HC Deb 01 August 1980 vol 989 cc1941-2002

Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

11.29 am
The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

I am grateful for this opportunity to make—

Mr. Shephen Ross

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It seems ridiculous that in a debate on the prison system we are to hear speeches by two Front-Bench Scottish Members, when as far as I can see there is not one Scottish Back Bencher present to take part in the debate.

Mr. Speaker

I understand that this is a United Kingdom debate. First, the two Front Bench speakers have promised to be brief. Secondly, they are genuine Scots.

Mr. Rifkind

I am grateful for your comment, Mr. Speaker. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my intervention will be very brief, because I recognise the desire of many hon. Members to take part in the debate, which is a United Kingdom debate on the May committee recommendations. The report affected the whole of the United Kingdom, but its conclusions recognised that the problems of the prison service in Scotland, although serious in certain respects, were less acute and less grave than those elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

The committee recognised, for example, that the problems of recruiting prison officers in Scotland were less than those elsewhere, and that the growth in the prison population, although it had been substantial in the 1950s and 1960s, had shown virtually no increase during the past decade, contrary to indications in England and Wales. Also, whilst it recognised that there were severe problems of over-crowding in certain local prisons in Scotland, overall there was no general problem of overcrowding, and the capacity of the Scottish prisons was greater than the number of prisoners presently incarcerated.

The Government recognise that in Scotland, as elsewhere in Britain, there is the problem of too many persons being sent to prison when they could more properly be dealt with in other ways. By the Bail Etc. (Scotland) Act, which received its Royal Assent some months ago, we have abolished money bail and replaced it by a system of bail on conditions which has led to fewer accused persons having to be sent to prison on remand because of their inability to find the bail money required by the courts. This has had some effect on the number of prisoners held on remand, although it is too early to say what the long-term effects will be.

Secondly, there are provisions in the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill, which received its Third Reading a short time ago, which will make more unlikely the use of prison except as a last resort by the courts. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary responsible for social work matters recently announced the extension of the community service order scheme, which until now has operated only on an experimental basis in five areas of Scotland. We believe that this will equally have a desirable effect in this respect.

Finally, there is the recognition that in Scotland an alarmingly large number of persons are incarcerated for non-payment of fines. About 40 per cent. of admissions in any one year are for non-payment of fines, although the period of imprisonment served is very short. Nevertheless, it is a grave problem, and the Government hope to start in October an experiment in fine enforcement officers in Edinburgh and Airdrie to ensure that the proper payment of fines is enforced by the court in order that it will not be necessary to resort to imprisonment.

I turn to the specific recommendations of the report. Many deal with matters of internal management, training and conditions of staff, their management of prisoners and similar related matters. Over the past few months we have been working on the composition and terms of reference of a number of working groups that will be making detailed recommendations on the implementation of the May recommendations. We have been having consultations with the various prison service staff associations in order to ensure that their experience and expertise will be able to be incorporated in the event of proposals being implemented. We are nearing completion on these matters. I am to have a meeting with the Scottish Prison Governors Committee of the Society of Civil and Public Servants, at its request, in the near future.

One of the other areas in which the report made important recommendations was the position of visiting committees in Scotland, which in recent years have not been as satisfactory as their counterparts in England and Wales, because of certain legal problems. These arose as a result of the reorganisation of local government, as it is local authorities that appoint the members of the visiting committees to adult prisons in Scotland. These problems have now been resolved. The new visiting committees have been established. We are also taking on board the May committee's recommendations for the better training of, and advice and assistance to, the members of those visiting committees. There is to be a conference in October representative of all the visiting committees, at which we hope a training programme will be properly established.

The final matter to which I wish to refer is the very important recommendation with regard to a distanced prisons inspectorate. That recommendation was made only in relation to England and Wales. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has indicated his assent to such a proposition for England and Wales. We have naturally been giving consideration to the position in Scotland as well. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland intends that there should be a Scottish inspectorate, and it is intended to appoint a chief inspector to head it. My right hon. Friend intends to look around as wide a range of experience as possible to choose a suitable person. The chief inspector will be assisted by a staff with substantial prison experience. We hope that the inspectorate will be established and be in operation by the end of this year.

While the report correctly indicated that the problems of the Scottish prison service were not as acute as those elsewhere in the United Kingdom, it recognised, as do the Government, that there is still scope for substantial improvement. Within the resources available, we intend to ensure that improvements are made.

The indications that I have mentioned today, plus the other proposals that will come forward in the next few weeks and months, will ensure that the prison service in Scotland, which already performs a very valuable and useful role in ensur- ing the proper administration of our prisons, will be able to benefit from further improvement in the months and years to come.

11.36 am
Mr. Bruce Millan (Glasgow, Craigton)

I shall speak extremely briefly. It is unsatisfactory to have this kind of debate about Scottish prisons. We shall have to find a separate opportunity to debate the May report in relation to Scotland. I know that many hon. Members want to speak, and I shall therefore take only two minutes.

I want to respond to three points made by the Minister. First, I welcome the setting up of the working groups, although it is a bit late in the day, because the May report was published last October. Nine months have now passed, and I should have expected the groups to be established and to produce some results by now.

I am glad to hear that the legal difficulties over the visiting committees, which I thought required legislative provision, have apparently been solved without that. The May committee legitimately criticised successive Governments for what had happened about visiting committees in Scotland. I am glad that that matter is now being put right.

I turn to the inspectorate. Although this was a recommendation for England and Wales, and has rather less validity in Scotland—at least, some of the reasons for the recommendations have less validity in Scotland than in England and Wales—I think that the Secretary of State's decision is correct. There will be the question of establishing the right relationship between the inspectorate and the Department and the Secretary of State. I am sure that some independence there, and particularly the publication of an annual report about the prison system in Scotland, will be a valid improvement in the way in which we manage prisons in Scotland.

I should have liked to say quite a number of other things, but in view of the circumstances I shall desist. I simply repeat that we must find a way to debate the Scottish prisons separately, because there are a number of very important matters that should have the attention of the House.

11.38 am
Mr. Charles Irving (Cheltenham)

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will forgive me if I complain bitterly about our having this important debate on a Friday, and in addition that a statement and questions on it have taken half an hour out of the very short time available to discuss one of the most disgraceful situations in the country at present—the problem of containing, assessing and rehabilitating about 44,000 people who are in prison and the problems of the staff.

If parliamentary time could not be found before the recess, I believe that it would have been more advisable to have the debate after the recess. After all, we are talking about problems that have gone on under successive Governments for over 20 years, so a delay of a couple of months to allow the House to discuss fully and properly these urgent matters would probably have been more acceptable to those who take seriously the present deteriorating conditions. It is dreadfully wrong that Members who have a contribution to make should be prevented from making it because half-an-hour has been taken out of the time for this debate.

The report on the work of the prison department for 1979 paints a depressing picture of a rising prison population. Increasing overcrowding and deteriorating physical conditions are worsening all the time. In the first half of this year, the position became markedly and rapidly worse to the extent that the prison governors have described the prison system as collapsing under the sheer weight of numbers. There is nothing new about prison overcrowding or such warnings, but the current degree of squalor, with nearly 40 per cent. of all prisoners now sleeping two or three to a cell, is unprecedented. Moreover, for the first time the governors have warned that they are running out of cells to overcrowd. It is only possible to overcrowd the Victorian cells since modern cells are too small. Landings and dining rooms have been and are used. It is said that it has been possible in Winchester to cram five young men in a slightly larger than ordinary cell.

The seriousness of the present position faces us with some stark financial choices.

One possible way of overcoming a part of the problem is to make an open-ended commitment to devote massive sums of money to a vastly expanded prison building programme. The Home Secretary referred to that in particular. I notice from the statistics in the report that a new place in a category B prison costs £40,000 to build. The average cost of keeping a single prisoner inside for a year has now reached over £5,800. Let no one who might be tempted to advocate this course be in any doubt whatsoever about the scale of the expenditure involved.

With the prison population at its present level, 9,000 new places would be needed merely to end the sharing of cells. A further 2,000 places would be needed to cope with the increase in the prison population projected in the report for the early 1980s. That makes a total of 11,000 new places.

If we went further and chose to end the abhorrent process of slopping out, a further 5,000 new places would be required to provide for those lost in providing improved sanitation facilities. In total, to end overcrowding and slopping out we should be asked to spend about £½ billion in capital expenditure alone. Thereafter, every one of the new prison places would cost nearly £6,000 a year to maintain.

I do not believe that such expenditure is economically justifiable at a time when public expenditure must be restrained; nor can it be morally justified when so many of those in prison are petty offenders who could safely and more appropriately be dealt with in other ways.

The May committee rightly argued the problem of petty, persistent offenders. It said that continued efforts were required to find solutions not only to keep such people out of prison, but to keep them out of the criminal justice system as a whole. People who work in prisons strongly support that view.

In its evidence to the Expenditure Committee in 1978, the Prison Officers Association stated: It is easy to recognise categories of offenders who can loosely be described as 'social inadequates'—inmates who clutter up the penal system and for whom imprisonment is simply a refuge. I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Expenditure Sub-Committee on prisons, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes), and her colleagues who did a great service not only to the House but to the country in producing such a balanced report. It would be a grave injustice if it joined so many others gathering dust in the archives of the House of Commons.

I asked the Home Department yesterday to confirm some figures about people with whom I believe simple alternatives could deal adequately. It would give a totally wrong impression if I were thought to say that there was nobody at all in the prison system who needs containing. I know well—and most hon. Members appreciate it—that there is a hard core of dangerous, difficult men, and a few women, who will have to be contained for a long time.

A total of 308 women are in prison for soliciting. A total of 2,700 alcoholics, 2,500 maintenance defaulters and 16,500 fine defaulters are also in prison along with 320 cannabis smokers. For having no home, sleeping rough or offences under the vagrancy laws, 350 people are in prison. For drug dependence—not drug pushing—1,260 people are in prison. Another 400 people with mental disorders or mental problems are in prison on any given day.

If one adds that up, one comes to a healthy number of people who could be removed inexpensively and fairly speedily from the prison system. I accept that the 16,500 fine defaulters are in prison for short periods, but the work and administration involved is colossal. There must be a better way of dealing with such people.

In 1972 the Home Office research unit made a detailed study of the sentenced male prison population in the South-East of England. It found that 30 per cent. of prisoners were petty or minor offences. It calculated that at least one-third of the prison population could be diverted if suitable alternatives could be provided.

We should allow for the possibility under present day circumstances, that the prison population contains a higher proportion of very serious offenders now than it did in 1972. Even if only 10,000 men and women could safely be dealt with by alternative methods, this would bring an end to overcrowding. However, these calculations take no account of the important point that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made concerning shorter sentences. Many men and women who have committed non-violent crimes could be taken into account in this respect. If the Home Secretary took firm action to shorten sentences, either by legislation or by introducing an early release scheme on the Northern Ireland lines, the numbers in prison could be cut further.

The alternatives to prison have been ably described in the parliamentary all-party penal affairs group's report. I should like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk), who, if I may say so, following my experience in the previous Parliament, has mellowed so much. I fear to take upon myself the mantle that he used to wear of being extreme. The hon. Gentleman has come forward with an impressive report. I do not wish to make him blush too much or lose too many votes by praising him too enthusiastically.

Many petty persistent offenders have practical problems which are bound up with their criminal activities such as homelessness, unemployment, poor literacy, lack of social skills and dependence on drink or drugs. In many areas, voluntary organisations such as NACRO and the Stonham housing association, together with the probation and after-care service, are attempting to meet such problems by providing hostels, housing schemes, employment projects and day centres, and for many such offenders, these schemes, combined with a probation order can and should be used as an alternative to imprisonment.

