HC Deb 01 August 1980 vol 989 cc1900-28

Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Le Marchant.]

9.37 am
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. William Whitelaw)

The debate gives the House an opportunity to discuss not only the May committee's report and the action which we within the Home Office have taken in implementing its various recommendations, but the report of the parliamentary all-party penal affairs group, "Too Many Prisoners", and the Government's observations on the fifteenth report from the Expenditure Committee. At some point my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland will intervene on the Scottish aspects, which are separate.

The central problem facing the prison service today is the sheer size of the prison population. When the May report was published last October the prison population in England and Wales was about 42,500. Earlier this year it rose to a peak of 44,800. The most recent figure I can give is 44,324 on 18 July.

This total is quite plainly very high—and dangerously so. Most significantly, the local prisons, where overcrowding is most severe, had 17,357 inmates against certified normal accommodation of 11,657. Throughout the prison system 11,342 inmates were sharing two to a cell and 5,694 three to a cell on 13 July. The effect of these statistics on the prison service cannot be viewed in isolation. Our prison system forms a vital part of the criminal justice system. A crisis in our prisons is, by definition, a crisis for the police, the courts and the probation and after-care service.

It is, therefore, essential to the well-being of the criminal justice system as a whole that the severe pressure on the prison system should be relieved. Our plans to do so have two broad targets. First, we shall increase the capacity and efficiency of the prison service through new building, through improvements in organisation, management and industrial relations, and through better use of manpower. Secondly, we shall take measures designed to reduce the size of the prison population.

Most of the improvements which we can bring about in the prison service itself will take time. Some must take a very long time. The problems were set out by the May committee in stark relief—a decaying prison estate, the poor working and living conditions for staff and prisoners, the decline in the belief that imprisonment can have a positive effect and the deterioration in industrial relations. Even if, overnight, there were a substantial reduction in the prison population, these problems would remain to be tackled. I believe that, in its first response to the report of the May committee, the Government have acknowledged this as well as demonstrating their commitment to support and improve the prison system.

We have already taken decisions on some of the May committee's most important recommendations. We accepted immediately the committee's recomdations on pay for the prison service. I announced in my statement to the House on 30 April a far-reaching reorganisation of the prison department designed to achieve the objective set by the May committee of enhancing its status and identity within the Home Office. That reorganisation is essentially complete only nine months after the publication of the May report. Subject to the overriding need to preserve direct ministerial accountability for the prison system, it will give the prison department, as the May committee urged, more freedom to manage its own staff and control its own finance. I also announced in my statement the Government's acceptance of the May committee's recommendations for an inspectorate of prisons separate from the prison department.

I am today able to announce the appointment of Mr. William Pearce, at present chief probation officer for the inner London probation and after-care service, as Her Majesty's chief inspector of prisons. Mr. Pearce has had a most distinguished career in the probation service, and has an international reputation. He will take up his post full time on 1 January 1981.

The Government's decisions on the reorganisation of the prison service have, I believe, been welcomed in the House, but reorganisation is only a beginning. We must, during the next few years, work steadily at all the problems exposed by the May committee. We must improve the conditions in our prisons for both staff and prisoners, especially where they are at their worst. We must take up the committee's concept of positive custody and give new impetus to the management of regimes in prisons and the development of prison industries. We must do whatever we can to avoid the necessity for prisoners, particularly in our local prisons, to be locked in the cells for so long each day.

If we are to do so, we must ensure that our staff are used as efficiently as possible. It is our task, in partnership with the unions, to release the energy and imagination in the prison service for its primary purpose—the control and care of prisoners. If we can do so, it will not only make a vital contribution to improving the conditions in our prisons but also enable staff to play the more fulfilling role to which they aspire. We have made a start. I welcome the constructive discussions which have begun with the Prison Officers Association on a new attendance system to replace the complicated systems criticised by the May committee. I hope that these discussions, together with those on improvements in procedures for handling industrial relations, will be successful.

I hope that we shall see the first fruits of these developments within the next two or three years. But what of the mid-1980s and beyond? First and foremost, as the May committee argued so eloquently, we must improve the prison estate. The committee criticised some of the conditions it saw as "against nature". So they are. Such conditions are the legacy of decades of neglect. They cannot be changed overnight. The Government, however, have a substantial building programme. Frankland, a major new dispersal prison, with over 400 places, will open next year. Firm plans have been made for four major new projects to begin by April 1983, including two new young offender establishments at Stocken and Appleton Thorn. We shall continue the programme of two starts a year into 1983-84 with category B prisons at Swaleside and Carrbrook. This programme, including places under construction and the new projects I have mentioned, should produce a total of 6,400 new places by the end of the decade. We are also undertaking an enhanced programme of maintenance and improvement.

I am aware that it has been argued that the need to reduce the prison population is such that we should not build new prisons. The May committee rejected this argument. So do I. As the committee made clear, the fabric of much of the prison estate is decrepit; some of it is literally falling down. A considerable and enlarged effort is needed simply to maintain standards of physical accommodation at their present level.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

Has the right hon. Gentleman plans to close any prisons?

Mr. Whitelaw

Certainly not at present. The pressures on the prison system make clear that this would foe an impossible task, at least in the years immediately ahead.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)


Mr. Whitelaw

I should like to say, before giving way to the hon. Gentleman, that I want to allow as many hon. Members as possible to speak. The more I give way, the fewer will have that chance.

