'Riot squad' money cuts criticised

Herald Series: Funding cuts to so-called prison riot squads risk their safety along with inmates and jail staff, Labour claimed Funding cuts to so-called prison riot squads risk their safety along with inmates and jail staff, Labour claimed

Funding cuts to so-called prison riot squads are putting their safety at risk along with that of inmates and jail staff, Labour has claimed.

The rise in the number of disturbances in prisons in England and Wales is a "tragedy waiting to happen", shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said as he warned of growing pressure on specialist response teams tasked with dealing with protests and disturbances.

New parliamentary figures show the National Tactical Response Group's (NTRG) budget has decreased by 25.8% from 2011/12 to 2013/14 while its workload has increased.

NTRG staff responded to 113 call-outs in the first six months of 2013/14 compared with 137 during the whole of 2012/13 and 130 in 2011/12.

Prisons Minister Jeremy Wright has confirmed the service's running costs, which include equipment maintenance, vehicles and uniforms, have fallen from £534,190 in 2011/12 to £432,600 in 2012/13 and £396,300 in 2013/14.

Staff numbers, which are paid for from a wider Ministry of Justice (MoJ) human resources budget, have remained broadly unchanged during the same period.

They increased from an average of 29.50 full-time equivalent (FTEs) employees in 2011/12 to 31.58 in 2012/13 before decreasing to 30.2 in 2013/14.

The Government insists there has been no rise in the number of serious incidents attended by NTRG staff.

Mr Wright added a " slight rise" in call-outs in recent months has been mainly due to minor incidents, such as prisoners protesting.

But Labour's Mr Khan, who uncovered the figures via a series of parliamentary questions, said: "T he number of disturbances for this year alone is triple those seen in 2010 when this Government first came to office. This is a tragedy waiting to happen.

"I have also uncovered that at the same time as having three times as many incidents to deal with, the National Tactical Response Group has had their budget slashed by a quarter.

"The pressure on them to cope with the growing violence in our prisons risks their safety, as well as that of prisoners and those who work in our prisons.

"There is more and more serious violence in our prisons since 2010. The Government's talk of a rehabilitation revolution is a joke. Overcrowding is worse and rather than working or training, prisoners are spending too much time idle in their cells."

Mr Khan claimed little work is being done with prisoners to stop them re-offending after they are released because of Justice Secretary Chris Grayling's "incompetence".

The NTRG has attended call-outs at 45% of prisons in England and Wales run by both the public and private sector in the past 12 months, Mr Wright told Mr Khan at the end of November.

On the issue of NTRG's budget, Mr Wright explained: "NTRG's budget is for running costs, e.g. vehicles, maintenance of equipment, uniforms, and does not include staffing costs which are part of the wider HR directorate staffing costs. To produce this information would be at a disproportionate cost.

"NTRG call-out costs do not form part of NTRG's budget allocation as these costs are charged back to the establishments they provide assistance to.

"Prior to 2011-12, NTRG was managed by MoJ shared services who also held the budget.

"Information is not provided for 2009-10 and 2010-11 because MoJ shared services uses a different budget management system and, therefore, equivalent data cannot be extracted.

"Between 2009 and 2013 there have been no significant fluctuations in NTRG staffing levels."

Mr Wright previously explained on incident numbers: "The number of call-outs has been fairly consistent over the period in question, though there has been a slight rise in the number of call-outs over recent months.

"This is mainly due to minor incidents such as prisoners protesting by climbing onto the netting between landings.

"NTRG staff have the specialist skills required to deal with such incidents which accounted for 68% of all the call-outs in the past year and they are frequently called to attend as a precautionary measure.

"Not all call-outs result in engagement by NTRG staff, with a number of situations being resolved locally. Of the 151 incidents NTRG attended up to September 2013, 75% were resolved by surrender.

"There has been no rise in the number of serious incidents being attended."

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