The Stonham housing association has 70 projects in the pipeline this year and it is slowed down only by the Housing Corporation's bureaucratic system. I wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Mr. Stanley). Meeting him recently, I was relieved to feel that he is determined to reduce the red tape and the long delays in establishing the hostels and helping to provide more direct alternatives. Unfortunately, he tells me that he has practically no money.

This is a great opportunity for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to support the views that he has expressed and to put the money where his mouth is. Perhaps, in his generous, affectionate and affable way, he will say to his hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction "We will do some lease-lend. I have more money than I need expend. If I take Charles Irving's advice and switch from the massive development of costly prison places to invest in the far less expensive alternatives, I shall have a surplus in my accounts." My right hon. Friend has the charm and the ability to say to my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction "We will give you a little more money and we will make full use of the places you provide in much more humane and sensible conditions than are provided through the present over-burdened prison system." Much more use should be made of community service orders. Only 3 per cent. of adults convicted of indictable offences are made subject to them.

It is encouraging to see more attendance centres which have been virtually non-existent. I cannot understand why, following the Expenditure Sub-Committee report and other reports ad nauseam over the years, we fail to emulate many countries in Europe and also New Zealand in introducing an experimental scheme of weekend imprisonment. Many petty offenders could well pay their penalty to the community or the sanctions that society seeks to extract from them by going into a weekend prison on a Friday and coming out on a Monday. It is nothing new.

Mr. John Wheeler (Paddington)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing this point. Does he not see a difficulty? How would the petty, inadequate offender get to a remote open prison in the countryside? Who would pay? Would it be the taxpayer or would it be an additional penalty upon the offender himself?

Mr. Irving

I normally never sit down once I have stood up. I have such regard for my hon. Friend that, although I seldom give way, I thought it was worthwhile to sit down to hear his intervention. I made a mistake.

It should be remembered that, in normal circumstances, we are talking of £6,000 a year. It cannot be claimed that a weekend camp will cost anything on that scale. Yet between 1972 and 1974 six open prisons were shut or sold. These had all the facilities that would have provided for weekend imprisonment. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will forgive me. I do not know whether he is shaking his head at me or at the Opposition.

Mr. Whitelaw

I thought I was keeping it still.

Mr. Irving

I do not think that there is any opposition. I have more support on the Opposition Benches than I seem to be getting on the Government side.

I received this information from the Home Office yesterday through the noble Lord to whom I am grateful for enlightening me on the position. I do not think the House fully appreciates the situation. Since 1972, six open prisons which would have provided 400 places either have been shut or are in the process of being shut or sold. The argument is that their condition has deteriorated to an extent where they cannot be used. Surely, with the massive captive labour within the prison system, they could be done up. That suggestion might be examined.

The cost of these alternatives would be a fraction of the cost of imprisonment. A community service order costs £7 a week and a probation order £6 a week. The Home Office gives a subsidy for a voluntary hostel place of £550 a year. This must make sense provided we make sure that the public is protected from the serious, violent offenders. In comparison with a massive prison building programme, a policy of reducing the prison population by developing alternatives would save millions of pounds over a period of 10 years. For many minor offenders, it would offer a better chance of preventing them from committing further offences rather than the negative and costly process of imprisonment.

I am not against a prison building programme, but I favour a replacement building programme under which an old, stinking, Victorian prison would have to close as each new prison opens. I favour a programme that would provide better conditions for a smaller number of men and women. If the Home Secretary is prepared to take action along those lines with a determination which his predecessors, for all their good intentions, did not display, he can be assured of strong support from many hon. Members on both sides of the House.

12 noon

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) on a speech that I should like to have made myself if I had the ability to do so. He raised a number of interesting points. When talking about the prison building programme, he touched on the opposition to the May report. In the few moments that I wish to address the House, I should like to refer to that myself, probably inadequately. The opposition comes from Professor Roy King, and I am sure that the Home Secretary will have read at least some of the evidence that he submitted to the May committee, as well as some of the criticisms that he made of the report, mainly at a conference that I attended on 30 November last year.

Professor King began by criticising the size of the prison population. I go along with everything that has been said about that. It is unarguable that the prison population must be reduced, and we have just heard some startling figures from the hon. Member for Cheltenham which show the area in which we should be moving. I was interested to learn that 40 per cent. of those in prison in Scotland were there for fine defaults. That seems an extraordinarily high figure, and it is surely something that we should change.

Professor King then went into the argument about positive custody, which now seems to be the in-phrase, as opposed to humane containment. I shall not delay the House on this matter, because I do not know all the differences between those two phrases. But Roy King argues that in going for positive custody we seem to be moving away from the idea that people serving prison sentences should perhaps not be in a prison that is close to their home environment, as has been the case in the past. Professor King states: Positive custody may sound harmless enough. But 'humane containment', if taken seriously, would be preferable. In time these could become both rights for prisoners and obligations on prison authorities which might actually be enforceable. Positive custody offers no such prospect". He claims that: It is vague and will be as meaningless or confusing for prisoners and staff as was treat- ment and training. It offers no criteria by which success can be evaluated: even the most inhumane conditions could be justified by a statement that we are 'being as positive as we can in the circumstances'. Those criticisms ought to be answered. I do not expect the right hon. Gentleman to answer them today, and that would not be right because, unfortunately, I will be unable to be present for the winding-up speech. I apologise for that. However, I put these points forward in the hope that either in another place, or at another time, we shall get some answers.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Write him a letter.

Mr. Ross

I may do that. There is also the question of the dispersal system. As the Home Secretary knows, there are two prisons in the Isle of Wight, Albany and Parkhurst. There is a C wing at Parkhurst. The Expenditure Committee recommended that we should look at this matter and perhaps add a further wing to one or two other dispersal prisons in the country. The present system of moving prisoners around the seven dispersal prisons is extremely expensive, and has led to enormous expenditure on making those prisons secure. I believe that more than £2 millon has been spent on placing the large plastic balloons on the top of the walls at Albany and Parkhurst.

I wonder whether this is the right policy. Lord Mountbatten was certainly against it, although the subsequent report was in favour of it. I think that prisoners prefer to stay in one prison. They do not like being moved about. I also believe that the staff do not like that system. Therefore, we should at least debate this point, because it is extremely costly and it means that many prisoners contained in the dispersal prisons do not require the maximum security that is imposed upon them.

Of course one welcomes improvements to prisons. When I went around an extension to Camp Hill, I was fairly astonished to find that a modern building was designed for four or more to a cell. I want to see better conditions and modernisation within our prisons. I hope that in the process some of the older prisons such as Oxford, which have been re-opened, will be shut. That was the point of my intervention. What scares me stiff is that if we go on building more prisons and providing more places we shall fill them, and we shall not take the positive steps that have already been outlined in this House.

The setting up of the May committee was extremely important. The situation prior to its being set up by the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) was extremely dangerous. That took the sting out of the problem. Morale is now much better, but it is not as good as it should be. Too much overtime is still being worked by prison officers. The role of the ancillary services is extremely clouded, and the rules are unclear. There are still a lot of queries about continuous duty credits, and so on. Some of the hours worked by instructors and others, especially when they are called out when an inmate has escaped, are amazingly long. We must give prison officers a more meaningful and fulfilling role, and I hope that changes in the structure will lead to that. I welcome the changes that have been made already, as well as the announcements that have been made today.

I visited the Maze prison in Northern Ireland three weeks ago. I want to pay a tribute to the governor of the Maze and to the prison officers there. They are magnificent men whose morale is amazingly high. It is not generally known in this country that when those prison officers go home they face death and injury, not only from the IRA but also from the para-military Protestant groups. They are some of the best men whom I have been privileged to meet, and I want those views to be put on the record.

I turn finally to prison officer housing. The Government and their predecessors took the right decision to encourage, through the rent allowance system, prison officers to move out of the housing compounds adjoining prisons and to find homes for themselves. That has resulted in a large number of houses being made vacant. I believe that there are between 80 and 100 in the Isle of Wight alone.

I recognise that some of those houses are structurally unsound, but a large number are not. They have now been put on the market for sale, but at the same time, the Home Office is busy evicting ex-prison officers who have left the service, and is putting the obligation to house them on to the local authorities.

The local authority in the Isle of Wight has no more than 12 per cent. of the total housing stock to rent. It is an impossible situation, particularly when prison officers' houses up the road are lying empty.

I appreciate that some of those houses are perhaps too close to the prison in order to be sold or leased. But the Isle of Wight is facing an increasing housing problem. I shall be going back this afternoon to see a lady who is being evicted from a Lord Roberts' home because her husband, an ex-Service man, has died. Another old lady of 75 is also under notice to quit. There is no way in which the local authority can house them, because it does not have any houses available. Yet the prison houses are standing empty. In a way, they represent an indictment, because people are asking "Why cannot we make use of them?". Should not those houses be leased to the local authorities for three or four years in order to improve the situation? I welcome the May report, but some of the comments opposing it should be taken on board.

12.9 pm

Mr. John Wheeler (Paddington)

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this important debate today. I begin by paying a fulsome tribute to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for the way in which he has responded to the May committee recommendations. His statement to the House on 30 April did much to encourage those hon. Members who are deeply concerned about the prisons, and to reassure the House of his personal commitment to seek solutions.

There is no doubt that the prisons are, and will remain for some time, the most difficult and worrying of Home Office problems. For one reason or another the prisons are poised on the edge of crisis, chiefly because at the end of May the prison population rose to more than 44,000, with no easy prospect of relief from overcrowding. There are no simple solutions to the prison problem, or to the more general problem of lawlessness.

For a very long time, since 1963 when the Prison Commission was abolished, and the practice began of the chairman of the prisons board changing about every second year, the prison service has lacked positive leadership and direction.

One sensed that the prison service was drifting in a rudderless fashion. I congratulate the Home Secretary for grasping the nettle of organisational change, as was first suggested in the publication "The Proper Use of Prisons" in September 1977, and for giving the service some real autonomy while allowing it to remain politically and administratively accountable to the Home Secretary. This is a radical and important step, and I am glad that the new headquarters arrangements are now in operation.

I also welcome the continued service of Mr. Dennis Trevelyan, who is a committed prisons man, as director general. He will have the advantage of a strengthened prisons board, which will include the four regional directors and two independent non-executive directors. Those appointments will do much to engender public confidence in the prison service.

I also welcome the fact that the new arrangement includes an independent public relations unit at prison headquarters. That will do much to ensure that the public are better informed on prison matters. That is important, because, for obvious reasons, so much of the prison service takes place—as I know as a former assistant prison governor in two of those Victorian gaols to which my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) referred—behind closed doors.

I welcome, too, the Home Secretary's firm commitment to encouraging the courts to impose shorter sentences for the average offender for whom a custodial sentence is appropriate. Let me make it quite clear that I do not regard the shorter sentence as in any way meaning that we are going soft on offenders. Nor, I am sure, does the Home Secretary intend that either. On the contrary, we must face the fact that we have a major crisis of overcrowding in the prisons of England and Wales, and it is an absolute scandal that this situation has been allowed so obviously to build up over recent years. The truth is—here I speak from personal experience in the prisons—that, for the average offender, the impact of imprisonment is most emphatically felt during the first few days or weeks of a sentence. That fact is now well confirmed by recent criminological research, and thus it makes sense to pursue a policy of shorter sentences whenever appropriate, both from a penological point of view and from the standpoint of cost-effectiveness. There are obvious exceptions, such as murder, terrorism, and serious crime involving harm to the innocent. and in the case of robbery where a firearm is used. My only reservation about the shorter sentence policy is whether the courts will play ball. If they do not, I urge my right hon. Friend to give consideration to introducing appropriate legislation to enforce shorter sentences by law. The scandal of overcrowding and the strain it places on the staff cannot be overlooked for long.

Apart from the important decision to go for shorter sentences where appropriate, there is the question of who is in prison and need not, and should not, be there. The recent parliamentary all-party penal affairs group report—"Too Many Prisoners"—has made a number of recommendations about offenders for whom imprisonment is wrong in principle. They include, in particular, mentally disordered offenders, petty inadequates, and fine and maintenance defaulters.

