HC Deb 13 February 1976 vol 905 cc900-10

4.13 p.m.

Mr. John Stonehouse (Walsall, North)

I suppose that I must declare an interest, in view of the fact that in the middle of last year I spent six and a half weeks in Brixton Prison on remand, when bail was refused me on instructions to the Director of Public Prosecutions by the Attorney-General. At any time now my bail may be revoked and I could find myself back in a solitary cell in C wing in Brixton. It is not fanciful to suggest that I might even this very day be sent back.

It is well known that the police, when they have problems in making a case stick, harass the defendant, find reasons to suggest that he is breaking bail conditions and get him back inside. Under my bail conditions I have to report to the local police station between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Some time ago I was delayed at my home by an incoming telephone call and I reported at seven minutes past 10 a.m. The police in charge of my case rang my solicitor and told him that if I was late again I would be arrested and put back in Brixton.

On 15th January last there were 3,346 persons in prisons and remand centres who had been remanded to await trial. Apart from 1975, when the figure was 3,823, this is the highest number since the war. In 1960 and 1964, for example, the figures were only 1,156 and 1,200, respectively.

In the course of a year over 50,000 people are sent to prison on remand because bail has been refused. In 1974—the last year for which figures are available—a total of 51,422 persons were held for some time awaiting trial.

The incarceration of a large number of these citizens is both harsh and unnecessary. It ruins their lives and loses them their jobs, even if they are subsequently found innocent, and it costs the taxpayer vast sums of money to keep them detained. Bail should be granted automatically to all first offenders, apart from those accused of serious crimes of violence.

The police oppose the granting of bail in order to put the accused at a disadvantage in their police game of trying to get convictions by any means. As Lord Hailsham said when he was Lord Chancellor, very few accused persons have any intention of absconding and only a tiny percentage of those granted bail fail to appear for trial. When the police say, at the first court hearing of any case, that a defendant is likely to abscond, they are invariably lying. They want him put away so that they can intimidate possible prosecution witnesses and also attempt to break the man's spirit.

Arranging a defence is very difficult for a man in custody. Even so, in 1974, of the 51,422 prisoners kept in prison for some period awaiting trial, 2,101 were found not guilty or were discharged and 20,915 were convicted of such minor offences that they received no custodial sentence whatsover. So we have the position that out of 51,422 persons held in 1974 in custody without bail, a total of 23,016 were not sent back to prison after their trials. That proportion is 45 per cent. There is something seriously wrong with our bail system when over 20,000 persons are unnecessarily held in prison in this way.

This Adjournment debate is concerned with the terrible and degrading conditions for these people. The old, decrepit prisons in which they are incarcerated are grossly overcrowded. The so-called normal accommodation is quite inadequate, anyway, but this is exceeded in almost every place where unconvicted remandees are accommodated. In Brixton the normal accommodation is 649, but the prison population in September last was 968—50 per cent. overcrowding—and sometimes the figure goes well over the 1,000 mark.

In the remand centres of Brockhill, Low Newton, Risley. Thorp Arch, Ashford, Latchmere House and Winchester there is also gross overcrowding. At Cardiff, the population exceeds the normal accommodation by 100 per cent. Only one remand centre—that at Pucklechurch—has a population within the normal accommodation.

Most remandees are held at Brixton. The conditions there are brutal and brutalising. Men are mainly three to a tiny cell and are kept locked up—or banged up, in prison parlance—for 22½ hours every day. If they cannot get on with their cell mates, so much the worse for them. It is sheer hell for any man to be locked up in this inhuman way, but worse for an innocent man who is trying desperately to prepare a defence and is cut off from the outside world, apart from a possible daily visit lasting 15 minutes from a friend or member of the family. If the family live miles away he might not get a visit for weeks or months.

In C wing at Brixton, a miserable century-old building, there are now 289 unconvicted prisoners held in accommodation originally designed for only 100 prisoners. In this wing there are only eight toilets for those men, and frequently half of those toilets are out of order because of the inadequate plumbing system. The men can use them only when they are allowed out of their cells for one and a half hours out of 24 hours. The congestion that follows is appalling, as in the tiny toilet area, with the WCs in full view, are situated the only facilities for prisoners to wash their own eating utensils. These facilities are as primitive as they possibly could be, consisting of only one basin and a cold tap six inches off the stone floor.

