§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. William Whitelaw)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement about the current dispute in prisons in England and Wales.
I should like to emphasise that this is not a dispute about pay. It arises from a claim by the Prison Officers' Association for two allowances for meal breaks. The May committee was set up by the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) to consider, amongst other things, the whole question of allowances for meal breaks. Its recommendations on pay and allowances were immediately accepted and implemented by the Government. This was, by any standards, fair and generous treatment for the prison service. A number of claims, including this present one, were examined but not supported by the May committee. Having found the money for what May did recommend, the Government cannot now accept and finance further claims.
The Prison Officers' Association has asked for arbitration. As the Association itself recognises, the matter lies outside the terms of the Civil Service arbitration agreement. Nor could the Government agree to put to arbitration an issue which was considered by the May Committee last year.
As I said in my statement to the House on 31 October last year, this country has been fortunate in the men and women it has secured to run its prison system. Their duty is to protect the public, to serve the courts and to care for the inmates in their charge. This duty is arduous, difficult and sometimes dangerous. I therefore regret all the more the action which the Prison Officers' Association has chosen to take in pursuit of its claim. This has included a refusal to allow contractors not only to work in prisons but also to undertake certain other duties which are necessary to maintain conditions for prisoners, and to provide the facilities to which they are entitled.
Even more seriously, prison officers at many establishments have refused to receive prisoners remanded or sentenced by the courts. This action amounts to a deliberate and unacceptable disruption of the criminal justice system. As a result, this morning about 3,500 prisoners who 39 would otherwise be in prisons are now being held in police cells, many of which are unsuitable for this purpose. The police have coped magnificently with the additional demands which have been made on them, but the number of people in their custody is approaching the limit of the available accommodation. The police are also being diverted from their primary tasks. The inevitable result of this is to place the public at risk.
The Government must do all that they can to fulfil their responsibility to protect the public and ensure the functioning of the criminal justice system. The House will be aware that, following consultation with my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, I arranged for a circular to be issued to magistrates' courts last Tuesday seeking their understanding of the problems that we face.
We need to do more than that, however. Measures will be taken to provide additional accommodation with the help of the Army. I am now arranging for the new high security prison, which is nearing completion, at Frankland near Durham to be brought immediately into use to provide emergency accommodation to relieve the pressure on police cells. It will have a governor, assistant governors and administrative and specialist staff from the prison service and a police presence to assist with security; but otherwise it will be manned by Service men. We shall use military camps as necessary.
For these and other purposes I shall need to ask the House to agree to immediate emergency measures to relieve the criminal justice system of some of the burdens placed on it by the prison officers' actions. I intend to present a Bill tomorrow. For the convenience of right hon. and hon. Members, I shall be arranging for typescript copies of the draft Bill to be made available later this evening.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
The measures that I seek will include provisions to cover the approval of places other than prisons for the detention of prisoners. I shall seek provisions to cover the position of those who care for prisoners in these circumstances. Other provisions will be de- 40 signed to provide relief for the police in the very difficult circumstances that they face. In particular, I shall propose that the requirement that remand prisoners be produced regularly before the courts shall temporarily be suspended.
I do not, however, propose to alter the normal requirement for the courts periodically to review remands in custody. I shall seek powers to order the temporary release on my authority, if it is absolutely necessary to do so, of selected prisoners who have been remanded in custody or committed in custody for trial or sentence. This is a power I would use, with every feasible safeguard, only to ensure that custodial places were available, in police cells and elsewhere, for dangerous offenders. I shall also need power, for the time being, to order the early release of sentenced prisoners nearing the end of their sentences. I shall ask for a power to restrict magistrates' courts, if necessary, in committing people to prison for such matters as non-payment of fines or rates.
All these provisions will be temporary and will be allowed to lapse when the present dispute is resolved. In addition, the measures will include a permanent provision putting it beyond doubt that it is lawful for the police temporarily to hold people committed to prison custody when it is for any reason not practicable to secure their admission to prison.
