HC Deb 12 April 1961 vol 638 cc370-99
Miss Bacon

I beg to move, in page 15, line 32, to leave out Clause 23.

This is a very important Amendment, taken at a late hour, and if I speak for only a short time, it is not because I do not consider this to be one of the most important things in the Bill. Clause 23 seeks to transfer the whole of the Prison Commission to within the Home Office. On Second Reading, the Home Secretary said very little about this, but we had a long discussion during the Committee stage, when grave doubts were expressed from both sides of the Committee.

The trouble is that nobody really knows what this will mean. We are told, on the one hand, that it can mean something considerable; on the other hand, we are told that it does not really mean anything at all. Indeed, some people say that it does not mean anything, that it does not make any difference, that it is just administration and so on. If it means nothing at all, I think it is very unwise of the right hon. Gentleman to include it in the Bill. On the other hand, if it does mean something, and if it means great changes in the set-up in regard to the administration of prisons, we should like to know what these far-reaching changes are.

There have been other attempts in the past to transfer the whole of the functions of the Prison Commission to the Home Office. I think that this is the third attempt. It seems to me that some official, I suspect, in the Home Office has persuaded the Home Secretary that this is a very good thing to do. The last attempt was in 1948, when my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) sought to include this in the Criminal Justice Bill then. On that occasion my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Sir G. Benson) was successful in persuading my right hon. Friend to take this provision out of the Bill. At that time, rather curiously—

It being Ten o'clock, further consideration of the Bill, as amended, stood adjourned.

Proceedings on the Criminal Justice Bill exempted, at this day's Sitting, from the provisions of Standing Order No. 1 (Sittings of the House).—[Mr. R. A. Butler.]

Bill, as amended (in the Standing Committee), further considered.

Miss Bacon

On that occasion my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield was supported, rather strangely, by the hon. and learned Gentleman now the Joint Under-Secretary to the Home Department and also by the hon. Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore). I am pleased to say that the hon. Member for Ayr was quite consistent and voted against his Government on this matter during Committee stage.

The Prison Commissioners are now responsible to the Home Secretary. They are not an independent body but, over the years the Commission has built up a reputation and a certain confidence in the minds of the people. People think of the Prison Commission as something rather separate from the Home Office even though it is responsible to the Home Secretary. It has built up a reputation for being progressive. Although the Commissioners are not independent, they are thought to have a certain independence. We know the members of the Prison Commission by name. They address meetings and conferences in this country. Public opinion has expressed itself very forcibly on this matter in some organs of the Press. In Committee I quoted some of those opinions. I should like to refer to the Observer for 6th November, 1960, which said: … the possibility of the Home Secretary having power to dissolve the Prison Commission ought to be vigorously resisted. The Observer of 20th November, 1960, said: Mr. Butler would like the Prison Commission to become 'part of a wider organisation, covering all Home Office responsibilities for criminal justice and the treatment of offenders'. If this means that the Commismission is to be swallowed up in the Home Office, Parliament would do well to consider what would be lost, as well as gained by the change. This week there were leading articles on the subject in three newspapers. The Guardian said, on 11th April: And what about a new and separate Probation Commission? It also said: Mr. Butler should take account of the stiff opposition to his proposal to abolish the Prison Commission and make it a department of the Home Office. On committee stage, the proposal was only retained by one vote. I am not sure that that is quite correct. On 11th April, The Times said: It is to be hoped, for example, that the threat to abolish the Prison Commission will be reconsidered. The arguments in favour of such a step turn out to rest more heavily on administrative convenience than on constitutional consistency and they are plausible enough, but there is a real danger here, as elsewhere, in the field of penology, of penny wisdom. In addition, the Daily Herald said today: In the interests of administrative 'streamlining' it proposes to turn the Prison Commission into a mere department of the Home Office. That would be a bureaucratic crime. The Commission is much more than just another department of faceless Civil Servants. Its near independence has allowed the Commission to try experiments in penal reform that no Whitehall department would ever risk. I quote these articles at some length because they show that there is great opposition to this proposal in sections of the Press.

We found during the Committee stage that there has been no difficulty whatsoever in obtaining information about anything for which the Prison Commission is responsible. It issues a full annual report. In addition, it publishes a very useful booklet entitled "Prisons and Borstals". There is no lack of information on which we can argue our case about anything which is administered by the Prison Commission. I contrast that with the lack of information, which was evident during the whole Committee stage, from the Children's Department of the Home Office.

We fear very much that, if the Prison Commission and the Commissioners are swallowed up within the Home Office, they will become anonymous. We fear that they will not be so approachable and that we shall not have reports, as we have had in the past. I hope that the Home Secretary will have second thoughts tonight. If he does not have second thoughts, I hope that he will at any rate justify this in a manner in which it has not been justified up to now by any Government spokesman. I know that there is strong feeling about this on both sides of the House, and I therefore hope that we shall be able to persuade the right hon. Gentleman to change his mind.

Miss Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

In Committee I found myself in the unsual position of voting with my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore). I hope that does not mean that I am any more wrong on this occasion than I consider that my hon. Friend is on other occasions.

