HC Deb 13 May 1977 vol 931 cc1819-33

Order for Second Reading read.

1.59 p.m.

Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

On 6th April this year the House gave me leave to bring in this Bill, but I wish to make clear at the outset that in proceeding with it I have no wish to harm the pre-release system. Indeed, I support this enlightened concept. I recognise how abrupt can be the change for a man who at one moment is detained in custody full-time, with no freedom to walk about outside and with his actions closely scrutinised, and who at virtually the next moment finds himself a totally free man. I recognise that the pre-release system has much to commend it as an endeavour to overcome that abruptness, and I am sure that there are many men in our prisons who would benefit from it.

I am sorry to learn that there are at present many more places in pre-release hostels than can be taken up. No doubt, this has much to do with the present employment situation, since before a man can have a place in a pre-release hostel, so I understand, he has to have a local job to go to.

When a man goes into a pre-release hostel—some of them are within prison walls and some are outside—he goes off to his job in the morning and returns in the evening. He is, so to speak, in a half-way house. He is not supposed to be free all the time; he is free merely during the time when he goes out to work. I believe that many pre-release hostels allow a man to go out in the evening also, but, according to my information, he is expected to be back at about 10.30 in the evening, after which he is supposed to stay in the hostel.

The trouble is that these hostels often have no security whatever, and the prisoners allocated to them are virtually free to get out in the night and commit whatever crimes their inclinations may lead them to. My action today is designed to help and support the pre-release system, because unless popular disquiet about pre-release hostels is noted and acted upon at the outset it will be difficult to avoid active campaigning against the system.

Some people ask "Why bother? Surely the man will be released very shortly, and it is only in the last six months of his sentence that he will be allowed to go on pre-release." People have asked me, in connection with the Bill, why I should be so concerned, because these prisoners will be totally free anyway in a short time. They argue that it does not matter if the prisoner has this total degree of freedom in a pre-release hostel.

That view contains a mammoth flaw. When a man is in prison he is the responsibility of the authorities that sent him there. While his sentence is being carried out he must not be permitted to engage in criminal acts. Perhaps I chose the word "permitted" unwisely. Perhaps I should have said that he should not be able to get out and engage in criminal acts. After all, the courts have directed that he should be detained for a certain period. His sentence is often cut because of his good behaviour or for some other reason and he is released before serving the full sentence. But while he is actually in prison he must be the clear responsibility of the authorities, and it must be their responsibility to see that he is not able to committ further crimes while in prison.

The present system actually helps the prisoner, because it provides him with a cast-iron alibi for wrongdoing. This is quite a different situation from that of a man who is released after serving his sentence. Once he is released, responsibility no longer lies with the authority to ensure that he is kept in a safe place.

I wish to mention again the case that originally brought this cause to my mind. It concerned a pre-release hostel at Winson Green, in my city of Birmingham—a hostel where security is virtually nil. There is one warder, and, being human, he goes to sleep at night like anybody else. This means that he cannot keep a close watch on what his charges are doing. I am assured that they go out through the window as regularly as schoolboys at boarding schools used to in the Boy's Own Paper. This is very wrong.

Roy Kelly was in the Winson Green hostel. He was a man with a very long criminal record, who was known to have used a knife while carrying out his crimes. When talking to an expert only a couple of days ago I was surprised to be told that no one was to know that Kelly was a violent man. I should have thought that the very fact that he habitually used a knife would lead people to suppose that he had within him the seeds of violence.

Kelly got out many times. On one occasion he broke into four houses, two of which had people in them. He tied up those people and tried to rape the daughter of one, and in the ensuing struggle both he and the daughter were cut, so that there was plenty of evidence that Kelly had committed a crime that night. Having committed those crimes, he went back to the security of the pre-release hostel and was not connected with the crime at all. Although the police consulted criminal records and recognised that the crime had the hallmarks of certain criminals, including Kelly, he was immediately crossed off the list of suspects because he was thought to be in prison. Indeed, he was in prison. As a result, the matter was not pursued.

The tragedy is that because the matter was not pursued Kelly was later enabled to get away and commit a series of other crimes. He fled to the West Country, where, again using his knife, he broke into a house and robbed and murdered a 78-year-old woman. He then broke in again and was later caught. He is now in prison for that crime.

