HC Deb 12 May 1988 vol 133 cc487-521

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

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

Last night just over 50,000 people were held in prisons or as prisoners in police cells in England and Wales. The prison system is designed to hold around 44,200. The result is that parts of the prison system are miserably and dangerously overcrowded. That is the heart of a problem as serious as any that confronts the Government on the domestic scene. So it is entirely right that Parliament should debate the problem and the Government's response.

Prisons are a world of which most people still prefer to know little. But silence and ignorance about prisons have in the past led to neglect. I have come to the conclusion that I would rather face criticism of the state of the prisons than silence. That is one reason why I decided last year to make possible the publication of individual reports of boards of visitors, such as the report on Wandsworth last month. Out of informed debate will come understanding of all that the prison service and the Government are doing to remedy the situation, and pressure to do more. If there had been proper debate in the mid-1970s, when crime was rising fast and the prisons filling, perhaps the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) and his predecessor would not have had to cut the prison building programme in the way that they did. I welcome the opportunity to set out briefly what we are doing first to restrain the growth of the prison population in ways that have to be reconciled with the independence of magistrates and judges and, second, to increase and speed up the provision of prison places.

Let me first deal with one distortion that sometimes creeps in. The problem is not unique to the United Kingdom. Figures are not strictly comparable, but the most recent information shows that the prison population per 100,000 inhabitants in the United Kingdom, at 96, was the fourth highest among Council of Europe states; for seven of these member states, including France and Germany, the rate was over 80 per 100,000 inhabitants. I believe that our imprisonment rate is lower than that of Canada and well below that of the United States, which had a prison population of about 300 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1985, compared with our 96. Our prison population has been growing much more slowly in the past four years than that of France, Holland, Ireland or Portugal. We have plenty of problems, but I hope that we shall hear no more of the notion that our prison system is in some way uniquely severe or barbarous; it is not.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

The right hon. Gentleman said that his objective is to restrain the growth of inmate numbers in prison. Is he aware that many who know a great deal about the prison system believe not simply that the rate of growth should be restrained but that the prison population should be reduced? Is that not even the medium-term target of the Government?

Mr. Hurd

If the hon. Gentleman catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, I shall be fascinated to hear how he intends to do that in a way that can be reconciled with the independence of magistrates and judges. I am sure that he favours that independence. He might be able to explain to the House how he would propose to reconcile the two. I hope to cover the point in greater substance later. Before that, I shall analyse briefly the composition of the 50,000 people in prison or police cells.

In round numbers, 11,000 have not been sentenced, and have been refused bail awaiting trial or sentence. That remand population has nearly doubled since 1980. Some 15,000 of the 50,000 have been sentenced for violent offences and the rest are in prison for non-violent offences. Of those, 9,000 are burglars and 7,000 are in prison for theft and related offences.

Before I come to the different categories, I shall underline a crucial principle, which bears on what the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) has said. The Lord Chancellor, the Attorney-General and the Home Secretary preside in different ways over an amazingly decentralised criminal justice system, each component of which is proud and jealous of its independence. The Lord Chancellor does not direct the judges, the Attorney-General does not direct the lawyers and I do not direct the police. The public, even hon. Members, are often surprised at the limits in our powers.

I am not in favour of centralising those powers. I am strongly in favour of the different parts of the system getting to know the other parts better. Magistrates and judges, for example, ought to know better than they sometimes do what actually follows when a burglar is sent to prison in 1988. Probation officers ought to be able to read the minds of magistrates and understand why they sometimes reject advice against a prison sentence couched in the vocabulary of the social worker.

My colleagues and I are working hard to intensify these contacts and to show each of the professions in the criminal justice system that isolation is not a necessary condition of independence. We want to break down the isolation, but not undermine the independence. I believe that it would be wrong for me to seek to prevent the courts from sending to prison those for whom they believe, after considering all the alternatives, prison to be the right place.

Parliament has provided powers to authorise the early release of certain inmates, that is, those not convicted of serious offences of a violent nature or involving drugs. Parliament thought that those powers should be available. But we have always made it clear that they are for use in an emergency and not simply to keep the prison population below some arbitrary figure. Here I differ from the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland, as I do not believe that it is for the Home Secretary to say, "There are only 44,000 decent places in the prison system; therefore you, the judiciary, must not send more people to prison than that, however convinced you are that a prison sentence is necessary in a particular case for deterrence, punishment or the protection of the public."

However, I can hope to provide sentencers with more persuasive options outside prison. For the rest, we need to supply the prison places that the sentences of the court require. It is the courts, not the Government, who decide who should go to prison. We have to ensure as a Government, and indeed as a Parliament, that the courts have a range of penalties available to them so that they can give suitable sentences to the wide variety of offenders who come before them. But it is for the courts to weigh all the circumstances of each offence, to take account of aggravating and mitigating factors and then to fix the sentence.

Mr. Stuart Holland (Vauxhall)

Does the Home Secretary agree that some of the alternatives could be bail hostels or drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres, which would give options to the courts for independent decisions? The right hon. Gentleman is aware that I am especially concerned about the conditions in Brixton prison. For example, there have been 27 deaths by suicide or misadventure in the remand prison since 1981. There is a special problem in F wing. Can the right hon. Gentleman assure me, further to his written answer to me of 13 April, that he will undertake a public inquiry into the conditions in F wing and the deaths that have occurred in the past two years?

Mr. Hurd

Suicides are a tragedy and a disaster wherever they occur, and particularly when they occur in prison. I am especially concerned about the position in Risley and Brixton prisons. Difficulties are greatest in those remand centres for reasons that the hon. Gentleman knows. Last year we introduced a new strategy for the prevention of suicide among inmates. The hon. Gentleman knows the details. It is fixed on the idea that more contact and care by staff, and the care that prisoners can take among themselves when a possibility of suicide has been identified, will make suicides less likely.

It is too early to be sure how this strategy is working. Last year was a very bad year for suicides in the prison system. So far this year there have been 10 apparent suicides, unfortunately including one yesterday, compared with 19 at this stage in 1987. It is too early to be sure how well the new strategy is working, but we certainly have to keep it under particular review, not so much prison by prison, although that comes into it, but in the general strategy.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)


Mr. Hurd

I want to get on. I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman later; I may well cover prison regimes again later and perhaps he could interrupt me then.

I turn to the 15,000 violent offenders in prison. I do not believe that there is scope for reducing the numbers of this category in prison until the number of violent offences begins to come down. Indeed, the increasing severity of sentences in respect of serious violence certainly reflects the revulsion which we all feel generally about such crimes, particularly when the victims are the elderly or children. Since 1980, the length of Crown court sentences for offences of violence committed by men over 21 has increased by 12 per cent. The increase for offences of robbery has been particularly marked at 21 per cent. Nine out of 10 men convicted of robbery in the Crown court are sent to prison. The Crown court is more likely than it was to send men convicted of sexual offences to prison and to keep them there longer. The average sentence for rape has increased by 30 per cent. in the past two years. In the Criminal Justice Bill we propose to give the Court of Appeal the power to increase sentences for serious offences when referred to them by the Attorney-General, on the ground that they appear waywardly lenient.

