HC Deb 26 May 1972 vol 837 cc1848-68

1.47 p.m.

Mr. Peter Archer (Rowley Regis and Tipton)

I am grateful for this opportunity of drawing the attention of the House to a matter which has appeared in the news from time to time over the last few months, because this seems to be a suitable occasion for looking synoptically at some of the factors involved. The complaints probably began in our remand prisons because so much of the accommodation is simply out of date. We are still paying the penalty for long years of expecting law and order at "knock down" prices.

In 1959 the nation suddenly awoke to the fact that not a single security prison had been built in the last 50 years. and even in 1969, when the Home Office published the document "People in Prison", only five had been built in a total of 50 years. Most of the local prisons where remand prisoners are kept at the moment were designed in the middle of the 19th century by Jeremy Bentham. When he designed them they were no doubt thought to be a great and radical advance on previous penology, but he designed them so that those detained there could enjoy the benefits of solitary confinement, not that they should be crowded together three and sometimes four in a cell.

That brings me to the second major problem; namely, overcrowding and understaffing. At Question Time yesterday my hon. Friend the Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) pointed out that at the moment there are 684 people on remand in Brixton Prison in 476 cells. The Home Secretary very fairly agreed that this was a very serious problem. When prison staff are subjected to this kind of stress it is not surprising that on occasion they are tempted to ease it at the expense of the readiest victims. I should like to quote one or two examples from the Press over the last few months.

On 7th November last year the Sunday Times published an article about Holloway Prison, pointing out that the conditions there were more restrictive for remand prisoners than they were for convicted prisoners. According to the article, remand prisoners were locked in their cells at 4.30 in the afternoon and the cells were not unlocked again until next morning for any reason. People who wished to go to the lavatory had to use a slop bucket, even if they were sharing a cell with other people.

Another article in the Sunday Times on 28th February last year referred to a prisoner who was placed on remand in Leeds. When his wife, very shortly after he had been arrested and remanded, sought to visit him, she discovered that because convicted prisoners had visitors on Sundays it was not possible to arrange for remand prisoners to have their visitors on Sundays. So she had to go away. She was told by a quite helpful officer "I will tell him you called", but the message never reached him and he did not find out until long afterwards that she had been to see him.

When the prisoner sought some reading material, he was told that remand prisoners were not entitled to use the prison library, and his reading material while he was on remaind consisted of two dirty books and a history of the Communist Party which he obtained in exchange for two oranges. When he sought to relieve the sheer boredom by chalking a draughts-board on the table in his cell he was threatened with disciplinary action on the ground that that was an objectionable occupation.

On 11th May, 1971, The Guardian published an article by someone on remand who, having heard that remand prisoners were entitled to receive food from outside the prison, wished to relieve the tedium of prison food but was told that the prison staff were too busy and it was impossible to arrange for food to come in from outside. When he asked for some writing paper he was offered the prison notepaper. When he said that he preferred to write to his friends and acquaintances on something a little more noncommittal he was told that it was prison notepaper or nothing.

I make it clear that I do not blame the prison staff. We know that in far too many prisons the staff are working 60 to 70 hours a week. But what is happening would be bad enough if we were doing it to convicted criminals; it cannot be the most effective method of restoring a sense of dignity and responsibility. But the people to whom it is being done have not been convicted of any offence, and, let us face it, some of them have not committed any offence.

The very helpful document published by the Cobden Trust a short time ago pointed out that there were about 40,000 people a year in custody awaiting trial. About 10 per cent. of them are acquitted and more than 50 per cent. are not given custodial sentences. The figures have been brought more up to date recently by Radical Alternatives to Prison in relation to Holloway. We are told that 35 per cent. of receptions to Holloway are prisoners on remand awaiting trial and that nearly one-sixth of them are acquitted, so that we are entitled to believe that they have not committed any offence. About the same number are regarded by the court as so little deserving of blame that they are given absolute or conditional discharges; about one-third are placed on probation; about one-tenth are fined; and only about one-fifth are given custodial sentences.

