HC Deb 12 March 1963 vol 673 cc1241-4

6.50 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Henry Brooke)

I beg to move, That the Prison Commissioners Dissolution Order 1963, a draft of which was laid before this House on 5th February, be approved. I fear that we may have our debate interrupted in a few minutes, Mr. Speaker, but I hope that I shall be able to deploy part of the case before seven o'clock, and maybe the House will forgive me if I have to complete my speech when we resume the debate.

There is a vast deal needing to be done in our prisons, and one of the reasons why I move this Order is that I not only want to be responsible for helping to get it done, but to be seen to be responsible. The key to our whole democratic system is that Ministers are directly responsible to Parliament for all that is done by their Departments and under their auspices, and I am against blurring that responsibility, as it is blurred by the existence of separate statutory agencies which look independent, but are not independent really.

There is a vast deal to be done, for various reasons. First of all, crime is 50 per cent. higher than it was in 1956; that was when the number of prisoners in detention fell to the lowest point in recent years. The House may like a few figures in order to get the situation into perspective. There were, roughly, 11,000 people in detention in 1938. In 1952, there were between 23,000 and 24,000. The number fell to 20,000 in 1956, and there are over 30,000 now. That is why I have said that this crime wave has increased the figures by 50 per cent.

We cannot build more prisons as fast as more people during a crime wave commit crimes. This means, among other things, that w3 still have to keep in use, unavoidably, a number of very old prisons that are quite out of date by modern penal standards. I visited a prison the other day where one of the blocks dated from 1790. The governor of the prison astonished me with the remark that this was the most popular block to be in, because the old cells, with their thick walls, were regarded as the cosiest in the prison.

Our standards are not always the same as the prisoners'. I want to bring to an end as soon as I possibly can prisoners sleeping three in a cell, yet there axe a great many prisoners who, in fact, would choose that in preference to the loneliness of being locked up by themselves. Another aim is to get as many prisoners as possible doing a full working week of work. Until we achieve that, we are not really fulfilling our declared purpose of fitting men to stand on their own feet when they come out of prison.

That depends partly on finding room to build new workshops—because, of course, in the old days most of the prisoners used to do dreary and monotonous work in their cells—and partly on building up the strength of the prison officer service, because, until there are enough prison officers to work a shift, we cannot have the prisoners in that prison unlocked for long enough to give them their exercise and meals, and a full working day, too. We have built up the number of men prison officers from 4,200 to over 6,000 since 1956. I am glad to say that we now have a second training school, and that we passed nearly 800 officers into the service last year compared with under 350 the year before. But we still want more—many more. I could say a great deal about what is being done and about what I want to do, but perhaps what I have said will serve to give the background of this Order.

The matters of which I have spoken are the important matters. The Order itself is simply concerned with machinery, but I believe that the time has come to modernise statutory arrangements which date from as far back as 1877. That is what the Order does. My predecessor secured the assent of Parliament to the principle of it in the Criminal Justice Act of 1961, and this Order is made in accordance with that Act.

If the Prison Commission did not exist as a separate statutory body I cannot believe that we would now create a distinct agency organisation of that kind to run the prisons. It would be contrary to all modern thought. How to save people from becoming criminals, how to treat them in prison if they do become criminals, how to help them to settle down to a good and useful life when they come out of prison —we now regard those as three facets of one problem. We would never now dream of setting up a statutory body to look after the second of those aspects quite separately from all that is being done on the first and third. To my mind, getting rid of that anomaly, which stems from legislation passed 86 years ago, constitutes the main necessity for this Order.

Under the Order, what is now the Prison Commission will become the prison department of the Home Office—alongside the children's department, with its concern for juvenile delinquency, and the probation division, and so on. That must be right. The handling of offenders does not begin and end in prison. The more we can look on the problem of offenders and offences as a whole, the more likely we are to be able to tackle it.

I attach far more importance to that angle than to the financial savings or tidying up we shall achieve by the Order. There should be some savings, but they will not be great. For instance, we have at present to maintain a separate finance division and a separate establishment division for the Prison Commission, quite distinct from the finance division and establishment division of the Home Office, whereas all the work for both would be done better or at less cost in combination.

The division between the Prison Commission and the Home Office is an unreal one in these days. Of course, the Commission has extremely important work to do—so has the children's department of the Home Office, so has the probation division, so has the criminal division. There is already liaison between them, but when this Order takes effect and the Commission becomes the Prison Department of the Home Office the relationship between them will grow still closer. Surely, it is right that it should.

The Prison Commissioners and their staffs are civil servants. They are not outside the Civil Service as, I believe, some people imagine. The Order makes no difference whatever to anybody's pay, pension rights or conditions of service. Neither will it make any difference at all to my constitutional responsibilities as Home Secretary. I am now responsible in exactly the same degree for the work done by the Commission and for the work done by the Home Office. The Prison Commissioners, just like officials in the Home Office, are under my direction generally and in specific matters. Their proposals come to me through the Permanent Under-Secretary of State and, constitutionally, it is anomalous and misleading that the Commission should appear to be a separate and independent body.

I should like to quote from the 1937 Report of the Departmental Committee on Scottish Administration. That was the Report that resulted in a similar amalgamation of the Prisons Department of Scotland with the Scottish Home Department. It states—

It being Seven o'clock, and there being Private Business set down by The CHAIRMAN OF WAYS AND MEANS, under Standing Order No. 7 (Time for taking Private Business), further Proceeding stood postponed.