HC Deb 23 December 1982 vol 34 cc1128-35 2.28 pm
Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea, South)

The overcrowding in our prison system has been the subject of many speeches and has been raised in many debates. Last week, just under 44,000 people were in the prison system in England and Wales, compared with a certified normal accommodation of 38,621. As not all cells are suitable for accommodation at all times, it effectively means that at present there are places for about 37,000 prisoners. Those figures adequately demonstrate the nature of the overcrowding.

The figures for London prisons show similar overcrowding. That is certainly true for Brixton, Wormwood Scrubs and Pentonville, although at Wandsworth the overcrowding is less. Possibly that is because the prison officers, owing to a dispute, are preventing prisoners from being taken in above a certain number.

Prisoners—I believe that this is a problem only in the London area, although the Minister may disagree—are being held in police cells, and in cells under courts, as a result of the knock-on effect of the overcrowding. I understand that the authority for holding them in those conditions is section 6 of the Imprisonment (Temporary Provisions) Act 1980.

Earlier this year, I was approached about the matter by a number of probation officers, and as a result I received from the Home Office a copy of a letter which said: Police cells are used only as a last resort, and each prisoner is usually moved to a prison after a very short period, generally one night only, or two or three nights at weekends. The letter went on to say that every effort is being made, with some signs of success, to reduce the extent to which we have to depend on police cell accommodation". That letter was sent last June.

Some weeks ago a constituent, a woman with four children, became concerned that her husband, who was being held on remand in custody, had been moved, following his court appearance, from Brixton prison to cells underneath Horseferry Road magistrates' court. Her concern was that she was unable to visit him.

I made representations to the Home Office by telephone. After several conversations the prisoner was moved to Brixton prison, although in one of the conversations a Home Office official said to me "What do we do?" I replied that that was not my concern; I was concerned with the right of my constituent to be visited by his wife. Eventually, the prisoner was moved back to Brixton. He then went to the Crown court, ended up again in magistrates' court cells, and eventually, after further representations, went back to Brixton. Although I happened to achieve some slight success on behalf of one individual, the only result was that somebody else was not in Brixton but was held in police or court cells.

Last Monday, the all-party penal affairs group visited Lambeth police garage and the cells under Camberwell court. Lambeth police garage is the central holding point where prisoners who have put in court appearances are held while it is decided where they are to go. Some of them stay for some days at the cells in Lambeth police garage; others are moved to other police stations or other cells under courts in London.

On the day of our visit, we were told that 49 prisoners had been transferred to prisons that day, there were still 101 being held in prison and court cells, and it was expected that a further 70 would arrive that evening from the various courts in London. We were also told that in September the figure had reached 293, and that on average about one-third of the prisoners held in those conditions are convicted, presumably mainly awaiting sentence, but that the bulk of them are prisoners who have not been convicted and are therefore innocent. That is what makes even more appalling the conditions under which they are being held.

A drop in the prison population is usually expected at this time of the year, lasting until about the second week in January. However, this year the drop has not taken place, certainly not in the South-East.

On the day that we visited the cells, we were told that prisoners were being held at 14 different locations in London, and it was expected that when the further numbers arrived from court 17 different locations would have to be used. The conditions in those locations obviously vary depending on the particular circumstances of the police station or the court, but from what I know and what I saw they vary from being unsatisfactory to positively degrading.

The police officers who have the main responsibility for looking after prisoners are doing their best. From our conversations with them it appears that they are cheerful, but pretty fed up at having to do a job for which they did not join the police service. The sample figures given to us show that, on a day when 176 prisoners are held in the conditions that I have described, 21 police sergeants and 121 constables are required to act as gaolers. They would be better employed on ordinary police work and preventing crime than in acting as surrogate prison officers.

The prison rules do not apply to prisoners who are held in such conditions, although the Metropolitan Police have the advice and assistance of an official of governor grade who helps to resolve some of the problems regarding how prisoners are held.

In contrast to the letter from the Home Office that I quoted, although some prisoners are being held in police cells for only a few days, others are kept there for considerably longer. The worst case quoted to us was that of a prisoner who had been held since 19 November, but we spoke to prisoners who had been there for one or two weeks.

The cells under courts are normally designed for a three-hour stay and not for holding prisoners for a fortnight or longer. Police cells usually have facilities for looking after prisoners overnight, because that happens in police stations anyway.

The policy is that prisoners who are likely to be least trouble are kept in these cells and the more difficult prisoners are found places in Brixton, Wandsworth or other prisons. On our visit we spoke to a prisoner who had attempted to commit suicide. By the time that we left a place had been found for him in Brixton, so our visit had at least one beneficial result.

