HC Deb 19 December 1975 vol 902 cc1983-91

1.33 p.m.

Mr. R. A. McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

I am anxious for two reasons to take this opportunity, before the House rises for the Christmas Recess, to raise the subject of the need for more secure accommodation for the treatment of offenders. First, it is high time that we explored in more detail precisely what we mean when we speak of the provision of alternatives to prison for some offences. Second, we have sometimes been guilty of going too far in reducing the number of offences for which prison is the only appropriate punishment.

I am conscious that, in expressing that second reason, I may be accused of reactionary tendencies, especially in late 1975 when all the pressures directed at the Home Office seem to be in the opposite direction, but I hope that I shall be acquitted of any such reactionary tendency when I assure the Minister that I am truly concerned about the growing public anxiety about whether we are moving in the right direction in penal policy, and whether all the enormous pressures which have been gathering momentum over the past year or two are entirely in accord with the public's wishes.

I am well aware that any suggestions I make today for the provision of more secure accommodation must be related to the need for economy in public expenditure. I cannot be hypocritical and call for cuts in public expenditure in general while at the same time inviting the Minister to agree to quite extensive expenditure for a particular purpose. Nevertheless, I suggest that, since 1976 will be the year when the language of priorities will have to be clearly spoken in terms of public expenditure, high on the list of priorities must come the provision of more secure accommodation, and perhaps even the extension of the prison building or improvement programme.

I do not agree with bodies such as the National Council for Civil Liberties, the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders and the Howard League for Penal Reform, or even The Times on this matter which, on 21st July, in a rather ponderous editorial, tried to persuade us that keeping people out of prison was somehow the overriding objective of penal policy. In my view, such bodies have not taken proper note of the growing public concern about the suggestion that we may in future have to tailor the punishment to the offence because of economic circumstances. I believe that they underestimate the strength of the public's concern on this matter.

As I see it, the public are becoming increasingly aware that the judiciary seems to be more and more reluctant to send offenders to prison. I say at once that it is no part of my case that people should be sent to prison just for the sake of it. My concern is that there are some offences for which prison seems to be the only appropriate punishment, yet sentencing to prison does not seem to be happening.

We all know the famous recent case when a rapist was given a six-month suspended sentence. That caused a great reaction. Against the present background in which, on the one hand, there is an apparent reluctance on the part of the judiciary to impose the sentences which certain crimes seem to merit and, on the other, an increase of 21 per cent. in indictable crime in 1974, I believe that we are running the risk of creating an appalling vacuum in the public mind in the sense of a growing lack of trust in the justice for which our country has long been famed.

There is, ironically enough, a growing demand by the Magistrates' Association as well as from the public for greater severity in sentencing, yet individual members of the Magistrates' Association seem to be content to pass ever more lenient sentences for offences such as assaults on the police, assaults on bus conductors and the hooliganism which we have come to expect at large football matches. The truth is that offenders in these categories hardly ever seem to go to prison in the latter part of 1975.

There is then the offence of burglary, which for a very long time was almost automatically assumed to be a crime for which imprisonment was the only appropriate punishment. That is no longer so today. One has the awful fear that 1975 London is becoming very similar to 1935 New York, when the incidence of burglary is seen as no more than part of the pattern of city life.

Our crime figures are booming. Therefore, while I urge the Minister to look carefully at the need to provide more prison accommodation where imprisonment seems to be the only correct punishment to fit serious crimes such as those I have mentioned, I ask him also—this is the nub of the matter—to look at alternatives to prison.

Probation and fining, which are on the increase, are hardly ever the true alternatives for the serious crime. The tendency for them to be used more and more is an invitation to criminals to cock a snook at authority. The Butler Committee's Report has recently recommended that, owing to the pressure on secure psychological hospitals, incurable and dangerous mental patients should be sent to an ordinary prison. I accept that that places considerable pressure on the prison accommodation. When there are more pressures on prison accommodation at the top and the bottom of the scale, there is a potential danger.

I turn to the true alternatives to prison. In my judgment they are the opposite of some of the suggestions that the reformers press upon us. There is no doubt that secure establishments are extremely important. High on the list is the provision of secure mental hospitals where dangerous patients may be detained, because they are a potentially grave danger to the public if there is the possibility that they may escape. I need not draw the Minister's attention to recent extremely worrying cases where public pressure has built up to provide the sort of institutions to which I am referring.

There is also a need for more secure institutions for juveniles. Few hon. Members would deny that the Children and Young Persons Act is not solving the problems in this area in quite the way that many of us had hoped. Yet, to be fair, one wonders whether that is not at least partly because of the lack of resources directed to the provision of the appropriate type of secure accommodation for juvenile offenders.