I am satisfied that these powers, regrettable as they are, are necessary in the situation which has been caused by the prison officers' industrial action, which goes well beyond the limits of what is acceptable. But there is an alternative. I cannot look back; I want to make it very clear that I am determined to look forward. That is why discussions are far advanced between the Home Office and the Prison Officers' Association on a new duty system which would eliminate the anomalies which gave rise to this dispute. The early introduction of such a system would far better serve the interests of prison officers than the dangerous course on which they are now embarked.
This industrial action by prison officers is all the more regrettable because it comes at a time when following the May committee, so much constructive work 41 is going on to improve the prison service for the future.
In view of all this, I invited the Prison Officers' Association, when I met its representatives last week, to reconsider its action. I still hope that it will not persist in it while these negotiations continue. Of course, I remain ready to see the Prison Officers' Association at any time.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
The Home Secretary's statement reflects the deteriorating situation in our prisons. Sentenced and remand prisoners are not being allowed into gaols. We have been told that there are 3,500 prisoners in police cells. Many of those cells are unsatisfactory. The situation will only become worse in the days to come. It is vital that action should be taken. Prisoners are being locked up for 23 hours a day. No educational training facilities are available in many prisons. It is right to act. The Home Secretary will be aware that the position he faces is one that the previous Labour Government faced in the latter part of 1978.
The plain fact is that it is not the governors who run many prisons but the local branch of the Prison Officers' Association. Something must be done. The May committee was set up for that reason. Its terms of reference were drawn up to deal with this situation. I accept that a number of claims, including the present claim, were examined but not supported by the May committee. The Opposition cannot ignore that fact. The facts have not changed just because the Labour Party is in opposition.
The Home Secretary is aware of the basic problems. I notice that agreement has been reached in the discussions on the new duty system. It would be a good idea to publish the terms of that agreement. As regards the Bill, the Government recommend profound changes, such as the use of the Army. We need to know how the Army is to be used and what its role will be. Will the new legislation conflict with what used to be called the Army Act? I know that the Home Secretary is aware of all the problems of Executive bail. Executive group releases are proposed along with changes in the accountability to the courts of remand prisoners. Why not go less far than that in the long run. Why not use the present situation to make long-term changes 42 in penal reform? Why not use this occasion to introduce 50 per cent. remission? Why not use this occasion to secure that reduced sentences and non-custodial sentences are given? If such action is good enough in the short term, it must, to a lesser degree, be good enough in the long term. We should ensure that these events are used to bring about prison reform. Such action would result in something for which the Prison Officers' Association has asked for a long time. The need for overtime would be reduced. The Prison Officers' Association constantly says that its members have to work too many hours in overtime. We must consider such steps during the next few days.
We shall examine the Bill and do what we can to help. This Bill is important.
§ Mr. Rees
I am speaking on behalf of those who face up to the reality of the position in our prisons. Do we need to get this Bill through in one day? There are four or five important clauses. Is it, therefore, absolutely necessary to have this legislation by Wednesday? We must consider the legislation, but we on this side of the House cannot ignore the reality.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees). He has set out the position that existed when he appointed the May committee. Most of those who consider these issues will be grateful to him, because he has made it clear that he stands by what he said when he appointed the May committee. Without such assurances, the future of committees considering any subject, would be extremely hazardous. I shall consider publishing the new duty system as soon as that is possible.
We can discuss the Army's role during the passage of the Bill. I understand that the Bill will not conflict with the Army Act. The Army will be responsible for manning the prisons, but prison department staff, governors and assistant governors will be there. The police will provide a security role outside. In the short term, the various measures that I have proposed are necessary. They are the only measures that we could take 43 quickly to relieve a dangerous and very worrying situation in our prison cells.
I agree with the longer-term proposals that the right hon. Gentleman put forward. Following the May committee's report I have sought to achieve exactly that. No one can pretend that the Home Office and I have not made many considerable strides towards improving the conditions in our prisons since the publication of the May report. That is a fact of life, and it makes it all the more regrettable that such action should interrupt the progress that we were making.
