HC Deb 31 October 1979 vol 972 cc1231-44
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. William Whitelaw)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement.

The report of the committee of inquiry into the United Kingdom prison services under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice May has been published today. First, my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Northern Ireland, and I, thank Mr. Justice May and his committee for their remarkable efforts in producing so comprehensive a report in the space of only 10 months.

The May committee was established because, as I know my predecessor the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) will confirm, all is not well with our prison systems. But, as the committee itself has emphasised, that does not mean that nothing is right. I endorse entirely the committee's view that we have been fortunate indeed in the men and women who staff our prison services. This does not simply mean the prison officers and governors—it includes all of the staff of individual establishments, regional offices and headquarters. A particular tribute is due to the staff of the Northern Ireland prison service, who have had to work under conditions of which the House will be only too aware.

The report draws attention to some fundamental problems. The rise in the prison population and the consequent overcrowding in many prisons is perhaps the most obvious. The committee recommends that we should pursue alternatives to imprisonment wherever possible but concludes that there are no acceptable developments which will absolve us from the need to support for the foreseeable future a substantial prison population. Moreover, there are other major problems such as the decay of many of the buildings, the poor physical conditions and sanitary arrangements, the rise in the number of criminally sophisticated and violent offenders and the consequent increased problems of control.

We welcome the report's insistence on the constructive aspects of imprisonment and its concept of "positive custody" with its emphasis on work, education and openness of approach. For non-violent offenders we welcome the committee's advocacy of shorter sentences.

The committee saw one of the principal requirements for the future as being the improvement of morale and efficiency in the prison service. To this end, it has made a number of far-reaching recommendations, confined to England and Wales, on the management and organisation of the prison department. I welcome the objectives that the committee has set and its emphasis on the standing and sense of identity of the prison service and shall have them firmly in mind in considering this important group of recommendations.

The committee makes a number of recommendations on pay and allowances, some for implementation straight away, and some for further consideration in conjunction with the unions concerned. It recommends that the pay of prison officers should continue to be linked with Civil Service rates under the formula which has been in operation since 1958 in accordance with the recommendations of the Wynn-Parry committee. In recognition of the increased demands of the prison officers' job since the review by the Wynn-Parry committee, the May committee recommends new pay scales involving an increment of about 6 per cent. on the third stage of the pay increase agreed this year under the existing formula. The committee also recommends new pay scales for prison governors, again involving an increase in the third stage of the Civil Service pay settlement, and that all the new rates should date for pension purposes from 1 April 1979.

The committee also considered a number of claims by the Prison Officers' Association for the payment of what are known as "continuous duty credits", and it recommends the acceptance of three of these claims from varying dates. In addition, the committee made recommendations relating to the Northern Ireland prison service. The Government for their part accept and are prepared to implement all these recommendations on pay and allowances.

The committee stressed the need for greater efficiency in the use of manpower and for reductions in the high level of overtime. We share the committee's view. We shall need to examine carefully in consultation with the staff associations ways in which we can achieve these important objectives and deal with the recommendations on such matters as industrial relations, the role and training of staff, recruitment and conditions of service. The committee has also recommended a significant extension of the prison building programme as well as improvements in working conditions and facilities for staff. We shall need to study these recommendations carefully, taking account of the nation's total resources and the many claims upon them and our commitment to support and improve the prison system.

The May report presents all of us who are involved in our prisons with an opportunity and a challenge—an opportunity to tackle the problems of our prison system and a challenge to build on what has already been achieved. As the committee has said, those who would turn their backs on our prisons turn their backs on society and its values.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

Is the Home Secretary aware that when I set up the inquiry I expected it to report earlier this year? However, an earlier report would not have been nearly as valuable as this report. It is extremely valuable—and will be valuable in the future to all those who are considering changes in the prison service. I echo the right hon. Gentleman's words of congratulation to Mr. Justice May and his colleagues and the secretariat.

Is the Minister aware that the terms of reference were carefully drawn up to raise for consideration important issues that were happening; that there was a breakdown and—I put it bluntly—anarchy in the prisons; that prisoners were being locked up 23 hours a day; and that in some prisons the regime was not being determined by the governors? The report says that all is not well. That covers a great deal.