Mr. Lyon

I am grateful. Does not the Home Secretary's answer undermine his argument? If we are trying to replace bad fabric by building new prisons but still to continue with the prisons that have the bad fabric, have we done anything at all to diminish the problem?

Mr. Whitelaw

Basically, we must maintain the prisons that we possess. That is why I have announced that we are determined to have an enhanced programme of maintenance and improvement. At the same time, we need all the existing places, and we need more places. The real answer is a considerable and enlarged effort simply to maintain standards of physical accommodation at the present level. The reduction in the prison population and the building programme are not alternatives. In my judgment, we need both. That is my genuine answer to the hon. Gentleman. It has the merit that I have been able to proceed with my speech because those were the next two sentences in it.

Increasing the capacity and the efficiency of the prison service is one way in which we hope to relieve some of the pressure on the system. These measures are not enough in themselves. Unless we can also arrest the seemingly inexorable rise in the prison population, the prison system will reach bursting point.

Successive Governments have sought to limit the growth in the prison population by providing the courts with a full range of alternatives to custody. This country can be proud of its record in extending the type of non-custodial penalties available to the courts. There have been some notable success stories. Community service, in particular, has developed rapidly into an effective means of dealing with some offenders. Community service was introduced by the last Conservative Government in 1973, and this one will give its development every encouragement.

This country led the world in the development of the probation service, and the part it has played, with the assistance of the voluntary sector, in the provision of alternatives to custody in recent years is an impressive one. Nevertheless, there is still scope for further effort in this direction. In particular, there is a need for an increased use of probation and supervision orders by the courts for some of those who are currently being imprisoned. I welcome the initiative taken by the Central Council of Probation and After-Care Committees in bringing together all those concerned, in particular the magistrates, the justices' clerks and the probation service, to this end.

The record of the probation service in containing persons under supervision is impressive. In 1978, for instance, some four out of five probation orders terminated normally or early for good progress. The Government for their part have agreed to make additional resources available for the probation service, and only by a joint effort can the full potential of the probation service be achieved.

The Government also believe that attendance centres are an important alternative to custody. We think that this is true for girls as well as boys; and for young men of 17 to 20 as well as for those under 17. Accordingly, since we took office, we have opened 17 new centres in different parts of England and Wales, with a further eight expected before the end of the year. Of the new centres, three are for girls. Plans are in hand for five senior attendance centres, of which two are expected to open shortly.

It is unlikely that non-custodial measures will by themselves solve the problems of the prison service. The evidence of recent years has been that new alternatives to imprisonment tend to some extent to diminish the courts' use of existing ones. It would not be prudent, therefore, to rely alone on significantly greater growth in the use of alternatives to imprisonment to solve the problem of pressure on the prison system.

This is not to say that the Government will not encourage further initiatives in the diversion of offenders from imprisonment where these offer some hope in relation to particular areas of concern. Our reply to the Expenditure Committee makes clear the importance that we attach to the problem of accommodating mentally disordered offenders. We have endorsed the Expenditure Committee's recommendation that the provision of regional secure units should be treated as a matter of great urgency. We intend to promote a better understanding of the problem of menially disordered offenders, both within the National Health Service and in the community as a whole.

Another group of prisoners which gives rise to much concern is the small group of drunken offenders who experience repeated spells of imprisonment in default of fines. I have already announced that we are making public funds available to enable voluntary organisations to make experimental provision for simple overnight accommodation, linked to counselling facilities and the offer of longer-term help, for people who would otherwise be charged with offences of drunkenness. We hope that the first of the new experimental facilities will be operational by the autumn. If these experiments succeed, we hope to extend such centres and to introduce new sources of finance for them.

Sir Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

I warmly welcome the action that my right hon. Friend has taken in regard to drunken offenders. It is certainly a major step to decriminalise the actions of those who unfortunately are sick, socially handicapped and often homeless. Does he accept that there will be no significant results unless the new overnight accommodation is linked with services for rehabilitation? Will he be prepared to initiate discussions straightaway with the appropriate Departments and the voluntary agencies to see how a comprehensive and cost-effective service can be developed?

Mr. Whitelaw

Yes, most certainly. 1 respond to my hon. Friend by saying that we hope to initiate such discussions. I also want to refer to the sources of finance, which I have already mentioned to my hon. Friend in a recent answer.

The all-party penal affairs group has drawn attention to one possible source of funds for this purpose—the licensing compensation funds. I announced our proposals for winding up these funds in reply to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) on 30 July. We propose that 50 per cent. of the amounts now held by the county licensing compensation authorities should be paid to a new charitable trust fund which would be empowered to finance, among other things pioneering schemes for dealing with drunken offenders. However, I must stress that this scheme as a whole will depend on finding a suitable legislative opportunity in which to seek parliamentary approval for the new arrangements. I suspect that such approval could easily be given, because I think that this trust could be of significant help. The funds would be made available, and I hope that it would be possible to make arrangements to that end.

These developments are important in their own right, and we shall make every effort to ensure that they succeed. However, we must recognise that they will have only a limited impact on the total prison population.

In its interim report "The Length of Prison Sentences", the Advisory Council on the Penal System concluded that every consideration of penal theory and practice tells us that we should strive to restrict the use of imprisonment even more than we have done in the recent past. It posed the question Are there not cases of two years' imprisonment where 18 months or 15 or even less, might safely be passed, and sentences of 12 months when six months would do just as well? It urged all courts to stop at the point where a sentence had been decided upon and consider whether a shorter one would not do just as well. The Conservative Party's general election manifesto took up the same theme. We said that for really violent criminals and thugs really tough sentences were essential. But in other cases long prison terms are not always the best deterrent.

