HC Deb 20 November 1981 vol 13 cc592-8

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

2.30 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith, North)

With permission, I wish to raise the subject of improvements to Her Majesty's prison, Wormwood Scrubs.

I am grateful for this opportunity to refer to a matter that is of considerable concern not only in my constituency but to a great many people throughout the country who are worried about the state of our prisons. The problems that face Wormwood Scrubs are not unique to that establishment. They are common to many of our prisons.

The governor, Mr. John McCarthy, about whom there has been some publicity this week, took over when Wormwood Scrubs had been through a major crisis and when the prison service was also going through a major crisis. There is a great deal of respect for what he has achieved in the relatively short time that he has been there. It has not been an easy time.

I do not wish to add a great deal to what I said during Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday. However, the views that Mr. McCarthy expressed in his courageous letter to The Times are echoed by very many people who work in the prison service at all levels. When we lock up people, it is important to ensure that we do not deprive them of their human rights. It is for that reason that a matter of this importance should be aired and discussed by those who work in the prison service.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

Does my hon. Friend accept that there are many people on both sides of the House and outside it who endorse fully the very courageous and outspoken remarks of the governor of Wormwood Scrubs, and who, like him, have been drawing attention for a long time to the appalling conditions in prisons all over the country and who also, like him, are bitterly disappointed that a Home Secretary who appeared to acknowledge the need to reduce the numbers in our prisons now appears to have "copped out" by removing from the Criminal Justice Bill certain proposals that we were led to believe would be included? Does he accept, further, that, like the governor, we shall continue to campaign for a humane and civilised prison system?

Mr. Soley

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. I do not wish to go down that road at the moment, although the Minister knows my views. There is no doubt that support is growing for a conditional release scheme and that, if we had such a scheme, the problems of Wormwood Scrubs would be very much easier to resolve.

Like many Victorian prisons, Wormwood Scrubs is in need of major renovation. As a new heating system has been installed, a problem has arisen because it has affected the foundations of the prison so that the floors are beginning to warp and sag in certain areas. But that is not just a problem for A wing. It is a problem for all four wings to a greater or lesser extent. At the very least, at the end of the day any renovations that are carried out should leave the prisoners in conditions that are no worse than those that existed in Victorian times, although it is to be hoped they will be very much better.

We have to ask ourselves why we are trying to improve A wing of Wormwood Scrubs without putting in integral sanitation. In Wormwood Scrubs, two prisoners may be sharing a cell measuring 13 ft by 8 ft and having to use bucket for a toilet during the night. That must be unacceptable in the second half of the twentieth century.

Slopping out—the process of emptying the bucket of its contents in the morning and washing out the bucket—is a degrading experience not only for prisoners but for prison officers and the rest of the staff. It needs to be said that in these old prisons faeces are sometimes thrown out of windows, mainly because prisoners do not want to spend the night with them in their cells, although sometimes it is done as a gesture of defiance towards a system from which they are profoundly alienated.

The crux of the debate, and the point that I wish the Minister to answer effectively today, is why we are proceeding to modernise and develop A wing without integral sanitation. It is a £6 million redevelopment programme. Why is it that, at the same time, we are planning to build a new kitchen, which I believe to be unnecessary? It will cost at least £1 million, possibly £1¼ million. The money for that kitchen should be spent on incorporating integral sanitation in A wing.

The reasons given for this extraordinary state of affairs were put to me in a letter from Lord Belstead on 6 November. He said: The short answer is that the start date of the phased redevelopment would have been delayed for at least two years while we tried to work out acceptable operational solutions to the installation of integral sanitation into the framework of A Hall. He then said in a rather puzzling sentence: If our project for a new local prison at Woolwich is to go ahead without inordinate delay, thus easing pressure on the London system, I hope it will be possible to build integral sanitation into the subsequent modernisation and redevelopment of B, C and D Halls. This would substantially improve inmate living and staff working conditions and could eventually end slopping out at Wormwood Scrubs. I wish to deal briefly with Lord Belstead's alternative offer of Woolwich prison. The local authority has already refused planning permission and a public inquiry is pending. We cannot even be sure that that prison will be built on that site. It will take at least 10 years to build, which means another 10 years of slopping out in A wing, even assuming that the plan comes to fruition. If history is anything to go by, and I hope that in this case it is not, Woolwich prison will be filled with more prisoners, as has happened in the past, and there will be no room to take the overflow from the other London prisons. That is why the Howard League, among others, has expressed the view that no new prisons should be built until the old ones are closed.