For 22½ hours the prisoners are not allowed out of the cells for calls of nature. They must use chamber pots or buckets. When the cells are eventually opened, nearly 300 prisoners must rush to slop out their overfull chamber pots or buckets. The mess and the stench are disgusting.

Then the men line up for food, but there is no dining room or dining area. They must eat crouched on their bunks in their cells. The food is wholesome and surprisingly good, considering the weekly allowance of £2.60 per person per week, which is less than the £3.45 weekly spent on food for the Alsatian guard dogs. The communal tea served from a bucket is simply awful, but I am glad to see from a reply that I received this week that one reform since I was in prison is that prisoners are now allowed to make their own tea or coffee. They are grateful for that.

Once a fortnight prisoners are allowed to see an old film, shown in the prison chapel. Beyond that there is no recreation, apart from what the men can make for themselves cramped in their own cells. There is no official arrangement for association between cells, so that it is virtually impossible for prisoners to complete any game, such as chess or scrabble, that they might be playing with other men, except with their own cell mates.

There is supposed to be exercise for half an hour in the morning and after- noon, but this is held in a small yard which is disgustingly fouled by guard dogs. The exercise is often cut out when the weather is inclement, but it is never extended if the sun is shining and the men are suffocating from the heat in their cells.

The last meal for the day is served at 4 p.m. and the prisoners are locked up with this food until 7 o'clock the next morning.

It is degrading and cruel not to allow these men association during the evenings. They have nothing to do but sit or lie on their bunks for over 14 hours, and in C wing during most of the night period there is only one gaoler on duty for 300 men. He does not even have a key to the cells, so that in an emergency it takes a long time to let anyone out. I hate to think what would happen if the gaoler had a heart attack.

The Under-Secretary of State will argue that shortage of staff and money prevent improvements. Let me say to her—she is an intelligent woman—that that is poppycock. There are, in fact, too many staff. The proportion of warders to prisoners in British prisons is seven to 10, compared with five to 10 in South Australia, three to 10 in New South Wales and three and a half to 10 in the Federal Republic of Germany. The prison service in this country suffers from overmanning, as do most other areas of the Civil Service.

Of the total annual cost of £131 million for the prison service, staff costs absorb £77 million, or 59 per cent. The staff proportion could be cut by half, and the money saved could be used for other things. In this country we go overboard on security. Since the Mountbatten Report there has been a mania about security in British prisons. Providing tough secure conditions for all remandees is ridiculous when at most only 5 per cent. of them have any desire to attempt to escape. The 5 per cent. could be identified among the serious or previous offenders and kept in secure conditions. The rest of the remandees could be allowed much more freedom of association within the institution rather than, as now, being dealt with worse than caged animals.

The facilities for solicitors meeting clients are totally inadequate. In Brixton there are only 13 small rooms for 757 defendants awaiting trial, all of whom want to consult lawyers at some time. Sometimes solicitors are kept waiting for up to an hour for a room to be free. Naturally, they keep their visits to a minimum and tend to give Brixton clients less service than their other clients.

New accommodation is being built for family visitors, and we welcome that, but all contact will still have to be in a large crowded area with no privacy. Apart from the high security risk prisoners, why should not unconvicted men be allowed to meet their family and friends in a discreet and civilised atmosphere? Men held for more than a month should be allowed conjugal visits. In Brixton there are now 114 men awaiting trial held for more than three months, 45 held for more than six months and eight held for more than 12 months. Nearly half of them will be acquitted or receive no custodial sentence, but they have already paid a price in the loss of freedom which the community cannot repay. There is no cash compensation for wrongful arrest and imprisonment.

There is inadequate training for the gaolers, most of whom do not seem to understand or care that their charges are innocent until proved guilty. Some of the gaolers are the worst types of men, and treat their prisoners like dirt. It is terrible to see their vile, arrogant behaviour. They are only a minority, but their superiors seem too frightened to control them. I suppose that it is another example of the insidious syndicalism in our present-day society. A few of the gaolers are a credit to their profession, as they are sensible, firm and fair, and imbued with a deep sense of humanity. I was glad to meet some of them in Brixton. I remember three in particular, one of whom is still a personal friend.