The fact that many of our prisons are filled with people who should not be in prison adds to the problem of overcrowding. The prisoners who make the greatest demands on the time of prison staff are those in custody awaiting trial because much of the time of the prison staff is occupied in taking them to and from the courts.

Where should we look for the causes of the problem and where might we look for means of rectifying it? First, I should say in fairness that an increasing number of certain indictable offences are being detected. On 4th May in a Written Answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Rose) it was pointed out in c. 203 of the OFFICIAL REPORT that there was an increase of 32 per cent. in committals to the London Crown Court Centre in the first quarter of this year as against committals to the corresponding courts in the first quarter of last year.

Therefore, we should perhaps begin by considering the methods of reducing the factors which lead to crime. We might think of larger and more effective police forces, better housing and more juvenile employment. Money spent on these factors would be money well invested.

Secondly, we must build more accommodation. In a Written Answer on 27th April the Home Secretary gave some very impressive figures about accommodation which is now being built. I do not complain about that. The Holloway campaign group of Radical Alternatives to Prison has produced some very telling and moving figures and has seized the opportunity to educate us as perhaps we have not been educated for a long time. However, I hope that it will forgive me if I say that I do not wholly agree with the final step in its argument, that there should not be a replacement prison. It may be a very long time before we achieve a society where we never have to send anyone to prison or even never send a woman to prison, and if people have to be in prison it is better that they should be in conditions likely to reform them rather than embitter them.

Thirdly, we must find means of reducing the number of remand prisoners. This probably means two things. First, we should reduce the delay in bringing committed cases to trial. It transpired from the Written Answer on 4th May that at the Middlesex Guildhall the average time between committal and trial for cases in custody was 14.8 weeks. That is a very disturbing figure, and, clearly, something must be done to reduce it.

I hasten to say that I would not argue that the figure must be reduced at all costs. One of the dangers of calling attention to a problem in the House is that sometimes the authorities become obsessively aware of it. I hope that nothing I say will lead the courts to refuse adjournments when clearly justice can be obtained only if there is an adjournment, or to insist that a case should proceed when the accused does not have the counsel of his or her choice. or in the absence of a necessary witness. There is no substitute for serious thinking, and we must perhaps have a little patience.

From the answer on 4th May it was clear that the Lord Chancellor was opening more courts in London. If we are prepared to invest a little more in more court accommodation and judicial salaries, that may be a substantial answer to the problem. Of course, when the new system in consequence of the implementation of the Beeching Report has finally settled down we may find that some of the rougher edges there, too, are eliminated.

Mr. Justice Hinchcliffe, in his address recently to the Justices Clerks' Society at York, pointed out that because sometimes cases were allocated to the wrong judges, a certain amount of judicial time was under-employed. But the greatest single contribution we can make to the solution of this problem must be to make sure that bail is given to people awaiting trial unless there really is very good reason for retaining them in custody.

I am aware that the Home Office has not overlooked this problem. Last year it suggested to magistrates' courts in London that where a problem arose over a psychiatric report this could very well be done at, for example, a prison like Holloway, on an out-patient basis. It was a little disappointing to find that in the first five months of that scheme the suggestion had been taken up only once

Partly the problem is that busy courts do not have opportunity of learning of the factors applicable in the cases with which they are dealing. Mrs. Susan Dell in her informative report, "Silent in Court" showed that so often women prisoners do not ask for bail because they do not know they can ask for it. In many cases they did not know what bail was. In many cases they left court without any clear idea of what the court had decided in relation to bail, and some of them were astonished to find, once outside the court, that they could not go home because they had been remanded in custody.

The need in many cases for legal advice, and legal representation in matters where the court is faced with a custodial decision, has been debated by us again and again over the last few weeks on the Criminal Justice Bill and the Legal Advice and Assistance Bill. I shall not repeat what has been said in those debates but I cannot refrain from looking at some of the very astonishing findings reported by Mr. Michael Zander in his article last year in The Criminal Law Review He discovered, that of the cases looked at, where the police opposed bail and where the applicant was legally represented the application succeeded in 37 per cent. of the cases but that where applicants were not legally represented only 20 per cent. of the applications were successful.

