HC Deb 15 December 1986 vol 107 cc999-1008 7.11 am
Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (Surrey, South-West)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a subject of fundamental concern to us all and one that has been of long-standing interest to me. As Members of Parliament who may resent the demands of sitting through the night uncertainly awaiting a debate but who are at least confident in the knowledge that we shall be breaking for Christmas, it is all too easy to overlook the predicament of those whose situation is very different. Those who staff our prisons work through the night as a matter of routine and must be prepared to sacrifice a Christmas break with the family. We all owe a debt of gratitude to those who man vital services over holiday periods so that the rest of us can live in safety and freedom. One thinks of the police, nurses and doctors, and all the others who continue to work throughout the year.

The public's appreciation of those who staff our prisons does not stop there. Many people are aware of the worrying increase in violent crime, of the number of ruthless terrorists in our gaols and of the additional problems resulting from drugs. It is not an easy job, and conditions are far from perfect, with 40 per cent. of prisoners sharing single cells and fewer than half having direct access to a toilet. The present levels of overcrowding are profoundly unsatisfactory. We have nearly 7,000 more people in prison than the total available capacity authorised by the Government. Assaults on staff are reported to have doubled in 18 months and in some prisons violent incidents occur almost daily. Hostage-taking is a background fear, and I well recall wives of prison officers on the Isle of Wight talking of their nervousness whenever their husbands were delayed at work.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of inmates, rising to almost 50,000 last year—a 7 per cent. increase over the previous year. We send more citizens to prison each year than any other western European country —about one in 250—and it is estimated that there may be a further increase of 25 per cent. by 1994. The Government have embarked on a series of fundamental reforming measures to reduce the crime rate, of which the latest Criminal Justice Bill is a further vital part and the sixth major piece of legislation in six years.

For many years, we have bemoaned the number of prisoners on remand, which is frequently a grave injustice to the individuals involved, quite apart from the burden placed on the prison service, and one hopes that the time limit now imposed for bringing cases to court will bear results. Women are especially and inexplicably vulnerable to imprisonment on remand. In a recent parliamentary answer, my hon. Friend the Minister informed me that, whereas 26 per cent. of female prisoners in prison department establishments were untried or unsentenced on 30 September, the corresponding proportion of male prisoners was only 22.5 per cent. Reconviction rates for women are considerably more favourable than those for men.

We must make further progress on alternatives to custody. The public and, above all, the judiciary's confidence in alternatives will, I hope, lead to a real change in sentencing practice. There can be no justification for filling our prisons with petty criminals or fine defaulters at vast expense and in the knowledge that their time in gaol is more likely to confirm their criminal career than anything else.

Nearly two thirds of 25-year-old burglars in Britain who have been convicted are sent to prison, but only one third of their victims think that that is appropriate. It costs the state nearly twice as much to imprison a man as to employ him on the average wage, and half of all prisoners are reconvicted within two years of release. There is no doubt that it takes time for the judiciary to have confidence in alternatives to custody. It is only too easy to see a custodial sentence as safe. I well remember sitting with someone who said that, in the public interest, a person must go to a detention centre. I eventually managed to challenge him and say that I was not convinced about what he meant by the public interest. We knew that sending a petty criminal to a detention centre was extremely expensive and resulted in a 70 or 80 per cent. chance of the young man being reconvicted within the next two years.

There has been a significant increase in probation and community service orders, community service orders having risen from about 13,000 to nearly 34,000 between 1979 and 1984. It is now available to all offenders over 16. Other measures to strengthen supervision orders on juveniles involve the intermediate treatment programmes, which are welcome, with intentions to expand detention centres.

There has been a dramatic prison building programme since 1979. However much we extend alernatives to custody, the public expect and deserve to be protected from the serious offender. The party that now urges the Government to increase public expenditure handed over a paltry programme with scant regard to long-term responsibilities. Under Labour, expenditure on prison building and redevelopment decreased by 20 per cent. Under the present Government, it has risen by 173 per cent. Over the seven years of the Conservative Government, expenditure has amounted to £322 million, there being 80 new prisons in the building programme. It is estimated that they will produce more than 8,000 places by the early 1990s, in addition to a further 5,500 places produced as a result of the 25 major capital schemes in existing establishments.

Major investment will also result in about 10,000 existing places having integral sanitation and improvements in staff facilities. A record level of resources is now being devoted to the prison system. For 1986–87, there has been an 8 per cent. increase in expenditure over the previous year—the figure now approaches £700 million. Since 1979, the budget has risen by 85 per cent, which represents an increase of one third in real terms.

