HC Deb 16 July 1987 vol 119 cc1296-309 4.22 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

The House has from time to time been warned of the dramatic rise in the prison population. Last Friday that population stood at 51,029, nearly 4,000 more than a year ago and over 9,300 above the certified normal accommodation, which is the uncrowded capacity of the prison system. Six hundred and forty-eight of those prisoners were being held in wholly unsuitable conditions in police cells, so diverting police officers from operational duties.

The main reason for the latest growth in the population is the substantial increase in the number of offenders being dealt with by the Crown court and an increase in the average length of custodial sentences passed by the Crown court. Moreover, despite our efforts to reduce court delays, the number of prisoners held on remand has increased by about a further 1,000 over the last year to 11,000.

Those who commit serious offences should receive severe sentences. The Government have legislated to increase the sentencing powers of the courts where necessary, and the courts in their decisions have reflected public concern by passing longer sentences, for example. for rape and armed robbery. At the same time, we have made clear, most recently in our election manifesto, the need to strike a balance between tough sentences for those who pose a threat to society and lesser sentences for those who pose no such threat. Hence the emphasis which we have placed on tough and challenging alternatives to custody, to which the courts have responded with a substantial increase in the proportionate use of community service orders.

Sentencing decisions are for the courts, and the responsibility of the Government is to make sure that the decisions of the courts are not frustrated by a lack of prison accommodation. Prisons have to be places with the right levels of security in which prisoners can live, and prison staff can work, in tolerable conditions. The problem of overcrowding, and what it means in practice, is well known to any hon. Member who has visited one of our local prisons. We have 5,000 prisoners crammed three to a cell designed for one. A further 14,000 are doubled up. Virtually all these people are in their cells for most of the day, relying on pots and periodic slopping out for sanitation. Such overcrowded prisons are hard to control and, I would argue, more likely to result in re-offending.

This Government have invested record sums in the prison service. Expenditure on the service has increased by 34 per cent. in real terms since 1979 and the capital budget has more than doubled. The building programme already known to the House involves the opening of 20 new prisons as well as the refurbishment of existing prisons, and this will have delivered a total of 17,500 more prison places by 1995. The programme has been expanded in each of the last two public expenditure rounds. Immediately, the programme will produce some 3,000 new places in the 12 months from September. We are making every effort to maximise the use of the existing prison estate and I should like to pay tribute to the efforts of the prison service in doing so. They are hard pressed and they deserve our thanks. However, in recent months the rise in the population has outstripped the supply of new places, as I warned in the debate on the Loyal Address and the gap between supply and demand looks set to grow wider still. The report by Sir James Hennessy on last year's prison disturbances, which I am publishing today, reminds us all of the delicate balance between order and disorder in our prisons.

Further action now is essential. That action must be enough to deal with the immediate problem and to prevent it from recurring. We must also preserve the momentum of our restructuring of working practices under the fresh start initiative.

I have therefore taken the following decisions. First, immediate steps are being authorised to secure the opening on a temporary basis of a camp for prisoners—Rollestone in Wiltshire—which will hold 360 inmates. This will be managed and staffed by prison service personnel. I shall keep the need for further camps or other additional temporary accommodation under close review.

Secondly, we shall also need a substantial expansion and acceleration of our plans to provide more prison places in the long term. We propose to set this in hand and I shall make a further announcement in due course.

Thirdly. I am sure that the skills and knowledge of the private sector have a bigger part to play in ensuring the speedy delivery of this accelerated programme. It takes too long to build a prison. I am, therefore, setting up a new prison buildings board within the Home Office, but with a strong outsider element to supervise the building programme and to exploit to the full private-sector techniques in bringing new prisons on stream. My noble Friend Lord Caithness will report immediately to me on further possibilities for using the private sector, following his forthcoming visit to the United States, in the light of the Select Committee's recent report.

