HC Deb 02 November 1978 vol 957 cc178-86
The Secretary of Stale for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

The Government have decided to set up an inquiry to consider the causes of the present situation that exists in the prison system. The inquiry will examine the organisation and management of the prison system in the United Kingdom, including its use of resources and working arrangements, conditions in prison service establishments and the structure, pay and conditions of service.

The Secretaries of State for Scotland and Northern Ireland and I are consulting the appropriate staff associations, and I will inform the House of the composition and the terms of reference of the inquiry. We shall ask for a report with the utmost urgency.

In recent months, unofficial action has been taken in some penal establishments which has had the effect of disrupting the criminal justice system as well as the running of the prisons themselves. The Government make clear that such action cannot be allowed, and with the establishment of this inquiry they expect all staff to work normally and to present their case to the inquiry in due course.

Mr. Whitelaw

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Opposition support strongly the broad inquiry which he proposes, and we agree with him entirely that there should be normal working in our prisons? This inquiry will provide the opportunity to consider the whole question of conditions of service and the overcrowding in our prisons, together with the administration and management of them.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the terms of reference will be wide enough to allow the inquiry to consider whether it is best for the prison service to be administered from within the Home Office or by its own professional head outside the Home Office but responsible to the Home Secretary, as has been suggested several times by the Opposition and, indeed, by many other people?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. It will be a wide-ranging inquiry, but it will be carried out as a matter of urgency. On the second question, there is no reason why the possibility suggested by the right hon. Gentleman should not be looked at. It has been looked at, rejected, and discussed already, but it is right that it should be looked at again.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Given that my right hon. Friend has been warned for a considerable time now about the situation, can he explain why it has taken him so long to act? Why is it always that the Government must be seen to be acting only under pressure? Will he accept that the present crisis is not just or even mainly a consequence of the prison officers' action, but has more serious and deep-rooted causes in the overcrowding, the inadequate facilities and the lack of adequate staff in our prisons and the lack of public expenditure on them?

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he will take action, urgently and immediately, to ensure that the crisis does not disrupt the prison service, and that we do not have further riots, such as those which have already occurred, and which are likely to recur, unless sensible, sensitive and imaginative action is taken by my right hon. Friend?

Mr. Rees

I am interested in what my hon. Friend says, and I know that he has a knowledge of this matter. I accept that over the last quarter of a century not enough resources have been put into the prison service. It is my view that what has been happening in the last year or two is part of a wider malaise in society in that prison officers have taken no notice of the Prison Officers' Association, to which I give praise. I have a list here of some of the things that have happened recently which, in my view, should not happen in our society, such as people being refused admittance to prison. On the Isle of Wight at the moment, the prison officers are deciding who shall go in and go out, and it is indefensible that that should happen. Of course it has a bearing on what my hon. Friend says, but the matter is much deeper than that. It has to do with present day attitudes, and I give notice on behalf of the Government—

Mr. Adley

February 1974.

Mr. Rees

No, it is not due to February 1974. The hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley), who comments on everything every Sunday morning, would do much better if he visited a prison instead of shouting in that way.

Mr. Stephen Ross

May I, from the Liberal Bench, also welcome the Home Secretary's decision to set up the inquiry, which will be particularly welcomed in my constituency?

May I also take up his remarks about Parkhurst? Does the Secretary of State agree that Parkhurst prison, above all, has had a long tradition of good prison service? The fact that this dispute has lasted more than 11 months reveals the extent to which morale has dropped in the prison service generally and in relations between prison officers and the Home Office. I hope that that factor will figure largely in the inquiry.

Can the Secretary of State give an undertaking, as he did for the police, that the Government will accept the recommendations of the inquiry? If the prison officers are to resume working, which I hope they will, they will want an undertaking of that sort.

Mr. Rees

The prison officers at Parkhurst can put their case now to an independent inquiry. It will be a wide-ranging report and rather different from other reports that we have had. I think it better that we should let the matter lie at present. If there is a case, let it be put. My office and I will also put a case. The matter must be looked at from all sides.

