Caroline Flint speech during parliament's debate on the Queen's Speech Thursday 26 May
Government prison reforms must put safety of prison staff first.
Caroline Flint: It is a pleasure to follow the Hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). The circulation of “Labour’s Future” on the Tory Benches is obviously having an impact on some of the policy areas outlined by the hon. Gentleman, such as the forced academisation of schools and the plight of the working poor. Today, I will focus on tax transparency and prison reform.
Photo: Caroline Flint goads Tory MPs over Government retreats and U-turns.
In the Gracious Speech, Her Majesty said: “My government will use the opportunity of a strengthening economy to deliver security for working people, to increase life chances for the most disadvantaged and to strengthen national defences.”
I certainly do not disagree with those sentiments, although I would question the strength of our economy. We debate the Queen’s Speech with a referendum on our membership of the European Union looming, the outcome of which could affect the Government’s ability to turn those words into action. It is my belief that our economy and security benefit enormously from our membership of the European Union and they would be at risk should we leave. Whatever happens on 23 June, it is important to recognise and acknowledge the power and responsibility that we have today as a national Parliament to tackle the challenges facing our country and to institute change. Unlike the defeatism and politics of despair expressed by politicians arguing to leave the European Union, I proudly believe in a British democracy that allows us to act independently of the EU while strengthening Britain and the EU through our membership.
We need a strong economy, but it will work only if everyone from the cleaner to the chief executive and from the corner shop to the corporate giant is paying their fair share of tax. On prison reform, crime robs our economy, ruins lives, demoralises communities and costs us more and more every time a prisoner returns to a life of crime.
Within the world of multinationals, aggressive tax avoidance, hidden behind corporate walls, is denying Britain and many other countries the taxes they are due. That is why tax transparency is the single most important thing that we can achieve. While international and European action is deserving of support, it should not paralyse the UK Government and stop them from taking a lead especially if multilateral proposals are not good enough. We need public, country-by-country reporting, which is why I will be seeking to amend the Finance Bill, in line with my ten-minute rule Bill of the previous Parliament, to ensure that that happens. I have cross-party support, including the support of every member of the Public Accounts Committee, and organisations dealing with development and tax transparency and fairness support my endeavours. I hope the Government will support them, too, because it is important to know not only what we should be getting, but what businesses in the developing world are doing and how developing countries are being denied what they should be taking in tax, having to rely on international aid instead.
Turning to prison reform, the Government announced that prison governors “will be given unprecedented freedom and they will be able to ensure prisoners receive better education”, but the story so far is not encouraging. The 2014-15 report of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons states: “You were more likely to die in prison than five years ago. More prisoners were murdered, killed themselves, self-harmed and were victims of assaults than five years ago.”
Assaults on staff were up 40% in the five years of the previous Government. All of that comes while prison staff numbers are cut.
Alex Chalk (Cheltenham) (Con): Does the right hon. Lady recognise the role of legal highs in creating a volatile situation in prisons? Does she welcome the Government’s decision to introduce legislation to outlaw them?
Of course I do. I was proud to introduce drug testing on arrest for acquisitive crime to ensure that we could get prisoners into drug treatment before they even entered the prison system.
We had some 24,000 prison staff in 2010, but that number was reduced to just over 14,000 by June 2014. To tackle the illegal drug trade in prisons, we need staff and we need them to be able to do their job. I have three prisons in my constituency, two of which are closed. I have met Tim Beeston, governor at HMP and YOI Moorland—he is not even mentioned as the correct governor on the Ministry of Justice website—and he is committed to doing more, but he cannot do it alone. I have met and spoken to Mike Rolfe, chair of the POA, formerly the Prison Officers’ Association, about the problems facing his members and how they would like to do more. I commend the research produced by my union Community and its charter for safe operating procedures, which I am pleased to support.
We must recognise that the prison system is full of people whom the education system failed, and we need to do more. Why is it that we have mandatory assessment of literacy and numeracy, but it is not mandatory for someone to undertake education while in prison to improve those skills? If sentences are too short, continuing education should be a condition of probation upon release. That requires joined-up policies in and out of prison. It requires upskilling the Prison Service staff who provide education and training. I look forward to the Government’s announcement, but words are cheap; actions work.