Perhaps what is even more startling was Mr. Zander's study of the proportion of cases in which the court was given either no information or only the minimum of information on matters clearly relevant to bail. On matters, for example, relating to an applicant's job, in 22 of the cases they were given little information; in 3 per cent. of the cases more than a little; and in 75 per cent. of the cases no information at all. On matters relating to family background little information was given in 17 per cent. of the cases; more than a little in 4 per cent.; and no information at all in 79 per cent. About home background little information was given in 23 per cent. of the cases; more than a little was given in 3 per cent.; and in 74 per cent. of the cases no information was given. On medical matters little information was given in 5 per cent. of the cases; more than a little in 2 per cent.; and no information in 93 per cent. of the cases.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, East)

Did my hon. and learned Friend also notice in that article in The Criminal Law Review that where a bail applicant went before a stipendiary and professional magistrate rather than lay magistrates, application for bail was successful in a far higher percentage of the cases? Are there any lessons to be drawn from this? May it not be that lay magistrates, because they are less experienced than professional magistrates, are a little more frightened of the police than the professional, more experienced, magistrates, and more anxious about refusing the police?

Mr. Archer

One hesitates to generalise too readily. I am becoming increasingly impressed by the quality on the whole of the lay magistracy, but I do not think I can resist my hon. Friend's conclusion. It probably is true that lay magistrates are reluctant to take the responsibility of disagreeing with the police in these matters. I think that part of the remedy lies in encouraging the police to be a little less cautious and in encouraging lay magistrates to apply their own minds to cases and to make their own decisions more readily.

Part of the answer may arise, too, from the suggestion which Mr. Zander made on 22nd April at a conference at the University of Birmingham on the future of magistrates' courts. He suggested that it might be possible to give more information if more of the applications were heard in camera.

Some of the reasons why courts are reluctant to grant bail, and, in fairness I must say, sometimes understandably reluctant, emerged from the comments by Professor Gibbens in the Annual Report for 1969–70 of the Howard League for Penal Reform. He pointed out that in many cases it is necessary to make some arrangements for medical reports and suggested that probably custodial remands could be avoided if there were more local doctors on the spot to examine prisoners and if there were arrangements for courses in forensic psychiatry.

Secondly, he pointed out that very often a court which might otherwise have been prepared to grant bail was told that an applicant had no accommodation. So one of the answers I think may be found in the provision of bail hostels, and I was delighted yesterday when the Home Secretary was able to announce that the first bail hostel was now in existence.

Thirdly, Professor Gibbens pointed to the fact that often bail was refused because there was not a surety and there was no person in a financial position to offer to be a surety. One wonders whether it is always essential that someone must be in a position actually to pledge money. Are we, perhaps, a little too inflexible in insisting that money should change hands if, in rare cases, the applicant subsequently fails to return.

I know that the Under-Secretary of State will tell us that we cannot draw any hard and fast conclusions about this till we have the Butterworth report. I cannot dissent from that, I suppose. I do not want to encourage the hon. Gentleman to give that kind of reply. I think that possibly, too, this House is reluctant to take a decision itself. It wants a Royal Commission or an interdepartmental committee or a Select Committee, and sometimes each in succession, rather than to reach a decision. However, I do not think that I can dissent from the suggestion which may be made that we should await Butterworth.

I do not think there is any single, simple, dramatic answer to this problem. Some of the answers were found in the 1967 Act, and there has been some reduction in the numbers since then. I was delighted yesterday when the Home Secretary told me in answer to a Question that the numbers in custody awaiting trial had fallen between April, 1971, and April,1972, from 3,007 to 2,781. Perhaps we are moving in the right direction, and the possibility is encouraging.

