HC Deb 01 May 1986 vol 96 cc1104-18 3.59 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

As I undertook in the House last night, I will, with permission, make a further statement on the situation in the prisons.

I reported to the House last night on events at Lewes and Northeye prisons. Disruption continued there during the night, but the situation has now been brought under control, though at both establishments, and particularly at Northeye near Bexhill, there has been extensive damage to buildings. Police intervention was necessary at Bristol to regain control of one wing of the prison, and at Erlestoke youth custody centre, near Devizes, some 40 trainees made a mass breakout and some 16 are still at large. The other serious incident was at Wymott, near Chorley, where there was a major disturbance but where staff gradually were able to regain control. A number of lesser incidents took place at 12 other prison establishments.

The situation in all establishments has now been brought back under control. I want to take this opportunity, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House did a few moments ago, to pay tribute to hard-pressed prison governors, those prison staff who remained at their posts, and the members of the police and fire services who have helped to restore the situation.

There will need to be an inquiry into these events. Its form and scope will have to be compatible with any police investigation into alleged offences, and I will keep the House informed.

I have taken immediate steps to try to ensure that, now that order has been restored, it can continue to be preserved. Prison governors are in touch with their local chief officers of police about the situation in their establishments. After consultation with me the acting president of the Association of Chief Police Officers has opened the national information centre at New Scotland Yard to collate and disseminate information relating to the police involvement in the prisons dispute. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has ordered preparations in case military camps are needed to house prisoners as a result of the destruction of prison accommodation. Arrangements have been made to ensure a co-ordinated response by all Government Departments to the present difficult situation.

Although some of the violent action by prisoners may have been imitative, there is little doubt that the occasion for it was the overtime ban instituted by the national executive committee of the Prison Officers Association as part of its dispute about manning levels with the Prison Department. This both increased the prospect of trouble in the prisons and reduced the resources available to deal with it. I believe that not only the public but many members of the prison service, including many members of the Prison Officers Association, will have been appalled by the events of the last 24 hours.

I therefore welcome the decision of the national executive committee of the POA to suspend its industrial action to allow talks at the Home Office to take place. The POA asks in its statement for a reciprocal gesture, asking us to allow staff to work normally and to lift threats of suspension. There should be no difficulty about that. Staff temporarily relieved from duty, that is to say suspended, can lift their own suspension by agreeing to work normally. We cannot start substantive negotiations until the threat of industrial action has been removed. But I have invited the NEC to discussions at the Department with a view to the simultaneous calling off of the industrial action and the institution of discussions about the agenda for the future which I set out in my letter of 22 April to the POA general secretary, Mr. Evans.

The House will recall that this agenda involved: a rapid settlement of this year's pay claim, including the outstanding question of a reduction in the working week for prison officers; the immediate payment of tax compensation on housing allowance for 1985–86; and bringing forward as fast as possible—this is the crucial point—work on new shift systems and pay arrangements for detailed discussion with the POA, with a view to the new arrangements being in place by April 1987.

I very much hope that the national executive committee will respond positively and constructively to this package and that the talks I have set in hand will find a way through present difficulties. I shall do everything I can to ensure that the control which has been regained in our prisons is maintained and that a constructive way forward is found to settle this destructive dispute.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

The whole country has been appalled at the savagery of last night's events, their widespread nature and the anarchy which has prevailed. We deplore and condemn the violence and would like more information as soon as it is available about the report of two deaths at Northeye.

What we need and what the nation demands is an early resolution to this dispute. It is here that, especially after last night's events, which could and should have been foreseen by him, the Home Secretary has an inescapable responsibility. The Prison Officers Association has taken a constructive and statesmanlike step by suspending industrial action. Therefore, it is now for the Home Secretary to respond by facilitating discussions that could end the dispute. The right hon. Gentleman may not be aware that the national executive of the Prison Officers Association is not free unilaterally to abandon industrial action. A ballot was held under its own constitution, as well as under the Government's employment legislation, and a ballot is required for abandoning industrial action.