I believe that a strong consensus is developing that shorter prison sentences are both appropriate and desirable. We now know that a longer sentence is most unlikely to aid a prisoner's rehabilitation in any sense, while the initial impact of imprisonment is quite sufficient to make a lasting impression in the minds of most offenders.

The Lord Chief Justice recently said in the Court of Appeal: the time has come to appreciate that nonviolent petty offenders should not be allowed to take up what has become valuable space in prison. If there really is no alternative to an immediate prison sentence, then it should be as short as possible. Of course, it is for the courts to decide the appropriate sentence in each individual case. However, it is the responsibility of the legislature to provide the framework within which individual sentencing decisions are made, and I believe that it is proper for Parliament to expect the courts to take account of its clearly expressed views in so far as they bear on the general tendency of the sentencing decisions which the courts make.

I have said that exceptional measures cannot be ruled out if the situation demands them. Such measures would have to be indiscriminate and across-the-board. This would inevitably disturb the relativities which have been carefully established by the courts over a very considerable period of time. I do not find that an attractive course, nor am I as convinced as some of its powerful advocates that the emergency measures suggested would necessarily succeed in reducing the prison population, except temporarily. Indeed, they could turn out to be counter-productive if the thinking behind them were not accepted by judges and magistrates.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

Does not the right hon. Gentleman accept that the most important and significant reduction in the prison population can be achieved by means of reducing the length of sentences? I am glad to hear him confirm the statement that he made, as reported in The Times on 16 July, that if his entreaties to the judiciary were not heard and implemented, parliamentary action would have to follow. Can he now say how long he will give the judiciary to implement shorter sentences? Who is monitoring whether or not shorter sentences are currently being imposed?

Mr. Whitelaw

I shall not be trapped into saying how long I shall give the judiciary. The hon. Gentleman is an old enough hand to know that he will not trap me—I hope, nearly as old a hand—into giving such an answer. I want to see how this develops. I know that the hon. Gentleman does not take my particular view, but I believe that in the longer term there is a danger of such measures being totally counter-productive. I am entitled to that view, and there are quite a few people who hold it. There is now an unmistakable consensus, to which I am sure today's debate will make an important contribution, about the desirability of shorter prison sentences. I should therefore like to allow time in which we can see whether this can enable a substantial reduction in the prison population to be achieved.

Mr. John Patten (Oxford)

In view of everything that my right hon. Friend has said about shorter prison sentences, does he not agree that it is necessary to inform and reassure the general public that the level of punishment and protection is adequate?

Mr. Whitelaw

Yes, very much so. That is why to move quickly or suddenly into emergency measures, even if they are necessary, would have considerable drawbacks? That must be faced. I hope that we in this House can get across to the general public that, although longer sentences are inevitable for the protection of the public in crimes of violence and terrorism, there are many other offenders who could benefit from shorter sentences. We must try to get that distinction across to people. I believe that it is possible to do so, and it is up to all hon. Members to try to do so.

Within the prison population as a whole, prisoners on remand give rise to special concern, which has been voiced on many occasions by Members of this House. Particular concern has been expressed about the number of young people in custody, and for this reason a limited amount of new accommodation specifically for unsentenced young prisoners will become available at two of our newest establishments, Glen Parva and Thorp Arch, later this year. The extra places which will be provided by the prison building programme will also provide some welcome relief for the establishments where remand prisoners are held. Quite apart from the prison places occupied by those on remand, hon. Members know how much prison staff time is occupied on court hearings. This problem illustrates once again the interdependence of the different parts of the criminal justice system. Delays in the judicial system inevitably aggravate the already intense pressures on local prisons.

As to the Bail Act itself, differing points of view have been expressed on the outcome of the legislation. The first year of operation of the Act has been monitored, and the results will be published. When they are available it will be possible to have a better-informed public debate on this difficult subject.

I have already indicated today that I do not intend to discuss in detail all the proposals which have been put to me for changes in the working of the penal system. But I wish to stress my appreciation to the all-party penal affairs group for its most important report, and to undertake to give careful consideration to its recommendations.

I should also inform the House that in the autumn we shall publish a White Paper on the sentencing and treatment of young offenders.

Although the internal problems of the prison system naturally tend to occupy a central place in our thinking at present, this will not distract us from our commitment to legislation giving the courts more effective powers of sentencing, principally as regards young adult offenders.

But as this debate will no doubt make clear, our prisons present the greatest challenge within the whole criminal justice system in our society. No one can doubt that too little attention has been paid to our prisons, their staff, and inmates for decades. But in the last Parliament there was a realisation that this attitude had to change. The right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) acted in setting up the May committee. The Expenditure Committee's study and report were further evidence of Parliament's interest.

I would claim that this Government, by acting so quickly and decisively on the May report, have shown that determination in this Parliament to face up to the problems, as has the all-party penal affairs group. We have made a beginning. Success in solving the problems of the prison system will need continued commitment and continued support for this task from all of us.

10.6 am

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)

The Home Secretary struck the right note in his last words by saying that continued effort on our part is needed. The May report and the Expenditure Committee report are of great value, but this is not a once for all job. It must continue all the time.

We are debating the prison system and the report of the May committee. First, I should like to say a word about the May report and then a word about the reduction in the prison population. It is right that the report of the Expenditure Committee, although it is not mentioned on the Order Paper, is very much in our minds. A number of interesting matters are raised there, and the Home Secretary raised a number of matters regarding alternatives to prison. Other right hon. and hon. Members will comment on that, and my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) will also concentrate on it in her reply.

