HC Deb 18 January 1978 vol 942 cc424-6
2. Mr. Rifkind

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland whether he is satisfied with steps being taken to reduce the level of the Scottish prison population.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Harry Ewing)

As indicated in the Queen's Speech, my right hon. Friend is contemplating legislation on criminal matters in Scotland. It is hoped to include in the legislation measures aimed at reducing the prison population.

Mr. Rifkind

On behalf of myself and my colleagues, I wish to express agreement with the Minister's comments about the passing of Willie Small. I am sure that the whole House regrets his passing.

Is the Minister aware that at present more than half of the prisoners who are admitted to Scottish prisons are being admitted for non-payment of fines? Does he agree that this is clearly inhibiting the prison service from doing its proper job of dealing with those convicted of more serious offences? What steps do the Government intend to take to improve the procedure for the attachment of earnings for those who have fines imposed upon them so that the necessity of sending them to prison is avoided?

Mr. Ewing

There are various ways of using figures. On any day of the week no more than 4 per cent. of the prison population is there because of non-payment of fines. Such prisoners seldom spend more than one day in prison. Those who do spend more than one day in prison are very few indeed. That is not to say that we do not recognise that there is a problem. It would be wise for the House to await the publication of the legislative proposals to which I referred earlier.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

On behalf of myself and my colleagues, may I express our regret at the passing of Willie Small? We shall miss his friendly personality in the House.

In the absence of any statement on the Social Work (Scotland) Act document about provision, supervision and aftercare, will the Minister make some comment? These matters are important, in view of the high prison population in Scotland.

Mr. Ewing

It is fair to say that the numbers of social workers employed in the Scottish prison service have increased. I do not want to give the impression that the prison population is increasing. It is falling, although by small numbers. The average daily population is smaller than it has been for some years. We are therefore not altogether unsuccessful. The legislative proposals that we publish will be designed to achieve even greater success.

Mr. Carmichael

I welcome the possibility of new legislation on prison reform. However, will my hon. Friend pay attention to the question of the numbers who go to prison for non-payment of fines? The number involved may appear small, but when the all-party group met prison officers it was told that one of the most irritating parts of their job was the long process of introducing persons into prison, recording all the details and taking all the other necessary steps, only to find, when the process was completed, that the fine had been paid and the work had been wasted.

Mr. Ewing

My hon. Friend has made a substantial point. There is no difference in terms of what the prison officer has to do on admissions to prison, whether the offence is of non-payment of a fine or one in respect of where the person concerned has to serve a sentence. We recognise this fact and it is being considered in our proposals for legislation.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall ask hon. Members to put briefer questions, so that we may have briefer replies and in that way make much better progress.