HC Deb 21 June 1961 vol 642 cc1639-50

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

11.25 p.m.

Sir Cyril Black (Wimbledon)

I must express my regret at having to detain for a further half hour my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, after what I am sure has been for him a long and tiring day. But I am glad to have the opportunity of raising with my right hon. Friend the question of conditions in Her Majesty's prisons. This is a matter of grave and increasing concern both to Members of this House and to the general public, as almost every day reports reach us of acts of violence by prisoners in one or other of the prisons involving injury or even death to prison officers or other prisoners, and order and discipline would appear to be increasingly breaking down.

Much light was cast on a fantastic and alarming state of affairs by various speakers at the recent annual conference at Durham of the Prison Officers' Association. I have endeavoured to classify under a few headings what seem from the conference reports to have been the main criticisms. I will now come to these and I shall, of course, in the main have to depend upon the reported words of speakers to make my points. I feel sure that my right hon. Friend will be glad to have the opportunity of allaying, if he can, some of the worst of the fears that have been aroused by the conference reports.

The main criticisms at the conference can, I think, be summarised under four main headings. First, there were serious allegations of danger to women welfare officers in the existing conditions in which they work in prisons. Delegates at the conference were told of some welfare officers walking round security prisons with pass and cell keys. Delegates demanded that this be stopped because of the obvious dangers to the ladies and security Warders told of their fears of assaults on the women and the dangerous consequences to staff because of this "weak link" in the security system. It was disclosed that at Dartmoor a woman taking a class was indecently assaulted.

The Wandsworth delegate, talking of the women welfare officers there, said: In C wing at any one time the lady can be half a mile away from any patrol and if anything happened it would be too late to assist her. The lady has now got herself two lady typists. They parade through the prison passing the queue for governor's appointments sometimes numbering 85 men. The job of maintaining discipline is becoming more difficult every day with these ladies going about their ordinary jobs. Another delegate said: At Liverpool women interviewed men in cells. It is not hard to imagine the conduct in the cells as she walks along the landing There is a distinct possibility of this lady being subject to a sexual assault. Secondly, there were strong and critical references to what I think could fairly be described from reading the conference reports as the belief at the conference in the failure and futility of psychiatry as a substitute for rigorous conditions and stern discipline. The Association's chairman criticised the modern trend of sociology, psychiatry, psychology and other special spheres introduced in prisons. He asked when the warders might expect to see some tangible results from these new and modern methods. The Broadmoor delegate at the conference said that reform experiments were undermining discipline. The situation in which a prisoner's ego was more important than anything else was wrong. The Home Secretary was, rather irreverently and unkindly, I think, likened by one delegate to the Fairy Queen. A representative from Brixton said that prison today was like a pantomime, year in and year out, with an ever-increasing cast. The prisoners were babes in the wood, with psychologists, psychiatrists and others trying to be friendly trees for the babes to hide behind regardless of their crimes. He said that the shortage of staff was not the sole reason for the present situation, adding: we, the prison staff, are in our time-honoured rôle of wicked warder, and we have the Home Secretary as Fairy Queen. Flying high from the ground with his tarnished tinsel and drooping wand, he presumably believes—as all good fairies should—that all will come right in the end. The whole system of the past few years had been a complete failure, with rising crime, especially violence. The "babes," these days, he said, had "never had it so good," adding: Their ever-increasing privileges, which most prisoners now regard as their rights, mean that the wicked warders are on duty two or three evenings when they should be at home resting for the next performance. Of course we need more officers, but let the Home Secretary shed the wings of Fairy Queen and come back to earth. Let him exchange his drooping wand for a birch and play the rôle of wicked uncle for a while. Maybe, then these babes would think twice before then violence inside and outside prisons. That may be exaggerated language, and many hon. Members will, perhaps, find themselves somewhat out of sympathy with that mode of expression. But it does at any rate indicate a great feeling of exasperation and almost of despair on the part, at any rate, of some of these men on whose services we depend for the maintenance of order in the prisons.