Taking this last category first, urgent steps need to be taken to improve the attachment of earnings procedures, and magistrates—who are required, under section 31 of the Magistrates Courts Act 1952, to take into account the offender's means when determining the level of a fine—should be provided with better information so as to enable the court to impose penalties not only appropriate to the circumstances of the offence but also within the ability of the offender to pay.

It is worrying that mentally disordered offenders should be sent to prison, and for these people the DHSS must be required, as a matter of urgency, to provide the proper facilites for their care and custody. For the petty inadequates—and especially those suffering from alcoholism—greater efforts must be made to encourage a variety of hostel and other accommodation to be provided by the many excellent voluntary organisations.

We must also have the will and the common sense to remove the power to send people to prison for those minor charges where there is no danger to the public. For example, removing prostitutes from prison would diminish the numbers by a daily average of 80, and save about £140 per week per person in costs.

Even if all these ideas were adopted, the plain fact remans that reducing prison numbers would continue to be a difficult problem. Broadly speaking, crime occurs because of the availability of both goods and money to steal. This fact, plus the learning experience of the criminal, that he can commit most crimes with ease and expect to get away with it, fosters dishonesty. An improved detection rate for those crimes that really concern the public should be the objective of the police. Rightly, the actual police strength is being increased, particularly in urban areas, but the police must be effectively deployed if crime is to be detected.

Most important of all is the need to encourage ways of preventing and containing crime at source, since this obviously prevents the whole complicated and expensive saga of police, courts and the social services, from being brought into play.

While there is much that can be done to improve the present prison crisis, I wish I could tell the House from my personal experience that I could see a continuing and sustained reduction in the prison population. Alas, I cannot. We must face the fact that the prison population will remain high for the foreseeable future. Of the total of about 44,000, some 5.000 or 6,000 will be remanded or convicted but unsentenced prisoners.

Some will say that more remanded prisoners should be allowed bail. For some this is true, but we cannot ignore the growing evidence that many offenders on bail go on to commit further crimes.

The heart of the prison crisis is here in London. About one-third of all crime is committed within the Metropolitan Police District. It is significant that of the six male prison establishments in London, the certified normal accommodation is 4,401 and the approximate actual population is about 5,800. In London the overcrowding is at its worst.

On many occasions in the past, consideration has been given to the provision of a new secure prison in central London. This has always come up against the implacable opposition of local borough councils, and Ministers have been extremely reluctant even to consider using their compulsory powers of land acquisition.

This failure to make proper provision for the prison service in London is now costing us dear. I urge my right hon. Friend to take steps now to initiate a major new prison and Crown court complex, in conjunction with the Lord Chancellor, somewhere in the docklands. We have over 5,000 acres ready for development, and a new prison and court complex would require about 20 acres. Not only would it provide the facilities necessary; it would also provide a range of job opportunities in north-east London. If this were done, it would provide the needs of the prison service in Greater London for the next 50 years.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Richard Crawshaw)

Order. Perhaps I should indicate that there is one hour and 35 minutes left before the closing speeches. Eleven hon. Members are still waiting to speak. Any speeches of more than 10 minutes will deprive one or more hon. Members of the opportunity to speak.

12.20 pm
Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

As the House knows, I have the privilege of being the chairman of the parliamentary all-party penal affairs group to whose report "Too Many Prisoners", published in June, I want to address most of my remarks.

Before doing so, I should like to place on record my appreciation and that of the group for the constructive and helpful attitude that has been exhibited by the Home Secretary. The right hon. Gentleman has always been willing to see us on deputations quickly and has treated us courteously and sometimes even constructively. He has made himself, his Ministers and his officials available to attend meetings of the group and has given the group facilities to visit penal establishments. I place on record the group's appreciation of his constructive and helpful attitude. That is not to say that either I or the group do not or will not criticise him in future.

The report was compiled and published in an attempt, first, to draw attention to the gravity of the situation in our prisons with the overcrowding and intolerable conditions to which many right hon. and hon. Members have referred in the debate.

The words "We now have a crisis which, if immediate action is not taken, will become a catastrophe" were not invented by us. Those words were used a long time ago and have been repeated by successive Home Secretaries and by those working within the penal system.

The group's report was also designed to help the Home Secretary to achieve his stated objective of reducing the number of people in prison and to provide him with clearly identifiable practical means by which this could be achieved. I think that is achieved by the 48 recommendations in our report.

I want to talk about the four main sections of those recommendations. By far the most important, which has been referred to in enthusiastic terms by every speaker in the debate, is the demand for a reduction in the length of prison sentences. Our aim is shared by the May committee, the Expenditure Committee, the Advisory Council on the Penal System, the Justices' Clerks' Society, the Magistrates' Association and the Home Secretary himself. We all agree on the need to reduce the length of prison sentences. We differ on the means by which that reduction can be achieved.

We agree with the Advisory Council on the Penal System, in its interim report in 1977, that long sentences, particularly in the middle and lower ranges, have no significant impact on reconviction rates and do a disservice both to the offender and to society as a whole. The May committee unanimously and emphatically endorsed that statement by the Advisory Council on the Penal System.

There is overwhelming and clear evidence against the efficacy, still less the justice, of the excessively long prison sentences through all the ranges which are currently being imposed by the courts. We were not impressed by the arguments constantly put forward by the Home Secretary and his predecessors that the way to deal with this matter is by persuasion and exhortation directed at the judiciary. I know that the Home Secretary may sincerely believe that, though I suspect that his reasons for advancing that argument have more to do with his private conversations with members of the judiciary and their reactions to any legislation. But I think that he will accept that the House has a responsibility to legislate and to determine the appropriate length of sentence and that it is for the judges to interpret and to use their discretion within the range determined by Parliament. If Parliament, as has been expressed in the debate, has decided that the length of sentences imposed by judges is excessive, Parliament has the right, the duty and the responsibility to ensure that those sentence maxima are reduced without in any way inhibiting judicial discretion.

We are not impressed by the right hon. Gentleman's argument that it would be more appropriate—I think that on one occasion he said that it would be a constitutional procedure—to go along the path that he has chosen. We would be more impressed if such exhortations in the past—as the right hon. Gentleman is well aware, they are not new—had achieved the impact that he is now seeking. The plain fact is that sentences are now a third longer than they were 10 years ago. Page 44, paragraph 178, of the parliamentary all-party penal affairs group's report entitled "Too Many Prisoners" recommends: to achieve a significant reduction in sentence lengths the powers of the courts must be restricted by legislation. We propose the two-tier sentencing structure similar to that proposed in 1978 by the Advisory Council on the Penal System but with certain modifications. 'Ordinary' offenders should be subject to new lower maximum penalties fixed somewhere below the point which reflects the existing sentencing practice. Exceptional offenders should be eligible for sentences above these maxima but subject to a further maximum determinant sentence varying with the offence but in no case exceeding 10 or 12 years. Life sentences would remain available for certain offences. The evidence that we have had in the few months since the publication of the May report demonstrates clearly that eventually the Home Secretary will have to grasp what I accept is a difficult nettle and bring proposed legislation to the House as a means of reducing the length of sentences.

There has been a conditional release scheme in operation in Northern Ireland since 1976. That could be applied as an immediate expedient or contingency measure within the present system. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, and my right hon. and hon. Friends when they were in Government, have paid testimony to the effectiveness of the scheme and to the fact that it is working reasonably and well. Those who are released after 50 per cent. remission do not have a higher reconviction rate than those who serve their whole sentences.

Why cannot we take good practice which has already been established in one part of the United Kingdom and which has shown itself to be successful, and transplant it in England and Wales? That would have an important impact immediately on the numbers serving prison sentences. It is a conditional release scheme, and I emphasise "conditional". It would not be a danger to the public and it might produce some reduction in the size of the prison population.

The Home Secretary should say how long he will give the judges to come good on this issue. What sentence has he given them? Do they have six months, nine months or a year to show that they are seized of the importance of reducing sentences? There has been unanimity in the House so far—there is unanimity outside—that what is lacking is the judicial will to implement a reduction of sentences in practice.

The second major series of recommendations of the report entitled "Too Many Prisoners" dealt with petty persistent offenders, a topic that has been admirably and lucidly dealt with by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving). The report of the Home Office that reviewed criminal justice policy in 1976 observed that a significant reduction in the prison population could be achieved by diverting from the penal system all those who are regarded as petty persistent offenders and of no danger to the public.

We have made detailed and substantial recommendations to increase the facilities for day care, for hostels and for employment-related schemes, all of which would be tied to a sentence of the court. We contend that that is an adequate way of dealing with many who are generally referred to as socially inadequate rather than as dangerous or as a serious threat to the community. They would properly and more constructively be dealt with in a more positive manner within the community than in our expensive and obsolescent penal system.

We also made detailed recommendations about reducing the number of fine and maintenance defaulters, and those in prison under the Immigration Act. Like the previous Labour Government, the Home Secretary does not accept the argument that I accept, which was first put forward by the Finer committee. The Finer committee said that the imprisonment of fine and maintenance defaulters was an "essay in social futility".

Just as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) did when he was in office, the Home Secretary relies on inadequate and outdated research evidence which was conducted six years ago. However, that is an argument that can be debated on another occasion. We suggested many ways in which the numbers of fine and maintenance defaulters in prison could be reduced substantially. We also made recommendations about the greater and continuing use of the successful community service order scheme. The report "Too Many Prisoners" recommended that there should be a national network of senior attendance centres. We also suggested that the absurd and unnecessary prohibition that prevents those who have had a custodial sentence from being sentenced to a senior attendance centre should be eliminated.

The Home Secretary could quickly do many other things, which would have an immediate and effective impact on the prison population. The worrying thing is that he, like his predecessors, makes all the right noises and says all the right things. He gets the congratulations and applause that rightly follow, yet very little happens by way of significant action. We are in danger of saying the right things, and of saying that we have had a wonderful and constructive debate today, without anything much happening afterwards. That has been the result of the debates held during this Parliament and also the result of debates held during the past five years. Nothing significant or important has been done for the prison population.

I should like the Home Secretary to say that he shares our sense of urgency about the way in which petty persistant offenders are dealt with. I should be unreasonable if I were to ask him to reply to the detailed points and specific recommendations that were made in the report of the all-party penal affairs group. He has already agreed to meet members of the group in the autumn, in order to discuss the programme for the implementation of some of its recommendations.

The right hon. Gentleman has a duty to say clearly and specifically that he accepts our sense of urgency and the need to develop options to custodial sentences. I hope that he will tell us that that sense of urgency will be matched by the implementation of specific and desirable recommendations. A worrying phrase occurs in the White Paper's response to the Expenditure Committee. If I remember correctly, it says that, even if all petty offenders were removed from prison, it would not have a significant impact on overcrowding. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that phrase. It conflicts with the study that the Home Office research unit made of the prison population in the South-East. Indeed, that study has been referred to by the hon. Member for Cheltenham. Its report said that it would be possible to divert about 30 per cent. of the prison population in that catchment area. Which of the two views is correct? Are we to believe the report of the Home Office research unit, or are we to believe the White Paper? There seems to be a discrepancy. The evidence at my disposal supports the Home Office research unit, rather than the statement in the White Paper.