I want to ask my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary some questions about his proposal to abolish the Prison Commission. Present and former prison governors fear that the abolition of the Prison Commission will seriously affect the efficiency and morale of the prison service itself. Prison and borstal work makes very heavy personal demands on members of the staff, and there is very little opportunity for them to discuss their problems. It is therefore particularly necessary to have senior officials who have a particular understanding and sympathy to deal with their difficulties.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said on Second Reading: I should like to make clear that the present proposal in the Bill to take powers implies no reflection whatever on the work of the Prison Commission. Goodness knows, there has never been a more distinguished body. My right hon. Friend went on to pay tribute to its Chairman, Sir Lionel Fox, and to the able young man who has now succeeded him. He continued: The more one can say in praise of the work of the Prison Commission, the more apt that praise would be. Further, when discussing the changes which have taken place since 1877, my right hon. Friend said: In recent years, however, the headquarters staff of the Prison Commission has been strengthened to enable it to play a greater part in the development of policy… I consider that the Commission should be retained to play an even greater part, because it has done excellent work in the past.

What worries me about the Clause is that my right hon. Friend said on Second Reading: Clause 23 enables Her Majesty by Order in Council to transfer to the Secretary of State any or all of the functions of the Prison Commissioners and, if all these functions are transferred, to dissolve the Prison Commission as a statutory authority."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th November, 1960; Vol. 630, c. 574 and 575.] This worries me very much. Is it to be done in a piecemeal fashion? Are we to have Orders in Council taking away some powers now and others later? The words "any" and "all" and "if" make it very difficult to know exactly what procedure is anticipated and what the precise position of the Prison Commissioners will be in the future. Will they be left with just a few functions, the rest being taken over by the Home Secretary?

I should like consideration to be given to the retention of the Commissioners. During the Standing Committee I heard no argument that convinced me that they were not doing a very admirable job. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) did not agree with many of us, but he has great experience and even he did not produce very convincing arguments that this Commission, which has the duty to help the prison governors and others to carry out their work, should be abolished, particularly now, when there are exceptional difficulties on which guidance is needed.

I shall not go over all the details that were very fully discussed in Committee. My right hon. Friend has had the opportunity to read them. I hope that he has considered them and will also consider the further points that have been put forward this evening and reconsider this abolition of the Prison Commissioners. As I feel he stressed on Second Reading, the Commissioners have done admirable work in the past, have been refortified recently, and should be allowed to carry on with their work.

Mr. Weitzman

It is a very great pity that such an important matter should have to be discussed at this late hour. It is a subject that obviously arouses much interest in many quarters. Many hon. Members, I am sure, would like to take part in the discussion, but we have had a very long day and many of us are jaded. It is very unfortunate, indeed, that the subject should have to be discussed in this way.

This proposal has roused great interest and much criticism in many quarters. I do not know of any newspaper that has commented favourably on it. I, too, would like to know what the Home Secretary has in mind about this change. The Prison Commissioners are a corporate body, established a long time ago. They have a long tradition of useful service, we know who they are, the work they do and the reforms they have put in hand from time to time. They are looked up to with respect.

What the reason for this change is, I do not know. It is said that this is a corporate body responsible to the Home Office and that, because of that, and because of the Commissioners' close link with the Home Office, they should in some way be absorbed into it. The Home Secretary may say that the change is intended to keep the Commissioners in closer touch with Home Office affairs.

I am not concerned with any such answer: my concern is with the wide powers given to any Home Secretary by subsection (1) of the Clause, which reads Subject to the provisions of this section, Her Majesty may by Order in Council make provisions for transferring to the Secretary of State any or all of the functions of the Prison Commissioners… As I read those words, although the Home Secretary may now say that this is just a slight change and intended to be a good thing, what, in effect, we are doing here, is to give wide powers to any future Home Secretary to do what he likes about any or all of the functions or the Prison Commissioners, and to absorb them in the Home Office in any way he thinks fit.

Frankly, I am afraid that if they are so absorbed we may get a good deal of red tape—and I say that advisedly. I know that the Home Office does wonderful work and I do not want my criticism to be taken wrongly, but we have had considerable experience in the Standing Committee of the difficulty of getting information and reports. As has already been pointed out, in Standing Committee we sought much information and got very little, and we had to criticise the fact that many reports might have been forthcoming but were not made available. Is the same thing to happen to the Prison Commissioners and to the work that they do?

10.15 p.m.

We should have a satisfactory explanation for this proposal before the Clause is adopted. I should like to see the present system continued. If it is desired to bring the work of the Prison Commissioners up to date, that is another matter, which can be done by dealing with them as a corporate body and by giving them further powers and further assistance. What I am afraid of is that if the powers laid down in the Clause are given to the Home Secretary there will be real danger to a body which has done so much good in the past.

Mr. Deedes

I should like my right hon. Friend to clarify one point in my mind. How long historically has it been established that the Prison Commissioners and their staff are part of the hierarchy which forms part of the Home Office?

It is important to establish precisely what we are losing. If we are losing a body of individuals outside the orbit of the Home Office who have always been independent of, shall I say, the hierarchy through which they may be promoted to high office in the Home Office, we should be losing something of value. Independent judgment, independent advice, and the ability to disagree at times with everyone in the Home Office might be an important function of the Prison Commissioners, but, as I understand it, the Chairman of the Prison Commissioners and his staff have been fairly closely integrated for some time with the, as it were, ladder of promotion by which people can enter the Home Office or, perhaps, any other Department. I think that this is a matter of some importance, and I should like my right hon. Friend to explain what is new in the Clause.

