HC Deb 18 December 1980 vol 996 cc542-4
12. Mr. Edward Lyons

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many new prison places will be created within the next 10 years.

Mr. Whitelaw

Current projects should produce 2,700 places over the next five years; and new prisons due to start between 1981 and 1983 should eventually produce another 2,130 places. Approval has not yet been given to projects beyond 1983, but the Government aim to sustain a rolling programme to provide more new prisons.

Mr. Lyons

As so many of our prisons are over 100 years old, and as the Conservative Party nationalised prisons in the 1870s— and predominantly starved them of proper investment for the building of new prisons—does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that priority should be given to a prison building programme in any allocation of scarce resources? Old prisons could then be closed and replaced. Unless that happens, we shall have no constructive way of dealing with prisoners.

Mr. Whitelaw

It would be unwise for any hon. Members—whatever party they may belong to—to claim that anyone has done what should have been done for our prisons. For many years, the responsibility for failing to maintain a prison building programme has rested with successive Governments and with the House, which has not exercised sufficient pressure. We are all to blame. At a time of great economic difficulty I am determined, with the support of my colleagues, to maintain a prison building programme. Successive Governments have not always done that despite the fact that they have sometimes been in office during easier times.

Mr. Edward Gardner

When my right hon. Friend considers the future of prisons, will he bear in mind that the morale of many prison officers, particularly those in prisons such as Brixton, appears to be reaching an all-time low? Will he do what he can, as soon as he can, to fortify and restore the morale of the service?

Mr. Whitelaw

I shall do what I can because that is my task. We must accept that there is a difficult industrial situation. It would be wrong for me to comment on it now. However, my hon. and learned Friend should not refer to Brixton or take it out of context as a result of recent developments. Those developments are the subject of an important inquiry which I immediately authorised under a man who is probably the most distinguished person in the prison service. We must await its report before jumping to conclusions.

Mr. Alton

Does the Home Secretary agree that we would not need additional places in our prisons if some of those now in them were no longer there? [Interruption.] Has the Home Secretary read the representations that I sent to him during the past 14 days? They concern four young people in Liverpool who were gaoled for 14 days after appealing against a£25 fine.

Mr. Whitelaw

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman means. He has made an important point. On several occasions, I have made clear that shorter sentences and non-custodial sentences for non-violent offenders represent an important development. However, they will not relieve us of the need to have a substantial and sensible building programme. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I should be wrong to comment on particular sentences. However, I hope that those concerned will always consider some of the good options to non-custodial sentences and that they will use them in the case of non-violent offenders.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Given that during the first month of the prison officers' dispute the prison population fell by 4,000 people as a result of shorter sentences, is it not clear that the prison building programme would not be necessary if courts were to change their sentencing policies, just as they have done during the past month? As there has been no corresponding increase in crime, will the Home Secretary bring that point to the notice of the Lord Chief Justice?

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Gentleman is at odds with his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons). I agree with the hon. Gentleman's hon. and learned Friend more than I do with him. I accept that during the dispute there has been a reduction in the prison population. I hope that the dispute will end, and we shall then see what will happen. I share the hon. Gentleman's opinion that a reduction in the number of people sent to prison is a major objective. However, even if that objective were achieved we should still need a substantial prison building programme because of the state of many of our old Victorian prisons.

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