Following the last dispute in the prisons in 1980–81, when industrial action was taken, the court ruled that for industrial action to be abandoned the consent of the membership of the Prison Officers Association must be obtained in a similar way to which it was obtained when the action started. That was a ruling in the High Court by Lord Justice Browne-Wilkinson. Therefore, only the membership of the POA can remove that mandate for industrial action. For the membership to be able to do that, it needs to have a package from the Home Secretary placed before it for consideration.

I strongly urge the Home Secretary to instruct his officials immediately to get in touch with the NEC of the Prison Officers Association so that they can discuss the basis for a possible agenda for talks. Such a step might help to ease the way for the process that will end the dispute. I hope that the Home Secretary will take such constructive action urgently because a renewal of last night's arson and anarchy is too grim for anyone to contemplate.

Mr. Hurd

I welcome the change in the tone of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks since last night. He asked me a specific and serious question about reports of deaths at Northeye. He is perfectly correct: there were such reports. They came from a prisoner coming out. Since the authorities regained control at Northeye, they have made two thorough searches of the premises and have not been able to find anything to substantiate those reports. Obviously if there is any change it will have to be made known at once.

As I understand it, the right hon. Gentleman is completely accurate in the account he has just given of the requirements, not of the law of the land or the statute, but of the rules of the Prison Officers Association. That is a matter which can perfectly well be discussed in the procedural talks I have suggested.

I hope that the House and the right hon. Gentleman will understand why, in my view, it is not possible to start substantive negotiations until the threat of industrial action has been removed. On Monday I found myself in procedural discussions with the POA and there was talk of suspending action then. However, particularly dangerous action had got under way at Gloucester at that time and I have since learned that it was instigated by the POA. Therefore, at that time there was a strong feeling, which I shared, that one cannot have substantial negotiations under those conditions. That is why I have made the suggestion, which I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise as having merit, of going for a simultaneous understanding for the removal of industrial action—taking account of his comments about the rules—and agreement on methods to start discussions of the agenda which I set out to Mr. Evans in my letter of 22 April.

Mr. Leon Brittan (Richmond, Yorks)

Will my right hon. Friend agree that, in view of the vastly increased resources spent on the prison service by the Government, it is entirely reasonable to ensure that those resources are properly managed and not wasted on excessive overtime or unreasonable and unjustifiable working practices? Therefore, does my right hon. Friend agree that the POA is perfectly entitled to expect to take part in discussions on how that objective should be achieved and that the procedure my right hon. Friend has suggested is a proper way to do that?

Does my right hon. Friend also agree that, after what happened last night, the POA will forfeit the support of those most sympathetic to it unless the threat of industrial action is not just suspended but clearly withdrawn?

Mr. Hurd

I am most grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. He has set out the position very succinctly, and I agree with all the points that he has made.

Mr. Roy Jenkins (Glasgow, Hillhead)

Clearly, all right hon. and hon. Members wish the prospects for the talks well. Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that he was clearly right to stand firm on the position that it must be the prison governors, subject to the rules of the Home Office, endorsed by this House, and not the Prison Officers Association, who are responsible for running the prisons? However, will he also bear in mind that when he complains about the previous tone of comments from the Opposition and elsewhere there is one person, above all, who is responsible for the politicisation of the law and order issue, and that is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the chairman of the Conservative party? If the right hon. Gentleman cannot restrain his raucous colleague, he must expect the interchange to be both ways.

Mr. Hurd

I do not read my right hon. Friend's remarks in that way at all. My right hon. Friend is drawing attention to the results, in his view, of some of the social legislation that was introduced by the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins). I quite understand that the right hon. Gentleman may be sensitive about that, but I do not think that it has anything to do with this issue.

Sir Edward Gardner (Fylde)

Will my right hon. Friend agree that this quite disastrous dispute has been brought about at a time when record sums of money have been spent by the Government on the prison service, that since 1979 the budget for the prison service has risen by 85 per cent., and that this enormous increase in money spent has been accompanied by an increase of 18 per cent. in the number of prison officers?