Sir T. Moore

It is with the utmost reluctance that, once again, I find myself engaged in controversy with my right hon. Friend. All that I wish to ask him is what the Prison Commissioners have done to deserve the abolition of their existing functions. I have made many inquiries about this matter since the Committee stage. The Prison Commissioners have earned the trust, confidence and respect, not only of the general public, but of the prison staffs and of the prisoners themselves.

Independence is a very important thing in life. If a person has a reputation for independence, his judgment and character are assessed accordingly. If he has the reputation of being tied to a certain theory without bringing his judgment into play, the value of his opinion is lost.

I venture to express an opinion on this matter, because I have tried to discover from those intimately concerned what are the functions of the Prison Commissioners which, if they were abolished, might be destroyed and those which, if incorporated in the Home Office, might be improved. I gather that it is felt that if their sense of independence, even if it is only on paper, were wiped out, an enormous amount of harm will be done to the good work which the Prison Commissioners are able to do because of their so-called independence.

Like myself, the public are inclined to regard the Civil Service as something detached and isolated from human contacts and therefore not able easily to assess public opinion. The public feel that the Prison Commissioners are an independent body whose judgment and decisions they can accept, knowing that they are not part and parcel of what my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) has called the hierarchy or the Establishment.

There is another feeling about the matter in this House; I do not know about feeling concerning it in the country. The members of the Prison Commission are men of high integrity, as the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) said in Committee. They are men of distinction in public life. They have rightly gained the trust of the community. Many people feel that if the Prison Commission is abolished, civil servants will be appointed by seniority, so to speak, to control the duties of the Commission, instead of members being appointed because of their suitabilty or qualification for the job.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has given the matter great thought and where his sympathies lie. I hope, therefore, than on this occasion he will give way to his sympathies and allow the Prison Commissioners to carry on with the excellent work that they have so often done.

Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

It must be quite an experience for the hon. Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore) to find himself in respectable company. When he finds himself agreeing with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South-East (Miss Bacon), by the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) and even by myself, strange circumstances have arisen.

It may be that these strange circumstances arise because the Clause has nothing to do with the Bill. It could have been in any other kind of Bill, but it has little to do with the other matters which have been discussed generally during the course of the present Bill. One charitable explanation for this state of affairs is that the Home Secretary knew that today and during the course of the Bill, he would be having to take a number of objectionable courses, and would have to be resisting some obviously intelligent Amendments moved from this side of the House, but that he thought it would be a good thing to have one Clause in reserve which he could gracefully throw away and say that he would not press in view of the strong representations made to him from the other side of the House.

I cannot help feeling that that is the real reason why the Home Secretary has incorporated the Clause in the Bill. Therefore, whilst we must all go through the motions of pressing the right hon. Gentleman to withdraw it, I am sure that he will do so with his usual grace. Indeed, he can do it on this occasion with the absolute certainty that he will not be stabbed in the back from the other side. I hope that, for all these reasons, the Home Secretary will make the withdrawal. I apologise to him in advance if, by spilling the beans in this way, if I may put it in that crude manner, I have deprived him of the peroration that he was about to deliver.

However, just on the off-chance that the Clause was introduced seriously—it has lasted through quite a long period during the discussion of the Bill—I would address just a few arguments to the merits of the matter. As I say, I hope that the Home Secretary will withdraw it. Whichever way he withdraws it, I do not mind. It would be a good deed for him in a naughty week if he were to withdraw the Clause. However, on the merits of the matter, if, indeed, the proposal is seriously meant, it bears all the marks of a tidy, bureaucratic arrangement. It looks as if the Home Office saw the opportunity, possibly, of getting the Clause through without any great controversy and that it would tidy things up from the point of view of those in the Home Office. They have always been a bit jealous of the independence exercised by the Prison Commission and they thought that they could put things right. As we have been informed, they have been trying to do it for a number of years and they think that it would be a tidy, bureaucratic arrangement to change things in this manner.

I cannot claim to have the experience of many other hon. Members who have spoken in this debate, but I have spoken to some of those who have been associated with the Prison Commission. One of the main virtues of the Commission, I understand, is that it is manned by people who have had intimate experience of actually running prisons, people who have worked in prisons, who have been governors of prisons, who have, perhaps, some of them, though not all, given up the whole of their lives to this kind of work which, as everybody recognises, is a very distinct and peculiar kind of work.

One danger for the Commission in this transfer to the Home Office I should have thought is that there will be curtailment of the numbers of people on the Commission or doing its work who have intimate experience of this work in prisons themselves. Although civil servants are very good people in their place, I do not think they are the proper people to run the Prison Commission. I do not think anyone who is a civil servant and has spent most of his life in the Home Office will know very much about what happens in prisons or about what kind of attitude should be taken to the various problems which arise there.

