§ 9. Mr. Fisher
asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what proposals he has to reduce prison overcrowding.
§ Mr. Hurd
We are proceeding with measures to make the best possible use of existing accommodation. The building programme, including refurbishment of existing prisons and new prisons, will produce 17,200 places by the mid-1990s. This includes five new prisons opening in the next 12 months. We continue to encourage the courts to use non-custodial sentences in suitable cases.
§ Mr. Fisher
I welcome those new places, but will the Home Secretary confirm that our prison population is the second highest in Europe, second only to Turkey? How many people are in our prisons for offences that are of no danger to the public? For instance, how many debt defaulters are in prison? What steps will the right hon. Gentleman take to resolve that problem?
§ Mr. Hurd
The hon. Gentleman welcomes the provision of new places, but the Labour party's official policy is to halt the prison building programme. Among many zany undertakings, that is perhaps the most irresponsible. I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's general point. We have a high prison population in comparison with the total population. I think that Austria has a higher proportion than us. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the answer is not for politicians to step in and tell the courts who they are and who they are not to send to prison, but to ensure that the courts in the kind of lesser cases to which the hon. Gentleman referred have before them persuasively argued, tough and practical alternatives to custody. We are pursuing that course through our investment in the 848 probation service, the training of the service and the encouragement of such measures as community service orders, the application of which has almost trebled in recent years.
§ Sir Edward Gardner
Yesterday the report of the Home Affairs Select Committee on prisons recommended that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary should consider whether the American practice of using private contractors to build, refurbish and manage prisons could be used here to overcome the problem of chronic overcrowding. Will he confirm that he intends to send a Minister to America to look at such prisons? Will he further confirm that the Prisons Officers Association has nothing to fear from the report's recommendation?
§ Mr. Hurd
I am glad that my hon. and learned Friend has raised that last point. Privatisation is not an accurate description of what he or I have in mind. We are not talking about selling-off existing prisons and putting them under private management. We are talking about whether, by using the private sector and its techniques more intensively, and perhaps at an earlier stage, we can accelerate the provision of prison places and thus ease as rapidly as possible the overcrowding with which we are concerned. I am asking my noble Friend Lord Caithness to go to the United States to follow up the research that was undertaken by the Select Committee.
§ Mr. Willie W. Hamilton
Is the Minister aware that I entirely agree with him that under his Government the major growth industry in Britain has been the prison building programme?
§ Mr. Hurd
The hon. Gentleman is falling below his level. The fact of the matter — this has already been mentioned during these exchanges — is that under the Government whom he supported crime and the prison population grew sharply and nothing was done about it. They continue to grow, which I regret, but the difference is that we are, and have been over the past six or seven years, doing a great deal about it.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is wrong that alcoholics and rate defaulters should be sent to prison? Does he agree that the Government could reduce the overcrowding of our prisons by stopping the closure of psychiatric hospitals? Is he aware that during our inquiries into the prison medical service the Select Committee for Social Services found several hundred people in our prisons who more correctly should have been in a psychiatric hospital or asylum undergoing treatment rather than being in prison?
§ Mr. Hurd
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and one of the matters on which we have worked hard and successfully is the reduction of the number of inadequates who are sent to prison because no one can think of anywhere else to send them. The pressures that my hon. Friend and others have brought to bear have been effective.
With regard to fine defaulters, my hon. Friend has raised a difficult point, because, in the last resort, when all other measures have failed, it is hard to imagine how one can proceed except with the use of prison. I was interested to note that in the Standing Committee the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) endorsed that point of view.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
Will the Home Secretary accept and recognise that many people will feel repelled by the 849 proposal that our prisons should be privatised or run by private companies, because people who are in prison are supposed to be there because they have committed crimes against society, so it should be society's—that means the Government's — responsibility to administer those prisons? I suspect that this will be the last time that the Home Secretary will be at the Dispatch Box, because undoubtedly my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) will be Home Secretary at the next Home Office questions. However, does today's Home Secretary agree that we need a long period of consultation before we move over to the privatisation of our prisons?
§ Mr. Hurd
It is because I thought that there might be that kind of mischievous supplementary that I said that privatisation is not what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Fylde (Sir E. Gardner) and his Select Committee or I have in mind. We are not thinking of handing over existing prisons to private management. If, by using the private sector and private sector techniques, we can accelerate and improve the provision of prison places, it would be stupid not to try to do so. The hon. Member said that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) will take my place in the next Parliament. He has not bothered to come here today. It is notable that, on this matter, on which the Labour party is purporting to campaign, there are now 10 Labour Members on the Opposition Benches.
Mr. John Mark Taylor
Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to clarify the point that nobody is in prison for debt, but, rather, for contempt of court?