The increase in resources has resulted not only in the building programme. The largest component in the prisons budget is staffing. Prisons are labour-intensive institutions and more than 75 per cent. of expenditure goes on staff. Since 1979, the average number of prisoners has risen by 12 per cent. It is not always appreciated that the number of prison officers has increased during the same period by 18 per cent., which raises the staff-prisoner ratio. Last year, 1,000 prison officers were recruited, bringing the total to about 19,000. Those figures are part of a longer trend. The number of prison officers has increased more than six times since 1947 and the prisoner population has increased by substantially less. Whereas the staff-prisoner ratio was about 1:1.7 in 1947, it is now less than 1:2.5. In addition, there has been a major use of specialist civilian and management staff which means that the figures are even more generous. Whereas only 55 per cent. of the prison budget was the result of staff costs in 1961, today the figure is nearer 76 per cent.

The apparent decline in productivity was mentioned by the May committee. The Home Office justified the numbers by referring to the need for increased security and improvements in the prison regime and in conditions of service of staff. Behind the figures, however, lies a much more worrying situation with an increase in the number of hours worked and insufficient in-service training.

The fundamental concern must be that overtime constitutes an inappropriate part of the working week. It constitutes an average of 30 per cent. of prison officers' earnings. As it is voluntary, some officers work in excess of 20 to 30 hours overtime a week. In a stressful, demanding job, that is an inappropriate commitment to the work. Whereas in 1979–80 the cost of overtime was £34.3 million, it rose 130 per cent. in cash terms by 1985–86 to £81.6 million. Apart from the financial cost of that increase, in management and work terms it cannot be the best way to run a service in the long run.

It is not my intention to rehearse the precipitating factors that led to the industrial action and major disturbances earlier this year. All involved were shocked by the severe repercussions that resulted. It is hardly to be marvelled that prisons, which are enclosed communities, are highly susceptible to stress. The unrest was precipitated when out-of-cell activities and visits were restricted, arising from the overtime ban. It has been estimated that the total damage resulting from the rioting and arson amounted to £4.5 million with 841 gaol places destroyed.

My intention is to focus attention on the fresh start programme introduced by the Home Office this year. Talks with the unions started yesterday. It constitutes a major package of proposals, covering working arrangements for prison officers and management and pay systems in the prison service of England and Wales.

Under the programme existing staff would be permitted to continue to work long hours for up to £15,000 a year, but on a standardised 49-hour week rather than flexible overtime. At present prison officers earn an average of £15,000 for a 56-hour week, but sometimes they may earn up to £25,000 a year for a 70-hour week.

One can appreciate how such figures have become appealing. Certainly compared with the salaries of others in the public sector — although comparisons are frequently invidious — such as nurses, doctors or teachers, who must have higher entry requirements, they seem generous.

Under the fresh start proposals new recruits will be expected to accept the alternative of a basic 39-hour week for just over £10,000. The major task for a fresh start is to ensure that the prison service is brought under proper managerial control. To resist change cannot now be in the long-term interests of the service.

There has been growing public awareness and outrage about the restrictive practices, rigid attendance system and excessive overtime arrangements of the service. It is not only the implications of those matters for the service, but the needs of prisoners who can too easily be overlooked under such a system.

The proposals include changed working arrangements, new flexible shift systems, a new approach to complementing, a unified career structure and a switch to a professional salaried status. The creation of a more open promotion system with a greater attempt to integrate the uniformed officers who undertake the day-to-day running of the prisons and the governors is welcome. A single line of command and promotion should result in improved and more effective management.

I support the steps towards unification of the service, believing that the previous system is outdated. It will be important, however, to ensure that graduates continue to join the service and that the "fast stream" arrangements are sufficiently attractive. It is vital that the management structures are enhanced so that there can be greater accountability, more devolution and control of budgets and a coherent chain of command to the governor.

The service has already been working with management accountants to develop greater cost control in prisons, but there is still a long way to go. The onus is now very much on the Prison Officers Association to engage in negotiations and constructive discussions about the need for change. That amounts to a cultural as much as an organisational change. In the past, the association has too often demonstrated a defensivness and a lack of openness about its work in response to challenge or criticism.

The trade unions exist to represent their members, but it must be highlighted that four fifths of the prison population are prisoners rather than officers. Despite the dramatic increase in staffing, many prisoners still have little or nothing to do all day. Too many have limited access to work, education or association and spend many hours locked in their cells. The figures are hard to establish, but there are signs that in many areas the position has deteriorated.

A major factor in the suggested decline in opportunities for prisoners is reported to be the unavailability of prison officers to escort prisoners to and from work and in some cases to supervise workshops alongside instructors.

