HC Deb 20 March 1981 vol 1 cc539-602 9.35 am
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith, North)

I beg to move, That this House recognises that the dangerous crisis in the prisons cannot be fully resolved without fundamental reforms in the criminal justice system. I rarely win raffles, so perhaps I should say, first, that I am grateful for having done so. The last time it happened was about five years ago, and the prize turned out to be a plastic handbag. This time I have scored rather better. At first, I was not sure what to do with it. I even considered moving a motion That this House welcomes the opportunity to hear all the speeches that Clive Soley would have made if he had been called by you, Mr. Deputy Speaker on other occasions". However, the House will be relieved to know that I chose not to do so.

I tried to phrase the motion so as to demonstrate that although direct action can be taken on the prison crisis, more fundamental reforms are needed in our criminal justice system, and failure to carry out those reforms will still leave us with problems.

The Labour Campaign for Criminal Justice, an organisation with which I have been associated for about two years, since its foundation, said long ago that a criminal justice system should not only be seen to be fair and humane but should contain a real and central part for the victim. I shall say more about the needs of the victim in a moment, but I want to consider not only the victim but the offender, and the needs of society, as well as the causes of crime, per se.

The motion stresses that there is a crisis in our prisons. I can do no better than quote the Home Secretary, who said in February this year: Of the many problems facing me as Home Secretary, the most pressing and dangerous is the chronic crisis of overcrowding in our prisons which threatens to undermine our criminal justice system and its contribution to maintaining law and order in our society". Of course, he is not the first Home Secretary to have used such words. The first one that I remember in recent years was Mr. Roy Jenkins, but other Home Secretaries since the war have pointed out that that was a major problem. Some years ago it was considered a crisis if the figure reached 40,000. Now the figure has reached 44,000, and although extra places are available the situation is still not satisfactory by any standards.

The statistics have been known for many years, and more recently we have had the troubles to confirm that those statistics are not just bare numbers. In March 1980, 44,800 people were in prison. Then, with the prison officers' dispute late last year and early this year, the figure actually declined by 5 January this year to about 39,500. That is a significant number, because in the two months since then, the last figure that I have seen, in a written answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs) on 13 March, was about 43,500. In other words, in just over two months there was an increase of 4,000 in the number of people in our prisons. We are therefore heading right back into a serious crisis—a crisis that I shall now attempt to describe in another way.

In many of our older prisons the cells measure about 13 ft by 8 ft, and in many of those cells there will be three prisoners. They will have no proper sewerage facilities. There will be a chamber pot. One of the dangerous options to which the all-party report drew attention, was that if the numbers continued to escalate, four prisoners might have to be placed in those cells. It needs to be remembered that on occasions those three prisoners can be in a 13 ft by 8 ft cell for up to 24 hours. Only rarely are they there for up to 24 hours, but it happens, and, in any event, they are often there for many hours.

We need to think through what that means. Once the three people are locked up, with no sewerage system, there is a choice of using the chamber pot or not of relieving oneself throughout the night; or of doing what is frequently found in our old Victorian prisons and has certainly for many years been common knowledge to me and to many of us who have worked in the prison system, the probation service or in associated areas, namely, throwing faeces out of the windows of the prison. One can walk around the blocks in many of our old prisons in the morning and find faeces scattered around. It is a very understandable and human thing to do to try to get faeces out of the room in which one is sleeping, especially if one is sleeping there with two other people.

That is a measure of the problem. We must also take into account the fact that where the chamber pot is used, what happens in many of the old Victorian prisons is that the sewerage system cannot take the slopping-out in the morning, so there are long delays, with men queuing up to empty their chamber pots.

I make no apology for starting my speech with this rather dramatic picture of a prison, because it is true. That is what is happening in numerous prisons around the country, and it is no wonder that we face trouble.

There are those people—I think that they are a minority—who say "It serves these people right; they should not have got into trouble in the first place." I shall not try to argue with them on moral terms at this stage, because I do not think that they would necessarily be persuaded by that. I simply say that we need to remember that people have to work in that system as well. Prison officers must work there. That is no help to them. These are not job conditions that anyone in the House should condone.

In addition to that, the system provides little opportunity for appropriate education, recreation or employment, because of the pressure on the staff. The staff are under pressure, working long hours. It is very depressing. Above all, it is a rather frightening situation to have to present to the House.

I readily recognise that there has been an increase in crime rates. I shall return to that matter later. I also recognise—this is important—that in recent years there has been a much more difficult type of prisoner in the prison system. It is not just a question of the rise of terrorism and the fact that some of the terrorists are in prisons; it applies to some of the very professional criminals who have been sentenced to extremely long terms. That, again, is important in this respect, because a man—or a woman, for that matter—who has been sentenced to a very long period of imprisonment—to a term as long as 20 years—has very little to lose by bucking the system.

One of the things that I shall be putting to the House is that there are very few exceptions where we could not reduce those determinate sentences. I am not talking about indeterminate sentences, such as life sentences, in cases where we are concerned about a prisoner's stability and his long-term danger to the public. With determinate sentences I would favour reducing sentences to a maximum of 10 or 12 years. If other countries can do this—not just Holland, but others—I do not see why we cannot do so. I believe that a person is likely to behave in a better way if he has something to lose. If one has nothing to lose, one has everything to gain by bucking the system. That is particularly important.

In a sense, I apologise for what I am about to say—although I do not apologise for having said it previously, because it must be said. I get no joy out of saying it. Unless we do something quickly, prison officers or prisoners will lose their lives or suffer very serious injuries within the coming year or two.

I make no bones about that prognosis. I was saying that there would be trouble in my local prison, Wormwood Scrubs, a year or two ago, and there was trouble. Last year I went to see the Under-Secretary of State about Wormwood Scrubs and said that there would be trouble again unless something was done. Sure enough, within a fortnight there was trouble. I assure the House that I had no part in stirring it up in order to make that prediction come true. It was obvious to me from everything that I was hearing, from the prison itself and from the grapevine outside, that the place was heading for trouble and that we had to get the numbers down.

Ultimately, the House and the people must face the fact that they are putting certain persons into a dangerous situation. It is dangerous to prisoners and to the staff—and ultimately it is dangerous to the public, because a person who goes through the system does not come out a safer or a better citizen than he was before he went through it.

This is a general debate, and I do not want to dwell too much on one prison, but I was directly concerned with the events in Wormwood Scrubs and I want to put some meat on the bones of the nature of the crisis.

One of the problems last year, when I was predicting trouble, involved between 100 and 200 prisoners being in the prison yard, on exercise. Three prisoners climbed on to the laundry roof in order to demonstrate about conditions there. The prisoners having their exercise were ordered back into the wing. Naturally, there was resentment about the men on the roof and, ultimately, about having to lose exercise time.

It ended up with about 70 men in the yard, and with about 18 prison officers trying to persuade those 70 to go back into the wing. After a while, the number in the yard was reduced to between 20 and 30, still with only about 18 prison officers to look after the situation. There was then a fight. A prison officer had a finger broken. One prisoner was bitten by a prison dog. The prison dog, getting a bit confused and scoring an own goal, bit a prison officer. Perhaps that was an equaliser. That was a serious situation. It could have been much worse, but it was bad enough for the people who had to face it.

The other side of that coin is that, meanwhile, there were about 10 prison officers left in the wing looking after between 150 and 200 men. Again, we need to take stock of what that means when we are dealing with people who are frustrated and angry because of the loss of exercise and because of the conditions in their prison, and so on, and when many of them have very severe emotional and social problems of their own.

It is always difficult for anyone, whether trained or untrained, to face and to deal calmly and coolly with a violent situation. Certainly violence is no stranger to my own life, in scenes of that nature. I do not underestimate the danger and difficulty of dealing with situations of that type, in which one slip can cause a major fight, with tragic consequences.

No hon. Member who has a prison in his or her constituency can afford to be complacent about it. I urge all Members of Parliament to visit prisons, particularly those in their constituencies—and not merely to visit them but to talk to the staff, to the Prison Officers Association, to the governor and his deputies and to the prison officers on duty—and, of course, to the prisoners. We need to pay much more attention to what happens in our prisons.

That leads me to the subject of the morale of the staff. One of the major problems in recent years has been a crisis of morale. The staff feel let down and ignored, and have felt so for many years. The blame for that must be laid at the door of both parties. I recall the debate on the May committee's report, when many Conservative Members highly praised the prison staff. A few months later, when the prison staff were on strike, Conservative Members were accusing them of being irresponsible and of putting people at risk. Comments were made that were strongly resented by the prison officers. Whatever the rights and wrongs of their case, they felt misunderstood.

My first main point on the issue is that despite recent changes made in the management of the prison department, personnel management must have a higher priority than it appears to have. Something must be done about the morale of staff if we are to achieve the other reforms needed.

There are one or two directly related matters. I want to see a greater emphasis put on in-service training. Although I have not discussed that with prison officers for about nine months, I do not think that there has been a significant change. One of the complaints is that the opportunities for in-service training are slender because of demands on work time. Prison officers either do not take the opportunities offered because of work demands or, if they do take them, they feel guilty because they know that their colleagues are covering for them. A strong demand was made for me to ask for in-service training. That is fair comment, although the other side of that coin means that the Prison Officers Association must investigate a pay structure that rules out the attraction of overtime, so that the officers do not have a financial incentive to work all the hours that are sent.

Related to that is the importance of improving the professional status of the staff. I want to see some form of pre-service training for prison officers. They do not have the training which, in my experience, is extremely helpful in dealing with a crisis in which an officer is faced with the threat of violence or with actual violence.

I recognise that reform cannot be carried out quickly, but I should like to see the Minister take on board, as a long-term aim, the development of a training programme for prison officers, not necessarily at university level; I do not want to see too many university graduates staffing our prisons. There should be some sort of training programme prior to working in prison similar to the programme required for the qualification of social workers. I want to see the prison staff recognised not just as turnkey operators or security officers. They should be able to respond appropriately to human behaviour in difficult social situations if they are to make the best of their work and avoid violence.

Prison staff should have their status improved by being included more frequently on overseas visits. We frequently hear of hon. Members or senior prison officers visiting prisons overseas to gain experience. A number of prison officers have told me that the opportunities for them to do so are limited. I want to see that extended.

I do not wish to go in great depth into the question of conditions of work, including pay, because if I did I would be in danger of repeating the debate on the May committee's report. I reiterate simply what I have already said about the prisons that we are asking the staff to work in. Conditions are appalling. Our first task should be to reduce overcrowding and the second should be to modernise or rebuild the prisons.

When we have put right the conditions for the staff we can go for a more truly professional prison service and the sort of reforms that I want to see. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South recently attempted to introduce a Bill spelling out prisoners' rights—a Bill that was sadly lost, by a relatively small number of votes. It was a brave Bill. My hon. Friend pointed out certain anomalies in the rules and conditions of prisons. He also included a clause, for which I must take some responsibility, that may have caused him to lose that vote, because I have been saying for a year or two that we should consider the possibility of prisoners having the vote.

That is often dismissed as nonsense—as an irrelevance that may possibly lead to trouble. I shall not dwell on that at length, but I want to put down a marker. In civil rights terms it is difficult to justify the argument that a prisoner should not have a vote. He is there precisely because he broke the rules of society that are made by this place. Thus, a prisoner does have an interest. I have often been asked "Who will give a vote to the M5 rapist, or whatever?" I reply that the vast majority of people are not imprisoned for offences of that type. There may be a case for excluding them from the vote, although I do not see it. There certainly is no case for excluding the person who has fiddled his social security or income tax, or has committed a relatively minor offence. My reason for suggesting that is that it would be a successful way of making public representatives—councillors and Members of Parliament—take a greater interest in the prisons in their areas and elsewhere. I am not suggesting great hustings and meetings in prisons at election time—that is not necessary—but my proposal would recognise that breaking the law does not mean that anyone is less than a human being.

At present we are putting people into conditions that we would not tolerate for animals, and we are taking away their rights. We have not thought through the consequences of such action, for which there is little rational justification.

Mr. Alan Clark (Plymouth, Sutton)

Presumably the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that inmates should have postal votes in the constituencies where they normally reside, and not that they should vote en bloc in constituencies such as his own.

Mr. Soley

That is correct. I have no illusions about that. If Conservative Members are worried about the way in which the prisoners vote, I can tell them that the majority do not normally vote. When they do, many vote for what I loosely call Right-wing parties.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

They are private entrepreneurs.

Mr. Soley

Absolutely. My hon. Fried calls them private entrepreneurs. Significantly enough, I would not expect Labour Members to receive enormous votes. I am not concerned about that. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark) is quite correct. There would have to be a postal vote. I do not want to make that a major part of the debate.

Over a number of years we need to move towards a more humane and sensible prison system than we have now. Another part of the long-term aim should be to use prison as a measure of last resort. Long ago it was said—I believe by the utilitarians—that to deprive a person of his liberty was the ultimate punishment that society could impose. I feel that the only case in which one can justify doing that is the case in which a person is a danger to society, and has either committed a violent act or has threatened danger in some way. One might include other special cases, such as large-scale corruption and fraud, which would strike at the fabric of society. After that it becomes more difficult to justify taking away a person's liberty. We should be considering alternatives.

I say that as a fair moral or political point about the nature of liberty and the seriousness of depriving a person of his liberty. Not only that; all the evidence shows that imprisoning people does not work. Hon. Members are becoming increasingly aware of that. Imprisoning people does not prevent them from committing other offences. While they are locked up they do not commit other offences. The other side of the coin, particularly in our prison system, is that it makes it easier to go back. It is always easier to do something that one has already done. It is like having the cane at school.

The impact of imprisonment on a person who is imprisoned for the first time is dramatic and forceful in the first few days. After that it progressively tails off, as he gets over the shock, learns the rules of the system, gets to know the people in the system, and fits into "doing his time". If his time is fairly long his anxiety will increase as his release date gets nearer, and that anxiety will continue after release.

It is not unusual to find people who come out of prison after several years unable to sleep and wandering round at night, doing many things that they normally would not do and being totally unable to understand why. Basically, it is the result of a high level of anxiety after leaving an institution.

Anyone who has been admitted to a hospital as an emergency case will understand the feeling, because it is not dissimilar. There is the shock of admission, the horror of being there, what has happened, why it has happened, what will happen about his job and family. After a while, he gets over that crisis. He fits into the hospital routine and begins to accept things as normal, until—as with prisoners, so with long-term hospital patients—anxiety increases prior to release.

For imprisonment to have the most effect it must consist of a short and sharp sentence. By "short" I mean days, if it is to have the maximum impact. I suggest that a short, sharp sentence for a first offender for a non-dangerous offence is more likely to prevent him from going back to prison than a sentence of months or years. With a long sentence a man gets used to imprisonment. He is able to come out and say "It is easy. It is a doddle. I can take the worst that the system can throw at me." Many of us have heard similar statements.

I turn now to some of the causes of crime. I do not want to spend too much time on this part of the subject, because it is an immense area. It is generally accepted that there is no single cause. More property is available to be criminalised: parking meters can be broken into; there are more cars around to be broken into, and so on.

There is a whole range of relevant social problems. I can do no better than quote the Home Secretary speaking in a debate on law and order in the House on 27 February 1978. Addressing his remarks to a Labour Government, he said: There has been a dramatic rise in unemployment among boys and girls. That is the responsibility of this Government. Let no one have any doubt about the danger that that has created in terms of crime of all sorts, violence and vandalism. If boys and girls do not obtain jobs when they leave school, they feel that society has no need of them."—[Official Report, 27 February 1978; Vol. 945, c. 40.] He went on to say that that was a major problem in the cause of crime. Bad housing is another. But neither of those problems alone will cause crime, any more than the lack of appropriate leisure and recreational facilities will.

There is also the question of changing values in society. Some crimes have been with us since time immemorial, in all societies. Other crimes are related to our society and not to another society, and so on. There is a whole range of interesting crimes of that nature between different societies. In the classical age of Greece, certain forms of homosexuality, including homosexuality with children, were not frowned upon as illegal. In South Africa today a black person commits a crime if he or she does not carry an identification document. In the Soviet Union there are economic crimes, which we would not define as crimes. There is a range of different attitudes and values towards crime, and those attitudes change with time.

In recent years we have elevated the importance of the crime of drinking and driving. Indeed, we have introduced imprisonment for the commission of such crimes. Drinking and driving is a dangerous crime. It is a danger to people. It kills or injures many people. However, we tend to give it a lower rating as a socially unacceptable thing to do than burgling someone's home or stealing. Burglary can be a great shock, especially to an elderly person or to someone of a nervous disposition who lives alone. Nevertheless, on the whole drunken driving is a more dangerous offence.

The family structure is important in controlling social behaviour. It is the main agent in setting social controls and limits on behaviour. But we sometimes make the mistake of assuming that in order to achieve that control the family should be the classic two parents plus 1.5 children, or whatever it is. To my mind, the family least likely to produce delinquent children is a happy family. It may be a one-parent family. Problems do not necessarily arise in the family where there has been separation of two parents, low income, unemployment, or bad housing. It is the unhappy family that tends to cause the problems.

There are two important elements within the family structure. One is love—the feeling of being wanted and of being important to others. The other, which is important in the wider sense—in terms of the way we treat those who come before the courts—is consistency. That is crucial not only within the family but externally. None of us is totally consistent. We do appallingly inconsistent things—never more so than when dealing with children, who provoke inconsistent responses that we may afterwards regret.

I recall a lad of 16 complaining to me about 10 or 12 years ago that his mother had clouted him round the face and said "Do not lie to me" when she caught him lying to her. About 20 minutes later the doorbell rang and she said to his younger sister "That will be the rent man. Tell him that I am not in." The mother got her come-uppance at the end of the day, because the child went downstairs and said "My Mummy is not in, and I am a liar." It is interesting that the child should have responded in that way. There was inconsistency. A lie got the boy a dramatic clout round the face, but then his mother lied.

One learns that lying is or is not all right. Most of us learn that lying is all right in certain circumstances. Too much inconsistency of that kind tends to lead to the belief that lying to people in authority or to people that one does not know is all right, and so on. That often accounts for a tight sense of loyalty and devotion within a family or group, but not loyalty to teachers, police officers, employers and others in a person's life.

The reason why consistency is important outside the family is that at times we reinforce bad training when we try to cope in an inconsistent way with children in children's homes and people in prison or before the courts. We expect them to learn too rapidly. In juvenile courts one frequently hears it said "You have been given three conditional discharges already. If you go on like this we shall have to put you away." Few hon. Members who are parents would say something similar to their children for a second or third offence. We tend to treat offenders in juvenile courts inconsistently. It is difficult to be consistent, because those concerned are often dealt with by different custodians, be they prison officers, probation officers, or whatever. But consistency is vital if people are to function satisfactorily in our society.

One of the primary causes of crime is that we live in a highly sophisticated society. If someone does not have the advantages of a good family training, housing and education and the opportunities for leisure and recreation his chances of coping with life are dramatically reduced. All around him he sees the temptations of an advanced and sophisticated life-style. Indeed, that life-style is portrayed on television, in advertisements, and in the way of life of many people.