Fourthly. I have considered, but rejected, using the power of executive release to ease the pressure of the prison population. Rather, I propose to lay amendments to the rules for prison department establishments, increasing the amount of remission dependent on good behaviour by those serving sentences of up to and including 12 months from one third to one half of sentence length. This is an interim measure, applying only to less serious offenders serving short custodial sentences and the period of remission is, of course, dependent on good conduct. It will remove the anomaly, criticised by the courts, that those on sentences too short to qualify for parole serve a higher proportion of their sentences than more serious offenders who are selected for parole. As it takes effect over the coming weeks it will help the present problem of overcrowding, to the extent of about 3,500 places, by relieving pressure, particularly on local prisons, and it will enable prisoners to be removed from police cells, thereby returning police officers to their proper duties of dealing with crime and preserving public order on the streets.

Fifthly, this measure is an interim one, pending a wide-ranging review of parole and remission arrangements. The operation of the parole scheme in relation to shorter sentences has, as I have said, been criticised, not least by members of the judiciary. In our manifesto we untertook to set up a thorough review of the workings of the parole system and of the arrangements for post-custodial supervision. I can announce today the setting up of that review, which will also look at remission, under the chairmanship of a distinguished former Member of the House, Mr. Mark Carlisle QC, with terms of reference which I shall publish in full in the Official Report.

The Government have consistently shown in deeds over the last eight years their commitment to the prison service and to resolving the long neglected problems of the prison system, including the lack of capital investment and the reform of working practices. The immediate pressure of the rise in the prison population means that we must amplify and extend that strategy. The measures that I have announced today on prison building, parole and remission, and the opening of Rollestone, are designed to achieve that.

Following are the terms of reference for parole review: To examine the operation of the parole scheme in England and Wales, its relationship with the current arrangements for remission, time spent in custody on remand, and partly and fully suspended sentences and their effect on the time which offenders sentenced to imprisonment spend in custody after sentence; and to make recommendations on—

  1. (a) whether a parole scheme should be retained as a feature of the penal system; and, if so,
  2. (b) its objectives
  3. (c) any changes which should be made in law or practice affecting either eligibility or criteria; or, alternatively,
  4. (d) any different scheme which might be introduced to provide for release befor expiry of sentence, either generally or for particular categories of prisoners; and, in any case,
  5. (e) the possibility of prisoners released before expiry of sentence being required to perform work of value to the community, having regard to the relative cost and effectiveness of custodial and non-custodial disposals; having regard to the need for—
    1. (i) fairness and consistency in the treatment of prisoners;
    2. (ii) a clear understanding of the relationship between determination of the original sentence by judicial decision and the proper limits of executive discretion in giving effect to it;
    3. (iii) public and judicial confidence in any new arrangements that might be proposed;
    4. (iv) the resource implications of any changes proposed

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

First., let me thank the Home Secretary for the courteous welcome that he gave me earlier today and say how much I look forward to working with and sometimes against him in the years to come.

I should make it clear at once that the Opposition support the central proposal in the right hon. Gentleman's statement, namely, to increase remission for prisoners of good behaviour serving short sentences for minor offences. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that a month ago several of my hon. Friends warned him that some such action would have to be taken after the law and order rhetoric of the general election campaign was over.

Can the right hon. Gentleman give an estimate of how many police officers are today being used, or I might say misused, in the supervision of prisoners, and how many of those officers will be released to go about their proper duties as a result of his statement? On a more fundamental note, does he agree that it would have been far better if, instead of being forced to take action now to avoid a summer prison explosion, he and, more important, his two predecessors had taken more considered action to reduce the prison population in the past?

The right hon. Gentleman will recall—although, apparently, some of his hon. Friends do not—that the Opposition supported Government proposals both for Executive and for supervised release. Does he not now regret that Lord Whitelaw's unhappy experiences at the 1981 Conservative party conference made him back-pedal so desperately on at least one of those sensible proposals? I assure the Home Secretary that we very much welcome the inquiry into the parole scheme and hope that it will examine supervised, Executive and conditional release. We wish him well in implementing what may and, I hope, will be sensible conclusions arising from the report.

We know from the Home Secretary's speech at Grantham that he, too, believes that we send too many people to prison and keep too many trivial offenders in prison for too long, and we wish him well in his attempts to educate his colleagues to the same enlightened and practical view.

Mr. Hurd

The right hon. Gentleman's technique is very different from that of his predecessor. He is trying to kiss me into oblivion, whereas his predecessor never made such an attempt.

