HC Deb 03 December 1987 vol 123 cc1200-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lennox-Boyd.]

10.1 pm

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

My reason for calling this debate is to protest about the seemingly total failure of the Scottish Office to exercise its function of political and professional leadership over the Scottish penal system. The only policy that seems to exist is to put up more buildings and more prisons, thus compounding the present mess. There was a capital building programme of £10.5 million in 1984–85, compared with £5.4 million in 1983–84. The erection of buildings often occurs when one runs out of ideas. They are symbols. They are pretences that one is doing something. They are the lazy, dim politician's answer to the question, "What are you doing?" They are a monument to yesterday's problems. The Scottish public is paying a heavy price for the Tory party's appeasement of its backwoodsmen.

My motive in calling for this debate is to ensure that a more effective penal system is introduced that will bring comfort to the people of Scotland. The present system does not work, because 84 per cent, of those who are released from youth custody re-offend within two years, and it is likely that the adult recidivism rate is even higher. There is the maximum expenditure for the minimum return.

What do we have in terms of professional leadership from the Scottish Office? The director of the Scottish prison service has been quoted as saying that prisons should not be seen as places for reform or rehabilitation but as places for containment, albeit humane containment. Is that the sum total of the Government's penal policy—humanely to contain? It is an open secret that the prison service in Scotland has lost its way and that it is the despair not just of the Scottish public but of Scottish Office Ministers, too.

The prison service has lost its way, but there is another group of professionals within the Scottish Office about whom nothing is heard. I refer to the social work services group. This group has a subterranean profile, and if you asked people in this place, Mr. Speaker, what the social work services group is, you would probably be met with a blank gaze; there are blank gazes around the Chamber at the moment. There is not the slightest evidence that the social work services group exists. Is it producing good material that is being stifled within the Scottish Education Department where it is housed, or is it being stifled by Scottish Office Ministers? Is it producing nothing in terms of professional leadership? If so, what will the Secretary of State do about it? Its role is to advise the Secretary of State on the development of services for offenders, as well as for many other groups.

We currently have a policy vacuum within Scotland. It is an official policy vacuum, because in a written reply that I received from the Minister this week about proposals to increase substantially the range and quality of sentencing options available to the courts for the 16 to 21 age group, he said that the Secretary of State had no present plans to extend the existing wide range of sentencing options available to the courts.

We in Scotland have a deplorable record: at least, I think it is deplorable, but perhaps the Minister will give his views. We imprison more people than any other country in western Europe, and this year we broke the record again by having 5,600 people incarcerated in prison, which is double the figure of England and Wales. When I compare, as I will, Scotland with England and Wales, I should point out that I am comparing the worst with the next worst. Therefore, there is even more dishonour in the figures.

It is not enough to be critical. We must ask why our prisons are so full. There are many people in prison who need not be there. They are there because of the inert nature of the Scottish Office which has failed to give a lead. The first group of such people are fine defaulters. In 1984–85, the number of adults received into prison as a result of defaulting on fines increased by 23 per cent. With regard to young offenders, the percentage rose by 43 per cent. About half the adults received into Scottish prisons were fine defaulters. They received very short sentences, but they cluttered up the system, thus preventing the prison service from doing more serious work. In 1986, there were 10,600 defaulters which is 4,000 more than the figure for 1981. In 1985, half of those received into young offender institutions were admitted because of fine defaulting. In November 1986, half of these defaulters had fines of less than £75. Almost three quarters of those people released from prison were unemployed.

What are we seeking to achieve by imprisoning such people? There are ways of reducing the number of fine defaulters—day fines, better enforcement of fines and community service. Once again, the percentage of prison receptions for fine default in Scotland is almost double that of England and Wales, It can be done, but why is Scotland not doing it?

Another group whose numbers should be reduced are those on remand. Almost 18,000 people were received on remand in 1986, which is three times as many as in England and Wales. The unfortunate aspect of remands is that in the end a large number of people do not receive a custodial sentence. One suspects quite frequently that those who have been put on remand have not been put there for the best of motives. We have evidence that the Bail etc. (Scotland) Act 1980 is not working.