I would put drug trafficking in the same category of seriousness. We have increased the maximum penalties for drug trafficking and that has been reflected by longer sentences in the courts. One of the results has been a significant increase in the number of women in prison serving longer sentences for drug offences. Unfortunately, traffickers tend to pick out women and use them as their couriers because they hope that women are less likely to be detected. In the Government's view, there is a substantial category for which prison sentence„ and in some cases longer prison sentences are inevitable and necessary. For the 23,000 prisoners whose offences are not violent, the policy must be different. It is not self-evident that all these men and women should be in prison.

We need to build on the many excellent programmes that some probation services have already developed for supervising high-risk offenders based on the probation order. We are encouraging an expansion in the number of day centres in England and Wales. We have made available new money to approve four new projects in 1988–89. We have asked the probation service to put forward proposals for other new projects in later years. Probation committees have been told that priority will be given to approving those new projects which target young adults and offer strict, structured regimes, aimed at reducing reoffending. Such schemes make young adults face the consequences of their offending behaviour and aim to alter criminal attitudes. Some offenders may need closer supervision, especially at the start of the order.

I am also particularly keen to support the development of community service orders. That is one of the major achievements of the probation service. We have decided that the time has come to draw the reins a bit tighter. We want to bring practice in all parts of the country up to the standard of the best. That is why we circulated draft national standards for the operation of community service schemes. We want to ensure that community service is rigorous and demanding. The need for frequent and punctual reporting is part of the discipline imposed by the order. The work to be done should be useful and bring benefit to the community. There is no reparation if the work itself is pointless. Ideally, the public should be able to see the results of the work and, in the process, the offender's self-discipline and motivation should be improved.

Imagine the case of the young opportunist burglar whose burglary involves no violence. His offence is still serious. The court will always want to consider the nature of the offence, consider the victim, and look hard at the offender. If the court decides that he must go to prison, we should not make that impossible, and we must provide a prison place. It is true that while he is in prison he will not burgle the citizen, and that is a powerful argument in the minds of the police, the judiciary and the decent citizen. But if, by putting him in a cell at great expense for a few months, with one or two other burglars, we simply turn out a more skilful and enterprising burglar, the citizen may actually have struck a rather poor bargain—a worse bargain, perhaps, than if the man had been sentenced to a severe but useful punishment in the community. The courts should make that choice case by case, but with options before them that are much more persuasive than those that they have at the moment.

Then there are the 11,000—this is my final category—who are awaiting trial or sentence. That is too high a figure. No hon. Member would believe that that is a sensible figure. It is more than one in five of the total. I cannot advise magistrates on individual decisions on bail. We have looked at the Bail Act 1976, and we think that the balance in it is right. Magistrates know that we would wish to reduce the remand population and provide proper support to magistrates so that they are able to make the best possible decisions on bail. There is plenty of scope for better information through bail information schemes. I am also providing resources for about nine new bail hostels. We are considering whether some others could be privately managed. The Lord Chancellor is preparing improved training for magistrates on bail decisions. Yesterday, I issued to magistrates courts a circular bringing together the threads of these developments.

The continuing rise in the remand population has been caused in part by the increased time that individuals have spent in custody awaiting trial. That is why, under the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985, we took power to introduce statutory time limits in England and Wales. We first exercised that power in April last year and monitored the effects of the time limits and the first results have been encouraging.

On 1 April, I extended custody time limits to Greater Manchester, throughout Wales, to Cheshire, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, and Wiltshire, reduced the limit to committal in the west midlands from 98 to 84 days, and extended the operation of limits to Coventry and Dudley Crown court centres. We shall continue to phase in the time limits and hope that, by 1990, they will be in force throughout England and Wales. When we can actually move them downwards—tighten up the times—we shall do so. That should lead to a fall of up to 600 in the remand population.

I have dealt with the first objective, which is how to restrain the growth or, if we can, reduce the size of the prison population, while respecting the independence of magistrates and judges. I now refer to the other side of the policy, which is the provision of prison places. We have had to put in hand a major programme to bring that about, because, unlike our predecessors, we regard it as a duty that we must face. In the years since 1979, expenditure on the prison service has risen in real terms, after inflation, by 43 per cent. That compares with an increase of 11 per cent. between 1974 and 1979.

The figures are even more dramatic for expenditure on prison building, including the refurbishment of existing establishments. Under the Labour Government, there was a decrease of 35 per cent. in real terms in such expenditure. In contrast, since 1979, expenditure on prison building has risen by 117 per cent. in real terms. When one puts it into actual cash, one sees that the figures are getting large. This year, financial provision is £802 million. We plan to increase it to £937 million by 1990–91. That increase will enable us to carry through the biggest prison building programme this century, gradually to improve the conditions in which prisoners are held and to try to reduce the problem of severe overcrowding, which has existed in many of our prisons for many years.

Mr. Charles Irving (Cheltenham)

I wonder whether the Home Secretary is satisfied that the rebuilding programme is in the right, competent, professional hands. On a recent visit, we saw for ourselves the appalling design of Holloway C wing. It is detrimental to those who work in the prison and to the inmates. It is scandalous. Only a few days ago, there was a report of a new prison being built for £30 million. Building faults have already appeared. The design will certainly not improve the quality of life of those who work in the prison or of those who must be there. Is there not something wrong with a system that can allow buildings of that kind to continue at vast public expense when, in some cases, they are worse than the buildings that have been replaced?

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend carries his argument too far. It is certainly true that, in the 1960s and, perhaps, early 1970s, prison design in this country went through a phase that everybody now regrets. There were attempts to build prisons in ways that proved to be unsuitable. We have learnt a lesson in two respects. The present designs, including the design of Full Sutton, are considerably better than they were. Full Sutton prison was designed four and a half years ago. One is continually learning. We cannot constantly interfere with the design of a prison while it is being built or we will never get it. I am coming to the ways in which we are improving designs and improving and accelerating the provision of prison places. I am satisfied that Full Sutton, which is the prison to which my hon. Friend was referring, is a wholly secure prison. When he visits it, as I hope that he will before long, he will be impressed by it. I hope that he will be even more impressed as the years pass and we open prisons that are designed even later.

I return to the point that I had reached. The programme will provide 26 new prisons by the mid-1990s. But that is not enough. We must also—this meets my hon. Friend's point—modernise and improve what we already have, much of which is in a bad way. The refurbishment and expansion of existing establishments will provide a further 8,000 places by 1995 and start to bring the prison estate up to 20th century standards. We shall be providing 22,000 new places by the mid-1990s, at a cost of about £1 billion. That is improvement of quality as well as of quantity.