I think there are probably three general conclusions which we may draw without seeking to be dogmatic. The first is that expenditure on the prison service and on the law courts and on judicial salaries is not a politically popular venture, but the truth remains that if as a community we seek to run our system of justice on the cheap we shall find this to have been a very poor form of economy. Secondly, we should not appear to enjoy sending people to prison. Even in our courts where on the whole the benches are not subject to hysteria, I sometimes have the impression that they feel that a taste of prison may do somebody some good.

Obviously, we have to draw a proper balance between protecting the public and the freedom of the individual, but I cannot help feeling that ultimately the public are best protected by minimising the number of people with a grievance—people who, even though unconvicted, have brushed up against the criminal world and perhaps learned a few tricks which they may later attempt to put into execution.

Finally, because we have not yet caught up, it is inevitable that there should be an abrasive situation, and it might be worth a moment's thought and a moment's compassion to see how we can make it as tolerable as possible for all those concerned. One appreciates the pressures on prison staffs, but if they could just think what it entails for the people who are at the receiving end of the rules, sometimes a great deal of unnecessary grievance could be avoided.

It has been said that the test of any society is how it treats its criminals. Perhaps an even more searching test is how it treats those who are not criminals but merely under suspicion.

2.11 p.m.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)

We are indebted to the hon. and learned Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. Peter Archer) for raising this subject. It is a narrow one which concerns about 3,000 men and women on remand awaiting trial who are at the time wholly innocent persons. We are concerned with the treatment and accommodation of these persons who have been convicted of nothing. This is, therefore, not a debate on crime but a debate relating purely to those persons.

The first point that requires to be made is that this subject ought not to be anything to do with the Home Office, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State ought not to be the person to reply to the debate. The subject should properly he part of the Department of the Lord Chancellor, and the Attorney-General, on behalf of the Lord Chancellor's Department, should reply to the debate. The functions of the Home Office are too wide, and I have raised this question with the Prime Minister. It is quite unfair to ask the Under-Secretary of State to reply to the debate when those who are speaking in it are all lawyers with criminal experience, and they alone should consider it, for reasons which are not difficult to see.

The first consideration which a person on remand has in mind is to be able to seek proper advice to secure acquittal. That involves having legal advice first from a solicitor and thereafter, probably, from counsel. There are, broadly speaking, two classes of case. There are the cases which were with the assize courts and are now with the Crown courts; that is to say, cases at quarter sessions and assize as they were formerly known. Then there are the small cases in the petty sessional courts.

It is extremely difficult for both solicitors and counsel to find the time and opportunity to confer with their clients. In the London area the consultations take place at either Brixton or Wandsworth, each of which necessitates a half-day journey. Highly-paid solicitors and highly-paid counsel find it extremely difficult ever to find the time to visit Brixton and Wandsworth because they are not prepared to give half a day to it. The first practical point is for the Lord Chancellor and the courts to arrange adequate and proper facilities to enable solicitors and counsel to visit those who are awaiting trial on remand at a proper place, which means at a court or at some other centre, without the necessity of having to go long distances.

It is well known that the solicitors who principally practice in this field in London have to provide a special clerk to go to Brixton and Wandsworth to see their respective clients, because they are unable at the same time to conduct a practice and to see their clients. That is a purely practical matter.

I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that it is worth looking closely at whether the matters which arise between arrest and conviction should go to the Lord Chancellor's Department, which may have to be strengthened. As the hon. and learned Gentleman said, the Lord Chancellor is showing great concern at the adequacy of courts. The provision of courts is his function, but he should also be given the opportunity of dealing with the practical matters that arise between arrest and conviction.

The next point that arises concerns accommodation. At present, both in the provinces and in London, persons on remand cannot get proper exercise. That is not the fault of prison officers; there just is not the time and opportunity to see that they do. The accommodation required for persons on remand is not necessarily a prison. It should be possible to provide alternative accommodation, not of such a custodial nature, in which those who are on remand can have an eye kept upon them without the necessity for sending them to a high security gaol.