The next group of people who should not be in prison are those who are sentenced for drink-related causes. They clutter up the system in a ridiculous way when a large number of alternatives exist. Scotland has only one designated place for alcoholics—Albyn house in Aberdeen. It has had a tremendous impact in its first year and the procurator fiscal for the area has been able to reduce prosecutions for drunkenness from 600 to a mere 300. Imagine the impact that such centres all around Scotland would have on the prison population. However, the local authorities have no resources to provide them. Their capital allocations are circumscribed by the Scottish Office and extra expenditure is heavily penalised by clawback grant.

Other groups which should not be imprisoned include the severely mentally ill. Recently, the director of the prison service said that within the prisons there were people with serious personality disorders and aggressive psychopaths who simply should not be in prison. He said that the training of prison officers was inadequate to cope with such prisoners.

Other mentally ill people in prisons include those who are a danger only to themselves. That includes people who may have been released from mental hospitals with inadequate community support and who now, as always, go to prison because of the lack of thought on the part of those responsible for running the affairs of this country.

Another smaller but very significant group who should not be in prison includes those now imprisoned because of changes to the parole rules within Scotland. They have created a small but significant group of no-hopers. We must take action to tackle that problem. The impact of that group on the prison system is very serious.

If the Scottish Office tackled the problem, it could make prisons more manageable and more productive. However, there is more to it than that. In the few moments left to me, I want to consider the 16 to 21 age group. As I said earlier, they seem to be neglected in Scotland. A good deal of thought went into the construction of the children's hearings system, but we simply seem to say that at the age of 16, or, in theory, at 18, a person is cast into the adult penal system. If we compare the Scottish system with the English and Welsh system we find that a far smaller proportion of offenders is dealt with in Scotland through methods other than fines, dismissals or custody.

As with almost everything else, community service orders started later in Scotland and developed more slowly, and they are still hamstrung for lack of resources. The courts in Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland discovered last year that they would like to place 1,200 offenders on community service orders if the social work authorities could have found places for those offenders. However, once again there are only sufficient staff and resources to provide 400 places.

When we consider that the courts have decided that community service orders are the correct way to proceed and are credible to the courts; that the cost of a community service order is £15 per head and the average cost of a prison place is £260 per head per week; and even worse than that according to the Minister's figures — for Peterhead it is £560 per head a week and for Shotts it is £550 per person per week—we see that the situation is crazy. We should be developing community service orders.

I hope that when the Under-Secretary meets representatives from COSLA tomorrow he will announce a massive extension of the community service order system and 100 per cent, funding for it. That system saves money for the penal system budget. It is simply not right that we should waste public money in that way.

In England and Wales the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders has sponsored 45 specialised youth training schemes for offenders involving more than 2,000 places. To the best of my knowledge there is no equivalent in Scotland. With all the changes to the YTS, it becomes more and more difficult to provide specialised youth training schemes of that kind for the most vulnerable in our society.

Where is the professional leadership of the Scottish Office? One is repeatedly struck by the lack of such leadership. Where are the intensive supervision and befriending schemes? Where are the bail hostels and where is the other supportive accommodation, given that homelessness is such a significant predictor of future offending? Why has the Scottish Office done so little to stimulate pre-prosecution diversion along the lines suggested by Lord Stewart in his 1983 report?

I am genuinely in favour of the generic social work service in Scotland, but I have no doubt that Scotland has lost out with the disappearance of the specialist probation service. When the new social work departments were started in 1968, about 50 per cent, of trained social workers were probation trained. The figure is nothing like that nowadays. Unless we tackle the younger age group of 16 to 21-year-olds, who make up 30 per cent, of the prison population—76 per cent, of the prison population are under 30—we shall stoke up the fires in the prison service. It is not good enough to say, "Why did the riot happen? Which individual caused it?" One has to examine the underlying causes, and the underlying cause that we must tackle is the lack of alternatives to prison in the Scottish penal system.

The Minister may well say that I have strayed into the province of the Minister who is responsible for social work. That is the trouble with the Scottish Office; it cannot get its act together.

10.17 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

I am glad to have the opportunity to respond to the debate and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his closely argued speech calling for a more effective penal system. I intend to give a comprehensive response. I shall read his speech again tomorrow and at the weekend and if I have not answered any point I shall certainly write to him on it.

The Government are of course concerned at the number of offenders who are sent to prison, and we have therefore taken action in several areas. Imprisonment must be seen as a last resort, particularly in the case of young offenders and adult offenders who have not previously been imprisoned. Accordingly, the Government legislated in the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980 to place restrictions on courts passing sentences of imprisonment in such cases. Under the 1980 Act, a court cannot sentence a young offender to imprisonment unless he is legally represented, and in the case of adult first offenders, the court must obtain a social inquiry report and state the reasons why no other sentence is appropriate.