Mr. Edward Lyons

While congratulating my right hon. Friend on his announcement of this inquiry, which we all hope will do a great deal of good, may I ask whether he agrees that in the end no great improvement can be expected without new prisons and an end to overcrowding? Have the Government any proposals for increasing prison building and thus reducing overcrowding? That is the basic cause of all these problems.

Mr. Rees

It does not answer the question precisely. As I said earlier, it is a big problem. We are spending £23 million on new construction and £8 million on maintenance and repair of existing premises. The present plans over the next four years will produce 4,500 additional places. In the current situation, even if new prisons were available tomorrow morning, there would still be a problem. That is what we want to look at.

Mr. Edward Gardner

Can the Home Secretary explain why he has allowed the present discontent, and the dangers to the prison service which attend that discontent, to mount to its present peak without previously taking action? Would he not agree that he has had well over a year of warnings that this kind of situation would arise? Will he also make clear that in this wide-ranging investigation the specific subject of overcrowding will be dealt with?

Mr. Rees

The subject of overcrowding will arise automatically, and it must be looked at. The hon. and learned Gentleman spoke of a peak, as though this was a problem in every prison. He spoke of steps being taken to deal with it. I believe that this is the right time to deal with it, and if the hon. and learned Gentleman has suggestions to make—as I know he has—he should give his evidence to the inquiry. I think it will be found that there is far more to this matter than just the normal aspect, which is perfectly relevant, of resources, equipment and buildings.

Mr. Ryman

Although I welcome the announcement of this inquiry, will my right hon. Friend please consider this matter as one of urgency? An inquiry of this kind will take a considerable time before recommendations are made to him. In the meantime, many members of the Prison Officers' Association have alleged that cash is owing to them immediately. That money has accrued over a period of two years. Is he prepared to consider making an interim payment to those prison officers, pending the full report of the inquiry? The prison officers allege that substantial sums of money are owed to them.

Mr. Rees

I know about the arguments in special cases. In one prison the prison officers are insisting that they be negotiated with directly and that negotiation should not be done by the Prison Officers' Association. I am not prepared to accept that. It must be done through the normal channels.

I wish to make one other point clear. We are not talking only about pay. We are talking of something far wider. In accepting the results of the inquiry, everyone would be accepting all that comes out of it. My hon. Friend said that he assumed it would take a long time. I do not accept that assumption.

Mr. Speaker

Order. May I appeal to the House? There is another statement to follow. Will hon. Members not argue a case but simply ask a question?

Mr. Mayhew

Were not all the factors contributing to the present crisis identified in our debate on prisons on 18th March last year? Is it right that the Home Secretary should now say that the inquiry should report with the utmost urgency when he has sat on these problems for the intervening 18 months? Surely we want to get it right.

Mr. Rees

No, I have not sat on them. What was raised in the House did not cover all the problems. If the hon. and learned Gentleman has a view on this, I hope that he will give evidence to the inquiry.

Mrs. Renée Short

Is my right hon. Friend aware that as long ago as 1967—11 years ago, not last year—a Select Committee made proposals for relieving the appalling conditions in many of our old, overcrowded prisons? Does he not think that it is high time that the situation for both prisoners and prison officers in the old prisons was drastically reorganised so that prison officers could give time to education and rehabilitation work which they cannot do now? They spend most of their day locking and unlocking doors. Does he not also agree that sentencing policy should be looked at, because a large number of people are committed to prisons who should not be?

Mr. Rees

I do not want to give a list of what has been done on sentencing policy and community service orders. My hon. Friend is right to raise the general issue. In many cases there is no educational work being done, although all the resources are there to be used right now. Certain prison officers are saying that they are not prepared to allow prisoners to participate in this.

Mr. Molyneaux

Will the Home Secretary give an assurance that in the meantime there will be no change in attitudes towards so-called political status or special category status in any of Her Majesty's prisons?

Mr. Rees

When I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I ended political status which had been created under a previous Administration.

Mr. Grocott

Although the inquiry can certainly do no harm, does my right hon. Friend agree that the main cause of the problems has been well known for a long time, namely, the appalling overcrowding and the disgusting conditions in many of our prisons due to a generation of Home Office neglect? Will he tell the House what steps he intends to take to reduce the prison population by ensuring that people who are plainly not intended for prison are not committed to prison, such as alcoholics, vagrants and the mentally subnormal?