I should like to bring to the notice of the House the terms of reference of the May report, not as a historical exercise, but because it took a long time to draft them. The terms of reference are divided into two parts, because at the time I was more concerned with the administration of the prisons. It was not that we lacked advice from the Expenditure Committee and other sources about the size of the prison population, but at that time to have undertaken another investigation would have been a mistake. An introductory section sets the scene about the size of the prison population, but may I remind the House of the issues on which the May committee was asked to advise. It was asked to advise on the adequacy, availability, management and use of resources in the prison services; the conditions for staff in the prison services and their families"— there has not been very much investigation of that over the years— the organisation and management of the prison services; the structure of the prison services, including complementing and grading; the remuneration and conditions of service of prison officers, governors and other grades … in the prison services … allowances and other aspects of the conditions of service of other grades … working arrangements in the prison services … the effectiveness of the industrial relations machinery. The members of the committee included experts in the field of industrial relations in industry, a senior officer in the police force who had experience in police pay negotiations, so was able to give dual advice to the committee, a magistrate, and, of course, a representative from Northern Ireland and Scotland, because the report covers the United Kingdom as a whole.

It was my view at the time that, until we had put right the administration of the prisons, penal reform would not be carried out properly. It is not sufficient to have good ideas in this House and in other places if they are unacceptable to those who work in the prisons. They would not get very far, and they would be carried out in the wrong way. I found in the prison service a resentment against this House. It was felt that we were concerned about the prisons but that we were not worried about the staff and their conditions. It was also said that we were not worried about their views or their experience. Also, the continuous duty credit argument showed me that the prison service was out of control.

I, as the man ultimately responsible, was not running the prison service. There was an animosity between different trade unions, between different branches working in the Civil Service. Going back to 1975, before my time as Home Secretary, and even earlier, for long periods—this is chronicled in the May report—prisons were effectively in some essential ways controlled by local branches of the Prison Officers Association. The organisation was such that there was blurred responsibility, despite the best intentions of those within the Civil Service, particularly those with whom I came into contact.

Therefore, whatever happens about non-custodial measures, whatever happens about the size of the prison population and much as this is absolutely basic to what is done in the prisons, I simply tell the House that I was particularly concerned with the industrial relations aspect of the running of the prison service. That had to be put right, because not nearly enough attention had been given to it.

I agree that it is absolutely right to preserve ministerial responsibility for the prison service and for the treatment of individual prisons. Much depends on the junior Minister with day-to-day responsibility. No Home Secretary with a wide variety of responsibilities can concern himself with the prisons on a day-to-day basis. Much, therefore, depends upon the junior Minister who is appointed for that purpose.

The junior Minister needs every opportunity not just to pass minutes to the Secretary of State but to talk with the Secretary of State about the problems that he sees. He needs a certain perception so that, when he sees problems arising, he can bring them to the notice of the Home Secretary.

I agree that we need to give the prison service a greater corporate sense. Some people believe that the old system, which was altered about 20 years ago, provided a better corporate sense than the more dispersed system within the Home Office. I am not sure what is meant by the suggestion that those in charge should be made more directly responsible. I can see what is meant by those words as a general statement, but I am not sure what they mean in terms of regional and local organisation.

I am sure that it is right that the present Director General should stay in his post. I do not say that because I appointed him, having seen him at close quarters in Northern Ireland; I am sure that overall it is the right thing to do.

It is also right to bring on to the prison board the four regional directors and two outside non-executive members. We all know that when one is in Opposition, arrangements are not such that one can keep tabs on everything that is happening, and I wonder who these nonexecutive members are and where they come from.


The right hon. Gentleman has not missed anything. We are still considering who they ought to be.

Mr. Rees

That gives me a certain amount of satisfaction. Are they to come from within the Home Office, from within the prison service, or from outside?

Mr. Whitelaw


Mr. Rees

That is very good sense. People were appointed to the May committee from outside. They were people with a different view of life, although with experience that was germane to the matters under inquiry.

The recommendation in the May report that there should be an inspectorate separate from the prison department is crucial, and I commend the announcement that the Home Secretary has made about Mr. Pearce. I also agree with the recommendation concerning the publication of his reports.

I note the points about the regular inspections of individual establishments and the investigation of particular incidents. The Home Secretary has said that the annual report will be published, and that other reports will be made publicly available as appropriate. These are, no doubt, well-chosen words. I hope that more often that not reports will be published, because reports that simply go back into the Department do not perform the function that should stem from an independent inspectorate.

Whatever we do about the size of the prison population, there will still be a problem in the remand centres and remand prisons. Reducing the size of the prison population—before sentencing anyway—will do nothing to deal with that problem.

There was a recent suicide at Risley. There was a coroner's inquest. What the coroner does about suicide and deaths is, of course, a matter for him. I had a word or two to say about that case and I noticed that the coroner criticised me for asking for a public inquiry. I agree with him fully, but as I had not asked for a public inquiry, that makes it all square. Given the overcrowding in the remand centres and the remand prisons, my view is that the inspector's report on this event should be published. Whether the coroner's inquest has a bearing on it, I do not know.