Prison education has suffered similarly. Too easily it comes towards the bottom of the hierachy of priorities when officers are allocated for duties. As a result, many classes for which there is budgetary provision cannot take place. Many prisoners complain of restrictions on visiting and interference with the frequency of clothing changes. A review of staffing practices and a re-evaluation of priorities could substantially improve the position, especially for prisoners who are not security risks.

I hope that we shall move from a review of man management in the prison service to the long overdue establishment of a general code of practice and standards in prisons. For many years there have been calls for a code of standards and we need a way in which priorities can be allocated and success can be judged. We must provide a measure of how well we are doing according to our goals.

Part of any useful code of practice would refer to physical requirements and also to the desired goals in terms of the quality of the inmates' experience. For example, it is all very well specifying the number of baths or showers, but we should also specify how often they should be used. Similarly, changes of clothing, visiting arrangements and time out of cell all need to be highlighted. Essentially, to judge the performance, we must have agreed yardsticks not just in terms of man management but in terms of goals for the inmates.

There is growing public awareness and debate about the need for reform. There is also concurrently a groundswell of opinion arguing that wherever the state has a monopoly of provision the result is an inefficient, high-cost service orientated towards the needs of the producers rather the needs of the consumers. Clearly, in the prisons, the development of performance indicators is more complex than in many other areas of provision. The goal of imprisonment has always been a debate upon a multifaceted issue involving containment — isolating the offender from the community; rehabilitation—imprisoning the inmate for the purpose of treatment of inappropriate behaviour or training new skills; deterrence — the ability of prison sentences to deter either the offender or potential offenders; and retribution—using a prison sentence as an expression of the public's refusal to tolerate criminal behaviour.

Finding effective measures presents particular challenges. There is a need to evaluate work in the service in the light of its objectives, no matter how hard they are to identify.

In the light of the vast sums of money spent on the prison service and the difficulty of achieving the form of cost savings and enhanced efficiency emerging in other sectors of the economy more forcefully exposed to financial and market considerations, there is mounting pressure to follow the American example and move towards privatising prisons or at least contracting out some services or prisoners. That is no longer a controversial idea raised only by those with a powerful even all-consuming ideological commitment to market forces. It has been raised by a broader band of supporters concerned as much about difficulty of establishing change and improved conditions for our prisoners in the gaols as obtaining value for money or efficiency. Clearly any such move requires great political diplomacy and many lessons can be learned from the French example.

The Economist argued last week that it is time to start privatising some British prisons. Its headline encapsulated many people's reservations: Prudes about profit keep prisoners in filth. We should not react in too defensive a fashion. Private prisons and prisons for profit have a long history in the penal system of Great Britain. Prisons were expected to be self-supporting and to obtain their revenue from fees exacted from the prisoners in medieval times. Gaol keepers, who were usually appointed by the sheriffs, took the job, not out of a sense of duty but to make a profit. The prisoners were expected to pay an admission fee on entering gaol and a release fee. The fees were adjusted according to the prisoner's social rank and ranged from £10 for an archbishop, duke or duchess to 13s. 4d. for a yeoman and nothing for a poor man. The discharge fee ranged from 35s. down to 7s. 4d. for a yeoman or a poor man. In addition, prisoners were expected to pay for all daily necessities such as bedding, fuel, food and even at times, water.

As prisons were essentially business enterprises, the office of the keeper was transferable or inheritable like any other property. The wardenship of the Fleet prison was leased at £40 a year in 1490. Even the system of transportation of prisoners to the American colonies and the system of confinement on the hulks was a matter of contract management.

We all await the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs on its recent visit to America and look forward to hearing the results of the new Minister of State's visit. In America, where there is a prison population 10 times the size of ours, many steps have been taken to use the private sector. A number of prisons have been handed over, locks, bars and cells, to specialist companies of which the Corrections Corporation of America is one of the largest. That arose at a time when the American authorities were worried about overcrowding, poor conditions and escalating costs. Some are involved purely for profit, others as a social responsibility gesture or out of philanthropic motivation.

Clearly there would be many steps involved, including the establishment of a national code for minimum standards but there is, I believe, widespread interest in the idea of increasingly contracting out services or some groups of prisoners.

There can be no question of society relinquishing control altogether. Effective monitoring would be essential and, indeed, some have argued that it might easily result in more effective control than the management has been able to establish in recent years in the public sector. It is arguably the case that the state will always have to maintain responsibility for top security prisoners.

In the area in which I have most experience, juvenile crime, there have been many remarkable pioneering projects from the independent sector which are cost-effective and socially useful. Those, in my experience, have been undertaken by non-profit making organisations but there is no doubt that the enthusiasm, commitment and willingness to experiment with new working practices and ideas would, in my view, sadly be almost impossible to achieve in the state sector.