I understand that, when cash was more easily available, it was thought that a new kitchen at Wormwood Scrubs was a good idea. However, repairs have shown that the existing kitchen is quite adequate and that all that is needed, apart from superficial decorative work, is the provision of heated trolleys, a bay to park them, and an improvement to the roadways on which they run. That would involve a relatively small amount of money. It does not justify the building of a new kitchen. Even if a new kitchen is necessary, why is it planned for the north-west corner of the prison? The present kitchen is in the centre, which is a sensible place because the supplies can reach the various wings without trundling across the whole area of Wormwood Scrubs.

The kitchen being planned is a one-storey affair with foundations for a one-storey building. That suggests an incredible degree of inflexibility. If we wish to build a higher development on the kitchen site at a later stage, we could not do so without spending a great deal more money. Even if we accept the case for a new kitchen, it is inappropriate to plan for a single storey when that area might need to be converted to other uses later. That is especially so, bearing in mind that modern catering facilities are changing rapidly. At the end of the day we may end up with a kitchen that no one wants and no one can use. That anxiety has been expressed by many people with knowledge of the problem.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the Home Office committee report. Recommendation 15 states: within the prison building and maintenance programme priority should be given to substantial redevelopment and refurbishing of the existing local prisons, including the provision of integral sanitation. That recommendation echoes the May report, the European Commission of Human Rights and the United Nations, all of whom have said that decent toilet facilities should be provided as a matter of human rights. There is no disagreement on that, which makes it all the odder that we are spending so much on development works without integral sanitation, while spending at least £1 million on a kitchen which is not needed and cannot be justified.

Lord Belstead mentions a two-year delay. I have looked at the matter closely and can see no reason for such a delay. Initially, I thought that there would be complications because of the need to improve the whole sewage system if integral sanitation were installed. However, further investigation has revealed that the sewers are being improved under the first phase of the development plan and therefore integral sanitation would not affect the new sewerage system. The development plan cannot be the reason for holding up the provision of integral sanitation.

Tenders are out to contract and it may be thought that that could create problems. If we negotiated tenders instead of sending them out, it might be a lot quicker and easier. More important, if the tenders were called in and integral sanitation were added to the plans I find it hard to believe that they could not be returned within 12 months and probably within six months. Talk of a delay of two years is not realistic.

Some years ago when other hon. Members and I and a number of people outside raised the question of conditions in our prisons we were often told that the problem was not a matter of public concern. That attitude is rapidly changing. We all recognise that we need to do more for the victims of crime, but nothing can justify the appalling situation in our prisons.

I was glad to welcome to the ranks of penal reform supporters the Daily Express, which stated in a recent opinion column: It should be no purpose of a prison to brutalise its inmates. The Home Office seems to think that it is. No other conclusion is readily reached when it is learned that the "slopping out " practice is to continue at Wormwood Scrubs, despite a £6 million development programme "modernising" 258 cells … Should prisoners in England who are better behaved and guilty of less heinous offences be worse treated than those in the Maze? Should the Home Office be less lenient in such matters than the Northern Ireland Department? Surely not. One may agree with all or only some of those comments, but we can surely all agree that in the second half of the twentieth century no one is prepared to accept slopping out and the use of buckets for latrines in cells shared by two men or, in other prisons, more than two prisoners, especially when we are spending £6 million on a development programmme and £1 million on a kitchen that no one wants. That is sheer nonsense.

I ask the Minister of State to take a long hard look at what is proposed, to cancel the building of the new kitchen and to use the money to provide integral sanitation.

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

Of course conditions in our prisons are properly a matter of public concern. Both the Home Secretary and the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) have been active in that area for much longer than some of the more recent recruits to the cause, welcome though they are.

The House will be aware that it is the great desire of the Home Secretary, and has been ever since the Government took office, as it is the desire of the Government as a whole, to alleviate overcrowding in prisons and to improve conditions both for staff and for inmates. To achieve this, the Government are currently considering ways of reducing the prison population in a manner consistent with the protection of the public.

No Home Secretary has inherited a worse prison accommodation problem, and none has himself done more to draw public attention to it. None has done more to pursue means of reducing the prison population, subject only to the overriding need to give proper protection to the public. Equally, the Government have a programme to build a series of new prisons throughout this decade.