Not unnaturally, frustration and anger build up. Attempts are then made to short-circuit the stytem. Short cuts are taken that often do not work. It is significant that those who get into trouble often do so because they are unable to cope with society. That area is important.

The victims of crime are particularly important. I welcome the formation of the National Association of Victim Support Schemes. Some years ago we started to organise such schemes, which have been in existence since the original scheme was—I believe—founded, successfully by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, in Bristol. I give full encouragement to the scheme that is being set up in my area. I think that such schemes are well known, but I ask hon. Members to support the setting up of schemes in their areas. I took the initiative in my area. Through the police and the probation service an effort can be made to get such schemes going.

I know that the Minister backs victim support schemes, but will he take a long hard look at the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board? l should like to see its powers extended, so that it can give more generous allowances and be much more flexible in its coverage. That is particularly important. If we are seriously concerned about crime the victim must be central to our criminal justice scheme. It is also important that the public should accept the need for penal reform. It would be easier if the public felt that sufficient was being done for the victim.

Local authorities could offer low-cost insurance to be paid with council rents. The vast majority of criminals come from social classes 4 and 5. It is important to notice that the vast majority of victims also come from those social classes. It is at that level that crime hurts most. Although it would be a nuisance and upsetting if I were to find that my flat had been burgled, an elderly person living alone would find it much more devastating if his television set had been stolen. Such people need not only the support of a victim support scheme but some form of compensation. They do not always have insurance.

Many of those living on the lower-income council estates are not covered, and an innovative local authority could offer low-cost insurance. There would be no compulsion, but it would help people and should be encouraged. The answer is not to lock up those who cause trouble, unless they are a danger to society. If we were to lock up everyone we should only store up trouble for the future. Indeed, it has recently been suggested that we are storing up trouble by holding so many children in custody.

I know that it is not the Minister's direct concern, but we should make far greater use of fostering for children in trouble, and particularly for difficult children. Schemes similar to the Kent scheme should be developed. At face value, the cost of such schemes is relatively high, but they are infinitely cheaper than the cost of care. Ultimately the cost is cheaper, because the child develops into a better person, is more able to cope, and is less likely to go into an institution. Like the Kent scheme, foster parents who deal with difficult children should be highly paid, because fostering is a demanding and difficult task. Nevertheless, it should be encouraged and developed.

The police are often the first to see signs of crime. I welcome the fact that the police are refraining from zooming up in their siren-wailing cars and are returning to the beat. There is no substitute for the policeman on the beat. Indeed, the presence of a police officer is a great deterrent to crime. Prevention is always better than cure.

I emphasise the importance of adopting a constructive approach towards the efforts made by the chief constable of Devon. Those efforts are often quoted, and are well known. Perhaps such efforts could be extended to other areas. I accept that there are problems in inner city areas, but we could adopt such an approach. I am fortunate, because my area has an active and hard-working community relations police officer—Ted Keele—who has done immense work not only in getting a victims' scheme airborne but in working with youth clubs and ethnic minority groups. A good community relations officer should be given much more emphasis in our criminal justice system. We should make it clear that such an appointment can be a step up the promotion ladder. Sometimes such an appointment is seen as a sideways step in a police career.

Two other issues give rise to concern. It is in everyone's interests that the police should be well respected. But the police are sometimes their own worst enemies. They oppose certain reforms that are in their interests. The complaints procedure is a classic example. Indeed, a report has recently been published. I can remember talking to the police about their powers to pick up someone suspected of an offence. Over and over again they said that if someone had not committed an offence he had nothing to worry about. The same applies to the police. There should be an independent police complaints procedure. That is important not only for the public as a whole but for the police, if they are to win back the public's confidence. They still retain much of the public's confidence. but they could win more.

Mr. John Wheeler (Paddington)

Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that the Police Complaints Board is independent? I hope that he will agree that it is doing a very good job, and that a great deal of confidence reposes in it.

Mr. Soley

There is something in what the hon. Gentleman says, but the police refer cases, and the first contact is made by the police. That is the problem. It is like saying that the local authority ombudsman should have a matter investigated first by a councillor who has already investigated it. That double check is wrong, and should be changed. The police have nothing to lose or fear.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Does not my hon. Friend accept that there should be an independent element in police investigations in order to avoid a situation in which the police police the police? We would not find it acceptable in any other area of life if those against whom complaints had been made were to investigate and report on them. If the police can be investigated independently and successfully in Scotland by the procurator fiscal it could be done just as effectively in England and Wales without destroying the efficiency of the police force.

Mr. Soley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He knows much more about this subject than I do. It is important to get right the form of democratic control over the police force. I cannot believe that there is a police officer or an hon. Member who would not want the best form of democratic control. Both locally and nationally people must feel involved. I am not talking about whether a police officer should go down a road on one day, nor am I saying that we should interfere in the detail of his job. It is vital that the Government should consider the introduction of a public prosecutor.

I should like to draw attention to the recent Madden case. I cannot imagine that this would have reached the stage that it did if there had been a public prosecutor. That was the case of the young lad who was picked up for stealing goods which he had previously bought at a shop. He was taken to court and charged. Only when a solicitor went into the matter was it found that the whole case was false. It was a worrying incident, because the lad made a statement saying: I saw these cars in boxes you know, and one of them was a Superman van. So I just picked it up and looked round a bit to see if anyone was looking, and then just put it in my bag and walked out of the shop. I then went to another shop, it's a little toy shop it's quite small. I picked up a car, it was a Rolls-Royce fire engine. I picked it up in the shop and just put it in my bag. That statement obviously was untrue. A newspaper report stated: The vindication came rather late for Erroll Madden. He had started to behave eccentrically, and was asked to leave the art college. His GP referred him to a psychiatrist, who reported that the stress of being arrested, abused, locked up and falsely charged had been damaging. That was a lad of low intelligence, who had a particular ability in one field. For that matter to be allowed to go through without any disciplinary procedure or without the police picking it up is serious. It is the sort of thing that would have been prevented had we had a public prosecutor. Such cases do immense damage to the police.

A public prosecutor would have other advantages. Holland has made major progress in reducing the prison population. It is worth drawing attention to the fact that in 1950 the daily population of Holland's prisons was twice what it is today. Although the population of England and Wales is only three and a half times that of the Netherlands its prison population is 12 times greater. While in England and Wales there are 75 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, in Holland there are only 20.

A public prosecution system has helped a great deal to reduce the prison population. Prosecutions can be waived by the public prosecutor following an expediency principle that permits him to dismiss a case, if necessary, conditionally, if this would be in the public interest. If dismissed, no sentence is passed and the offender does not get a criminal record. Until five years ago the interpretation of this provision was to prosecute unless prosecution was not required in the public interest. Now it is not to prosecute unless it is required in the public interest. As a result, in 1975, 44 per cent. of all cases brought to the public prosecutor were dismissed.

A development of that nature could be important in resolving the problem of our prison population. It would cure some of the injustices, one of which I have just mentioned. It is important that we introduce a public prosecutor as soon as possible. I would also make a plea to the Minister to take some action on the Advisory Council on the Penal System. I am not suggesting that the council is no good; I am suggesting that it does not have enough power or muscle. A public prosecutor system works best with a strong advisory council. My aim would be to give the council a permanent sub-committee on research and development, to monitor and survey research. In an ideal system there would be regular meetings with the public prosecutor to study long-term progress.

Sweden has an organisation called the National Council for Crime Prevention. Its task is to follow and analyse criminal trends and to produce forecasts, to follow, support and take the initiative in research and development work on the causes and prevention of crime, evaluating and disseminating the results, to try to co-ordinate research and development projects in the field of criminal policy, and to contribute to work in the field of criminal policy by means of surveys and by taking the initiative.

My speech has taken longer than I intended. There are many areas that I hope hon. Members will examine during the debate. I should like to finish with an urgent plea to the Minister. We need to act rapidly and dramatically over the prison population. One step would be immediately to introduce more remission. I would not be opposed to this as a short-term expediency measure, but it is not a good or desirable way forward.

I would prefer to cut the length of sentences. There is no reason why three-month sentences should not be reduced to one month and 12-month sentences to six months. It is often stated by the Home Secretary and others that the courts would resent such interference. My answer is that we have to take our responsibilities in the House. This House makes the laws; the courts interpret them. It would be wrong for the House to interfere with the interpretation. However, we are here to make the law and to decide the maximum penalty for breach of that law. It should be our aim to cut those sentences fairly quickly, before major problems arise. I want more alternatives to prison, but that is a long-term aim.

Another plea that I make is that we should fairly quickly stop imprisoning people for such offences as soliciting and vagrancy. Only a small number of people are involved, probably amounting to 400. This is, nevertheless, a matter on which we could act quickly by removing imprisonment for soliciting, begging and vagrancy offences. We also need to look seriously at the non-payment of fines. I should like to see an extension of community service orders, although this would mean providing additional resources for the probation service. It is nonesense to imprison 16,000 people a year for non-payment of fines. Fines are a salutary and effective part of the penal system. At times, they are not worked out carefully enough. If an offender cannot pay and goes inside, he costs far more than is ever recovered by payment of the fine. It does no good to him and no good to society. I would prefer that he worked on some community project, repaying society as a whole instead of rotting away in prison.

Mr. Alan Clark

He will not turn up.

Mr. Soley

The hon. Gentleman says that he will not turn up. That is the time to invoke imprisonment. The whole object of community service has always been that if a person does not turn up he goes to prison. It is almost automatic. I know of few exceptions. It is already working that way. If the hon. Gentleman says that there would have to be procedures to make sure that this happens over nonpayment of fines, I agree. I do not see any sense in sending 16,000 people to prison because they cannot pay a fine. Many of the fines have been set at an unrealistic level. Often these people lose their jobs at a later stage, or perhaps take a job at a lower income. That fact is frequently not picked up in the courts, either by inquiries or through cross-examination by magistrates.

I have conducted a superficial look at the situation but I have identified one or two areas that I regard as important. I look forward to the Minister's comments.

10.27 am
Mr. John Wheeler (Paddington)

I am glad to join in this debate. Before coming to the substance of my speech I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) not only for his good fortune in drawing his position in the ballot, which enabled him to introduce the motion, but on the manner in which he submitted the motion to the House. The hon. Gentleman has perceived rightly that the problem of the prison system is inescapably entwined with the whole criminal justice system. In his remarkable speech he touched upon many areas of great importance, all of which lead to the need to have a radical re-examination of the criminal justice system and the way in which it operates.

I am particularly glad that we have the opportunity to consider these subjects, perhaps in some detail and possibly at some leisure. I listened with great fascination to what the hon. Gentleman had to say. He began by talking about the conditions in the prisons of England and Wales—conditions with which I am personally very familiar because of my previous experience as an assistant prison governor.

The hon. Gentleman accurately described the miseries of the early-morning slopping-out procedure, carried out daily. I shall explain some of the reasons why that procedure still prevails in 1981. When the Victorians built many of our large inner city gaols they provided proper lavatory facilities in individual cells. Unfortunately, the size of the prison population soon militated against using those facilities. The easiest way to bring chaos to a prison and to halt its daily routine is to interfere with the plumbing arrangements. While engineers spend hours investigating the problem, the prison is brought to a halt.

If anything, the position has become a great deal worse. There are now more than 2,000 offenders who are extremely ruthless and have a strong vested interest in opposing authority and causing the maximum disruption to the prison system. I am thinking especially of those sent to prison for terrorist offences and serious offences in the professional criminal category, such as robbers.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the prison staff. We should pay tribute both to the prison officers and to the prison system as a whole. During recent years only two prison staff have lost their lives while on duty. One officer was murdered in 1948 and another in 1965. That is a remarkable record. No other country in the Western world has a prison system that cares for about 40,000 prisoners with a minimum of violence and a minimum loss of life among staff. Prison officers in Britain are unarmed, in sharp contrast with those in most other Western countries, especially EEC countries.

Staff morale has been low in recent years. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary took early action on the May report and appointed, with absolute confidence, Mr. Dennis Trevelyan as director-general of the prison service. I hope that he will remain in his post for a considerable time. A most unfortunate aspect of the management of the prison service in recent decades has been the frequency with which the director-general has changed. Most have been in office for only about two years. I am glad that we also have a new director of personnel. I hope that he will develop a relationship with those working in the prison service, to ensure that their interests and needs are properly examined and cared for.

The hon. Gentleman did the House a great service in drawing attention to the victim support schemes. One of the most neglected aspects of the crime problem in Britain is the care of the victim. For an elderly pensioner subject to burglary or mugging, the impact of the crime is horrifying. We should develop with great urgency more schemes to care for those victims. That raises some difficulties. I discussed the matter with the police in London, who said that the victim of a burglary often wants to forget about it, or at least to wallow in his misery on his own. The victims find it difficult to receive a stranger into the shattered remains of their homes to sympathise with the misery of the burglary. Nevertheless, we must spend more time and effort in the community dealing with the plight of the victim. The hon. Gentleman referred to a pensioner losing his television set in a burglary. Inevitably, he will not be insured, so he should receive some compensation to enable him to repair his life.

I draw the attention of the House to the recent evidence of the Justices' Clerks' Society about sentences. Part of the debate is essentially about the prison population and the length of sentences. The society suggests that if there is a genuine desire to reduce the prison population there should be an immediate reconsideration of the right to demand trial by jury for minor offences. Jury trial should not be granted for certain offences, including driving while disqualified, possessing an offensive weapon, assault occasioning actual bodily harm and fraudulent use of an excise licence. That is a fundamental point. If we intend to assess the state of the criminal justice system we shall have to come to terms with matters of great principle and difficulty. If trial by jury is a right for a large number of minor offences, inevitably the numbers of people held on remand in prisons builds up.

Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)

One reason that persuades a defendant to elect trial wherever possible is the sometimes capricious nature of magistrates in granting legal aid. There is a wide variation in the practice of magistrates' courts in that respect. If a case is committed for trial it is almost automatic that legal aid is granted.

Mr. Wheeler

The hon. Gentleman is right to pick out one point that contributes to the reasons why a person elects trial by jury, and may be so advised by his solicitor or counsel, but it is only one point. The criminal justice system is a vast subject. The House could spend a morning profitably discussing one aspect of the system alone—possibly the right of trial by jury. Many points would emerge to explain why people seek trial by jury. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) will be persuaded to contribute to this discussion, should he be fortunate to catch the eye of the Chair.

I should like to go on to the main part of my speech and to reassess the criminal justice system, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North suggests in his motion. The stark truth is that the police cannot, by themselves, stop crime. The sooner the public grasp the implication of that the sooner we shall have a more effective crime control strategy.

I invite the House to consider the facts. The Metropolitan Police have just announced that one-quarter of all serious crimes in Greater London are committed by schoolchildren. One arrest in four is of a young person aged between 10 and 16, and half of all arrests are of youngsters below 21. There was an 8 per cent. increase in burglaries to 125,806, only one in nine of which was solved.

It is worth looking at the problem of burglary, since it presents a graphic illustration of the crime problem as a whole. In England and Wales the total number of burglaries recorded in 1972 was 393,200. By 1979 that total had risen to 549,000, an increase of almost 156,000. However, even those official figures fail to show the seriousness of the burglary rate. Some research, in the form of victim surveys, confirms the general belief that the scale of crime is very much greater than the official recorded statistics suggest.

One study found that for every 100 buglaries reported to the police there were a further 37 successful burglaries that were not reported. In addition, there were 58 unsuccessful attempts at burglary for every 100 reported successful burglaries. Only just over half of the unsuccessful attempts were reported to the police. On the evidence of those findings, the number of homes that attracted the attention of burglars was almost exactly double the number of successful burglaries reported to the police. Other research shows that there are four times as many burglaries and thefts from homes as appear in the criminal statistics.

The ease with which the average burglary is committed partly contributes to the growth pattern. For the young who have never had, or have abandoned, any moral scruples, the discovery that it is easy to break into another person's home, that it takes but a few minutes to enter and leave, and that the average haul is £282, coupled with the fact that few people are caught, and that even when that occurs little happens to deter, combine to encourage the annual growth in burglaries. The average value of property recovered by the police is £14, which leaves a handsome profit to the dishonest.

That appalling increase in crime, particularly by young people, is causing growing concern on the part of the public and bringing about an increasing questioning of the effectiveness of the criminal justice system. Successive Governments have tinkered with that system in the light of the particular major Home Office problem of the day, but there has been no real appraisal of the system to evaluate whether crime is being controlled and to evaluate the effectiveness of the police and the courts. In short, do we get value for money?

In England and Wales the current annual costs of the police are put at £1,492,623,000. For the prisons costs are put at £295,253,000, and for the probation and after-care services the costs are £89,190,000. Put in terms that most people can understand, that means that the annual average inclusive cost of maintaining a police officer in England and Wales is £13,250.

Mr. Alan Clark

Very good value.

Mr. Wheeler

I agree. In London the average cost of clearing up a crime is just over £3,000. The average cost of sending a burglar to prison for 12 months works out at just under £7,000. The average annual cost of keeping a bank robber in a high-risk security prison is nearly £16,000. For a female prisoner the average cost is £7,000, and even putting someone in what is called an open prison costs about £5,200.

For the probation and after-care services, the cost of the average meeting between an officer and an offender probably makes the conversation the most expensive in the country, but that is not to say that the probation service does not have an important role to play in the provision of sensible alternatives to custody.

I should like to draw the attention of the House to one aspect of the alternatives that should be encouraged. A short while ago it was my privilege to sponsor in the Upper Waiting Hall an exhibition by the Burnbake Trust and I should like to tell the House a little more about the work of the trust and similar bodies elsewhere.

Mrs. Jean Davies started working with young offenders as a prison visitor in 1968. With the permission of the prison governor she organised a group that engaged in making craft jewellery. From that small beginning, the trust emerged. In 1978 it set up its first workshop and discovered that it was possible to work with young offenders within the community and to achieve positive results.

During the past two years the trust has linked closely with local probation service, courts, prison visitors and the police service. As a result it has formed a practical working relationship aimed at assisting young offenders.

It is the trust's hope that it will be able to expand its workshops, and I am glad to be able to tell the House that it has succeded in opening a new workshop in Southwark, which I am sure will make a contribution towards the work of the courts in inner London.

The work of the trust over the past year or so has been successful in weaning a growing number of young offenders away from dishonesty. It does not regard itself as a soft option for young offenders—quite the reverse. The trust forms a genuine and successful alternative to imprisonment. It embodies the principles of free enterprise and self-sufficiency, and seeks to work with the voluntary sector.

The trust's records suggest that more than 70 per cent. of the young people that have worked with it have gone straight, compared with the much lower success rate among those who are sent to borstals. It estimates that the cost of a trainee with the trust is less than half the £5,500 a year that it costs to keep a young man in a borstal or a young offenders' prison.

I have told the House about the trust because it is a body that is making a success of alternatives to imprisonment. It is well known and well respected by the Home Office, and I am sure that we ought to encourage more such trusts in this important work.