Naturally, I very much regret having to ask the House to consider the Bill quickly. However, I must make the position clear to those who may have doubts. The situation in prison cells is extremely unsatisfactory for everyone in them. It is also extremely unsatisfactory for the police. In addition, it is dangerous because, in certain circumstances, we could run out of places this week in which to put those who have been convicted or placed on remand by the courts. I cannot believe that the House wishes to put any Executive in that position, or that it would wish there to be no places in which to put those sent from the courts. If the Bill is not enacted quickly, that will be the result. I very much hope that the House will agree to enact it quickly.
§ Mr. Edward Gardner
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the measures he seeks to introduce will be widely seen as regrettable but inevitable, if he is to prevent the actions of prison officers from turning a crisis—due primarily to overcrowding—into what could become a catastrophe as a result of inadequate security? Will he urgently consider removing many of the 3,500 prisoners in police custody to available accommodation in open prisons, in those cases where the offences concerned can be covered by locally acceptable agreements as regards categories?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I shall consider what my hon. and learned Friend said, and I am grateful to him for making those points. However, industrial action prevents there being any intake of prisoners into open prisons or other establishments. However, I shall look into that matter and I hope that the Prison Officers' Association will also consider it.
§ Mr. Kilroy-Silk
Does the Home Secretary accept that we are in this position because of the continuous neglect by the Home Secretary and his predecessors of industrial relations and overcrowding in prison cells? It is an extraordinary sign of the Home Secretary's failure that he should have to come to the House today to announce legislation and that that legislation will be along the very lines that many hon. Members have repeatedly asked for and warned about for the past few years. Is it not unacceptable that Home Secretaries seem to act only under pressure and not on the merits of the case? Does the Home Secretary accept that prison officers feel they have a legitimate grievance, and that the May committee did not arbitrate on this issue? Ultimately, the Home Secretary must work with the prison service. If the right hon. Gentleman does not wish to damage seriously its morale and cause a catastrophe in the prison service he should not introduce the Bill tomorrow. If he believes in the merits of his case, he can announce now that he will accept the results of independent arbitration. That is the way to deal with this issue in a civilised manner, rather than using a bludgeon which will serve only to exacerbate the situation.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
On the first point, I must tell the hon. Member that of course I accept that there is overcrowding. I have discussed the matter very reasonably with him in the past. But I must make it perfectly clear that the pursuit of this claim and the industrial action being taken would have happened, in my judgment, whether we had done anything about overcrowding or not. Whatever steps had been taken, this would have happened. This has been going on ever since the May committee reported, and nothing that could have been done would have changed that situation. I much regret it but I must emphasise that from my own contact with the Prison Officers' Associaion I know that that is a fact of life.
I turn to what the hon. Member says about arbitration. I must point out that, as the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) said, the May committee examined all these claims and it recommended that some of them be accepted—[Interruption.] Hon. Gentlemen must listen to me for a second. The May committee recommended various claims for 45 payment. The Government met all the claims whose acceptance were recommended by the May committee. Surely it must be agreed that it was fair and generous to do that immediately. The May committee examined the other claims and did not recommend their acceptance. I cannot see how it makes sense to re-open those claims now when the Government did everything that was recommended by an independent committee set up by a Labour Home Secretary.
§ Mrs. Knight
May I assure my right hon. Friend that he has a good deal of sympathy and support from his colleagues in the House in the difficult situation that he faces? However, will he reconsider one of the points that he raised—that he and the House will take upon themselves the power to release prisoners before the sentences which the court has imposed upon them have been completed? Does he not agree that this is an extremely dangerous action to take and could be used as a precedent in a way that would worry us all?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
Of course there is always that danger. However, I am more worried about the Executive use of bail which I will use only in very exceptional circumstances. I put it forward only because it impinges directly on the position of police cells. I would use it only with the most stringent safeguards and I would ensure that the action was temporary.