The court case was alarming, for he asked for 34 cases of burglary, committed while on pre-release, to be taken into consideration. Others also find that most alarming, and, as my contention is that the public are worried about the matter, I should like to read excerpts from two letters about the Kelly case which came to me after I was given leave to introduce the Bill. The first says: I am not writing to you with any hope of having any of the legal decisions taken at the trial explained. I cannot understand how a man so drunk, according to a psychiatrist, as to suffer from total amnesia could have raped (this he denied, although I do not know how he remembered he did not rape when he could not remember he had killed) murdered, searched and exited from the house, stolen a car, robbed a couple more houses and taken a taxi (appearing sober to the taxi driver) in such a short space of time. Anyway, the murder charge was reduced to manslaughter, for which the sentence was 10 years. A relative of the woman who was murdered wrote: If Kelly committed 34 crimes on pre-release' I wonder what period of time was involved and who was responsible for the decision to send him to Winson Green. I suppose a committee would have been involved and, of course, there must have been a psychiatrist! I wonder if the local police force is ever given details of the men on pre-release, because they must have been aware of the lack of adequate supervision. The local police here"— at Bath, where the woman was murdered were so professional, committed and completely dedicated in trying to solve the case of Auntie Win's murder that I feel their efforts were treated contemptuously by the court. The prosecuting QC accepted a reduced plea of manslaughter because Kelly was 'intoxicated and unable to form specific intent'. As I mentioned previously, Kelly raped Auntie Win and stabbed her, then drove a car he subsequently stole to Keynsham, committed a series of burglaries, and continued on to Bristol, where he arrived at a friend's flat 'tired and hungry'. The taxi driver who picked him up that night and was called as a police witness at the trial did not give evidence, but told my husband that Kelly did not appear to be intoxicated. I wonder why he was not asked to give evidence, and how a psychiatrist comes to the conclusion that Kelly was suffering from amnesia caused by drink. After all, he could not have seen Kelly for several days after the murder. Is it physically possible to commit rape in such a soddenly drunk condition? However, this does not help you in your attempt to amend the present system. The local police at Winson Green must be aware of the lack of security. Are they represented on the panel that decides who should be sent to the Open Prison? It seems to me that the police are pretty realistic and maybe there are too many social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists etc. involved in these seemingly irresponsible decisions. It must seem to the outside world that it was an irresponsible decision to send this man, who was quite clearly not the kind of person to be trusted with pre-release status, to a pre-release hostel. Sadly, Mr. Kelly is not the only example that has caused concern.

Two men prisoners are awaiting trial at Warwick Crown Court for crimes committed while they were on pre-release. There is another at Stafford. Unfortunately, such is the laxity of his custody that he has disappeared altogether, and it is very doubtful whether he will turn up again. Two men on pre-release murdered a policeman not long ago. This situation is simply not acceptable to members of the general public, who have a right to protection.

My Bill puts the responsibility fairly and squarely on the Home Secretary. At the moment he has no responsibility, because the matter is dealt with within the Prison Service. My Bill alters the situation and makes it absolutely clear that the responsibility must be that of the Secretary of State. Henceforward these matters will not be arranged by faceless ghost figures who give no justification whatever for their actions or any reasons why a person is chosen for pre-release. That justification should be set down clearly for the public and their representatives to see, and the Bill makes provision for that.

As the Minister will see, I have put in the Bill a provision that the instrument shall be approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament. That will make it clear to the public that their safety is a matter of concern to Parliament. The Bill may well need alteration in its wording and in other ways; I am not suggesting that it is perfect. Private Members face difficulty when they attempt to bring in Bills. But this is an honest and workmanlike attempt by some hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Stainton) and myself, to deal with what will become a public scandal if just one other Kelly case appears.

We wish to set out clearly the conditions to be met by prisoners for pre-release. We want to know who it is who decides fitness for pre-release. Also, we want something to be done about security. It is not good enough for people in hostels to be able to hop out through a window at night and get back again after they have committed their crimes. I suggest that a pre-release hostel is a halfway house. It is not intended to be a hostel for working men who have been in prison. It is a half-way house only.

It is important that proper steps should be taken to inform the police who is in a pre-release hostel and who is not, so that they do not cross a man off their list of suspects, as they did in the Kelly case, when his trade marks are all over a certain crime simply because they believe that he is in firm custody.

I have no wish whatsoever to attack the pre-release system. In fact, my intention is the reverse. But the present situation cannot be allowed to continue. I believe that my Bill will not affect at all the good and wise selections for pre-release hostels. It will not affect the giving of pre-release status to those who deserve it and that status will not be harmed by the fact that security is tighter.

Those who select pre-release prisoners should have to go more carefuly and perhaps more publicly into the suitability of those prisoners who benefit, but at a time when mounting violence is being perpetrated against innocent members of the public we cannot tolerate a system by which a man in custody is able to escape, commit a crime and then return safely to his haven with a cast-iron alibi. The haven is funded by the very people whom the system permits the criminal to attack.