I agree that we are fortunate in the men and women who staff this service as there are problems, given the large number of people who are in prison these days. I echo the Minister's words of praise for the Northern Ireland prison service, which has problems far greater than those on this side of the water.

This is not the occasion for raising all the issues. However, I should like to raise a number of them—first, the continuous duty credits, which was the reason for some of the problems at the end of last year. The report gives an objective view of CDCs which was specifically requested. It deals with their history. It sets them out with a clarity which many people—who, when they first looked at them, were not involved in them from day to day—will find valuable. I hope that all those involved with the prisons today will accept the report. I regard it as a good attempt to unravel something that has grown up over the years.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my hope, too, is that prison officers will accept what he has said about pay in general, and that they will build on the recommendation on pay from 1 January? I am glad to see the recognition that is given to governors.

Has the right hon. Gentleman noticed certain recommendations, which I regard as some of the most important, under the heading of industrial relations? The first is that the action taken by prison officers has on occasions, run counter to the stated position of the Prison Officers' Association on the limits of acceptable action. The second is that staff and management at all levels must share some degree of responsibility for that which has gone on, and that the staff must acknowledge that there are certain issues that can never be settled locally.

The recommendation that I wish to raise especially is that the Home Office and the Civil Service Department should give consideration to a return to the situation in which matters of pay and conditions of service are negotiated directly between the Home Office and the POA. There is no doubt that if there are two Departments trying to negotiate on pay one will get it wrong. The responsible Department is the Home Office.

There is much to debate in future. I am glad that the report recognises that it is the Home Office that is in charge. I have noticed that there is praise for accommodation in Northern Ireland. The reason for accommodation in Northern Ireland being better is that special money was given to me, as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to ensure that an improvement took place. I know that it is easy to make these statements when in opposition, but last year I obtained an extra £20 million to deal with minor works in prisons.

We had all better accept that much to which the report draws attention will not be put right without public expenditure. I hope that we all agree that something must be done. If not, we shall be faced with industrial action and riots in prisons that none of us wishes to see.

The report also refers to a matter that is of considerable interest to some of my hon. Friends, namely, mentally disordered patients. There are some mentally disordered offenders in gaol. The report states that the Department of Health and Social Security should take urgent steps to ensure that the NHS lives up to its proper responsibilities in respect of them. A beginning has been made. All that I am asking for is an assurance that the DHSS will carry out what it told me it was going to do at the end of last year.

This is an excellent report.

Mr. Joseph Dean

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I had a couple of questions but I wish to pursue my point of order. We have before us an extremely lengthy report. It has been in our hands since 2.30 p.m. When the Secretary of State for the Home Department replies to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), will he say whether we are to have an opportunity to debate the report?

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is what I call very naughty. The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) knows that that was not a point of order. He should seek to put a question to the Secretary of State. I deal only with points of order.

Mr. Whitelaw

I must not be an accomplice in naughtiness, Mr. Speaker. I think that the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) knows the answer that he would have received if I had been naughty enough to give it.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees). The House and the country should be grateful to him for initiating the report and ensuring that we had such a comprehensive report on our prison service. I think that he was right to do so. I am pleased that the report has emerged as it has.

I am also grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about the need for everyone in the prison service to accept the views expressed in the report on continuous duty credits and on pay and allowances. I am grateful to him for a helpful comment that I hope will be followed up.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to industrial relations and the need for the Home Office especially to deal with pay in direct negotiations. That is a part of the discussions that we shall have to have with the staff associations, with the Prison Officers' Association and with the governors on the future conduct of industrial relations issues.

Paragraph 10.22 states: it is up to staff, while remaining rightly concerned with their conditions of employment and any legitimate grievances that arise, to recognise (as they have not always done in the past) that there are limitations on management's ability to make concessions in certain major areas, and that there is a need to make full use of negotiating channels before resorting to industrial action. This, we believe, is first and foremost in the interests of prison officers themselves. I agree that the issue of mentally disordered offenders is extremely important. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services and I fully accept what he has said and we shall seek to implement his remarks.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I appeal to the House for short questions because there is another statement to follow. I want to try to be fair to the whole House. The main business of the day has aroused considerable interest in the House.