I have no time to describe other aspects of the way in which remandees are held. There is the fact that their mail is censored if it is in English but not if it is in Gaelic, German, Cantonese or any other tongue. In our prisons we have many foreigners picked up on the streets for minor offences. I met two Algerians, alleged to have been loitering with intent, who were kept in Brixton at the British taxpayers' expense for two weeks.

I have no time to describe the situation of the young girls who, we read in The Times, are being sent to adult prisons because there are no adequate facilities for them to be held on remand. That is a shocking disgrace. These young girls, with other remandees, often find that their remand to prison to await trial is the beginning of an apprenticeship in crime.

The conditions for remand prisoners generally are squalid. They would have been no credit to the England of the eighteenth century, and in 1976 they are an outstanding disgrace.

The Under-Secretary is a woman of great humanity, and so is the Home Secretary. I hope that, in association with the reformers in the Prison Department in Whitehall, they will use their political muscle to bring out the best in the proposals now being considered for reforming the bail system and the conditions for remandees, and get something done about this shocking situation in the very near future.

4.30 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Dr. Shirley Summer-skill)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse) has raised a great many points. I shall try to deal with as many of them as time permits.

I assure my right hon. Friend that it is a cardinal principle of our system that a person is presumed innocent until a properly constituted court has found otherwise. No conceptual difficulty arises in the case of someone who, having been charged and brought before the court, is granted bail. The difficulty and the conflict first arise when a court decides on the facts presented to it that the accused should be remanded in custody. Whenever this happens it means that the court has balanced the liberty of the individual who has been found guilty of no offence against other important criteria—for example, the need to ensure that an accused person is duly brought to trial, the need to protect the public against the possibility of further serious offences, or the accused person interfering with the course of justice by, for instance, intimidating witnesses.

The bail decision, especially in the magistrates' courts, is of crucial importance, as it has a direct effect upon the numbers held on remand at any given time. The Report of the Home Office Working Party on Bail Procedures in Magistrates' Courts, which was published in 1974, made 40 detailed recommendations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department intends, with the leave of the House, to introduce legislation in due course. Meanwhile, some of the working party's recommendations are being implemented in advance of legislation.

The working party's first recommendation was that the number of people remanded in custody should be kept to the minimum compatible with the interests of justice. Its fourth recommendation was that when an unconvicted person is remanded or committed for trial there should be a presumption in favour of his being granted bail. It is intended that the legislation now being prepared should introduce that statutory presumption. My right hon. Friend has already expressed to the courts his hope that they will adopt that practice, pending the introduction of a statutory presumption. He has also commended to them the introduction of schemes to improve the quantity and quality of information which is available to the court at the time of the defendant's first appearance, so that it may be in the best possible position to come to a decision. He commended to them certain other views relating to sureties, bail hostels, the problem of no fixed abode, and out-patient facilities for the preparation of medical reports required by the courts.

I very much hope that the projected Bail Bill and the administrative guidance which has already been offered to the courts will help to reduce the rate of custodial remands, although this may not be straightforward arithmetic.

Since 1967 there has been a strong trend towards the more widespread use of bail in magistrates' courts. The proportion of people committed to Crown courts for trial on bail increased from 66 per cent. in 1967 to over 80 per cent. in 1974, the most recent full year for which statistics are available. The increase in the numbers of unconvicted persons held in custody may, therefore, be a reflection of an increase in crime rather than a measure of reluctance on the part of the courts to grant bail.

The number of unconvicted male prisoners in local prisons and remand centres continued to be high last year. This section of the population rose in the second half of 1974 to 3,446 in November. It continued to rise until in April 1975, it reached 3,645—a very high figure indeed. Thereafter, apart from the anticipated increase during August and September, the population declined to 3,290 at the end of November. This pattern reflected broadly the general movement in the size of the total prison population over the same period.

At peak periods there was considerable pressure upon all remand centres and remand wings of local prisons. I remind my right hon. Friend that, although he dealt with Brixton, I am trying to refer to prisons generally where there are remand prisoners. In London, as he pointed out, there is extreme overcrowding. In Brixton on 31st January 1976 the population was 1,049.