Mr. Rees

I hope we can do something about the matter of subnormality and alcoholism. Of course, the situation has something to do with a generation of neglect, but there is something more deep-seated at the moment which I want to get to the root of.

Mr. Peter Mills

Will the Home Secretary bear in mind that, as the Member of Parliament who has Dartmoor in his constituency, I am very concerned about the future of that prison? Will he also bear in mind that, while I have been trying to help, the replies that have been received from the Home Office have taken so long that that has added to the problems and irritation of the prison officers? Will he see what can be done to speed up the replies?

Mr. Rees

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support me in the action that I shall be taking about Dartmoor.

Mr. Ashton

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the inquiry also covers those members of the Prison Officers' Association who work in the special hospitals at Rampton, Moss Side and Broadmoor? Is he aware that they, too, have taken unofficial action because of their working conditions? Will he make sure that that section of their union is included in the inquiry?

Mr. Rees

I shall certainly look at that in the terms of reference.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

Hon. Members with prisons in their constituencies will know the great urgency of this matter. Will the Home Secretary consider putting a time limit for at least an interim report by the inquiry so that it does not appear to be merely a means of keeping everything under the carpet and there will be an opportunity for positive action?

Mr. Rees

It will report as a matter of urgency, but the terms of reference, when I bring them to the House, will all fit together. One part of it will not be dealt with separately. It will be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

Mrs. Bain

First, may I say on behalf of the Scottish National Party that this inquiry is extremely welcome? But will the Home Secretary give an assurance that the special unit at Barlinnie will be given special attention within the inquiry in view of the fact that it has done much to change the attitude of opinion in Scotland from punitive to rehabilitation measures?

Secondly, will the Home Secretary look specifically at housing as it is allocated to prison officers? It would appear that in the past the remuneration of those prison officers who wished to purchase their own house rather than take up a local authority allocation has suffered.

Mr. Rees

All these matters will be considered.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I propose to call the four hon. Members who have been standing.

Mr. Carmichael

I agree with the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mrs. Bain) on the great value that the special unit at Barlinnie has contributed towards the study of prison reform, but will there be a Scottish element in the inquiry? I recognise that there is a distinct difference between the Scottish and the English prison services, but they work closely together in many ways and what happens in England today as regards prison officers is usually followed very quickly in Scotland. Therefore, will there be a Scottish element in the investigation and the inquiry?

Mr. Rees

Scotland is covered in the inquiry and the special interests of Scotland will be taken into account.

Mr. Sims

Will the right hon. Gentleman be more specific about his reply to the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tam-worth (Mr. Grocott)? Is he satisfied that the terms of reference of the inquiry are such that it will be able to take into consideration the fact that prison officers are required to supervise not only criminals but alcoholics and the mentally disturbed, who should not be in prison and are there because the Secretary of State for Social Services has not provided adequate accommodation for them?

Mr. Rees

There is no reason why that matter should not be covered.

Mr. Cope

When the Home Secretary speaks of a wider malaise, does he recognise that such has been the deterioration in the standards of law and order in this country that, whereas before the war there were about 10,000 or 11,000 people in prison on average, now there are more than four times that number and that this is the fundamental problem in the prisons?

Mr. Rees

There is not a breakdown in law and order; there is a problem of law and order. I have figures here which can relate it to the advent of the Conservative Government. One can prove anything with figures. The hon. Gentleman must make up his mind. One sign of success in the fight for law and order is that more people are in prison, so numbers cannot be taken in isolation.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Can the Home Secretary give a clear answer to the question which is not part of the terms of the inquiry, namely, why he has waited until now to announce the inquiry?

Mr. Rees

The matters which have concerned me in the way that people have been taking the running of the prisons into their own hands have happened in the last year. In taking the decision to do something about it, one has to choose the right moment. In the last few weeks deliberate action has been taken which I am not prepared to accept on the part of the Government. For that reason. I have set the inquiry up now. As I said in my statement, if people have views on this matter, they can give them to the inquiry. They should not be taking the action they are, which is unofficial and is leading to a breakdown of law and order, and could lead to an even worse breakdown.

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