A number of problems face prisoners held in such conditions. Facilities for exercise are inadequate or non-existent. At Camberwell there is a small room with a table tennis table and a card table and we were told that, if possible, prisoners were given 20 or 30 minutes there each day. We were told that at Lambeth police garage there were no exercise facilities, but that exercise space could be provided if the 19 police vehicles in the car park could be moved.

The second complaint relates to washing and showering facilities. There are showers that prisoners can use at Lambeth police garage, but there are none at Camberwell, although a piece of plastic hosing is attached to a wash basin and prisoners can use that for showering. Some prisoners complained that they had no showering facilities, but we were told that there were plans to install a shower, which suggests that someone at the Home Office assumes that the arrangement for holding prisoners at Camberwell will be longer lasting than we were led to believe earlier this year.

The main complaint is about visiting arrangements. Solicitors can make visits and there is normally an interview room set aside in police cells, but conditions are less satisfactory in cells under magistrates courts.

Family visiting is either impossible or difficult. Often conversations have to take place through a window or grid, measuring 12in by 6in, in the cell door. Even some solicitors have to conduct conversations in that way. It is hardly satisfactory. Visiting hours are limited, visits may last for only 10 to 30 minutes and children under 14 are generally not allowed to visit the cells.

Cells vary in size and at Camberwell are particularly small for two people. They have no windows and only electric lighting. In one cell there was a bunk on which one prisoner could lie. The other prisoner had a mattress on the floor and could lie down only if he pushed his feet under the bunk. The cells were extremely small and cramped.

Prisoners held in custody on remand are given a small sum of money, certainly when they are in prison, either for work or for being available for work whether or not work is available. There are no facilities for making money available for most prisoners held in police or court cells. They have to rely on the generosity of the police for cigarettes or other items. This is hard for non-smokers who are unable to buy soft drinks or anything else.

There is also a difficulty about providing medicine and drugs. These are available because of occasional visits made to the cells by doctors. I understand, however, that it is a regulation that drugs should not be given except under medical supervision. This is a regulation that cannot be adhered to because it is impossible for a doctor to attend every time that a prisoner has to take a prescribed drug.

Another difficulty arises for solicitors and families trying to find out where prisoners are. It is a sudden move to go from Brixton to court and then to end up in an entirely different part of London. I have received complaints from solicitors and families that it takes some time to discover the location of prisoners. A great deal of telephoning is involved. The police stated earlier this week that they were installing a computer, part of the purpose of which would be to locate prisoners. That is an obvious benefit in helping solicitors and families to get access to prisoners. It does not augur well for those who hope that exisiting conditions are only temporary. My main fear is that the installation of the computer, together with showers and so on, will lead people to become reconciled to the situation as permanent.

With the approach of Christmas, the problem is doubly urgent. There are a number of solutions that the Home Office could adopt. It would be possible for some prisoners to be moved out of prisons in the London area so that those held in the conditions that I have described could take their place. There is a knock-on effect. If Wormwood Scrubs is full, prisoners cannot be transferred there from Brixton. This means that people who should be in Brixton have to be held in court cells. Conditions in Brixton are by no means ideal. To set that as a model to be aimed at shows how appalling is the situation.

Another possible solution would be for the Home Office to use its powers of executive release for non-violent prisoners. If 150 prisoners held in such conditions were released from prison in the London area one day early, vacant places would be provided in cells. It has been suggested frequently that the parole provisions should be extended. I suppose, however, that this would require further legislation as the Government refused to adopt this suggestion during proceedings on what became the Criminal Justice Act 1982.

More space would be provided if we avoided having mentally ill people and alcoholics in prison. Shorter sentencing would also result in a lower prison population.

I wish to read a series of items given to me by one of the prisoners in the cells we visited setting out what is inadequate. The list states: No baths or showers, no sheets, no pot, no welfare officer, no medics, no probation officer, no preacher or vicar, no place of worship, no governor, no open visits, no children on visits, no open exercise, no fresh air, no beer or half-bottle of wine, no outside food, no canteen and no legal aid officer. At the end, he says that there is good food and that the police officers are helpful, although not trained in man-management.

The problem is urgent. If the Home Office was to show political will and imagination, it could be solved quickly.

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

The hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs) has done well, if I may respectfully say so, to raise the difficult and extremely disquieting problem presented by the detention of prisoners in police cells in London and the South-East. The hon. Gentleman has taken the opportunity this week and a little earlier to see for himself the conditions under which these prisoners are currently having to he held.

I should like to say at once that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary shares all the anxiety that the hon. Gentleman and others have expressed about the undesirability of this practice. We acknowledge that the detention of prisoners in cells that are not intended for prolonged periods of occupation is highly unsatisfactory. It is adverse to the interests of prisoners, the greater proportion of whom, as the hon. Gentleman said, are unconvicted and are remanded pending trial. It is not a proper use of police manpower.