Mr. Hurd

Yes, indeed, and that at a time when the prison population has risen by 12 per cent. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) was badly needed by the Leader of the Opposition a few minutes ago when the Leader of the Opposition produced, unwittingly, figures that showed that the ratio of staff to prison population had substantially improved during the lifetime of this Government.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Will the Home Secretary also agree that, if he were to cast his eyes back to the reply that he gave to me on Monday of this week with regard to the prison population, he would find that the number of persons on short-term sentences who have been paroled has risen by about 400 per cent.? Prison numbers as a whole have risen disastrously over the last few years, which in effect means that those being detained in prison are the longer serving prisoners for whom there is no hope of parole in many cases, as his predecessor indicated, in the long term. Therefore, will the Home Secretary agree that this has increased the pressures on the officers who have to guard these prisoners and look after their welfare? As a result of the absence of welfare services and recreational and other facilities, the POA has a perfectly credible case in seeking an increase in the number of prison officers in order to provide adequate and proper care for long-term prisoners that has been deliberately damaged by the policies of this Government.

Mr. Hurd

The balance of the prison population changes as we implement what seems to me to be the very sensible policy of keeping in prison longer those who have received particularly severe sentences for particularly heinous crimes. However, as the hon. Gentleman will know and as the figures show, the aim of our spending programme, as regards the increase in both prison places and prison officers, is not just to keep pace with the prison population but to tackle the problem of overcrowding.

Mr. Mark Carlisle (Warrington, South)

In view of the fact that what happened last night in the prisons must have caused great concern not only to people in this country but to members of the Prison Officers Association, is it not best that we should all welcome the fact that the POA has decided unilaterally to suspend its action and wish well the talks to which my right hon. Friend has referred?

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. I have tried to put forward a procedural suggestion, which is, I hope, in line with what he has said.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

I think that the Home Secretary is failing to take full responsibility for a situation that has been building up for a very long time. I invite him to visit Winson Green prison in my constituency and to take with him the Prime Minister, who clearly does not understand the situation either. No education classes have been held and no workshops have been open in Winson Green because of the strain and the pressure on the Prison Officers Association.

We cannot look simply at the rise in the prison population; we have to look also at the rise in the remand population. That requires far more work because of visits to court every day. The Prison Officers Association has appealed for months for the Home Secretary's support to reorganise the prisons so that the prison officers are able to work reasonably and so that conditions for prison officers and prisoners can be improved. These appeals have been rejected. That is the cause of the build up of this great tension. It will not be resolved without talks that should be entered into unconditionally.

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Lady is right when she says that the story goes back a long time. Indeed, it goes back to the time when no money was being spent either on staff or on prisoners. The situation was deteriorating, without any remedy being sought.

The hon. Lady is also right to draw attention to the problem of the remand population. She will know of the efforts that we are making to reduce the remand population—for example, by experimenting with time limits on trial delays. I am very conscious of that problem. We are anxious to discuss these matters, and proposals to deal with them, with the POA, but on the basis which the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins) agreed—that we should consult, but that, if agreement cannot be reached, then management decides.

Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the situation at Erlestoke, in my constituency, would have been much worse if it had not been for the action and dedication of the prison governor, some members of the staff and police from Hampshire, I believe, as well as from Wiltshire. As prison officers are employed by the prison service, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is high time that they lived up to their sense of duty and responsibility and negotiated responsibly, particularly as their salary level, according to the national earnings survey, is now second only to that of newspaper printers?

Finally, in order to reassure members of the public who live in the vicinity of prisons, will my right hon. Friend review the provisions for security in prisons, in case of an emergency, so that the chances of future escapes are less likely? Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the troubles with some prisons—and this is true of Erlestoke—is that it appears to have been built for nice people but that some people inside it are very nasty?