We have to tackle the degrading practice of slopping out. By 1995, about 75 per cent. of prison places will have access to sanitation, compared with just 43 per cent. in 1979. The main obstacle to faster progress on sanitation, which is crucial, is the need to move all the prisoners from a wing to enable integral sanitation to be installed. There has to be somewhere to move the prisoners to, and that can cause disruption in the very establishments that suffer most from the growth in population. In response to that worry, we are beginning soon two pilot schemes, in Brixton and Wandsworth, to test the feasibility of a new way of installing sanitation that will not require the closure of wings and could be achieved separately from bigger refurbishment plans.

I do not believe that it is sensible to be content with financial figures, as if we were simply throwing money at the problem. We have to achieve greater efficiency in prison building. We have set up a design brief team to update and rationalise prison design. The Prisons Building Board, which has a private sector element, will supervise delivery of the programme. I am urgently considering how we can involve the private sector more closely in the prison system. The new Prisons Building Board includes three business men with strong practical experience. It has invited the private sector to make proposals for building remand or open facilities more quickly than in the past. We have already had over 30 responses. I intend before long to publish a Green Paper on private sector involvement in all aspects of the remand system, including possible management. We are engaging consultants to help in working out the practical implications.

Meanwhile, as the House knows from the exchanges that we had just before Easter, we have run seriously short of space. The continual growth of the prison population has put pressure on regimes in all parts of the system. I have mentioned the pressures on living accommodation and sanitary facilities, which lead to interruptions in education classes, workshops and other worthwhile activities.

The number committed to prison by the courts was rising at a rate equivalent to the population of an average-sized prison every few weeks during the earlier part of this year. As an unavoidable, but undesirable, overflow, more and more prisoners were being held in police cells. That number reached the very high figure of 1,575 early in March. Therefore, urgent short-term action was necessary to prevent a breakdown in the prisons and reduce the burden on the police. That is why I announced to the House the opening of two army camps in the south—at Rollestone on Salisbury plain, which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary visited yesterday, and at Alma Dettingen, near Camberley—as temporary prisons, for a matter of months, to house about 700 prisoners.

I should like to pay a tribute to all those concerned for the enormous efforts made in converting these camps and bringing them into use very quickly indeed. Rollestone opened on 25 April and Alma Dettingen on 9 May. Partly as a result of that, but only partly, the number of prisoners in police cells has fallen, I am glad to say, from that peak of 1,575 to 957 yesterday. It is still far too high and I shall not be happy until the use of police cells for prisoners is regarded as something exceptional and temporary.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

I am sorry that, unavoidably, I missed the first part of my right hon. Friend's speech. Could he comment on the fact that the Wiltshire county council's social services department and probation service have also been involved in the Rollestone camp and have played a very important part, particularly those seconded from Evlestoke open prison?

Mr. Hurd

One of the reasons why I decided that we should open Rollestone again was precisely the co-operation that we had on an earlier occasion from all the authorities in Wiltshire, and the generally good relations that were built up with my hon. Friend's constituents. I gladly thank, through him, all those who have been involved again.

It is not just a question of buildings and emergency arrangements such as I have described. A rising prison population needs not only more buildings but more staff, and we have increased the number of prison officers by 22 per cent. over a period when the number of inmates has increased by 15 per cent. So, contrary to the impression that one sometimes receives from some people, the ratio has been steadily improving.

I am very well aware of staffing difficulties in a number of prisons. Recruitment of prison officers is at its highest ever level. Last year we recruited 1,860 officers to deal with wastage and meet the needs of new work. This year we plan to recruit a further 1,360 over and above replacements needed for people who leave or retire. In addition, more will be needed to staff the new accommodation that I announced in my statement of 30 March. We are committed to providing the staff that the service needs and there will he a continuing demand for recruits to staff new accommodation.

But prison staffing is not just a matter of numbers. We have to make the best use of the staff available and ensure that they enjoy the right terms and conditions of service for their demanding work. That is why over the past year we have brought about a radical change in the way that the prison service is organised and run.

Fresh Start is our response to a service that was beset by an increasing workload and costs and hampered by inefficient and inflexible systems and structures. Those who were managing it were frustrated by the rigidities, waste and obstacles built into the system. Staff, highly committed though they are, were faced with long working hours and little job satisfaction. We are bringing about: a huge change, comparable with any change in the public or private sector during this time. Fresh Start is what it says—a chance to start again—and the service is, with difficulty, getting to grips with this fact and seizing the opportunities that if offers to improve life for staff.

Mr. Bermingham

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept my question in the spirit in which it is intended. In the calculation of staff required for the foreseeable future, did his Department take into account that, with the increasing detection rate by the police forces in the United Kingdom, there will be an increasing number of prisoners, because there will be more convictions in the courts?

Mr. Hurd

I am glad that the hon. Member agrees that the clear-up rate is improving. He is certainly right in that. As we try to plan the future under different possibilities and try to take into account the aspects that may change over the coming years, of course we take that fact into account.

I was dealing with Fresh Start—

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)

I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend just before he finishes, but what he was saying goes back to what was said earlier about the buildings that we are using. One of the things that I had hoped for today was to hear that one day we might start pulling down some of the Victorian prisons or, if we cannot do that, at least installing some of the electronic door-keeping techniques, and so on, that are used in the United States so that we do not need to have vast numbers of prison officers in every establishment arid can make the best use of the staff that is available.

Mr. Hurd

We have to make the best use of the staff that is available, but I think that my hon. Friend will acknowledge that contact between staff and inmates is an important part of running a successful prison. Lack of contact between staff and inmates is not a sensible way of averting suicides, for example. But I agree with my hon. Friend's general point. The sooner we pull down in some cases, but in more cases improve, the old prisons, the better we shall be pleased. My hon. Friend is setting a very good example by encouraging me to find a place for a prison in his constituency. I hope that other hon. Members, as they see the advantages of having a modern prison, with the prosperity that surrounds it, as I saw at Full Sutton, will follow my hon. Friend's useful example.

Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that one important aspect of the morale of prison officers is that they should be allowed the same right to buy their homes as other people have? In my constituency there has been inordinate delay in allowing prison officers to exercise their right to buy their quarters. Will my right hon. Friend look into the matter personally to ensure that prison officers' rights are maintained?

Mr. Hurd

I shall look into the position. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary may be able to say something about that matter when he replies to the debate.

One of the main purposes of Fresh Start is to provide a firm basis for the regime of the prisoner. The greater flexibility provided by group working under Fresh Start, coupled with clear definition and distribution of activities, offers more certainty. For example, once Fresh Start systems are working effectively, there should be far fewer occasions when work in the workshops or classes is disrupted because there is a trial on and prison officers have to do escort duty.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

My right hon. Friend may be interested to know that I was in Stafford prison only three days ago and I had consultations about Fresh Start. He may be glad to hear that it has gone down extremely well there, despite the fact that it is an old prison. Although the abattoir site needs to be refurbished, we will be glad to have an improvement in Stafford over the next few years.

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is always encouraging to receive confirmation of the advice that I get from my own advisers.

