HC Deb 03 March 1977 vol 927 cc595-7
10. Mr. Stephen Ross

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what steps he intends taking to improve morale in the Prison Service.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

The Prison Service, which is operating under severe pressure because of overcrowding and the number of disturbed and disruptive prisoners with which it has to deal, will continue to have my full support in discharging its difficult and demanding duties.

Mr. Ross

I am pleased to hear the Minister's response to my Question. Does he accept that there is too much bureaucracy and secrecy in the administration of the Prison Service and that there is a great need for better public relations between the Prison Service and the general public? Does he agree that there is a dire need for the Home Office to give an earlier official response when incidents occur rather than, as at present, the Home Office attitude leading to outside bodies publishing documents that are often misleading?

Mr. Rees

On the matter of openness, I have found that I cannot have it both ways. I allowed television and others to visit prisons because I felt that it was right that the public should know the situation. Then one receives criticism of what has been revealed. But that is the way that it should be.

There is a problem about the Prison Service. There is no doubt that much comment is ill-informed, but my Department cannot respond unless it has the full facts because ultimately there may be questions for the courts. Meanwhile, the Prison Officers Association feels that many hon. Members are critical without knowing the facts and it feels the same about the media. I ask people who make such investigations to remember that there are two sides to the coin and that prison officers have a difficult job to do.

Mrs. Renée Short

Does my right hon. Friend accept that grossly overcrowded prison conditions, lack of privacy and the refusal of parole without reason are factors that affect prisoners and inevitably prison officers as well, because the two are absolutely interdependent? Can he say whether he is carrying out any review of sentencing policy in order to reduce overcrowding?

Mr. Rees

I am looking at the whole matter of overcrowding, but if any real change is to be made some of the things that I shall have to do will not be popular. That will have to be understood by the police, the prison officers and the public. I sometimes wish that we put a lot of effort into making the problems known, because often when decisions are taken they are grossly misunderstood since the facts of the matter are not widely known.

Mr. Edward Gardner

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that there are, no doubt, hon. Members in all parts of the House who will support what he has said about the need to put to the public both sides of the dispute over prison conditions? Can he confirm that in order to achieve this he intends to have the report on the Hull Prison riot published as soon as possible?

Mr. Rees

I have already said that. I have asked for the report to be written in a way that would enable it to be published. It is very important. I know that the hon. and learned Gentleman will not misunderstand me when I say that the repercussions among the public are one thing, but the repercussions of the film on the prison are another. Many officers felt they had been very badly dealt with in that film. They participated in it and I do not grumble at that, but it is not simply reports from my Department that are important. Reports by other people are equally important.

Mr. Jim Marshall

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the low morale at Leicester Prison, which has arisen for many reasons but particularly the Home Office policy of using detached duty staff and, perhaps more important, the delay in the publication of the prison inspector's report into conditions at Leicester Prison arising from the Hughes escape? Can my right hon. Friend comment on these matters?

Mr. Rees

I understand the problem over detached duties and I am looking at it, though without commitment. I have received the report about Hughes and it is being printed. I shall not give a precise date for publication, because, with the best will in the world, we do not know when it will emerge ready for publication, but I hope to publish it very soon as I promised in the House some weeks ago.

Mr. Alison

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that one factor that is exacerbating an already difficult situation in our prisons is that economies in the service are being realised by cutting prison officers' overtime, necessitating the earlier locking up of prisoners and a consequent souring of relations between prisoners and prison officers? Will the right hon. Gentleman give instructions that this sort of economy should not be allowed?

Mr. Rees

I should need to look at that question carefully. I did not understand that to be the case. The problem over overtime has arisen because there are now more prison officers. In the past, an important part of their income has been derived from overtime. Now that more officers have been recruited, the income of others, particularly the elderly officers, has been cut.

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