In answer to the right hon. Gentleman's first question, the Metropolitan police tell me that about 625 London police officers are being deployed on day-to-day duties connected with accommodating London prisoners, and that over 200 provincial officers are engaged in similar duties. Some other provincial officers, particularly in the north, are engaged in looking after provincial prisons. When my right hon. and hon. Friends consider the present strain on the police and on police manpower, they will understand that we cannot go on expecting the police to carry that extra burden.

The right hon. Gentleman, albeit courteously, displayed a good deal of cheek in the latter part of his intervention. What my noble Friend Lord Whitelaw and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan) had to do was to take courageous action to remedy the neglect that they had inherited. The Government in which the right hon. Gentleman served presided over a system under which crime was rising fast and the overcrowding of the prisons was already evident, but they did nothing about it. If a prison building programme of some substance had been started in the mid-1970s, when signs of the need for it were clear, we would not be facing the problems that we face today.

What my right hon. and learned Friend and his predecessor Lord Whitelaw did was courageously to set about remedying that neglect. My right hon. and learned Friend actually accelerated the programme that he had inherited, and thank heavens he did, because we are now beginning to get some relief from the problem. We now have to accelerate the programme again, as well as expanding it.

It is not my job to say whether, in general, too many people are in prison in this country; that is a matter for the courts. What I do say—what we said in our manifesto, and have constantly said—is that the courts, taking account of the realities of the position, need to pay attention to a distinction which I am sure the public perceive very clearly. This is the distinction between those who deserve long sentences because of the severity of their offences or the danger that they represent to the public, and those who the courts may decide, in accordance with the circumstances of the case, could be properly punished by tough and challenging alternatives to custody.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

Does the Home Secretary feel any concern about the number of prisoners on remand, who represent more than 20 per cent. of the total in prison? Is that not unacceptable in the light of the presumption of innocence, and is it not time that we in England adopted the 110-day rule, which has served Scotland so effectively for 100 years?

Mr. Hurd

One should always be a bit sceptical when the Scots urge us to accept all their institutions. There is usually a link between one Scottish arrangement and another, and one cannot he accepted without the other.

The hon. and learned Gentleman will know from the discussions on what is now the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 that the Home Secretary has power by order to introduce provisions for time limits in England and Wales comparable to those in Scotland. He will also know that, after a period of trial, I have begun to operate different time limits in different parts of the country. I believe that that can contribute, although there will be no magic results, to accelerating the speed of the flow of justice, and so bring down the number of people held in our prisons unconvicted, which I agree is too high—about one-fifth.

Mr. Leon Brittan (Richmond, Yorks)

I fully recognise the serious problem that my right hon. Friend faces, and warmly welcome the opening of Rollestone Camp to house prisoners. However, does he not agree that it is wrong in principle, and quite contrary to the rule of law and to everything that we stand for, to release convicted criminals prematurely—by whatever procedural means—not on the basis of an individual consideration of their cases, or because of the application of some new and more liberal penal policy, but simply because there is no room to house them? Does he accept that there will be considerable public disquiet at the prospect of some 3,500 prisoners being released prematurely, 630 of whom have been convicted of offences of violence or of sexual offences? Would it not be better to open more camps now than to hold out the prospect of doing so, as my right hon. Friend has done? Would it not also be preferable to make it clear now that what has been done is a one-off crisis measure,, which will not be repeated?

Mr. Hurd

The part of the package that deals with remission is certainly interim, as I said, and for the reason that I gave. May I take up the two specific issues raised by my right hon. and learned Friend, with which he obviously wrestled in his time as well? First, as he correctly observed, I did not rule out the use of additional camps or other temporary accommodation. In considering whether there should be further camps, I had to take into account a number of matters. First, as my statement and one of the exchanges that followed it showed, much of the problem is a result of the growth in the remand population. Camps are not a great deal of use in most circumstances, because unconvicted prisoners need to be held reasonably close to the courts where they are likely to have to be produced.