So I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reconsider his proposal. After all, as has been said, there has been widespread opposition to it. As far as I can discover, the only defence so far made by the Home Secretary of his proposition is that he is not really intending to do what the Clause apparently says he will do, that he intends to do something rather different. However, as has already been said, the Clause is so widely drafted and contains such wide powers for the Home Office that, if we were to pass it today, even with all the assurances which, no doubt, the Home Secretary would give, it would still be possible in a matter of months or years for this Clause to be used radically to alter the position of the Prison Commission and the independence which it has exercised.

The Home Office is a Department which has to deal with a vast variety of subjects, and surely it is not asking too much that an independent voice should be retained in this respect, that the Commissioners should be able to retain the independence which at present they have, and that nothing should be done to merge them further in the Home Office.

So I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, even if he does it because of the motives I suggested at the beginning, will on this occasion say he has been persuaded by all the arguments presented in this House, and, indeed, by everyone, so far as I can see, who has had anything at all to say on the subject during the controversy there has been about it, for, as far as I can see, there has not been a single supporter of this proposal by the Home Secretary. I hope that he will take that into account. I hope he will agree with this Amendment, but if he does not, if he does intend to go ahead with this proposal, he really must present a much fuller argument for it than he attempted to give, for example, to some of our arguments on other matters, when he gave only most cursory answers. I hope he will give us a much more adequate explanation than he has so far given of his proposal.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

I gain the impression that my right hon. Friend has deliberately played down quite a long time the idea which is embodied in this Clause—the abolition, really, of the Prison Commission. I was very interested when the hon. Lady the Member for Leeds, South-East (Miss Bacon) said that on Second Reading—it is my impression also—very little was said about this proposal. As I said on another occasion, I was not a member of the Standing Committee, and, therefore, I do not really know what was said in the Standing Committee, but I think it is very important that we should understand why this very important matter should have been put into a Bill of this kind without any preparation beforehand by my right hon. Friend for this tremendous alteration in the administration of the Home Office.

10.30 p.m.

I find it very difficult to understand. Generally speaking, when we are going to make an alteration of this kind in a body which has grown up in the minds of the country over a very long period, we look for some guidance, an expression of a point of view, from the Department concerned before Parliament is faced with the task of making a decision. I do not like this matter at all.

Further, when I heard the hon. Lady say that during the term of the Labour Government a predecessor of my right hon. Friend had also tried to include this proposal in the Criminal Justice Act, 1948, and it was turned down, I became even more suspicious. It implies to me that the civil servants inside the Home Office have tried, with success, to get successive Home Secretaries to deal with this matter as my right hon. Friend has tried to deal with it tonight. That kind of thing does not appeal to me at all.

We have been preparing for a new Criminal Justice Bill for some time, and I have tried to recollect whether I have ever heard the Home Secretary tell anybody, either his own back benchers or the Opposition, that the proposal was on the cards, so to speak, or whether it has ever been raised in the House. But I have no such recollection. Also, when my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes), who is supposed to have been very closely in touch with the Home Office before he resigned his position and also holds a very prominent position in the Parliamentary Committee dealing with home affairs, has to get up and ask for some explanation, I become more and more suspicious. In other words, I do not like this proposition at all.

Mr. Deedes

I really must interrupt my hon. Friend. I am not responsible for abolishing the Prison Commissioners.

Dame Irene Ward

No, of course. I would not for one moment suggest that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford should feel like that, All I am saying is that he has had to get up and ask for an explanation. Having regard to his position, first, as a former Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, and then as Chairman of the Conservative Home Affairs Committee, I should have thought that he would know what was in the mind of the Home Secretary. I am absolutely staggered at the position. I should have thought that at a suitable opportunity before this great Bill was brought before the House with this extraordinary addition to it, which, as an Opposition Member said, really has nothing to do with the Bill at all, my right hon. Friend would have asked my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford to see him in his room so that he could explain to him what it was that he wanted to do. I find it most extraordinary that there is no such liaison.

Yesterday I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford trying to support my right hon. Friend. I do not think he supported my right hon. Friend very well, though he was doing his best. He ought to have been properly briefed. I am not suggesting that my hon. Friend was not using his own brains, but he had obviously been briefed in a way to support my right hon. Friend. Yet, although I consider this to be a very important matter, my hon. Friend really does not know a thing about it, and has had to get up and ask my right hon. Friend to explain it.

I also noticed that my right hon. Friend did not try to intervene to give some explanation, so that we should know what his views were. I find that most extraordinary. In addition, I noticed also the presence of the Attorney-General, who, if I remember rightly, when we were in opposition supported the removal of this proposal from the 1948 Act.

The Attorney-General

I supported this proposal in 1948.

Dame Irene Ward

I am very glad to hear it. I am bound to say, however, that I listened with fascination to him yesterday deploring one thing about magistrates and arguing the opposite today in order to get his way. I am finding it very difficult to know what we are trying to do.

I have come to the conclusion that the hour is very late. I cannot blame my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for this discussion coming up now, but I think that he is probably very pleased that it has done so—although he will not say so. We have not a full House. This is the kind of thing about which the Conservative Party cares deeply. We do not believe in monopolies, yet my right hon. Friend is, in effect, creating a monopoly for his Department and doing away with the very small independent representation. I believe I am right in saying that if all these proposals had been known and discussed there would not have been such an adverse press. My right hon. Friend's public relations are very bad. I do not think that he has a single leg to stand on.

