HC Deb 19 January 1972 vol 829 cc569-81

8.45 p.m.

Mr. Norman Fowler (Nottingham, South)

I rise to raise a subject of which I have given the Chair notice and notice of which I have also given to my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary, and that is the state of prisons in England and Wales. A great deal of attention has been given in the Press to the state of penal policy in this country and the state of the prisons in England and Wales, and by way of illustration one has only to refer to the articles which have just appeared in The Times newspaper and which have surveyed the present state of prisons. There is concern, and I know that this concern is very much shared by my and hon. and learned Friend who, if I may say so, has made a quite outstanding contribution already towards improving matters.

The major cause for concern has been the ever-increasing number who seem to be finding their way to prison. The prison population has increased from 15,000 just after the last world war to just under 40,000 at the present time. This in itself reflects a very real rise in crime. Some people still seem to believe that the increase in crime is something of an illusion, but all the detailed evidence suggests that the increase is very real indeed. The research which has been done on this question by organisations like the Cambridge Institute of Criminology suggests that not only has there been an increase in crime but an increase in those crimes which the public consider most serious.

Therefore, more and more one is seeing an increase in professional crime in this country. One is seeing more people of the young professional criminal class going to prison—the young person in his twenties who lives by crime and, at that stage in his development, does not want to pursue any other kind of occupation. This danger from the young professional criminal is one of the very real problems which this Government have to face. I know it is a problem of which my hon. and learned Friend is well aware.

To give but one example of this. There has been an increase in the crime of robbery in this country. Twenty years ago robbery, with its implication of violence with theft, was a crime which was relatively rare even in London. Today it is a major threat. It has a turnover and proceeds of over £2 million, and concerns a great number of professional and semi-professional criminals.

We in this House would be extremely silly to ignore the very real public concern there is about this question. We would be very stupid to ignore the concern in particular that there is about the increase in armed crime, about the increase in the carrying of arms by professional criminals.

My hon. and learned Friend has had only very short notice of this debate: I am extremely grateful for the courteous way in which he agreed that we should have it and is listening to it. I should like to draw his attention to a proposal which was recently made by the Society of Conservative Lawyers, of which he himself was once a part. It said that the abolition of the death penalty left a very dangerous vacuum which life imprisonment has simply failed to fill. This is a very, very real point, one which causes very grave public concern.

Life imprisonment is not what it seems; it is a false name, and it is regarded as an empty threat. I shall not discuss what the average life sentence happens to be. I do not think that arguments about averages of that kind are meaningful. But what is clear is that it seems to the professional criminal, especially the young professional criminal, that the sentence of life imprisonment is an empty threat. He believes—rightly or wrongly; it matters not—that he will be out of prison within a relatively short time, perhaps only eight or nine years.

What is most curious in the present state of the law is that the sentence for manslaughter, for example, can be varied at the discretion of the court, but a murderer can be given only life imprisonment. Discretion is, therefore, taken away from the court which has heard the facts of the case. To put it in another way, it was possible for the court which tried those responsible for the Great Train Robbery to give plainly deterrent sentences of 25 or 30 years. That is not possible in the case of murder. The only possible sentence is life imprisonment.

What has been proposed, therefore—I urge it upon my hon. and learned Friend for his consideration—is that it should be possible in murder cases for the courts to impose fixed sentences of imprisonment on that sort of scale, 25 or 30 years, where appropriate. The advantage of that course would be that it would become clear to professional criminals that the carrying of arms was simply not worth while.

There is no unanimity about how to deal with the professional criminal, the really serious offender, who goes into the penal system. One school of thought says that such prisoners should be held in a separate prison. This was the idea put forward by Lord Mountbatten in his report on the prison system. He proposed that a separate prison should be established on the Isle of Wight and that all our most dangerous prisoners should be put there.

