Catapulted into the Shadow Cabinet a year after being elected, Leeds East MP Richard Burgon is calling for a wholesale overhaul of the country’s overcrowded prison system. Aisha Iqbal reports.
When it comes to our “broken” prison system, the Government and its friends in the private sector need to clean up their act, quite literally in many cases.
This is the firmly-held view of Leeds East MP Richard Burgon, a key ally of Jeremy Corbyn who was catapulted into the role of Shadow Justice Minister just a year after being elected in 2015.
“A governor told me recently on one of my regular prison visits that every time there was a spillage of a bodily fluid in a prison cell involving urine, rather than getting prison staff or prisoners themselves to sort it out, he was contractually obliged to call out a private company,” Mr Burgon tells The Yorkshire Post from his office in Seacroft, Leeds.
“They would charge hundreds of pounds to come and mop this up. That sounds a bit like a racket, doesn’t it?”
It also sounds, it has to be said, like an extremely crude metaphor for the fate of large quantities of public money.
Burgon, 37, a former trade union lawyer, believes only a wholesale overhaul of the UK’s prisons can reduce current chronic overcrowding and understaffing and create a “sensible” rehabilitation system.
He says Armley jail, in his own city, is a prime example.
New government figures released at the end of 2017 revealed that HMP Leeds was the most crowded prison in England and Wales, at 167 per cent above its Certified Normal Accommodation level.
Violence and self-harm hit record levels last year, with prisoners’ attacks on other inmates on the rise and reports of 15 ambulances a day being called to the facility in one peak period.
For Burgon – who is yet to make an official visit to Armley in his Shadow Justice Minister capacity – the facility is one of several Victorian prisons with “specific problems”.
And they are problems he says which are exacerbated – if not caused – by the rise of “private prisons” and the outsourcing of maintenance contracts to companies like now-failed contractor Carillion and fellow big-hitter Amey, which have been two of the Government’s biggest partners in prison maintenance.
In 2014, the two firms signed deals worth up to £400m over five years for maintenance, building projects, management of prison stores and waste disposal and collection.
The Ministry of Justice claimed the deals would save taxpayers about £115m over the coming five years.
However, Amey hit the headlines in January when it emerged that its backlog at HMP Liverpool has more than doubled in three years since the firm was signed on.
The Parliamentary Justice Select Committee heard there were 1,000 maintenance jobs outstanding in 2016. This rose to 2,000 by September 2017, and conditions remained “squalid”.
Meanwhile in January, Ministers also announced that about 1,000 prison facilities workers previously employed by Carillion will move across to a new company set up by the Government to safeguard jobs.
It was one of the first policy announcements made by newly appointed Justice Secretary David Gauke.
For Burgon, however, all these unfortunate facts are symptoms of a much bigger disease – with his ideological nemesis of privatisation at the root.
In recent weeks, he has been asking a raft of questions on the topic of Carillion, Amey and other big-name maintenance contractors, and their level of investment and rate of success in the country’s prison services, in Parliament.
“When I have spoken to prison governors, they have been frustrated at the speed at which these private companies do or don’t do the repairs,” he said.
At last year’s Prison Governors’ Association conference, Burgon announced a Labour Government would look at bringing prison maintenance contracts in-house, having previously pledged the same on probation services, which have also become largely commissioned.
He acknowledges, wryly, that no one will be surprised to hear a committed Corbynite and champion of renationalisation talking in these terms.
But he insists it’s not about “ideological objections”, and more about unburdening the public purse.
“Obviously we believe in a mixed economy, but there are certain things that shouldn’t be done for profit,” he says.
“The private sector plays an important role when it comes to manufacture, when it comes to employment, but at the same time, we don’t believe that the private sector should be running our railways, our schools, or our prison and probation services.
“What the Carillion scandal has shown is that it’s not saving the public money,” he adds.
“It’s less efficient, it’s throwing good money after bad.
“I believe as well, by the way, that the making of profit from the incarceration of human beings is immoral. So under a Labour Government there would be no new private prisons.”
He admits Jack Straw and New Labour had a lot to do with the current status quo, but says they operated within a “prevailing orthodoxy” rather than creating it.
But he adds: “We have lived in the last 40 years, regardless of which Government has been in power, in a period where too much has been given to the private sector. So we’ve called time on that.
‘FRUSTRATION’ OVER STAFFING CUTS
Dealing with staffing issues – rather than building new prisons – is key to finding a solution to the prisons crisis, Richard Burgon says.
“Prison governors are very frustrated about how their hands are tied really,” he said.
“Because if they are operating in an under-staffed prison, it creates real problems.
“And problems that aren’t just about keeping order.”
Prison officer numbers nationally have fallen by 6,000 since 2010. Recent figures revealed a drop of more than 1,700 across the UK’s eight highest-security prisons under the Conservatives.
However, Ministers have also committed to recruit 2,500 prison officers by the end of this year.