The Junction project at Waterloo was an early and remarkable scheme acting as an alternative to custody for young serious delinquents, financed by Save the Children Fund. The Church of England Children's Society's tracking project in Coventry is another example.

In my constituency the Alternative Probation project, once again a non-profit organisation, provides a remarkable service to those on the brink of a long-term criminal career. We have other examples in the area of probation hostels and elsewhere.

This is an appropriate time for the debate. The long-awaited talks between the unions and management on the Fresh Start proposals open today, in parliamentary terms —yesterday in real terms. Those proposals should result in a more effective, better-managed service with better use of the available manpower so that those employed in this vital and often dangerous work receive a fair return for their efforts.

I appreciate the opportunity provided by the debate to draw attention to this too easily overlooked group of people. We have 47,790 inmates in our gaols in some 122 penal establishments staffed by 19,000 uniformed officers. Too often, that group of people when out of sight is also out of mind.

7.34 am
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

With the leave of the House, I wish to make three brief points about this important issue. I welcome the interest of the hon. Lady the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) in this subject and some of the ideas to which she has referred, but it is a fundamental mistake to believe that, because there has been a 12 per cent. increase in the prison population, the number of prisons and prison officers should also be increased. The hon. Lady acknowledged that the number of prisoners must be reduced. This Government have failed to address the crime prevention issue. Only when they do so will something be done about the number of prisoners in our gaols.

I welcome the ideas that underlie Fresh Start. I have argued for many years that the prison officers must be professionals. The Labour party's policy is to move rapidly towards a six-month training period for all prison officers, with the aim of eventually introducing a two-year training period. That kind of training period is needed if prison officers are to do a professional job. That is why I have doubts about the scheme.

My first doubt relates to training. Unless the Government recognise the need for good, long-term training, prison officers will not become professionals. At a meeting a few days ago in Lord Caithness's office with a number of his civil servants I was told that they accept that the training issue must be addressed.

Secondly, I am not sure that the Government will be able to introduce the scheme if they do not increase the amount of money that is needed to implement it. I understood that it would be a nil cost scheme. If that is so, I suspect that the negotiations will founder.

My third, and by far my most important, point is that I do not believe that fresh start will work unless the Government are able dramatically to reduce the number of prisoners. The Home Office must decide whether it wants to use the powers in the Criminal Justice Act 1982 relating to executive release. The Home Office has never said when it intends to use those powers, or why it would use them. The suggestion has been made that they would be used only during an industrial dispute, but we know that the Home Office has thought of using them because of the overcrowding in our prisons.

I have already said that I should prefer a conditional release scheme, because it is fairer and makes much more sense to the public. It could apply to non-violent offenders who do not pose a risk to the public. The Government put the 1982 Act on the statute book and have provided themselves with the power to use executive release. If they combined it with increased training, together with additional resources to finance the scheme, it could work. If the Government made a real contribution to change in the prison service, they would have our support.

7.38 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Mellor)

The great joy one always feels, Mr. Speaker, at the opportunity to address the House at 7.38 am is greatly enhanced by your presence in the Chair, looking far more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed than is entirely appropriate at such an hour.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) for making his points briefly and cogently. I know that he will forgive me if I do not go down all the interesting highways along which he would take me.

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) gave a virtuoso performance. It was an extremely well-informed speech. She showed a mastery of the relevant statistics which highlighted her undoubted concern about aspects of the prison service. At the same time she commended the Government for their very real efforts in trying to come to terms with the historic neglect of our prison estate.

I particularly welcome the commendation which my hon. Friend made in clear and detailed terms. I congratulate her on her understanding of the issues involved in the fresh start proposals. Such was the authority of my hon. Friend's contribution and the extent to which I agreed with it that I am in the happy position of not having to respond at any great length.

I join my hon. Friend in commending the fresh start programme, which is intended to provide the foundation and framework for the prison service of the future. It is a major package of proposals for change in the working arrangements for prison officers and revised managment and pay systems for the prison service throughout England and Wales.

As my hon. Friend said, the package has its genesis in mounting concern about the problems which have beset the service for so many years — internal division and dispute, overtime dependence, inflexible organisational structures and working systems and impoverished regimes.

My hon. Friend set out the catalogue of problems and difficulties that face the service and it is a key element in everyone working together to try to deal with those that they should be widely understood. Indeed, I know that some of the solutions of the hon. Member for Hammersmith would not appeal to us, but I think that he, too, would agree with much of what she said about the difficulties and would also accept in a fair-minded way that those problems have their roots in a soil far deeper than when the Government came to power in 1979.