I turn to an examination of the police. We have in England and Wales the largest and best paid police force in many years. It is about 117,400 strong. More police officers are patrolling the streets than at any time in our history, but the police presence on the streets has no discernible effect on the levels of crime. That is perfectly understandable, as most crimes, such as burglary, are committed in private places. Burglary is accomplished quickly, stealthily and without warning. In short, the police are involved after the event, and the subsequent investigation will prove successful only if a definite lead on the offender is given by the victim or by someone else. This explains why the clear-up rate for burglary is so low.

No one doubts that some police presence on the streets is essential to keep crime in check, but I suggest that the public can no longer look to the police as the best means of controlling crime. The police are effective at dealing with certain types of crime—for example, armed robbery—where the resources of the service are put at their disposal in considerable measure. They are successful in detecting crimes of murder and in dealing with public order. Here again, in this country we succeed in maintaining the peace on the streets with the minimum of violence, in sharp contrast to what happens in other Western countries.

I pay tribute to the police in the City of Westminster and in my own constituency. I make a point of liaising with the two chief superintendents in my constituency to see how they are coping with the complex crime problems in central London.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Before my hon. Friend leaves the subject of police on the beat, may I ask whether he agrees that quite apart from the deterrent effect, which may be limited, but which exists to some extent, the presence of police on the beat is very important in giving elderly people the confidence to go out on to the streets and go about their normal lives without feeling that it is dangerous to venture abroad because they see no source of protection? That is an important factor to bear in mind in considering whether more police should be returned to the beat.

Mr. Wheeler

My hon. Friend is quite right. The presence of uniformed police officers on the streets is a reassurance. It suggests to the public, and particularly to the elderly, that it is safe to use those streets. That is true, of course. Where that formula falls down, however, is when the elderly person turns the corner into an alleyway where there is no police officer and the lurking mugger strikes swiftly to snatch the purse and make away. To that extent, policing the streets provides only a reassurance. As statistics show, it does not actually prevent crime from occurring.

I was about to consider the work of the police in the City of Westminster and in my constituency in particular. Almost alone among the divisions of the Metropolitan Police, the police officers in my area have succeeded in reducing crime. I therefore pay a handsome tribute to them this morning because I know that Chief Superintendent Nairn of Harrow Road police station, his colleague Chief Superintendent Attrill of Paddington Green and their officers have worked in exemplary fashion to achieve that reduction. Whereas serious crime in the Metropolitan Police district rose by 5 per cent. last year, the police in my constituency succeeded in achieving a reduction of 5 per cent. The number of burglaries in the Metropolitan Police area as a whole rose by 8 per cent., but in Westminster it fell by 6.5 per cent. Robberies and violent thefts rose by a horrifying 20 per cent. in the Metropolitan Police district, but fell by 13 per cent in the City of Westminster.

Those reductions were really achieved by a concentration of police resources into dealing with those particular crimes. But here is the difficulty. If one uses one's resources solely, or almost exclusively, to deal with certain crimes, inevitably the number of other criminal offences will rise. For example, the residents of Bayswater complain bitterly about prostitution on the streets. That increases when the police concentrate their efforts on dealing with mugging. One then persuades the police to do more about prostitution, possibly at the expense of seeing other offences increase. That is the inevitable dilemma of policing with limited resources in our cities.

In the light of rising crime figures the public understandably clamour for tougher penalties. When that means imprisonment, it brings us straight to the heart of the most pressing and dangerous crisis facing the Home Office. On the one hand, nearly one-third of males in prison are there for burglary, and one quarter for theft or handling stolen property, out of a prison population of about 42,000. On the other hand, the grave overcrowding and the rise in the numbers in prisons threatens to undermine the criminal justice system as a whole.

I therefore entirely support my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary when he calls for shorter sentences and greater use of alternatives to custody. Research, and, indeed, my own experience, show that there is no evidence that lengthening sentences increases the deterrent effect on those contemplating crime. For those sent to prison the impact of the experience is in the first few days or weeks. Thereafter, they settle into the boredom of routine. The common sense case for shorter sentences is well made, from both the criminological and the economic points of view. But there is no case to contradict the popular assumption on the part of the public, the magistrates or the judges that the correct deterrent sentence is effective. The crucial issue is how much crime is prevented in particular types of offence, and whether non-custodial sentences will be as effective in preventing further offences. At present, that is an open question. We know that more than half of those sent to prison for the first time seem not to be re-convicted and that, by contrast, the suspended sentence has proved a total failure.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)

I know that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to argue a case that will be seen to be untenable in due course. Does he agree that whatever the sentence, whether is is custodial or not, and whatever its length, it has very little effect on recidivism, one way or the other? If that is so, it can be argued that one might just as well have a short sentence as a long sentence. It cannot be argued that short sentences or alternatives to custody actually decrease the crime rate. They simply do not increase it.

Mr. Wheeler

I believe that I said that lengthening the sentence makes no difference to the crime rate. I agree that there is as much to expect from a shorter sentence as from a longer one. But when one considers the complex matter of what deters people from committing crimes, one enters a very different and complex area, because we simply do not know what kind of penalty will effectively deter certain offenders from committing certain acts.

Mr. Martin Stevens (Fulham)

I am sorry that I did not hear the first few moments of my hon. Friend's speech, and it may be that he has answered this point already, but does he agree that it is far more likely that potential offenders are deterred by the probability of being caught than by the nature of the penalty imposed?

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

We have heard all that.

Mr. Stevens

In that case, I apologise. None the less, at the moment the chances are four to one in Greater London that an offender will not be caught. Will my hon. Friend the Member for Paddingtom (Mr. Wheeler) accept that that is the root of the problem?

Mr. Wheeler

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stevens). He brings great knowledge to the house as an experienced magistrate in inner London. I hope that I can develop some of his thoughts in what I am about to say.

What we have to try to establish as soon as possible is how potential offenders see the risks of being caught. Do they take calculated risks after having weighed up the likely penalties if they are caught? Deterrent sentencing is effective only for those who think before acting, in which case, whatever the sentence of the court, for the impulsive, the casual or the opportunist offender, such as the young burglar, or the person who commits a crime in the heat of the moment or under the influence of drink, the chances and consequences of being caught are hardly weighed at all. We need to know the effects of specific sanctions for particular offences committed by different groups of offenders.

I support the present trend in Home Office policy, but it must be backed by research into these particular areas. Some non-custodial penalties can be effective. I refer in particular to the Saturday afternoon attendance centre, which is cheap and is a penalty least open to the unfortunate social side effects of custody. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will take urgent action to expand attendance centres, particularly senior attendance centres.

The criminal justice picture is depressing. The costs to the taxpayer rise annually, with no amelioration in the level of crime, especially burglary. More police and tougher sentences do not stop crime, any more than would improved social conditions, nor would increased expenditure in the field of criminal justice provide a return from a system where there has been so much failure in recent years.

Mr. Alan Clark

As my hon. Friend develops his theme he seems to be omitting something that the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) candidly and courageously included in his survey of the position. Although, as the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon) said, it is proven that the length of the sentence—or, indeed, the quality of the sentence—has no effect on recidivism, at least it is a fact that while people are in prison they cannot commit crime. It is true that the length of the sentence has no effect, but what is seen very clearly by the public is not the deterrent element but the positive nature of a custodial sentence. It removes the criminal. In the vernacular, he is "put away", and cannot continue to commit crime while he is inside. When he is let out, he very frequently does.

Mr. Wheeler

It is true that while a person is inside prison he will not commit a crime—at least, not a crime against the public. That is not to say that he may not do a piece of mischief against a fellow prisoner. But the truth of the matter is that sooner or later the imprisoned person will emerge from the prison system and become part of the community once again. I am about to develop the theme of how we can prevent crime, from occurring in the first place.

The only honest hope that we have of containing crime—especially property crime such as burglary—must increasingly rest with the individual. People must look more to themselves for their own well-being and protection. The decline in morality, so that little shame attaches to the individual or family when a person is caught up in crime, is a sad reflection on the present state of our nation. On this basis, how can the State do for individuals what they are unwilling to do for themselves?

There should be an outcry at the absence of any real attempt to teach the moral aspects of citizenship in the schools, although, without the support of the individual parent even that would not work.


Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Hear, hear.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)

It is a very good speech.

Mr. Wheeler

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk), who shares with me a great interest in penal matters, does not think it worth while to listen to what I am trying to say.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

The hon. Member does me a great injustice. I have listened carefully and assiduously to every word that he has uttered during the 45 minutes for which he has been speaking.

Mr. Wheeler

I am grateful to the hon. Member. I might choose to go on for the next 45 minutes—to his great advantage.

The diminished success of the present system for controlling crime suggests that improvements in crime control in the future will flow from manageable methods of preventing crime. Within the existing Home Office expenditure, it is now necessary to spend more on the prison service to make good the failure of previous Home Secretaries over many years. I hasten to say that that failure was not born out of wickedness. The reason is that over the last few decades the prison system has not been popular in the mind of the elector or of the taxpayer, and we have not made the provision for prison accommodation for the number of persons in prison that we ought to have made. Even with shorter sentences it will be necessary to provide adequate prison accommodation.

The development of a crime prevention strategy will require that more of the money that is at present allocated to the police is spent on crime prevention advisory duties. At present only about 550 police officers specialise in crime prevention duties. Apart from the moral aspects of the crime problem, the public must understand that the most effective control of crime rests with preventive measures. Things such as good locks, alarms, metal grilles and toughened glass keep burglars out, but crime prevention is a personal effort, perhaps locally influenced.

I should like to mention one development with which the Home Office is deeply involved—as is the voluntary sector—in encouraging crime prevention. Quite recently, the Minister of State, Home Office presented awards totalling £25,000 to representatives of 25 crime prevention panels. The money had been subscribed by the National Westminster Bank. That money is not going to individuals; it is going into encouraging crime prevention.

I should like also to tell the House about some of the real achievements of local communities, encouraged and supported by the Home Office, in preventing crime. For example, in Aberdeen the panel won an award for 25,000 give-away plastic carrier bags on which were printed the simple but eye-catching slogan "Bag crime—dial 999". The bags were distributed through the major department stores in the city. The public and commerce were involved.

In Cheltenham a teaching pack for junior schools will be produced and will include work cards for children of differing levels of ability. The theme of the pack will be to illustrate the role of the police in society and the involvement of the child as a responsible young citizen. It will incorporate existing material about the story of the police, and the award money from the bank will cover the production of an initial six packs to allow a pilot scheme to be undertaken and closely monitored.

That at least is involving young people—the potential young burglars. There are many other such examples of the work of crime prevention and its potential contribution to the well-being of society. This is the work that we should encourage if we really intend to reduce property crime and prevent the whole sorry cycle of courts and prisons coming into play.

One thing is certain. We have nothing to hope for from "treating" offenders, or anything to gain from harsher sentencing practices.

11.12 am
Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) was most fortunate to come top in the ballot for motions. Equally, the House was fortunate to have the opportunity today to hear his splendid survey of the criminal justice system and the problems of our prisons. No doubt many of the specific matters that he raised will be dealt with by other hon. Members during the debate.

I want to relate my remarks to the "dangerous crisis" in our prisons, to which my hon. Friend refers in his motion. A year ago this month the prison and borstal governors' branch of the Society of Civil and Public Servants argued that the prison system was collapsing under the weight of its numbers. It pointed to the fact that 40 per cent. of the then prison population of 44,000 were two to three in cells that were built for one in Victorian times, without internal sanitation, and that many thousands of the prisoners were locked up for 23 out of 24 hours.

A month later the parliamentary all-party penal affairs group, of which I have the honour to be chairman, issued its report, entitled "Too Many Prisoners". It contained 48 recommendations that were directed at the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Social Services, but were all designed to contribute to the debate on prison overcrowding and to reduce the numbers in prisons. It is a subject to which the Home Secretary has addressed his mind since he took office. In his own words he has pinned his reputation to his ability to deal with the prison crisis and substantially reduce the numbers in our prisons.

In a speech to the Leicestershire magistrates on 13 February the right hon. Gentleman said: Of the many problems facing me as Home Secretary, the most pressing and dangerous is the chronic crisis of overcrowding in our prisons which threatens to undermine our criminal justice system and its contribution to maintaining law and order in our society. The right hon. Gentleman made that statement a few weeks ago, but it was merely a reiteration of what he had said on many previous occasions. However, so far we have not witnessed that substantial change in policy or the legislation which I and many other hon. Members on both sides of the House regard as necessary if we are seriously to direct ourselves to solving the crisis in our prisons.

There are three main areas—of course, there are many others as well that deserve to be discussed—to which I shall address myself. The first is reducing the length of sentences. The second concerns remand time in custody and the third relates to petty and persistent offenders. Clearly, the only way to make a significant impact upon the prison population is to reduce the length of sentences. Today they are substantially longer than they were in the 1960s. An analysis has shown that the length of prison sentences over the past decade has vitiated all the benefits that would otherwise have flowed from the work of the Parole Board. I am not suggesting that that is the result of a deliberate or conscious action, but the increasing length of sentences has wiped out the reduction in the prison population that would otherwise have resulted from the parole scheme.

Reduction of the length of sentences for non-violent, non-dangerous offenders is of the greatest importance and is the most important single issue to which the Home Secretary has addressed himself. He has not yet properly managed to secure that reduction in the way that we would wish, however.

The Home Secretary accepts that it is necessary not just to reduce the length of sentences in order to reduce the prison population. The case stands on its merits. Overwhelming evidence shows that the length of sentences bears no relationship to the question whether an offender will re-offend or whether there will be re-convictions. At least, it has not been proved that the length of sentence has any relationship to deterring either the offender in question or other offenders from committing offences. Overwhelming evidence and opinion from the Advisory Council on the Penal System, the Justices' Clerks' Society the Magistrates' Association, the Expenditure Committee, the all-party penal affairs group and the Home Secretary himself are in favour of reducing substantially the length of sentences.

The Home Office, in research that it did for the Select Committee on Home Affairs and that was given to the members of the Committee on Monday last, showed that if, as has been suggested, sentences on non-violent and non-dangerous offenders currently serving terms of up to four years were cut by half the prison population today would be reduced by 8,500. Those are the Home Office's figures. They were the result of a long analysis of the single category of non-violent, relatively short-term prisoners. That is an area in which the Home Secretary can act and have a major impact on the prison population to bring the current intolerably and unacceptably high level of almost 44,000 down to about the certified normal level for the accommodation provided.

Mr. Alan Clark

"Reducing the length of sentences" is a facile catch-phrase that does the rounds, but what does the hon. Gentleman mean by it? Does he mean that we should reduce the maximum level of sentences, bearing in mind that maximum sentences are rarely awarded? Does he mean retroactively decreeing that everyone serving a given sentence shall be deemed to have been sentenced to half that term, with some prisoners due for release? Or does he mean that there should be some obscure directive to the judiciary that it should think of a sentence that it would normally impose and then award half that?

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I shall come to each of those three points, but I agree with all three. They are not mutually exclusive. This House will need—the Home Secretary has almost threatened this—to reduce the parameters within which the judiciary will be able to exercise its discretion, and we shall have to reduce the maximum sentences available. I again quote the right hon. Gentleman from his Leicestershire speech: It is, I think, common ground that a continued increase in the prison population could not be sustained, so, on present trends, I should be obliged to consider what legislative measures could be taken. The Home Secretary, with the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, has been making moving and impassioned exhortations to the judiciary to reduce the length of sentences. That is the third point raised by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark). However, those exhortations, that cajolery and those attempts at persuasion have not so far proved successful. The Home Secretary almost acknowledges that by his implied threat to the Leicestershire magistrates. He is almost saying that if the judiciary does not voluntarily reduce the length of sentences the Home Secretary will be obliged—I take the word "obliged" to be an implicit threat—to legislate.

Mr. Mayhew


Mr. Kilroy-Silk

The hon. and learned Gentleman clearly dissents from that view. He will have an opportunity to correct it and to put his own gloss and interpretation upon it later in the debate.

There is no doubt that in the context in which he was speaking the Home Secretary was saying "I have repeatedly asked the judiciary and the magistracy to reduce sentences. If that request goes unheeded and if it is not followed in practice, I shall be obliged to introduce legislation."

I think that the Home Secretary should introduce legislation now. I am sure that I shall take every hon. Member with me when I say that if we have to reduce the length of prison sentences by legislative means, properly, openly and above board as we should, and if Parliament takes that decision, how much more sensible it would be for us to take it now, when we can do it in a measured, considered, objective and unhurried manner, than to have to take it, as the Home Secretary is implying he might have to take,in response to a specific crisis of overcrowding or the sudden deterioration and taking out of commission of a prison such as Brixton, Pentonville or Oxford, which are on the list of those that are at risk of falling down at any moment, as the Home Secretary has admitted.

If we are to legislate to reduce sentence lengths it would seem to me to be far more sensible to do it now, in advance of an even greater crisis than that with which we are currently confronted.

Mr. Stevens

I hope that in the course of his interesting and important speech the hon. Member will give his views on suspended sentences. Although they are not related directly to the problems in our prisons they are part of the comprehensive subject that he is covering. That is also an aspect on which we should value his views.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comment. It was not my intention to talk about suspended sentences today. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North covered an enormous area, as did the hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler), who, having spoken for 45 minutes, has now left his place. Obviously I cannot deal with all the subjects that they raised. However, in principle, suspended sentences would seem to be an admirable and desirable objective. Unfortunately, however, invariably a suspended sentence is activated into a prison sentence, and I should have thought that for the large number of people subjected to suspended sentences it would be far more appropriate that an alternative to custody should be imposed.

Apart from legislating to reduce the length of sentences, and apart from the cajolery of the judiciary, what the Home Secretary could do now—it would need only minor legislation, in the form, perhaps, of an order—would be to introduce an early release scheme; in other words, to increase remission from one-third to one-half along the lines of the system already introduced, apparently with great success, in Northern Ireland, where it has been in operation since 1976.

If the Home Secretary increased remission for short-term prisoners—those who, unfairly, are not able to obtain parole at present because they are serving sentences of 18 months or less—and introduced a conditional release scheme, in a way rather like a suspended sentence, for short-term, non-violent prisoners, he would reduce the prison population overnight by 3,000. That is not an insignificant figure. In terms of justice, equity and fairness, the argument for a conditional early release scheme would seem to carry weight on that ground alone.

Mr. Soley

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I am trying to keep my remarks briefer than those of the hon. Member for Paddington, having criticised him.

Mr. Soley

I do not want to delay my hon. Friend, otherwise he will be hoist with his own petard. However, this point is crucially important. A conditional release scheme would deal with the crisis here and now. That is its value. But it would not be enough on its own, because we would have to go on to legislate for shorter sentences or to introduce the sort of structure that I described to prevent the crisis recurring.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I agree absolutely. I have already said that I agree with my hon. Friend. There was no aspect of his speech from which I found myself dissenting. The crucial factor for me—and I have heard nothing to the contrary—is that we have to legislate to reduce the maximum sentences that are at the disposal of the courts. Additional to that, I see no reason why we could not and every reason why we should introduce a conditional early release scheme.