It has always seemed to me that the risk of that course is that we should create an ungovernable prison. We should put together in one place all the men who are, by definition, the most dangerous in our penal system, and we should impose a mammoth task of discipline and organisation upon the prison staff and the governor.

We must face this problem squarely. There are inside our prisons dangerous or potentially dangerous men who create great difficulties for the prison staff. Our prison staff have a difficult enough job as it is, without our creating a prison of that kind liable to be dangerous not only to society but also to the staff whose job it would be to govern it.

I am convinced. therefore, as I am sure my hon. and learned Friend is, that it is right to disperse prisoners of this kind in secure prisons, in other words, separating the dangerous hard core of prisoners and putting them in five or six different prisons throughout the country, mixing them with the slightly less dangerous or, in some cases, category B prisoners. This method has advantages in organisation. It has the further advantage that it does not confer the status of a "special" prison.

It is right to disperse such prisoners only so long as the prisons are secure. One of the most noticeable things in the last few years and during my hon. and learned Friend's time at the Home Office is how much more secure are the prisons, and how much more secure they appear even to the casual observer. There is little that brings the prison system more into contempt than prisoners apparently being able to get out of prison at will, as happened in the mid-1960s. We have managed to reduce radically the/number of escapes, and this is very much to the credit of the prison service and the prison system.

We have to remember that there are men who need top security, and those are the men who should be dispersed. In formulating this policy our first priority must always be the security of the public, and that is why I mention in passing the suggestion of the Society of Conservative Lawyers and myself of amendment of the life sentence.

At the moment there are undoubtedly men in prison who should not be there. That is not to say that they should not be held under supervision, but they should not be held inside prison, because prison is not relevant to their offences. In Pentonville there are men with serious drink problems, alcoholics and those verging on alcoholism. Throughout their lives they commit a series of minor offences. They may be sentenced to one or two weeks' imprisonment, or sometimes the sentence may run into months. After this, they are discharged, they go to the Salvation Army hostel, they sleep rough, commit another minor offence and the circle starts all over again. All that prison has achieved for them is to dry them out and provide them with decent cover and decent food. It can do nothing to solve their long-term needs, because prison is not the place where they can be treated.

There are similar groups who are simply not relevant to the kind of treatment and ré that prison provides. We must not merely recognise these groups and allow them a freedom which is completely unfettered and unsupervised. Our aim must be to work towards the idea of supervised liberty outside prison with progress supervised by the only service which can do this work, the probation service.

My hon. and learned Friend knows the concern of this side of the House for the probation service and he will recognise that the members of the service, if we move towards a policy of supervised liberty, are the only men who can carry out this supervision. But the probation service is already vastly overworked, the officers have to carry out an enormous number of jobs and to work long hours.

I appreciate that the Government have recognised this fact and are putting into effect plans for an expanded service, which I very much welcome. The plan to increase the numbers from 3,500 to 4,700 in 1975 is very much in the right direction and is generally welcome and is very much a tribute to my hon. and learned Friend. Does he realise that a provisional report of a work study carried out by the National Association of Probation Officers indicates that for the Probation Service to carry out its present duties its strength at this present stage should be 4,700? The survey suggests that the increase planned by the Government will put the service in three years' time only in a position to carry out the duties which it already has. In other words, the evidence seems to suggest that at this moment the Probation Service is seriously understaffed and indeed is probably 25 per cent. undermanned. This does not mean that the Probation Service will break down or that probation officers will desert the service or take on new jobs. What it can mean is that probation officers will not have the time to carry out their duties as effectively as they would like.

My belief is that even today the probation service is underrated, and that its contribution is not adequately recognised. For many years probation officers have been the forgotten men and women in the battle against crime. We rightly hear a great deal about the shortage of police officers, but it should also be realised that the shortage of probation officers strikes at the heart of our policies against crime.

I conclude by saying that many of us who have taken an interest in penal policy have been extremely impressed with the way in which my hon. and learned Friend has handled these policies. We are grateful for the way in which he listens to our suggestions, and I hope that he will find some merit in my suggestions.