The third section of recommendations dealt with those for whom prison is regarded as wrong in principle. That means the mentally disordered and ill, alcoholics and those who are dependent on drugs. It is wrong and indefensible that mentally disordered people should be in prison. No hon. Member has ever defended the imprisonment of the mentally ill. Everyone has clearly and openly said that imprisonment is inappropriate and that such people should be in hospitals, where they can receive the proper nursing and medical treatment. They are in prison, not because someone wants to put them there, but because successive Governments have failed to provide the resources for regional secure units, or because hospitals, doctors, consultants, nurses and ancillary staff in National Health Service hospitals have refused to accept mentally ill offenders, whom they regard as potentially violent or disruptive. This is quite disgraceful and indefensible and it is no good this Government doing what the previous Government did. All Governments say with fine, trenchant words that they are concerned about the issue, that they think that it is a disgrace and a scandal and that they want to do something about it, but there is no evidence of any action except the setting-up of yet another research study to find out why there is a problem in transferring the mentally ill from prison to hospital.

We know why there is a problem. The Butler committee was set up and reported in 1974 specifically to deal with that. That points clearly to the reasons for the difficulties. We know the problem but we have not tackled it because it is controversial. Yet, if we are serious about reducing the prison population and if we are particularly serious about taking out of the system those who should not be there in the first place, then the mentally ill and the mentally disordered are a prime and important segment of that population. They should be dealt with, if for no other reason, on straightforward, simple, humanitarian grounds. Their proper place is in hospital, not in prison.

The same applies to a lesser extent to those who are in prison for failing to pay fines for drunkenness. We all accept that they are sick, not bad. They need treatment, not punishment. They should be in detoxification centres, hospitals or hostels rather than being allowed to go through the circle of prison, release, police pick-up, courts, fine and prison. We have said all these things in the past and they are being said again today. We want a much more specific commitment from the Government to remove these individuals from penal establishments.

The fourth and final section deals with prisoners who are on remand. We firmly believe that there are far too many people who are held on remand and that far too many of those who need to be held on remind in custody are held for too long a period. In the first case it is a fact, as the May committee pointed out, that 44 per cent. of those held on remand in custody are not subsequently given prison sentences. It should be a cause for concern that people who are eventually found not guilty or who have committed an offence not serious enough in the eyes of the court to warrant a prison sentence, should, nevertheless, have spent on some occasions weeks, if not months, in prison serving what is in effect a prison sentence. The recommendations that my Committee made about the duty solicitors scheme, the national scheme of legal aid, and legal proceedings against a refusal of bail being simplified and being made more effective, could help to reduce the unnecessary remands in custody of a large number of people.

Equally, there is cause for concern about those who, for the protection of the public, are quite properly held on remand in custody but who spend an inordinate and unnecessary length of time awaiting trial. A reference has been made to the 110-day rule in Scotland: it is not possible or permissible to hold a person in custody on remand for more than 110 days After that period, if the case has not been brought to court, all the charges are dropped, the individual is released and that case cannot be proceeded with on a subsequent occasion. If that can happen effectively and successfully in Scotland, there is no reason why the same principle cannot be applied in England and Wales. On the last count that the Home Office conducted there were 900 men and women who had been held in custody on remand in England and Wales for longer than 110 days. They would not have been still held on remand—technically innocent—had they been in Scottish prisons.

Although the Home Secretary agreed earlier from a sedentary position that the way in which remand prisoners are treated is a scandal—both in terms of those who are on remand and who should not be, and in terms of the length of time spent in custody—not enough is being done to reduce the numbers on remand and to reduce the length of time for those awaiting trial. A lot can be done. Small, undramatic and not very prepossessing recommendations are made in the report, but each one could have at least a marginal impact on reducing the number of prisoners and length of time that people are properly and necessarily held in prison.

In conclusion, the subject of the penal system and prisons generally does not figure centrally in public debate. It is not an important subject, a great priority in the House or a major priority of this Government, witness this debate, nine months after the publication of the May report, taking place on a Friday and interrupted by a statement on another important and significant issue. It is not a subject that is popular with the general public. It is not a topic on which votes will be easily garnered or for which there is a great deal of sympathy or public support. It is nevetheless extremely important. I would say that it is crucial.

About 44,000 men, women and schoolchildren are in prison today in our name. We are responsible for them. If it is not a popular issue, which does not centrally feature in debate outside the House, it is even more important that this House should take responsibility for ensuring that only the right people are in prison for the right period of time. This House must take responsibility for doing what is right. We have not done so in the past. It is wrong to put the mentally ill, mentally disordered, the drug-dependent, prostitutes, maintenance defaulters or other categories of individual in prison. We all agree that it is wrong. It is time, therefore, that the Home Secretary began to do what is right. He is a decent and civilised man. He makes the right noises. Let him now take the right action.

12.42 pm
Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

The whole House shares the sincere concern of the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk).

I wish to speak from my observations of the prison in Canterbury. It is squeezed between the ruins of St. Augustine's abbey, where Christianity arrived in this country, and the bright new Christ-church teacher training college. Opposite is the grammar school. Beneath the prison walls is the oldest parish church in England, St. Martin's. One hurries past the prison walls on the other side of the road. I confess that that is the natural reaction to a prison set in the beautiful surroundings of a medieval town.

The May report describes it as a local prison, pre-1930. It was built in 1808 as a naval prison. The report describes its future potential as poor, and gives its certified normal occupation of accommodation as 246. This morning I telephoned the governor. He refused to tell me the present population, because, as a new governor, he did not know me personally and he could not be sure that I was an outside body. That was fair. Whenever I have been there, the population has never been less than 450.

I have sometimes visited my temporary constituents in that prison. It is depressing inside. I hope that the House will not laugh when I say that there is an oppressive feeling of being shut away from life. High walls and iron bars do make a cage. It is clean, but it is airless. The windows are high and the sky is a long way away, and it smells of urine. It is an oasis of brick and stone, but, unlike the real thing, nothing seems to grow there.

However, it is not all gloom and sadness. There are some bright parts, such as the library and its use by the inmates and the studio and the paintings and art work produced. I speak well of the kitchens, too. I have tasted the meals. They are not bad. The workshops are not inspiring. Workshops in which mailbags are made are not inspiring places. But there are other workshops where the inmates make clothes. These are a little better, because the very colour and the nature of the product being made means more attractive and interesting work.

The hospital looks quite good. As one who has served for many years in the Health Service, I must say that the hospital, small though it is, compares very well with some hospitals outside. Incidentally, it is to the hospital that convicted murderers go first of all for their first two or three weeks. When I was last in this small prison, there were about eight or nine convicted murderers there. At another time I visited the prison, years back, there were nothing like so many murderers there, but I can draw no conclusion from that.

I am not alone in having this depressing view of a local prison. May speaks of the bleak conditions of local prisons. The report says the worst prisons are very bad indeed. I would not put Canterbury in that class. The old buildings—they are very old—are well kept and well painted, and even brightly painted. A lot has been done to make the best of an old building, albeit a building designed for another age and another approach to a social problem. There is even music-while-you-work. The inmates even have to endure Mr. Jimmy Young—and they cannot switch him off.

An old building such as this cannot be ideal even for the offenders, who are often in for lesser offences, as we have heard today, or on remand. But even if we thought that it is wrong to pamper prisoners with a brighter and better building, it is not right for those who have to spend much longer in such a place—the prison staff. Representatives of the Prison Officers Association and prison staff come to see me at my surgeries regularly. I have been impressed by these prison officers. Canterbury is not a prison which has been giving many problems. I have not found prison officers downhearted when I have met them. They seem to make up for their drab surroundings by a cheerful attitude and by their general approach to their job and to the inmates.

I have been very impressed by their approach to the inmates. Admittedly, some prison officers look like the toughest sergeant major one ever saw; but even the toughest sergeant major one ever saw is sometimes helpful to the youngest new recruit in the Army, and I have seen such an approach from prison officers to the newest recruit of inmates in the prison.

I have been impressed by the inmates, too. Subdued they may be—but not surrendered. Of course, I cannot make more than a superficial comment, because I have not made a study of them. But one thing depressed me. That was how young they are today.

What of the cells? One of the good things about May is that it is an illustrated report. The illustrations of cells are exactly like the cells in Canterbury prison. There is only one word that I can use to describe them—grim. Of course, there are many in Canterbury living two or three to a cell. As has been said, this is wrong, and we must not go on ignoring it—although when I spoke to prisoners living three to a cell, they did not complain. I pressed them on this point. Perhaps they did not complain because of the presence of prison officers with me, but I do not think so. I think that they sometimes appreciated the companionship of three to a cell rather than being on their own, particularly in their first days in prison. The May committee reports that in nine years the number of inmates sleeping two or three to a cell has risen from 10,500 to more than 16,000. The figure is even higher now.

When I last visited Canterbury prison, I saw some mentally disordered patients—I used the word "patients" through a slip of the tongue, but that is what they are. They are offenders, but they are also ill, and prison officers told me that those men should be in psychiatric hospitals, being treated for being ill and not being punished for being offenders.

We know from the sensitive and instructive speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) that the vague reference in the May report to "some hundreds" of mentally disordered inmates is about 400 at any one time. The South-East Thames regional health authority, on which I serve, proposes to design two regional secure units, each to take 30 such patients. We are awaiting sanction to go ahead. I recently arranged for a display of such work in the House.

Prison officers have been to see me about pay. The remuneration of prison officers could not be described as bad, but I am staggered by the system of remunerating them. They are dependent on overtime to a fantastic degree. An average of 37 per cent. of a prison officer's pay is represented by overtime—12 hours on top of a 40-hour week. The May committee refers to the "peculiar reliance" on overtime and to the fact that there are "overtime bandits" who manipulate their work so that they get as much overtime as possible. That must have a bad effect on the management of the service and on the relationship between staff and management.

The most extraordinary anomalies exist, as I have found from talking to the governor at Canterbury and prison officers of various grades. I could not believe those anomalies until I read them in the May report. The governor said that officers were paid more than he received. Many officers earn more than a governor, because governors and senior prison officers do not receive overtime payments. It does not pay a middle grade prison officer to get promoted. The figures are remarkable. According to the May report, the most junior prison officer can earn, on average, £122 a week, while an assistant governor grade II can earn only—I pause for effect—£100 a week, £22 a week less for being the boss. A class I assistant governor does a little better and gets £127 a week. On the other hand, a senior officer can earn £145 a week and a principal officer can make £153 a week. But, as we go up the scale, overtime payments cease and the next grade, chief officer class II, gets £126 a week—less than the senior and principal officers below him.

The most senior rank below governor, chief officer, class I, gets only £138 a week, compared with the £145 and £153 of the lower grades who work for him. On the basis of my experience of trying to run industry, I cannot understand how one can run a prison service when such anomalies exist.

Prison officers have complained to me about some of the implications of the May report. They feel strongly about the ILA—the inconvenience locality allowance—which the May committee recommends should not be retained. I have written to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about this matter. After studying the report, I am inclined to agree with May that perhaps it is illogical today to continue with an allowance of a few pounds a week for the inconvenience of being in a remote locality. But I also agree with the report up to the hilt when it says that the allowance should be phased out by negotiation. That is the very important qualification that I would make.

We heard from the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) the reservation that we should be careful about the little irritants that we might cause the staff by taking away something, which could cause the pot to boil over and cause trouble. The allowance was a traditional extra, and if it goes it should be balanced by some recompense.

May said that transfers should no longer be carried out at the public expense. I do not agree. I think that transfer from inconvenient outstations should continue to be at the public expense. Otherwise, prison officers might feel themselves condemned to stay somewhere that is miles from anywhere when they would like to return to a place that is near schools for their children and centres of entertainment for their families, friends and so on. Transfer at the public expense should be retained.

The officers feel that May neglected thoroughly to study the problem of rent allowances and I agree. The report is very weak on the subject It says nothing other than that the matter requires further consideration. I pass the ball straight back to my right hon. Friend and say that it certainly does. I am amazed that May did not study the police system in detail. Why should a police constable receive £18.20 a week rent allowance when in the same town, Canterbury, a prison officer receives only £11.30?