That may not be practical in every case. The high security risks will have to go to Pentonville, Wandsworth or elsewhere, but there are many persons on remand who do not need to be kept in such circumstances. I suggest that consideration should be given to other forms of accommodation, such as hostels, in which there might be warders or prison officers to secure that the persons on remand are looked after.

In most cases bail is not refused on the ground that the person is an escapee who will go overseas. It is usually refused on the ground that the person will interfere with witnesses and must, therefore, be kept away from them. The number who are refused bail on the ground that they are likely to escape and go overseas is probably not more than 10 to 15 per cent. of the refusals. The overwhelming number of refusals are on grounds of a different nature, not least of which is the proper ground that if a person is allowed to remain on bail for a period of nine months the pattern of crime in respect of which he is arrested might continue and he might, if left on bail, commit a great many more offences. That is particularly true where medical reports are involved.

The next question that arises on treatment is the matter of visits. There are many complaints by those on remand that there are inadequate and insufficient opportunities for visits by relatives and friends. It must be borne in mind that these people are unconvicted and, therefore, entitled to be treated as such and entitled to have visitors.

The difficulty that arises on treatment is that of ensuring that these people can lead a normal life. That means that their food should be better than it is necessarily for a convicted person. They have an opportunity to receive gifts and presents, which of course would not be allowed to a convicted person. We must see that they have the opportunity of receiving longer visits than convicted persons. who are properly kept to a tight minimum. We must see that their accommodation is more comfortable and better than that of convicted persons.

I do not know whether the Minister knows the answer to this, but I should like to know how many people on bail during remand have skipped. I believe that the figure is very low. How many have failed to comply with the terms of their bail on remand, particularly those on serious charges?

We have grown used to the belief that those who are on bail are convicts and that they should be treated as such, because a good many have previous convictions and, therefore, have an association with prison. That is wrong, and we must get out of it. In the end success depends upon the one issue of curtailing the period between arrest and trial. In previous days the period between arrest and trial never exceeded 12 to 14 weeks even in the heaviest periods.

In the case of a long conspiracy trial at the Central Criminal Court the time between arrest and trial is often nine months. and sometimes over 12 months. In the big, trial currently taking place at the Central Criminal Court the main defendants were arrested in October, 1970. That is an exceptional case involving a very long period between trial and arrest. It may be remembered that some years ago in the Bloom case there was a considerable delay before the case came on for hearing, but in the ordinary run of cases it is 12 months. This period of time must be cut.

I feel that applications for adjournments for the purpose of choosing counsel of one's choice is not nowadays a practical consideration. There are too many cases to allow people to choose their own counsel. Cases must be allowed to proceed as soon as possible.

Mr. Peter Archer rose——

Mr. Rees-Davies

I will give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman in a moment.

With additional courts and separate accommodation, and if the Lord Chancellor is given his head, there can be a real effort to cut delays. In this way in respect of long trials the period between arrest and trial could be cut to under six months. This would, of course, mean more judges. In the short cases there should be a clear directive that people on remand should be brought quickly to trial. The general rule should be that if somebody is in custody that case should be taken first.

Mr. Archer

I was not seeking to argue that the right to have counsel of one's choice should over-ride every other consideration. But would the hon. Gentleman not agree that this factor should be taken into consideration and that if in a long case a defendant requires an adjournment of one day it should be allowed?

Mr. Rees-Davies

This could be done where the time involved was only a day, and an adjournment is quite proper in a case in which a defendant has been represented for a long period by a particular counsel. However, I have known occasions when people have sought a month's adjournment in order to gain the services of a particular counsel. Such a course has caused delay and it is quite wrong that this should happen. It is of paramount importance that trials should be allowed to proceed quickly. After a period of 12 months or more has been allowed to elapse, I do not see how witnesses can be expected to remember details of telephone conversations or, say, to give a description of somebody they met in a public house. It is unfair to police officers, to witnesses, and certainly to defendants to leave until 12 or 18 months later the recollection of vital matters concerning the trial. This is why we must do everything we can to cut the period covering arrest, arraignment, trial and conviction.

