Eighty prison officers at HMP Wandsworth did not attend their shifts on the day Daniel Khalife escaped from the prison, a Government minister has said.
Justice minister Damian Hinds confirmed the figure, equating to 39% of total expected staff on September 6, in response to a question submitted by Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, the Labour MP for Tooting.
However, Mr Hinds said an initial investigation into Khalife’s escape “did not find the staffing level to be a contributing factor”.
Khalife, 21, was remanded in custody at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Monday after allegedly escaping from HMP Wandsworth on September 6 by strapping himself to the underside of a food delivery lorry.
He was arrested on a canal towpath in west London on Saturday after being pulled off a push bike by a plain-clothes counter-terrorism officer.
Dr Allin-Khan asked how many and what proportion of shift slots at Wandsworth Prison were unfilled on that date, to which Mr Hinds responded on Thursday: “On 6 September 2023, 1,594 prisoners were held at HMP Wandsworth.
“125 Band 3 Prison Officers at the prison attended their shift on that day. This equates to 61% of all staff due to attend.
“80 officers did not attend their expected shift at the prison on that day.”
The Conservative MP for East Hampshire said staffing levels were still above the minimum level required at the prison, and all staff in both the kitchen and gatehouse were on duty on the day in question.
Speaking to reporters, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak insisted it would be “premature” to talk about the “specific incidents” until an independent investigation establishes the facts of the escape.
He would not be drawn on whether the level of absenteeism on the day was acceptable but urged “people to turn up (to work) wherever they work”.
No 10 acknowledged there was a need to hire more prison workers but suggested the staffing levels at Wandsworth on the day did not necessarily reflect a wider pattern.
“It’s important not to take a snapshot of a single day and draw wider assumptions. I think staffing levels were above the set requirements by the prison’s… regime management plan. But we do recognise the need to hire more prison staff,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.
The Prison Service said almost all absentees had been factored into workforce planning and included annual leave and training days.
A spokesperson said: “Staffing levels at HMP Wandsworth have increased by around a quarter since 2017 and there were an appropriate number of staff on duty that day, with almost all absences factored into workforce planning, including staff out for training or on annual leave.”
“The initial investigation did not find staffing levels to be a contributing factor in the escape. All staff were on duty in the kitchen and gatehouse.”
It is understood fewer than five of the absences were unauthorised.
But Andrea Albert, president of the Prison Governors Association, said there are other prisons “running with maybe 30%-40% reduction in staff on a daily basis”.
“But then in other parts of the country, particularly in the north, we’re over-recruiting. So, some prisons have got 120% of their target staffing,” she told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme.
She said the extra 20% are sent to “places like Wandsworth” to try to bolster their staffing figures.
Ms Albert acknowledged there is a “recruitment and retention problem” due to a rise in violence, low pay and “poor” development opportunities.
She said: “Across some of our prisons, we do have high levels of staff sickness, we do have wellbeing issues. It is a very stressful environment.
“I would probably say that in some of our prisons it does border on being quite dangerous.”
Labour’s shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood said: “It is astonishing that almost 40% of planned staff did not turn up to their shift on the day of the escape at HMP Wandsworth.
“This makes it clear that the dire conditions at the prison are having wide-ranging implications, including on staffing levels.
HMP Wandsworth has been a known problem for the best part of a decade.
Why, after so many warnings, has the Government failed to act? pic.twitter.com/mGNI3ddutN
— Shabana Mahmood MP (@ShabanaMahmood) September 12, 2023
“Thirteen years of Conservative mismanagement has led to staff shortages and unmanageable workloads in the prison and probation service, making the public less safe.
“Morale amongst staff is in the depths of despair, and the rate of loss of experienced staff is frankly alarming.
“The Government needs to urgently grip the challenges that prison staff are facing to ensure we see an improvement in engagement and retention.”
Keith Bristow QPM, former director-general of the National Crime Agency, has been appointed to lead the probe into the escape.
The Ministry of Justice said the investigation will seek to identify shortcomings and ensure lessons are learned to help prevent similar incidents.
It will consider a range of factors, including whether relevant protocols were in place at HMP Wandsworth when the escape happened and how Khalife was given access to materials that might have facilitated it.
Staffing levels and an assessment of relevant security measures, such as checks relating to the lorry, will also be scrutinised before findings and recommendations are provided.
The report on the investigation will be submitted to the ministry’s Lord Chancellor and permanent secretary.