Mr. Hurd

I agree with all of my hon. Friend's points. I certainly agree that the inquiry which, as I have said, will be necessary will have to encompass, in one form or another, his point about security in places like Erlestoke.

Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill)

As the Home Secretary has told us that it has been necessary for the police to be involved at several prisons during the past 24 hours, will he also tell us whether any of these police officers have been issued with guns?

Mr. Hurd

No, not to my knowledge.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the most important statistics must be the relationship between prisoners and staff? How does that relationship today compare with the relationship in 1979? While my right hon. Friend is dealing with that question, will he also please confirm that the death at Gartree was in no way connected with the dispute?

Mr. Hurd

Yes, I can confirm, according to the information that I have received, that the death which regrettably occurred at Gartree last night had nothing to do with the prison dispute. I missed the crucial point of my hon. Friend's first question.

Sir John Farr

I asked my right hon. Friend about the relationship between staff and prisoners in 1979 and how it compared with the position today.

Mr. Hurd

The mathematical relationship has improved. I do not have the figures in the exact form that my hon. Friend wants, but it flows from the figure that has already been mentioned in the House: that during our time in office the number of prison officers has increased by 18 per cent. and the prison population by 12 per cent.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

Is the Home Secretary able to tell us whether governor grades, prison officers or prisoners were injured during the events of last night and this morning? Does he agree that the creditable decision by the Prison Officers Association to return to work is a sufficient gesture for talks to be resumed without any father preconditions, and, if not, why not? Does he agree that it might be wise to approach the agenda for talks with a view to arranging a no-strike agreement between the Prison Officers Association and the Government? Will he take steps to review the prison building programme so that the building is carried out where it is most needed, because that is not happening at present?

Mr. Hurd

There were a number of minor injuries, but so far I know of no major injuries. It is something approaching a miracle that people were not badly hurt or worse during what happened last night.

I tried to explain why I used rather careful phrasing in outlining the nature of the talks that can now take place, and why it is not sensible to expose ourselves again to the sort of exchange we had on Monday about the relationship between talks and industrial action. I think it was on Tuesday that I answered a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) about the possibility of a no-strike agreement. It would have to be by agreement, but many hon. Members on both sides of the House would be attracted by that idea.

Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that many people regard his handling of this dispute as positive and welcome the initiative for further dialogue with the POA? First, when he meets the representatives of the POA, will he remind them that the POA is a uniformed service of the Crown and its industrial behaviour imposes upon other services of the Crown, notably the police and perhaps the armed services, an obligation to pick up the POA' s failings? Secondly, will he also remind them of the extent of investment in the prison service and especially about the prison building programme? After years of neglect by the Labour Government, that is an advantage not only to the prisoners but to the prison officers.

Mr. Hurd

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's first point. He is a former prison governor and the point comes with particular force from him. I also agree with his second point. Five new prisons were opened in 1985–86 and 15 more are due to open by the early 1990s. Some 11,500 new prison places are being created. That is a substantial programme and it is in addition to refurbishment and the provision of sanitation. I do not agree with the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) that the prisons are being built in the wrong places.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Does the Minister remember that yesterday a Conservative Member talked about prison officers earning £15,000 a year? The number of prison officers has been increased but not sufficiently. Is it not to be condemned that officers are working as many as 20 to 30 hours a week overtime? That is because there are insufficient prison officers to do the job.

Will the right hon. Gentleman take note of what my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) said about education? The Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts had on it some hon. Members from the Government side and it placed before the House a most important report setting out the cuts in education in the prison service. It showed that there were insufficient officers to escort the prisoners to classes. We had a debate on the matter but that got us nowhere, even though we warned about what would happen. When will the Government take note of that report and do something so that prison officers do not have to take action?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Member spoke about prison officers' salaries. The average pay is £15,000, and that includes overtime. Overtime is not compulsory and quite a number of prison officers do not work overtime. However, a good many work 20 to 30 hours overtime a week. That is thoroughly bad but, to a large extent, it occurs because of the working practices and shift arrangements. That is one reason why it is crucial for us to discuss and change these arrangements.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Is it not the unpleasant truth that those who were properly sentenced to terms of imprisonment are now at liberty, and that substantial damage has been done to public property as a result of a breach of duty by the very people who have a special duty to protect the public interest?