I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the tribute that he paid to the police for the way in which they have discharged this unwelcome duty and I should like to associate myself with his tribute. This practice takes a large number of police officers away from operational duties when the police service as a whole, and the Metropolitan Police in particular, are under great pressure.

I shall begin by explaining how the present position has occurred. In the first place, we have lost a substantial amount of prison accommodation as a result of the reconstruction of Brixton and Wormwood Scrubs prisons.

Some 350 cells, many of them previously in multiple occupation, have had to be taken out of use. The reason for that, as the hon. Gentleman with his close interest in these matters knows, is that repair and refurbishment were essential if more prison places were not to be lost.

Secondly, for much of this year we have been faced with industrial action by staff at Wandsworth, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, who have imposed varying restrictions on the number of prisoners that it was prepared to accept at that prison. Although the immediate dispute has been resolved, we have had to agree to an effective population ceiling at that prison which, while 120 higher than that pertaining immediately before, is about 150 below earlier levels. The acute shortage of prison officers at Wandsworth and elsewhere is a serious constraint to admitting higher numbers.

Thirdly, over the past few months there has been a surge in the number of unconvicted prisoners, despite a generally stable overall prison population, and the position has been exacerbated in recent weeks by the seasonal increase in the prison population. Remand prisoners must be held reasonably near to the courts at which they are to appear, and the accommodation available for them leaves us with little room to manoeuvre even at the best of times.

The total prison population is now about 44,000, and in recent weeks the prison population in London and the South-East has reached its highest-ever recorded level. The hon. Gentleman is right in pointing to the fact that the overcrowding of prisons is the primary cause of the need to use police cells for this purpose. The effect of these developments has been that, for some time now, prisoners have had to be held overnight in police custody when there is no available prison accommodation to which they can be sent.

Between July 1981 and October 1982 an average of about 45 prisoners have been held each night in police and court cells—the great majority in the Metropolitan Police area. The highest figure recorded was 293 on the night of 8 September this year, although it is fair to add that on a number of occasions there has been none. Since the beginning of November the figures have fluctuated between 25 and 202. This week we began with about 150 prisoners in police custody. That number is steadily falling. Last night, there were 47, and we are fairly confident that by tonight and over Christmas no prisoners will remain in police cells.

We have been keeping the position under the most anxious and continuing review and have taken all the steps open to us to make the best use of staff and accommodation to ensure that the use of police cells is kept as low as possible.

I shall list some of the steps that have been taken. All training prisons are being maintained at operational level, such prisons taking drafts of prisoners more frequently than usual, and in some cases taking shorter-term prisoners, in order to free places that would otherwise be taken up in local establishments receiving prisoners direct from the courts. Transfers now take place regularly at the end of the week in order to ensure that, following discharges earlier in the week, accommodation does not remain unoccupied over the weekend when the numbers in police cells tend to build up. All London prisons are being maintained at their agreed capacities with frequent transfers between prisons and from police custody to ensure that this is so. All 72 places for remands at Coldingley training prison are being fully utilised by providing daily escorts. Wandsworth is no longer used for overnight accommodation for prisoners being transferred between establishments. We brought some new accommodation at the young offender establishment at Warren Hill in Suffolk into use in the summer earlier than planned with the intention of making adult places available elsewhere in the system as a consequence. Recently, we decided to replace the young prisoner working party at Ashford remand centre with a group of selected adult prisoners from Wormwood Scrubs so as to provide a further measure of relief for the London prisons.

We are continuing to examine the scope for other minor adjustments that can be made to ensure that available accommodation is used to full effect.

The improvement in the Wandsworth situation, coupled with the other measures I have mentioned, has gone some way to reduce our dependence on police cells, but I regret that we have not yet found a complete answer. We expect some relief over the Christmas and new year period as a result of the seasonal drop in the population that occurs normally then, and we hope that it will be possible to ensure that no prisoner needs to spend Christmas in police custody. We are pretty confident that that will be the case. The police have, however, made contingency arrangements should the need to house prisoners over Christmas arise.

Looking further ahead as we all must, we expect to see a further seasonal rise in the prison population in the spring, by which time we hope to be able to bring into use new accommodation at Highpoint in Suffolk, a category C prison, where a 200-place extension is nearing completion. This accommodation was to have been used as a detention centre, but in the circumstances we thought it right to commission it instead for adult use. This should provide a measure of relief for the system as a whole, although not directly providing places for the remand population. It is impossible to guarantee that there will be no demand for police cells even then, but we hope that the scale of the problem will be substantially reduced by then. In the longer term, we shall have the refurbished wing at Brixton back in operation in due course.