Secondly, I have to take into account the fact that camps are not a great deal of use, or can only be used, at great risk, for prisoners who could be a danger to the public. My right hon. and learned Friend will have read Sir James Hennessy's report on the disturbances last year, and he will have seen the dangers that were encountered at Northeye when people were in dormitory or similar accommodation and the situation got out of hand. I do not want to replicate that by opening camps and putting into them people who are unsuitable for camps.

Thirdly, I have to consider staffing. The prison service is stretched to its utmost. The facilities for recruitment and training are at full stretch. I believe that the House and the public expect the job of guarding prisoners in Her Majesty's prisons to be done by prison service officers. Therefore staffing, as well as the choice of sites, is a consideration.

Those are three factors that I, like any other Home Secretary, have to weigh up when deciding on the further use of camps.

I understand entirely my right hon. and learned Friend's point about remission, but it already exists. Unlike Executive release, we are not introducing a new principle. We are altering a principle that already exists in different forms in different parts of this kingdom. Remission is awarded only on the strength of good conduct. The fact is that 82 per cent. of those who might qualify for early remission under the proposal that I have announced are in prison for non-violent offences. As for the remainder, whatever the offence—for example, the pub fight or the street brawl—the courts thought that they did not deserve long sentences.

My right hon. and learned Friend will immediately have grasped that the greatest possible difference in the length of an individual sentence as a result of my announcement will be two months—no more.

Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

I support and understand the reason for my right hon. Friend's statement, but may I ask him to assist me over two points? First, will he confirm that the 630 prisoners whom he anticipates will be released sooner are offenders who committed very minor offences? I hope that we are not talking about rapists or serious offenders. Secondly, my right hon. Friend mentioned the improvement in and the expansion of the prison building programme and referred to the involvement of the private sector. Is he able to say how he thinks that will be carried forward?

Mr. Hurd

The relief that I expect as a result of the remission element in the package is 3,500. One cannot give an exact figure, because it depends on good conduct. I said earlier that 82 per cent. of those who might qualify for early remission have been found guilty of non-violent offences, and that the courts did not think that the remainder deserved a long sentence.

As for the introduction of new private techniques into prison building, I have announced the organisational change. We have already been in touch with a number of private companies which we think might be able to help. We are in touch with American experience, which has been triggered to some extent by the report of the Select Committee to which my hon. Friend contributed. After identifying a design, I hope that we shall stick with it and not nibble away at it in an effort to improve it. That is what I mean by acceleration of the programme. There is plenty of scope for acceleration, while preserving the required standards

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

Does the Home Secretary accept that confession is good for the soul, that now is the time to say that everything that the Opposition told him was right and that the only reason why the Government did not sanction the release of large numbers of prisoners before the election was that they knew that it would be the final nail in the coffin of the most disastrous law and order policy that has ever been imposed on this country by any Government?

Why does the right hon. Gentleman not follow through his own logic, ignore the more rabid voices behind him and introduce a conditional release scheme that is fairer and contains an element of control, which the increased use of remission does not contain? Why does the right hon. Gentleman continue to peddle the fiction that he will not interfere with the sentencing policy of the courts when he, the Home Secretary, has a Bill before the House that gives power to hon. Members to refer lenient sentences? That means Members of this House, in response to public demand, will call for tougher sentences. Why does the Home Secretary not follow his logic home and abolish that proposal too?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman is referring to our proposal for lenient sentences, which, so far from removing, we are proposing to strengthen. There was an exchange about that this afternoon at Question Time. I said to his hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) that the general election seems to have brought about a loss of memory. That is perfectly true in his case, too.

The policy that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) revealed in March to The Independent is entirely different from anything that could possibly find favour on this side of the House. He proposed the stopping of the present building programme. I cannot imagine anything more destructive or irresponsible. He also said that, as a matter of policy, a Labour Government would bring about a reduction of the prison population by 20,000 in the lifetime of a Parliament. That seems to be a wholly unreal and destructive approach.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Conservative Members consider that his proposals are both necessary and timely, but they will mean the early release of people to whom judges have given appropriate sentences for crimes of violence? Will he explain to the House why he cannot exempt from his proposals all offenders who fall within this category, but who have been sentenced for crimes of violence?