The public must be reassured that authority recognises and accepts responsibility for prisoners who have been committed to prison by the courts. We must be sure that authority does not regard these crimes in a light manner, brushing them aside with the comment that everyone makes mistakes and that, unfortunately, people who should not be in pre-release hostels sometimes get there. This is a very serious matter, and for the sake of the public's peace of mind I commend the Bill to the House

2.17 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Mayhew (Royal Tunbridge Wells)

I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) has performed a public service in choosing this subject and bringing forward this Bill after her success in the Ballot. I congratulate her on the manner in which she has drawn attention to various facets of the subject.

I shall begin by expressing support for the pre-release system and emphasising that the motives that have led my hon. Friend to bring forward the Bill do not stem in any way from a desire to see all terms of imprisonment served up to the last minute within the full custody of prison walls.

We all recognise that one of the very difficult tasks of the authorities who are charged with administering the penal system is that of reintroducing prisoners into ordinary society outside prison. This has to be done with great judgment and care.

We believe in what my hon. Friend described as "the half-way house" of pre-release hostels. They have an important and necessary part to play. But it is precisely because we support the pre-release system that we are very anxious that pre-release hostels should be adequately secure and that the selection of prisoners for the scheme should be carried out sensibly, perceptively and with care.

If the public are confirmed in their present anxieties that there have been recent occasions on which proper standards of security and care have not been observed, it is very easy to see a wave of fear and resentment springing up against the system, perhaps leading to strong pressure to close it down altogether. This is something that no hon. Member will wish to see.

It is very difficult for the authorities to marry up these two sometimes conflicting requirements—protecting the public by keeping in proper security those who have been sentenced by the courts to custody for crimes committed, and, on the other hand, maintaining the need that is also in the public interest, to help the adjustment of prisoners—sometimes long term prisoners—to re-entry to society and the community outside the prison walls. These are very difficult and, to some extent, conflicting requirements.

The examples given by my hon. Friend involving recent cases were horrifying, but to avoid needless repetition of similar instances she has brought forward this Bill, which we welcome. The Bill empowers the Secretary of State only to make representations. It is a matter very much for his discretion, bearing in mind the detailed advice that will be given by the departmental experts about the use made of such powers.

My hon. Friend made an important point on the selection of prisoners for the half-way house or pre-release system. She said it was important that the criteria on which these selections are made should be open so that the public can see the kind of standards that are imposed, the questions asked and the qualifications sought. Increasingly, people face worrying problems of public administration and feel that they cannot get to the root of the matter in order to discover how decisions are taken—let alone by whom.

My hon. Friend's comments on that score were timely and necessary. She rightly emphasised that prison authorities have a responsibility to the public to ensure that in releasing prisoners from the full rigours of custody we should not put the public at risk from crimes committed by prisoners who have escaped. My hon. Friend has done the House a service in underlining the need for proper security in pre-release hostels. While the pre-release prisoner is at work during the day he is under some form of supervision, slight though it may be. My hon. Friend said that at least the prisoner in question cannot say "I could not have committed the offence during working hours because I was in prison", because in these circumstances the man would not be in prison but out at work.

However, difficulty arises when a man who is in a pre-release hostel with no proper security, and from which he can slip out without anyone noticing, then commits a couple of burglaries, or worse, and slips back without anyone knowing he has been out. He would then be able to say "I could not have been involved because at the time I was an inmate at the Willson Green pre-release hostel." My hon. Friend was right to draw attention to the need for proper scrutiny.

Another point, which the Minister of State wilt recognise, is the importance of proper liaison with local police forces. The instance to which my hon. Friend drew attention was a good example of what can go wrong if elementary precautions are not taken to tell the police who is in the pre-release hostel, in case an offence is committed of the nature that she described.

We must recognise that our institutions are mortal and that there are bound to be mistakes. Things are bound to go wrong. We all accept that the Government's task is to ensure that due diligence and care are taken to help to keep these mistakes to a minimum.

The three separate fields identified by my hon. Friend—the selection of prisoners, the containment of inmates in pre-release hostels in proper conditions of security, and the need for proper liaison with local police forces—call for special attention by the Secretary of State.

I welcome this measure and I congratulate my hon. Friend for drawing our attention to the need on great care to be taken in these separate areas of activity in what is a difficult jurisdiction for the Secretary of State to exercise.

2.25 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Brynmor John)

We meet at a time when there are twin concerns about the subject of crime—namely, concern about the level of crime and the protection of the public from crime, and equal concern about the problem of the prison population.