Mr. Hurd

There must be widespread anxiety in the country and, indeed, within the ranks of the POA about the events of last night. They were appalling and must on no account be repeated.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

Does the Home Secretary feel that he is assisted in any way in grappling with this great problem by hearing at Prime Minister's Question Time perfectly serious questions about the matter being greated by jeers and boos and shrieks of laughter from the Government side, led by the Prime Minister herself?

Mr. Hurd

I am sorry to return to the matter, but I think it may have arisen because the Leader of the Opposition thought he was making a case in support of his argument but was in fact, making a case against it.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

I fully support the action the Home Secretary has taken. Will he assure the House that contingency resources will be available speedily to restore order and security in the unfortunate event of a further outbreak of industrial unrest?

Mr. Hurd

I referred in my statement to arrangements involving the police and to arrangements between each governor and each prison and the chief officer of the local police forces. I also mentioned central arrangements involving the Government and particularly my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

What proportion of the governor grades and the management of the prisons in the Home Office are former prison officers? How does the figure compare with promotion through the ranks of the police?

Mr. Hurd

Obviously, the structures are different, but I shall let the hon. Gentleman have the figures.

Mr. Derek Spencer (Leicester, South)

Leicester gaol has a special secure unit. Can my right hon. Friend reassure those hon. Members who have similar units in their constituencies that their special requirements have an appropriate high priority?

Mr. Hurd

I certainly give my hon. and learned Friend that assurance. As he will know, there was some trouble in Leicester prison last night. The problem is not entirely resolved in that my last report was to the effect that POA officers at the gate were still discouraging staff who turned up for duty. I hope that that problem has been resolved by now.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Would it not be advisable for the Prime Minister to abandon her jaunt to Tokyo in view of the fact that she is personally responsible for this trend in the breakdown of law and order which is a direct result of her Government's policies? If she does go, is it not a fact that nobody else in the Cabinet will be able to take any decision at all until she comes back?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Member is in his usual wild and flaming form. He seems to have very little notion about how these affairs are conducted.

Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to assure those of us who have open prisons in our constituencies, such as I have at Ford, that the experience at Northeye has not been the general pattern? We accept that the prison officers and the governor did a good job in keeping things normal.

Mr. Hurd

Yes. That gives me an opportunity to say that not only at Ford but at the great majority of prison establishments there was no trouble last night.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant)

The country will have heard with immense relief the Home Secretary's statement this afternoon. Before too many diverse and disreputable organisations seek to parade their spurious claims against society under the banner of "industrial action", will my right hon. Friend make it perfectly clear that industry is not involved in this? We are talking about not action but inaction, and what we are seeing is civil disruption. Can he make sure that in future that phrase is used to describe this kind of action against society when organisations, however various, parade their grievances in the street?

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend is quite right. We have lapsed into this jargon but it is not accurate and can be unhelpful.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

Is the Home Secretary aware that Mr. Peter Clarke, the officially adopted Conservative candidate for my constituency who describes himself as a loyal Thatcherite, made a public statement last week describing the prison service as incompetent, inefficient, brutal and stupid. He went on to call for the privatisation of the penal system. Would the Home Secretary care to comment on those Tory policies?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Member seems to have a particularly enterprising opponent, and I look forward to the intellectual debate that will follow.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Is not my right hon. Friend currently undertaking a study into alternatives to prison and to the possibility of reducing prison population by that means? In his talks with the POA, will he give priority to getting prisoners to education classes and make that part of the future duties of prison officers?

Mr. Hurd

One of the difficulties about the present situation is that prison officers are caught up with other activities. As my hon. Friend says, they might be better employed escorting people to and from education classes.