Mr. Hurd

I have considered that question, because my hon. and learned Friend was kind enough to put that point to me privately early today. I am not inventing remission. My hon. and learned Friend accepts that, and I think that the public would accept it, too. The law gives me no discretion to distinguish between different types of offender on the basis of the offence. Remission exists on the basis of good conduct and on the basis of the sentence passed, not on the nature of the offence. Therefore, I do not have the discretion to discriminate as my hon. and learned Friend wishes. In practice, even if I had the power, to do so would be very difficult. I repeat that a small minority of people who have been sentenced for offences of violence to 12 months or under might qualify for earlier remission. These are cases which the courts thought did not deserve longer sentences. I gave the example of the pub fight or the street brawl. The greatest possible difference in the length of individual sentences would be two months, no more.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Does the Home Secretary not see a link between the economic policies that have produced so much unemployment and the greedy, atavistic policies espoused by his Government for this prison crisis? Will he elaborate on the private sector proposal, about which he has been very vague? He says that he has been in contact with some American area of activity. Does that mean that he will hand over the prisons to private contractors, or does it mean that he will use the industrialised building techniques that were recommended by his friend Geoffrey Rippon, which produced Ronan Point and all the other magnificent examples of private enterprise techniques?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman's first point was the platitude of the previous Parliament. He did not serve in that Parliament, so he does not know how platitudinous and often rejected that was. However, he did fight the election and he knows that the awful "crimeometer" was one of the flops and duds of the election. Therefore, I am surprised that he should rehearse that idea again today.

The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong about privatisation. We are faced with a dangerous situation, which my right hon. Friends and I have been trying to remedy after a period of disastrous neglect, using the conventional methods of design, arguing with hon. Members in the House where a prison should be, taking into account the planning and the comings and goings, getting on with the design, renewing a design and interfering with a design. We have continued to improve as best we can all the conventional ways of proceeding. As I said in my statement, the procedure is too slow.

I do not think that there is a case, and I do not believe that the House would accept a case, for auctioning or privatising the prisons or handing over the business of keeping prisoners safe to anyone other than Government servants. However, I do not think that we can afford to sit back and say that the way in which we have been doing things in the prison building programme is absolute and cannot be improved.

I was impressed by the Select Committee report. The accounts cited about the United States vary, and I do not say that we should be slavish followers of what happens there. However, it is our clear job in this dangerous situation to look around the world to see whether in this area, as in others, bringing private sector techniques to bear earlier and more vigorously can improve a very serious public sector situation.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

With regard to the establishment of a prison camp at Rollestone in my constituency, will my right hon. Friend confirm that it will be staffed by prison officers and that there will be no predictable effect on the requirements of the Wiltshire constabulary? What category of prisoners will be housed there?

Mr. Hurd

Rollestone will be equipped and designed as a category C prison, and that bears on the reply that I gave to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan). Obviously there will have to be discussions with the chief constable of Wiltshire as a matter of practical arrangements. However, I do not envisage asking the Wiltshire police to contribute to the manning of the camp. If I did that, I am sure that the police authority, the chief constable and my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) would be on to me for more men at the drop of a hat.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Does the Secretary of State accept that those of us who demand a high standard of protection for our people welcome the modernisation of our prisons, both for the morale of the staff and for the care of those who have suffered—quite justifiably in most cases—the deprivation of liberty?

The Secretary of State will be aware of a movement to transfer people to Northern Ireland. When speaking of remission, will he accept that there is something unfair in transferring people to complete sentences in Northern Ireland, where they receive a better approach to remission, while those who may be sentenced under Diplock courts and sent to prisons in England do not get the same facility? Does he accept that that kind of approach in dealing with remission causes unrest?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman represents a part of the United Kingdom where there is 50 per cent. remission at the moment, although there are no arrangements for parole. That is the kind of variation of experience that I would expect the committee of inquiry that I have announced to consider to see whether any lessons can be drawn. I can certainly send the hon. Gentleman the rules that apply to the applications that we receive from time to time, as he rightly said, for people to be transferred to prisons in the Province. He will know that the rules and criteria are strict. Most of the letters that I write on this subject explain why we cannot do that. I shall certainly write to the hon. Gentleman and set that out in greater detail. He can come back to me on that if he wishes to do SO.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

Will my right hon. Friend resist pressure for lesser sentences as a means of solving the problem? Is he aware that many of our constituents are deeply concerned about some of the lenient sentences that come out day by day from the courts? I congratulate him on the more robust prison building programme that he has announced and I commend that to him. I hope that in addition there will be considerably better pay and conditions for the prison officers who will man the new buildings.