Mr. Stephen Ross

First, may I convey to the right hon. Gentleman my own and my colleagues' tribute to the May committee and to the prison service? The report came late in the day. I cannot accept the remarks of the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) on that score. I regret that there is no recommendation to change the present dispersal policy as outlined by the Mountbatten report in 1966. I ask the right hon. Gentleman carefully to consider the arguments for such a change, especially those emanating from Southampton university.

Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the changes in his own Department in the administration of the prison department, as outlined in the report, will lead to changes and effective decisions to overcome the present blockage?

Before the right hon. Gentleman phases out the inconvenience of the locality allowance, which is a bone of contention in my constituency, I ask for talks with the Prison Officers' Association on the Isle of Wight and elsewhere.

Mr. Whitelaw

Any discussions on any future allowances and the way in which we deal with them will be conducted through the Prison Officers' Association. The Government will stand by, especially at a time of difficulty with resources, the building programme that is planned. That is important. It must be accepted, in view of neglect over many generations, that the plan is not adequate for the problems that are involved. However, we shall certainly stand by the planned programme.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

As one who gave evidence to the May committee, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend on obtaining—it cannot have been easy—the necessary funds to meet most if not all of the recommendations on pay and allowances? I join the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) in hoping that that will avert the ugly American-style situation that could arise in our prisons.

I ask my right hon. Friend two questions. First, will he now offer to the prison officers similar no-strike arrangements to those that obtain with the police and receive their comments? Secondly, is he satisfied that there is a good enough career structure for those who go into the service and want to achieve rapid promotion?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks about the Government's acceptance of the recommendations on pay and allowances. The May committee has studied these matters carefully and I attach the highest importance to the fact that we have been able to accept its advice.

My hon. Friend asked about no-strike arrangements. I am prepared to discuss with the Prison Officers' Association and all those concerned any matter concerning industrial relations as set out in the report. I should like to consider carefully the career structure. I do not wish fully to commit myself to saying that it is presently satisfactory.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the report is extremely welcome, not least for the endorsement that it gives to what many of us have been saying for many years, namely, that prisons are not social dustbins and that they are totally inappropriate places for the mentally ill, the mentally disordered, vagrants, drunks, petty offenders and fine and maintenance defaulters? It is a condemnation of successive Home Secretaries and the prison department that the inquiry had to spend so much time on these subjects. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the recommendations will be implemented?

Secondly, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the most important part of the report is its stress on obtaining public confidence in and interest in the prison department? This requires, on his part and on the part of the prison department, an openness of mind and approach that is crucial to any constructive and positive proposals. Will he give an assurance that that will be his policy from now on? May we have a very early debate on this extremely important subject?

Mr. Whitelaw

Now that I have been asked that question in a proper manner I can reply. It is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I was Leader of the House once and ran the business then. If I tried to tell my right hon. Friend how to run the business of the House now, he would, quite rightly, tell me where to get off.

I hope that it will be possible to have a debate on this subject. I do not accept the criticisms of the prison department and the Home Office. though I believe that Ministers in successive Governments have been responsible for starving the prison service of money for a long time. In all previous programmes there have been cutbacks in the prison building programme. That is not the fault of the prison department and the Home Office; it is the fault of successive Governments and of this House. The House must take that into account in future. The May report is extremely important in that light.

As for public confidence in the prison service and in the Home Office, we will examine the proposals of the May committee and do everything we can to give the prison service a sense of identity. That is very important. I also agree that there should be a sense of openness in the workings of the prison department, but there are questions of security which must also be taken into account.

Mr. Peter Mills

I welcome most of the report and congratulate my right hon. Friend. The report gives guidance for the future and clears the air, which will be of great benefit to the prison service. I ask my right hon. Friend to take careful notice of the possible closure of Dartmoor prison, which would have very serious social implications for Princetown. Dartmoor is not a palace or a rest home, but it can be improved. This is the way forward. Will the Home Secretary bear that in mind?

Mr. Whitelaw

The May committee passed some very sharp strictures on Dartmoor. However, I think that this House, and everyone concerned, must realise that in the present conditions of overcrowding in prisons, and the need to use all the available capacity, there is no question of closing down Dartmoor.

