Nearly four in 10 of the prison’s staff failed to turn up as expected, a Tory minister admitted – despite the government’s insistence that staff shortages were not a factor in the apparent security breach.
On Monday Khalife was charged with fleeing from HMP Wandsworth on 6 September by strapping himself to the underside of a food delivery lorry.
The 21-year-old ex-solider, who had worked in the kitchen, was arrested on a canal towpath in west London on Saturday after being pulled off a bike by a plain-clothes counter-terrorism officer.
Responding to a Labour question about staffing levels on the day of the incident, prisons minister Damian Hinds said only 61 per cent of Wandsworth’s officers attended their shift.
But the minister said: “All staff in both the kitchen and the gatehouse were on duty on 6 September. An initial investigation into Daniel Khalife’s escape did not find the staffing level to be a contributing factor.”
The Sunak government has been reluctant to accept staff shortages or absences could be to blame for the apparent security breach.
But an independent investigation led by former National Crime Agency boss Keith Bristow is now looking at Wandsworth’s wider shortcomings – with staffing levels as well as relevant security measures set to be scrutinised.
Charlie Taylor, the chief inspector of prisons, has said that “there are too many prisoners in Wandsworth for the amount of staff” – adding that fears of shortages had been rasied for years.
“The lack of staffing which has dogged the prison. I think when we last inspected at the end of 2021. They were 30% short of staff,” the inspector told the BBC last week.
The prison officers’ union, the POA, also pointed to government cuts. “You cannot take out £900m from the budget with reduced staffing levels up and down the country and expect the prison service to operate as if nothing has happened,” said union boss Steve Gillan.
Mr Hinds said staffing levels at Wandsworth on the day of the security breach “were above the minimum staffing level required”. While 125 prison officers at the prison attended their shift, 80 officers did not.
Labour’s Rosena Allin-Khan, MP for Wandsworth, who asked the question about the day of the alleged escape, said she had raised concerns about “significant staff shortages” at the prison months ago.
Ms Khan told The Independent: “When I visited Wandsworth prison a few months ago, the biggest issue they were facing were staff shortages. This is why I raised concerns about staffing levels – which showed just six officers turned up for a shift one night in December. The government chose to ignore my concerns.”
“It beggars belief that the government is claiming that 60% of prison officers attending a shift is acceptable. Their complacency is astounding and illustrates how unfit they are to run the country. Our communities are being failed.”
Mr Hinds responded to the MP’s questions by saying the government had brought in 4,000 more prison officers than in March 2017. “We are also recruiting 5,000 prison officers across public and private prisons by the mid-2020s,” he added.
Amid questions about whether terror suspect Khalife should have been held in a category A prison, rather a category B facility, around 40 inmates were moved out of Wandsworth this week.
Justice secretary Alex Chalk said they were moved out of “an abundance of caution” and an extra governor had been put in place.
Mr Bristow, former director-general of the National Crime Agency, has been appointed as the investigator into the alleged prison escape.
His probe will consider whether relevant protocols were in place, how Khalife was given access to materials that might have facilitated it, along with staffing levels and security measures.