One factor that persists in the present high prison population is the possibility of recidivism. That comes about in many instances, as the hon. Lady the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) said, because those who are personally inadequate are at one moment living in a régime where everything is done for them and at another moment they are part of a cold and friendless world in which they receive little support. It would be highly undesirable for there to be too great a transition of that nature for the person concerned. He should be helped back into society and be encouraged not to reoffend. It would also make no sense from the point of view of society to take this step because of the consequences of placing an ill-prepared person in society where reoffence would be more rather than less likely.

Therefore, I welcome the hon. Lady's interest in the scheme. I recognise the value she places upon it. However, I wonder whether some of the things she says go to the fundamentals of the scheme. In other words, her remarks should be taken in a questioning and supportive way rather than as showing root-and-branch opposition.

I am also aware of the incidents mentioned by the hon. Lady, which are regrettable. I regret them as much as anybody else, and, of course, anybody who holds office in my Department must regret that the decisions taken sometimes lead to serious consequences for the public. But the scheme has run for more than 20 years, and it is important to know that governors have power to recall prisoners who appear to present a security risk.

The hon. Lady drew attention to the desirability of careful selection in the level of supervision. In general, that supervision must be compatible with the degree of freedom necessary to make the half-way house a true one. One cannot have a half-way house with complete security, otherwise it would not be a "half-way" house and it would not engender in the person concerned, the prisoner, a degree of responsibility and adaptation to outside life which would cause him to go back to civilian life with a realistic opportunity of not re-offending.

We must have careful selection and a level of supervision, but it must be compatible with the aims of the scheme. It is a difficult choice to make. If I invite the House to oppose the Bill, it is due to the fact that I believe that this legislation is not necessary in this sphere. I believe that it would introduce an element of rigidity that would be detrimental in the long term to the scheme.

I assure the hon. Lady that the Government are not standing pat on the present situation. The criteria on which prisoners are selected have recently been reviewed, and the principal factor that is now to be considered in selecting prisoners for pre-release involve consideration of risk. Therefore, the hon. Lady should appreciate that the Government are concerned about this matter.

Rule 6 of the Prison Rules 1964 enables a prisoner to be temporarily released for any period or periods and subject to any conditions, and includes the provision that this may be done. to enable him to engage in employment Where this takes the form of placing the prisoner in a pre-release hostel from which he goes to work daily and to which he returns at night, the prisoner signs a form setting up the conditions of the pre-release employment scheme. One of these, under Prison Rule 6(3), provides that the governor may recall him from the scheme to prison at any time, whether or not he has broken the conditions of his release. There are no statutory rules relating to hostels or to the pre-release employment scheme other than Prison Rule 6.

Mrs. Knight

I have read Rule 6 with care. It is one of the reasons why I felt it necessary to bring in the Bill. The rule does not appear to accept what is now happening. I agree with the Minister on the subject of the half-way house and the need for an element of freedom. What worries me—and Rule 6 contains nothing about this at all—is that at night prisoners are able to get out from the windows or doors in such a way as to commit crimes while the protection of the Prison Service is still around them. That aspect of the matter is not covered either by the governor being permitted to withdraw a man from the hostel or by anything else that the Minister has mentioned.

Mr. John

The hon. Lady has anticipated something that I shall be talking about later.

The basic point is that there must be flexibility, and it would be no good for either the public or the scheme if that were not so. The scheme had its inception in Bristol in 1953 and it has run with considerable success for 24 years, with between 150 and 300 prisoners a year having such experience of employment and outside conditions as can be afforded by the scheme. There are currently 16 hostels, including one for women, offering some 260 places. As the hon. Lady said, the actual take-up is lower not just because of the employment situation but because it is always difficult to persuade employers to take prisoners in this final phase of their sentences. That element must be taken into account.

One cannot totally exclude the element of risk in such a scheme. If that were to be done there would be no pre-release employment scheme. Of course failures occur, and I am not casual or complacent about that. Failures must occur because human beings make choices about other human beings, and we all know of the errors that we make in our everyday lives. However, if one measures success of the scheme during the period that it has run by how many prisoners have been recalled for offences or for other reasons—such as infringement of discipline, breach of parole or refusal to work—one finds that the success rate has been about 62 per cent. That is encouraging. I here take issue with the hon. Lady because few of the recalls have been due to serious offences committed by prisoners while on the scheme. It is precisely because of that that when a serious offence does occur it stands out in sharp and horrific relief.

The governors have all the necessary powers for effective management of the hostels. I emphasise a point that the Mountbatten Committee emphasised in 1966: a hostel must be a hostel and not just an extension of prison. The Government have not gone on blithely with this scheme unchecked. We have examined the problems and considered them. The Mountbatten Committee looked at the hostels and laid stress on the fact that a hostel must be a hostel because an extra-mural prison would not confer the benefit that was required. What we are really dealing with here is the avoidance of foreseeable risk. That point was put by the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew).