On the proposal which my hon. Friend mentioned, the action would be taken towards the end of a sentence—I would find that easier. Equally, I believe that this should be a temporary procedure and I would have it in mind to write very plainly into the bill that all these measures would lapse, unless renewed by affirmative resolution of this House, after a very limited period.
Mr. Mark Hughes
Under what powers have the Army already moved in to Frank-land prison, in my constituency? What discussions, if any, have his Department had with the local authority, and what courteous communication, if any, has he had with the Member of Parliament for that constituency? What agreement or facility has he given to my constituents, who are now told that their security 46 lies in the hands of military persons with bullets up the spouts of their rifles? Who commands them, and will they be empowered to pursue escaping prisoners? What defence would my constituents have against the absolute power of the Home Secretary?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I must make it absolutely clear that the security of the lion. Member's constituents would be a matter for the police and not for the Army. Therefore, the other points that he makes do not arise. The police are responsible for the security of the hon. Member's constituents because they are responsible for keeping the whole prison system secure.
There have been consultations between my officials and the chief constable of the area concerned. I believe that that was proper. I apologise for the fact that I have not had consultations with the hon. Member himself. It is entirely my fault, I regret it and I apologise here and now. I am sure that the hon. Member will appreciate that I have had many other matters with which I have had to deal.
On the question of right, this was a prison in the hands of the Property Services Agency and which the Home Office had not yet taken over. However, we shall take it over at an early date and it is our responsibility to do so.
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor
Is the Home Secretary aware that he is proposing very wide-ranging and draconian powers which will undoubtedly cause concern as they are implemented? Will he take all possible steps to explain to the public that the considerations are a great deal wider than a minor dispute about meal breaks? Will he tell the House, and everyone involved, precisely the procedures for the consideration of claims on wages and working conditions between annual awards? Finally, will my right hon. Friend give us an indication of the response of the prison officers to his proposals?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
Of course I appreciate that these are wide-ranging powers. I thought that I had made clear, and I will continue to seek to make clear, that the particular dispute is not about pay. It is about two claims for meal break allowances, which were examined by the 47 May committee and whose acceptance was not recommended. That is the fact. The arrangements for dealing with pay are clearly set out through the Civil Service arrangements, with the particular formula for the prison service, and they will be proceeded with in the future.
I do not wish to be drawn into wider subjects because I am most anxious to seek to work with the prison officers. I have set out my position very plainly; I have seen them and discussed the matter with them. I have made clear how keen I am to have a new duty system and to cooperate in seeking to bring about an improvement in the prison service which the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) and others have talked about so busily. That is what I want to do. It is only fair to my new prison department, which has been set up in accordance with the May committee recommendations, to give it a chance to run the prison service directly by itself and subordinate to me. I think that it should be given that chance, and I greatly regret that this action is not giving the department the chance to which it is entitled. Given the chance, I am sure that it would fulfil its task with outstanding ability.
§ Mr. Joseph Dean
Is the Home Secretary aware that if he continues on this course he will exacerbate the present situation to the point where the law enforcement agencies that have normally cooperated with one another—the prison officers and the police force—may not look upon one another in such favourable light in future? Will he reconsider his decision and send the claim to independent arbitration, which I believe the prison officers will accept?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
Of course I understand the dangers that the hon. Member puts forward; and everything will be done to ensure that these do not arise. I must make it clear, however, that the May committee put forward recommendations on pay and allowances which the Government immediately paid in full. That is not something that all Governments have done as soon as they have received such reports in the past. That was very important. Now I am being asked to go back on claims that were not recommended. The Government decided to find the money to meet the claims that were recommended by the 48 May committee. Now I am being asked to finance further claims. It must be accepted, bearing in mind the current position of public expenditure in this country and my need for money in the prison service, that it would be very wrong for me to seek to finance further claims that were not recommended by May. That would be depriving the prison service of money in other areas where it is desperately needed.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I confirm that I received the hon. Gentleman's representations. If he wishes to see me or one of my Ministers, we are naturally prepared to discuss these problems. We are always ready to receive representations about this very difficult situation. I am very worried about the position of people in police cells. That is why I am putting forward these proposals.