Mr. Harry Ewing

Does the Government's acceptance of the pay scales to be introduced in January 1980 mean that they are not negotiable? If that is so, will the Home Secretary accept that these pay scales were recommended when inflation was much lower than it is now, and certainly when it was much lower than it will be in January next year? Will the Prison Officers' Association have the right to negotiate these new pay scales on recruitment? Does the Home Secretary accept that in chapter 7 of the report there is some criticism of the lack of opportunity, for those who enter the prison service through the basic grade, to make progress to governor grade? Will the Home Secretary arrange, with the Leader of the House, an early debate and draw the motion wide enough so that those of us who are interested in initiating a debate about the need for a new approach in our penal system will have the opportunity to put these points? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the report deals with improving the management of the present system?

Mr. Whitelaw

If there were to be a debate, I would welcome, after consultation with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, the widest possible discussion, because it is an important issue, The Government have accepted all the recommendations on pay of the May committee. That is important. We are prepared to negotiate on issues concerning the various other matters set out in the report and to take them into account, but I repeat that we have accepted all the recommendations on pay and allowances. The career structure, is something we should discuss in debate. I do not dissent from what the hon. Gentleman says, though I believe we should consider the matter further.

Mr. Speaker

I make it clear to the House that I shall he able to call those hon. Members who have been rising only if their colleagues are kind enough to be brief.

Mr. Stanbrook

Taking into account the Government's acceptance of the recommendations in the May report, can my right hon. Friend say by how much the pay levels of prison officers will increase on 1 January next year compared with last year?

Mr. Whitelaw

The answer is 28 per cent.

Mr. Joseph Dean

The Home Secretary has referred at length to the proposals in the report concerning those officers working within the prison service. Is he able to say what will be awarded to the industrial workers in the prison service? There is some unrest among them, as they feel that they have been unfairly dealt with.

Mr. Whitelaw

Their pay and conditions are subject to various Civil Service agreements negotiated through the Civil Service Department. They will continue to be negotiated in that way.

Mr. Farr

The House will be grateful to Mr. Justice May and his committee for their painstaking work and we look forward to debating their proposals soon. Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a great deal of strength in what was said by the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) about the need to segregate prisoners who are mentally disturbed or disordered? This issue is referred to in paragraph 3.35 of the report. Is my right hon. Friend further aware that the recent riot at Gartree—which cost the taxpayer £2 million—was largely instigated by a prisoner who should never have been in Gartree? He had a long record of severe mental disorder. If we are parsimonious concerning such matters we will be very foolish.

Mr. Whitelaw

I accept what my hon. Friend says, as I believe the whole House does. It is a question of having the resources to provide alternative accommodation for such prisoners. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services is in touch with the health authorities about this issue and I trust that we shall make progress.

Mr. McCusker

Is the Home Secretary aware that my colleagues and I also welcome the recognition given in this report to the calmness and determination of prison officers in Northern Ireland? They have worked under pressures and conditions unknown in any part of the United Kingdom. They have, according to the report, to deal with the bizarre, abhorrent and degrading protests taking place in the Maze. In the light of the recent killings of prison officers in Northern Ireland, are Her Majesty's Government satisfied with the security arrangements for those officers?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman says and I fully endorse—as a result of my own experience—some of his remarks. The question of security is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I know that he is concerned about this problem and has it very much in mind.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

In the light of the conflicting demands on resources for building a new prison every year and for alternative systems of dealing with those in prison, does the Home Secretary recollect that the overcrowding is confined to the local prisons, which house one-third of the present population? In those prisons the population could easily be reduced by finding alternative ways of dealing with some prisoners. I have in mind detoxification centres and secure mental hospitals which ought to be financed out of the DHSS vote. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that that is considered first before he embarks on the building of one new prison per year?

Mr. Whitelaw

We are continuing with the prison building programme, though that is a long-term project, as the hon. Gentleman will be the first to appreciate. I agree with what he says about alternatives to prison. I am extremely keen to see the development of a system of non-custodial sentences wherever appropriate. We will do everything we can to keep people out of prison and treat them elsewhere if it is at all possible. The hon. Gentleman must not tempt me into bartering my own vote against that of the DHSS.