The third point made at the conference by several delegates related to the wave of violence and insubordination sweeping through the prisons which, it was suggested, seemed to be daily increasing and must be checked. A delegate from Pentonville said that during the twelve months there had been twenty-nine attacks on warders. In no case had corporal punishment been administered to offenders. He said: Prisoners afraid of mobs and strong-arm men take more notice of them than of the staff…During a recent incident when men stood still in the exercise yard, they ignored orders from the Governor and principal officers, but continued walking when a prisoner gave the order to move on. The delegate from Broadmoor described the situation at Broadmoor as "alarming". He said that, recently, 10 per cent. of the female staff were off duty and receiving Industrial Injury benefits as a result of assaults.

The general secretary of the Association, summing up, said: These violent people ought to be properly disciplined in a place of their own. This experiment at Brixton is not going to work because these fellows will come into contact with other prisoners at chapel and elsewhere and there will be acts of bravado". Fourthly, a good deal was said at the conference as to the difficulties and unsatisfactory conditions being, at any rate in considerable measure, due as a result of the shortage of staff in the prisons. The results of staff shortages were indicated by several delegates. One from Pentonville Prison pointed out that in the past year there had been no less than 667 recalls to the prison of off-duty officers and that free time in compensation had been non-existent for five years.

Another delegate explained that there was a similar situation at borstal institutions. Frequently only one officer was in charge of eighty inmates for long periods. Delegates spoke of the peril that might strike at any moment in understaffed prisons. Murders could be done without anyone knowing what had happened, it was said.

I am quite certain that no one in this House and no one in the country wishes the over-severe conditions of the last century to return to our prisons. But while that may be the case, I believe that the Home Secretary would be supported by a big majority of Members of the House and of members of the public in restoring a stricter and more severe régime in dealing with wrongdoers.

Both in and out of prison, many people believe that it is right and necessary that the way of transgressors should be hard, that the maintenance of public order is more important that the pampering of wrongdoers and that sympathy for the victim is more important than too much softness in dealing with the offender. A more vigorous régime in the prisons would be applauded by the many and criticised by the few.

Before I sit down, I must, I think, make this point, that necessarily Members of this House and members of the public are dependent for information about conditions in the prisons on reports from people like prison officers.

Miss Alice Bacon (Leeds, South-East)

The hon. Gentleman has read out to us the reports of speeches that we all read in the papers about a fortnight ago, and I think that he is just going on to say that hon. Members are dependent on reports in newspapers. That, of course, is not so. Perhaps he would tell us which prisons he has visited lately.

Sir C. Black

I have visited prisons in the past. I have not visited any prisons recently, but I still maintain my point, that for information as to what the conditions are one must necessarily rely more upon information obtained from people who work in the prisons and spend their lives there, people who are there day after day, week after week and month after month, than upon information which hon. Members could obtain if they had the time and the opportunity to make very infrequent and very fleeting visits to prisons.

I was about to conclude by saying that it may be that these reports are greatly exaggerated. It may well be that in these reports things have been said which my right hon. Friend will be able to deny, and that, in so far as facts can be given, he may be able to allay the apprehensions of the public aroused by reports of this kind. To that extent, I am quite certain that this debate will have served a useful purpose.

I have deliberately kept my remarks as short as I possibly could because I wanted to give my right hon. Friend as long as possible in which to tell us something about these reports and how far they can be regarded as being reliable.

11.40 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Dennis Vosper)

My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) need not apologise for keeping me up, because I am indeed glad to have the chance of answering this debate today. As, I think, my hon. Friend realises, it gives me the opportunity of putting into perspective some of the rather exaggerated stories which have been circulating recently about prison conditions.

My hon. Friend has, I know, been to conferences. He knows that some excitable things are said there and that somewhat exaggerated reports appear as a result of those excitable remarks. Much of what my hon. Friend has spoken about falls into that category. Last week, however, my hon. Friend may have read in the Economist, a paper which is not normally given to sensational reports, an article on prisons which said that our prisons were antiquated, overcrowded and understaffed.

I say straight away that that is not untrue, provided it is remembered that vigorous action has been taken, and is being taken, to overcome these deficiencies. In the first place, our prisons are antiquated because nearly all of them—and my hon. Friend said that in the past he had visited some—date from Victorian times. Like so many of our institutions, schools, hospitals, and so on, they do not measure up to the requirements of the second half of this century. Nevertheless, if my hon. Friend would again visit one of these institutions, as I should like him to do, particularly one of the local prisons, I think that he would be pleasantly surprised to see what can be done with an old building. In most of our prisons, work is in hand to try to make the best out of what is on many occasions admittedly a bad job.

