence had focused attention on security at Liverpool, and that unanticipated population pressures and budget cuts last summer had seen governors simply “in coping mode” in jails across England and Wales.
“We took our eye off the ball very badly in terms of decency at Liverpool through that period.
“It coincides with a period where we’ve had to reduce costs substantially – a 24% reduction in our budget. It coincides with significant changes across the way we deliver services both in prisons and in probation with Transforming Rehabilitation,” he said, referring to the government’s programme for how offenders are managed in England and Wales from February 2015.
Spurr said that in Liverpool’s case, 50 cells deemed unfit had been brought back into use to cope with an unexpected surge in numbers last summer, shortly before the latest inspection: “That shouldn’t have happened. It happened in a context of … significant pressure on the service.”
He revealed that the governor of Liverpool prison was moved two days after the inspection report and was now working on counter-terrorism in the prison system, reporting directly to him.
After the session, a criminal justice consultant, Rob Allen, said that two years after David Cameron had set out “a grandiose vision of a ‘modern, more effective, truly 21st century prison system’, the new prisons minister has told MPs he wants one without rats, cockroaches and garbage”.