The evidence from Northern Ireland shows that the re-conviction rate of those who have been released on condition or on licence earlier than they would have been otherwise is no greater than that which would have occurred had they been released at the end of their normal terms in prison. The re-conviction rate for those on early release is 32 per cent., compared with a 34 per cent. previous re-conviction rate for those released at the end of their normal sentences.

The second area in which substantial and important changes have to be made is in terms of remands in custody. I am especially concerned that more than 44 per cent. of the 58,000-odd individual men and women and schoolchildren who are remanded in custody every year are eventually found not guilty or are given non-custodial sentences. It is no small wonder that the May committee on the prison service called this one of the most important scandals of our criminal justice and prison systems.

Mr. Lawrence

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, very frequently, the fact that a person has served a short time in custody is sufficient to enable a court to say that there should be no further time spent in custody because that person has had a glimpse of the horrors that might lie before him, and that that is reckoned to be a sufficient deterrent? Very often, the effect is to avoid what would otherwise be a prison sentence.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Of course I accept that. I was about to come to it. But surely the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence), who, unlike me, is a lawyer, will accept that that is no reason, in justice, why our criminal justice system should be empowered to imprison the still innocent. Surely the hon. Gentleman will not argue that. He may argue that, as a matter of reality, when passing sentence magistrates take into account the fact that a person has been on remand in custody before his trial and conviction, but surely he is not attempting to imply that that is a justifiable system. If he is, I am both saddened and amazed. But clearly he is not.

The Bail Act, introduced by the last Government, reduced the number of remands in custody. They decreased from 68,388 in 1975 to 55,673 in 1979. Since then there has been an increase in the average period on remand in custody, resulting in a rising daily average population from 5,609 on remand in custody in 1975 to 6,132 in 1979. There has also been an increase in the average waiting time before trial, from 7½ weeks in 1975 to 11.1 weeks in 1979. In London, the increase has been from 12½ weeks to 19½ weeks. On any day, still technically innocent but on remand awaiting trial, there are more than 900 individuals who have been in prison for longer than the 110 days that their compatriots north of the border in Scotland could be held in similar circumstances.

That is a very serious cause for concern, not least to the House, which should be very mindful of the need to protect individual liberties and the rights of individual citizens. This House should be extremely concerned that, for whatever reason, so many of our fellow citizens, a substantial proportion of whom are eventually found not guilty or are found to have committed offences that are not sufficiently serious to warrant prison sentences, should spend time in custody awaiting trial when it is not necessary for them ever to see the inside of a prison, or, more importantly, to spend such long periods awaiting trial. I am sure that we all agree that even the guilty have a right to a trial, and to a fair trial and an early one. That is not the case in our system at present, with more than 900 individuals in inadequate, obsolescent and overcrowded prisons, having been there longer than they could be kept under the same terms and conditions in Scotland, where the maximum period is 110 days.

In prison awaiting trial today are several people who have been there for more than 12 months. Today, 14 months and even 16 months is not uncommon for a man or woman to have to await trial. It is a terrifying, disgraceful and horrendous slur on our allegedly wonderful reputation for justice. That cannot be right or acceptable to any hon. Member, whatever his views about criminals. The Government must take quick and effective action.

I accept that in recent months the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice have done much to reduce the court backlog, but the wait between committal and trial is indefensible and unacceptably long. Here again, legislation would be appropriate. The Home Secretary could legislate and enact the kind of law that now exists in Scotland, whereby a time limit is imposed upon a person who is held in custody if he is not brought to trial. I do not see why we cannot have the rules that apply in Scotland, whereby once a person has been held for 110 days and has not been brought to trial—that is, if he himself has not delayed the trial, and there has been no illness involving either himself or witnesses, or whatever other qualification may be necessary—he is released forthwith and all charges are dropped. The law seems to work perfectly well in Scotland, and if it existed here people would be brought to trial more quickly and more effectively. Such a system is widely supported by many organisations and individuals, and I cannot see why the Home Secretary feels that he cannot introduce such a measure.

Again, there should be a time limit, as was proposed by the Criminal Bar Association, for all the pre-trial processes before an individual comes to trial. I do not see why a legislative framework cannot set down time limits that would have to be complied with in all the pre-trial stages. That would ensure that individuals were brought to trial earlier. Nor do I see why we cannot adopt the system that operates in the United States as a result of the Speedy Trials Act 1974, whereby trials have to take place within 70 days of indictment. On all the evidence, even that of its opponents, that system seems to be working efficiently and successfully.

There is a third way in which we could reduce the prison population, and it relates to petty offenders or petty persistent offenders. A large part of the prison population, particularly in local prisons, is composed of people who are not a danger to society but who have been convicted of having committed petty and in many cases trivial offences, often through no fault of their own but through their own incompetence, or through homelessness, unemployment, drink, or other problems.

Mr. Alan Clark


Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I shall not give way. The hon. Gentleman will have to be patient for a little while. That is not an unreasonable request, particularly in the context of people who are in remand on custody and who have to retain their patience, even though they are subsequently found not guilty after 110 days.

I quote from the speech that the Home Secretary made to the Conservative Central Council on 21 March 1980, when he said: it is no use continuing to over-burden the staff who have to run the system, too often in antiquated and inadequate buildings, with petty offenders who can be dealt with just as well in other ways". He continued: we must ensure that prison is reserved for those whom we really need to contain in custody and that sentences are no longer than necessary to achieve this objective". He said later: We shall need, and in this the courts have their part to play, to see that the prisons are not allowed to remain cluttered up with trivial and inadequate offenders who are no real threat to anyone, exept possibly themselves, but whose presence helps to create the extremely acute pressures which afflict our prisons today and all who work in them". On the evidence of the Home Office Research Unit, published in 1972, one-third of the present prison population could be described as petty persistent offenders, all of whom should be diverted not just from the prison system, but from the criminal justice system itself.

A recent research study, No. 66, on persistent petty offenders, says that all possible efforts should be made to keep out of prison those who are the petty and the persistent offenders.

Mr. Alan Clark

I welcome the readiness with which the hon. Gentleman allows free debate on the subject. He mentioned the proportion of one-third. From his deep knowledge of the subject it is somewhat surprising that he did not give the House the total figure of persons involved in the category of petty and trivial offenders, which he claims at present forms part of the prison population. He referred to the proportion of one-third, but did that relate to the figures compiled in 1972? My information is rather different, and I should like to know exactly what the figure is, out of the total prison population of 44,000.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

The Home Office research study on the South-East's prison population, published in 1972, estimated that one-third of the prison population at that time was composed of petty and persistent offenders. Subsequent inquiries, both by the Home Office itself and by academics, conclude that it is substantial. The last report that I referred to on petty persistent offenders—published this week, I think—did not give a figure, but spoke of a substantial proportion. In the event, however, I do not think that the figures matter. Certainly they do not matter in terms of the argument that I am trying to make and that I hope I shall be allowed to make if the hon. Gentleman will allow me.

The fact is that such offenders form a substantial proportion and they could have some effect, if only a marginal one, on the prison population and on overcrowding.

I say that numbers do not matter because I believe that it is a matter of principle that these people should not be in prison in the first place. Throughout the Home Office research study on petty persistent offenders there is mention of people who are in prison because of lack of accommodation, drink and drug problems, and unemployment. A wide variety of inadequates are in prison because of their own inadequacy. Our only response has been to imprison them, when we should have been thinking in terms of social welfare. Such people should be diverted away from prisons and from the criminal justice system.

There is a creditable alternative—the probation package, which unfortunately seems to have declined somewhat during the past decade. We need a probation order for persistent and petty offenders, combined with a requirement, perhaps, for residence in a hospital, attendance at a day centre, participation in an employment scheme. or acceptance of help with a drink, drug or health problem. That would make more sense than the revolving-door syndrome of picking people off the streets, putting them in police cells, taking up expensive and unnecessary court time. putting them into prison, even if only for a short time, and then letting them out and starting the whole process over again. A series of important alternatives already exists, but not in sufficient quantity or quality. We need more hostels, more day-care centres and more employment centres. That means much more financial help from the Home Office and from the Department of Health and Social Security.

Much is wrong with our prison system and also with our criminal justice system. Many of the problems have been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North, and some by the hon. Member for Paddington. I do not pretend that I have mentioned all of them today. I have addressed myself to what I believe is the most crucial and fundamental problem confronting the Home Secretary and the prison service— the problem of overcrowding. If we are to create a prison system that is civilised, decent and humane, whereby we can accommodate the proper and appropriate individuals who require custody and who are a danger to the community, and treat them with the dignity and respect to which they are entitled as individual citizens and human beings, we must reduce the prison population substantially and quickly.

I believe that that can be done most effectively by reducing the length of sentences, which can be achieved only by legislation. It can be done, too, by reducing the length of time and the number of people on remand in custody.

It can be done to the great benefit of the community and the individuals concerned by taking out of our prison system altogether all those who are mentally ill and ought not to be there, all those who are alcoholic and ought to be treated within the community, all those who are drug addicts and ought to be in therapeutic units, and all those whose offences stem directly and almost exclusively from their incapacities, their absence of social skills, and their incompetence, rather than from their motivation as criminals.

I hope and believe that the hon. and learned Gentleman the Minister of State shares my objectives and ideals. I hope that today, speaking not as a Back Bencher but as a Minister, he will be able to show that he can put some of them into practice.

11.40 am
Mr. Alan Clark (Plymouth, Sutton)

I listened with great attention to the speech of the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley). I should like to say how much I appreciated the consistent and humanitarian way in which he stated his case, which, as the House knows, is founded on a long and deep experience of this subject.

However, the more I hear of the arguments that relate to the so-called crisis in our prisons the more I become aware of a certain ambivalence in the way that they are expressed. There is reference to the conditions in the prisons, and then, in parallel, there is reference to penal experience in other countries—Sweden and Holland, inevitably, are cited—and the views of learned authorities of the deterrent effect of short sentences, and so on. It seems somewhat in the nature of what used to be called by lawyers a rolled-up plea. That is an argument with two separate and, indeed, inconsistent assertions, In defamation, it would be said "I did not say it, and anyway it was true."

The arguments that conditions in the prisons are bad, that this is a strain on the prison officers, and that there is a possibility of serious disturbance, and so on, may be valid, but they carry, implicit in them, the assumption that the prisons contain people who are properly incarcerated there and being punished for their offences and that it is appropriate that they should remain there. The argument that penology has advanced—that treatment is different, and that experience shows that short sentences are appropriate, and so on—although I doubt its validity and doubt very much whether it is politically acceptable, and I do not believe that it would do anything for the morale of the police if we were to act on its precepts, does not seem to sit very happily with the first.

What concerns me is that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, very mindful of the first of these arguments and the administrative difficulties which it presents to them, will try to latch on to the second as offering an easy way out. They are faced with an administrative problem. All of a sudden they are discovering these various penologists, experts, and so on, and they are wheeling them out to show that what they need to do, for administrative reasons, is probably progressive and effective anyway. I see all the signs of a concerted effort to sell the idea of shorter prison sentences—signs which appear both in this place and in the country at large, and to justify what is essentially an administrative crisis by reference to progressive and high-minded arguments.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is quite openly now talking about legislation. He has been urged, at great length by the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) to get on with it, and the sooner the better. My right hon. Friend has been much quoted in this debate, and I should like to add to the level of his recorded pronouncements. He has said: The lower level of the prison population attained during the dispute"— that is, the prison officers' dispute— should be regarded as a benchmark against which to measure the progress of the criminal justice system in the months to come. That is a very curious definition of progress: To suggest that the size of the prison population should henceforth be a major consideration of the courts in assessing punishment is to stand the criminal justice system on its head. That is a quotation from a leading article in this month's issue of Police Magazine. It goes on to say—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ormskirk immediately bristles. It is fortunate, perhaps, for the level of our debate, that his hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) is not present, because we know that he and the hon. Member for Ormskirk pay very little regard to the feelings, morale and views of the principal body concerned in this area.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

That is nonsense.

Mr. Clark

The hon. Gentleman says "That is nonsense", from a sedentary position, but why does he immediately react in that prejudiced way? [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says that it is not a very authoritative view.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

It is a bad magazine.

Mr. Clark

He thinks the magazine is bad. This "bad" magazine continues: It pains us to say so, but Mr. Whitelaw is allowing his Home Office speech writers to put nonsense into his mouth. I would not, obviously, go so far as to align myself with that view, but I must tell my hon. and learned Friend that there is very grave disquiet in the party about these proposals. It arises from a number of aspects. First, how shall we do it? Shall we do it through the medium of bail? We know the effect that the Bail Act has had. We have evidence now of the number of people who have been convicted of further offences while on bail, when they would have been remanded in custody had it not been for that Act.

Is it to be done through increased remission? Is it to be done through the increased use of parole? There have been some very bad cases of people who have been given parole and have committed serious crimes when if they had not been paroled they would still have been in prison. It is known that inside prisons the whole operation of the parole system causes considerable feelings of injustice and in many cases has aroused outright contempt for its operation.

Is it to be done by reducing maximum sentences? I questioned the hon. Member for Ormskirk when he kindly allowed me to intervene on this matter. Are we really to legislate retroactively? My hon. and learned Friend knows very well that for us to direct the judiciary, even by the passing of a law, properly debated in the House, would be an extremely difficult and dangerous thing to do when the judiciary, as the evidence seems to show, is somewhat reluctant to comply with the requests to accede voluntarily to what the Home Secretary has suggested that it should do.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth)

Does the hon. Member appreciate that there is great resentment against an attempted interference in the judiciary by the legislature unless there is legislation imposing a different maximum sentence? It would be quite wrong for Members of Parliament to seek to influence the judiciary in giving it advice as to what sentences to pass when the individual Members of Parliament know nothing about the facts of the case or the antecedents of a particular defendant.

Mr. Clark

I concur with what the hon. Gentleman says. The resentment has perhaps manifested itself already. It is unfortunate that a Minister should ever try to influence, however indirectly, the length and severity of sentences which the courts award.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

The Lord Chancellor does it all the time.

Mr. Clark

The Lord Chancellor is a special case because he is different in his status from an ordinary Minister or a Privy Councillor. It may be that the judiciary has not responded as it was hoped it would to the unofficial suggestions because of that resentment to which the hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Ryman) has drawn attention, and that it feels that it should not do so until a law is passed directing that it should. I think that there is a bit of both. I think that the judiciary resents it and also feels that it would be inappropriate in the majority of cases.

I return to the ground on which I feel grave doubt. If, when we fought the last election we had said in our manifesto that we believed that the advance of knowledge, experience in other countries, and our own conclusions following a study of the subject, obliged us to take a new look at sentencing and to move in the direction of shorter sentences, my right hon. Friend would be justified in putting legislation before the House,

If we had said in our manifesto or at any time in speeches, or had suggested to the electorate that the overcrowding in prisons was so acute and terrible that an administrative crisis was facing us, or would be soon, and it was necessary to take drastic measures to avert that, again my right hon. Friend would be justified in considering that course. I do not know whether it would have been as well received by the electorate at large. However, because we are faced with a notional crisis that may or may not materialise we cannot search for different reasons to justify it and try to get it through as a progressive measure which is long overdue.

I do not propose, and I am sure that many of my hon. Friends share my view, in my next election address, when I survey the achievements of the Government—it is in the nature of political programmes to have to make certain excuses for some disappointment—to list among our achievements that we have let out of gaol a large number of people who would otherwise have been imprisoned if we had not passed laws to release them.

Mr. Soley

I do not seek to defend the Conservative manifesto. I believe that it was a mistake in the first instance. The hon. Member is struggling. The reason why he is struggling is that he is missing my earlier point that taking away a person's liberty is the most extreme thing that one can do in a judicial system, apart from taking his life. There are many people in prison from whom society does not need protection because their offences are of an extraordinary petty nature and they are not a danger to society, but who, because of the circumstances, present a danger to others in prison; there is also the long-term damage that prison does to the individual and to society. My argument is that we should protect society and prison by reducing the crisis and recognising that we should not put many other people in prison who are a danger there. Motoring offences are full of examples and the theft of minor property without an essential loser, such as shoplifting, still results in people being put in prison. That is nonsense.

Mr. Clark

I appreciate all those points, on which the hon. Gentleman expounded eloquently.

We are Conservatives. Whether people deserve to be in prison for any offence it is not part of our duty to alter the arrangements without having given warning to the electorate that that was our intention. I strongly suspect that if we were to do so the electorate would not look kindly upon us. I accept that the prison population has become dangerously high. I accept that conditions in prisons are disgraceful. But the answer is clear. It is that new prison accommodation must be built, and built urgently. Our argument that the money cannot be found is quite spurious. If the public were genuinely faced with the alternatives of "reducing" the prison population, as it is euphemistically called, by letting large number of people out of detention or not sentencing them with the severity which they and the public would normally expect, or spending what is, by the standards of Government expenditure, a small sum on rapidly building one or more additional prisons, there is no question which solution they would choose. It is that emphasis that I urge my hon. and learned Friend to place before the public.

Tinkering with the criminal justice system or interfering with the judiciary to relieve the hard-pressed prison service can have the most unpleasant consequences for the rest of the community. It would be better if the Government made a clean breast of this and asked for £X million to build new prisons and put the work in hand as soon as is humanly possible.

11.57 am
Mr. John Ryman (Blyth)

I want to deal with two aspects of the matters that have been raised in the debate. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) on having raised this topic and covered a wide range of subjects in a comprehensive speech.

There is no time for me to deal with many of those topics, but I shall deal with one or two selected items. The crux of the matter appears to be—there is general agreement on both sides—that the present size of the prison population has to be tackled. I want to inject a note of realism into the debate. Too often one hears speeches which, while admirable in sentiment and theory, do not recognise the realities and the difficulties that the courts have in administering justice, which involves custodial sentences, as distinct from non-custodial sentences.

The House must trust the judges and should not try to tie the hands of the judiciary in exercising its discretion in dealing with defendants in the courts. When the House has tried to tie the hands of judges in the past it has always had undesirable effects. There are several examples in the criminal law where the hands of the judiciary are tied—where a judge can, for example, sentence someone to six months or three years and cannot impose an intervening sentence when the facts of the case and the defendant's antecedents may persuade the judge that the correct sentence is one greater than six months' imprisonment but not more than three years.

Similarly, attempts to tie the hands of the magistrates have frequently had undesirable effects. The obligation by a magistrates' court to impose a period of obligatory disqualification on a defendant convicted of certain motoring offences sometimes operates unfairly. The magistrates' court has no discretion in the matter except where there are special reasons relating to the offence and a disqualification has to be imposed. That sometimes operates unfairly.

Let us by all means look critically at the prison population problem, but let us do so against the background of leaving the judiciary to impose the correct sentence in the light of its great experience, the facts of the case and the defendant's antecedents. I join in the tributes that have been paid to the new Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor for taking a number of important steps to expedite procedures in courts of criminal jurisdiction.

Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

I have been following the hon. Gentleman's remarks with care. Will he concede that the parole system is almost a cosmetic way of getting the right sentence if the judge has no choice between imposing six months or three years' imprisonment?

Mr. Ryman

I shall deal with the parole system in due course. Experience has shown that the Parole Board does valuable work, but there are two specific problems.

The first is that not all defendants convicted and sentenced are eligible to apply for parole. The second is that the Parole Board has often made serious mistakes in allowing parole to persons who have subsequently committed further offences.

I pay warm tribute to the Parole Board. It has many hard-working and experienced members, but experience has shown that it is deficient in certain ways.

We should also look at the procedure adopted by the Parole Board in considering applications. Its procedure is not satisfactory in a number of respects. For example, no reasons are given for refusal of parole. The proceedings are not susceptible to any form of appeal, except by way of reapplication. However, I should like to deal with parole later.

I want to concentrate on the points that have been made so ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North. He dealt with other issues involved in the administration of the criminal justice system. For example, he referred to the morale of prison officers. Many prison officers in my constituency work at Durham prison, which is not in my constituency. Durham prison contains prisoners serving long sentences, having been convicted of serious organised crimes of dishonesty and violence. I come into contact with these prison officers in my constituency. I have listened with interest and care to their views about the crisis in the prison service. This matter has nothing to do with party politics.

The Home Secretary in the Labour Administration displayed complete insensitivity to the problems in the prison service. He managed to antagonise, simultaneously, prison officers, probation officers and police officers. He refused to set up a commission to inquire into prison officers' pay until he was repeatedly pressed to do so in the House and in the country following an outbreak of industrial action by the prison officers. The commission, of which Mr. Justice May was the chairman, was then appointed.

The Prison Officers Association is entitled to take industrial action, but the unofficial industrial action taken by prison officers throughout the country is disgraceful and should not be tolerated. It is an appalling state of affairs when individual prison officers decide what prisoners should or should not be received into a particular prison. It is unfair to the prisoners, the courts, witnesses and many other persons.

I have a great deal of sympathy with the problems facing the prison service. The crux of the matter, as Mr. Justice May's report indicated, is the anomaly in the pay structure of the prison service. I do not have time to go into this matter now in detail, but the heart of the matter, as the Government acknowledged in the debate on the May report, is that prison service basic pay is so bad that individual officers can get sensible wages only by taking advantage of the many systems of overtime, bonus and extra pay that are available. The Government must find more money not only to build more prisons but to pay prison officers a sensible basic wage. The fact that the basic pay is so low has caused a great lowering of morale in the prison service.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Does my hon. Friend accept that whatever the merits of the industrial action taken by the Prison Officers Association in pursuit of a pay claim of sorts there cannot be any justification for its members refusing to implement the stated policy of the Home Secretary on the ending of the censorship of letters in prison establishments, introducing pay phones in open prisons, the establishment of a visitors' centre at prisons and a whole variety of issues of that kind? The Prison Officers Association has taken a decision on the policy of the Home Secretary, and its strength in local institutions has been sufficient to thwart the implementation of that policy. Does my hon. Friend accept that that is indefensible?

Mr. Ryman

I hope that I made it clear that prison officers have a right to engage in industrial action of an official nature but are not entitled to take unofficial action that interferes with the administration of the prisons or with individual prisoners. My hon. Friend cited some examples, but there are many others. I have in mind the delays caused in the courts when prison officers flatly refused to take prisoners to or from the courts. It caused untold inconvenience and expense in the courts affected by the dispute.

I should like to go back to the heart of the matter—reducing the size of the prison population. It is all very well for those who know so much about these matters—the sociologists and psychiatrists, and those who write in the learned magazines—to tell us what to do, but what are we to do with those convicted of serious crimes of dishonesty and violence and offences involving organised crime as a systematic scheme for enriching themselves at the expense of others and who often have bad antecedents to boot? What can we do with such people except to sentence them to long terms of imprisonment in order to protect the public?

That should be the object of the exercise. It may sound very tough, but what is the alternative? Personally, I think that there is a good deal to be said for going to the heart of the matter and looking at the system of preventive detention and corrective training which was abolished many years ago—

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Oh, my God!

Mr. Ryman

—for persons tried and convicted of serious crime. It may be that there is something to be learnt from that system.

Mr. Lyon

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Ryman

I shall give way later. I am not talking about persons who are sentenced for crimes, for social reasons. I am not talking about petty crimes, or about those who require help as distinct from punishment. I am talking about professional criminals who frequently come before the courts and who have to be dealt with firmly.

Mr. Soley

I am reluctant to intervene again. However, my hon. Friend's last remarks about dangerous people have slightly redeemed his position. The danger to people is one thing. Offences against property are another. It is far better to think in terms of compensation repayment than of locking up when it comes to offences against property. I can remember many cases in which people had spent 20 or 30 years of their lives in prison, although the value of goods involved could be measured in terms of a few hundred or perhaps a few thousand pounds. Such imprisonment is nonsense, and very damaging.

Mr. Ryman

It is often difficult to distinguish between crimes against property and crimes of violence. It is difficult to put them into watertight compartments. I accept that crimes that involve trivial amounts of money or property can be dealt with in a certain way. However, different considerations apply when crimes against property are coupled with crimes of violence. The system of preventive detention and corrective training has been criticised. I accept the point that the courts sometimes say that what matters is not the rehabilitation of the individual criminal but the protection of the public by means of long sentences. I accept that that is a recognition, because it implies that nothing more can be done. However, the time may come when such a recognition should be made instead of pursuing a false hope.

Mr. Lyon

Earlier on I was simply trying to answer my hon. Friend's rhetorical question about what should be done with these people. The answer is that one sends them to prison for a long time. However, the crisis in our prisons does not involve such people, because they represent less than 4 per cent. of the prison population. The crisis in prisons involves burglars and those convicted of larceny, who represent 80 per cent. of convicted criminals and a considerable proportion of our prison population. They often receive sentences of less than four years.

Mr. Ryman

No doubt my hon. Friend will, in due course, make his own contribution. I was surprised that he should refer to the offence of larceny, as I understand that it was abolished as long ago as 1968. However, different considerations arise when dealing with offences involving socially inadequate persons, who should not be in prison. I agree with those hon. Members who have said that the mentally subnormal, those with serious housing problems and those with drinking problems involve different considerations. I was discussing offenders who tell the same ridiculous, hard-luck stories in the hope of obtaining sympathy. Unfortunately, in those circumstances the prime consideration should be the protection of the public.

I turn to the overwhelming problem of the size of the prison population. The problem is more difficult than some of the theorists would have us believe. Alternative systems of sentencing policy are available to the judiciary when dealing with socially inadequate persons and with those who suffer from some impediment, without which they would not have committed the offences. The probation service is to be congratulated on the hard work that it does. The social inquiry reports that are presented to the judiciary before sentencing are most helpful. Again, the resources of the probation service are limited.

There have recently been talks between organisations representing the probation service and the Home Secretary about pay problems. From a communication that I recently received from one of my constituents, I understand that those talks have not yet resulted in any action. There is widespread disquiet among probation officers about their working conditions and pay. I hope that the Minister will let us know the position on those talks. Many probation officers in the North-East are anxious about their pay and have been pressing the Government for some time on the result of the talks and the implementation of the offers discussed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North referred to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. I associate myself with his remarks. I congratulate its members on the work that they have been doing. It is greatly appreciated by the victims of crimes of violence. However, it would help if the board's work was more widely advertised. Many victims of crimes of violence do not know—unless they are specifically informed by the officer in charge of the case—what are their rights. If the defendant pleads guilty, the victim does not have to attend court. Is there any machinery whereby the officer in charge of the case, or the solicitor for the prosecuting authority, notifies the victim of his right to apply to the board?

As far as I am aware, no obligatory machinery exists. The matter is left to the discretion of the solicitor, the officer in charge of the case, or the victim. Many victims may not claim because they do not know that they are entitled to do so, rather than because they do not want to claim. However, I have had good reports of the awards given by the board. It awards realistic sums of money to victims, and the amount of damages awarded is good.

My hon. Friend alluded to police morale. It is too great a subject to deal with in detail, but there is immense misunderstanding both in the Metropolitan area and among the county forces. The crux of the matter is that, for several reasons, police officers are frustrated. For example, when a big inquiry takes place, involving a great deal of time and work, the officers may feel that their work has been wasted because the matter has been referred to the appropriate prosecuting authority. A view may be taken that is not shared by the investigating officers. I refer, in particular, to fraud inquiries and to inquiries of that type, where the machinery of police investigation demands an increase in the establishment of police officers available to do the work.

At the end of the day, this is a question of money. One reason that was given some years ago for amalgamating many police forces and abolishing small county and borough forces was to increase the efficiency of county police forces and make them more amenable to dealing with the bigger types of inquiries for which a small force would have great difficulty in raising the resources. A lot of nonsense is talked about the morale of police officers. I believe that morale is extremely high. The police are very unfairly criticised by people who know little about the subject. They should be supported by hon. Members and by the press. Every now and again an appalling case comes to light which shows that a grave injustice has occurred. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North for mentioning the case that he has put before the House.

The complaints procedure needs to be investigated. It exudes strong feelings among police forces up and down the country. The present complaints procedure is not satisfactory. No one would claim that it is satisfactory. However, one has to look realistically at what is the alternative. It is untrue to say that the present procedure involves a police officer from the same force investigating complaints against that force. That is not the case. The Police Act prescribes that when there is a complaint about a police officer it has to be investigated by an officer from a different force. All the publicity over the Countryman inquiry seems to have lost sight of that. It is obviously essential for complaints against one police force to be investigated by another force. Perhaps the Minister will say whether the Government are thinking of making any changes in the complaints procedure against the police. There is a great deal of ill-informed criticsm of the procedure. These and other serious and urgent subjects should be reviewed by the Government.

I should like the Minister to indicate the answer to a number of subjects. Is the Home Secretary prepared, despite the Government's general policy on public expenditure, to allocate a realistic sum of money to be spent on building further prisons? Is he prepared to allocate further sums of money to establish sentencing centres of the type that are required urgently if the judiciary is to have greater choice in imposing different types of sentences? I refer to probation hostels, detention centres, and so on. Is the Home Secretary willing to consider introducing legislation to make what occurred during the recent prison officers' dispute a permanent feature of the system, namely, that it should not be necessary, unless a defendant or his solicitor elects to do so, to produce a defendant on remand before the courts when committal proceedings are still a long way off? Those are specific measures with which I should like the Minister to deal. They appear to me to go to the heart of the problem that we are discussing.

12.23 am
Mr. Tom Benyon (Abingdon)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. I have listened to all the speeches. I have followed the proceedings with considerable interest. Various points common to both sides of the House have emerged. One is that the overcrowding in the prisons now makes our prisons a scandal. Tribute must be paid to the Home Secretary, who faces the problem of what to do about the scandal of our prisons at a time of considerable shortage of money and at a time, as always, when the public are not interested in the problems of our prison system. It is trite but nevertheless true to say that there are no votes in improving conditions for prisoners. The public at large feel that however intolerable the conditions in which prisoners live, it serves them right. The public are not prepared to see taxpayers' money spent on improving the system. When one argues for making life a little more tolerable for those who are inside prisons for a considerable time it is easy to say that we are being wet, that we are being soft, and that we are giving prisoners an easy time. This makes headlines in newspapers, but is a travesty of the facts.

Politics is about priorities in spending money. It is extremely difficult for our Government to spend large quantities of money on improving the conditions of prisoners. There are so many areas in society, and so many people who are at the bottom of the economic strata, such as the disabled, who have had a difficult time, for whom no money has been made available. How can we possibly muster arguments to spend increased resources of which we are so short on improving the conditions for prisoners?

An interesting question that arises from the debate is how the Home Secretary can help conditions in prisons by reducing the prison population, which is at a crisis level. To what extent can the Home Secretary apply pressure, or, indeed, is it proper for him to apply pressure on judges and magistrates whose job and responsibility it is to pass sentences on those who commit crimes? To what extent can we apply pressure on them to give shorter sentences than are currently being meted out? It is apparently the experience in the United States, Denmark and Holland that shorter sentences do not lead to increased crime. I understand that statistics show that in Holland in 1950 the average sentence was 5.6 months and in 1980 it was 2.5 months. Yet there has been no increase in the crime rate in that country.

I believe that it is also true that there are many people in our prisons who simply should not be there. I am not talking about the 4 per cent. of those who commit serious crimes of violence and robbery and who should be there for the safety of the public. The public should realise that their safety will not be put at risk. We are talking of a small percentage of those in prison—between 4 per cent. and 5 per cent.—who should be there for serious crime. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that there are many people in society— psychopaths and those who commit brutal robberies—who should be incarcerated until someone works out another system that will be acceptable for protecting society. Until then, this sad position must remain. The public should know that our first priority is for their protection.

A substantial proportion of the prison population should not be in prison. It is a total waste of public money and a complete waste of time. I refer to vagrants, a number of women who commit petty and stupid crimes, drunks, and non-violent minor offenders who could easily be dealt with by means of alternative sentences.

I want to illustrate the ambiguity and confusion that exist about the present sentences. I serve on the Committee on the Social Security Bill. Together with the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk), I saw the interesting scenario of the way in which the Bill attempted to double the prison sentences for people convicted of petty social security fraud. Of course, many social security frauds are not petty, but in the whole scene of offences they are petty crimes. The Committee discussed the doubling of prison sentences from three months to six months, while at the same time the Home Secretary was making brave attempts to persuade magistrates and judges to halve sentences. To the credit of the Minister in Committee, he saw the nonsense and corrected it. The proposal to double the sentences has quite rightly been withdrawn, with the agreement of both sides of the Committee.

I want to refer to the hideous overcrowding of the prisons and the insanitary conditions in which prisoners are incarcerated. My hon. Friend the member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) mentioned people seeing the horrors inside a prison. "Horrors" is not too light a word. I have nothing like the experience of the prison system that is possessed by some hon. Members who have contributed to the debate but I recently visited a constituent who is unhappily incarcerated in Wandsworth prison—regarded as the pearl of the prison system. I was deeply shocked by the atmosphere of depression, by the conditions in which he is living, in solitary confinement, and by the hopelessness of his life.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I do not wish to pretend that prisons are all that they should be, or that there is not a great deal of work to be done, but there are prisons—the new industrial prisons, such as Cosingly, built about five years ago—where conditions are cheerful and positive jobs are being done. We should place more emphasis on what is done for prisoners in education rather than only upon the conditions in which they live—although that is fundamentally important. I do not support the practice of having two or three prisoners in a cell.

Mr. Benyon

I am making only a brief speech and can concentrate only on a small part of the penal system, but I had intended to say that some prisons are not depressing and bleak places. It would be wrong for me to pretend that all prisons were total failures. I do not wish to spoil my argument by overstating the case.

Mr. O'Freill, the governor of Featherstowe prison, has taken tremendous steps towards providing imaginative and creative prison facilities, which help the inmates to believe that they can have a fuller life. That produces a remedial effect. Mr. O'Freill said that part of the purpose of imprisonment was to give people time to rethink their position and about a way of life where being hemmed in with others for long periods did not happen. When prisoners are put together they talk about their criminal exploits and blow up the crimes out of all proportion. They also learn a lot about crime. Mr. O'Freill said that he was doing his best to give his prisoners a fuller life. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) was right to emphasise the positive side of the prison service.

There is a crisis in the prison sevice. The Home Secretary is right, whenever it is appropriate, to influence judges and magistrates to impose shorter sentences. It is difficult to bring the problems of the prison service to the attention of the public. It is sad to think that occasionally it needs a not to draw the attention of our people to what is happening in their names. The crisis is recognised by the Home Office and the prison service. They are throwing open the prisons so that the public can see by article, by visit and by television the conditions inside the rotting Victorian prisons.

There is a deeper malaise in the prison service than that caused simply by the conditions, namely, the feeling that the service may have lost its purpose. We cannot justify the conditions in which prisoners are kept. They are uncivilised and inhumane. We should listen to the governors and hear their views about the prison system. Few people know more about conditions and prisoners than they do. Michael Selby, the governor of Brixton, said that conditions there were worse than Dickensian and that the treatment meted out to prisoners was worse than they suffered more than 100 years ago. William Driscoll, governor of Walton prison, talked about indignity and the fact that prisoners were confined in a small space the size of a bathroom with strangers that they had never met, locked in for periods of up to 23 hours a day for possibly up to three years. The smell of the prisons, the depression and the hopelessness of the prisoners add up to a frightful experience for any soul incarcerated in such circumstances.

Everybody is joining in the present criticism, including the governors, assistant governors, officers and prisoners. They all agree that the treatment meted out appears to be worse than useless if its aim is to turn people away from crime and back to society to live as law-abiding citizens.

Brixton prison was built for 700 prisoners but it often houses more than 1,000. In the overall prison system 11,000 prisoners are crammed two or three to a cell. Many hon. Members have spoken about the appalling toilet facilities. The real punishment of prisoners is the loss of liberty, which must be aggravated by the overcrowding. Boredom could lead to the destruction of the spirit. The most disturbing feature of our prison system is the widespread use of drugs that are needed to control prisoners.

An article on Holloway prison, in The Observer on 5 October 1980 stated: This chaos in our prisons is contained by a subtler control. A shout summons inmates for meals and another for medicine. Strong drugs are used in Holloway to an extent that worries several members of its board of visitors. In the four women's closed prisons in this country last year each inmate was given an average of 1.5 medical treatments a day. Men in closed prisons were given 0.3 treatments per person a day. In Holloway 186,542 doses of pschyotropic drugs were dispensed in 1979–80, many times more than those given in Dartmoor, a closed prison for serious offenders and lifers whose average population is two-thirds bigger than Holloway's. 'They give it to you to keep you quiet,' said an ex-inmate 'Most women find it hard to relax in prison, particularly in crowded cells.' That girl first resisted the offer of medicine, then accepted valium and chloral. 'It dulled my mind completely.' It is worrying aspect of our prison system that conditions are so appalling that the widespread use of drugs is necessary to make life more tolerable for inmates.

Another category of prisoners who should not be in prison are mental patients, who are often not accepted by hospital unions into psychiatric hospitals. I believe that the conditions for psychiatric patients at Brixton have been described as worse than Bedlam.

Mr. Wheeler

Brixton is a remand prison, which does not hold prisoners who are serving a sentence after conviction. Many of the remand prisoners held in the prison hospital who might have psychiatric histories are held there only because they are on remand awaiting trial. The prison hospital at Brixton is extremely good and is administered by a particularly good senior medical officer, who is dedicated to the prisoners in his charge.

Mr. Benyon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the points that he has made, which I accept totally.

Why are prisons in their current state? Part of the reason is that society has traditionally wished to put the problem out of sight and out of mind. It has said "Just stick prisoners away in social dustbins." Prisoners appear to be lodged in an uneasy limbo between the reformers and the security men.