I do not accept what the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot) said about this Clause being thrown in in order to try to smooth the ruffled feelings of back benchers on this side of the House. I do not think that that sort of thing enters the mind of my right hon. Friend. I do not think that he is a subtle person. He is very straightforward and he would not have thought of that. But I have been turning over in my mind how we can deal with what is to me a very important matter.

If there were a vote on this I should be in the Lobby against my right hon. Friend, but this Bill must go to another place, and in our debates we have given another place a lead on this matter. There are many pundits there who can deal with it more appropriately than a little back-bencher like me, getting up now without knowing a great deal about it. But I always think that women are very good psychologists, and I have a hunch that this proposal is a bad one.

I am not going to talk any longer, but I hope that my right hon. Friend will reconsider his proposal. If he does not want to do anything about it tonight—I realise that it would be very embarrassing at this hour to have to give way—and if he cannot send for my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford, I hope that he will send for the spokesman for the Home Office in another place and brief him, so that we shall know what it was that he wanted to do. Whatever he wanted to do, I do not want.

Mr. V. Yates

The hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) has given us some delightful interpretations of what she believed to have been the case and would have found to be so had she been a member of the Standing Committee. What she said about the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) could have been emphasised over and over again with the questions which he put in Standing Committee and to which he should have known the answers, especially in view of his experience.

The hon. Lady was quite right to say that for many years attempts have been made to bring about this change, and the hon. Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore) is to be congratulated on his opposition to it. His grounds for resisting the proposal, made by civil servants to several Home Secretaries, were as sound today as they were when he opposed a similar proposal in 1938.

Independence has been mentioned. If we were proposing to form a new Prison Commission, we would probably have to put it under the Home Office. But that is not the case. The Prison Commission has been operating since 1870 and independence has been the mark of its work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot) said that the proposal had had a bad Press. The Times, the Guardian and the Economist have all considered it very seriously. On 7th February, the Guardian said: Clause 23 of the Crinimal Justice Bill will enable the Home Secretary to abolish the Prison Commission and bring all matters of penal administration under the direct wing of the Home Office. There are sound reasons why this provision should be stoutly resisted, as it was successfully during the stages of the Criminal Justice Bill in 1948. Ever since the Prison Commission was found in 1870 the autonomy of that body has helped in penal reform to an extent which cannot have been imagined as taking place if the administration had been handled by a department of a Ministry. Experiments in penal reform had generally been forthcoming whereas those administering the penal system have failed when under the direction of the Home Office—certainly under less enlightened Home Secretaries than Mr. Butler—many innovations would never have been tried. That is a fact.

Independence has been exercised. The hon. Lady mentioned civil servants. Home Secretaries come and go—my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) was one—but the Civil Service, remains.

Sir T. Moore

Jolly good thing, too.

Mr. Yates

The civil servants keep bringing this proposal out of the pigeonholes.

10.45 p.m.

Apart from the opposition to which I have referred, I have visited the Prison Commissioners on many occasions during my sixteen years as a Member of this House. When I first went to the Home Office—and when I first went to the War Office—I was horrified by the sort of "pass in—pass out" attitude of the civil servants. When I went to Horse-ferry Road to see the Chairman of the Prison Commissioners, I was agreeably surprised by the accessibility—

Mr. R. A. Butler

Will the hon. Gentleman say when he has been to the Home Office and not been treated with courtesy? I should be very glad to look into it and put it right.

Mr. Yates

I did not mean to convey the impression that I had been received discourteously.

Mr. Butler

Will the hon. Gentleman say when he has been to the Home Office and not been well received?

Mr. Yates

I am not saying that I have not been well received. I am simply saying that under our system, which is not as bad as it was, when one visits the Home Office, or the War Office, one has to see the clerk at the counter and get a pass to go in, and so on. On the other hand, it is very easy to see the Prison Commissioners. If this proposal were accepted, I doubt whether there would be the same accessibility to the Prison Commissioners.

I do not wish to make a general attack on civil servants. There are many reasons for their cautiousness. When I was in the United States of America I visited some of the prisons and I was informed that one of the Prison Commissioners, a lady, had been there to lecture about prisons. I do not think that civil servants are so free and independent in these matters.

One aspect of the proposal which I particularly oppose is the reference to the Order in Council. It is a nasty, unfair method, for this reason. If the Government have power to do something by an Order in Council, the House of Commons has no power to amend that Order. Who taught me that? It was the Attorney-General, because in 1947 I was opposed to the National Service Bill and the power to extend it by an Order in Council. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said: It provides for some degree of Parliamentary control, but no one with any knowledge of the practice of this House can say it provides for full Parliamentary control when there is no power of amending the Order in Council."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th May, 1947, Vol. 437, c. 942.] If the right hon. Gentleman wants to bring about this change, the right way to do it is by a special Bill. The case could then be argued. If the change is made by an Order in Council, we shall have no power to amend it. We will have power to vote on the Order, but no power to amend it. For that reason I oppose the Amendment.

I do not wish to imply that civil servants are discourteous, but over the years the Prison Commissioners have established an independence which is clearly and unmistakably understood by the public. It is known that they act with due regard to public feeling, and independence has been their watchword. I sincerely hope that there will be other thoughts on this matter. It is one which should be argued as part of an Act of Parliament. We should have had a full debate on an issue of this kind. I therefore hope that the Home Secretary will think again about it.