I am beginning—and I do not put it higher than that—to hear about examples from across the country of how time spent on education in the prison service has increased by 6 per cent. during the day and by 7 per cent. in the evening. There has been evening association for prisoners at Manchester for the first time in years. More time is being spent on visits at Leeds. To confirm what my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) said, industrial workshop time at Stafford is up by at least 20 per cent. However, there are many places where the improvement in regimes has not yet occurred. Because the news in the media is almost always gloomy on this point, I have picked out the cases where Fresh Start is beginning to produce one of its main objectives, which is an improvement in the regime as a prison is better run.

As every hon. Member who speaks in the debate will probably illustrate, the prison service faces demands on an unprecedented scale. Although we have arguments with the Prison Officers Association, I pay tribute to the way in which the staff of the service are, on the whole, responding to the challenge. The Government have a commitment, and we have asked Parliament for a commitment to the service, partly in terms of money and partly in terms of fresh thinking and of clear and sustained decisions.

As I said, since 1979 we have increased expenditure on the prison service by 43 per cent. in real terms. The size of the continuing problem is there for all to see. Although the total crime figures are less daunting than they were, the offences for which a prison sentence is normal are still rising. When the House last debated prisons in 1986 we looked back on several days of disastrous riot and destruction. Today we are looking forward to our programme extricating a crucial public service from great difficulty and putting it on a firm road. That is some progress. So far as it is in my power, I intend to sustain that progress.

5.2 pm

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

The Opposition welcome the debate. I congratulate the Home Secretary not only on initiating it but on the tone, if not always the content, of his speech. For some reason which I have never been able to understand, the Home Secretary does not always welcome my political embrace, so I shall say no more in congratulation to him than that I look forward to watching him on television making a speech in similar tone to the Conservative party conference in October.

As the Home Secretary will gladly confirm, the crisis in our prisons did not begin last year or the year before. In every year of this decade in its annual report, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons has warned the Government, in the strongest terms, about overcrowding and the consequences of overcrowding. In 1981 the report described it as a major problem in its own right and the direct cause of many of the suffocating difficulties which beset the system". In 1982 it loomed as large if not larger than the year before". In 1984 it "remained a major problem".

In 1985, in perhaps the most damning criticism of all, the inspectors said that there was little new to say about it except that it had worsened considerably". By 1986, according to the inspectors, breaking point was reached in many prisons".

Mr. Devlin

The overcrowding has been caused because the Administration of which the hon. Gentleman was a member cancelled the prison building programme.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. May I remind the House that this is a short debate which must finish at 7 o'clock. Interventions are made only at the expense of the speeches of other hon. Members.

Mr. Hattersley

I shall heed your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I suggest to the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) that, if he is called later, he should try to rise to the Home Secretary's level and say something constructive rather than make petty political points.

During the last decade the prison population has risen by almost 20 per cent. This contradicts the point that the hon. Gentleman has just made. It has been during the last decade that the prison population has risen by 20 per cent. and that has caused the emergency. The prison population was 42,000 in 1979, 46,000 in 1985, 48,000 in 1987 and 50,000 in March of this year. In response to that the Government have initiated a major programme of prison building. From time to time they have taken emergency action, ranging from early release to the use of army camps.

A substantial building programme is necessary. The Government deserve to be congratulated on bringing forward the programme, which, with one major reservation, should be welcomed, and I welcome it. My one reservation—here I come to the error made by the hon. Member for Stockton, South—is that the building programme alone will not solve the problem. We must not be trapped into the illusion of believing that.

The problem of prison overcrowding in some areas over the last year may have been exacerbated by the dispute between the prison officers and the Home Office. Lord Ferrers, speaking in another place, was explicit about a more fundamental cause which I know the Home Secretary wishes to address and which I, too, will attempt to address. Explaining the reason why remand prisoners were in police cells, Lord Ferrers described the prison service as being temporarily overwhelmed by the high level of population growth. That was part of the reason—a part that the Government can hardly claim took them by surprise.

Equally important were two other factors: first, the unremitting increase in crime during the past decade; and, secondly, the fact that in Great Britain we send too many people to prison, we keep too many of them in prison for too long, and we imprison them in conditions which make it likely that they will return to a life of crime. The Home Secretary did not altogether convince me that he is ready to tackle head on the fundamental problem of too many people going to prison, not least because of his interestingly selective use of international comparisons.

I want to give the Home Secretary the figures at which he half hinted, but which he did not spell out. In the United Kingdom we have 96 prisoners for every 100,000 members of the population. In France the figure is 89, and falling. In West Germany it is 84, and falling. In Belgium it is 69, in Denmark 69, in Spain 67, in Italy 57, in Sweden 57 and in Holland 37. In the United States and Canada the figures are higher, but included in their figures are men and women in institutions which in this country would probably not be classified as prisons.

I shall deal later with those institutions, which are for drug offenders—not traffickers, but users—for alcoholics and for the incapable or the simple misfits in society. If we had such institutions, our society would be a great deal better and our prison system more effective. However, the United Kingdom sends more people to prison than any other country in western Europe.

Mr. Hurd

As a proportion of the population.

Mr. Hattersley

Yes, indeed, but I do not believe that there is anything inherent in the British character which makes a custodial sentence peculiarly appropriate to the British criminal. However, on historical evidence, there is something about the prejudices of the British Establishment—no matter which political party they may come from—that makes the Establishment believe that long prison sentences are the way to reduce crime. On all the evidence available, the opposite is true.

Mr. Hurd

On the statistical point, we were second and we are now fourth. Three other countries in the Council of Europe are now ahead of us on the proportionate comparison that the right hon. Gentleman is making. Our prison population has been increasing more slowly in recent years than what of four or five other countries, including France and Ireland.

Mr. Hattersley

If the figures that I possess are correct, the right hon. Gentleman is right in saying that there are two countries where the proportion is worse than ours. Without any reservations, I concede that Austria is one of those countries. I am informed that the other is Turkey.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

Another is Luxembourg.

Mr. Hattersley

I give the hon. Gentleman Luxembourg—[interruption].I congratulate him on mentioning Luxembourg. I am prepared to play the statistics game. I challenge his Luxembourg with my Federal Republic of Germany. When the examples quoted by Conservative Members are Austria, which I concede, Luxembourg, which I suppose is important, and Turkey, which I do riot include in my definition of a democratic state of Western Europe, the case is overwhelmingly on my side.

What is equally incontrovertible is that the enthusiasm for custodial sentences has increased recently. In the late 1970s, 16 per cent. of adult males convicted of indictable offences were sent to prison. In 1986, the figure increased to 21 per cent. Together with the changes in regulations governing bail and parole—to which I shall turn in a moment—that has resulted in the most grotesque prison overcrowding. In January of this year, there were 18,406 prisoners sharing cells which were designed for single occupation. In fact, anyone who visits our old prisons knows that we are holding prisoners in conditions the Victorians would not have tolerated. There is no training, inadequate recreation, infrequent bathing and minimum visits. That does not deter crime—it breeds it. I accept that the Home Secretary can point to examples of prisons where conditions have improved, but the overall picture is appalling.