9.2 p.m.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

I have sympathy with my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary of State in having to attend this debate with very little warning indeed, but there are certain points about the present penal system on which I wish to comment briefly.

First, I think we are suffering an unnecessary over-population in our prisons due to the operation of the suspended sentence mechanism. I urge my hon. and learned Friend when he can to introduce legislation to alter this situation. As he well knows, many young men are given a suspended sentence and do not know what it means. They go away and commit another crime and immediately go to prison, not only for the initial six months or whatever is the period, but for a very much longer period. I believe that magistrates should know what is happening and that the Government should take steps to make the matter clear.

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Fowler) about the excellence of the probation service. I remind the Minister that the sort of person who is drawn to the probation service from a wide stratum of society is probably the most overworked and overstretched of all our workers in this sector. There are simply not enough bodies to go round. This is partly due to increasing leisure hours and the shorter working week and the fact that the sort of devoted people whom we have come to expect in this service just do not exist but have been swallowed up in other equally praise-worthy activities. To seek to expand the probation service much beyond the Government's present intentions would be to reduce its quality. We must realise this and live in a world of reality.

I turn next to the question of work in prisons. Again, I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his great courtesy in seeing me on a number of occasions about this matter. As hon. Members know, I represent the prison officers who staff the great prison at Maidstone, and I am acutely aware of my hon. and learned Friend's excellent work concerning the training of prisoners. But one must have reservations about certain lines of work pursued in some of our prisons which may be truly to the detriment of the economy and which are not neces- sarily proper courses of action. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will continue to keep under close surveillance any extension of prison work into new industries.

Having said that, I go on to say that I am an advocate of longer hours of work. One of the weaknesses of trying to run a prison in a democracy is that it is extremely difficult to make prisoners tired. One has to provide swimming baths, football fields and all sorts of absurd amenities to tire their bodies. Whereas it is possible to run an admirable prison in a totalitarian State, whether it be Spain or a Communist country, where the hours of work are very much longer, that is not possible, in a democracy. I urge my hon. and learned Friend to do all he can to extend the existing prison industries to longer hours rather than seek to introduce new industries. The trade union movement was extremely unhelpful about this at one time. However, in recent years, largely due to the activities of certain hon. Members opposite, there has been a great improvement in the attitude of the trade unions to prison work. I hope that the improvement will continue.

Finally, again I contrast the difficulty of running a prison in a democracy and one in a totalitarian State. Whether one approves of it or not, in a totalitarian State a degree of ideas is stuffed down the throats of prisoners. In Communist countries they are indoctrinated with the views of the State. In certain southern Roman Catholic totalitarian countries they are force-fed with the beliefs of Rome. I make no comment on that but I believe that one of our grave problems in this permissive democracy, where there seem to be few ideals in the outside world, is that prison welfare officers, prison chaplains and prison governors have an uphill task in providing any ideals for men who have none. I realise the practical difficulties and, without wishing to be starry-eyed about this, I urge strongly upon my hon. and learned Friend the need to try to provide some national or religious idealism, or both, in those unfortunate people who have been sent to prison.

9.9 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)

I intervene briefly to ask the Under-Secretary what has happened to a case that I referred to his right hon. Friend concerning the number of probation officers in the St. Helens and Merseyside area. I was told that if I gave the Minister details of the case he would look into it personally. That was several months ago, and I have received no reply giving any real details.

I want to underline what has been said about the importance of having a full-strength probation service. As one who sits in courts in the North Fylde area, I have found the help of probation officers invaluable. It would be difficult to deal with the cases of many young persons without reports from probation officers.

In the St. Helens and Merseyside area I understand, on the very good authority of the Chief Probation Officer, that a number of probation officers have left the service to take other types of employment rather than remain in the employ of the Home Office on the pay that they were receiving prior to the last increase.

The hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) referred to suspended sentences. There is nothing wrong with the suspended sentence. Very often one can avoid sending a person to prison because of that form of sentence. That is most important. It is the fault of the court if it allows a defendant to leave the court with a suspended sentence witthout knowing the real meaning of it. If that situation is as widespread as the hon. Gentleman would have us believe, I ask the Under-Secretary to draw to the attention of the courts the need to explain the meaning of a suspended sentence to a defendant before he steps down.

9.11 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mark Carlisle)

I hope that the House will forgive me if I say that this has been a somewhat wide-ranging debate and various points—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu)

Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman must ask the leave of the House to reply.

Mr. Carlisle

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. With the leave of the House, I should like to reply.

This has been a somewhat wide-ranging debate. Various individual questions have been asked. I am sure that hon. Members who have spoken will appreciate that, without any means of being advised about the answers and without notice that these matters were to be raised, although I will do my best to answer them I may appear to be somewhat vague about some of the figures which I shall give.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Fowler) referred specifically to overcrowding in prisons due to the high degree of criminality which exists in society. I do not think that anyone could view with other than alarm the degree of overcrowding in our prisons. There are about 40,000 people in our prisons. About 14,000 are kept in difficult conditions: two or three in a cell originally built—probably in the Victorian era—for one person. Happily, the number of those in prison has remained constant since about May, 1970. However, the problem of overcrowding is serious and has to be tackled.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who attempted to draw a distinction between violent and the non-violent criminals, that we might try to deal with non-violent offenders by other means than imprisonment.

The Government, faced with the present situation of overcrowding in prisons, decided that the problem required a two-pronged approach: on the one hand to build further prison accommodation, and on the other hand to consider the possibility of making available to the courts alternative penalties to custodial sentences for those whom it is not necessary in society's interest to send to prison.

As regards the prison-building programme, we now have planning clearance for 14 major new schemes which will provide 10,000 additional prison places. In the current financial year we hope to start on schemes providing 2,500 new places. In the financial year 1970–71 we started on schemes providing 1,500 new places. In the financial year 1969–70 a start was made on one new scheme involving 80 places. In two years we have managed to get from a situation of 80 new places in 1969–70 to the starting of 2,500 places this year, and a further substantial building programme will grow up over the coming years with the aim of providing 9,000 additional places in prison by 1975. There is planning clearance for 10,000 places, compared with about five schemes for which we had planning clearance when we took office in June, 1970.

My hon. Friend referred specifically to life sentences and asked whether the Government had considered relating life sentences to a determinate sentence for murder. I should like to say one or two general things about that. There is among the public at large, and indeed among hon. Members, a misunderstanding of the full effect of the life sentence. I emphasise as strongly as I can that the mandatory life sentence for murder is what it means. It is imprisonment for life, an indeterminate sentence, releasable only on licence and only on the licence of the Home Secretary. Anyone convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment is in prison for an indeterminate time. He can be released on licence only by the Home Secretary and he remains subject to recall during the period of that licence.

It is a fallacy to suggest, as some people do, that there is any definite average period of a life sentence. Each case is considered individually. There is no such thing as an average sentence. Before the Home Secretary can release anybody serving a life sentence having been convicted of murder, he must first consult the Lord Chief Justice, who in turn must consult the trial judge, and my right hon. Friend the present Home Secretary has made it abundantly clear that he will consider very carefully and take great account of the advice given by the Lord Chief Justice. The Home Secretary must also receive a recommendation for release from the parole board, which includes members of the judiciary, before he can release anyone on licence.

Whilst it is true—and I am sure the House would agree with this—that one would not wish to see everybody convicted of murder necessarily spending the rest of his life in prison, it would be wrong to assume that there are not among the prison population men who may have to spend very long periods in prison and, indeed, some of whom it is not known when it will be possible to release them. The Home Secretary's overwhelming consideration in deciding whether to release someone serving a life sentence is that of the security of society as a whole.