I have a great respect for the administration and staff at Risley, having had occasion to turn my mind to the problems of Risley when I was Home Secretary. But I wonder whether we are providing sufficient staff and sufficient resources at Risley to enable the job to be done properly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Batter-sea, South (Mr. Dubs) has raised the question of the death of Richard Campbell at Ashford remand centre and is pursuing that matter. I wish only to link that with what happened at Risley, given the nature of the present debate. The question I raise—my hon. Friend may well wish to raise other matters of concern—is whether it is a problem of staffing and conditions in the remand prisons. Are we providing the necessary resources through the Government and from this House? I believe that very recently there has been a further death.

There was a basic industrial relations problem in the two years before the May committee was set up, and particularly in the few months before it was set up. The continuous duty credit argument was an indication of that. But it was more than a matter of pay, and this is brought out clearly in chapter 10 of the report. The number of people employed in the prison service is such that we are, in effect, talking about an industry. If the matters mentioned in chapter 10 had arisen at British Leyland or in any other major British industry, questions would have been asked on the Floor of the House.

The story is quite remarkable. The media are always very quick to pick up individual events. When I was Home Secretary I tried to prompt a discussion on industrial relations in the prison service. If I had leaked a document, no doubt it would have appeared on the middle page of one of the weekend papers. Industrial relations in the prison service are bad. They are in many respects worse than those in many of the industries about which hon. Members are always popping up on the Floor of the House. The story that is told on pages 233 and 234 in chapter 10 of the report is well worth reading.

Anyone who believes that the Prison Officers Association is a Left-wing union should think again. The problems and events of last year arose out of poor union-employer relations. The May inquiry considered one point that was on my mind and it is a point that we may well come to again. It considered whether prison officers should be subject to any limitations or restrictions in respect of industrial action. Let me say at once that volunteers—there has been a great deal of talk lately on this subject—would be of no use.

What is mean by an all-out strike does not matter very much, because a strike by one or two key people in a prison can bring it to a standstill. But what about other staff as well as prison officers? How could the strike be enforced? The report correctly came to the conclusion that there should be no change in the status quo.

Two years ago we were faced with a serious situation on the Isle of Wight. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) is present. The prisons on the Isle of Wight were not brought to a standstill, but prisoners were not being allowed in although they were being allowed out. The dispute was over a small amount of money being given to prison officers because they lived across the water. If something as important but as small as that in the prison body politic could do that, we could face a similar situation again.

Mr. Stephen Ross

I think that perhaps I had better correct that statement by the right hon. Gentleman. The dispute was over the inconvenience of locality allowance compared with, say, Dartmoor. The prison officers live on the Isle of Wight.

Mr. Rees

I understand that, but there was also the question of allowances for crossing the water. That is an important issue for prison officers living there. The point is that it led to a breakdown in the running of the prisons on the Isle of Wight where historically we have put a number. What will the Government do when that happens again? Fortunately, we never got to the point of finally having to decide on the use of police cells as opposed to prison cells.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

It is done now.

Mr. Rees

It may be that my hon. Friend can rule on this. I cannot. However, it is a question which must be asked. At that time we alerted the Army, but not with any idea that it would be brought into the matter. The report has properly dismissed any change in the status question about the right of prison officers to strike, but the situation could arise again over a small issue. Therefore, we should consider this problem.

The report refers to industrial relations. I shall not mention all the points, but there is a list. For example, the report states: An assistant or deputy governor should be designated at each establishment as a channel for complaints and a troubleshooter in the event of disputes occurring. This would not mean the governor being less concerned in the management of staff than he is at present. The problems arise in the prisons. Therefore, more of the problems should be resolved there.

Another sentence states: certain issues … can never be settled locally, and must be for national negotiation. The report states: The Home Office and the CSD 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 the split in responsibility between the CSD and the Home Office certainly weakened my position and those who worked with me in terms of negotiation. That comes into the wider discussion about the role of the CSD, but responsibility in these matters can rest in only one place, for divided responsibility leads to further trouble.

I leave it at that point, but the report goes on to talk about the role of the Prison Officers' Association. The report suggests that the POA should have better back up in its organisation than is now provided. That is a matter for the POA, but it is dealt with in the report.

The report deals with the working conditions of the staff. A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House represent areas where prisons are located. The report recommends that urgent attention be paid to the working conditions of the staff including … toilet facilities, office accommodation, rest rooms, showers, and facilities for drying clothes. … Any application for a club at a particular establishment should be looked at as favourably as possible. I have no doubt that is of great importance, but it appears in the May report on the administration of the prisons. I should not have thought that it needed an obiter dicta on whether prison officers could have a club.

The report goes on to consider quarters. The problem of quarters in the prisons is important and it matters to prison officers. Many prison officers in the Prison Officers Association have told me that they do not merely want to be turnkeys. The prison officers who came to discuss a number of issues with our Back-Bench committee gave me a document which I wish to bring to the notice of the House, because it shows that the POA is considering wider matters. The document states: At present there exist two prison officer training schools, one at Wakefield and one at Leyhill. These schools teach service entrants how to carry out the duties of a prison officer. They do not provide, adequately, for teaching the behavioural patterns or the social skills that will be required to avoid confrontation circumstances with inmates. The prison officers asked for development courses to be continued and for a third training school. The fact that prison officers are concerning themselves with training is important. It illustrates that prison officers want to be not just turnkeys, but professionals.

On the question of work to be done in the regions and centrally, my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax has brought to my notice a discussion that she had with the Institution of Professional Civil Servants which apparently has had a meeting with the Home Secretary. That body is concerned that regional specialists—medical officers, chaplains, catering managers and education officers—are to be centralised in London as opposed to the regions. This is a matter for discussion between the Home Office and the organisation concerned, but if we are considering giving more responsibility to the regions and it is being centralised in Whitehall, it is a contradiction in terms. It is the general policy rather than the detailed argument about chaplains and so on about which I am concerned.

