HC Deb 31 March 1983 vol 40 cc451-3
8. Mr. Knox

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many people are serving sentences in Her Majesty's prisons at the present time.

12. Mr. Dubs

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what is the latest total for the prison population; and how many people are currently being held in police or court cells because there is no room in prison.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

The total number of inmates serving sentences in prison department establishments in England and Wales was 36,300 on 28 February 1983. The latest total for the prison population was 44,700 on 18 March 1983, in addition to which 323 persons were held in police cells.

Mr. Knox

Does my hon. Friend propose to take any new initiatives to reduce that excessively high figure?

Mr. Mellor

The Government have been tackling this matter in a number of ways. I point to the largest prison building programme this century. We are also recruiting more prison officers. There is provision for a further 900 this year. We support warmly the efforts of the Lord Chief Justice and the judiciary to make it clear to courts that prison sentences should be imposed only when absolutely necessary and should be no longer than necessary.

Mr. Dubs

Does the Minister agree that we are on the verge of an explosion in our prison system because of the tremendous overcrowding in establishments up and down the country? Does he further agree that it is intolerable that because prisons are full several hundred prisoners should be kept in police and courts cells in conditions where they can have no visitors and where there are inadequate facilities for exercise and washing? Do we not need some quick action by the Government to tackle the problem?

Mr. Mellor

The hon. Gentleman does not say what quick action he requires. No quick action is possible to remedy the decline in the state of prisons that has taken place throughout this century. We have put that into reverse by a massive injection of funds, both for the prison building programme and for refurbishments. However, one cannot refurbish prison wings without closing them temporarily, which puts pressure on police cells.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

Is my hon. Friend aware that among those in prison is Myra Hindley, who, with Ian Brady, committed crimes beyond belief? We are being led to believe that she is being sent to a softer prison. May we have an assurance that that is not a prelude to parole and that although Ian Brady and Myra Hindley may look for forgiveness in the next world, they should not have it here at the expense of those who suffered so cruelly?

Mr. Mellor

Miss Hindley had been in Durham prison for six years and it is the normal practice to move long-term prisoners to other prisons from time to time. I have no reason to believe that the regimes are materially different from one prison to another. As for Miss Hindley's future, I have nothing to add to the full answer given by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on Friday 29 January 1982.

Mr. McNally

Is the Minister aware that many prison officers in Strangeways believe that they are sitting on the lid of a pressure cooker which will blow one day unless action is taken? For the Government to sit pat on the idea of building two new prisons a year will not serve the problem of older prisons such as Strangeways.

Has the hon. Gentleman considered the idea of an amnesty to thin out the population and to take pressure off the prisons and prison officers?

Mr. Mellor

We understand the pressure on the prison service and pay tribute to its work. That is why we have recruited more than 1,000 additional prison officers during the lifetime of this Parliament and made financial provision for a further 900. The problems cannot be reversed overnight. We are working hard on refurbishing old prisons. Many are having the first major refurbishment since they were constructed over a century ago.

An amnesty would be a grave and serious step. It is extremely difficult for the Government to contemplate such a step, though it is easy for the Opposition, who are not responsible for these matters, to do so.

Mr. Wheeler

Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem is that for many decades there was no prison building in England and Wales and no refurbishment of our old prisons? Would not the Labour-controlled London borough in the Woolwich area greatly assist us if it cleared the decks and allowed the Home Office to get on with building a much-needed prison there?

Mr. Mellor

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The delays in prison construction are obviously to be regretted. I fully endorse what my hon. Friend said. The neglect of over a century of some of our older prisons cannot be reversed overnight, but the Government are making a more serious attempt to do that than did any of our predecessors.

Dr. Summerskill

Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind that not only are there 45,000 people in prison today, but that a report published yesterday predicted that there would be as many as 50,000 prisoners by the end of the decade? Why did the Government resist any significant new measure being introduced in the Criminal Justice Act 1982 to reduce the number of prisoners? Exhortations to the judiciary have clearly failed. What action will the Government take, given that the Criminal Justice Act does not offer any solution to the problem?

Mr. Mellor

The problem is a little more complex than the hon. Lady has suggested. Since the initiative with the judiciary, the average length of prison sentences has fallen by two months. If a stable number of cases had been coming before the courts the prison population would have been reduced, by reason of that alone, by 2,000 to 3,000. However, as the hon. Lady knows, the number of cases going through the criminal courts increased by 12 per cent. last year and has been increasing over the years. The problem is the increase in crime, leading to more prisoners coming before the courts, and that problem is not as readily soluble as the hon. Lady might imply.