On community service by offenders, the Government can claim a creditable record. At the end of 1979, five schemes for community service by offenders were operating, whereas now schemes are available in all regions, covering the majority of Scotland and most of the densely populated areas. In 1980, the number of community service disposals was under 500. By 1985, that number had increased to almost 2,900—an increase of 300 over the previous year. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State will shortly lay before the House his report on the working of the community service scheme for 1986, which will show that the figure has increased again—this time to more than 3,400.

The Government certainly appreciate the hard work undertaken by local authorities and their employees in developing community service up to its present level.

In the Government's view, community service is an important element in the sentencing options that are available to the courts. It is a disposal that appeals to all schools of penal theory, since it enables the offender to make reparation to society and, at the same time, make a constructive contribution to the welfare of the community. The offender is placed in the role of "helper" and is thus made aware of his responsibilities to the community at large. The ties of work and family are maintained, and they all help to prevent a repetition of the offending behaviour.

The importance—I assure the hon. Gentleman of this point—that the Government attach to this disposal can be seen from the high level of grant that they make available to local authorities towards the cost of schemes. The grant is 80 per cent, for the first five years and 70 per cent, for the following five years.

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State made clear in a reply on Monday to the hon. Member, the arrangements for providing community service by offenders are at present under review. My hon. Friend will see the social work committee of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities tomorrow afternoon to discuss a range of subjects, including community service by offenders. From time to time, local authorities have pressed for the level of grant to be increased, or for the expenditure not to be reckoned for grant penalty under rate support grant. The level of 80 per cent, which I mentioned earlier is hardly niggardly. I am not aware that, since the inception of community service, any scheme has been rejected or even delayed for lack of the 80 per cent, central Government grant.

Probation also is a non-custodial disposal that the Government are anxious to foster. It has particular attractions for the bench for certain offences because it has a rehabilitative intention which the hon. Gentleman would support. The number of probation orders made in Scotland, regrettably, fell substantially during the 1970s, from 5,900 in 1970 to 2,400 in 1980. I am glad to say, however, that since then there has been a steady increase, reaching almost 3,000 in 1985.

As evidence of the Government's concern to develop this disposal, we made two provisions in the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1987 to this end. First, we reduced the minimum length of a probation order from 12 months to six months. That will enable the courts to make more flexible use of probation, and encourage them to use longer periods of probation for more serious offences where custody may be under consideration. Research studies suggest that shorter-term work is effective where the specific problems and difficulties of an individual offender are clearly identifiable, and where he or she is willing to tackle them with assistance from the supervising social worker.

Secondly, we accepted an amendment enabling compensation to be made a requirement of a probation order. Both of our initiatives have been generally welcomed, but as the House will appreciate, it is as yet too early to come to any final conclusion on their long-term effect.

Compensation orders are a worthwhile addition which this Government have introduced to the range of disposals available to the courts at present. They were made available by the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980, which allows courts to order an offender to pay compensation for any personal injury, loss or damage caused by the acts which constituted the offence. The use of such orders by the courts to enable victims to receive some reparation from the offender is clearly something that we wish to encourage. Besides the direct benefit to the victim who receives the compensation, the orders may often be more appropriate than a fine, since they draw to the offender's attention the damage or suffering that he has caused and require him to make amends, at least in part. Their use by the courts has increased from 2,384 orders in 1981, when they were first introduced, to 9,565 orders in 1986.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned fine enforcement, which is abviously an important matter. The fine is the most frequently used disposal in the criminal justice armoury. Roughly four out of every five convicted offenders are fined. It is therefore absolutely essential that the credibility of the fine as a court disposal should be preserved. This implies that there must be tough sanctions against defaulters. Let us not forget that the vast majority of people who are fined at present pay their fines. It is, of course, regrettable that the sanction of imprisonment has to be invoked even to this extent because of the social and financial costs of imprisonment, and because in such cases the court has already decided that the appropriate disposal for the original offence is not custody. However, solutions are not easy to come by.

The Government have appointed 15 fines officers to sheriff courts throughout Scotland in an effort to secure the payment of fines ordered by the courts. These officers assist the offender in managing payment of the outstanding amounts and frequently can provide information to the courts allowing instalments to be set at appropriate levels. We are currently assessing the work that has so far been undertaken in this area and the eventual report should help us to decide whether further development of this work may be fruitful.