§ Mr. Nelson
Will my right hon. Friend accept that many of us recognise that he had an extremely difficult judgment to make in bringing these proposals to the House and will support them if he considers it necessary? However, eventually some break in the impasse will have to occur, and there appears to be a difference across the Floor of the House about whether the May committee considered the matter fully. Has my right hon. Friend therefore ruled out referring this isolated aspect of the claim back to the May committee, if he is not prepared to go to arbitration?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
It would be wrong to rule out any action. However, the May committee considered the whole matter, and it seems hard to believe that only a year after it made its recommendations it would change them.
§ Mr. Litherland
Why does the Home Secretary keep referring to the May committee and accepting its recommendations as being tantamount to the result of arbitration when the committee has categorically stated that it does not want to be regarded as arbiters? Why does he not accept the committee's recommendation that we should use the services of ACAS to enable us to overcome this problem?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I maintain that what the May committee recommended was fair and generous to the prison service, and the Government implemented those recommendations. That is of the greatest importance, and I hope that hon. Members will bear it in mind. The committee was specifically asked to recommend on these matters, which it did, and the Government implemented what was recommended. That was the sensible way to proceed. I find it hard constantly to be asked to go back on that. In the circumstances I do not believe that ACAS would be a suitable vehicle for the settlement of the dispute.
§ Mr. Crouch
Will my right hon. Friend accept that I condemn the industrial action taken by the prison officers? However, like him, I see prison officers and they have raised complaints with me, which I have raised with the Home Office and in the House. Is my right hon. Friend aware that I am still awaiting an answer from the Home Office? The complaints that I raised are not major complaints, but if they go unanswered a feeling of frustration will build up. Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the Home Office gives sufficient priority to the management and administration of prisons? Should not those priorities be reviewed?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I shall look into the complaints immediately and get in touch with my hon. Friend. However, I do not believe that I can be accused of not having sought to improve the general situation. Since the May report the Home Office has completely restructured its prison department, including its methods of financing and standing. It has changed the personnel. We have set up a completely new prison department to make the running of the prison service more efficient and effective. That has been done in a very short time, which is recognised by everyone, including the 50 prison officers. I realise that there are complaints. I have visited many prisons and talked to many prison officers. I have told them that I regard the improvement of industrial relations and of prisons generally as a major priority for me as Home Secretary. It is my greatest challenge. I therefore regret all the more such industrial action at this time, which is holding up and frustrating the developments that I am anxious to see.
§ Mr. Heffer
Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that everyone, including the Prison Officers' Association, realises that he has done a great deal since the May report? However, the meal break dispute was going on before the May committee and under a Labour Government. Some of us intervened with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds South (Mr. Rees) and also persuaded the prison officers, particularly in Walton, to return to normal working, pending a solution. Does he therefore agree that it is stupid for the Government to enter into confrontation with the Prison Officers' Association instead of trying to settle the dispute and in that way save money?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's acknowledgement of what I have sought to do since the May report. It is because I want to get rid of the anomalies in the meal break system that we have been pursuing with the Prison Officers' Association arrangements for a new duty system. That is sensible. I was surprised when I was chided for looking forward. The obvious way forward is a new duty system to remove the anomalies. That is what I want to achieve constructively with the prison officers, and I told them that last week. I am ready at any time again to discuss a new duty system that will remove the anomalies. That is a constructive approach and I hope that it will be seen as such.
§ Mr. Lawrence
Will my right hon. Friend remind the House of the generosity of the financial settlement made for the prison officers when we took office and also what is involved financially in giving way to the present demands? We can then form a view about how utterly irresponsible is the prison officers' attempt to blackmail the Government at a time of increasing lawlessness.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
Under the arrangements made following the May report and in other pay settlements an officer in his first year, on the basis of 13 hours' overtime, which is the average, today earns over £8,000 a year, taking account of quarters and rent allowance. That is reasonable and even generous for an officer in his first year. If this claim were to be settled in full it would cost about £10 million now and a further £3 million a year in the future. On the basis of the pay and allowances that I have described, that seems to be—
§ Mr. Whitelaw
With the help of my colleagues I have managed to secure, at a time of economic stringency, money for many of the improvements in the prison service that the House is constantly asking for. The hon. Gentleman would not say "peanuts" if he had to find such money.