I turn now to the circumstances under which prisoners are at present being held in police and court cells, and to pick up one or two matters which the hon. Member rightly raised. The legal basis for such a situation is contained in the Imprisonment (Temporary Provisions) Act 1980, which made clear that where, for any reason, it was not practicable to secure the admission of a prisoner to a prison department establishment, he could lawfully be held in the custody of a constable until such time as he could be admitted there or was required to appear before a court. In practice, remand prisoners generally spend not more than two or three nights at any one time in police or court cells before places in prison establishments become available, although, because of the weekly cycle of remand hearings, it is possible that the process will be repeated on more than one occasion. I noted with concern the instances spoken of by the hon. Gentleman, but he will recognise—as no doubt was explained to him at the time—that they were wholly exceptional and that the norm is two to three nights. That is what we aim to make the norm. The period may also be slightly longer if a weekend is involved. The normal practice is for a prisoner in police custody to be received into a prison before his next court appearance, so that in accordance with the committal warrant the prison governor can produce him again at the court. Convicted prisoners may on occasions spend longer than this in police custody, but everything possible is done to move such prisoners into prison accommodation at the earliest opportunity.

If one has to make a choice, it is obviously right that the convicted prisoner should be preferred for that unsatisfactory accommodation in preference to the unconvicted remand prisoner.

We recognise that facilities for observation and medical treatment available to the police are inadequate to enable them to cope with prisoners with particular problems or special needs. Every effort is therefore made to identify such prisoners at an early stage and to ensure that a prison place is found for them as soon as possible. We have also done our best to try to ensure that young men under 21 and women and girls are not detained in police custody overnight following their court appearances, but are transferred straight to prison accommodation. In general, we have been successful in this, and on the one or two occasions when, despite our efforts, police accommodation has had to be used, as a result, for example, of an abnormally high number of remands or of a breakdown of transport at night, the prisoners in question have normally been moved out of police custody the following day.

The Metropolitan Police have a number of centres which they can use for accommodating prisoners. Although none of them is intended for long-term detention, they vary to some extent in the facilities that they offer, for example for washing, visits and recreation. I note what the hon. Gentleman said about those important matters. Although while in police cells prisoners committed into custody from the magistrates' courts are legally in police custody and not therefore subject to the prison rules, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the police have been given advice and guidance by the Home Office on the conditions in which prisoners should so far as possible be kept. Arrangements have also been made for a member of the prison governor grades to visit each day all the locations where prisoners are detained overnight, to ensure that prisoners' general welfare and medical and legal requirements are properly looked after, to provide such assistance as may be required, and to act as a general point of liaison between the police and the prison services.

My right hon. Friend is satisfied that the police do their best, with limited resources, to provide all reasonable facilities in difficult circumstances. It is, however, hard for them to ensure that untried remand prisoners in their custody receive all the privileges which, as remand prisoners, they might expect in prison, and I am afraid that providing facilities for visits has proved to be a particular difficulty. Police stations and court buildings have only a limited secure area, around the cells, and space within that area is at a premium. To allow visits to take place outside the secure area would necessitate a considerable additional commitment of manpower. The police are already heavily stretched by the additional duty of accommodating remand prisoners, and I am afraid that they simply could not meet the required commitment. However, within the secure area they have been doing all that they can to alleviate the problem including, I understand, establishing an appointment system in some cases.

However, provision is always made for prisoners to see their legal advisers. I acknowledge that there have been difficulties. We have taken on board the Law Society's concern. For other types of visit, the police try to be as flexible as they can, but unfortunately some locations simply do not lend themselves to the possibility of family visiting. I would, however, stress that this obtains only for the limited period for which prisoners are detained in police custody; as soon as they are moved to prison establisments visits can take place in the normal way. We have done our best to provide access to a telephone in cases of particular difficulty.

One source of difficulty for relatives, friends and legal advisers has been to find out the precise whereabouts of certain prisoners while in police custody. We hope that the computer to which the hon. Gentleman referred will help in that regard.

The hon. Gentleman raised one or two other matters which time forbids me to answer now in detail, but I hope that he will allow me to do so by letter.

I pay tribute to the efforts that the police at all levels have made to discharge these additional and unwelcome responsibilities. For all the justified criticism of some of the conditions under which prisoners have been held, there has been nothing but praise for the attitude of the police in these difficult and trying circumstances. We have managed to meet the present difficulties only through the really admirable co-operation that they have given.

Police cells are used to accommodate prisoners only where it is essential. We have no intention that that should become a permanent feature of remand in London and the South-East, let alone that the practice should spread to other parts of the country. As I have explained, we have already put in hand several measures to avoid the use of police cells for that purpose. In the longer term we have embarked on the biggest prison building programme of this century. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome what I have been able to say today about the position over Christmas. I am grateful to him for drawing attention to the pressing and extremely disquieting problems. We are doing our best to meet them and I hope that the position will improve before long.

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