In the past, the Home Secretary has responded to calls for fewer and shorter custodial sentences with the reply that he supports stiff punishment for crimes of violence and burglary. So do we all. Building on what the Home Secretary has said, I include in that category an offence that requires strong action—drug trafficking. But prisoners convicted of those offences make up only a comparatively small part of the prison population—less than one in five of the number of men and women convicted in any one year. Of the 86,153 men and women given custodial sentences last year, only 16,371 were convicted of extremely serious offences. Our argument is that the petty offenders, the inadequates and the fine defaulters should be given non-custodial sentences or should serve considerably shorter periods in gaol. I shall make other proposals later in my speech about bail and remand, but our central concern is sentencing policy.

Some hon. Members will regard my argument as soft-hearted. They delude themselves if they believe that custodial sentences reduce petty crime, especially custodial sentences served in present conditions. The idea that a young man leaves prison chastened and repentant is all too often a romantic myth. Often, he leaves deeply embittered. Since visiting is now down in some prisons to half an hour a month, he often leaves prison with a need to rebuild a relationship with his family. We know that one of the causes of renewed criminality is the discharged prisoner's inability to re-establish a relationship with the family he left behind and to receive the necessary support from that family.

The way in which we presently organise our prisons—a man who has been sentenced to a year's imprisonment will see his wife, perhaps, for six hours during that period—makes it almost impossible for released prisoners to settle down to normal life and receive the support from their families that is necessary if they are to avoid criminality. I remind the House: The worst effect of prison overcrowding and poor regimes is not that they make the prisoners more uncomfortable, but that they make them more likely to re-offend. Those are not my words, but the words of the Home Secretary; and they are true. The only way in which we can avoid a regime which encourages and increases criminality—the regime that the Home Secreatry so accurately described—rather than reduces it is to cut the prison population.

Yet, year by year, prison conditions continue to deteriorate because of overcrowding. I have read—it made unpleasant reading—the Bow board of visitors most recent report on Wandsworth prison, in which it describes conditions of almost unbelievable squalor. The degradation involved in imprisonment there must breed crime. It must have an intolerable effect on the prison officers who work in that prison. Having read that report last night, it did not surprise me to learn at lunchtime today that there was a dispute in that prison this morning. How the prison officers can tolerate it and the prisoners survive is something which anyone who reads that report will find difficult to understand. That prison is not alone in being described in that way by its board of visitors.

The report of the Leicester visitors came to a simple conclusion. It stated: We regard it as increasingly irresponsible to rely on an annual miracle and luck to run a prison. Yet the Government are not taking the radical steps needed to reduce overcrowding and—by parliamentary answer—have formally abandoned their commitment to a code of minimum standards in our prisons, even for eventual implementation.

A month ago I visited the probation service in west Yorkshire, where I saw the result of a scheme which it is running in Dewsbury and its success with young offenders with two or three convictions. On the evidence provided, young men given non-custodial sentences are less likely to commit a further offence than their contemporaries who were sent to prison for similar crimes. The non-custodial sentences imposed by the local courts were neither painless nor easily discharged. They almost invariably involved some sort of restitution to the community or to the individuals against whom the offences had been committed. The clear conclusion from the Dewsbury experience was that non-custodial sentences are not so much the soft option but the sensible option for society. No one wants what the Home Secretary weakly described as a licence to offend again. However, it is sensible from the community's point of view to see extensions of community service orders, day centres and those systems which are cheaper than prison and have a better result for the community than prison now offers.

Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)

Does the right hon. Gentleman disagree with the statement that the courts must also react to the perception of the need for higher penalties when necessary, because that was recently said by his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris)? Are we seeing yet another split in the Labour party?

Mr. Hattersley

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was here, or whether he was sharpening his tiny political axe, when I explained that, for a variety of offences, severe punishment and therefore considerable sentences were necessary. The distinction that I am trying to draw is between those sentences which are appropriately long and those which are unnecessarily long. I remind the hon. Gentleman that normally, when such matters are discussed, it is the Home Secretary's habit to insist that the length of sentence is a matter not for him but for the court. Indeed, he has said that today. That is at least disingenuous.

First, it is up to the Home Secretary, as he conceded today in part of his speech, to make available suitable alternatives, such as supervised release. Until there is a universal pattern of available alternatives, the Home Secretary must take some responsibility for the custodial sentences that the courts impose.

Secondly, it is possible for the Government to advise the judiciary, through the Lord Chancellor, of their views on the efficiency, efficacy and necessity of long sentences.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the Home Secretary is responsible for creating the sentencing climate. Nobody wants him to direct the judiciary, because that would be quite intolerable. However, he does have an influence over its actions, although it may be oblique and indirect.

The Home Secretary and his immediate predecessors have created a climate in which the judges—who, whatever they may pretend, are only human—have come to believe that long custodial sentences are what society expects of them. That climate has been not simply created by the public statements of successive Home Secretaries but propagated by some of their actions. It is indisputable that decisions made by the Home Secretary's predecessors have directly contributed to the number of men and women who are now held in British prisons.

In 1981 Lord Whitelaw came to the House with a proposal for supervised early release, not as an emergency but as part of the process of custodial sentences. We welcomed and supported the proposal that prisoners serving sentences for the least serious offences would be discharged under supervision before the full sentence was completed. Unfortunately, the Conservative party conference did not and, as a result, the proposal was abandoned. Now, seven years later, I understand that the Parole Review Committee, under the chairmanship of Lord Carlisle—a committee that I thought would have rated a mention during the Home Secretary's speech but did not—may recommend a scheme identical to that which the then Home Secretary brought to the House seven years ago.

Supervised release for prisoners serving two years or less, on the Whitelaw pattern, would cut the prison population by 6,000. Were it applied to prisoners serving three-year sentences or less, the prison population would be reduced by about 8,000. I can only hope that the Home Secretary has more success with the Conservative party conference than was enjoyed by his distinguished predecessor seven years ago.

I hope that the Home Secretary will face the real issues with greater determination than was shown by his immediate predecessor, the right hon. and learned Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan). The right hon. and learned Gentleman changed the rules governing parole. Those changes have produced an increase of about 2,000 in the prison population. That increase is indisputably and directly the Government's responsibility.

The Home Secretary is more guilty of sins of omission than commission. His failure is that he has not dealt with another major cause of prison overcrowding—the increase in the numbers of remand prisoners, who, according to his figures this afternoon, make up 11,000 out of, say, a prison population of 50,000.