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend is right on his first point. The occasional what we might call "wayward" lenient sentence shakes public confidence in the criminal justice system, in particular at the upper or violent end of the scale. I believe that we need to strengthen the proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill in that respect.

My hon. Friend will also be aware that we are in the middle of the biggest single reform of the prison service system for many years. We are trying to do away with the ruinous appalling over-dependence on overtime and get decent arrangements for basic salary and working conditions, and to settle the tasks in the prisons and how they are to be carried out. There was always a difficulty in introducing the fresh start reform at a time of overcrowding. However, if we had waited, we would have lost the opportunity. It would not have gone ahead. We now find that the prison officers are still worried about the limitations, but they have balloted overwhelmingly to support the reform. There is a great prize and we must press on, for the reasons that my hon. Friend gave.

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

In view of the reply that the Home Secretary has just given, is he aware that the morale of prison officers is now at an all-time low? Sadly, at all major prisons they are reading the small print in fresh start and they feel that they have no confidence in it. What will the Home Secretary do to build up the confidence of prison officers who at the end of the day will be responsible for running any establishment for which his Department has the overall responsibility?

If the Home Secretary is thinking only of privatisation for the building of new prisons, will the people who are to run the establishments be brought in at a very early stage of the planning and designing of those establishments? Very often the people who build those establishments never have to run them.

The Home Secretary referred to people being kept in police cells. His right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan), the former Home Secretary, said in 1983 that that system would be ended. It has not been ended. Has the Home Secretary visited any of the police cells in London where men and women are now being kept?

Mr. Hurd

In response to the hon. Gentleman's last question, my answer is yes.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks gave an undertaking and carried it out. He undertook that the use of police cells would be ended, and it was. It has now resumed in my time, and I accept responsibility for that. It is thoroughly undesirable and has acted as a safety valve. However, there comes a time when the safety valve becomes dangerous, and that point has been reached in the use of police cells.

With regard to design. we must certainly consult the users. I went to what used to be RAF Lindholme, which my right hon. and learned Friend the former Home Secretary brought into the prison system several years ago. The users were consulted on the design for refurbishing that camp to turn it into a prison. The design there is admirable. Having made a decision, we must carry it out. We should not nibble away at it.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's point about morale. There was an all-time low. However, when people realised that the opportunity for fresh start was substantial, they rallied round to it. I acknowledge that there are problems of implementation and timing and those are particularly serious in London, as the hon. Gentleman knows. If he follows these matters closely, he will be aware that we are in close discussions with the unions involved about how to overcome those problems and the useful progress that we have made in the past few days will, I hope, be underlined and reinforced by what I have had to say today.

Sir Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Taking the five points in the statement as a whole, I congratulate and thank my right hon. Friend on making some important proposals and on taking what must for him have been a very difficult and uncomfortable decision on remission. Is he aware that he inevitably places some of his friends and admirers in something of a quandary, insofar as we are hound to welcome the relief that the decision will bring to the police service and the prison service, while at the same time we are apprehensive about the consequences of releasing earlier than the courts have judged right a proportion of the offenders—perhaps 18 per cent.—who will have been convicted for crimes of violence or sex crimes?

Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House, the police service and the public that this is an interim solution to a genuine crisis and that he does not intend to continue with it, without the authority of the House, beyond three or four years? Finally, will he reconsider the possibility of taking powers within the Criminal Justice Bill to enable examinations to be made of individual cases of violent crime so that he can overcome the problem of release that he has mentioned?