The Government inherited a nil prison building programme. Those who say "Your remedy lies in bricks and mortar" seem to overlook the fact that the Government are committed now to a programme of two new prison starts a year for the next three years. But there will still, unhappily, be a need to retain most of the existing penal establishments. Many of these establishments—especially the Victorian prisons and wartime camps—are deteriorating rapidly, and consequently an extensive programme to improve and modernise these existing establishments is necessary, much as we should like, in an ideal world, to be able to sweep them away and replace them instantly with modern prison buildings.

It was decided early in 1977 to draw up a comprehensive scheme to redevelop, in a series of separate phases, Wormwood Scrubs prison. The major work necessary in an establishment of this complexity, while still keeping it operational, as we have to do, would be a very difficult and lengthy undertaking. It is necessary, therefore, for me to go into events in some detail.

Progress in the planning of the comprehensive redevelopment was drastically affected when, in 1979, serious structural defects were discovered in A hall. All the floor slabs had to be renewed because they had deteriorated as a result of high condensation and a high water level within the stone. The slates on the roof had to be replaced with continuous sheeting along the whole length of the roof. Repairs and renovations had to be carried out to all the windows and grilles. That gives an indication of the nature of the work that was necessary.

A later structural survey of the whole establishment—not just A hall—revealed that extensive maintenance and repair work would be required to most of the buildings if the prison were to remain in operational use during the 1980s. The survey clearly established that A hall, one of the four inmate living blocks, had to be the first priority. At this stage, consideration was given to the demolishing and rebuilding of A hall, as opposed to refurbishing it. But because the main structure of all four living blocks was basically sound, it was decided that it would be cheaper and quicker to modernise and improve them all, rather than to demolish and replace them.

The prison department therefore embarked on the planning of a phased programme of redeveloping the prison by retaining the four living blocks suitably modernised, but by replacing most of the decaying ancillary facilities. The department's scheme involves the demolition of many substandard buildings, with the object of freeing potential recreational space between the halls.

The first phase of redevelopment consists mainly of four parts: first, the refurbishing and upgrading of A hall; second, extending and refurbishing the hospital; third, the erection of a new kitchen; fourth, the construction of a new visits block.

To allow this work to be carried on it was first necessary partially to empty B hall and to modify some of its accommodation. Then the inmates of A hall and the hospital are to be temporarily accommodated in B hall. A large area at the western end of the prison will be fenced off to provide a separate secure contractors' area. This will be provided with a separate access so that the contractors' workmen and supplies do not have to enter through the main gate and into the remainder of the prison, which will remain fully operational.

The decision on the content of the first phase was dictated primarily by the urgent need to carry out remedial work in A hall. The inclusion of the other items was governed by their location at the western end and by the fact that design work was well advanced and could be undertaken within the same time scale. Work on the preparatory stage in B hall is in progress and is expected to be completed by the spring of 1982. Competitive tenders have already been invited for the remainder of the first phase which should start in April 1982 and is expected to be completed by the end of 1984. It is estimated that the total cost of phase I is about £6 million.

The hon. Gentleman asked why A block is having work done on it which will result in its refurbishment without integral sanitation. However, it may be helpful if first I deal in more detail with the major elements which form the main parts of this phase I. To take A hall first, there will be a complete programme of refurbishing and maintenance to the fabric, upgrading or replacing of all mains services, replacing windows and security grilles, and improving and expanding the existing sanitary facilities located in recesses on each gallery.

The sanitary arrangements in the prison are, I know, of particular concern to the hon. Member, as they must be to everyone who is involved in the maintenance and establishment of modern and appropriate conditions in prisons. The Home Secretary shares that concern, as does the prisons board. It is the board's aim to bring about, through the prisons, the ending of the throughly unpleasant practice of slopping out. It would have helped had any progress at all been made with the Victorian prisons before the present Government took office in 1979. However, the 1979 structural report made it abundantly clear that work on A hall must commence at the earliest possible opportunity. In this respect the recommendations of the committee of inquiry into the United Kingdom prison service, the May committee, and the recommendation referred to by the hon. Gentleman in the Fourth Report from the Home Affairs Committee, were very relevant. The prison department has undertaken, but it has not yet completed, experiments in the best method of providing integral sanitation or of introducing a system of controlled unlocking of cells at night, so as to give prisoners reasonable access to sanitary facilities when they are locked in their cells. To await the satisfactory completion of these experiments would have considerably delayed phase I. This would clearly be unacceptable on operational grounds, in view of the continuing deterioration of A hall.