My hon. Friend asks about alternatives to custody. He knows that we cannot in any way direct the courts about who should go to prison, but where the courts can be persuaded that there are tough and practical alternatives to custody for minor offences, I hope that they will take them up.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)

May I ask the Home Secretary two specific questions? Does he agree that one of the fundamental problems is that basic pay is far too low in the prison service, so that to make a living wage a prison officer has to work overtime? That is why a vast amount of overtime is worked—the basic pay is insufficient to live on.

Secondly, what does the right hon. Gentleman propose to do about the extraordinary circular with which he has been inundating the judiciary, telling them what they already know—that their sentencing powers are very wide? I suggest that it amounts to an attempt to interfere with the judicial process.

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman's second point is nonsense. I answered questions about that before. The circular strictly followed precedent and was issued with the agreement of my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor. I think that the hon. Gentleman asked me two identical questions last night. The answer to the first is the same as last night—that there is scope for negotiations between the Treasury and the Prison Officers Association on basic pay. The irony is that those negotiations were about to begin when the present dispute escalated. I hope that if the procedural talks that I have outlined are successful, the substantial negotiations between the Treasury and the POA on basic pay can start.

Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings and Rye)

Will my right hon. Friend take account of and give praise to the excellent work of the Sussex constabulary in containing the problems at Northeye? I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) will want to refer to that if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker. Will my right hon. Friend praise the police for the way in which they contained a serious situation and for looking after prisoners in my constituency?

Mr. Hurd

I have heard praise from all quarters for the work of the Sussex constabulary. It received small quantities of help swiftly from Kent and Surrey. Two prisons are involved—Lewes and Northeye. The constabulary has performed a necessary job skilfully.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Does the Home Secretary accept that it is important to try to reach a settlement before the weekend, because at the weekend, in Leicester and elsewhere, prisons are manned to a large extent by people working overtime. If overtime is not to be worked, deputy governors and others who have been filling in from one prison to another will not be able to do so because they will have to look after the places where they are ordinarily stationed. Has the right hon. Gentleman contingency plans, and, if so, what are they?

Mr. Hurd

The answer to the second question is yes, but I shall not tell the hon. and learned Gentleman what they are at this stage. The answer to his first question is that I hope that it is inconceivable that the action will be resumed between now and the weekend. That would be the height of irresponsibility.

Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that my constituents will be immensely grateful to the police from Leyland, who were called in to assist at Wymott prison, which is immediately adjacent to my constituency boundary? We are extremely grateful to them for what they have done. Is my right hon. Friend further aware that we on the Conservative Benches are getting a little sick of the sanctimonious claptrap from the Oppostion Benches, bearing in mind the Labour Government's irresponsible management of the prison service over the years compared to ours? We have caught more criminals, imprisoned more prisoners and are building more prisons.

Mr. Hurd

It is true that we have grasped and are trying to deal with the problems, which are much worse than they need have been because they were shirked by the Labour Government.

Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley)

During this fearful and disastrous period for the Home Office, may I remind the Home Secretary that in the major cities we have the oldest, most overcrowded and worst prisons? This is causing great anxiety in built-up city areas. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that there will be no overspill of fear and disaster in communities in cities as a consequence of the disturbances?

Mr. Hurd

It is true that many of the Victorian prisons are in the heart of county towns and cities. It is an essential part of our programme to build new prisons, as in my own county, which will partly or wholly replace those prisons, or to refurbish them. They were extremely well built. If their design can be modernised, they still have a good deal of life in them, in many cases.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

Has my right hon. Friend taken the opportunity, in his talks with the Prison Officers Association, to remind it that this Conservative Administration not only say that they care about the prison officers' future and their working conditions, but, unlike other parties, have announced the biggest building programme in the history of the prison service? We have shown to the prison officers that we care about their future. I hope that in return they will help us in the fight to maintain law and order.