I put that first because the answer to my hon. Friend's comment about the determinate sentence is that at the end of a determinate sentence a man must be released and cannot be recalled. With a life sentence, the moment for release can be dictated by the advice the Home Secretary receives as to the safety of releasing the individual.

The whole question of what is the appropriate sentence for murder, subject to the decision of the House of Commons on capital punishment, is before the Criminal Law Revision Committee and its report should be received within the next 12 months or so.

My hon. Friend asked whether the present Government supported the recommendations of the Mountbatten Report on the detention of dangerous criminals. The Government have followed the decision of the previous Administration to accept the recommendation for a policy of dispersal proposed by the advisory council rather than the Mountbatten proposal for one prison. My hon. Friend drew attention to the grave dangers of putting all these men in one prison. We now have five or six maximum security dispersal prisons and during the past year we have managed to close one of the special wings, which leaves three wings and five or six dispersal prisons.

I appreciate the importance of the probation service and we have announced its expansion to 4,700 by the end of 1975. Also, last October, we opened an additional 100 training places and we hope that a further 100 can be opened during this year; therefore, by the end of the year there will be 550 as against 350 two years ago.

The hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) asked a specific question. I am sorry that he has not had a reply from the Home Office. I cannot give the figures for the probation service in his area but the figure for the service as a whole at the end of last year was 200 or 300 higher than a year before. Recruitment is going very well and training places are being taken up.

I do not believe that there has been any diminution in the standards of people entering the service, since we still have many more applications for training than are accepted. On the other hand, I think that I speak for everyone when I say that we want to see a well-trained and expanding service. We want no diminution of quality but we want an expansion of numbers. The probation service is the care of many of the alternative methods of penalty other than prison.

Mr. Spriggs

An important point which the Minister has missed is the loss of fully-trained probation officers. What incentive do the Government propose to retain fully-trained personnel?

Mr. Carlisle

There was a great deal of worry about the loss of trained personnel to the local authorities' social welfare departments but the figures were exaggerated. Surprisingly the figures for last year, whatever was said, were only slightly up on the figures for the previous year.

The answer is twofold. We are aware of this. The fact that this pressure was removed resulted from the review of salaries in the probation service last year which allowed for an increase of over 14 per cent. in salaries, coupled with the review which is now taking place under Professor Butterworth, of Warwick University, into the relationship between the salaries of probation officers and those of local authority welfare workers. This is a vital point and we have the support of the National Association of Probation Officers in the review which the Home Secretary has set up.

Reference has been made to the whole question of suspended sentences. It is a pity that neither hon. Member who raised this subject is a member of the Standing Committee which is examining the Criminal Justice Bill, because we had the pleasure yesterday of listening to a speech of one hour and 10 minutes from the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Dell) about the whole question of suspended sentences. This issue is being now reviewed in Committee.

I agree with the hon. Member for St. Helens that the suspended sentence has a place. However, there is no doubt, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) said, that the figures show that more such sentences are being given and that the number of people being placed on probation and fined is accordingly diminishing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone asked me to bear in mind the importance of giving work to prisoners. This is one of those real problems which involves the Home Office having to walk a tightrope between the desire of society that those in prison should be given gainful employment and the need to ensure that they are not in unfair competition with people outside.

I assure my hon. Friend that a great deal of care is taken when considering matters of this kind. We have a duty to see that the size of the market which the prison departments attempt to gain is reasonable and that the products of prison industry do not compete unfairly with the products of industry outside. Within those confines, I am glad to report that the prison industries are today, I believe for the first time ever, making a profit.

My hon. Friend next asked me to say that we desire to inculcate into the individual a spirit of religious understanding where none existed at the time of that individual's entry into prison. This is, I suggest with respect, a pious hope. If we could change the basic nature of those who are criminally minded, less crime would be committed, there would be a reduction in the prison population and we would find a great amelioration of the problems we face.