Mr. Hobson

The hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) said that no voice has ever been raised in favour of this proposal, but I recollect that in Committee the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) advanced very cogent arguments in favour of it. We have not had the advantage of hearing from him this evening, but his arguments in Committee weighed forcibly with me because he had the experience of exercising the great office which he held.

Despite all the arguments advanced in Committee, however, one point has always troubled me. It is not the independence of the Prison Commissioners which one ought to regret losing, because it is probably true that in substance they are not independent but are subject to the direct orders of the Home Secretary; it is the loss of their separate responsibilty which is to be regretted. There is a world of difference between people who are part of the headquarters, as it were, exercising a subordinate responsibility under the Home Secretary, and a person who has a separate responsibility even though it is subject to the direction of the Home Secretary.

In my experience of the Army I found there was a world of difference between a staff officer, who is only one of the members of a staff which is subject to the orders of a commander and who is only partly responsible for an outside unit—because it is only his staff responsibility—and the actual individual with the command of that unit, who is doing nothing else, even though he is subject to the command of a superior headquarters. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to reassure the House that we are not losing something by abolishing the Prison Commissioners, in the sense that we are losing an independently exercised responsiblity.

Mr. R. A. Butler

I was informed yesterday evening that this Amendment was to be called, and I was glad to hear it, because although this matter was fully discussed in Committee the debate has shown that many Members would like a further explanation. Therefore, although the hour is late, I will attempt to give as full an explanation as I can, repeating many of the arguments given over the last fifteen years or so on this subject.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) has not been aware that this subject existed. I know that women are always right, but in this case I am afraid that they are not omniscient. My hon. Friend asked me why the matter had not been aired in the Second Reading debate. In order to help her I wild repeat some of the arguments I used in that debate by quoting from the OFFICIAL REPORT, in order to save her the trouble of reading them and also to save me the trouble of making a fresh speech. There are many arguments, because this matter has raised much public interest, but I think that I can dissipate much of the anxiety which has been created. In the Second Reading debate I said: the original division of responsibility between the Prison Commission as an executive authority and the Home Office, which is the Department concerned with policy, has disappeared."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th November, 1960; Vol. 630, c. 575.] I said that on Second Reading because I have had the honour of being Her Majesty's principal Secretary of State for four years and I am aware of what is happening in the various departments either directly or indirectly under my control. It is the case that every single item of business in the Prison Commission comes more quickly on to my desk than other items dealing with the Home Office. The right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) nods his head in acknowledgement of that.

Questions of corporal punishment to which we were referring this afternoon come to me for personal signature, and so do questions of staff. Even chaplains' and other appointments are signed by me. There is more centralisation between the Prison Commission and the Home Office than is ever realised by the newspapers quoted by the hon. Lady the Member for Leeds, South-East (Miss Bacon) or anyone who has taken part in this debate.

The position is that the Prison Commissioners, by the sheer distinction of the persons involved, have a very fine reputation. Sir Lionel Fox, who has recently retired, came from the Home Office. It may interest my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) to know that since 1895, on the personal plane, all the chairmen of the Prison Commission have been drawn from the Home Office. Some have spent years with the Commission and have returned to the Home Office for other duties. Similar movements have taken place at lower level.

If I have to answer my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford in detail, I should explain to him that we have had in the past interchanges between the two departments. I do not think there will be a very great change in future, except that if we are able to use the powers given us by Clause 23 we may be able to make some reasonable economies between the establishments of the two departments. As to the change of higher personnel, there has been this regular stream backwards and forwards. The present Chairman was appointed from the Home Office, and it may be that one day he will return to the Home Office; we cannot say. There has been a regular exchange throughout both the highest level and intermediate grades. That is the answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford.

What is the objective in taking these powers? In fact, the situation is practically an amalgamation today. Secondly, if I am to satisfy my hon. Friends, how am I to reassure the House that the Prison Commission will retain an independent character and personality and be able to make me reports of the type I have been in the habit of receiving and on which most of the penal reform today is based? It is not all due to me, but largely to the reports of the Prison Commission. It is natural for a Minister to want to have with him a body which can bring ideas to him. I think I can satisfy the House on both grounds. In the course of Second Reading, I referred to: the modern need for further integration. and said: For example, links between the prison and probation services and between approved school and borstal services may in this manner be brought closer and, therefore, lead to better working. I also said that I look forward to: a wider organisation covering all Home Office responsibilities for criminal justice and the treatment of offenders."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th November, 1960; Vol. 630, c. 576.] It seems a rather extraordinary situation that I am responsible for approved schools and the probation services as well as the whole development of penal policy and the Prison Commission is, so to speak, a quasi-independent statutory institution when in fact it is brought into touch with me at every hour of the day. All I claim that we can do under Clause 23 is to enable those services which ought to be linked together, as was illustrated in discussion of Clause 21 this afternoon, to be linked, the prison, probation and borstal services, so that in future they can work better together.

There has been reference to the constitutional question, which was raised partly by my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth, also by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Hobson) on separate responsibility by my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore) and the hon. and learned Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman). I shall deal with the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) in a minute.