§ Mr. Ennals
In view of the questions put by all three main parties, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is a strong feeling in the House that some of the proposals are more likely to cause confrontation than settlement? Many of us with prisons in our constituencies are aware of the important role of prison officers and have a high regard for their work. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that there is an anomaly affecting local prisons? Does he agree that it would be preferable to seek a settlement of these disputes, and that the proposed legislation will create confrontation?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I do not think that the proposed legislation, temporary as it certainly would be and continuing only until the dispute ended, could be described as confrontation. Its aim is to remove the difficult situation that has arisen in our prisons and it would not be necessary if the prison officers were prepared to allow those remanded from the courts to be admitted to prisons. That is a fact of life. There is no confrontation on my part.
I repeat that I am anxious to settle the dispute on the basis of a new duty system for the future. Is that not a constructive way forward? We agreed 52 to pay everything that the May committee recommended and we wish to go forward to a new duty system. That is what I am proposing. I cannot see any element of confrontation in that.
I say to the prison officers and to the right hon. Gentleman that if the officers would suspend their industrial action and enter discussions on a new duty system there would be no need for the proposed measures I cannot see why I should be accused of confrontation.
§ Mr. Faulds
I have no prison in my constituency, although I do have a number of my constituents incarcerated in Winson Green. Will the right hon. Gentleman carefully consider the point made by his hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson)?
As the prison officers are prepared to go to negotiation, would it not be more reasonable and responsible of him to summon the May committee to examine this particular grievance, rather than to move into a dangerous situation in which he is requiring the Army to do a job for which it is not trained and in which it will be armed? The right hon. Gentleman is introducing a series of measures which are highly irresponsible and damaging to both the conduct of the law and the functioning of the prison service.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
The hon. Gentleman says that prison officers should enter negotiations, but I am in negotiation with them over a new duty system. I am prepared to continue those negotiations and to get the new duty system. All that I am asking is why we cannot centre our negotiations on that matter, instead of going back to claims that the May committee examined but whose acceptance it did not recommend.
It would be much better to go forward to the new duty system for the future. I cannot understand why that should not be recognised as the most sensible and best way forward. I really believe that it is. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and others who are asking for negotiations will agree that that is where the negotiations should take place.
§ Mr. Thomas Cox
Is the Home Secretary aware that nothing that he has said will help to resolve the dispute? If prison officers have such a wonderful job, as was suggested by the hon. Member for Burton 53 (Mr. Lawrence), why is there such an enormous shortage of officers throughout the country?
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he can quote the May committee report as much as he likes, but prison officers do not accept the committee's finding on this aspect of their grievances? In view of the problems in our prisons, which will, as the right hon. Gentleman must be aware, get worse, why does he not at the eleventh hour look at the issue realistically—it is not a question of losing face—because if he does not do so, there will be a total collapse of our prison system in the near future?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
On the question of a shortage of prison officers, following the increase in the rates of pay after the May committee reported, there has been a considerable increase in recruitment to the prison service. The hon. Gentleman should not rely on that argument.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I know the figures and the hon. Gentleman does not. I have an advantage over him in that.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
As for what the hon. Gentleman said about the May committee and future negotiations, I understand the difficulties, but surely it is inherent in committees that have examined various matters over the years that some of their recommendations please people and some do not. Even if a committee is asked to examine a number of matters and the Government carry through everything that it recommends, people will still sometimes not get everything they want. An independent committee was asked to examine these matters and it did not recommend the prison officers' claim. Surely we should seek to get away from the anomalies and move to a new duty system. I cannot see what is wrong with that course.