HC Deb 17 March 1988 vol 129 cc1206-7
1. Mr. Matthew Taylor

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many unconvicted prisoners were remanded in police cells in England and Wales on 1 March; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

On 1 March there were 1,535 prisoners in police cells in England and Wales. Most of these would have been unconvicted prisoners.

Mr. Taylor

Does the Home Secretary accept that conditions in police cells are far worse than those in remand prisons, and that it is barbaric for a civilised society to keep people in conditions that are often little better than those in which animals are kept in the zoo? When does he plan to introduce European minimum standards into our prisons?

Mr. Hurd

The Government have made an unparalleled commitment to the prison service in terms of new building, modernising existing buildings up to standard and staffing. The position to which the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention, which is certainly deeply unsatisfactory, is the result partly of industrial action in two large London prisons and partly of the increase in the prison population. That increase is caused not by an acceleration in the growth of crime—which has actually been slowing down—but by more cases going through the Crown courts, and the increasing severity of sentences passed by those courts.

Mr. Lawrence

Although I accept what my right hon. Friend has said about the Government's actions in the prison sector, is not the overcrowding of prison cells quite unacceptable? Is this not the moment to press ahead with the introduction of private contract prisons for remand prisoners?

Mr. Hurd

My hon. and learned Friend knows that there is no magic in that suggestion. For example, it does not automatically deal with the planning permission problems, which are one of the bugbears of the prison building programme. My hon. and learned Friend also knows how constrained I am by existing law. I agree, however, that we cannot afford to neglect new ideas simply because they are new, and I shall bear that in mind in making the reply that I owe to the Select Committee on Home Affairs.

Mr. Grocott

Why do we find it necessary in this country to imprison more people for longer periods, whether in police cells or in ordinary prisons, than any other country in western Europe?

Mr. Hurd

Neither the hon. Gentleman nor I send people to prison. The courts do so, after considering each case. I think that most hon. Members would welcome the fact that there are now more severe sentences for the more severe crimes of violence. In the case of lesser crimes, we want to build up ideas of punishment in the community in which the courts can have confidence.

Mr. Bowis

In the light of the escape from court cells of prisoners on remand in Battersea, will my right hon. and learned Friend give an undertaking that in future no prisoners on remand on charges of murder and crimes of violence will be held overnight—or, in particular, over weekends—in such cells under the tutelage of the police rather than of prison officers?

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend rightly looked into the incident in his constituency, which is a classic example of the dangers that we run as a result of industrial action in certain London prisons. I entirely agree with him that it is highly undesirable for dangerous people to be lodged, even temporarily, in police cells, and we do our best to avoid that.

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