Therefore, we must treat people before trial as innocent; we also must see that we have more accommodation and more judges and that we cut delays to the minimum. In conclusion, may I say that I should like to see a keen look taken at what are the proper functions of the Home Office and those of the Lord Chancellor's office in dealing with those whom we regard as innocent people. This is also connected with the way such people are treated, their food while in custody, and their ability to have an opportunity to take legal advice and other such matters.

2.24 p.m.

The Under-Secretary, of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Lane)

The debate on this subject is welcome, and I am grateful for the way in which the hon. and learned Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. Peter Archer) has introduced the matter. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) for his contribution to the debate. I hope I shall mention some of their points. I assure them that their speeches will be carefully studied by my colleagues in the Home Office, and I am sure, also by the Lord Chancellor.

Both hon. Members have raised a number of difficult questions which have been troubling my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor since the Government took office. We inherited a serious situation and are doing all we can to improve it.

I remind the House of the harsh figures. Getting on for 50,000 people a year are now received into prison department establishments as untried prisoners, and there are likely to be 3,000 or so in custody at any one time. Numbers have increased by about 50 per cent. over the last ten years.

I need hardly make clear, but it is important that I should do so, that these are people who have not been convicted of the offence of which they have been accused, but the courts have nevertheless decided to commit them in custody —for example, to ensure that they attend the resumed hearing, to prevent the fabrication of evidence in collusion with witnesses, or for the protection of the public if further offences are likely to be committed. The prison department, therefore, has a duty to ensure the defendant's safe custody and his return to court and to see that there is no interference in the course of justice during the period before his trial takes place.

It follows that the defendant has to he kept in secure conditions and that all his actions—including his visits and his correspondence—need to be carefully supervised. It is not disputed that there are inevitable limitations on the freedom that such a person can be given and the facilities that he can be all6wed. This matter needs to be stressed before we consider how the present situation can be improved.

The source of our problems is the sheer number of people in custody while awaiting trial and the time they spend there. It has been acknowledged that the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor have put in hand a number of measures to reduce the length of time for which unconvicted prisoners have to be detained before their case comes to trial and also, where possible, to reduce the number of defendants for whom a committal in custody is needed.

The figures in regard to waiting time have been mentioned. The hon. and learned Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton mentioned figures in Middlesex, but the position is exceptionally bad in the London area. The latest figures for the early weeks of this year show that the average time of defendants awaiting trial outside the London area is seven and a half weeks. Nobody is satisfied with that figure but I mention it to put it in perspective.

Mr. Ernle Money (Ipswich)

Would my hon. Friend agree that one of the disturbing aspects of this matter is the fact that there are such wide variations with regard to the granting of bail between different magistrates' courts, and in particular between stipendiary courts and other courts? It is a matter which is causing grave concern to the profession.

Mr. Lane

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money) for emphasising that point. This is a most important matter to bear in mind in relation to bail.

The Courts Act has introduced sweeping reforms which are designed to speed up the flow of cases through the courts, and special attention has been paid to the problems in London. Fifteen new courts have been provided in the London area since the Government took office, and another 16 court rooms are to be brought into use by the end of this year. A decision to remand or commit in custody is essentially a matter of judicial judgment and it would not be right for my right hon. Friend to influence it in an individual case, but we may be able to help by providing facilities which the courts can use as an alternative. This point was stressed by my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet.

One of these alternative facilities is an out-patient service for the preparation of medical reports to court. The first service of this kind was provided for women and girls at Holloway in August, 1971. Courts were invited to remand on hail. in suitable cases, women and girls on whom they required medical or psychiatric reports on condition that defendants would attend the out-patient clinic at the prison hospital at a time which would be arranged during the court hearing. The service is now available to all inner London courts, the City of London magistrates' courts, the Outer London magistrates' courts north of the Thames and the Crown court sitting in greater London. We plan to make a similar service available for men at Brixton early next month, and to follow it with services in other parts of the country later this 'ear —beginning with a service in South Lancashire based on Risley.