Mr. Hurd

I agree with the spirit of my hon. Friend's remarks. I hope that we can recover from this disastrous situation and, as my hon. Friend wishes, build up in the mind of the public once again the importance and necessity of the work that the prison officers do. We can all help in that.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I have to take into account the subsequent business before the House. This afternoon I have given precedence to those who were not called last night. I shall now endeavour to call all those who have been standing provided that questions are brief.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Now that the Home Secretary is almost halfway to getting his earhole belted by a group of trade unionists, will the settlement be of the "Solomon Binding" variety, or will it be in the upper quartile? Whatever course is taken, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the British people will not be hoodwinked by the Government? The Government were elected in 1979 on a law and order ticket and promised a short, sharp shock for prisoners and to set the British people free, yet seven years later here we are with the Tory Government delivering a short sharp shock, not to prisoners, but to the British people and setting the prisoners free.

Mr. Hurd

That was not too subtle, and I disagree.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

I welcome the news that further talks are to take place, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the prison officers who took part in the action yesterday showed a gross and inexcusable dereliction of duty?

Mr. Hurd

I think that prison officers will want to reflect carefully on the action that they took in response to the request of the national executive of the POA, and will want to think carefully about the consequences which, in a minority of cases, flowed from it.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Knowsley, North)

Does the Home Secretary accept that for a long time many of us have opposed some of the abuses of prison officers, which are so detrimental to taxpayers, prisoners and their families, but those abuses should have been dealt with by himself and his predecessors a long time ago? They can be fairly dealt with only by patient and long negotiations, not by the seemingly provocative, confrontationist politics on which the right hon. Gentleman is embarked. Will he give an assurance that in any further talks not only 'will there be no preconditions, but that part of the package for ending the dispute will include proposals to reduce substantially the prison population, thereby creating a constructive and positive regime for prison officers and prisoners?

Mr. Hurd

I am in favour of patient discussion of those matters as long as there is progress. The trouble is that over many years progress in that area has been extraordinarily slow. It is not our action that has been provocative in the past few weeks. The hon. Gentleman makes his point again about reducing the size of the prison population. He knows that I have no direction over the courts in that matter, so what one is talking about is persuading the courts that, in certain cases, as I have said, there are tough and practical alternatives.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the sit-in at Leicester prison during the night by 48 prisoners was peaceful only because of the able assistance given by five assistant governors? Will he join me in congratulating those assistant governors? Is he satisfied that there are enough assistant governors around to help? What will be done at the Old Bailey, which I understand had to be closed at 2 o'clock today because there were not enough prison officers to take the prisoners back to the remand centres?

Mr. Hurd

I shall keep an eye on the situation in Leicester to which my hon. Friend referred. I hope that the position in the law courts can revert to normal once the suspension of action takes effect.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Is it not true that overcrowding in Britain's prisons is now so severe that more than half of Britain's prisoners are still slopping out, in 1986? Is it not true also that, even after the implementation of the Government's building programme, by 1991 there will still be 24,500 prisoners slopping out and, even after the completion of the programme by 1999, there will be 18,500 of Britain's prisoners slopping out? How is it possible to get peace in the prisons until conditions are improved?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman should really be ashamed to make that point. What we are doing is retrieving a situation of scandalous neglect. It is not just a question of the new prisons, which obviously are built with new sanitation, but of the refurbishment of existing prisons which means that integral sanitation is being installed in 10,000 existing cells. That is quite a programme.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

My right hon. Friend may be reassured to hear that I visited Lewes prison this morning and found that the governor and his assistant did a remarkable job last night. They are tired but in good heart today. The majority of the prisoners have behaved within all the rules of the prison. I believe that the majority of prison officers at Lewes prison would have wished to behave and to do their duty in the normal way. Unfortunately, there is a small coterie, both within the prisoners body and among the Prison Officers Association, which stirs up this trouble. This was illustrated in a response to the governor himself by one prison officer, who, when greeted, said with a threatening smirk, "Ah, but the day is not over yet." I hope my right hon. Friend will ensure that communications between all members of the Prison Officers Association will be as good as his communications with the officers themselves.

