HC Deb 21 January 1982 vol 16 cc404-6
11. Mr. Thomas Cox

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what was the prison population on 1 January 1982 in England and Wales.

Mr. Whitelaw

About 40, 800, following the normal seasonal reduction during December.

Mr. Cox

Is the Home Secretary aware of the annual reports of the prison boards of visitors? If so, does he read them often? Is he aware that they refer to the enormous problems that overcrowding is causing in our prisons? As it now costs over £7, 000 a year to keep a person in prison, when will the Home Secretary start to take out of our prison system many of the people who should never have been put there in the first place? Does he agree that the removal of such people would begin to lead to a constructive development in the prison system?

Mr. Whitelaw

Of course I see the reports by the boards of visitors. If the hon. Gentleman had been present at our debate yesterday and on previous occasions he would have heard some of the proposals for the prison service and what we seek to do about the prisons. I claim that this Government have done more about improving prisons, about prison building and many other matters than has been done for a long time. The number of people in prison at the end of 1979 was almost exactly the same as it is today. There has been no substantial increase in numbers compared with the numbers in previous years under Labour Governments.

Mr. Dickens

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the public are concerned about our stand on law and order? In spite of it being difficult for prison officers to manage with overcrowding, is it not perhaps a bonus that it is uncomfortable in prison? Does not that, perhaps, dampen the enthusiasm of people who may be inclined to commit crimes?

Mr. Whitelaw

Of course the British people are concerned about the rise in crime, as are people all over the world. The British people are extremely concerned about violent crime in particular. Of course it is necessary for people who commit many such crimes to receive custodial sentences—and some should receive long custodial sentences. That is the purpose of the prisons. It is the purpose of some of my proposals to start a proper prison building programme and to spend money on maintaining and improving existing prisons.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Does the Home Secretary recall the statement on 2 December by the prison and borstal governors, who said that if compulsory cell sharing and slopping out were abolished and decent minimum standards provided, not only for prisoners but for prison staff, the prison population would have to be reduced to 32, 000? Will the Home Secretary, therefore, look favourably on amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill aimed at introducing either supervised release or conditional release, both of which would reduce the prison population substantially?

Mr. Whitelaw

Such matters can be argued during the Committee stage of the Criminal Justice Bill. I have made my position and my doubts about supervised release very clear and they will be made clear again during proceedings on that Bill. The prison system is there to serve the interests of the whole criminal justice system and not, as some people seem to think occasionally, the reverse. The prison system ensures that custodial sentences are available for people who need to be in prison for the protection of British citizens. That is a very important factor when considering the prison system.

Mr. Robert Atkins

Will my right hon. Friend explain or amplify a remark that he made earlier? Why is there a seasonal reduction in the prison population at Christmas?

Mr. Whitelaw

Traditionally that has always been so. Traditonally there is also a sharp rise in the prison population during November. Last year that sharp rise did not occur. It is too early, therefore, to make any predictions about the future or about whether the fact that the prison population has decreased considerably from the high level of last summer is a trend resulting from shorter sentences. Nobody can tell at present and I make no predictions. The trend is about the same as it has been for several years.

Mr. Hattersley

The Home Secretary said that the prisons must accommodate people who need to be there for the protection of other citizens. Is he aware that that is common ground across the Floor of the House and throughout the country? Is he aware that the dispute is about who needs to be in prison to provide that protection? If the Bill that the right hon. Gentleman proposed yesterday does become law he will be able to release from prison vagrants, the mentally inadequate, women convicted of soliciting and habitual drunks. Does he intend to release such people or does he think that their imprisonment is necessary for the safety of other people?

Mr. Whitelaw

We have taken various steps in relation to drunks, for example. I have taken steps recently, following the Private Member's Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks), to see whether we can get drunks out of prison. I am keen to take such categories of people out of prison, but we must remember a matter that has been laboured, that eventually persistent fine defaulters must be put in prison. Like the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), I should like the other categories of prisoners which he mentioned to be removed from prison, but he would be the first to agree that, even if they were removed, the reduction in the prison population would be extremely small.