Mr. Peter Archer

Was I not right in saying that the scheme in relation to Holloway had been used on only one occasion in the first five months? Is it now being used more regularly?

Mr. Lane

I cannot confirm whether there are more encouraging figures than that. I was about to come to other examples, and it is disappointing that a number of these schemes have not gone as well as we had hoped. But that should not deter us from trying.

A second scheme is the provision of bail hostels for men who may be remanded in custody because they have no permanent address. The Criminal Justice Bill provides for hostels of this kind to be financed from public funds, and we are at present considering possible areas in which hostels might be established by probation and after-care committees once the Bill has come into force. Also, with the help of a charitable fund the Salva- tion Army made available in November a wing of Booth House, in East London, for use as an experimental bail hostel for a period of three years. Over a period of time, this should make some contribution to easing pressure, especially in the London area.

A third scheme, which we hope to introduce soon, is for young persons under the age of 21 who may be committed in custody for a medical report on their fitness for detention centre training. Only a simple examination is needed, and it could often be made by a police surgeon at the court while the sitting is adjourned. Police surgeons are willing to provide this service, and a fee has been agreed with the British Medical Association.

We also hope to reduce the period which a person may spend in custody when he has been remanded for a medical or social inquiry report. At present the usual period is three wteks. A scheme intended to cut this down has had disappointing results, and we propose instead to encourage the courts, where possible, to adopt 14 days, not 21 days, as the normal period of a remand for a report. There should be no difficulty where medical reports alone are needed, but consultations with principal probation officers suggest that the capacity of the Probation and After-Care Service to achieve a similar reduction in the time needed for a social inquiry report will vary from area to area. The service would, however, like to help wherever it can, and we shall, therefore, ask courts to use the shorter period of remand in all cases where only a medical report is required, and to use it in cases where a social inquiry report is required if they have been informed by the local probation and after-care committee that probation resources are sufficient for the purpose.

Finally, among the steps being taken to tackle the present situation at its source there is the working party on bail. The hon. and learned Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton spent a considerable time talking about bail, as did my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet. I cannot give my hon. Friend the answer to his question about the number of persons granted bail who then break it. If it is possible to give my hon. Friend meaningful figures, I shall do so as soon as possible.

The working party was set up last year to …review practice and procedure in magistrates' courts relating to the grant or refusal of bail and to make recommendations". Its members include representatives of magistrates, justices' clerks and the police. As I have said, the decision whether to remand on bail or in custody is essentially a matter of judicial discretion but we think there is scope for the provision of practical advice to the courts on how to conduct more systematically what is, in effect, a difficult forecasting exercise. This bears on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich. This is an area where we hope the working party's examination of the subject will be of particular value.

The working party has already received both oral and written evidence, but it is too early to predict when it may report, as some evidence is still awaited. We would not, however, expect this to be a protracted inquiry and are anxious for it to proceed quickly. I shall draw the special attention of the working party to the various points which have been made in the debate.

Before I leave the subject of bail, I can assure the hon. and learned Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton that the Government accept absolutely that the number of accused persons detained before trial should be the minimum compatible with the interests of justice. I take some encouragement from the latest figures that I have seen which are that the proportion of defendants remanded in custody by magistrates' courts compared with the proportion granted bail fell from 34 per cent. in 1967 to 27 per cent. in 1970.

The hon. and learned Member also asked about the granting of bail to immigrants awaiting a decision on deportation. I have looked into this matter, which is an extremely complicated one, and, if necessary, I shall write to the hon. and learned Gentleman about it in the next few days.

I turn now to an aspect of the problem which is of most topical concern to the House the conditions under which unconvicted persons who have to be kept in custody are accommodated. Most of them are in local prisons in the centres of towns. These prisons can provide the necessary degree of security; they are generally nearer to the courts which they have to serve, though I take the point made about that by my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet; they have access to specialised medical and other services; and they are reasonably convenient for visits by legal advisers, social workers and the prisoner's family and friends.