The hon. Gentleman asked why the work could not go ahead at once. It is not just a simple matter of spending a little more money and putting integral sanitation into A block. The present recesses operate on a system whereby the waste is dealt with in a manner—I understand that it is a piping system—that would not be appropriate or be able to be used, if integral sanitation, or sanitation in the middle of each block of three cells, were to be installed. It would cause considerable delay, if no work were done on A block until such time as it was possible to install integral sanitation of one sort or the other. So it is not simply a question of saving money.

Phase I also includes a new kitchen to which the hon. Gentleman also referred. The existing kitchen caused considerable concern in November 1977, when its condition was criticised by both the inspectorate of the prison department and by medical authorities. Though some short-term remedial work has been undertaken, the present building has a limited life. The hon. Gentleman said that all that was now needed, repairs having been done, and the kitchen now being quite adequate, as he described it, was to provide heated trolleys. That is not my understanding. The very structure of the kitchen is defective. It gives bad supervision of inmates working there and its ventilation system is quite inadequate by modern standards. Further, it occupies a large site which provides essential space for further development in subsequent phases.

The hon. Gentleman asked why it was to be moved to the north-west corner. The first reason is that the administrators and planners agreed that that would be right—a pretty rare event when it comes to reconstructing anything—and secondly, because the space which it occupies is needed for recreational use—something which is in painfully short supply at this prison.

The inclusion of this work in the first phase acknowledges the great importance of not only a modern kitchen but also an improved system of distribution of food in an establishment as large as Wormwood Scrubs. At present food does not always reach inmates in a satisfactory condition. I think that I am entitled, in support of what I have been saying, to refer to the fact that yesterday afternoon my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary saw the chairman of the Wormwood Scrubs board of visitors, at her request, I believe, and she fully accepted the importance of the work on the kitchen and the associated improvements to the food distribution system. So it is not right to say that this is the provision of a new kitchen that no one wants.

Mr. Soley

I did not say that it was just a question of heated trolleys. I said that there were other areas as well—the parking bays and the roadways—because what leads to the food arriving in a bad condition is the fact that the trolleys or the containers in which they are carried must be tipped on their sides at present. That would not entail an enormous sum of money.

The Minister has raised one or two other issues today about which I am not entirely happy. I should like to write to him further and I should like him to keep an open mind about them, because I want to question one or two of these matters in greater detail.

Mr. Mayhew

Yes, of course—although it would be better if the hon. Gentleman wrote to my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who is directly responsible for the prison, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

A further element in this phase is the extension and refurbishment of the existing hospital. This includes remodelling the operating theatre suite and improving other ancillary facilities.

Lastly, this phase includes the provision of a new visits block, which will be linked to the recently completed gate complex. This will vastly improve conditions not only for prisoners but also for their visitors. I believe that most people who know Wormwood Scrubs accept that the hospital and visits facilities are deficient.

The completion of phase 1 will be a substantial step towards modernising Wormwood Scrubs prison, but much remains to be done. Detailed planning by the prison department of future phases is currently being undertaken. In addition to the refurbishing and essential maintenance of the remaining three halls, it is our firm hope that improved access to night sanitation—probably by conversion of every third cell—will be included in that stage. It is also the intention then to return to A hall and extend these facilities there. These future phases will include new industrial workshops, a sports hall, an educational block, a reception and discharge block, and a chaplaincy centre.

I appreciate the concern expressed by the hon. Member. Everyone in the House knows that he has a genuine and a knowledgeable interest in the welfare of all who have to occupy the prisons, as inmates or as staff. I am glad that he has given me this opportunity to explain what is happening in the phased reconstruction of Wormwood Scrubs and to explain what I completely understand is, at first sight, obviously a far from ideal arrangement.

The need to maintain the fabric and improve conditions in our older prisons is incontrovertible. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is satisfied that the phased improvements to Wormwood Scrubs prison, while undoubtedly in some ways falling short of the ideal, are the best that can be achieved having regard to the urgent need for remedial work and the paramount importance of keeping as much of the prison operational as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Three o'clock.