Mr. Hurd

I am glad that my hon. Friend visited Lewes prison this morning. The situation at Lewes was one of the most difficult, and there are still difficulties, as he has just told us. I have taken careful note of what he said.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

Is the Home Secretary aware that this problem will not be solved simply by negotiations or discussions between prison governors, assistant governors and the Association of Chief Police Officers, because one of the major problems in the prisons throughout Great Britain is that a prison officer cannot in any circumstances become a governor or an assistant governor, and most of the governors and assistant governors are direct entrants from the college at Wakefield into the prison system, without any experience of managing difficult prisoners, let alone short-term prisoners? This matter will be solved only through negotiations between the Home Office and the Prison Officers Association. Generous as I am at times, I must say that of the four former Home Secretaries still in the House of Commons, three would have resigned on this issue, and the right hon. Gentleman really ought to follow the example of those three.

Mr. Hurd

I think that it was one of the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends who raised the question of the different structures of the two professions, the police and the prisons, and, of course, they are different. I have been very impressed by the high quality and sensitivity of prison management, and I believe, from what I hear, that there has been a substantial improvement in that quality in recent years.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)

I have reported to my right hon. Friend what I saw at Northeye last night and again this morning after the prison was retaken. Will he recognise that a potentially very dangerous situation was contained largely because of the courageous action of the prison governor and chief officer, and because of the prompt and highly professional support of the Sussex police? Will he accept that the unavoidable impression from what I saw last night was that the riot would not have taken place if there had not been an overtime ban? Will he bear in mind that the total and wanton destruction of Northeye should be contrasted with the recent completion of five new prisons, with 15 more prisons to be completed in the next few years?

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for passing on the news of his visit to his constituency prison. The two Sussex prisons were among the most difficult. My hon. Friend was in close touch with me last night, and I am most grateful to him for his efforts.

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

Has my right hon. Friend heard the recent report from Bristol prison, with which I have been in touch all day, that that branch of the Prison Officers Association is still meeting to decide whether to obey the advice of its national executive and call off the overtime ban? If that report is correct—and I have no way of being certain about it—will my right hon. Friend join me and our hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of the Environment, who is also concerned with this issue, in calling upon the Bristol branch to take the advice of the national executive and contemplate the results of its inaction last night?

Mr. Hurd

I have not heard the report. Indeed, the report that I had from Bristol was rather to the contrary, that the local Prison Officers Association chairman, before the national executive decision, stated that staff would work normally there today, whatever the national executive decided. Obviously that needs looking into. If the situation is as my hon. Friend describes, I shall certainly agree with his appeal.

Mr. Kaufman

The Home Secretary, in response to his hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames), said that the prison officers' action had been taken at the request of the national executive of the Prison Officers Association, whereas the position is precisely the opposite, namely, that the national executive of the Prison Officers Association took the action on the mandate of its membership, who, under the Government's own legislation, took the Government's preferred course of a ballot, in which 78 per cent. voted. Of that figure 81 per cent. voted in favour of industrial action, which, as the Home Secretary has now acknowledged to me, under the ruling of the High Court cannot be abandoned, as he demands, without a further ballot. That being so, following his statement and his responses today he may be in danger of imposing requirements for talks which are too rigid and may lead to a breakdown. I therefore recommend that the right hon. Gentleman studies the words that I put to him—they were not phrased idly and they were not put to him idly—since that kind of approach could be a means of achieving talks that might end the dispute.

Mr. Hurd

I shall certainly do what the right hon. Gentleman said at the beginning. I accepted when he first made the point that, because of the nature of its rules and the legal decisions that have flown from its rules, the Prison Officers Association has a procedural problem. There was nothing in the law of the land that forced the association to decide to instruct its members to follow the particular form of highly damaging and destructive action that it took. There was nothing that compelled it to do that. Therefore, I stand by what I said, but I will, of course, study all constructive suggestions that have been made.