HC Deb 19 January 1984 vol 52 cc439-41
12. Mr. Knox

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many men and women were in prison at the most recent count.

Mr. Brittan

On 13 January 1984 there were 40,930 males and 1,387 females in prison department custody.

Mr. Knox

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that considerable public support exists for his efforts to reduce the prison population? By how many does he hope to reduce the numbers of prisoners?

Mr. Brittan

I do not think that it is possible to give an estimate of the numbers at any specific time, because so much is dependent upon the level of crime in the courts. I believe that the reduction in the minimum qualifying period for parole, the efforts that we are making to reduce the number of fine defaulters who are currently in prison and the other action that is being taken, will have a positive effect in the direction that my hon. Friend calls for and commends.

Mr. Ashley

How many prisoners have been convicted on the evidence of Home Office forensic scientists, especially that of the discredited scientist Dr. Clift? Is there any truth in press reports that the two-year old investigation into the cases of Dr. Clift is complete but unpublished, and that no fewer than 12 cases are to be referred to the Court of Appeal? If that is the position, why was Fleet street informed before the House of Commons? Is it not time that the Home Secretary made a full statement in the House?

Mr. Brittan

It is correct to say that the review referred to by the right hon. Gentleman has been completed. I intend to announce its outcome very shortly.

Mr. Forman

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the policy of Her Majesty's Government is never to allow prison capacity to determine sentencing policy? Will he inform the House of the latest figures for the prison building programme, which is designed to meet the problem?

Mr. Brittan

My hon. Friend is quite right. That is the policy of Her Majesty's Government. The prison building programme, which was initiated by my predecessor, is being extended and accelerated. By 1991 the programme will provide 6,600 places in 14 prisons and a further 4,000 places as a result of redevelopment in existing prisons, which, on present trends, should lead to the end of overcrowding.

Mr. Alex Carlile

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that one consequence of the figures he has given is that prisoners are still being kept on remand in police cells? Is he aware also that one man has died in a police cell since the new year? The promises which the right hon. and learned Gentleman made last year and reiterated in the article that appeared in The Times on 4 January seem rather hollow.

Mr. Brittan

The hon. Gentleman is completely misinformed, because my promise has been fulfilled. There were no prisoners in police cells over the new year and there are none today. Since the new year only a few prisoners have been held overnight in police cells, and nearly all of them were taken to prison the following day. The hon. Gentleman knows that that is entirely different from the use of police cells for regular custody, which is a process that has come to an end. The hon. Gentleman could do more to show appreciation for what the prison department has achieved in accordance with my undertaking.

Ms. Richardson

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that a high proportion of women prisoners, especially in Holloway, have been incarcerated for petty offences such as non-payment of prostitution fines and shoplifting fines? Does he accept that imprisonment is not necessarily the best way of dealing with the problems of these women, especially in view of the fact that there is a high proportion of drugs used in Holloway prison? Will he try to convince the House that he has some sensible options to offer in dealing with this problem?

Mr. Brittan

Women who need not be in prison should not be imprisoned for a moment longer than is necessary, and I have referred in previous answers to some of the initiatives that have been taken. A circular is shortly to be issued to the courts on fine enforcement. It is aimed specifically at promoting effective enforcement without the need to commit to prison. I hope that the hon. Lady will bear in mind that we are giving serious consideration to the implementation of section 49 of the Criminal Justice Act 1972, which will enable the courts to order a defaulter to undertake community service. I hope that she will accept that real steps are being taken to deal with some of the problems that she has identified.