It is improbable that regulations can avoid such risks. That can be done only by better practices. Part of these practices is the criteria of selection.

The present criteria were the subject of an instruction to governors in February 1971. The main criterion laid down in the document was that of need, and the purpose of the scheme was to counteract the effects of institutionalisation. However, the operation of the scheme is constantly reviewed and the criteria for selection have recently been changed in the light of experience. The essence of the change has been to make risk the principal criterion for selection. Risk to the public has been elevated to the head of the list of criteria for selection which must be considered by those who judge the matter. That is not to say that the element of risk was ignored previously or that the criterion of need has now disappeared. However, we have put risk in a proper context.

The hon. Lady mentioned one of the more horrific failures of the system—that is, the case of Roy Abdul Kelly. Kelly was put on the hostel scheme when he was nearing the end of a five-year sentence for burglary, taking a conveyance without authority and so on. I have checked this and my information is that he had a long list of previous convictions but that he had no history of violence. The reports before the selection board showed him to be a shiftless, but not dangerous, man with a long record of offences, a lengthy institutional history and little, if any, record of employment. I suppose, but I cannot speculate, that acute need was the criterion that placed him in the hostel. There was no evidence that he could represent a danger to the public but rather that the risk involved was that he might be an inadequate employee and unsatisfactory. However, as the hon. Lady said, after five months on the scheme Kelly had the horrific break-out which led to the crime.

A dangerous tendency which seems to be growing in the House—I have noticed it during Question Time and at other times—is the practice of questioning the independence of the courts. The hon. Lady quoted from a letter which dealt at length with what the courts did about a particular case and what prosecuting counsel did. I must re-emphasise with all possible force that our law courts are independent of the Executive and Parliament. Therefore, I follow the practice, which has been followed by all my predecessors, of not commenting upon the way in which a case was conducted. That is the responsibility of those who conduct the case. The Government are in no way responsible. The very people who complain about why the Government have done this or that in a particular case would be among the first to complain if the Government started to interfere. The Government would then be in a difficult position.

The matter of the degree of security in hostels was referred to by the hon. Lady. At one time a number of hostels were situated within the perimeters of prisons. However, it was considered that, because of security interests and because prisoners going into the outside world also had contact with prisoners in the prison, the Mountbatten Report recommendation that hostels should be located outside the walls of the host prison should be followed. Although security should be at the highest possible level, once the hostel is outside the prison wall it is impossible to have total security. A reduction in the degree of supervision and physical security is an essential component of the function of such a hostel.

The hon. Lady mentioned the hostel at Winson Green. I should like to deal with that point. The hon. Lady claimed that she has evidence that prisoners have constantly been seen going out at night. If that is so, the citizens who have observed this have a duty to reveal that information to the authorities concerned, because that would be a most serious breach. I cannot comment on it because I have not seen the evidence. In the last 18 months there have been two known cases of men leaving the hostel at night. Both prisoners were dealt with by recall.

The hon. Lady also mentioned a number of other matters, including who should be on the selection board and how the selection is made. The hon. Lady will know, from a meeting she had with Lord Harris of Greenwich in the Home Office last week, that the guidance on this subject says: Where practicable a member of the board of visitors to the prison should be a member of the selection board. The hon. Lady's plea that a member of the community should be on the selection board is met by that.

The question of notification of the police concerned both the hon. Lady and her hon. and learned Friend the Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells. The Home Office intends to put out a new standing order which provides that the police shall be notified 14 days before a person is due to go on the hostel scheme. By "the police" I mean the police force in the locality of the hostel, the police force in the locality of the prisoner's home and the Criminal Record Office. If that is done it is done in practice now; this is to formalise the situation—all that is practicable will be done for safeguarding the public.

The hon. Lady made one final point in support of her Bill with which I should deal. I do not want there to be any misunderstanding or peradventure. Civil servants do not take responsibility for this scheme. It is firmly in the hands and responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department. He is answerable to Parliament on this matter in the same way as on other matters.

The scheme which has been devised is the best that can bear on the rehabilitation of the offender and the security of the public. Responsibility is undivided and clear. If any member of the public is in doubt about that, he or she should read the accounts of this matter. My right hon. Friend is not only responsible for ensuring that the scheme works as well as possible but is answerable to Parliament.

As the scheme works without the need for legislation, I invite the House not to approve the Bill. Indeed, I invite the hon. Lady to withdraw it in view of what I

Question accordingly negatived.