The evidence from the Expenditure Committee report and the recent report of the prison department shows an escalating prison population. The Home Secretary acknowledged that needs to be reduced. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. But if we were to reduce the size of the prison population tomorrow, there would still be a need for a capital expenditure programme on the prisons. If we build one new prison, it will not mean that there will be no need. The prisons which may be left may be in the wrong places for the purposes for which they are needed. They may need capital expenditure or replacement. It is no use arguing that there is a spare prison 190 miles away if one is thinking in terms of a remand prison.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Perhaps I may reinforce that point, particularly against the criticisms directed to the Home Secretary, by indicating that the prison governors have said that even if the 6,000 places currently being planned and provided were available, they would not increase occupancy by one prisoner because in the period before they were established a similar number of inadequate obsolescent cells would have gone out of use. Even the 6,000 places that we are currently planning will not increase capacity. We need a greater prison building programme.

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

I have taken the opportunity this week to study my papers in the Northern Ireland Office. I introduced 50 per cent. remission as opposed to 33 per cent. remission. That was announced at about the end of 1975. We discussed the detail of the scheme, how it was to be handled, what it would mean in practice and what We would do when we announced it for the best part of 18 months.

Mr. Whitelaw

It was probably discussed for longer than that.

Mr. Rees

Indeed. An individual often thinks on taking office that he has had a brilliant idea. The right hon. Gentleman has confirmed that others have often had brilliant ideas previously. Of course, we are not allowed to see the previous Government's papers. For the moment I shall take it that I had a brilliant idea.

Mr. Whitelaw


Mr. Rees

When the right hon. Gentleman writes his memoirs he can claim a brilliant idea. It takes time to sort out a scheme such as increasing remission from 33 per cent. to 50 per cent. It takes time to consider public opinion. For example, can we assure the public that we are not letting out the wrong people? I wished to introduce such a scheme as Home Secretary, but I can imagine what Messrs. Saatchi and Saatchi would have made of it in the six months before the general election.

As the House will know, there is no parole in Northern Ireland. However, if an ex-prisoner offends again, a judge can add the earlier 50 per cent. remission to the new sentence.

Mr. David Mellor (Putney)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Parliament has two choices in intervening in these matters? First, it can do what he is suggesting and increase remission and the availability of parole. Secondly, it can take action to restrict the sentences that can be imposed. Does he think that the latter might be better than the former? Many of us in the courts suspect that judges are tending increasingly to take account of the activities of the Parole Board when they pass sentence and are adding to sentences equivalently.

Mr. Rees

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. Last week I was talking to someone who worked in the Home Office about 20 years ago. He said that when remission was increased from 25 per cent. to 33 per cent. the judges took the opportunity to increase the tariff. I had not realised that. It would be worth considering whether the judges in Northern Ireland are nearer the body politic than judges in Britain. My information is that they are not.

I discovered that when remission was increased to 33⅓ per cent. in England and Wales the judges upped the tariff.

Mr. Percy Grieve (Solihull)

Surely this is entirely a subjective judgment. There is no objective evidence that the judges are increasing the sentences as the right hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

There is.

Mr. Rees

The figures setting out the sentences for various crimes indicate that the hon. and learned Gentleman is wrong.

There is the variant of continuing with parole for more than two years' imprisonment and for less than two years' imprisonment having 50 per cent. remis- sion. I respect the Lord Chief Justice and what he has said, but I suspect that by the end of the year we shall find that the proposals have had precious little effect.

Whatever we do about the size of the prison population, we shall still have a remand population. I have given examples relating to Risley and elsewhere. We are placing far too great a burden on the prison staff. The press hand-out from the Home Office conveniently summarises the report on the work of the prison department. It indicates that in 1979 the number of receptions on remand into prisons of untried males was 5 per cent. higher than the previous year and that the number of receptions of convicted unsentenced males was 6 per cent. higher than the previous year.

In the debate on these matters in another place Lord Hutchinson of Lullington made one of the most remarkable speeches that I have read. He observed that we have been discussing these issues for the best part of 20 years. He referred to the proportion of those in our prisons who are on remand. He said that 44 per cent. of those imprisoned on remand ultimately receive non-custodial sentences. He talked about the prison officer manpower that is involved in getting prisoners from Lewes prison to the London courts.

Lord Hutchinson discussed organisational matters, which are in part the responsibility of the Home Office. I greatly respect the Lord Chancellor and I appreciate that he is a politician. We talk about greater efficiency at British Leyland and greater efficiency in the coal industry. We talk about greater efficiency everywhere except in the way that our courts are used. I hope that the Lord Chancellor will produce one of his great explosions when wearing his political hat and will concern himself with the courts to the same extent as other areas about which he knows less.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth)

Is my right hon. Friend totally unaware of the many steps that are being taken by the Government and which were taken by the previous Labour Government to deal with the serious problem of expediting trials and reducing the waiting period for prisoners on remand? Many schemes have been introduced recently to reduce the delay between committal and trial although that period is still disturbingly long, especially in the London area. Surely my right hon. Friend is being rather unfair to the legal profession in belittling the efforts that have been made to expedite proceedings between committal and trial.