I do not want to weary the House with the principles involved in the matter except to say that in a free society remand prisoners, who are by definition innocent until a trial proves otherwise, should be brought to that trial as speedily as possible. I simply draw attention to the practical implications of extended remand. I want to ask the Home Secretary a simple question that I hope the Under-Secretary of State will answer when he replies to the debate. It is now almost five years since the Government obtained the power to require men and women held on remand to be brought to trial within a specified time. That rule has been applied with conspicuous success for many years in Scotland. The Home Secretary now applies the principle timidly, area by area, in England and Wales. Why does he not make it a general rule and, as a result, substantially reduce the prison population?

I know that the Home Secretary is concerned about the workings of the prosecution system. However, the difficulties that might arise from the rule being applied universally would not be cumulative. To put it simply, by applying the rule across all London the problems, real or imaginary, that have been created by its application in parts of London would not increase. His timidity results in unnecessary and unacceptable pressure on the whole system.

It is unacceptable for reasons of principle as well as practice. Of the prisoners remanded in custody, 38 per cent. of the men and 62 per cent. of the women who are refused bail are later acquitted or given non-custodial sentences. Clearly a larger proportion of those remand prisoners should be held on bail.

Yesterday the Minister of State sent out information which was described as being designed to assist the courts in bail decisions. The Home Secretary referred to that in passing, if at all. It refers to the need for consistency of approach.

I hope that I am not doing the courts an injustice when I say that by referring to the need for consistency of approach, the Minister was treating them gently. At the moment, their approach is wildly inconsistent. If the courts do not respond to the Government's gentle prodding, I hope that the Home Secretary will consider a fundamental review of the Bail Act 1976 and laying down laws and regulations that require the courts to operate consistently rather than capriciously, as is the case now.

Currently, prisoners awaiting trial or sentence represent over 20 per cent. of the prison population. As a matter of practice, they are applying an intolerable and unnecessary burden on the prison service. The problem of principle is intensified by the fact that, according to the latest figures, 1,000 remand prisoners are now being held in police cells. That is bad in every way. It is bad for the prisoners who are held in intolerable conditions, for the police who are put under additional pressure and for the system of justice because it makes access of lawyers and solicitors sometimes difficult to the point of near impossibility. Again, the problem will be solved only by radical determination to reduce the prison population.

I may be doing the Home Secretary a slight injustice when I say that his faults are those of timidity alone. He is also guilty of hopeless confusion in his attitude towards remand. He claims that we should reduce the period in which men and women are held before trial, but in the Criminal Justice Bill he proposed to change the remand rules so that the initial application can cover 28 rather than seven days. I know that has the marginal benefit of reducing the time taken by prison officers and police in travelling between court and prison, but the penalties are enormous. One of them is the increase in the number of remand prisoners held at any one time. I hope that the Home Secretary will not underestimate the significance of that increase. We know that the increase in remand prisoners has increased the prison population over the past year by 700. The Home Secretary admitted that on 30 March when, for the second time in a year, he came to the House to announce emergency action. That is exactly the number of new places he has found it necessary to create in the Army camps at Rollestone and Camberley. Had he not allowed the number of remand prisoners to increase, those Army camps would not have been needed.

I repeat that I do not suggest that the Government's recent shortcomings are the main cause of the prison population explosion. The real causes are more longstanding. They are based on enthusiasm for sending men and women to gaol. That enthusiasm varies from area to area and results in some magistrates sending 9 per cent. of convicted offenders to prison while in other areas the figure is as high as 35 per cent. Section 1(4) of the Criminal Justice Act 1982 provided the first steps towards laying down criteria by which the courts could judge the suitability of custody for offenders under 21. We believe that the time has come for similar criteria to be laid down for all offenders, as a matter not only of civil liberties but of practical necessity. The answer lies in radical measures.

The remedy lies also in the introduction of an early release scheme for minor offenders, in the creation of a climate in which prison is used as a last resort and sentences are of a sensible length and in the removal from the prison system altogether of some of the thousands of people who should never have been there in the first place—obvious examples being fine defaulters and debtors. Fine defaulters constitute only 1.5 per cent. of the average daily prison population but they account for one fifth of all offenders entering prison. They therefore impose a huge and disproportionate burden on the prison system.

It is still not clear whether the Government support or reject the idea of day fines related directly to offenders' ability to pay rather than some notional tariff that the courts carry in their collective heads. Perhaps the Under-Secretary will tell us the Government's conclusion on that subject. We certainly support that idea and I hope that the Government will share our enthusiasm for it.

The Government have not been sufficiently imaginative in considering ways in which maintenance payments can be collected rather than written off by the acceptance of a prison sentence. There can be nothing more desperate in our society than the circumstances of the family that does not receive the maintenance that pays its grocery bills because a man believes that he has discharged his duty by serving a prison sentence.

There is another category of prisoner that clogs up the system without providing any benefit either to society or to the individual on whom the sentence has been imposed. There are in our prisons today a large number of men and women who are simply social inadequates—drunkards, vagrants and small fine defaulters who have been convicted of offences related to their inadequacies. They are constantly returned to prison for short sentences, and they impose an enormous cost and burden on the system. In other countries, they are dealt with quite differently.

The non-custodial institutions in which they spend their time are far less expensive than full-blown prisons. It is in the creation of such institutions that the Home Secretary should see the solution for some of the overcrowding that he has described.

The problem will not be solved by the prison building programme alone or by the occasional opening of Army camps or agreement to emergency accelerated release. It will certainly not be solved by the introduction of unacceptable and unworkable gimmicks, such as electronic tagging, about which I note the Home Secretary had nothing whatever to say today. I hope that we can assume that as the electronic tagging idea served no more serious a purpose than to get the name of the Minister of State into the newspapers from time to time, we can abandon all discussion on it and write it off. The Home Secretary shakes his head. Does he intend to go forward with such a scheme or does he not?

Mr. Hurd

The right hon. Gentleman must contain his curiosity until he sees our Green Paper on punishment in the community. As I have often said, we are considering whether some scheme of electronic tagging would fit into British conditions and help to provide the alternatives to custody of which I spoke at some length.

Mr. Hattersley

Part of my admiration for the Home Secretary is that he describes electronic tagging with such obvious patrician disdain. If he took it as seriously as the Minister of State, he would no doubt have dealt with it in some detail today. But it seems to be the only subject on which the Minister of State ever makes a speech. Recourse to and refuge in such gimmicks will not solve the problems; nor will the building programme, welcome though it is. The real solution lies in sending fewer people to prison, in excluding from prison those for whom a custodial sentence is inappropriate and in ensuring that when such a sentence is necessary it is no longer than meets the bill and fits the crime. We shall continue to advocate that course and we shall continue to hope that the Home Secretary has the nerve eventually to adopt such an approach.

5.34 pm
Mr. Michael Alison (Selby)

The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) properly and understandably ranged across the whole spectrum of prison affairs. I propose to draw attention to an aspect of prison life which may at first sight seem marginal, but which, in my view, is highly significant. I refer to the role of prison chaplains and the place of religion and worship in prisons. I do so not wearing an official Church of England hat but merely as a trustee of a charity—Prison Fellowship—which is actively concerned with these matters.