Another matter that officers feel strongly about is complaints by inmates. The officers feel a real irritation over this problem. If an officer is suspended as a result of a complaint by an inmate, he can draw only his basic pay. With no overtime, he loses 37 per cent. of his remuneration at once because of the complaint. Inmates know a thing or two. They know that they can deprive of his overtime pay an officer they have it in for, reducing him to basic pay. What is more, they know that even when the officer is found to be not guilty and is reinstated, he gets no back pay for the overtime that he might have worked if he had not been suspended. Inmates are using this anomaly to work on prison officers. The matter should be investigated.

The report is most important, and I have found it fascinating reading. It is on a social problem that we do not think enough about. The report is a window on to a closed world. We should all, in Parliament and in the country, take a look inside. We need to know what prison life is like for offenders and the officers in charge of them.

I said in opening that a prison in Canterbury was like an oasis of brick and stone. That is misleading. It is the other way round. The prison is the desert, and it is we who are in the oasis, where life exists, where plants grow and where people laugh. However much we may clamour for law and order and stiffer punishments, and whatever is done and must be done to keep our prisons secure and society safe, we still have a duty, a moral duty, to consider what it is like to be inside. If we do not like what we see, we must speak out and make our voices heard.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

There remain just over 55 minutes for Back-Bench speeches. Seven hon. Members would like to contribute to the debate. I leave it in hon. Members' hands.

1 pm

Mr. John Tilley (Lambeth, Central)

I shall be as brief as I can. I am pleased to speak after the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) because, although I usually disagree with him on health matters, I agreed with much of what he said about the prison service.

I wish to talk about the prison in my constituency, Brixton. Unlike Canterbury prison, it was singled out by the May committee as being particularly bad. On page 124 the committee states: To put it baldly and without equivocation but choosing our words carefully nonetheless, we think that the worst prisons are very bad indeed … At the bottom are most of the urban Victorian local prisons i.e. those that are responsible for remand and trial prisoners. Of the ones we have seen, Birmingham, Bristol, Brixton and Liverpool deserve special mention. Brixton is the main remand prison for London. The dreadful conditions there are suffered by men who have either not been convicted or have not been sentenced for any offence. About 44 per cent. of people remanded in custody will be found not guilty or receive a non-custodial sentence.

Brixton was built for fewer than 700 prisoners. This morning more than 1,100 prisoners are in Brixton. They go in and out at the rate of more than 100 a day when the courts are sitting. The reason for the overcrowding is not necessarily that more people are being remanded but the long delays before a trial and the dragging out of trials. The biggest reduction in the prison population at Brixton could be made by swifter trials.

Increased productivity by the legal profession would be a great help. The average delay in coming to trial in London is five months. We should take seriously the proposal that we should copy the Scottish model. In Scotland a remanded man or woman is set free if not brought to trial within 110 days.

I agree with the hon. Member for Canterbury that overcrowding is not just a matter of too many to a cell. Many of the cells were built by the Victorians as single cells because isolation was deemed to be an extra part of the punishment. The real problem in Brixton is the stress and strain on the facilities caused by overcrowding. There is inadequate sanitation and cramped provision for family and legal visits. Recreation and education facilities are restricted. That is made worse by the extra security required because of the high proportion of category A prisoner on remand. Many of them are on terrorist charges. When I last visited the prison there were 53 category A prisoners. Only Wakefield has more. The extra security affects all the prisoners, not only the high risk prisoners. The education block at Brixton cannot be used because it is outside the secure perimeter and there are not enough staff to make it usable and to maintain security.

Parts of Brixton, particularly F wing, are falling down. Some of the buildings were built before Queen Victoria was born and are way beyond their useful life. It is disturbing that 1,000 men, who are all innocent until proved guilty under British law, should be confined in such conditions.

Another 600 people share the conditions—the prison staff. They are there not just for a few months but for much of their working lives. Their recreation and trade union facilities are cramped and inadequate. They have to deal with the tensions and strains created by the overcrowding and poor facilities. A senior officer said yesterday "I am offended that the State should use me to deny innocent men their rights to cleanliness and human dignity."

Housing is also a problem for prison officers in London generally. A single man working at Brixton receives a rent allowance of £8.42 a week. That is totally inadequate in South London where lodgings, if they are obtainable, cost at least three times that amount. The men who manage to buy a house have to work massive amounts of overtime to pay their mortgage. They have a choice of housing their families properly or of seeing them for a reasonable time. They cannot do both. It will get worse. Staffing at Brixton is to be increased over the next year by up to 200 more officers to service new courts. Yet the Home Office has refused to provide a single further quarter for prison officers stationed at Brixton. Although it is selling off prison quarters in other parts of the country, as the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) indicated, presumably at a considerable gain to the Exchequer, it is refusing to replace them in places where they are needed, such as London.

We have to examine the May report and the Government's reaction to see how the problems of prisons such as Brixton are affected. The reaction of those in the prison service to whom I have spoken is that the report will do precious little. It is dismissed as the "dis-May report". It has not solved the problems of pay, and the debate has clearly exposed the fallacy that prison officers want to work the long hours that they now undertake. Nor has it solved the problem of the long hours of escort duty of prison officers accompanying prisoners on remand to courts all over the South of England.

The prison service seems disappointed with the reaction of the Government so far. It is possible to say that all recent Governments have failed to tackle the wider problems of prisons and the particular problems of remand prisoners. But this Government have a particular responsibility because of their emphasis, in speeches and manifestos, on law and order. The prison service seems crucial in determining whether the punishments meted out in the interests of law and order are just, or inhumane and brutal. The prisons seem to become the Cinderella of the law and order services.

The Government have taken steps, however much the Opposition may not like them, to give special preference to the Armed Services and the police in terms of expenditure when cuts are taking place elsewhere. Little has been done so far for the prison service. I hope that the Minister of State will be able to announce, although possibly not today, what action the Government intend to take on the May report. We need a commitment to a new remand prison for London, possibly in the docklands. This should be high in the building programme. Such a prison is not open to the objection that it would simply be filled up, as might happen with a longer-term prison. Attached to it should be a major new court building to eliminate the long journeys and the waste of time of prison officers, which also involve massive expense.

Some measures are required to be taken by the Law Officers and the legal profession to cut down the delays in the beginning and the finishing of criminal trials in London. I see that the parliamentary lawyers' party is well represented. It could get down to some work on this matter.

A rigorously liberal application of the Bail Act by magistrates is needed, together with the provision of more bail hostels. A period of silence would be welcome from those who say that too many people are going out on bail. There must be a review of the housing allowance system and the provision of quarters for prison officers in London.

I believe that the May report, and the others that have been mentioned, provide an opportunity for a real commitment to steady change. But there seems to be a fear among those who are more deeply involved in the prison service than I am that the intention of the May report was to buy some time because of the crisis which then existed. That time has been bought, but one member of the service has told me that they will not fall for it again, and that what they now want is action.

If we do not see the sort of action that has been advocated from both sides of the House today, there is the danger that another crisis—brought about by more disruptive industrial action or by further riots such as those that occurred at Hull—is the only way in which change will occur. I hope that the Government, both in the Minister's reply today and in their later actions, will show that those fears are unfounded.

1.10 pm
Mr. Edward Gardner (South Fylde)

The hon. Member for Lambeth (Mr. Tilley) has shown great concern for the state of our prisons today, particularly for the one in Brixton, in his constituency.

This is one of the most worrying of our present-day problems, and I congratulate Mr. Justice May and the members of his committee on the proposals that they have produced to try to solve this crisis. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on accepting those proposals.

The present state of our prisons, as I think we all agree, and as the May committee found, is a disgrace. It is a scandal that has become a crisis. It is an affront to the national conscience, and it is a danger to society. If today's debate has established nothing else, it has shown that on both sides of the House there is full agreement that the prime reason for the crisis is overcrowding. That overcrowding has left us with a crisis that cannot be contained indefinitely with any certainty or safety. I should not like to predict how long we can continue with a prison population of over 44,000.

We have, by way of options to deal with the crisis, the possibility of building more prisons, which I am happy to know that my right hon. Friend has decided to do. There is also the option of reducing the prison population by reducing the sentences that send offenders there. It is interesting to notice that most sentences imposed on offenders are short. For example, in 1978, 33,000 out of 44,000 sentences were of 12 months or less. Only 1,072 sentences were for periods of imprisonment of four years or more. Therefore, there is safe and ample room for manoeuvre in respect of short sentences.

I should like to repeat what many hon. Members have already said. No one should misinterpret either this debate or the Government's determination to reduce our prison population to be a deflection from a determination to ensure that in proper cases we maintain our system of imposing long and appropriate sentences of imprisonment, especially for serious and violent crimes.

How should we deal with the problem of imposing shorter sentences? There are two temptations which I urge my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to resist at all costs. One is the improper use of the parole board, although I am not suggesting that my right hon. Friend is ever likely to fall for that temptation. As a result of the activities of the parole board, the Government are saved the expense of building five or six prisons which would have to be built to contain the number of prisoners who are now on licence. I am sure that the parole board would resent any misuse of its services and the way in which it exercises its powers.

The other question is how we can persuade our judges and whether we can rely on the decision to ensure that shorter sentences are imposed. There is little, if any, difference between a 12-month and a six-month sentence or a six-month and a three-month sentence as a punishment for the first offender for a petty or nonviolent crime.

We are fortunate in having had Lord Lane appointed to the office of Lord Chief Justice of England. He has put forward his views through judgments in the Court of Appeal, in the criminal division, which will have a profound effect on the judicial attitude to shorter sentences. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary read out one of the judgments that Lord Lane recently gave. I shall read another. In the course of a recent judgment Lord Lane said: Courts should ensure that if an immediate prison sentence was inevitable it had to be as short as possible. I believe that we can rely on members of our judiciary to take notice of advice such as that.

I say in all earnestness to the House and to the Home Secretary "Please do not be tempted into introducing legislation to effect shorter sentences when you can rely on the good sense, judgment and experience of the judiciary to do it for you." Not only would it be resented by the judiciary; it would be resented with a sense of outrage by the people in the country if it was thought that Parliament was trying to fetter the discretion of the judiciary. I believe that the people would far rather trust our judges than our Members of Parliament to decide proper and appropriate sentences for criminal offences. Therefore, I hope that the judiciary will listen to the advice that has been given from the court of appeal.

We must reduce the prison population. The difficulties of doing so were illustrated by the Minister of State when he said in a speech some time ago that, if we were to cut by one-sixth all the short-term and medium-term sentences, in three years we would reduce the prison population by only 2,000. If we were to cut all the short-term and medium-term sentences by one-sixth, and if we were to remove from our prisons the mentally ill, the inadequate, the drunks, the fine defaulters—all the categories that we feel ought not to be there—the total would be only 5,000. That would be just about sufficient to enable the authorities to implement the recommendations of the May committee for the improvement of sanitary facilities.

That is the measure of the problem. I feel sure that all those who feel seriously about it will wish to give my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Government full support in what they are doing to try to solve it.

1.20 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith, North)

I start with a simple appeal to the Minister of State, and I hope that he will pass it on to the Home Secretary. It is that before he and his right hon. Friend take any action on this matter they will read the speech of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes). In a very short speech, the hon. Lady showed far more insight into and understanding of the problem than I have heard for a very long time. If the Minister and the Home Secretary were to act on the hon. Lady's speech, we might make much more progress than I would have dreamt possible otherwise.

Prison officers, probation officers, prisoners, social workers, and most other people associated with penal policy, have been disappointed by the May report, and disappointed by the Government's reaction to it. I am in regular and frequent touch with people from all those groups.

I do not in any way criticise the many very good recommendations and very good intentions expressed in the report but it does not in any way express the sense of urgency that the problem requires. The hon. Member for Drake put her finger on the problem. We do not have time. We have a crisis, and it is no wonder that prison officers feel bitterly let down by Governments—previous Governments as well as this one—because we have not listened to them and responded to their needs, or at best we have listened to them but we have not heard. That is a fundamental criticism.