Mr. Rees

No. The intentions of the legal profession have been excellent. What it has attempted to do has been good. However, just as mere politicians sometimes fail to get it right, I think that the legal profession has failed, or that part of it that organises the courts. I leave it there because I think that the speech of Lord Hutchinson speaks for itself.

We must examine the remand system. Whatever we do about administration, industrial relations and reducing the prison population, the problem of remand prisons and centres will remain. Why is it that the same problem is not experienced in Scotland? Is that because the Scottish system includes the 110-day rule for serious offences and the 40-day rule for less serious offences? Does that concentrate the mind of the legal profession? Are those rules more effective than the good intentions that politicians and lawyers are good at mouthing? We should examine the Scottish system because apparently in Scotland the waiting list is not nearly so high.

The May report is of great value. I hope that the House will put its mind to the administration of prisons. Every 15 years the broadcasting system is reconsidered. Perhaps the prison system should be reconsidered on the same time scale. The May report is excellent, and although Mr. Justice May said harsh words about the legal profession, the report shows what the legal profession can do if it puts its mind to it. Perhaps we should have a May report on how the courts are run. We should then be able to move on two fronts, as both sides of the House desire.

10.40 am
Miss Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake)

I hope that I shall be forgiven if I dwell more on the Expenditure Committee's report than on the May report. I was very flattered that the Government bracketed the Expenditure Committee report with the May report as constituting the most comprehensive analysis of prison affairs since the Second World War. There has been widespread support for the Expenditure Committee's recommendations. That is not empty rhetoric.

As a result of the initiative of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, a one-day conference was held last year to which several organisations were invited. They gave their views and the conference was followed up by a questionnaire. As a result, one can consider any one of the 52 recommendations that were made, and the resulting document gives an idea of what the various organisations thought, and whether they agreed with the recommendations. I was delighted by the unanimity of support. In a debate such as this, it is impossible to do justice to all of the 52 recommendations. However, I should like to consider some of them in three separate groups: first, the question arises of the length of sentences; secondly, one must consider the alternatives to imprisonment; thirdly, one must consider the possibility of change within prison regimes.

I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary recognised that the most effective way of dealing with the immediate pressure on prisons is to shorten sentences, where that can be done without danger to the public. The Expenditure Committee made clear that a distinction must be drawn between those prisoners who are dangerous to the public and must be incarcerated for as long as it is in the public interest, and those who are not a danger to the public.

All research suggests that a shorter sentence is just as effective, if not more effective, than a longer one. I think that my right hon. Friend knows that I disagree with him about how such shorter sentences should be carried out. I do not believe that pious exhortations to the judiciary are sufficient. The Home Office should now consider the maximum sentences for varying types of crime, and should bring their proposals before the House in a calm and considered way rather than in response to an emergency. I am sure that that is the only sensible way of dealing with the problem.

I particularly liked the idea of the Advisory Council on the Penal System. It suggested that while there should be a maximum sentence for the general run-of-the-mill case, it should also be possible, in exceptional circumstances, for a court to advocate a much longer sentence, and to attach the reasons for so doing. That would deal with those evil cases where a longer sentence than usual is needed.

In Scotland, sentences tend to be shorter. There is no suggestion that the rate of crime is any worse in Scotland than in England. We therefore have a practical example on our doorstep of shorter sentences which we should follow up.

I commend the Expenditure Committee's suggestion that there should be a wider use of the partially suspended sentence, and that it should be possible to use it for sentences of three months or longer. Indeed, that point was made by the Magistrates Association. It works on the principle that it is a good idea to give an offender a short sharp shock of imprisonment in those cases in which it is generally agreed that the maximum impact can be made. The Expenditure Committee visited prisons and spoke to prisoners, and some of them seemed to share that view. I believe that it is worth trying.

I should also like to commend an idea to which the Government gave a cold shoulder in their observations on the report—namely, the simple expedient that courts should be given general information about the availability of places in the various institutions. I suspect that the Government are afraid that it will be thought that they are putting undue pressure on the independent courts. However, I believe that it is a sensible proposition, and I commend it to the House.

The Expenditure Committee's report mentioned several alternatives to imprisonment and those alternatives were echoed in the all-party penal affairs group report. I am sure that other hon. Members will wish to dwell on this subject. As a result of an oversight, one alternative did not appear as a recommendation in the Expenditure Committee's report. Therefore, it may not have received the Government's attention, although it deserves it. I refer to the use of probation "with strings attached".

A package deal would be involved, in which the condition of probation would be that the offender must accept a package, individually tailored for his needs. That would represent a positive contribution. For example, someone who found alcohol a problem might be asked, as a condition of probation, to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous group. A work-shy person might be required to attend a sheltered workshop. We visited the Bulldog scheme, run by the inner London probation authority, which specifically tries to get petty workshy offenders to do a decent day's work. We were impressed by the scheme. In many cases it succeeds with people that one might otherwise have thought to be hopeless. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the appointment of Mr. Pearce, who is responsible for this particular project. We warmly commend it.

We also recommended that there should be a thorough inquiry into the pay and conditions of prison staff. That has already been carried out by the May committee. Alas, I fear that it was not done in response to the recommendations of the Expenditure Committee, because if it had been, it would have been carried out more quickly. The report was carried out as a result of a crisis in the prison system rather than as a result of our recommendations. Nevertheless, we welcome the thorough review that May made of what had hitherto been a neglected issue.