Mr. Stonehouse


Dr. Summerskill

As my right hon. Friend has said, the ordinary accommodation consists of 649 places. I emphasise that the prison service has major responsibilities in respect of the unconvicted prisoner. It has responsibility for his safe custody and production before the court, and for fulfilling the court's requests for reports or information. It also has responsibility for a person's well-being, in particular giving facilities for him to prepare his defence and to maintain his ties with family and friends. What is at issue, however, is the way in which the prison service is fulfilling these responsibilities and how far the presumption of innocence can dominate the treatment of the individual while he is in custody. He is not in prison for punishment or treatment.

Mr. Stonehouse

If people on remand are presumed to be innocent and are not there for punishment, why are they locked up without any communication outside their cells from 4 p.m. to 7 a.m. next day?

Dr. Summerskill

I was coming to the conditions under which they are kept. Incidentally, the period concerned is 5 p.m. until the following morning. The right hon. Gentleman was wrong when he said that they had nothing to eat from 5 p.m. I am informed that they have a hot drink and a bun or something similar to eat during the evening.

Mr. Stonehouse

I must correct the Minister. I know what goes on because I was there. Tea is served at 4 o'clock and then the cell doors are banged shut. Prisoners are then left on their own until six o'clock, when hot tea—evil stuff—is brought in. That is all they get.

Dr. Summerskill

I went into these matters carefully and I understand that a hot drink and something to eat is provided in the evening.

Mr. Stonehouse


Dr. Summerskill

I turn to the conditions under which prisoners are kept. It must be appreciated that they are required to be in custody. In other words, the requirement to keep a prisoner in safe custody necessarily makes restrictions inevitable. Even if there were no limitations on physical resources—which there definitely are—I accept that the conditions of normal life should be available to unconvicted prisoners so far as practicable and to the extent that they do not conflict with our duty to the court.

Let me deal with physical conditions. Most unconvicted adult prisoners are held before trial in local prisons which also hold sentenced prisoners serving short terms of imprisonment. I admit that local prisons are without exception old and, to a lesser or greater extent, overcrowded. They have serious drawbacks, whether of shortage of space, inadequate night sanitation or forbidding physical aspect. However, local prisons are near the courts they service; they have ready access to outside medical and other specialist services; and, because communications are relatively easy, it is possible for solicitors, probation officers and others to visit prisoners on remand or before sentence, and families in general do not have to make long journeys for visits.

Our strategy, therefore, is that adults on remand should continue to be housed in local prisons but that the local prisons themselves should be relieved of some of their sentenced population. This can come only from the provision of more places for sentenced prisoners or, in some cases, changes in the existing use of accommodation. Such developments must inevitably be partly dependent upon the overall constraints upon capital expenditure which my right hon. Friend must admit exist. What we can achieve will for the most part be gradual.

In addition to the local prisons, there are the special remand centres for young adults which began to be set up in the 1950s. Apart from the important aim of segregating the young from the adult and providing rather better physical facilities for visiting by solicitors, probation officers and relatives, they were intended to provide the courts with an improved service of assessment reports upon unsentenced persons which would be compiled by experienced staff, including medical staff.

As my right hon. Friend is aware, public expenditure, including that on new prison building and extensions of existing prisons, is currently under review. A White Paper describing the Government's policy for the current quinquennium will be published shortly.

A number of prison building projects are in progress at the moment. These include, in addition to the new remand centres at Norwich and Rochester, the development of a number of additional establishments for sentenced adult prisoners. These include a total of 1,749 places to be provided at Wymott in Lancashire, Highpoint in Suffolk and Acklington in Northumberland. Those places will help to further the strategy of removing from local prisons persons serving sentences of more than six months, and thus ease the overcrowding of these busy establishments.

The benefit to the remand population should include more staff to supervise activities outside cells and more space in which activities of a broadly educational or recreational nature can take place. There is also a continuous programme for upgrading or adding to the facilities at local prisons. I recently answered a Question on this matter tabled by the right hon. Gentleman—

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

Adjourned at seventeen minutes to Five o'clock.