§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd)
Today, 787 prisoners are held in police cells in England and Wales, most of them on remand. Only very rarely are category A prisoners held in police cells overnight. None is now so held to my knowledge.
§ Mr. Bowis
Does my right hon. Friend agree that most people want their police to be either on the beat or within reach in case of emergency? Does he accept that police looking after prisoners in cells are not on the beat and, therefore, not available to the public for their protection? Does he accept that every unit of cells requires one sergeant and three constables? In the northern part of my constituency alone, three sergeants and nine constables are involved. That is largely due to the results of the prison officers' strike. Will he therefore urgently negotiate a no-strike agreement with the Prison Officers Association?
§ Mr. Hurd
My hon. Friend is quite right about the wrong diversion of police time, which at its worst was as bad as during the Wapping dispute. I am glad to say that we are now improving on that because the Prison Officers Association in London prisons has suspended industrial action and is receiving prisoners. The figure that I gave of 787 compares with 1,335 at the peak. We are steadily moving prisoners to where they belong —mainly in prison. I note my hon. Friend's further point.
§ Mr. Madden
Will the Home Secretary help to tackle the crisis of overcrowding in prisons and the difficulties in many police cells by issuing guidance to magistrates to offer bail to all those accused of non-violent crimes? That would make a positive contribution to dealing with the crisis of the Home Secretary's own making.
§ Mr. Hurd
The crisis is not of my making. The immediate problem has been that of industrial action in London and the south-east. I hope that that is now being resolved. It is not my job to instruct magistrates about the people to whom they should give bail. It is a difficult job and must be left to the magistrates. I am anxious that they should have options and the hon. Gentleman will have noticed, with approval I hope, the provision in the Autumn Statement of more money for bail hostels.
§ Mr. Alex Carlile
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the reasons for so many people being remanded in custody in police cells is that many people are unnecessarily remanded in custody? Does he draw some lesson from the Minister of State's answer to me on Friday in which he revealed that black defendants are twice as likely as white defendants to be remanded in custody and acquitted or not proceeded against? Will he look at new alternatives to remands in custody so that black defendants are not unnecessarily remanded?
§ Mr. Hurd
I do not think that one can discriminate in that way. It is for the courts to decide in each case whether someone should be remanded in custody, given hail or put in a bail hostel. I am anxious that in each case the court should have the most accurate information about the circumstances of the person with whom it is dealing. The hon. and learned Member will know the steps that we are taking in that direction.