Regrettably, all local prisons are overcrowded, and their cramped conditions and old-fashioned design make it difficult to provide all the services and facilities which we should like. In consequence, far too many unconvicted prisoners have to spend far too long in their cells, and facilities for meals, visits and recreation are generally overstretched. We are rightly turning our attention to the conditions of prisoners, but, at the same time, we should acknowledge the very great strains and pressures on the prison staffs. I pay my tribute to the work that they are doing at a difficult time when so much public interest and publicity is turned on these establishments.

After considering the lessons learned from the experimental, purpose-built remand centre for men and women at Risley in Lancashire, we have decided to plan on the basis that unconvicted prisoners need to be accommodated in places with good communications and easy access to courts and specialist facilities of various kinds. The existing local prisons can best meet this requirement. Unconvicted adults will, therefore, continue to be accommodated in them, but overcrowding will be reduced, the accommodation is being refurbished and facilities generally will be improved. Local prisons have ample accommodation for the purpose, provided that we can build enough training prisons to take prisoners once they have been sentenced. The prison building programme, therefore, concentrates on new training prisons, which can be away from towns and for which planning clearance is, therefore, easier to obtain.

I remind the House that capital expenditure on prison building, which totalled just under £10 million in the 1971–72 financial year, will increase very considerably, reaching about £24 million in 1973–74 and £30 million by 1975–76. This is a threefold increase over a five-year period. Almost the whole of the increase will be devoted to providing new prison places.

At the same time as all this, we are pressing on with the programme which was started by the Conservative Government, some 10 years ago, of getting young people on remand out of prisons altogether. We now have 10 remand centres for young people in various parts of the country, most of them in modern purpose-built accommodation. They contain at present about 1,250 places for young men and about 130 for women and girls. More places are still needed, but the building programme includes another 1,150 or so places in remand centres for young men, including three completely new establishments at Glen Parva near Leicester, North Weald in Essex and Feltham in Middlesex; and, as the House knows, we are rebuilding Holloway for the women and girls. This building programme will take some time still to show results, but we are now making progress.

As another example, Latchmere House has been converted to a remand centre to relieve overcrowding at Ashford, and it provides quite good facilities, particularly for young people, including those aged 14 and under 17 who may be committed to prison department custody because they are too unruly to be committed to the care of the local authority, and for those young people who may, unfortunately, have to spend a considerable time in custody before their case comes to trial. Also, arrangements have been made to transfer or divert prisoners from Brixton to other prisons in the London area.

During recent months the prison department of the Home Office has been reviewing the conditions under which prisoners are held on remand. Some of the conclusions—that unconvicted prisoners should be allowed personal radios and battery shavers and that the number of open visits should be increased so far as is practicable at each establishment—were announced in reply to a Question by the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) on 16th May, and they are now being carried out.

I am glad to tell the House about some of the further improvements which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary foreshadowed earlier this month. We should be able to make more generous arrangements for unconvicted prisoners to have food and drink sent in from outside prison. Again, we hope to allow them to keep more of their personal possessions, such as wallets, watches, rings and fountain pens, and we shall also allow them the use of their own writing paper, which was one of the points made by the hon. and learned Member. We shall try to make the procedure for reception into prison more civilised and more humane, for example, by providing better meals and, perhaps, by allowing access to telephones. We shall also improve the facilities for persons attending Crown courts, again by providing better meals and by allowing them to write letters from the court.

Meanwhile, at Brixton, where the problems of overcrowding have always been particularly acute, the period allowed for exercise has during the past few days been increased from one how to one and a half hours. More films are being provided to be shown in the evenings, and improvements are being made in the method of serving food and in the arrangements for washing and shaving.

Taken as a whole, all these changes. though individually small, should lead to a worthwhile improvement in conditions.

Again I thank the hon. and learned Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton for giving us the opportunity to consider this subject today. We are not complacent. We believe that we arc tackling the situation along the right lines, and we are determined to maintain the momentum of improvement.