HC Deb 02 April 1987 vol 113 cc1202-5
3. Mr. Meadowcroft

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what new proposals he has for alleviating overcrowding in Her Majesty's prisons.

7. Mr. Knox

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

13. Mr. Peter Bruinvels

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what steps he takes to monitor the efficacy of his proposals to reduce overcrowding amongst the prison population; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Hurd

On 27 March 1987 the total prison population of all types in England and Wales was 49,071. We are taking vigorous steps to add prison places and to make the best use of existing places, where necessary by changing establishments' functions. We are maintaining our building programme, of which we are now beginning to see the first fruits. We continue to encourage the courts to make use of non-custodial sentences in suitable cases.

Mr. Meadowcroft

Is the Home Secretary aware that the redesignation of prisons in Yorkshire and Humberside, which harmed the provision for young offenders, plus the opening of Lindholme prison near Doncaster, have done virtually nothing to alleviate the gross overcrowding at Leeds prison? Surely something more dramatic is required than simply trying to shift the numbers round Yorkshire and Humberside if the appalling conditions at Armley are to be improved?

Mr. Hurd

I agree that Leeds is one of the local prisons that is substantially overcrowded, although it has been considerably relieved by the decision that was made about Hull last year. However, as our prison building programme continues to produce new places, I hope, though this depends to a certain extent on the number of people whom the courts send to prison, that the points of pressure, of which Leeds is certainly one, will steadily be relieved.

Mr. Knox

If the number of people in prison continues to rise, as it has in recent years, is there not a great danger that the new prison building programme will merely accommodate extra prisoners and do nothing to deal with the overcrowding problem?

Mr. Hurd

That is one reason why we are continuing and maintaining, not only the prison building programme of 20 new prisons, but our plans for refurbishing and modernising 100 existing establishments, many of which are Victorian. Our aim is partly to accommodate the growing number of criminals whom the courts send to prison. However, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, part of that aim must be to reduce the overcrowding, which in some, but not all, of our prisons is a disgrace and is the direct responsibility of the insouciant way in which our Labour predecessors including the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins), neglected entirely, because there were no votes in it, the proper development of the prison estate.

Mr. Bruinvels

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the massive overcrowding in Leicester prison, which was built to hold 203 inmates and currently holds 415? Will he pay an official visit to see for himself the problems there? Will he confirm that those who are on charges of murder or rape should not be allowed bail, although there may be overcrowding in certain prisons?

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend's figures are right. We plan to provide some relief soon by transferring to Glen Parva remand centre Leicester's responsibility for assessing and allocating sentenced prisoners. The opening of Littlehey prison and the conversion of Ashwell prison from an open to a closed prison later this year will provide further relief.

I note what my hon. Friend said about remand. Together with an hon. Friend, I visited the Leicester bail hostel recently, which, because of its good work in coping with unconvicted prisoners, helps to relieve some of the pressure on Leicester prison. Even my hon. Friend would find that acceptable and common sense.

Mr. Chris Smith

Is the Home Secretary aware that as a direct result of overcrowding in the main prisons in the London area many remand prisoners are kept in cells in magistrates courts and police stations, sometimes for weeks at a time? Some women, for example, are being kept at Highbury Corner magistrates court cells with no access to daylight or fresh air and with inadequate visiting facilities, sometimes for two or three weeks. Is that not a disgrace? Instead of talking, what will the Home Secretary do about it?

Mr. Hurd

Yes, it certainly is a disgrace— [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I get irked by the way in which Opposition Meembers wash their hands of all responsibility for this situation when, as my predecessors in those Governments now acknowledge, for years, while the courts were continually sending more people to prison, they did virtually nothing to improve the conditions in the prisons or to increase the number of prison places.

It takes about seven years to build a prison. We are just now beginning, last year and in the latter part of this year, to benefit from the brave decisions taken by my predecessor Lord Whitelaw when he came to office The hon. Gentleman's point about police cells is right. It is thoroughly unsatisfactory and wrong, and we want to move away from that as soon as we can.

Mr. Flannery

Does the Home Secretary accept that in the past eight years the past two Education, Science and Arts Select Committees have studied education in prisons and have constantly uncovered the facts that gross overcrowding in prisons causes disruption and that there is insufficient money for the education of prisoners? We are constantly told that the building programme will solve the problem, but it is nowhere near doing that. The only answer is to spend far more money educating prisoners who are asking for education and to build more new prisons so that prisoners are not living on top of each other.

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman should have a word with his right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), one item in whose proposals is to halt the prison building programme. I cannot imagine anything more irresponsible. The hon. Gentleman made a serious point. I hope that if we can succeed with the fresh start proposals, which we now have a better chance of doing thanks to some constructive negotiations with the POA and governors, resources will be available to provide more staff and better regimes, including more space and time for education. I fully understand the importance of that.

Sir Peter Emery

Why does it take seven years to build a prison? Should we not consider privatising them and getting them built in three or four years?

Mr. Hurd

There are several reasons why it takes seven years to build a prison. About the first two years are spent discussing proposals with local authorities and local residents, who say that they are in favour of the prison building programme so long as it does not take place in their town or county. The process is a long one, and my hon. Friend is on an interesting trail. I am looking forward to the Select Committee report that will bear on this. I do not believe in privatising prisons if that means transferring the ownership, for example of Dartmoor, to a private company. I do not think that my hon. Friend has that in mind. I am interested in any ideas which, by using private enterprise, cut short the time for building a prison.

Mr. Soley

When will the Home Secretary stop dodging his responsibilities? He knows that this country locks up more people than any other country in Western Europe. He also knows that, under this Government, the crime rate has risen faster than in any other comparable country and faster than under any previous Labour or Tory Government. Why does the right hon. Gentleman not put money into crime prevention and victim support instead of throwing public money into a prison building programme that will not solve the problem this century or next century?

Mr. Hurd

We are the first Government who have put the emphasis on crime prevention and now on victim support. I am glad that, to some extent, we have the support of the Labour party on this. I say to some extent because of the disgraceful way in which some London boroughs, not the hon. Gentleman's, obstruct neighbourhood watch schemes and prevent the police from getting crime prevention under way. As a London Member of Parliament the hon. Gentleman would be better advised to encourage some London boroughs to follow the line that his borough of Hammersmith and Fulham initiated when it was under Tory control.

Mr. Dickens

As our prisons are overcrowded, will my right hon. Friend consider a system whereby, instead of giving prisoners remission for good conduct, we give them longer sentences for misbehaving? Does he not consider that such a system would be so unacceptable to people that they would start to behave themselves and that would soon empty the prisons?

Mr. Hurd

I believe that the immediate effect would be a substantial increase in the prison population. It is not a path that I am tempted to go down.

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