HC Deb 04 May 1978 vol 949 cc422-4
2. Mr. Kilroy-Silk

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what steps he is taking to reduce the size of the prison population.

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

The Government wish to see the use of imprisonment reduced, and legislation to that end was contained in the Bail Act 1976 and the Criminal Law Act 1977. We shall maintain and develop the wide range of non-custodial measures available to the courts, particularly community service. But the prison population reflects the rising volume of crime and is subject to the sentencing decisions of the courts.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Given the excessive and intolerable level of overcrowding in our prisons, may I ask my hon. Friend to accept that it is now time that more purposeful action was taken? For example, will he consider extending remission of 50 per cent. of sentences to all those petty and inadequate offenders who are currently clogging up our prisons but who are not eligible for parole?

Mr. John

One of the possibilities in removing the incidence of imprisonment or reducing the length of sentence relates to short-term prisoners. I am sure that my hon. Friend read the recent remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the subject. We are studying the matter in the light of the inquiry into prisons by the Expenditure Committee.

Mr. Edward Gardner

Does the Minister agree that there are two broad alternatives? One is a sharper and shorter sentence in appropriate cases for those for whom there is no alternative but imprisonment, and the other policy alternative is to build more prisons. Does he agree that the former is the cheaper and more acceptable policy, and will he please re-examine the proposals made by the Conservative Party about the need to cut down the prison population by accepting policies involving shorter and sharper sentences?

Mr. John

By 1981 there will be 4,700 extra prison places available. I agree that offenders should be in prison if there is no alternative for them in the penal system. Although I appreciate the hon. and learned Gentleman's point about short sentences, I have never yet understood what the Conservative Party means by "sharper" sentences. I wish that somebody would define the phrase instead of trotting out these totemistic statements.

Dr. McDonald

In view of Lord Devlin's remarkable reassessment of the Cooper-McMahon case and the public disquiet expressed in today's Daily Mail and the Sun over the continuing imprisonment of these men, will the Home Secretary now carry out a thorough review of the case and reduce the prison population by releasing these two men immediately?

Mr. John

If my right hon. Friend were to review the situation, it would not be to prejudge it, as was done in the latter part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question. Certainly, he will again consider the case in the light of the recent pronouncement by the Court of Appeal on the point which he referred to it about that case and about the further representations of the solicitors.

As I understand the lecture, although I freely confess that I have not read it in full, Lord Devlin's point was chiefly about the procedure adopted by the Court of Appeal. We shall naturally examine this, but I must say that the case of these two men has already created legal history in that there have been more references on it to the Court of Appeal than on any other case.

Mr. Stephen Ross

Does the Minister agree that another way in which to try to cut back on the prison population is the provision of more accommodation for ex-prisoners, beter hostel accommodation and better workshop provision? In this connection, may I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the excellent work of the Burnbake Trust near Salisbury, which has applied to the Manpower Services Commission for financial aid? Will the hon. Gentleman have a word with his colleagues in the Department of Employment to see whether they can push this forward?

Mr. John

Bail hostels, after-care hostels and similar things are certainly well worth while. I shall take up with my colleagues the case that the hon. Gentleman mentions.

Mr. David Howell

Does the Minister accept our view that shorter sentences clearly should not apply to violent criminals and those from whom society must be protected? While there is a case for shorter sentences in some circumstances, we believe that they should be sharper, and we are not deterred by the hon. Gentleman's view that it is not possible for sentences to be firmer than at present. Will he also accept that, if there are to be shorter sentences, rather than put the full weight on the shoulders of prison governors in making discretionary decisions, the best way is, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Fylde (Mr. Gardner) has already suggested, to think about changing sentencing policy and penal policy? Is it not time that we had action in these matters?

Mr. John

I think that the hon. Gentleman feels that reiteration of the same point clarifies it. He still does not define "sharper". No one defines it. Until the hon. Gentleman defines it, we cannot take him seriously.

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