I suggest to the Minister—and I take account all the time of the pressure on public resources—that there is a third and perhaps new type of secure establishment which the authorities might well contemplate. That is an institution to deal with people who are not a great deal more than social inadequates, but social inadequates of a potentially dangerous type. I have in mind an institution which is perhaps a cross between a Salvation Army hostel and a prison.

As for non-custodial alternatives to prison, I welcome the existence of the parole system and today's announcement of its extension. It is not part of my case that I wish to detain a man a day longer than is necessary before he may be returned to society, having paid his debt to society. I also welcome the greater use of compulsory supervision to enable a section of the prison population to be released. Although I fear that we are under-provided with secure accommodation, I want to see an extension of the non-custodial alternative to prison.

To summarise, I am asking for increased prison accommodation to take care of those for whom no other punishment is appropriate and for whom punishments such as probation and fining would not be seen by the public as appropriate. I am also calling for increased secure accommodation for the mentally disturbed, because recent cases have raised fear in the public mind. I am calling for increased secure accommodation for juveniles and those whom I have described as potentially dangerous inadequates.

The public must be reassured. Hon. Members are frequently approached by people who are disturbed by the seeming lack of control over the growing crime that affects the country. The public are disturbed by what they see as the unholy alliance of sometimes seemingly cheese-paring bureaucrats and trendy reformers. That devastating combination occasionally appears to repose in the Home Office as well. I hope that the Minister will forgive me for saying so.

Law and order are coming back into fashion. It is unwise for Ministers to overlook the strong pressures from the public that are building up, and the public concern. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure the public today that, as we move into 1976, the punishment will again fit the crime.

1.46 p.m.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle) has raised a number of interesting topics. I am sure that he will excuse me if, in view of the shortage of time, I do not take them all up.

With regard to adult secure accommodation, I observe first that it is now costing society about £100 a week per head, taking into account the cost of keeping a man in prison and the cost of social security benefits for his wife and family. Secondly, there is not much evidence that the prisoner benefits from staying in prison. Therefore, we should increase as much as possible methods of dealing with offenders within the community.

But my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the inadequate amount of secure accommodation for juveniles, a matter which was investigated carefully by the recent Expenditure Sub-Committee of which I was a member. If a child is put into care in insecure accommodation, he absconds, offends and returns to the court, which can only make another care order, and the cycle is repeated. That undermines public respect for the whole system. The alternative, which is for the child to be made the subject of an "unruly" certificate and put into prison, cannot be tolerated. It is obvious that 200 places constitute insufficient secure accommodation for juveniles.

We on this side of the House welcome the undertaking of the Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Security that £2 million in grants will be available to local authorities to increase secure accommodation. I hope that that will be in the form of wings of existing accommodation rather than completely new secure homes, as the use of wings for remand facilities would make it possible to transfer the child from secure to ordinary accommodation when the conditions were appropriate. I hope that the Minister will refer to the way in which the £2 million will be used.

1.48 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon)

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle) suggested that cheese-paring bureaucrats and trendy Liberals came together in my person. I must reject both allegations.

Mr. McCrindle

I said "the Home Office".

Mr. Lyon

In so far as I am responsible for this area of the Department's work, I seek to see what is best for the public and those who come within the criminal justice system. I emphasise that the priority is in that order. I do not agree with every word of the hon. Gentleman's analysis of what is best for the public. He may take some solace from the fact that his hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) suggested that sending people to prison might not always be the best way to deal with them. He said that it might be much more expensive than some of the other methods, which are more effective in doing the job that the criminal justice system should be trying to do. That is to try to stop people getting into trouble again. If that test works, it is a good thing. If it does not, the hon. Gentleman will have some grounds for his criticism.

He does not have grounds for criticism by arguing that the number of criminal offences committed each year continues to rise. I am afraid that that trend is typical of every country in the world, including those countries where the system of penological sanction is much more rigid and restrictive than anything we have. Nevertheless, the number continues to increase. The fact is that no one has been able to find a satisfactory explanation and no one has been able to deal with the problem effectively.

The problem may have a great deal to do with the sort of social systems that have become common in Western countries and the falling away of moral standards, which is part of the pattern of life in modern times. If that is so, I am afraid that it is too difficult a problem for the Home Office to be able to deal with, as we have to pick up the pieces at the end. In picking up the pieces we have to consider the alternatives open to us and to determine which are the best from the point of view of the test that I have just applied.