I should like to touch briefly on the question of the length of sentences. Apparently sentences escalated dramatically after the Great Train Robbery in 1963, for which, unprecedentedly, 30-year sentences were given. Previously, sentences of 14 years were considered to be the maximum. Since 1963 sentences have started to get longer, and since George Blake escaped from prison in 1966 security has got steadily tighter.

Given the conditions and tensions inside our prisons, it is not surprising that riots are becoming more prevalent. We have in our prisons men with huge sentences stretching ahead of them. The barbed wire, close-circuit television and guard dogs inevitably heighten tensions.

The first priority of prison officers is containment. One cannot argue with that, but escapes are practically nonexistent and the public often get a false picture of the numbers who escape, because of the huge publicity that is given to the odd case. In the light of the outcry against the prison service when an escape takes place, it is hardly surprising that prison officers attempt to protect themselves by imposing tighter security measures, which lead to considerable tension.

There might be a case for putting all category A prisoners in one prison where maximum security was regarded as the highest priority.

Mr. Wheeler


Mr. Benyon

At present, such prisoners are spread out all over the country, which results in tight security measures in other prisons, and they add to the suffering of other prisoners. It is clear that my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) does not entirely agree with me.

Mr. Wheeler

My hon. Friend tempts me greatly, but I ask him to consider that there are probably 2,000 people in the prison system who require a very high degree of security. Those who have to manage the prisons would say that to put them all into one maximum security prison would create a horrifying situation. The secret of caring for such a large number is the ability to shift them around from one location to another. It would be disastrous for good management to have them all in one institution.

Mr. Benyon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Meanwhile, with the background of overcrowding, the courts and the police are still pouring more and more humanity into the social dustbins of our prisons. Crime rates are rising. Without wishing to sound patronising, I would say, too, that the public do not wholly understand the problem. Inevitably, therefore, the policy of retribution will exceed the supply of humane and civilised prison accommodation.

Against the background of those problems facing the Home Office there is also the discontent of prison officers about the long hours that they work and the difficult environment in which they live, having their houses so close to the prisons. While I believe that they receive a reasonable way wage, I understand that it depends upon their working very long hours of overtime, which cannot help their position very much in the long run.

I believe that too many people are in prison who should not be there. The costs of containment are huge. The cost is £140 per week for a man. One must add to that the cost in tax revenue lost because he has been taken away from society, as well as the cost in social and welfare benefits for his wife. The cost in human misery, not only for the victim but for the prisoner and his family, is also huge. I do not believe that it has been proved in any way that there is a link between the length of sentence and the deterrent effect upon the individual in relation to petty crime. In fact, as I said earlier, I believe that the opposite has been proved in other countries.

The public must understand that more money must be made available to improve our prisons. That must be done, and that money must be spent. We must ensure that the public understand that we intend, as the highest priority, to protect them from violent crime but that, nevertheless, those caught committing petty crimes should not be sent to prison for such long periods.

For those reasons, we hope that fewer prisoners will be kept in better prisons serving shorter sentences, and that prisons will be kept solely for those who commit serious crimes and crimes of violence. As a society, we cannot continue to degrade ourselves through the way in which we currently run our prison service, which in many instances is not a deterrent, has a brutalising effect upon the inmates, and, as I believe is generally accepted on both sides of the House, is at present completely unsatisfactory.

12.48 pm
Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)

I very much support the tenor of the remarks of the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon), who made a distinguished speech. I wish also, like other hon. Members, to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) on having initiated the debate with a quite remarkable speech. It is a great pity that there was no Social Democrat or Liberal Member present to hear him. No doubt that alliance of absentees was holding a press conference somewhere. They would have done well to listen to my hon. Friend.

The main burden of my remarks will be related to questions affecting the issue of criminal justice to which my hon. Friend's motion refers, but I should like to refer initially to one aspect of the rights of prisoners, who clearly are under a very severe disadvantage, compared with ordinary citizens, in pursuing their remedies and their rights of redress in the courts. This was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs) in the course of the speech that he made on his Ten-Minute Bill the other day.

I refer to the decision in 1979 of the Court of Appeal in The Queen v. Board of Visitors of Hull Prison, ex parte St. Germain and others, reported in the All England Law Reports. It was a very welcome but somewhat surprising decision and, I think, most surprising to the Home Office. The case, the House will recall, arose out of the riots at Hull Prison in 1976. Disciplinary proceedings were taken against a substantial number of prisoners, and the prison board of visitors made awards against some of them. These awards included substantial losses of remission and other priveleges.

That led to some of the prisoners applying to the Divisional Court for leave to apply for orders quashing the awards, on the ground that the board of visitors had acted in breach of the requisite procedures and in breach of natural justice. The prisoners complained, among other things, that they had not been allowed to cross-examine witnesses or to call witnesses so as to establish their innocence, and that the board had admitted and acted upon hearsay evidence.

In December 1977 the Divisional Court decided that although a board of visitors was a judicial body with a duty to act fairly and to comply with the rules of natural justice, it was a private body, having its own rules and its own form of discipline, and that, therefore, the courts could not interfere, and the prisoners' application's were refused.

Then the matter came before the Court of Appeal, and the Home Office, as I have already suggested, must have been surprised and alarmed by the decision of that court, because that court held that boards of visitors in proceedings where they made awards against prisoners for disciplinary offences must act according to the rules of natural justice, and that if they did not prisoners would be at liberty to apply to the High Court for judicial review.

That case enabled Lord Justice Shaw to make some very trenchant points, and I should like to quote one or two of them. He said, first: The rights of the citizen however circumscribed by a penal sentence or otherwise, must always be the concern of the courts unless this jurisdiction is clearly excluded by some statutory provision. He also said later that however inconvenient or stultifying to prison discipline it might be there was no limit to the court's jurisdiction in relation to a prisoner's complaint about the ways in which he was being disciplined by a board of visitors. The control of capricious complaints lay in the court's discretion to refuse to grant relief. That is a summary of what the learned judge had to say. Then he said that despite the deprivation of his general liberty, a prisoner remains invested with residuary rights appertaining to the nature and conduct of his incarceration. That is a matter that is sometimes overlooked.

However valuable that decision may be—and it is a valuable one—there is likely to be a continuing unjustifiable diminution of prisoners' civil rights. This is a point that was taken up by the Royal Commission on legal services, which made a number of valuable proposals, three of which I should like to highlight.

It proposed, first, that duty solicitors should be available in prisons where there were obvious difficulties of access by prisoners to legal advice, and that they should be paid out of the legal aid fund on a sessional basis. That was a most valuable proposal and I should be grateful for the Minister's view about it and others that were advanced in this respect.

Secondly, it was suggested that prisoners should be permitted virtually unrestricted correspondence with their legal advisers—with any solicitor that they might wish to instruct—subject to certain security rules. Obstructions are currently imposed in that regard, and these qualify a right that ought to be taken for granted.

The third was perhaps the most important suggestion that I shall touch on. It was that no penalty involving a loss of remission should be imposed unless the prisoner had the opportunity to be legally represented, the loss of remission was for seven days or less, or the Secretary of State, on security grounds, prescribed alternative arrangements—for example, as would apply in Northern Ireland.

I turn now to a number of points about the criminal justice system. I hope that there will be a debate on the Philips report. A Royal Commission that produces a report on criminal procedure ought to have its findings considered by the House, and I hope that the Minister will recommend that to the Leader of the House. Viewed as a whole, the report's proposals are most disappointing. The commission was seeking, in its own words, to achieve a balance between the interests of the whole community and the rights and liberties of the individual citizen. However, if that is to be achieved, confidence in the system obviously has to be increased, and I wonder whether the commission's proposals are fair, open and workable, and likely to provide for the enhancement of that public confidence. Certainly they did not receive universal acclaim from some of the newspapers. In London The New Standard said, The greater weakness of the proposals is the lack of redress and it suggested that the report showed a touching faith in police notebooks". That is a fair and reasonable complaint.

The basic defects of the report are that it fails to provide adequate sanctions for the breach and evasion of the safeguards that it proposes for suspects and witnesses. The proposed extensions of police powers for stopping and searching, detention of witnesses, and searches for and seizures of evidence belonging to innocent individuals or organisations would not, in my view, play a major part in building up that confidence upon which the report's proposals, if implemented, would have to rely.

On the face of it the report's proposals for access by solicitors would seem to be helpful, but there is a serious qualification in that the report says that in grave offences the police should retain discretion to refuse such access. However, it is just the people who face the grave charges to which the report refers who most need protection and who would be denied it.

I want now to discuss criminal legal aid and to touch upon some of the proposals made by the Benson report—the Royal Commission on legal services. I welcome the proposal made in the report about making legal aid available as of right for all criminal cases except those triable summarily. Benson said: In magistrates' courts the Widgery criteria should be widened, so that legal aid would be granted unless…there is no likelihood that the defendant would be imprisoned or deported, or the case does not involve substantial damage to his/ her livelihood or reputation", and…adequate presentation of the defendant's case does not require legal aid. Benson also suggested that reasons should be given if legal aid was refused, and that legal aid for bail appeals should be available.

I think it is a pity, however, that, having said that, Benson did not go on to recommend that there should be a right of appeal against the refusal of legal aid by magistrates. The disparity in which legal aid is applied in magistrates' courts is quite alarming. The position has improved marginally over the past two or three years, but sometimes the refusal is capricious and sometimes it is determined by some sort of policy worked out by the bench in the court—a policy which no one can question or investigate. It is not announced; it is just applied.

I remember appearing many years ago in a case before the Old Street court where the magistrate became very testy. Five defendants were involved. I think that he overdid the testiness. Because the defendants were not legally aided at the time and the case looked like dragging on for several days I made an application just before the luncheon adjournment for my client to be legally aided. The magistrate, who had been particularly beastly to me for no justifiable cause, decided that the way in which to make amends was to grant my application; whereupon my learned friends representing the other defendants all made similar applications, and he refused each one. There is no right of appeal against capricious behaviour of that sort.

Mr. Ryman

Is my hon. Friend referring to summary offences or only to offences on indictment? If it is an indictable offence, surely an application can be made to a higher court.

Mr. Davis

I am talking of summary cases at the moment. Having no right of audience in a higher court, obviously the case that I was dealing with was one on summary trial, as my hon. Friend will recognise.

In cases of summary trial, the statistics of disparity are extraordinary. In 1978, for example, at Highgate magistrates' court, 43 per cent. of applications for legal aid were refused in summary trials. At Dorking, the refusals were only 3 per cent. of the applications. At Marlborough Street, too, the number of refusals at that time represented only 4 per cent. Highbury Corner has for long been at the top of the league for refusals, though it is better than it was. In 1977, refusals amounted to 42 per cent., as against 29 per cent. in 1978. It may be that the pressures exercised in the House and elsewhere have had some impact on the policy decisions of the magistrates in that court.

But it is not good enough. What is the point of the recommendation made by Benson that reasons should be given for the refusal of legal aid if there is to be no right of appeal? I suggest that there should be a right of appeal, and that the appeal should be made to an area local authority committee. It could be done by way of emergency procedure, similar to the way in which one can apply for emergency civil aid certificates at present.

I welcome the proposals in the Benson report about the extension of legal aid in proceedings before the Court of Appeal, Criminal Division. The report indicated that the provisions for legal aid in this connection are inadequate, and I believe that that conclusion is correct. I, too, believe that legal aid should continue up to the time when the appeal papers are lodged, even if counsel advises against an appeal. The report suggests—and again I agree with its findings—that solicitors and counsel should have a duty to see the defendant after the hearing and to give advice on an appeal in writing.

One of the most significant reforms suggested in the report is that there should be legal aid for bail appeals. The report dealt with the matter in a most conclusive manner, and I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say in that regard. The report says at paragraph 20 of chapter 14 that an enormous advantage is gained by those who are able to make an oral application for bail following a refusal by the magistrates. It also says that there is a substantial disparity between those on whose behalf an oral application was made to a High Court judge were successful in obtaining bail and those who applied in writing through the Official Solicitor. The figures nevertheless suggest that there was some advantage in making an application orally rather than in writing.

The Bail Act may have affected the situation to the advantage of prisoners at present. I do not know the relevant statistics. But I believe that this change is long overdue and one that the Government should embrace. It would save an enormous amount of public money, and the Government would have to shell out relatively little to enable people to be legally aided so as to appeal against refusals of bail.

Of course, the situation is different, as my hon. Friend said, in connection with trials on indictment. However, in summary proceedings the refusal of bail leads to the incarceration of people all too often without justification. In my view, the implementation of this proposal would ameliorate that situation.

I conclude by saying that I very much welcome the opportunity that my hon. Friend has taken to debate the issue. He is to be congratulated. However, I hope that we shall have an opportunity to debate the Royal Commission reports in the not too distant future, because the work that has gone into those matters, whatever criticism there may be about them, deserves the attention of the House.

1.8 pm

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

I hope that the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) will not think it a mere formality if I congratulate him on bringing forward the motion. Although it is a courtesy to do so, I think that we are all tremendously impressed not only by the way in which he delivered his speech but by the high standard of speeches that we have heard today. It is proof again that this sort of debate on a Friday often provides the best expression of the work that we as Members of Parliament can do.

I take criminal justice to mean not merely a better and less overcrowded penal system, though of course that is extremely important, but better justice for our law-abiding citizens and their right to live in a peaceful and decent society without being the constant prey of the lawless.

Last month, the figures for crime in London last year were released. My hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) has already mentioned them. They are staggering. In broad terms, the national figures are equally appalling over a longer period. The general crime rate has increased nearly five times in the past 30 years. Two and a half million indictable offences and the same number of less serious offences are now being committed. Unreported or undetected crime could well be two or three times that figure.

Crimes of violence have risen elevenfold in the past 25 years and 40 per cent. in the last three years. There are now over half a million burglaries a year, with 1½ million thefts and receiving offences. In London, juveniles are responsible for getting on for half of the crimes that are committed. In some of our big cities—not just London—nearly 40 per cent. of all robbery and criminal damage is caused by juveniles.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paddington referred to some of the costs of crime. It has been estimated that the total cost of crime to our society is well in excess of £2,000 million a year. If one considers what effect that must have upon the nation's resources, quite apart from the feelings of the citizens subjected to crime, one's thoughts go beyond the bounds of normal restraint.

So, what needs to be done, and to what extent are we doing it? I identify six lines of defence for society against this attack of lawlessness which is fast destroying us.

First, we must encourage respect for Parliament as the central law-making authority. If people do not respect the law we shall be driven in the direction of either anarchy or totalitarianism.

Secondly, we must do something about the underlying causes of crime in our society, and we must remove those blemishes which cause people to have the lack of respect for other people in society which is a fundamental aspect of criminality.

Thirdly, we must do more to remove the temptation to commit crime by giving more active attention to simple methods of crime prevention.

Fourthly, we must make sure that more who are guilty are caught. Fifthly, we must make sure that more who are guilty and caught are convicted. Sixthly, we must make sure that those who are convicted are punished so that they and others like them are deterred from offending further.

Much has been said about parliamentary authority in recent times. We in this place must pass sensible laws if we want the respect of the people in our society. I do not happen to consider that forcing people to wear seat belts on pain of committing a criminal offence is sensible because it is unenforceable. However, I believe—I notice the presence of my hon. Friend the member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury)—that curbing indecent displays is sensible. I do not think that it is sensible to give excessive power to trade unions and immunities over and above those that other organs and individuals in our society enjoy, but I think that it is important to protect the freedom of the individual by abolishing the closed shop.

Mr. Clinton Davis

Would the hon. Gentleman be fair and protect also the right of individuals to join trade unions?

Mr. Lawrence

Certainly. That right is already enjoyed. What is not enjoyed is the right to leave a trade union if one wishes to do so. That is a right which I should like to see very much a part of our law. If Parliament passed laws such as that, which were sensible and which had the approval of the people, there would be much more respect for Parliament than there is at present.

I am pleased to say that in recent times we have been improving the procedures of Parliament by our new Select Committee system. I hope that every other Member is as encouraged as I am by the opportunity that we have to bring schoolchildren to this building so that they savour something of the historical importance of the authority of Parliament in our land.

It is necessary for us to make our laws clear for all to understand, and we must consolidate them and codify them so that they are readily available and intelligible. I note the considerable work that was put into the Criminal Attempts Bill recently. I had the honour to sit on the Committee which considered that Bill. I hope that we shall speedily implement, for example, some of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure concerning arrest and police search.

The second fundamental defence is to do something about the causes of crime. Unemployment and poverty are not so important a cause as was once thought because even when we had less unemployment and poverty crime still rose alarmingly. But it will help to get people back to work. The best way of doing that is to make our companies productive again and, meanwhile, to make sure that the thousands of young people are kept in some sort of work, with subsidies if necessary. Temporary employment schemes are making a substantial contribution to that. It might be more sensible to consider the possibility of national service in some form or another to mop up some of the unacceptably large numbers of young unemployed people whose thoughts and sometimes actions might turn to lawlessness.

It is important to remedy homelessness. The selling of council houses so that more homes are available, the increase of grants for modernisation schemes, the encouragement of the private sector through the introduction of shortholds, are elements that will reduce the burden of homelessness and help to remove one of the underlying problems of criminality.

People must be given back the sense of responsibility for themselves and for their families. If they own property they will be less likely to destroy it. If they own shares in British Airways, British Aerospace, British Telecom, British Rail—possible under measures that the Government have introduced—they will be less likely to destroy those institutions and they are more likely to work for their success.

We must make sure that people are able to keep more of what they earn, and that means lowering the burden of income tax, or giving people the right to choose how their spending shall be taxed, as with value added tax. We must encourage the work ethic and discourage skiving. That means that there should be increased tax incentives for those in work and we should abolish the poverty trap, the "why work?" syndrome, and seriously consider in the next few years the introduction of a tax credit scheme or negative income tax, which has been much discussed and thought about but little implemented.

We must try to encourage parental responsibility for children's offences by fining the parents more. Perhaps we can help parents by discouraging those who run our television programmes for showing the amount of sex and violence that currently appears on our screens and that must have a bad effect upon our children. More parents must be encouraged to serve on school bodies and help to choose the teachers who teach their children. Perhaps we might give more encouragement to the churches to conduct new campaigns to bring back the sense of religion and morality into society.

We are already some of the way along the road to establishing that greater responsibility, the lack of which is a fundamental cause of crime. I hope that we shall thereby reduce some of the causes of crime, but there is still far to go, particularly along the road to more employment and less homelessness.

The third defence must be to take preventive measures on a far more extensive scale than we have hitherto. I do not believe that our democratic rights are exhausted by our suffrage every five years. Our democracy requires more than that, but the right to demonstrate must not go unlimited. It must surely be limited below the point at which it will cause lawlessness and disorder. Our freedoms exist only within a framework of law and order. I can enjoy my freedom only to the point at which substantial harm will be caused to others. We are speaking about liberty, not licence. When local authorities are faced with the new certainty of lawlessness and possibly bloodshed and damage to property, it would be quite mad if a demonstration or a march could not be prevented.