The problem is crime, and it is very simple to take the popular public attitude as to its cause. We all know that crime has many causes, among them unemployment and "parenting". Two of the most important aspects of the latter are love and consistency. But it is very difficult to be consistent when living in a high-rise block of flats, with the children either playing in the flat all day or down below, where they cannot be disciplined and where they cannot learn the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. So the urban environment is important.

When people say that crime must be reduced, surely we must say that something must be done about the consumption of alcohol. The rate of consumption of alcohol is now closely associated with the rise in crimes of violence. If the people are to accept a high level of alcohol consumption, they will have to accept a high level of crime.

We also have to consider the type of society that we want. Recently, members of the special patrol group were put into the London Underground to clear up crime. I am not against clearing up crime in the London Underground. What worries me is that the method is horribly reminiscent of that portrayed in Stanley Kubrick's film "A Clockwork Orange". We ought to be thinking about getting back to a more humane system. Crime on the London Underground could, for example, be reduced by having more staff on Underground stations.

Punishment is accepted by people. Probation officers, social workers and others accept that punishment is important. I also accept that. Above all, prisoners often understand punishment far more than they understand treatment or attempts to be understanding, sympathetic, and so on. But the punishment must be realistic, and our prison system is not in any sense realistic. Everybody here has said that, and it is demon-stated fundamentally by research.

We know that the best deterrent to crime is the fear of being caught, not just by the number of policemen, but by the type of policing. Here I put in an appeal for community policing. I think, too, that we should think about the age of police officers. This is important in terms of experience.

We know that short sentences are the most effective in terms of the shock created. Why is that? We can split a prison sentence into three parts. The first part is the shock, the horror, of going in. I am referring to those who have not been in prison before or who perhaps have been in only once. The shock and horror are immediate and they last for a couple of days or sometimes for a week or two weeks. After that one slips into the second phase of adjusting to the institution. The third stage is where anxiety arises again and the person concerned has to face the idea of coming out, meeting his family, getting a job and so on. Those three phases of prison sentences are well known.

I can make hon. Members and people outside most aware of this position by drawing an analogy with admission to hospital as an emergency. There is the immediate shock of going in. After that the patient adjusts to being in hospital and then he worries about coming out and getting back into his old position in society.

If we want maximum impact, we should go for short sentences. In some cases it will be a matter of days. If the crime is not serious, there is much to be said for imposing a short sentence.

Why is it difficult? One reason is the so-called public attitude. I know all about that. I am frequently labelled as a "softy" in society. We have failed fundamentally in tackling this problem because we have not given enough thought to the problems of the victim. It is important to consider the victim if we are to achieve penal reform.

The majority of people in our prisons are working class in the Registrar-General's definition of social classes IV and V. I shall come back to that point. What is frequently forgotten is that the vast majority of victims are also from those two groups. That is because they are affected more dramatically by crime. They are not insured. Their houses and flats are more vulnerable to breakins, and so on. That is the problem to which we must respond. We can respond not only by having more generous compensation schemes, but by developing victim support schemes in areas in which such schemes have not been developed. They are particularly important and should be given a boost.

The Home Secretary said that he wanted to try reducing the length of sentences by voluntary means. I have heard it all before. That is why prison officers, probation officers and others concerned with penal reform are cynical. It is not people such as me who make them cynical.

I recall that in 1972 or 1973, at the annual conference of the probation officers, the Home Secretary, in answer to a question, accepted that we might have to reduce the length of prison sentences. This idea has been around for years, but no one has acted on it. Again, the feeling outside by those who have to deal with the problem is that people listen but do not hear or respond.

I am willing to help with any voluntary effort. But how long must we wait before we take our responsibilities seriously? The hon. and learned Member for South Fylde (Mr. Gardner) said that it would be resented if the Government were to step in and interfere with the judiciary. It is an abdication of responsibility by the Government and the House not to change the law when it is necessary. It is necessary to change the law now because, whether we defend prisoners, prison officers or anyone else, we must recognise that there is a crisis. By that I mean that, unless we do something soon—I get no joy from saying this; I have said it before and have been proved right an uncomfortable number of times—the riots will not only continue, but sooner or later lives will be lost or more people will be injured, whether prison officers or prisoners.

Mr. S. C. Silkin (Dulwich)

Does my hon. Friend agree that admirable as the remarks of the Lord Chief Justice and others may be, which were referred to by the hon. and learned Member for South Fylde (Mr. Gardner), and accepting them, as I am sure we all do, as being a genuine effort to persuade the whole width of the judiciary—magistrates as well as judges—to reduce the length of prison sentences, the pressures upon the judiciary from the press and others are so great that it needs to be fortified by what we do in this place? What we do here has a great influence on the way that it is likely to think.

Mr. Soley

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend, who with his great experience has expressed the situation so felicitously. I know that it is not popular in an area such as the one that I represent to say some of the things that I have been saying. If it costs me votes, so be it. I know that it is the right thing to do. It is an issue that we must face. We must not duck it as I fear the hon. and learned Member for South Fylde was suggesting, although I am sure that he advanced his arguments with the best of intentions. It is an issue that we have been ducking for too long.

We must aim for a long-term ideal. That ideal is to reserve prisons for those who use violence, threaten to do so or indulge in certain other serious offences that threaten the fabric of society—for example, large-scale corruption. Our aim must be to get out of our prisons those who do not fall into those categories.

I turn briefly to the problems of the working class in prison. Why is it that there are more prisoners from the two class groups that I have described than from other groups? That is not because they are more wicked or anything like that. The fact is that laws impinge more heavily upon them. To deprive people of their liberty for offences against property is to enter a minefield of double standards.

If there were a police raid on the House next week and every Member's books were checked to ascertain whether there had been what is called "white collar crime", I am sure that the same problems would emerge as those that are uncovered when employees are searched before leaving a factory to discover whether they have stolen anything on their employer's premises. However, in one situation the individual is more likely to be caught and sent to prison.

That is the difference, and that is why we should return to the position of the original Utilitarians and Victorians. They argued that people should be deprived of their liberty as a punishment and no more than that, and that it should be done as a measure of last resort. Given that it is a minefield of double standards, as I have suggested, it should not be done lightly when there are alternatives that are not only cheaper but give something back to the community—for example, community service orders and compensation.

Reducing the prison population will not solve the problem overnight. However, it will reduce the immediate impact of the problem. The House recognises that there is a crisis and that lives are at risk. Surely we have a duty to make an immediate impact on the problem.

Prison cells are often about 8 ft by 13 ft. They are often occupied by three prisoners. There is no sanitation and no water. Prisoners go to the toilet during the night and they slop out in the morning. There is a long queue in a Victorian prison. The toilets are not capable of dealing with the amount of sewage put into them and they block. There is a long row of prisoners waiting to empty their chamber pots. The staff try to control the queue. It must be an explosive situation.

What happens? We must recognise that what I have described is taking place in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Human faeces are thrown out of the cell windows at night. They can be found all the way round the walls of many prisons. Those are the conditions in which we are asking the staff to work, and in which prisoners have to serve their sentences. Even to begin to justify those conditions is an insult to moral standards.

We must do something. There must be drastic action. We cannot wait. If that primary action is taken, we may be able to do some of the other things that we all desire—for example, providing prison officers with the in-service training that they often want. The management and salary structure could be altered to reflect the importance of prison officers with experience, especially chief officers. They are the ones who are in contact with the prisoners, and they do the real welfare work. Unless we back them on that point, we shall fail.

I am in favour of giving the Director-General and the staff the power to speak in public. Let us get rid—in such circumstances—of the absurd use of the Official Secrets Act. Let us recognise that the prison officer's job of sympathetic control is an exercise in tightrope walking. We have undervalued prison staff. We have used prisons as dustbins; and consequently prison officers cannot cope. We have asked them to do more than is reasonable in such circumstances. It takes political courage, vision and humanity to make the necessary changes. If we cannot ask that of a Home Secretary, who can we ask it of?

1.35 pm
Mr. Percy Grieve (Solihull)

I shall not follow the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) along all the avenues down which his prejudices have led him. I agree with him, and with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Fylde (Mr. Gardner) about the appalling and disgusting conditions that are found in our prisons. Those conditions are primarily due to overcrowding in buildings that were built in another age, which had a different concept of imprisonment.

I congratulate Sir John May and his colleagues on having produced a comprehensive and valuable report. I do not share the criticism made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on his response, and on his promise of a partial remedy. He would agree—as we all do—that it is a partial remedy, but it nevertheless represents a step on the road towards remedying the disgraceful situation. I express profound opposition to, and dissent from, some of the things that have been said in the debate. I strongly oppose some of the attitudes that have been expressed by Opposition Members towards the judiciary's contribution to the solution of this problem.

The recent statements of the Lord Chief Justice—Lord Lane—have been commended. Indeed, they are commendable. He has not sought uniformity of sentence, because uniformity of sentence is unobtainable. One has to deal with individuals, and each case is different. He sought uniformity of approach. He, his colleagues in the Court of Appeal and others on the bench have recommended that the judiciary should seek to minimise the extent of prison sentences, save where the defence of society demands it. It is wrong to say that the judiciary has not complied with that. I have been exercising judicial functions—and perhaps this represents my contribution to the debate—for the past 25 years. When I first began to sit at quarter sessions there were no suspended sentences, or suspended sentences with supervision, community service orders or attendance centres. The higher courts—the quarter sessions, the assizes and the Central Criminal Court—had to send a man to prison, fine him, put him on probation, or discharge him. There was no other choice. Immense progress has been made during the past 25 years. The judiciary has cooperated in a most remarkable fashion.

Were it not for the use made of suspended sentences, the prisons would probably be three times as full. When I came back after the war to practise at the Bar, those who robbed their employers were automatically sent to prison, whether or not they were likely to do so again. Since the introduction of the suspended sentence, we have had a valuable way of marking society's reaction to the disloyalty of one who has betrayed the trust and, at the same time, it can exercise the utmost degree of mercy. Implementation of this policy has been in the hands of the judges. I would deplore and resolutely oppose any measures that this House saw fit to take in order to fetter the hands and the discretion of the judiciary in sentencing.

Since 1961 we have seen the operation of one such fetter on the power of the judiciary—that concerned with offenders under 21. The effects of this fetter have been deplorable. The judiciary has been obliged in cases involving those under 21, some of whom may have a long list of convictions behind them, to impose a sentence either of less than six months or more than three years.

The truth of the matter is that the reforms that have been made in sentencing and the new powers that have been available to the courts over the last 25 years have greatly contributed not only to a civilising of our judicial and criminal process but also to a reduction of what would otherwise have been an intolerable strain on our prisons. This is pointed out in chapter 4, paragraph 13 of the May report where it says: A further main cause of the loss of faith in treatment has stemmed paradoxically from the fact that the courts have been enabled and encouraged by Parliament in a series of statutes to make use of a number of new non-custodial types of sentence. The result has been that the courts are now encouraged to regard prison as the last resort, as the place where people should go only where there is no other course to take with them. Thus for many years, although the number of people coming before the courts consistently increased, the proportion sentenced to imprisonment until recently declined. There is another point about this aspect which was touched upon by the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North. He said that the fear or the certainty of detection was the principal sanction against the committal of crime. I agree. It is paradoxical that so far the failure of the police to detect has ensured that the crisis in our prisons has not reached boiling point.

In 1979 in London alone there were 68.544 burglaries in dwelling houses. The Home Secretary, in dealing with the sort of offence which demands a long sentence in order to protect society, cited terrorism and crimes of violence. I would add to that. Indeed, recently the Lord Chief Justice, in listing the sort of crimes that demanded a long sentence, included burglary in private dwellings. Long experience has shown that burglary in private dwelling houses, particularly where forcible entry has been made, is usually committed by the professional criminal. In the figure that I just quoted for London there were 51,496 cases of forcible entry.