Secondly, our prisons are overcrowded because the population of Her Majesty's penal establishments stands at over 29,000, which is a record figure. It has been rising at the stupendous rate of about 500 prisoners every three months for the past eighteen months. That means that a new prison is needed every three months to cope with the additional numbers.

Thirdly, the prisons are understaffed because, although there has been a 26 per cent. rise in staff—I should like that to be noted—in the last five years, it has, like so many professions, been insufficient to cope with the increase in population. I have in mind, for example, the teaching profession. The staffing ratio in prisons has fallen from 1:4.6 in 1956 to 1:5.1 today.

Despite these disquieting trends, however, I should like to refute any suggestion—and there have been some suggestions in recent weeks—that prison discipline is in danger of breaking down. Neither my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary nor the Prison Commission is of this opinion. During the last eighteen months I have visited—I know that the hon. Lady the Member for Leeds, South-East (Miss Bacon), who is attending this debate, has done likewise—some thirty of these establishments, or more than one-third of the total, and I have discussed the position with governors and with the staff at all levels. I cannot detect any substance in the suggestion that despite the difficult conditions, the situation is not under complete control or that staff morale generally is low.

The staff of the prison service are doing a fine job, often under great strain, and I should like to pay tribute to their efforts. I am anxious that a false picture is not created. This could only have the effect of discouraging applicants for the service, thus rendering the task of those in the service unnecessarily difficult.

In recent weeks there have been incidents in several prisons arising from a number of different reasons, perhaps the most important of which is that the prisoners read the newspapers and know what is happening elsewhere in other prisons. But there is no reason—and I have gone into this carefully—to believe that these incidents are symptoms of a deep unrest.

My hon. Friend referred in particular to the reports of the prison officers' conference at Durham, but in my many visits I have been much impressed by the calibre of those who serve the Prison Commission. They are a fine body of men. Nevertheless, as we all know from our experience at conferences, it is so often the sensational speech which hits the headlines and often the rebel who attracts the interest. Whilst I realise that officers are working under great difficulties—no one denies that—my personal experiences do not support the impressions created by some of the speeches to which my hon. Friend has referred.

One speaker—I think that my hon. Friend had this one in mind—took the theme that life in prison today was one non-stop pantomime. I realise that not everyone, including prison officers, supports the positive approach which is adopted in our prisons today, but I should make it quite clear that the reformative aspects of prison treatment are not soft measures designed merely to sweeten the passage of time or to make compensation for a man being in prison. They all have a constructive purpose which, we think, will eventually benefit not only the individual prisoner, but society as a whole, because it might help him to go straight and not come back, I have no doubt that many prison officers accept this not only as a matter of duty but from personal conviction.

My hon. Friend seemed to suggest that we should have a stricter régime. My experience is that the régime is very strict. Our aims in prison treatment are to maintain security and good order, to maintain and, if necessary, improve, physical health, and to train the inmates to lead an holiest and useful life on discharge. We have to try to teach the prisoner to work, think and face his responsibilities as a grown member of society. This is not done by making the prisoners comply with a simple routine of monotonous work, but by providing constructive training enabling the prisoner to develop a sense of responsibility.

We must, therefore, obviously give him some chance to exercise selection and some variety of choice must be available to him. We must also, if we are to train the prisoner to get along in a free society, give him opportunities to play his part in the society of the prison itself through communal activities of various kinds and opportunities of service to the community. I mention this because this is one of the aims of our prison regime. It is a necessary part of a constructive and progressive policy and can well be associated with the deterrent effect of prison life.

I believe that this is what the speaker had in mind when he spoke of a "pantomime". This is not pantomime but a serious effort to use the time available when a man is deprived of liberty to do as much as possible to re-establish him in society and to prevent his return to prison. Of course, this task is made immensely more difficult by the size of the prison population and is particularly difficult in many of the overcrowded local prisons.