The Home Secretary will know that there are 87 full-time and 40 part-time Anglican prison chaplains in post at present. There are a dozen full-time Roman Catholic chaplains and a number of part-time nonconformist chaplains.

Anyone with any experience of institutional life—whether at school or university, in the forces or in hospital work—will know two things. First, a chaplain is usually provided, but usually in rather a formal and automatic way. Rather like a medical officer, he is someone who one needs to have about the place but to whom one hopes and believes people will not need to have recourse. Secondly, when the right man is in post as chaplain, the effect for good can be the most fundamental and pervasive of all factors affecting the morale of the institution. That is certainly true in prisons, and it goes further than that. Most prisoners have not darkened the doors of a parish church or chapel since the earliest days when they had a brush with the baptismal font in their local place of worship. Once they are in prison, probably only two factors or influences can give them a fresh start, and it is a fresh start for prisoners with which we must be concerned above all.

Education is an enormously important and valuable influence. The experience of a poorly educated prisoner who progresses to become a candidate or graduate of the Open university is profoundly rehabilitative. The other influence is the experience of an inner change of heart in which the inmate comes to terms with his guilt, his sense of personal value is restored and he finally achieves a sense of social acceptance, whereas his relationship with society has been profoundly disrupted. This latter rehabilitative influence can come only through the work of religion, the prison chaplaincy service and, above all, through contact with the churches in the vicinity of the prison where the prisoner is held.

In pursuit of positive rehabilitative prison objectives, it behoves the prison service and the Government to give as much help, support and encouragement as possible to the prison chaplain and his role. At present, that support is not always forthcoming in practical terms. For example, chaplaincy meetings and programmes tend to be early victims of any constraints imposed by staff shortages on the daily or weekly routine of prisons. Chaplaincy meetings are often forced to start late and finish early and they are often cancelled. Midweek programmes, particularly, seem to be extremely vulnerable to cancellation and disruption. Sometimes blocks A and B of a prison are given access to a chaplaincy meeting while blocks C and D are disbarred from it for some reason.

The most notorious example of unhelpful attitudes to the work of the prison chaplaincy is the history of the famous Dartmoor evening service, which has taken place from time immemorial. It involved the local Salvation Army band coming into the prison. It was a marvellous evening service, supported by local churches and chapels. The Dartmoor evening service has been stopped and there appears to be no prospect of its being allowed to resume, simply because of the undervaluation of the significance and role that such services may have. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, if he can do nothing else for the chaplaincy service, can guarantee that the Dartmoor evening service, which is of tremendous local fame, is reinstated. If he offers us that, he will earn the support and affection in particular of my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), who takes an enormous interest in Dartmoor prison.

Another matter of concern, especially when set against the background of the statutory right of prisoners to worship—it is written into the prison rules—is the difficulty faced by a number of special category prisoners in getting access to places of worship. Secure unit inmates, rule 43 inmates—prisoners who are segregated because they have committed sexual offences—and prisoners subject to punishment are often prevented from enjoying their statutory right to take part in acts of worship. If there is only a part-time chaplain, it is difficult to work services for such prisoners into the overcrowded chaplaincy programme. Hardship is involved, especially for Roman Catholic prisoners who have a strong sacramental dimension to their religious faith and to whom holy communion is vital. It is especially difficult for part-time Roman Catholic chaplains to go round to all prisoners if those prisoners are not allowed to come to meetings.

I am told that part of the explanation for the difficulty in moving such prisoners is the "Gartree helicopter" factor—the deep sensitivity of the prison service about security. Surely the remedy is a greater willingness to trust prison chaplains and to dispense with prison officer supervision at every sort of chaplaincy function or meeting. It should be possible to do that, with a little confidence from the prison governor. In the old days, the prison governor was the first key holder, but the prison chaplain was the second. Those days have gone, but more trust and confidence should be placed in prison chaplains conducting their meetings without the necessity for supervision.

Another matter of concern is the tendency in many prisons to undermine the regular slot—which should be enjoyed, because it is a statutory right—for Sunday morning worship, by providing for other activities at that time, for example, family visits and sporting events. Quite apart from the statutory basis of Sunday worship, and the merit in protecting it from competing events, it is profoundly unfair on prisoners to deny them this right. They spend much of their time in their cells by themselves without moving around the prison. Prisoners must make an agonising choice between competing events to which they would like to go, and then have to return from one to an extended time in the cell, having missed the others. I hope that the regular service of worship is protected and that this slot is made unique for the prisoner who wants to attend worship.

In the current revision of prison standing orders, which are of great significance and could have enormous implications for the prison chaplaincy service, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will ensure that some of the difficulties faced by chaplains are included in any scrutiny of how prison rules should apply and that some of the anxieties to which I have referred are attended to.

I conclude where I began: the chaplain can be a unique asset in the prison. Internally, a good prison chaplain is detached, yet he can he the confidant of every person in the prison, from the governor to the lowest level of prison officer, from the longest-serving prisoner to the most recently arrived. If the chaplain is trustworthy and good at his job, he is uniquely placed in the prison to develop confidence and to help everyone in all their various difficulties.

Externally, the prison chaplain can lower the drawbridge to the community outside. Few organisations are prepared in a community sense actively to identify themselves with prisoners, apart from the Christian Churches and fellowships. The prison chaplain can draw in such groups, who are only too willing to come into the prison and to mix freely, on equal terms and with complete reconciliation, with the prison population. If the prison chaplain is not allowed to lower that drawbridge, immense deprivation is forced upon the prisoners.

I remember vividly from my days as a junior health Minister that hospital doctors said that the key factor in progressive patient care, in getting people well in hospital, was to introduce into the hospital as many as possible of the healthy community from outside—healthy friends, associates and members of the family—so that patients felt that they belonged to the healthy community outside, and not to the sick community in the hospital. The same principle applies in prisons, but generally the only parts of the community that will go into prisons voluntarily are the Christian Churches. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary should do everything possible through the chaplaincy service to encourage the mixing of the outside community with prisoners. For those reasons, I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Home Office can give some encouragement and support to the prison chaplaincy service.

5.47 pm
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

The Home Secretary has held his office for three and a half years and, therefore, it is possible to review his achievements and attitude to the problems in the prisons with objectivity and certainty that might not have been possible even a year ago.

Many people who are concerned about prisons—the Home Secretary said that there were not many in the House, but he underestimates the interest—would have felt when he took office that there had been individual crises in the prison service which had ruffled the otherwise relatively smooth waters of the previous 20 years. In the 1960s, there was the Blake escape and problems of prison security. There was a crisis in the early 1980s, following the industrial action of the prison officers, which was evidence of the staff being under pressure. In the mid-1980s, there was a particularly steep incline in the prison population. We now face not sporadic crises but an endemic problem in the prison service which shows no sign of amelioration and which, if the Home Secretary is unable or unwilling to go further, will deteriorate to a dangerous flashpoint.