Had all these criminals been brought to justice there would not have been enough space in our prisons to hold them. In fact, only 11 per cent. of these offenders were brought to justice. We are now encouraging the police by every means in our power to protect society and to bring more criminals to justice. That is how we shall prevent crime and maintain law and order. But if the police succeed there will be a far greater demand for prison places. Even allowing for shortening the long sentences, we shall see a number of people brought before the courts who will have to be locked up for protection of society.

By all means let us encourage judges to shorten sentences when they can be shortened—when they are for petty crime or beginners—but we must provide the prison space for the terrorist, the violent man, the rapist and the professional burglar, for the protection of society. Therefore, the answer lies in the end in building more prisons and modernising those that we have. That is the contribution that I desire to make to this debate.

I deplore the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) that there should be a sword of Damocles held over the heads of judges by this House, putting them on probation to reduce prison sentences. I regret that the right hon. and learned Member for Dulwich (Mr. Silkin), in his intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North, should have even come near to associating himself with that suggestion.

I agree, particularly with my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler), about the pressure that is put on prison space by those on remand. However, we shall not meet the problem by increasing the number of people on bail. I can substantiate from my experience in court what has recently been said by a number of chief constables. I see case after case where offences have been committed by people on bail. It is almost classic that the old lag, up for a number of offences, bailed until he comes to trial, commits as many more offences as he can in order to provide the better for his wife and children while he is inside later on. The answer is not to bail more people, but to shorten the period of remand, speed up our judicial process and provide more courts and judges to deal with the appalling burden of modern crime. The answer is not to let loose upon society those who are well known to be old lags and professional criminals so that they can line their families' pockets against the time that they will shortly spend in gaol.

Finally, I share entirely the comments made from both sides of the House about the necessity to keep the mentally defective and those suffering mental difficulties out of prison. The problem is that hospitals will not take them. Only last year in the Middlesex Crown court, just across Parliament Square, I had before me a man with a long series of convictions for violence, who was convicted of having an offensive weapon. I would have done anything that I could to send him to hospital. The case was adjourned to give me time to do so. No hospital would take him. They explained that they could not keep him in security, he was too dangerous and so on. Such cases are multiplied daily throughout the country. When I finally had to send him to prison, I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to say that I hoped that he would at least receive some treatment in prison. However, judges are aware that the chances of such people receiving treatment are very small indeed with the present pressures on the prison services.

I do not underrate the splendid results that have been achieved at such places as Grendon Underwood. Nevertheless, we know that the chances of such a man receiving treatment in prison are small. We must provide more facilities for the mentally unstable and defective, so that they do not crowd the cells of our already overcrowded prisons.

1.49 pm
Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea, South)

There is nothing soft about our prisons or penal institutions. They are harsh, tough places. I suggest that anyone who believes otherwise has not visited them.

Our prison population has been increasing over recent years. It is a sad commentary that of all West European countries we have the largest relative prison population, with the exception of West Germany. I should like to give one or two figures. In 1948, of the prison sentences given, 30 per cent. were for six months or longer. By 1975, 45 per cent. had reached this length of sentence. In contrast, in the Netherlands, where in 1948 about the same proportion of sentences were for six months or longer, by 1975 these had declined as a result of deliberate policy to 10 per cent. of all sentences. There is no evidence in the Netherlands that crime is increasing at a different rate from that in this country.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

Does my hon. Friend know whether there is any evidence that the judiciary in the Netherlands resents the fact that the Netherlands legislature has imposed this policy?

Mr. Dubs

I have no reason to think that the judiciary in the Netherlands resents this policy. Indeed, I differ from the hon. and learned Member for South Fylde (Mr. Gardner) and some other hon. Members in that I find it difficult to see how we can achieve the shorter sentences to which we are all paying lip service without legislation. What happens in our prisons and what are the consequences of long sentences is surely our responsibility and not that of the judiciary.

I should like to mention one other point about long sentences—the effect of public opinion. It seems to me that what is now regarded as a long sentence has changed from what public opinion thought it was some years ago. That is partly, I think, because newspapers and others have constantly kept up pressure for sentences to become longer and longer because of some of the crimes that have been committed. It seems to me that two years in prison is an intolerably long sentence, and yet by public opinion's standards, two years would be regarded as a very short sentence. I think that public opinion has been pressurising the judiciary, and that is another reason why sentences have become longer.

I turn briefly to remands in custody. At present, there are about 6,000 people untried or unsentenced in gaol. But the waiting time for trials is about 11 weeks outside London and, I understand, as long as 19 weeks in London. As has been said, in the event, about 40 per cent. of those remanded in custody are either later acquitted or given non-custodial sentences.

I urge the Home Secretary to look again at what is happening in Scotland, where those concerned have managed to do things rather better.

I note that the Home Office intends to carry out a vast new building programme. Certainly many of our old prisons are desperately in need of improvement. Wandsworth prison in my constituency needs a lot of money spent on it to improve it and make conditions more tolerable. However, I suggest that most building improvement works in our old Victorian prisons will have the effect of reducing the accommodation available. But there are other needs in Wandsworth prison. The baths and shower arrangements are hopeless, and there is a lot of pressure on prison officers when they try to give prisoners their minimum of one bath a week. More money spent on improving those facilities is very much needed.

However, I suggest that unless we pull down old prisons as we build new ones, we shall simply be making the space in which the prison population will be increased. I should like to cite some American experience. Some investigations were carried out which showed that the 15 American States that had done most prison building over the past 20 years had increased the capacity of their prisons by 56 per cent. and their prison population had then gone up by 57 per cent. But in the 15 American States which had done least prison building during the same period the prison capacity had increased by 4 per cent. and the prison population overall had fallen by 9 per cent.

I turn to secrecy in the prison system. Yesterday in the House the Home Secretary suggested that he welcomed it if police constables spoke up on behalf of their police forces. I wonder whether he would say the same for prison governors and other members of the prison service, apart from the public relations officer to be appointed. It seems to me that we are doing a disservice to our whole prison system, to all people who work in it, by surrounding our prisons with an obsessive cloak of screcy, with the result that so little of what goes on in our prisons is made known to the people outside.

I am not suggesting that every governor should take a course on becoming a public relations officer, but more openness would be welcomed by all who work in the prison system. It is an ironic comment on the secrecy that a group of hon. Members is not able to invite a prison governor to come to the House to discuss prison conditions. I ask the Home Office to look again at that position.

Some weeks ago I visited Wormwood Scrubs and saw three men in their twenties in one cell. They were spending 23 hours a day in that cell. One had been there for three months and had never been out of the cell for more than one hour a day. I can think of few more soul-destroying experiences. I do not suggest that that applies in all prisons. There is work in prisons, but, at least in some of the London prisons, we have much to answer for in keeping people in cells for 23 hours a day.

In contrast, I visited a borstal at Rochester where the work was enlightening. There was plenty of opportunity and young men were taking further qualifications. Some were enthusiastic about the fact that they would leave the borstal better qualified to earn more money and to do a better job than when they went in.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the education service in prisons and borstals. Does he agree that that service has a crucial role in holding prisoners together while they are serving their sentences?

Mr. Dubs

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I agree that education and training for work are vital ingredients of prison regimes. When I went to Bullwood Hall, the closed borstal for girls, I thought that the work provided there was disappointing. The authorities were struggling to think of any work that could be provided. They would do well to take a leaf out of the Rochester borstal's book. It does not matter that there are young men at one borstal and girls at the other. It should be possible to provide better work at Bullwood Hall. When I visited the Send detention centre a few months ago, I found that young men were having to break up tape cassettes. Surely we can do better than that for young men who are kept in custody.

I understand that in institutions for women the nursing staff are properly qualified, but there is only the minimum of qualification—a three-months' training course—in institutions for men. Given the number of deaths and other incidents that occur in prison, it is desirable that we give staff in men's prisons the same sort of nursing training that we give to the staff of women's prisons.

There has been an alarming growth in the number of young offenders in our penal institutions in recent years. In 1969, a total of 2,600 young men aged between 14 and 16 were in penal institutions. By 1979, that figure had increased to more than 7,000. There has been a similar increase, though not quite as large, in the case of men and women aged between 17 and 20. The figures are alarming. There is a thin line between whether a young person, who is part of a sub-culture, becomes an offender or not.

The Home Secretary spoke recently on Westward Television about the difficulties of knowing why young persons become offenders. One of the challenges to us is to get as many young persons as possible through the difficult years of adolescence without their going into penal institutions. The evidence is that once they are put into such institutions they are caught in the system and stay in the criminal world for the rest of their lives. If we can keep them clear of that, we shall have done them a service.

I in no way condone violence or vandalism. We should not take any measures that will weaken our society or increase the threat to it. We must show full concern for the victims of crime, but it is clear that at the same time there is a need for major changes in our penal system. Those changes should take place as a matter of urgency—in fact, right away.

2 pm

Dr. Shirley Summerskill (Halifax)

This has been an extremely wide-ranging debate, albeit too short. I am sorry that some hon. Members who were trying to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have not been called.

A great deal of expertise has been shown in what has been an informed debate. We have had the benefit of two excellent reports, which are complementary. One, the May report, deals primarily with the prison service, whereas the other, the Expenditure Committee report, examines how to reduce the pressure on the system.

Naturally, the emphasis has been on the figure announced by the Home Secretary, in opening the debate, of 44,324 men and women now in prison. As my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs) pointed out, we have a higher proportion of our population serving custodial sentences than any other European country except West Germany.

If we consider the reasons for the high prison population, we must bear in mind the important fact that last year the number of recorded offences of violence against the person increased by 9 per cent. over the 1978 figure. Another development that has added to the chronic overcrowding in prisons is that a larger number of women are being sentenced to custodial treatment. The annual report of the Prison Department states that there is an increasing number of women inmates whose crimes, circumstances and personalities are similar to those of the male prison population. Their total number in prison has now reached a record of 1,546.

It would be possible for us to have a separate debate about the causes of crime in our society, an extremely complex subject, and about ways of reducing its incidence. In this connection, I wish only to refer to one aspect of the increasing prison population, which was also referred to in passing by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley). The recent annual report of the parole board revealed that there was clear and unmistakable evidence that a high proportion of those who committed violent crime were drunk at the time of the offence. The board considers that in about half the cases of unpremeditated violence drink is a major factor. Much has been said today about the need to get alcoholic petty offenders out of our overcrowded prisons, but if we do not deal with the problem of violent drunken offenders their numbers in prison will continue to increase.

Mr. Soley

I should like to make it clear that, although there is a problem of alcoholics in prison, the particular worry is that alcohol is associated with crime and violence without the person concerned being an alcoholic. That is the point.

Dr. Summerskill

I agree.

The report of the May committee, which was established by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), has been widely welcomed. It largely endorses proposals that have been advocated for many years. Every speaker—even the Minister—has agreed that in the long term the ideal is to replace old and insanitary prisons, not to add to them with the new prisons. That should be our long-term aim.

Ideally, it should be possible for prisoners to choose between a single cell and sharing a cell. Some people believe that being in a single cell is an additional punishment and that sharing a cell is not necessarily more of a hardship. However, the existing figures of 4,833 who are three to a cell and 11,752 who are two to a cell, through no choice of their own, are surely not acceptable. That is one of the reasons why we must increase the total number of places. Overcrowding occurs not only in the cells but in relation to access to facilities. That affects prisoners and staff alike and was well illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley).

One school of thought supports the view that prison places are like parliamentary time—the more that are provided the more that will be filled. That implies that courts constantly look over their shoulders to see how many places there are in prisons. That is not the way in which courts should come to decisions.

The plan is for a further 3,400 prison places by 1985. I hope that those places will eventually replace present places in the old Victorian prisons. I hope that it is not planned simply to add to the total prison population.