The credibility of the fine as a disposal also depends on the courts effectively relating the size of the fine to the offender's ability to pay. The Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975 requires sentencers to take offenders' means into account when deciding on the extent of a fine. However, Scottish Office statistics show that the average fine imposed by the courts has been increasing faster than inflation over recent years. There is poor public awareness of the impact of even a small fine on someone who is unemployed and dependent on benefit income for minimum living essentials. Courts may be aware of the impact, but public opinion may lead them to impose fines at a level which reflect the seriousness of the offence rather than the offender's means. I will consider whether there are any steps that I can take to alleviate this problem, and to ensure that fines are properly related to the offender's means without significantly diminishing their essential deterrent effect.

Mr. Worthington

The Minister does not seem aware of the seriousness of the issue of fine defaulting. The statistics that I quoted suggest that about half the intake in young offenders' institutions are there as a result of fine defaulting. What he has said does not appear to measure up to the gravity of the problem.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I am aware of the problem. As I have just stated, I shall consider whether there are any steps that I can take to alleviate the problem and to ensure that fines are properly related to the offenders' means without significantly diminishing their central deterrent effect.

I have been asked about parole, and, although I should like to speak also about alcoholics and drunkenness, I have only four minutes left.

I am, of course, aware of criticism that has been expressed concerning the Government's parole policy. I do not accept that this policy means "no hope" for many long-term prisoners. The policy allows for "exceptional circumstances" to set aside the presumption against early release for specified categories of both life and fixed sentences. Even in cases where there are no exceptional circumstances, the parole board can recommend that a prisoner be released on parole a few months early. This is a subject that my right hon. and learned Friend is considering carefully at the moment.

Mr. Bruce Millan (Glasgow, Govan)

What does the Minister mean by that? Is he considering the whole question of parole or the restrictions that the Secretary of State has imposed on certain categories of offences, because it is the latter that is causing the trouble?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

My right hon. and learned Friend is looking at that subject.

Remands are another area which deserve attention. In case I do not have time to answer the points raised about alcoholics, I shall write fully to the hon. Gentleman. That point is extremely important.

Another area which deserves attention is the extent to which accused persons are remanded in custody, pending trial or sentence. In this connection, Scotland's reception rate for remand prisoners is exceptionally high. About 19,000 remand prisoners are received annually out of a total of 43,000. Scottish Office researchers are about to undertake a detailed study of the bail and remand process in Scotland. The study will address the factors which affect the decisions made in a large sample of cases. These include the factors which affect the police decision whether to hold an accused in custody before his court appearance, the prosecution's decision whether to oppose a bail application and the court's decision whether to grant bail. In the light of the results of the study, it may be possible to determine whether there are any practical measures which would effectively reduce the need for so many individuals to be remanded by our courts.

Mr. Worthington


Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

No, I shall not give way, because I have only another minute.

That does not mean that we are not prepared in the meantime to take steps which may have the effect of reducing the numbers remanded in custody where this can be done without prejudicing the administration of justice or the safety of the public. We have, therefore, funded the Scottish Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders to look at and report on the problems of making suitable accommodation available for persons awaiting trial who have no fixed address and might, for that reason, have to be remanded in custody. Besides this, the Lord Advocate has recently issued new guidelines on bail to procurators fiscal in the light of experience since the implementation of the Bail Etc (Scotland) Act 1980.

The hon. Gentleman also commented on the number of people with alcohol-related problems in prison. May I assure him that the Scottish prison service makes every effort to help those inmates who have such problems. Medical officers, nursing officers and all other staff are trained to play their part. There are special units at Low Moss prison and Cornton Vale institution for helping those with alcohol problems. In addition, Alcoholics Anonymous holds regular meetings at all establishments and the National Council on Alcoholism and its local branches are also of assistance. It is encouraging to note that the number of inmates requiring treatment for alcoholism has declined steadily over the past five years from 1,888 in 1982 to 816 in 1986.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about Albyn house in Aberdeen. As well as that, a grant has recently been offered to the Church of Scotland for a proposed designated place at Raigmore hospital in Inverness. I understand that locally there is general agreement that the designated place in Aberdeen has made a significant contribution to decriminalising drunkenness in the area.

The Motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.