The formidable catalogue of problems requires no further elucidation from me, but it would be helpful if I said a little more about the fresh start programme. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hammersmith for responding positively to the programme. His ideas about the training element will be taken seriously. He might like to dilate on those in great detail so that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State who is responsible for these matters might have an opportunity to take them on board. This is not a partisan issue. Rather it is one of which we all want to try to take advantage. The more people who appreciate the need for the fresh start, the better we shall be able to devise a prison service where resources are applied in the most efficient manner.

As my hon. Friend said, the three main areas that the fresh start programme covers are working arrangements, management structure and pay and conditions of service. They are the first integrated attempt to tackle the difficulties. The proposals for work organisation envisage the introduction of group working. That means that in future staff will work in teams grouped round the needs of the work. Shift systems will be designed flexibly within a set of common principles to match the work needs. New complementing systems are being designed to ensure that individual prisons and the service as a whole are properly manned, taking account of the needs of security and staff safety. So far as possible, the new arrangements will seek to insulate internal prison regimes from the demands of the external, particularly the court commitment.

We published a consultative document this week on the court commitment and whether it is a proper use of prison officers' time and, indeed, court time, that remands should take place on quite as regular a basis as they do at the moment, when no substantial progress is possible with the case. I understand that that is a controversial issue, on which I shall be given the opportunity to dilate on the radio a little later. We are not committed to change, but we do think that the case for change is a formidable one and we are asking for comments upon it. It would bring great benefit to the prison service if such a change were to be implemented.

The group working proposals are intended to improve collaboration and flexibility in the exercise of responsibility. These in turn should improve the way in which the work is done and the satisfaction gained by staff from doing it well. The keynote in our approach to improved management structures is unification. Revised structures, unification of the governor and prison officers grade, along with the reduction in the number of those grades from 10 to eight, will help to end divisiveness and clarify who is responsible for what and to whom.

It is our intention to review the management structure of individual prisons at the same time as the group working concept is introduced. In that way, roles, responsibilities and lines of accountability will be clarified and, in turn, clarity of structure will help to ensure effective communication up and down the management chain and between groups across the structure.

We propose new salary pay arrangements to give prison officers a simple, fair and guaranteed pay system. The intention behind this proposal is for prison officers to be paid a monthly salary and for all the allowances currently being paid separately, except London weighting, to be taken into account in fixing an enhanced basic pay.

Prison officers will work a conditioned 39-hour-week and, in addition, they can contract to work 10 extra hours, making 49 in all, for an extra allowance. This contrasts with the present position where officers work a 40-hour conditioned week and average 16 hours overtime per week per officer. With the amalgamation of the grade structures, new entrant prison officers will in future have the same pension arrangements as governor grades, but existing officers will keep their present entitlement and there will be transitional arrangements generally designed to protect the interests of those in the grades to be amalgamated.

A tremendous amount of thought and care has gone into drawing up the package of proposals that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West have described. On the one hand, of course, we must ensure that the service is offered a fair and balanced deal, but on the other hand we must make some radical changes if the professionalism of the service is to be developed and the quality of prison life improved. Inevitably, of course, such changes will always bring in train some problems and we do not underestimate the stresses and strains of getting from where we are now to the better and more positive service which we envisage for the future. The effort that will be needed to implement the new proposals will be well worth while. The benefits in them for all are as follows. For staff there is the prospect of reduced hours, both conditioned and average, along with predictable attendance patterns. On the pay front there is increased basic pay and guaranteed earnings for a guaranteed number of hours. With group working, staff should see improved job continuity and job satisfaction. For management the arrangements will provide a better match between resources and work needs. The systems will be more responsive to changing pressures, demands and needs and we should see greater efficiency, improved accountability and more effective control. For inmates, whose interests were of course well set out by my hon. Friend and echoed by the hon. Member for Hammersmith, the package provides an opportunity to improve regimes by laying down a sound organisational basis from which to work towards the enhanced delivery of regime programmes. Finally, we must not forget the public, which stands to benefit by getting much better value for money and an even more professional prison service.

On 21 November we put detailed offers to the Prison Officers Association and other prison service trade unions. They cover the proposals which I have briefly enumerated today, and include a fair offer on pay which should give a prison officer who chooses to work 10 additional hours a guaranteed pay of £15,000 per annum. That is the top rate. Discussions with the unions are now under way and we are looking for a speedy and agreed outcome. If these proposals can be agreed, they hold out the prospect of a better life for prison officers and prisoners. Without them, we have grave doubts whether it would be possible to pay for the improvements in prisoner care and staff job satisfaction that we all agree the service so desperately needs.