11.0 p.m.

There is a big constitutional reason why, in the modern age, we should make this alteration, and this was specially stressed by the right hon. Member for South Shields in the Standing Committee. The doctrine of full Ministerial responsibility to this House is fundamental to our whole system of Government. This is not being done for petty reasons of tidiness in the Civil Service. The object is to support a constitutional principle. This is the second big reason that I am giving the House before dealing with some minor reasons.

I do not know whether hon. Members remember the Report of the Departmental Committee on Scottish Administration of 1938 which resulted in the amalgamation of the Prisons Department of Scotland with the Scottish Home Office. I do not say that we should always follow Scotland—especially as there are practically no Scottish hon. Members present tonight—[HON. MEMBERS: "There are."] I am sorry—there are some Scottish hon. Members present tonight.

I should like to read out this fundamental constitutional doctrine from this document. It says: It is a constitutional principle that a Department and its Minister are indistinguishable, but a Department incorporated and established by statute to carry out specified functions in the name of the Department, although acting under the control and direction of the Minister, is necessarily regarded as a separate entity. We consider that this is an anomaly which should be rectified. The responsibility of the Minister to Parliament is inconsistent with any measure of independence (even if only apparent) in any Department for which he speaks. That is, I believe, the basis of the future organisation of the Prison Commission in relation to the Home Office; that is to say, if we do take powers under this Order, and if the Order is laid before the House—we are not absolutely decided on taking the powers, but it is likely—it will be seen that the object is to establish the constitutional principle of a Secretary of State answerable to Parliament. I do not therefore see that Parliament can object when a Minister is donning the pure robe of constitutional doctrine, as I am attempting to do now—

Mr. Weitzman

Does that mean that the Commissioners will be a corporate body?

Mr. Butler

They will cease to be a statutory body on their own—and the hon. and learned Gentleman's intervention leads me to my next point.

I think that the emotional attachment to the existing state of affairs is an endearing example of the innate conservatism and attachment to tradition of most Englishmen of all parties—and I say this to pay a special tribute to the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot). We have found that in all parts of the House there is a happy liaison between my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth, the hon. Members for Ebbw Vale, Ladywood and everyone else. The lion and the lamb are lying down together, and I hope that I can embrace them all before I finish my speech.

I shall now give them a very simple reassurance. There is really nothing at all in the fear that the disappearance of the Prison Commissioners as a separate statutory body will destroy what is valuable in the tradition relating to the Commission. I have discussed the matter with the Chairman of the Prison Commission, and have given him a personal assurance—which he has accepted and which he has discussed with his own subordinates in the prison service—that the Prisons Board, as a team of administrative and professional officials, will continue.

That means that they will have their own office. The hon. Member for Lady-wood will find at Horseferry Road exactly the same atmosphere as always. I defy him to observe the slightest difference as a result of this change. He will find the Prisons Board and the head of the service there, and will find that the Prisons Board is independent and able to give me its advice.

I want now to come to the most vital thing, which is that I insist in this reorganisation that the Chairman of the Prison Commission shall continue to report to me, as was done in the day of Sir Lionel Fox and is now done by Mr. Peterson. The Chairman has always reported to me through the Permanent Under-Secretary of, State. Therefore, the idea that there was a Commission that had an independent life and reported to me independently was not true, because the reports have always come to me through the Permanent Under-Secretary, as they will do in the future.

On the question of publicity—that is, the principle of the Commissioners being able to speak in the country and to address gatherings interested in penal reform—I give the undertaking that there will be no difference. In the past, the Prison Commissioners have been able to attend meetings and express their views on penal reform, and it is my intention that that should continue.

Therefore, I do not think that in this method which is planned for undertaking the main services of penal reform there will be any difference in the independence of the men, or character of the Commission, or in its chances for making publicity for penal reform: nor in its independence of judgment. Furthermore, there will be no change in the type of civil servant. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Ebbw Vale said he did not want civil servants to be prison governors, but I do not think that governors of prisons or borstals, or detention centres, will be in any way altered. I do not anticipate that the general standard of the service will be altered. This matter has been discussed with them, and I believe that they understand what I mean. I should very like my words to go to them this evening in the knowledge that they are going on with their noble work as they have in the past.

I have been asked if this will alter the position of the boards of visitors, which in borstals, and certain types of prison, are appointed by the Secretary of State. It may be suggested that these bodies have the function of keeping an independent watch, on his behalf, on the management of these establishments by the Prison Commissioners, and that if the Home Secretary became directly responsible for their management, the boards of visitors would lose this independence.

This view is mistaken. There will not be any difference because of this Bill. They will continue to have direct access to me as Secretary of State, and any official actions or policy with which they may disagree will be no more and no less than heretofore the actions or policy of officials who are responsible to the Secretary of State. These are the main reasons why I have thought it wise to have these powers in the Bill.

Mr. Charles A. Howell (Perry Barr)

I am grateful to the Home Secretary. Before leaving that point, I wonder if he would explain the reason why he says he will achieve this by Order? Why has he put this matter so that there will have to be an Order in Council rather than having a specific Clause in the Bill to abolish the Commissioners? Would it not have been tidier, to say nothing of being more honest and straightforward, to have had a Clause stating that the Commissioners would be abolished at this stage?