It is interesting that fines come out higher in the list of sentences that seem to deter the individual offender from getting into further trouble. The recidivist rate for those who are fined the first time is much lower than for almost any other kind of criminal sanction. Equally, it is true that prison comes fairly low down the list. Although sending a person to prison may keep him out of harm's way for a little while, it does not necessarily mean that a sentence of imprisonment will prevent him from getting into trouble again, or that, by itself, it deters others from getting into similar kinds of trouble.

Perhaps the best example stems from an interesting case in Birmingham. The House will remember that the Birmingham Recorder sent a youth to prison for a substantial time for a mugging offence. That case caused enormous comment in the Press, and it was well publicised, but a substantial number of mugging offences were committed in the same area in which that youth committed his offence shortly after his sentence was imposed.

Such evidence as we have of the deterrent effect of long prison sentences suggests that it is a much over-emphasised part of the argument of the trendy Conservative. Therefore, I do not think we should be so ready to accept the alternatives that the hon. Gentleman has in mind. None the less, the three matters that he raised are those that concern the Home Office and the Government, on which we have tried to take some action.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the lack of secure mental hospital accommodation for convicted offenders who suffer from psychiatric disorders. In the light of recent events—in particular the Butler Report—the Government are reviewing what action they can take. Only recently my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services indicated that she proposes, over the next few years, to try to provide an additional 1,000 secure beds in such hospitals in addition to the 2,000 which now exist.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the need for greater security for juveniles, as did the hon. Member for Chislehurst. As the House will know, the Government are conducting a review of the working of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969, and we hope to announce our findings very shortly. We have been assisted in our investigation by the Select Committee's Report which came out in the autumn. Although I do not think that it will be possible for us to accept all its recommendations, we are viewing them with considerable care.

I should explain that we are trying to increase the number of secure places in juvenile establishments as quickly as resources will allow. We accept the hon. Gentleman's point that this is an area of considerable priority even within the present restrictions on public expenditure. The local authorities have done their best. The current local authority capital building programme contains proposals to provide 1,738 places, 848 in observation and assessment centres, 85 in homes with education on the premises and 123 secure places.

As the hon. Gentleman suggested, we have gone further by allowing the Secretary of State for Social Services to allocate £2 million from national expenditure for the provision of 480 secure places. They will figure in the regional plans that are operated by the regional committees of the local authorities. It is for the local authorities to decide how they use the money and not for the Home Office or the Department of Health and Social Security. Within this restricted budget the local authorities will be able to make the sort of provision that the hon. Gentleman wants.

The hon. Gentleman also suggested that we should have institutions to deal with the social inadequates who are too dangerous to leave at large. It is a matter of great judgment as to what we should do with that class of prisoner. Recently I visited Pentonville, an establishment which used to be a prison for serious offenders but which is now a local prison for the social derelicts to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Having made that visit I was not convinced that we were doing any good to the drunks and the vagrants who were collected in that establishment in such great numbers. They were sitting around whileing out their short sentences without any real attempt being made to help them to recover.

It is difficult to see what else can be done within the confines of prison. I am anxious that we should get on quickly with the proposals to set up more detoxification centres for drunks. The real difficulty has been that the criteria applied by the health services are of such a standard that the centres are very expensive. Further, they have to be attached to expensive hospitals. My own judgment is that it would be better if we could experiment with something a little cheaper in areas where the centres would not necessarily be attached to a hospital. Discussions are proceeding, and I hope that there will be some fruition from them in due course. I hope that we shall get some better alternatives for drunks.

We are considering the whole position of vagrancy and the vagrancy laws in the light of the report of the working party of the Home Office. I cannot say any more about that matter at this stage. In principle we would like to see a situation in which both drunks and vagrants did not come within our penal system. We should like to see some way in which they could be diverted from it when picked up by the police, a system which would divert them into some kind of social rehabilitation situation either inside an institution or at large if they could be given supervision and advice. That has always proved extremely difficult to perform in practice and I am not sure that we shall find a solution. However, I approach the problem on that basis.

I am intrigued by the idea of an organisation which is a combination of a Salvation Army hostel and a prison. I must consider the suggestion more closely. I am not sure that the Salvation Army would like the concept very much. I understand and sympathise with what the hon. Gentleman has in mind. We are all anxious to get this kind of person out of prison because the prison population is far too high. I say that not just because of the expense of providing more prison places. This is not merely a matter of economics. The fact is that the present system is a bad way of treating those who are convicted of criminal offences in our society whatever the trendy Conservatives may say.