Mr. Haynes

In view of the problems of the mentally ill in our prisons, will the Home Secretary explain what he proposes to do about those authorities which have not yet embarked upon a programme of medium secure units?

Mr. Whitelaw

That is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. I am sure that the answer is to continue to press my right hon. Friend as hard as possible.

Mr. Prescott

Has the Home Secretary noted that the committee, in addition to its investigations into the justifiable industrial relations grievances of prison officers, was concerned equally about the nature of the prison regime? However, it did not have sufficient time to study that issue. Does the Home Secretary accept the report's conclusion, as in my report on the Hull Prison riots, that the prison regime should be more open and concerned with human containment rather than the rhetoric of 'treatment and training'", which the Home Secretary publicly endorsed a few weeks ago? Will he now set up a further study into the "open prison regime" to establish what this means and to implement it in our prisons?

Mr. Whitelaw

The May committee used an important phrase when it referred to "positive custody". In paragraph 4.46 it stated: That is, it has to be secure and it must carry out all the intentions of the courts and society, in that respect. On the other hand, penal establishments must also so far as possible be helpful and purposive communities and not be allowed to degenerate into mere uncaring institutions dulled by their own unimaginative and unenterprising routines. I fully accept that.

Mr. Ryman

When considering the recommendations of Mr. Justice May's report, will the Home Secretary consider the work of the parole board, which has recently released many people who have been convicted of offences involving violence who reappear in court, and has refused to release persons who could be rehabilitated? Since the Home Secretary has ministerial responsibility for the parole board, will he monitor its work and make recommendations?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have more than an administrative responsibility for the parole board. The person who releases people or does not release people is standing here and is answerable to the House for all his actions on that score. The parole board recommends. I decide, and I am responsible to the House. I am sure the House wishes that to be so. I have to take all the blame when things go wrong. I have to understand that when things go right nobody will thank me for it. I do not mind that.

Mr. Soley

Does the Home Secretary accept that there can be no reform in prisons until we reduce the pressure on the prison population? Will he give urgent attention to chapter 3, paragraphs 26 to 30, of the report, which suggest that we can learn much from Holland about the reduction in prison sentences and prison populations? Does he agree that if we do not follow that lead we shall face further riots which will lead to the deaths of prison officers and prisoners and a consequent deterioration in morale and conditions for both staff and prisoners?

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Member raises an important issue. I know of his interest. I value the work of the probation service as a means of keeping people out of prison, of promoting non-custodial sentences, and of providing help for people who are released from prison. That work should be appreciated.

Mr. Christopher Price

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen today's story in the Daily Mirror which indicates that a greater quantity of psychotropic drugs—commonly known among prisoners as "the liquid cosh"—is flowing into Brixton, which is intended for remand prisoners, than would be expected to be used at a hospital such as Broadmoor? In the Home Secretary's quest for greater openness in the prison service, will he institute an inquiry into that allegation to find out whether it is true? If it is true, will he try to organise the transfer to hospital where they should be, of prisoners who need such drugs?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am sure that the story is a misrepresentation of the truth, but I shall look into it further. I shall state simply the principle governing the use of drugs in prison. Drugs are prescribed to prisoners only when, in the clinical judgment of prison medical officers or other doctors, such treatment is justified for the restoration of health or the relief of symptoms. Except in emergencies, they are not administered without a prisoner's consent. That is the principle which must be upheld.

Mr. Heffer

The Home Secretary has said that the Government accept the report. It has been welcomed by the Opposition Front Bench. Will the problems which have led to difficulties at Walton prison be solved as a result of the report? Will there be a speedy solution to those problems?

Mr. Whitelaw

I welcome the opportunity of replying to the hon. Member on that specific issue. The committee was asked to examine the situation at that prison to see whether an issue of general principle was involved. The committee found that such an issue was not involved and accordingly made no recommendations. I have learnt of this problem at first hand. If the national executive of the Prison Officers' Association makes representations to me on this matter, I shall be pleased for the Minister in charge to go through all the issues.