Mr. Butler

That raises a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport. In taking these powers there will be much detailed complication; much too much for us to have put the matter in this Bill. We thought it better to see it set out in the form of an Order in Council than to include all the material in a Bill of this sort. That procedure will also have the merit of giving us more time for consideration, and I will give the assurance that when the Order does come before the House there will be full opportunity for it to be considered and that, if it is prayed against, I shall personally be here to answer points; and further than that, I will make it my business to study all of them. I think that that also answers the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Stoke Newington and the hon. Member for Ladywood. I am personally responsible for our debate this evening because we are fully aware of the great importance which is attached to this change.

Mr. MacColl

The right hon. Gentleman says that the Order may be prayed against, and, therefore, one would understand that it will be subject to the negative procedure. I thought that it would be subject to the affirmative procedure. Is that not correct?

Mr. Butler

It will be an ordinary Order in Council subject to the negative procedure—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but that is a mistake of mine. If this will be under the affirmative procedure, then that of itself provides an even greater safeguard for the House.

I sum up by answering my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr about the Commissioners. The Commissioners have earned our trust. I have absolutely no doubt that in the new arrangements they can continue to earn our trust. I have no doubt that the separate organisation of the prisons can continue under this scheme. I have no doubt that the Prisons Board will continue. I have no doubt that we shall be able to recruit the same types of men as in the past, particularly with regard to the fact that they have so often been transferred from the Home Office. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth, I have no doubt that we shall not find anything mysterious, underhand or difficult in this organisation. I believe that in the future, we must look to a much wider bringing together of the various services for which the Secretary of State is responsible. I believe that it will prevent waste.

The expression was used by my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth that this was a case of a Conservative creating a monopoly. It is nothing of the sort. It is the case of a Conservative establishing the constitutional doctrine that the Departments responsible to him are responsible through him to the House of Commons. That is all I am trying to do. That is no constitutional innovation. It is as old as time. It is embraced not only by Conservatives, but it should be embraced by the House itself.

Mr. Ede

In the course of his remarks, the Home Secretary alluded to the fact that the new Chairman of whatever body takes the place of the Prison Commission, and for the time being of the Prison Commission, will be Mr. Peterson. I went across to the United States of America a few months after Mr. Peterson had also gone to several of the cities that I visited and addressed several of the universities which had invited me to come and see them. Throughout the whole of that journey, the warmest appreciation was expressed of Mr. Peterson's services, of his knowledge of prison reform and of the help which he had given to the American officers in a similar position.

Mr. Peterson was at one time my private secretary and I want to wish him well in his new appointment and to congratulate the Home Secretary on having given him the opportunity of using his great talents in this exalted position.

Amendment negatived.

Miss Bacon

I beg to move, That further consideration of the Bill, as amended, be now adjourned. We have got on very well today and we have switched our minds from one subject to another. Sometimes they have been very varying subjects. I should like to ask the Home Secretary what are his intentions. Although we have got on well, there is still quite a lot of the Bill to be considered, including the important question of after-care, as well as the Third Reading, which cannot be taken formally and on which there must be discussion.

Mr. R. A. Butler

I am afraid I must insist that we finish consideration of the Bill. The only alternative is to go on tomorrow night, because the Bill has in due course to proceed to its final legislative conclusion in another place. If we have to defer any part of the Bill to tomorrow night, we do not want to defer too much. The remaining portion on the Order Paper consists really of one main Amendment to the First Schedule, which my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is here to consider. It would be unreasonable not to finish consideration of the Bill this evening.

I should prefer to take the Third Reading tonight. If, however, representations are made to me to take it tomorrow night after we have finished our business after ten o'clock I would consider those representations. I would, however, prefer to finish consideration of the Bills as on the Order Paper tonight, and I think that we could do that comparatively easily. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is present to deal with the point which will be raised on the First Schedule and there are not many other major points to be dealt with on consideration on the Bill as on the Order Paper. Therefore, I am afraid that that should be our programme for this evening.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Thomas Steele (Dunbartonshire, West)

I draw to the right hon. Gentleman's attention a very important Amendment to the Third Schedule headed Application to Scotland, Northern Ireland, Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. An explanation of this will certainly be required. This long Amendment replaces Part II of the Schedule in the Bill and inserts provisions affecting Scotland. It deals with probation officers and aftercare officers.

I and some of my hon. Friends from Scotland have been sitting here for a long time because we want an explanation of these provisions. I suggest that there is more in the situation than meets the eye, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give us time tomorrow for this issue.

Mr. Butler

I am aware of that Amendment. The Attorney-General is here to give that explanation. I consider that we should make an attempt to conclude the Amendments on the Order Paper. That is reasonable. There has been a good spirit, and I am indebted to the House for the manner in which hon. Members have co-operated. We have got through a great deal of work. I think that when he is given the explanation the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Steele) will find that the position is not as bad as he thinks. We had better proceed.

Mr. Steele

Will the answer be given by a Scottish Minister or by the Attorney-General?

Mr. Butler

My right hon. and learned Friend points out that it is not solely a Scottish matter, but if the hon. Member is keen to be assisted by a Scottish Minister I will see what I can do.

Question put and negatived.