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the spirit behind his question. I do not believe that what I said about remission will exist in isolation for as long as three or four years. I shall be discussing with my former right hon. and learned Friend, Mr. Mark Carlisle, the speed with which his inquiry will proceed. I hope that it will be concluded long before three or four years. As my hon. Friend said, this is an interim measure, but I think that the time scale will be rather tighter than he thought might be acceptable.

I understand exactly—my hon. Friend put it well—the reservations that must be felt about some parts of the package. The right hon. Member for Gorton and others say that we should not press ahead with prison building, and there are others who have understandable reservations about remission. It would have been possible to continue hoping that without taking action the immediate crisis would pass. It might do so, but I am not sure about that.

My colleagues and I came to the conclusion that we had to tackle the problem by finding a solution that would have a lasting effect. I believe that there must be a package. I do not think that supply side measures only, or measures directed only to the demand side of prison places, would produce an adequate answer. I hope that on balance, and with reservations that are understandable, the House will agree that the balance is right.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am bound to have regard to the business that will follow this statement, and we are likely to have a long night. I shall allow questions to continue for a further 10 minutes. I ask for questions and not statements.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

The right hon. Gentleman has given long replies.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

I am sure that the Home Secretary's statement will be extremely welcome to the staff of Winson Green prison in my constituency. The conditions there are foul, and the conditions for the prisoners are the conditions for the prison officers. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that most of the prisoners who will be released under the conditions that he has set out were convicted of trivial offences and that many of them have mental health and literacy problems? The real way to restrict crime is to apprehend those who are guilty, and that is not achieved by a substitute for a law-and-order policy that results in inadequate people being locked up for ever-increasing periods. That substitute policy does not help prison offices or prisoners, and it does not enforce law and order either.

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Lady is not correct. The prisoners who might benefit from remission are those who have been awarded relatively light sentences by the courts. That is the basis on which remission is calculated and awarded, and the only basis on which it can be considered by law. I shall not comment on the remainder of the hon. Lady's comments, because I have already been accused by some of her hon. Friends of going on for too long. We have had our exchanges on this "balance" often enough in the past and the hon. Lady knows why I do not agree with her.

Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend is to visit Lancaster castle prison a week on Friday. He will find that over many years the governor and his staff have pressed into use every square inch of prison, but it is still overcrowded. Therefore, prison officers will welcome a reduction in prison numbers. However, neither they nor my constituents would want sex offenders, many of whom have been too lightly sentenced, to share in the scheme that he proposes.

Mr. Hurd

I look forward to visiting Lancaster prison. As I always try to do on such occasions, I shall set aside time to talk to members of the prison service unions, including the Prison Officers Association. They will make their points to me about overcrowding, as they always do. I have already responded to questions about the nature of offences and the nature of the powers that are open to me in altering the rules governing remission.

Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)

Does the Home Secretary recognise that the major cause of overcrowding at Leeds prison is the many prisoners who are on remand? Will he say whether he intends to take any steps to reduce their number? It has been clear for a long time that Leeds is probably the most overcrowded prison, and I ask him to explain why we must wait until the 1990s for any new building projects at the prison.

Mr. Hurd

One of the most encouraging visits that I made shortly before the general election was to Leeds prison. I am aware of the high state of morale of those of the hon. Gentleman's constituents who run the prison, and that, on the eve of fresh start, was extremely impressive.

It is for the courts to decide whether an individual should be given bail. It is reasonable to encourage the probation service to provide the greatest possible information so that the courts can make the right decisions. It is right to establish reasonable time limits where we can so that the process of justice is accelerated. It is reasonable to ask magistrates throughout the country to consider the reasons for the wide variation in the granting of bail. There may be good reasons for local decisions because of local circumstances, and that is a matter for local magistrates, but they need to establish to their own satisfaction that decisions are made on that basis.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a high proportion of my right hon. and hon. Friends regret his decision to release 3,500 prisoners early? First, early release trespasses upon the independence of the judiciary. Secondly, it reduces the deterrent effect of sentences that increasingly do not mean what they say. Thirdly, the form of the order reduces the opportunities for discussion in the House and for voting against the proposition.