I do not believe that the principle of free speech or freedom-to march is seriously affected by decisions, such as that taken by the chief constable of Leicester, to stop marches which are clearly going to be dangerous. The Socialist Workers Party, the National Front and other such organisations march not to show the strength of their argument by speech but by the intimidating strength of numbers, or by force. They march often to do violence or to attract violence and therefore to attract sympathy. Therefore, the police and local authorities must have a preventive power to take the kind of action that is being taken this weekend.

In other respects, for public order, it is necessary for adequate notification of marches to be given to the police. The routes should be well away from shop windows that can be smashed. The police must have the power to erect barriers, to use their horses and to agree with the leaders of demonstrations a peaceful way of demonstrating in order, by good common sense, to avoid public disorder.

There are many other possible preventive measures, some of which have been taken and others have yet to be taken. They include, for example, the banning of drink in football grounds, dividing supporters on the terraces, providing seats in football grounds, making sure that the fans are properly searched and policed at the entrances to grounds, and firm measures could be and have been introduced over the years by the police regarding incoming trains full of rowdy supporters.

There are matters other than public order where there is still enormous scope for crime prevention. We should ask ourselves whether we have locked our cars when we leave them, and whether we have left the lights on in our homes when we go out and have locked the doors and windows. There is no reason why women should not prepare themselves with loud whistles or alarms in their bags to deter the petty bag-snatcher.

We must do more than we have done by giving publicity to anti-crime measures. I was astonished to hear that only 550 police officers in Britain were actively concerned with preventive measures. One of my local newspapers, the Derby Evening Telegraph, regularly runs a police column which informs people of preventive measures that they can take. Perhaps Members of Parliament should encourage their local radio and television stations to spread the word about the necessity for greater measures of crime prevention.

A fourth line of offence is to catch more of the guilty. In his report the assistant commissioner of the London police says that only one in five crimes is cleared up. I suppose it follows that the number of alleged offenders proceeded against must be considerably less than that number. If we add to that the fact that two out of three offences are probably not reported, and consider that there are still 2½ million indictable offences, we see that the figures for criminality in our society must be truly appalling.

The most important element in apprehending the guilty is to increase the number of police officers and to ensure that they are better organised and more efficient in operation. The Government are to be congratulated on their considerable success along those lines. We promised at the earliest stage that this should be an area of increased public expenditure. We immediately paid the police more, and there has been a sharp rise in recruitment. Perhaps the Minister will give us the increased numbers in the police forces generally in the country. I think that all would agree that they feel safer when the police are strong not only in numbers but in the facilities available to them. That in turn creates police forces strong in morale.

Many Conservative Members, members of the public—and for all I know, Opposition Members—must view with alarm the increasing tendency by some of those on the Left of politics to try to undermine, by constant denigration, the wide respect in which the police are held by the public. It seems that they relentlessly campaign to undermine police morale and to disintegrate the front line of our troops in the battle for the safety of our society. It is utter madness. We must do our best to ensure that such attempts to denigrate the police fail.

As a more effective police force is likely to catch more criminals, it is not sensible to bring those criminals to trial and then to acquit them. The conviction of more who are guilty is our fifth line of defence. In addition to the appalling statisticts that I gave earlier, it should be said that half of those who plead not guilty before a jury are acquitted, and 25 per cent. are acquitted on the judge's direction. In the higher courts, more than 10,000 people a year are acquitted. I believe that the same proportion applies to the lower courts. That means either that the guilty are being acquitted—and are therefore not deterred from offending again—or that the innocent are being dragged through the horrifying process of false accusation. I believe that the former case is true. Either way, it is a grossly inefficient and harmful way of running criminal justice in our society.

We must consider what is to be done. I shall not accept the kind invitation given by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington to discuss the jury system. Nor shall I take up more time by discoursing upon the interesting proposal to restrict to 120 days the period of time that elapses before a criminal trial. It has been said that the experience in America has been wholly good. The whole concept of plea bargaining as we know it would have to be greatly changed if a 120-day limit were imposed. In America, the effect is frequently to force prosecuting authorities who have not had time to get their tackle in order to accept a guilty plea to a substantially lower level of criminality than we would tolerate.

Under the heading of what we could do to convict more of the guilty, I make two proposals that I have made before and that are constantly under examination. However, little seems to have been done in England and Wales, although there are signs of improvement. First, we should abolish the presumption of innocence that comes from silence. That is not the same as abolishing the presumption of innocence. Because a person is silent we should not presume that he is innocent, Secondly, we should introduce a rational system of tape-recorded interviews with police officers.

The right to silence was dealt with authoritatively some time ago by no less a believer in the rights of the individual than Jeremy Bentham. He said: It is one of the most pernicious and most irrational notions that ever found its way into the human mind½If all the criminals of every class had assembled and framed a system after their own wishes, is not this the very first that they would have established for their own security? Innocence never takes advantage of it: innocence claims the right of speaking, as guilty invokes the privilege of silence. Why should we abolish that right? We should do so not merely because it is a haven for the guilty but because it is a trap for the innocent. Because of this rule the innocent person may not explain, at the first available opportunity, his innocence. He will be told by his solicitor that he need not say anything. In the time that passes before trial the defence evidence may have vanished. Often, juries do not believe that a man was silent because he has a right to be silent, or because his solicitor told him. They may view adversely an innocent person. The right to silence means that the police can, and sometimes do, invent evidence, and that may convict the innocent.

There is another reason why I think that the presumption of innocence from silence should go. This has more to do with the acquittal of the guilty. It frustrates the police enormously to have this rule. Juries do not believe admissions of guilt that are made after a warning has been given that the accused need not say anything. The caution sometimes stops those who are guilty, and who would admit their guilt, from making the admission. The dishonesty that sometimes follows from pretending that a caution has been administered leads to greater dishonesty and finally to perjury by police witnesses.

I have seen acquittal after acquittal take place in serious criminal trials because the jury has not believed the police. It has not believed the police because the way in which the police behaved in a particular trial has been suspicious, due to the right to silence and due to the caution that the police officers have administered.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

If the police fabricate verbals, or are thought to do so, what is to stop them from fabricating or being thought to have fabricated the allegation that the man did not respond when asked to explain himself?

Mr. Lawrence

That is, of course, a factor. I am saying that if there is no presumption of innocence from silence—the caution would have to be a very different one from the one now administered—the reality of the situation would be brought home far more quickly to an accused person and to a jury. Many of the falsities that take place in our criminal trials at present would not take place. It is never a completely black and white picture. The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on a grey area. The fact that there is a grey area does not mean that the argument that I am advancing is any less strong.

The second proposal is for tape recording interviews. I believe that the police have had a change of heart over the matter. I was pleased to hear the chairman of the Police Federation say—I think that he gave evidence to this effect to the last Royal Commission—that the time might have come for the police to withdraw their opposition. I believe that this new attitude is being brought home to the authorities. It is one of the reasons for the pilot scheme of tape recordings that is proceeding, I think successfully, in Scotland. It also explains, I believe, why the Phillips Royal Commission has advanced the recommendation for the implementation of more of these schemes.

What would be the benefit from these changes in the criminal process? First, if the circumstances of the confession made by an accused person are less open to attack, more would plead guilty in the first place. The more who pleaded guilty, the less time would be taken by our courts and the less time would be spent waiting for criminal trials to come before the courts. Less time would be taken in challenging verbal admissions of guilt in court, which would mean shorter trials.

The trials would take place sooner after the crime, when the memory of witnesses was fresher. There would be less of an attack on the police. I consider this immensely important from the point of view of police morale. There would be less temptation for the police to do wrong. They would be more often believed in court. If they were more often believed, more people would be convicted, which would lead to the police being better respected and the public being more inclined to give them greater help. The result would be a greater detection of crime.

A number of other rules should be considered for change. Statements made in evidence to the prosecution for summary court proceedings should be given to the defence. That was a good recommendation of the last Royal Commission. Too many lawyers, solicitors and banisters in summary proceedings, not knowing the evidence against their clients, naturally call for the full proceedings so that they can determine the evidence. That wastes time. If the defence was served with the account of the prosecution allegation against the client, the process would often be substantially speeded up in the magistrates' court.

We can do more to tighten up our system. The two proposals that I have yet again put forward would do something to reduce the high level of unjust acquittals in Britain—higher, I believe, than in any other Western country. I hope that we can develop a system that is respected throughout the world, not because we acquit more people but because we convict more of the guilty and protect more of the innocent.

So the sixth defence is this: the villains having been caught and convicted, there does not seem much sense if, ultimately, all they receive is a pat on the head and tuppence out of the poor box. That will not deter them from their future crimes—nor will others be deterred. That involves the whole question of sentencing. For punishment to be an effective deterrent it must put the would-be offender in such fear of the consequences that he does not commit the crime. That statement is so blindingly obvious that I am surprised that it is not more often made. We sit through debates of this sort, hearing long discussions about our penal system—sensible and important matters—but ultimately the ordinary member of the public accepts what I have said as being the central, most important feature of punishment—namely, that the offender should be deterred.

Are we doing that now? I shall not bore the House with my views about capital punishment, which are well known, or with my view, also well known, that corporal punishment in schools is a good thing. There are substantial problems about imposing proper sentences. It is no good fining people who cannot afford to pay. It is no use imprisoning people for non-payment if that clutters up the prisons and wreaks havoc in the social system.

It is a good thing that the Government are seriously trying to get the system of punishment and sentencing right. They are making substantial efforts to broaden the armoury of punishment. The White Paper on young offenders suggests replacing borstal and imprisonment by indeterminate sentences of youth custody; extending the detention sentence from three weeks to four months; introducing residential care orders for juveniles, as magistrates have long sought; determining whether the short, sharp shock treatment is successful; encouraging the court to relieve the crisis in our prisons by a number of measures that have been well discussed today and in recent debates about temporary measures; placing particular emphasis upon alternatives to custody, suspended and deferred sentences, more extensive use of attendance centres, community service orders, which have been very successful; and consideration of the additional early release scheme which the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) has already discussed.

People want to relieve the pressure on the prison system by having shorter sentences for non-violent crimes, but they want to make sure that they are safe from those against whom society needs to be protected by having such persons kept in prison.

The penal system is not helped by unjustified industrial action by prison officers, however important they believe their case to be. However, I pay tribute to their excellent work, often in unpleasant circumstances, and to the way that they cope with the immense strains placed on them by Parliament's meanness toward the prison estates. There are lessons from the industrial dispute which must be studied.

Research has shown that there is no evidence that longer sentences are any better than shorter sentences in preventing re-offending after release. I am impressed by the evidence, suggested by the Government for consideration by the courts, that if every sentence of imprisonment were reduced to the next most commonly-used term for that offence there would be 4,000 fewer people in prison—a 15 per cent. reduction.

In the end, we are driven to say that because it is necessary to have a place to send people against whom the public need to be protected it follows that we must have more prisons and find the money to build them. Nevertheless a prison-building programme takes many years to fulfil.

Our penal system is too negative and destructive, and we ought to extend the work regime in our prisons much more widely. I should like to see a points system for work done or training undertaken in prison. That would be preferable to the parole system. I should like to see prisoners being able to work their way through prison. I should also like to see them being properly remunerated so that they can pay towards their keep, which costs £140 a week for each prisoner, perhaps also putting something aside to compensate their victims, and even a little for when they leave prison.

If a prisoner were properly remunerated he would have an aim in life, and it is necessary to provide an aim for the prisoner to work towards in order to get rid of the depressing atmosphere of uselessness that often exists in our prisons. In addition, if it is true that people commit crimes because they are frightened of work, the prospect of work in prison might even act as a deterrent.

Further consideration should be given to the welfare not only of the offender, but of the victim. I welcome all the schemes that have been put forward, and I suggest that further consideration should be given to the wide range of welfare aid schemes tried in America. I also urge the Government to consider improving criminal compensation along the lines of the Justice committee proposals.

A positive and determined policy along the six fronts that I have advanced is vital to defend society from the crime wave that is fast getting out of hand. It requires money, and that must be a priority. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I are as determined as is the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Davis) to protect civil liberties, and our legal system does not need to be harsh and inhumane in order to he strong and effective.

Those of us who care about civil liberties must be vigilant, but we must also realise that they will be better protected within a strong framework of law. The British people expect the Conservative Party to have a strong policy for law and order, so that our streets are safe to walk in, our terraces safe to watch from, and the thug and terrorist are banished from our streets. Once we have satisfied the people that we have a strong, sensible and fair-minded policy on criminal justice, respect not only for the Conservative Party but for Parliament will be enhanced and will endure long after Budgets have been forgotten.

1.45 pm
Dr. Shirley Summerskill (Halifax)

As other hon. Members have said, we all welcome the terms of the motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley). It is important that the House should regularly debate the dangerous crisis in our prisons and consider ways in which to reduce the prison population.

My hon. Friend raised a wide variety of topics in relation to his motion. Among the subjects discussed were aspects of the report of the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure. I hope that the Minister will ask the Leader of the House to arrange to have a special debate on that important report.

First, I welcome the recently announced small increase in the projected total amount of money to be spent on the treatment of offenders. The increase from £408 million in 1980–1981 to £430 million in 1983–84 is urgently needed, although it is but a drop in the ocean, as we are told that we need £1,000 million to bring our prisons up to date. Each prisoner costs the taxpayer, on average, about £7,000 per year. That is an indication of the heavy economic burden imposed by the prison system.

We have heard repeatedly of the serious effect of the totally unacceptable overcrowding in prisons on the morale of both prisoners and staff, and on the work that they are doing. There are therefore strong financial, administrative and humane reasons for reducing the prison population.

This debate is taking place at a very important time, namely, in the aftermath of the prison officers' dispute. We should therefore analyse carefully the lessons that we learnt from that dispute so that an effective and permanent reduction in the prison population can be achieved. My hon. Friend pointed out that before the prison officers' dispute the prison population stood at nearly 44,000. By the end of the dispute it had fallen to 39,600. Now, regrettably, it is rising again and has reached more than 43,000. When the figure dropped to 39,600 there was no apparent threat to public safety and the maintenance of law and order.

I hope that the Minister will tell us in what ways the rapid but regrettably temporary reduction in numbers was brought about. If it can happen once, surely it can happen again. That is what we all wish to see. Were the courts, at the time of the dispute, imposing non-custodial sentences for certain types of offence, where they would normally have sent offenders to prison? Was the length of sentences drastically reduced? Or was it a combination of both those changes? What has led to the dramatic increase in the prison population following the end of the dispute? The answers to those questions will provide a valuable guide to the measures that are necessary permanently to reduce the prison population.

As I said earlier, there are financial, administrative and humane reasons for keeping people out of prison. The need for shorter sentences and greater use of non-custodial sentences for non-violent offenders has also been advocated repeatedly from both sides of the House today, and indeed over the past year, or even longer, because this is the most sensible and effective penological practice.

One of the most significant and disturbing statistics is that about two-thirds of the male offenders aged under 21, and about half of those aged 21 and over, who were discharged from prison between 1971 and 1976 were re-convicted within two years of their discharge.

I am extremely pleased that the Home Secretary accepted in his evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs a few days ago that research has failed to show that, measured by re-conviction rates, a long prison sentence is any more effective than a short one, or that custodial sentence are any more effective than non-custodial penalties. That now seems to be generally accepted by the House. This research has been carried out over very many years by a variety of individuals and teams.

In passing, I hope that the Home Secretary will also accept the research that has been done on the "short, sharp shock", and that he will not feel it necessary, as he has done, to institute even more research into that regime. It has already been carried out and the results should be available to him to see. The present research is unnecessary.

To keep thousands of people out of prison, there can either be an extension of non-imprisonable offences or a greater use of non-custodial sentences, whenever appropriate. There has been general agreement in the debate today that we could reduce the prison population if there were non-custodial sentences for more fine and maitenance defaulters, chronic alcholics, persistent petty offenders and the mentally disturbed.

In 1979, 17,000 people were committed to prison for defaulting on fines. Offenders in this category do not constitute a danger to the public, and they occupy scarce prison places. The greater use of non-custodial sentences, where appropriate, is another remedy.

The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Page), who is not here today, spoke in the Chamber in a debate last Friday and produced his own dramatic version of a non-custodial sentence when he advocated the reintroduction of the stocks. He said: Hooligans, vandals and muggers should be put in a cage on public view on Saturday mornings, with their names and addresses clearly displayed."—[Official Report, 13 March 1981; Vol. 1,000, c. 1,130.] I believe that that medieval penological practice would not be accepted by the House, but two days after the debate the Sunday Telegraph's editorial solemnly supported it as being a suitable punishment for young muggers. We have to find something slightly more civilised and less dramatic, but the day may come when imprisonment for certain offences will seem as archaic and medieval as the stocks do today.

The courts must be prepared to give more support to a range of acceptable types of non-custodial sentence. The Government's White Paper, "Young Offenders", produced last year, contained some sensible proposals for the extension of non-custodial measures, and I hope that we shall also have a chance to debate that paper before the Government announce their intention.

The greater use of community service orders to deal with adult offenders is a welcome development, but I should like to see them made available to 16-year-olds as well as those over that age.

The increased use of probation should be encouraged. It has been found by Dr. Stephen Shaw, who is now a member of the Home Office research unit, that a probation order of the average length of 15 months costs about £337. That is less than the cost of one month's imprisonment.

Fines ought, on the whole, to be far heavier. A fine is often derided by the public as being to many offenders like water off a duck's back. If fines are heavy enough they should be effective as a form of sentence, and we should bear that in mind when passing legislation. Fines have the advantage not only of keeping people out of prison but of yielding proceeds that greatly exceed their cost of collection. In 1977–79 receipts from fines totalled £71 million, and the cost of fine enforcement was only £10 million. The net proceeds of £61 million were roughly equivalent to the total cost of the magistrates courts.

We have considered during the debate the proposition that where a custodial sentence is essential there should be means of reducing the time spent in prison. I fully support, as I think do all my hon. Friends, the Home Secretary's suggestion to the Select Committee on Home Affairs a few days ago, He said that if each judge or magistrate reduced the prison term imposed on a non-violent offender to the next most commonly used prison term for that offence there could be more than 4,000 fewer sentenced prisoners, which would constitute a dramatic reduction. He is also reported as having suggested that one-third of any sentence should be taken off as remission for good behaviour where the sentence is under 18 months, with one-third of the sentence being taken off by an extended use of parole. Both those suggestions are supported by my party.

I hope that the repercussion of such measures will not be that the courts will feel that they have to impose maximum sentences, or sentences higher than they would otherwise impose, because such action would simply cancel out the whole effect of the move. Perhaps if they started to do that the House would have to reduce the maximum length of sentences.

To members of the public who are worried that the tenor of the debate may mean that violent criminals will be let loose on them, I stress that that is not the category of offender that we have in mind. Violent crimes lead, on the whole, to long-term custodial sentences, but the violent offenders are the ones for whom prison is necessary. However, they account for less than one-third of all prisoners. Our attention must be directed at the majority of prisoners—the two-thirds who are serving medium and short-term sentences for non-violent offences.