I am glad to say, however, that we are making considerable progress with our building programme, which now provides for no less than forty new establishments. That will be approximately a 50 per cent. rise on what we have now. Seven of these are in operation, sixteen are under construction, while seventeen are still in various stages of planning. This programme will include at least eight new closed training prisons for men, and, following the Criminal Justice Bill, will provide for the separation of young offenders from the old and for the provision of remand centres.

Whilst it can be argued—and this was argued in part at Durham—that we should not open these new establishments until we get more staff, we obviously cannot improve conditions in existing establishments until we get the new ones, and therefore, all our efforts depend equally on the provision of new establishments and upon more staff.

Having spoken briefly about buildings, I turn now to staffing, which is no doubt the most important element in the service. As I have said, there has been a steady increase in staff, rising from 4,363 in 1956 to 5,506 today. But there was a depressing period towards the end of last year, and at the moment we are about 140 officers short of the present authorised strength, and also, of course, we need more staff to meet the demands of the new establishments. My right hon. Friend—and I emphasise this—attaches the highest priority to this matter of recruiting more staff.

High standards are obviously very necessary for the service, and this means that only a small proportion of the applicants can be accepted. The service is very selective. My impression is that the job offers a satisfying career for men and women of high integrity, as well as—odd though it may sound—a post of great security.

Pay for the prison staff was improved at the beginning of this year by 9 per cent., and today the starting pay of prison officers is £10 16s. 6d. per week. In addition, there is free accommodation and uniform, or allowances to cover these.

Overtime, of which there may well be too much, but I think that that is a matter for dispute, is paid at generous rates. Three weeks' annual leave with full pay is given to the new officer—with more leave for the established officer, of course—and officers may retire at the fairly early age of 55 with very advantageous pension terms.

For the 5,506 officers, about 4,710 married quarters are available, 300 more are in the course of construction, and more still will be provided. Housing in a service like this is of the utmost importance, and I admit that in one of two prisons it causes us some problems.

I mention this because it is not always realised that the facilities available to the prison officer are very good indeed, and they must be so because of the restricted life he is forced to lead and because of the inconvenient hours he is requested to work.

I am particularly glad to be able to reply to this debate, because we are at present engaged in a recruiting campaign. A few weeks ago we had a test campaign of display advertising in the North of England—principally in the North-West, but a little in the North-East. We have received a large number of applications which are at present under consideration.

It will be the concern of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Prison Commission to endeavour in every possible way to attract officers to the service, because upon these depend the conditions of those officers already in the service as well as the development and maintenance of the prisoners themselves.

My hon. Friend referred to the question of attacks on officers. These are to be regretted, but in fact there has been a slight decrease in the number of attacks on officers in 1960 compared with 1959, despite the rise in prison population during this period. I cannot understand my hon. Friend's reference to twenty-nine attacks for which no award of corporal punishment was made. Corporal punishment in prison is awarded only for gross personal violence, for mutiny, or for incitement to mutiny. It may well be that the offences he has in mind were not offences of gross personal violence, but this is a matter which is often under discussion, and in fact my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has confirmed more awards of corporal punishment this year and last year than in previous years. This year three awards have been made, and all have been confirmed. Last year eight awards were made, and five were confirmed.

My hon. Friend referred to a woman welfare officer. I have met this lady. Neither she nor the Governor share the views expressed at the conference. In fact, following this remark the prisoners presented her with a bouquet of flowers.

I appreciate my hon. Friend's reasons for raising this debate, but I hope he will share my view that we should persevere with the progressive methods adopted in our prisons today, which must bring dividends to us all. We are backing this with an extensive programme of building—the largest this country has known for over a century.

I fully accept that the burden of success—and I think that this is in my hon. Friend's mind—rests on the staff, and we will adopt any reasonable measures leading to an increase in their numbers. As I have said, we are engaged upon a recruiting campaign.

The picture that I should like my hon. Friend to have is one of great pressure, but not one of crisis; it is one of expansion and not one of complacency of despair.

Miss Bacon

This is an important subject, and one with which we cannot adequately deal in a half-hour Adjournment debate.

I was pleased to hear the right hon. Gentleman give details of the buildings—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adojurned at five minutes to Twelve o'clock.