Mr. Hurd

I did not expect to carry my hon. Friend with me on this occasion. It would have been possible for me to proceed only on the supply side and to announce more camps here, there and everywhere. I do not think that my hon. Friend has addressed himself to the realities, including what I have said about camps, which are not sensible on the whole for remand prisoners. Nor are they sensible on the whole for those who might be a danger to the public. The problem of staffing camps properly when the prison service is severely stretched, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) said, and securely, which the public would expect, is a difficult one. I am not excluding the further use of camps, but those are the sorts of considerations that I must bear in mind.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

Given the considerable increase in the prison population, will my right hon. Friend consider as a matter of priority bringing back into service A and D wings at Parkhurst prison? Will he consider also making an early change to the law to allow compulsory screening for AIDS in our maximum security and long-term prisons? As the Isle of Wight has one of the largest prison populations of any constituency, will my right hon. Friend consider making an early visit to my constituency to meet prison officers?

Mr. Hurd

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend. I congratulate him on his arrival at this place. Even before the glad news of his election reached me I had arranged—I trust with his approval—to visit the prisons in his constituency during the summer recess. My hon. Friend is right to drew attention to the fact that it has taken too long to make the necessary security changes in a couple of wings at Parkhurst. That has been drawn to my attention, and we are getting on with the changes. I entirely accept what my hon. Friend said about that. Perhaps I could write to him about screening for AIDS. The issue does not arise immediately from my statement. I could give an answer off the cuff, but I might get the detail of it slightly wrong. As it is an important subject, that would be a mistake.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the sympathy that is felt for him by my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself in his predicament over prison accommodation. He will be aware also of the support that he has had from the Opposition over having to release about 3,000 prisoners prematurely. I hope that he will be aware further of the deep feeling of Conservative Members about a system whereby people are sentenced to appropriate sentences by judges, only to serve a small proportion of them. I hope that in the long term my right hon. Friend will make adequate provision to ensure that violent and sex offenders serve their full sentence, not a proportion of it.

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend puts that clearly, and he will know the thinking on the proposals that are in hand on lenient sentencing and maximum sentences and on several of the offences that he mentioned. Of course, there is a problem, which, as he rightly says, goes wider than the statement about remission and parole. Both of them offend against the principle that he proclaims, but both have been here for a long time. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks lowered the minimum qualifying period for parole, in a move that I strongly supported. The House knows that there continue to be problems and criticisms, which will not be removed by my statement, but will not be created by it. That is why, in our election manifesto, we proposed an inquiry, and that is why we are now getting on with it.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Might not an inquiry on this be counter-productive, when judges can look at all the circumstances of the case and simply increase sentences to take account of additional remission? Could not the splendid abilities of Mr. Mark Carlisle be better put to considering ways by which we might more effectively deter potential criminals from getting engaged in crime in the first place?

Mr. Hurd

The splendid abilities of the Government Front Bench, and particularly of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten), are devoted to that second subject. There is a clear need to study the first subject, which is what I have asked Mr. Carlisle to do. My hon. Friend makes a fair point about the judges, but it is the judiciary who have been complaining about the present relationship between parole and remission. Their criticisms, expressed to me courteously hut forcefully for more than a year, led me, some time ago, to favour an inquiry, which will cover this whole subject.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the general public will not understand how it is that a Conservative Government, faced with overcrowded prisons, are about to release on to the streets thousands of convicted criminals and hundreds of violent criminals before their time is up? Is there not a strong argument for providing additional prison accommodation rather than doing what my right hon. Friend proposes? Is this not an error of political judgment?

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend is putting a point to which I have already replied. It would have been possible, although unrealistic and unproductive in the long run, or even in the medium run, simply to come forward with the part of the package of plans for expanding and accelerating provision for the prisons. For the reasons that I have given about timing, staffing and the limitations of camps, I would have had an easier afternoon if I had done that, but I would not have tackled the problem seriously.

As regards remission, my hon. Friend spoke about letting people out on to the streets before their time, but already the upper range beyond that about which I am talking has a system of parole and of remission of one third. I am making an adjustment at the lower end, for those whom the courts have not thought fit to award serious and heavy sentences. The maximum difference in an individual sentence as a result of this proposal is two months.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall bear carefully in mind those hon. Members whom I have not been able to call when this matter is next discussed.