I welcome the support that the Lord Chief Justice and the Court of Appeal gave last year to the proposal for shorter sentences. Will the Minister say whether there is any evidence that these exhortations have been responded to by the courts? The prison population is steadily rising once more, and that seems to indicate that even if there were a change in sentencing policy during the prison officers' dispute it was temporary and was brought about by temporary circumstances.

The whole House supports the total independence of the courts in their sentencing decisions, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) asked, how much longer must we wait for any significant and effective voluntary change in the sentencing policy of the courts? Will the Minister say at what stage, if any, the Government will consider introducing legislation for shorter maximum sentences and for some restriction on custodial sentences?

We have been discussing reforms to relieve the "dangerous crisis" in our prisons. A fundamental way to do that is to reduce the incidence of crime in the community. The most effective deterrent to potential crime is the certainty of arrest and conviction. The measures that we have been discussing concern the treatment of the offender, but we should not forget that we must also concentrate on attacking the social deprivation that allows crime to flourish if we are to reduce the prison population effectively and permanently.

2 pm

The Minister of State Home Office (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)

I should like first to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr.Soley) for the opportunity that he has given the House to discuss at length one of the greatest problems of our time. I appreciated the manner in which the hon. Gentleman addressed himself to it. I know that he did so from a background of great experience of these problems as a probation officer of long standing.

So often these discussions are marred by what I can only describe as a type of tunnel vision. People identify a single facet of the problem and address themselves to it with great sincerity and enthusiasm, but do not seem to manage anything like the depth of perspective that the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North did. I am grateful for the way in which he helped the House in that way.

I have been asked a great many questions and I shall do my best to answer as many as possible. Those that I cannot find time to answer now I shall endeavour to answer in writing to hon. Members. I shall address myself to answering some of the questions at the outset of my speech, although it may make for a lumpy and disjointed debate.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith, North asked what was to be done about pre-service training. Rightly, he stressed the need for pre-service and in-service training in the present service. I am able to tell him that there is already an extensive programme of training for prison officers both on and after their enrolment. It includes training in dealing with crises such as hostage taking and concerted indiscipline in prisons. However, as the May committee recommended, we are undertaking a comprehensive review of training that will take in the points made by the hon. Gentleman. This review will call on expertise from within the prison service and from related areas, from which valuable advice can come. The hon. Gentleman may find some reassurance in that.

The hon. Member went on to ask about the criminal injury compensation scheme. The hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Ryman) also referred to it, and I am grateful for what he said about it. It is a valuable scheme, and I am very' glad that he said what he did about the realistic levels of compensation.

There is no formal machinery for notifying victims of crime that they are entitled to claim compensation, but within financial restraints every effort is made to publicise the compensation scheme. All police stations contain posters and leaflets about the scheme, as do many libraries, citizens' advice bureaux and local offices of the Department of Health and Social Security. Victim support schemes, about which I want to say a word in a moment, are also provided with full information about it. That is useful, but I agree that more needs to be done to tell people about the existence of the scheme.

The scheme was introduced in 1964. It was reviewed comprehensively in 1979. As a result, it was extended to include cases of violence within the family. The basis of the scheme and the board's approach in administering it is to offer compensation to the victims of crimes of violence with a minimum of formality. Careful scrutiny has inevitably to be given to claims, but the board aims to deal with cases more informally and flexibly than a formal court process could achieve.

I was glad that the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North mentioned the fostering scheme that has been pioneered in my own county of Kent. The chairman of the social services committee, county councillor Teddy Moore, and the director of social services, Mr. Stacey, have achieved something of great value. I hope that it will be followed and that the lessons that we have learnt from it will be applied throughout the country, because, as the hon. Gentleman said towards the end of his distinguished speech, it is in the home and the family that the roots of subsequent criminality are to be found—where there is absence of love, care and intelligence in bringing up children. There is a most noticeable link between the absence of those qualities in early life and a subsequent career of criminality. I shall not dwell on the matter, but the link between the two is very apparent.

Important subjects were raised by other hon. Gentlemen. Before I leave the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North I should like to reply to what he said about vagrancy, soliciting and fines. I agree that a person who is in prison for not having paid a fine is taking up a place in an already overcrowded prison that we would much prefer him not to be in. Only 1 per cent. of people against whom fines have been awarded ever find themselves in prison. However, it is difficult to see how one can have an adequate sanction on non-payment of fines if one does not have the ultimate sanction of putting people in prison. Therefore, one needs to be careful before saying that the prison population can be relieved simply by removing those people who have not paid fines.

I agree with those who say that vagrancy offences are archaically expressed and, at the very least, need to be revised. The matter was considered in Committee on the Criminal Attempts Bill, in the present Session, and I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler), who is Chairman of the Sub-Committee of the Home Affairs Committee, said in the Committee proceedings that he hoped that his Sub-Committee would be able to consider the Vagrancy Acts. However. at the moment it is not possible to say that they should be removed.

Other hon. Gentlemen raised important matters, which I doubt I shall have time to discuss. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, who speaks with great authority on these matters, brought up some very important aspects of crime prevention. We rightly pay much attention to the kind of sentences that we should apply to people who are convicted of crime, but we should look much more closely than we have in the past at means by which crime can be prevented. Certainly, the Government are grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said on the subject on this and earlier occasions, and we shall take careful note of his observations. It would be a great mistake to think that the duty of crime prevention could be given to a police officer in his last year or two of service. It is a matter of no less importance than crime detection. If it could be carried out more successfully than happens at present the need for crime detection would disappear.

The hon. Gentleman spoke warmly of the police and the prison service. I am grateful for the compliments that he paid to the service, upon which we place such reliance and which has to bear so many burdens. The hon. Member spoke warmly, too, of the victim support schemes, to which I shall return in a moment.

The hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) spoke about the approach of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to these matters. He said that my right hon. Friend had, by implication, issued a threat to magistrates that if sentences were not reduced he would have to legislate. I must make it clear, as my right hen. Friend himself did subsequently, that it would never occur to him to seek to issue a threat or anything like a threat to any branch of the judiciary. What my right hon. Friend was doing was pointing out, as has been pointed out consistently in the House today, the great problems that the overcrowding of prisons is presenting. He was pointing out that the evidence does not establish that the longer the sentence the less likely it is that the the offender will commit another crime.

Dr. Summerskill

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman answer my final question in this connection? I asked whether the Government would ever consider legislating for shorter maximum sentences or non-custodial sentences.

Mr. Mayhew

In the short time left to me I am only too happy to answer as many questions as have been asked.

What my right hon. Friend said is that we must look at all the options open to us, but, as I intend to say shortly, first and foremost we place reliance on our judiciary to enforce the law and give necessary protection to the people.

One of the things that we wish to look at is the parole system. On the whole,it has been a very great success. It may be that a case well be established for enlarging the parole system, but we wish, first and foremost, to uphold what has been said by the Lord Chief Justice in the cases to which reference has been made, and we wish to see what changes may become apparent in the sentencing practices of the courts. It is for the courts, first, to carry out the very important task of providing, through their sentences, the necessary protection for the public.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Mayhew

I have so little time. I really must get on. The hon. Gentleman made a very long speech—and a very helpful speech, as always.

I am very grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said in support of the efforts of the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice to reduce the time spent waiting to come up for trial.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark) asked whether what my right hon. Friend has been saying for some time is compatible with what we said in our manifesto. My hon. Friend explained to me with great courtesy why he could not be present at the moment. I am happy to assure him that the Conservative Party placed before the country its concern on the question of sentencing and said in its manifesto: For violent criminals and thugs really tough sentences are essential. But in other cases long prison terms are not always the best deterrent. So we want to see a wider variety of sentences available to the courts. A wide variety is already available, and I am glad that non-custodial sentences are being made use of to the extent that they are.

I am grateful for the tribute paid by my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon) to the Home Secretary for his approach to this matter.

The hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Davis) asked many questions in connection with legal aid and the two Royal Commissions. As to the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure, it will be some time before the Government are able to announce their conclusions. Legal aid is primarily a matter for the Lord Chancellor. I undertake that the hon. Gentleman's observations will be passed to my right hon. and noble Friend. I take the importance of points raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk


Mr. Mayhew

I cannot give way. I am sorry.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

You have time to do so.

Mr. Mayhew

No, I am sorry. I may give way later.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) correctly identified the six lines of defence and made a deeply philosophical speech. I gratefully acknowledge the importance of what he had to say.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk


Mr. Mayhew

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I should like to refer the Minister back to the question whether the Home Secretary will legislate to reduce maximum sentences. The Minister will be aware that the Home Secretary reported to Leicestershire magistrates that an increase in the prison population on present trends could not be sustained. What point would the population in prisons have to reach before the Home Secretary would be prepared to introduce legislation?

Mr. Mayhew

I knew that I was mistaken in giving way. The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a question that can possibly be answered.

What must be made clear is that the Government are gravely concerned at what is described as the crisis in the prisons caused by overcrowding and will take all steps in their power to make known to the public and to all who are concerned in this difficult matter the present state of our prisons. We must ask ourselves a number of questions, to which I shall shortly turn.

After rising for a number of years the prison population reached a peak of 44,600 early last year. Accommodation is designed for only 39,000. The dispute with the Prison Officers Association gave some relief at the turn of the year. We do not know why. I suspect that it was because many fines were not enforced during that time. Probably there was a delay in bringing forward cases for trial while the prison officers' dispute continued. All that we know is that it brought about a marked relaxation in tension when the numbers came down to roughly the level for which the prisons were designed.

Positive and humane standards of custodial treatment are exceptionally difficult to sustain in circumstances of overcrowding of that order. The best use of prisons and the best work in prisons are both inhibited.

Of course, we must accept that past neglect of the prison building programme is part of the explanation for this plight. No purpose-built closed prison or borstal was constructed between 1918 and 1958. We now have a prison programme that should produce an increase of about 5,000 prison places during the 1980s, but even if the population were much lower than it is we should need a programme of this order even to replace the prisons that are wearing out.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton called for a rapid prison building programme to get rid of the problem. It takes 10 years from the outset of a programme to its completion before a prison can be brought into use. We have to acknowledge that imprisonment is an expensive way of dealing with offenders, although undoubtedly it is often indispensable. Each prisoner now costs, on average, about £7,000 a year. We must also consider that we know of the destructive effects of imprisonment. There are cases in which that must be accepted for the safety of the community. I do not overlook the validity or the naturalness of the response that "the offender should have thought of that before," as the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North said. I do not overlook the naturalness of that response. Nor can we overlook the fact that imprisonment, especially if extended, often damages the offender's capabilities, his chances of re-employment, and his hopes of regaining a normal family life—in short, his capacity to find and to maintain a place in normal society after his eventual release. That harms the interests of us all.

It is with that knowledge in mind that we must survey the present state of the prison service. What is called the prison estate is itself undeniably in poor condition, particularly in respect of the local prisons, which bear so much of the strain. Because the system is working in excess of its full capacity, any major loss of prison space through unforeseen circumstances could present us with the most severe difficulty in finding accommodation for prisoners. That is a situation in respect of which we do not need to look back many years for a precedent. While always acknowledging that the prisons exist to meet the use that the criminal justice system makes of them, we need to keep careful watch on the extent of that use. It must not be in excess of what the safety of the public needs. It must not stretch the prisons to destruction.

Of course, we have an obligation to the public that must be paramount. The public expect protection against violent and dangerous criminals and it must have it. We are committed to providing the means to ensure that protection. I am certain that the judiciary will always wish to ensure, as far as is within its power, that the public get that protection.

Fortunately, violent crimes are markedly in the minority, and violent offenders are in the minority in our prisons. Of 16,000 prisoners serving sentences of more than 18 months on 30 June1980, three- fifths—9,400—had been convicted of non-violent offences. A further 11,500 were serving sentences of 18 months or less for non-violent offences.

There are some offenders for whom long prison sentences are essential in the public interest, including the need for appropriate punishment and deterrents. No doubt they include some who are guilty of grave or persistent offences categorised as non-violent. It is for examination whether it is necessary to send so many offenders—especially non-violent offenders—to prison for such long periods. In the Court of Appeal the Lord Chief Justice has himself directed the attention of the judiciary to that question. We have to ask whether there are valid reasons to fear that any reduction in the use of imprisonment for non-violent offences will increase the extent to which the public are at risk from crime.

Despite the admirable efforts of many in the prison service, we can no longer claim that extended periods of imprisonment, by their very length, provide treatment useful to rehabilitation. These matters are, of course, researched. Though it may be surprising, there is no reliable evidence that longer sentences are more succesful than shorter sentences or non-custodial measures in preventing re-conviction.

It appears that we have more convicted offenders in prison per head of population than any other country in Western Europe. We must ask whether that is necessary. Our criminality does not appear to be of a different order from theirs. The majority of the sentenced prison population consists of offenders serving short or medium-term sentences, largely for offences against property. If the prison system is to get the relief that it needs in order to do its job, which includes providing a humane and purposive regime and not simply depriving offenders of their liberty, it can come, in the main, only from the sector that these sentences represent.

This is precisely the message that the Court of Appeal emphasised in its judgements in the cases of Upton and Bibi last year. In the Bibi case, for example, the Lord Chief Justice said that sentencing courts must be careful to examine each case to ensure that if an immediate custodial sentence was necessary the sentence should be as short as possible, consistent only with the duty to protect the interests of the public and to punish and deter the criminal. He went on to say that the court had in mind not only the obvious case of a first offender for whom any prison sentence, however short, might be an adequate punishment and deterrent, but other types of case as well. Those mentioned by the Lord Chief Justice were the less serious types of factory breaking or shop breaking; the minor cases of sexual indecency; the more petty fraud, where small amounts of money are concerned; and the fringe participation in more serious crime.

That is the considered view of the Court of Appeal expressed by the Lord Chief Justice. Backed as it is by enormous experience and authority, it is guidance that none of us can fail to heed. It is certainly to be borne in mind that a pattern of shorter sentences of this kind would still leave the courts able to fulfil their prime function of reflecting the relative gravity of different offences by varying the severity of the individual penalty imposed. Really long sentences should, of course, remain available for dangerous offenders.

We can expect these judgments of the Court of Appeal to be reflected in the sentencing practice of the courts. I have been asked how long it will take. I do not know. We must watch. While we must accept that this will take time, I express with great emphasis our belief that remedies needed in the prison system, or indeed in our system of criminal justice as a whole, are best achieved through a sensible and trusting partnership between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, each confident in the observance by the other of its proper functions.

We could therefore not accept the view expressed in the motion that fundamental reform in our criminal justice system is required. The Government have a great deal of sympathy with the thought underlying the hon. Gentleman's motion and with much of what he said. After all, Parliament sets the overall policy within which the different parts of the criminal justice system must operate. We have a duty to keep the working of that system under review and to consider from time to time what changes have become necessary. That my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary shares much of the general concern expressed in the motion is well known. He has already more than once made clear his view that some changes are needed in the way that this system works.

Changes of practice are certainly needed—perhaps, in time, changes in legislation. We do not know. But when one looks at the words of the motion one finds that it calls for fundamental reforms of an entirely unspecified nature. That seems a different proposition, which prevents us from offering our support for the motion.

Mr. Soley

Surely the issue that I raised regarding the penal policy group is a fundamental reform that the Government could consider.

Mr. Mayhew

Naturally, 'we shall give careful thought to what has been said not only by the hon. Gentleman but by the Philips Commission on Criminal procedure. But the hon. Gentleman will not expect us at this point, relatively shortly after the publication of that distinguished report, to express clear conclusions. It is an important part of the report and we shall think about it with great care.

I have already mentioned that the courts have available a wide range of alternatives to the custodial sentence. It is certainly vital to ensure that sufficient accommodation is provided for those for whom imprisonment cannot be avoided and to ensure that there is sufficient accommodation to avoid those prisoners becoming, by reason of bad conditions, more likely to commit crimes on their release. Effective improvements are plainly called for.

Imprisonment, as a sentence, has been modified and made more flexible by the introduction of parole. The parole scheme has been a considerable success. No doubt there have been mistakes. All institutions are run by mortals. However, it is generally regarded as a considerable success. The supervision of those on parole under licence has, on the whole, worked well. The gravity of the offence can still be marked by the length of sentence passed by the court. There may be scope for further improvements. Indeed, we are engaged in a review of the parole system as a whole.

One area that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has under consideration is the possibility of some extension of the concept of parole to shorter sentences. Detail discussion can best, perhaps, await the publication of the parole review. Our ideas are by no means set. As the discussion document will show, there are many important points for discussion—for example, the present threshold of application and the extent to which the scheme might be mandatory.

In considering reforms of this sort we are keeping in mind the paramount need to maintain the confidence of the law-abiding public. After all, it is they who are the victims of crime. Public confidence demands, first and foremost, that the law be upheld and that the offender pay his penalty. There is a role for clearly defined punishment that can bring home to the offender the consequences of his crime. That is particularly true of the impressionable young offender.

I am glad that mention has been made of the detention centres that have been converted to what has been called the experimental short, sharp shock regime. I have visited them and they are working well. We are giving careful thought to the extent to which that experiment might be extended. The number of attendance centres has been greatly increased since the Government took office. Twenty-four junior attendance centres and two senior centres have been set up, bringing the total number of centres in operation to 105. There are plans in hand for four more junior centres and three more senior centres.

Mention has been made of the victim support schemes. They are very necessary. Our concern for the effect of crime on society is particularly evident in our concern for the victims of crime. I give high priority to backing those schemes. My first engagement as a Minister at the Home Office was to attend the annual general meeting of the National Association of Victim Support Schemes. That association was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington. I shall keep victim support firmly in mind.

I turn to the subject of the police. We implemented at once the Edmund Davies award, and I am glad to say that there has been an increase of about 6,000 in the number of police officers in England and Wales. Only recently have police forces received the necessary increases in their strengths to be able to redeploy officers. The public want to see bobbies on the beat. I am glad that chief constables, who have the difficult job of judging how best to deploy their increased resources, are meeting that public demand.

The roots of crime lie in society. We shall never manage to pull them out fully. I was glad that the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North indicated that society as a whole had to look to its standards if we were to reduce the level of crime. He is right. The debate has been of great value. It has enabled us to range very widely. Light has been thrown on the many ways in which necessary remedies can be implemented. However, the debate has not shown a need for fundamental reform of our criminal justice system. If we were to carry a motion that set in such sweeping terms it would convey a misleading impression of the opinion that hon. Members have expressed. We must punish and deter crime and we must consider that aspect of our system. We must seek to prevent crime. More fundamentally, we must seek to forestall criminality.

The debate has not proved the case for carrying a motion that demands a fundamental reform of the criminal justice system if we are to relieve overcrowding in our prisons. Although I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North for raising this subject, and for his speech, I cannot advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the motion.

2.29 pm
Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stevenage)

I am grateful for the opportunity provided by this last minute to congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Minister on his speech and for showing to the House how well the Conservative Party is completing its minifesto commitment to retain and reinforce the forces of law and order in this country——

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

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