One suggestion has not received a very happy response from the Government, judging from their observations on the report. I refer to the suggestion that there should be a pilot scheme, at least, for paying prisoners the market rate for the job. I cannot stress too strongly how the Expenditure Committee felt about this. We felt that those in prison should do a decent day's work if that were possible to arrange. We all know the difficulties. Indeed, the May report was somewhat critical. It suggested—although not in the inelegant language that I shall use—that everyone had thrown in the sponge about producing decent jobs and conditions for prisoners. The possibility of paying the market rate for the job seems even more remote. However, if people are to be kept in custody, such work would represent the type of positive custody commended by the Expenditure Committee and by the May report. I hope that the Government will look again at this suggestion. Perhaps prisoners would then be able to contribute to their families. This would be preferable to allowing the families to remain on social security, and that is all to the good. Otherwise we find ourselves in the extraordinary position of paying heavily to keep people in prison and paying again to keep their families outside.

Finally, I wish to make a point about parole which goes far beyond the point made by the Expenditure Committee, which contented itself with suggesting that there should be a thorough review of parole—not just an internal exercise but an independent study. I would go even further. All the considerations and views that I have heard about parole lead me to believe that the system is basically and intrinsically unfair to prisoners. The prisoners feel great frustrations while they wait for the results and they are irritated by the fact that they are not given reasons.

In any case, a refusal of parole may depend not on how the prisoner has conducted himself, but on measures over which he has no control. These include whether there is a statistical likelihood of his offending again, his employment prospects outside and a stable home background. Once a man is in prison, there is nothing he can do about these aspects. To make parole conditional upon them is fundamentally wrong. We should consider revamping the system of shortening sentences by other means.

I urge upon the Government the necessity for taking swift action now. I was somewhat disturbed by the observation in the White Paper on the Expenditure Committee report. It says: Earlier this year it"— that is, the prison population— rose to 44,800 and continues to be not much below this level. (Unusual fluctuations of this kind inevitably impose severe additional strains and, if prolonged, must raise the question of exceptional responses by legislative or administrative action.) We need this exceptional response now and not at some unspecified time in the future.

10.52 am
Mr. Charles R. Morris (Manchester, Openshaw)

I join with hon. Members on both sides of the House who have paid tribute to the work of Mr. Justice May and his colleagues in preparing the report that is now the subject of the debate. The report is illuminating and very perceptive. I believe that Mr. Justice May and his colleagues have identified the major factors which motivated the anxieties of prison officers and staff in 1978. They have also identified the problems which led to deterioration in industrial relations which was evident at that time.

I was encouraged this morning to hear the Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) identifing overcrowding in Britain's prisons as one of the major issues confronting us at present. Like a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House, I have been fascinated by the experiments which have been conducted in the Dutch penal system. I am interested in the suggestion for a moratorium on the building of new prisons. Equally, I am interested in the demand for saner sentencing policies.

A few weeks ago I listened carefully to the Home Secretary's statement to the House emphasising his commitment to shorter sentences. I believe that these developments are an encouraging aspect of the Home Secretary's approach to the problem of overcrowding in British prisons. I believe that the poor living conditions provided for prison staff and prisoners is a major problem. Equally, I believe that as long as prisons remain the final sanction in the mechanism of social control in this country, we cannot ignore the conditions in which prisoners are obliged to live.

I was particularly disturbed some months ago to read the comments attributed to one of Britain's distinguished prison governors—the governor of Strangeways, in Manchester, Mr. Norman Brown. He was quoted in a local newspaper as saying: If we don't tackle this situation"— he was referring to overcrowding at Strangeways— we are going to have riots and serious problems. It is an ever-present fear that one day we will have a crisis on our hands—it could happen in the exercise yard, on the landings, in the workshops. Mr. Brown made this statement against the background of conditions in a prison that was built in 1868. In appendix 6, list A, of the May report we see that Strangeways prison was built in 1868 to accommodate 1,087 prisoners. At present it is accommodating 1,700 prisoners. That is the reality of overcrowding. When Mr. Brown made his comments, 432 prisoners were allocated two to a cell, and 687 prisoners were living and sleeping three to a cell. They were living in those conditions for 22 hours a day. That is the reality of overcrowding.

I have listened to anguished comments from hon. Members on both sides of the House about this serious problem. We tend to overlook the fact that overcrowding on that scale is against the minimum rules laid down in the European Convention on Human Rights, to which the May report refers. On page 130 the report quotes the European convention where it says: Prisoners shall normally be lodged during the night in individual cells unless circumstances dictate otherwise. It goes on: Where sleeping accommodation is in individual cells or rooms, each prisoner shall occupy by night a cell or a room by himself. We are not achieving this minimum standard, and that is a matter of great concern.

Returning to the question of Strange-ways prison, I was encouraged when the Home Secretary said this morning that the new prison at Appleton Thorn in Lancashire is about to be built. I would like a response from the Minister of State when he winds up the debate as to when Appleton Thorn is likely to come into operation. This is a serious matter, and I echo the view expressed on page 151 of the report, paragraph 6.102. It says: The fact is that the community"— it is talking about the community in Britain— has evaded its responsibilities for too long in the past and that, if we continue—as seems likely—to send so many people to prison, then we cannot shrink from providing the resources to ensure that both staff and inmates may be accommodated in premises which are acceptable according to modern standards. It is no good arguing that capital expenditure on prisons should always bear some constant and inferior relationship to capital expenditure on more electorally attractive areas. … I believe that the May report was right in that judgment, and I hope that it is a judgment that will be endorsed by the Minister and in the debate.

It being Eleven o'clock, Mr. SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 5 (Friday sittings).

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