The Home Secretary said in Bournemouth: We must go forward with a sustained, it necessarily modest, building programme. During my time at the Home Office I had an almost unique experience in that I actually opened a prison. We are promised two more new establishments in 1982 and a further two in 1983. They seem drops in the ocean when we know that Liverpool prison, for example, contains about 1,500 prisoners in a building designed for 1,000. Only 13 closed prisons have been built since 1914. My hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth, Central gave a vivid description of conditions in Brixton.

I appreciate the economic constraints, but there is anxiety that new prison building and the rebuilding of parts of prisons is being emphasised more than the resources for other amenities and other ways of keeping people out of prison, such as facilities for non-custodial sentences. It is hoped that there will be a balance and that the resources provided for custodial sentences will be equivalent to those provided for non-custodial sentences. It is hoped that there will be a balance in favour of provision for the short-stay prisoner and remand prisoner who have more overcrowded conditions than long-stay prisoners.

The subject of shorter sentences has dominated the debate. Sir John May recommended that successful attempts to reduce inmate populations in Holland and Sweden suggest that United Kingdom practices, especially sentencing policy, require re-examination. Most hon. Members have supported shorter prison sentences, not across the board as the hon. and learned Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve) implied, but only in appropriate cases and where possible as a sensible way of reducing the prison population. That is confirmed by the Expenditure Committee and successive Lord Chancellors and by most people working with offenders, including prison governors and probation officers.

Research evidence based on reconviction rates indicates that longer custodial sentences produce no better results than short sentences. The Lord Chief Justice has been referred to frequently in the debate in view of what he said recently when delivering judgment on an appeal against sentence. He said: When courts consider that a prison sentence is necessary they must be particularly careful to examine each case to ensure that the sentence is as short as possible, consistent with the duty to protect the public interests and punish and deter the criminals. The reluctance of judges to impose shorter sentences—if they have been reluctant—is not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) said, because they lack judicial will. Possibly it is partly because they believe that the public do not expect them to do so.

The natural emotional reaction of the public is often to support long sentences as a punishment for serious crime. I am sure that hon. Members would prefer to see people looking at the whole matter in a more logical and informed way. I hope that the debate, in which only one voice has been heard opposing shorter sentences, wherever possible and where appropriate, will help to persuade public opinion and, therefore, the courts to support the enlightened view of Lord Lane.

We should also encourage greater public knowledge about, and acceptance of, alternatives to prison. These may then be found more acceptable to the courts. As well as being cheaper, they are often equally as effective as, if not more effective than, prison. We must keep questioning the benefit of the custodial sentence. A sample of people given custodial sentences for serious criminal offences in January 1971 was studied by the Home Office. It was found that by the end of 1976 about 70 per cent. of those people had been reconvicted. This makes an extremely depressing statistic, but in Holland, shorter prison sentences and more non-custodial sentences are accompanied by crime statistics that are no greater proportionately than our own.

It is clear that we must increase the use of non-custodial sentences wherever possible. While the courts, we hope, are lending their minds to shorter sentences where appropriate, it is also to be hoped that they will heed the call for a greater use of probation to relieve the prison system. Most of those on probation avoid further serious crime for the average period of two years during which they are under supervision. The probation service itself would welcome this development as it would mean that it was working with offenders at an earlier and more successful stage instead of during, and after, a custodial sentence.

I join the tributes to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) for chairing the successful report of the Expenditure Committee. I particularly support the recommendation that the Department of Health and Social Security should accept more responsibility for accommodating mentally disordered offenders. The previous Government found, as the present Government also find, that some NHS staff and the public are reluctant to give higher priority to the needs of mentally disordered offenders, especially when there is great pressure on Health Service resources. I hope that the views expressed in the debate will help to promote a better understanding of the problem and greater co-operation in dealing with it by all concerned. I also hope that the DHSS will not regard the research project, set up with the Home Office on this matter, as a reason for delay in taking action to overcome the problem.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South raised the question of remand. I should like the Minister to say whether the Government have any proposals for dealing with this serious situation in which nearly one in seven of all prisoners are now awaiting trial. Will the hon. and learned Gentleman comment on the suggestion of the National Association of Probation Officers relating to the introduction of a time limit on remand—a statutory maximum period of 110 days—similar to Scottish criminal practice?

There have been many tributes paid during the debate to the role of prison officers. I am sure that this is the general feeling of all hon. Members who have spoken. Most of us have attended meetings with prison officers. They feel strongly that they want to play an active and constructive role within the prison system and not act merely as turnkeys. They want to be more concerned with the welfare and rehabilitation of prisoners. The Opposition would support any measures that reduce burdens on the prison staff, including measures to increase recruitment.

Amid the general welcome for the May report and the proposals of the Expenditure Committee, it is often said that all that is needed now is the political will to act upon them. But it seems that it will need far more than simply the will of this House—a will that is clearly in evidence. It will need the positive and enthusiastic support and co-operation of everyone working in this sphere, especially the prison and probation officers and the courts. Above all, it will need the support of the general public, because it represents the taxpayers who will be footing the bill. Their support is needed for the measures that do not require resources. As the Home Secretary said, this is only the beginning and there is a great deal more to be done.

2.15 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Leon Brittan)

In the subject that we have been debating, it has been customary for policy decisions to be taken, not on the basis of a simple decision by the Government of the day but by a process of building up an informed consensus. That is because the number of agencies involved in implementing the policy are so diverse, and many of them, such as the judiciary, rightly so independent, that this is the proper approach. However, for that to work, it is absolutely essential that there should be reports—such as those of the Expenditure Committee, the all-party penal affairs group and the May committee—to form a basis for the development of such a consensus. We are indeed fortunate to have had those reports and now to have had the benefit of the comments of the House on them. I hasten to add that that is not the last word, because opportunities will and do recur for us to consider these matters.

The debate can be divided into two parts—first, that concerned with conditions in prisons as they are, dealing with the people who are there at present, and, secondly, with the question of who should be in prison and what one can do in order to deal with the numbers in prison.

On prison building, my right hon. Friend explained the position. A specific question was asked by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Morris) about Appleton Thorn. We are planning for the new young offender establishment there to become operational by the mid-1980s.

Turning to wider matters, reference was made from time to time—in particular by the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) and more recently by the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill)—to the aspirations of prison officers and to their desire to play a larger and more constructive part than that of merely fulfilling the role of turnkey. As the hon. Lady felicitously put it, they seek an active and constructive role. That is an aspiration that we share on their behalf.

In order to give reality to it, the key is very much the question of training. We recognise the desire for a more fulfilling role, and we are anxious to improve the efficiency with which we use our valuable staff resources. We shall, therefore, shortly be undertaking a comprehensive review of training provided in the prison service in accordance with the recommendations of the May committee. I very much hope that that will lead to opportunities for prison staff to give reality to their genuine desire to play a more constructive role.

Reference was also made to another series of matters relating to the conditions of prison officers. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) and others raised questions relating to rent allowances and matters of that kind. I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate that it is impossible to answer all those points now, but we shall want to consider them carefully.

Most of this debate has been concerned with the questions of the size of the prison population and with what can and should be done to reduce it. Reference was made to the growth of non-custodial sentences. The hon. Member for Halifax asked us to support the use of noncustodial sentences and the greater use of probation. I am happy to accede instantly to that plea. The probation service has the ability, resources and desire to play an even greater role than it has done in the past, and we shall support it in its efforts to do so. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve) gave a graphic account of the development of non-custodial sentences over the past few years. It is right that we should concentrate on the difficulties that we have experienced, but, difficult as the situation is today, it would have been infinitely worse if successive Governments had not developed the alternatives to which my hon. and learned Friend referred.

What can we do today to ensure that those who should not be in prison are no longer there? Reference has been made to court delays, which concern the Government as a whole. I say "the Government as a whole" because responsibility goes beyond the Home Office. One of the steps that can and should be taken is the provision of courts and judicial manpower to deal with cases. The Lord Chancellor has taken steps to provide a substantial number of extra courts. But the more fundamental steps that can be taken will depend on alterations in the prosecution process. That matter is being considered fundamentally and radically by the Royal Commission, which will report by the end of the year. I do not think that we can reasonably be expected to take steps in that direction without the benefit of the report.

Specific reference was made to the question of the 110-day limit on custodial remands. That course is not nearly as promising as has been suggested in the debate. The Scottish rule is not absolute. It is aimed primarily at delay by the prosecutor. The High Court may extend the 110-day period if the court is satisfied that the delay is due to a sufficient cause for which the prosecutor is not responsible. Our provision south of the border is covered by section 7 (4) of the Courts Act 1971 which provides that The trial of a person … shall, unless the Crown Court has otherwise ordered, begin not later than the expiration of the period … prescribed by Crown Court rules, which is eight weeks from the date of committal. That is similar in form to the Scottish provision, except that the period in the one case is prescribed by rule and not in the statute. The difference is not great. But, in any event, if an artificial rule of that sort were rigidly enforced it would be like the question of price controls—to take an analogy from a different area. We are trying to stem the flood, but it does not stop the problem, because there will soon be grave public disquiet if the prosecution process cannot be speeded up and large numbers of people, many of whom might be dangerous, have to be released.

It is fair to say that the debate concentrated on the question of removing from the prison system the categories of prisoners referred to very graphically by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving), and also on the question of short sentences more generally. Obviously this whole area of diversion from custody is one with which we are very concerned.

One of the categories mentioned was that of the petty persistent offender. The Home Office research unit has for some time been engaged in a series of research projects designed to examine ways in which petty persistent offenders might be diverted from prison. We hope to publish in the new year the results of the work.

The research has examined three points in the criminal justice process—arrest, sentence and release from prison—where attempts could be made to reduce the interaction of petty persistent offenders within the criminal justice system.

We hope to develop further work in connection with the initiative to provide a simpler form of overnight shelter for drunks and also in relation to the use of day centres.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham was right in saying that many of these categories of people—the fine defaulters, and those begging and sleeping rough—are people whose presence in the criminal system is inappropriate. I disagree with him only in his remarks that they could be removed inexpensively and quickly. The obstacles to their removal—which is dependent on the provision of alternative facilities in the community—are not insubstantial. If it was as easy as that to solve the problem, I think I can say without fear of contradiction that Conservative and Labour Governments who have had to deal with it would have seized the opportunity with open hands.

I turn next to the question of shorter sentences generally. Suggestions have been made by the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) and others that some sort of action should be taken on a legislative basis. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has not excluded the possibility of action being taken, but he pointed to the disadvantages of such a course. They are considerable.

The right hon. Member for Leeds, South reminisced about discussion of the matter which showed that when remission had gone up to one-third there had been a compensatory effect from the courts. That is something that cannot be avoided unless we adopt the other approach of altering the maximum sentences, as opposed to dealing with matters such as remission and conditional release.

I do not believe that there is much future in attempting to reduce the maximum sentences. The reason is not just the question of public reaction to any attempt to do that. The reaction would be quite considerable, as was shown when the advisory council published its report. The reason is more fundamental than that. The existence in prison of people with sentences that are rather longer than they might necessarily have does not derive primarily from the use of the maximum of the range. It is not the case that people are being sentenced to life imprisonment, to 14 years, or whatever the maximum may be. That is not what causes the problem. Where the problem arises is a truly exceptional case, and the law must be flexible enough to deal with it. I am more optimistic than some hon. Members—but as optimistic as my hon. and learned Friends the Members for South Fylde (Mr. Gardner) and Solihull—in saying that there are signs that the message has got through and that the courts are responding.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) said that this proposal had been around for years. It has, but there is such a thing as an idea that comes of age and that is seen to be right. In my experience—which is not as extensive as that of many hon. Members on both sides of the House—I detect a different attitude and a development in the approach to the problem in recent months and years which gives us cause for optimism. Of course, it is too early to say, but I believe that the speeches in this debate today—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.