In Scotland, where an even higher proportion of the population is incarcerated than in England, the conditions in Peterhead and Perth appear to have led to outbreaks of violence which are the subject of actions in court and which have been commented upon in official and unofficial inquiries. I regret that, because this is such a short debate and no Scottish Minister is participating, it is not possible to review the Scottish scene at length, but the position is alarming. The widespread view in Scotland is that nothing less than a Royal Commission into the penal system will ensure that penal matters are dealt with seriously and that the issues that appear to be being handled by placebos and platitudes by the Scottish Office will be given proper consideration.

The Home Secretary's speech typically showed no radical commitment to dealing with the problem. It is difficult for him, because he operates with colleagues and in a political party whose atavistic, punitive response to crime makes it exceedingly difficult for Conservative Ministers, to take liberal measures when they may be necessary. It was typical of the right hon. Gentleman that he felt it worthwhile to argue about the proportion of convicted offenders confined in comparable European countries. It is of no great significance whether Britain is third, fourth or first, but it is undoubtedly true that a rising proportion of our population is being incarcerated. The figure now stands at about 96 prisoners per 100,000 of the population. There is little evidence that that rise in incarceration is contributing to the prevention of crime. The figures for recidivism—those who reoffend on release—are deeply depressing, nowhere more so than in respect of young offenders, two thirds of whom are reconvicted within two years of release.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

It is impertinent of me to intervene after having walked in so recently, and I apologise for that, but is the hon. Gentleman aware that there are three experiments using voluntary organisations in which the number of young people being incarcerated and reconvicted has fallen dramatically? Is not that an encouraging sign?

Mr. Maclennan

I find little of encouragement in the figures on young offenders; nor, I think, does the Home Secretary, for he has talked about the problem to the Magistrates Association in south-east London.

There is no evidence that prison makes an effective contribution to the reduction of crime. Most non-violent crime is committed by young offenders, so it is especially important to tackle the problem. The absence of any academic evidence supporting the efficacy of imprisonment might at least lead a cost-conscious Government to consider the efficacy of alternatives. It must be admitted that there is not much foolproof evidence either way, but at least the alternatives to prison are very much more inexpensive and almost certainly no less effective.

The difficulty appears to be that the Home Secretary has approached all the alternatives tentatively and hesitantly and by a process of extensive trial, without the wholehearted commitment necessary to tackle the problem. The rate of increase of prison places to which he referred when speaking about his building programme will not take care of the increased number of prisoners if the alternatives are not tried.

The Home Secretary frequently pays lip service to the need to satisfy public opinion about the appropriateness of the sentencing policy, but too often it is not recognised that public opinion is less atavistic and punitive than is sometimes claimed in Conservative party conferences. Such evidence as there is about public opinion—polling evidence, and evidence from the 1984 crime survey, from the Prison Reform Trust study of 1982, and even from the Mail on Sunday in 1985—shows that if there is a choice between spending more money on building prisons or reducing the prison population by giving non-prison sentences for minor crimes, the public prefers by a clear majority the non-custodial approach. If the Home Secretary wants to influence public opinion so that people understand the problems that he faces, he will do well to commission further research on the effectiveness of alternative forms of penal treatment. Lord Butler, a distinguished predecessor of the right hon. Gentleman, clearly envisaged, when setting up the research unit in the Home Office in 1957, that this sort of information would be made available. Regrettably, the resources have not been sufficient to do that.

The Home Secretary has taken an important step in Fresh Start towards improving the rehabilitative and reforming impact of prisons. In introducing the programme, which everyone supports, he has, however, compounded staff shortages and resource problems. In some cases accommodation cannot be used because of such shortages. One example is the Castington youth custody centre in Northumbria, where 60 cells equipped with sanitation are empty because there is no one to staff them. In Acklington, 213 cells were vacated when the new wings were brought into use, and there is no sign of whether they will be brought back into use to deal with the present crisis. The problems are replicated around the country.

The Home Secretary referred to his experiment with alternative means of handling the problems of court escort duty, which has deprived the prison service of the possibility of developing education and work alternatives in a number of prisons. Once again, no firm action is being taken and we are promised nothing that can tackle the problem.

There can be no doubt, in the light of the Wandsworth prison visitors' report and the annual inspectors' reports, that the present internal prison regimes—in particular, the overcrowded local prisons and police cells holding prisoners on remand—are degrading for prisoners, demoralising for the staff and wholly unacceptable in a civilised society.

The Home Secretary talked about what he could do to alter the climate on sentencing. He can and must do a great deal more by way of exhortation. Exhortation, even by the Court of Appeal, appears to be inadequate. The Bibi case—the leading case—in 1980 advised sentencers to consider whether sentences half the length of that which came to their minds would be appropriate. Such exhortations seem to have no effect, whether they come from the Court of Appeal, the Lord Chief Justice or the Home Secretary. That in itself must give rise to the question whether Parliament should intervene.

I wholly accept the Home Secretary's view that it is inappropriate for him to intervene in particular cases, although it is not unknown for Home Secretaries to intervene in categories of cases where a pattern of sentences appears to create injustices. As long ago as April 1888, Sir William Harcourt, reflecting on his experience as a Liberal Home Secretary, said that he had considered the need to ensure that young people of eight and under were not detained in prison cells, not because there were no prison cells in which to detain them but because it was a great injustice to detain such young people. The time may have come for the Home Secretary equally to seek alternatives.

The Home Secretary recognised the value of bail hostels, but, again, their location is hopelessly inadequate and there are insufficient of them to provide alternatives for sentencers. The bail verification scheme, which also enjoys the Home Secretary's nominal support, is on a wholly inadequate scale. He said nothing about the desirability of legal representation at remand hearings as of right, which might result in fewer people being held.

Of the non-custodial options available to the court, community service orders and package-deal probation orders are obviously of great interest to the courts and they use them wherever they can. However, the non-availability of non-penal hostel accommodation, day centres and centres for the treatment of alcohol and drug addiction is particularly scandalous. One young offender in my constituency has been repeatedly committed to Inverness prison as a persistent glue sniffer because there is no other secure place in which he can be held, and he cannot be given treatment at Inverness. Britain's expenditure on prisons is massive, but our expenditure on alternatives to prison is wholly inadequate.

The sentencing discretion must not be directly interfered with, but sentencers are not always sufficiently informed about the practical consequences of the alternatives in their localities. The Government would do well to consider—I hope that the Carlisle committee is doing so—the possibility of continuity of contact between those who are sentencing and those who are administering the penal system. That is not the practice in Britain. On visiting prisons around the country, it is remarkable to learn how few sentencers visit prisons.

In France the juge de l'application des peines is appointed by order for three years and the appointment is renewable. He supervises the serving of sentences, custodial conditions, permission to work outside prison, the granting of semi-freedom and release on licence. That practice has worked well in France, and comparable prison practices operate in Austria and several other countries. It is clearly not right to involve members of the judiciary in administration, but it is right that they should know the consequences of their sentences.

I also commend to the Government the introduction of a sentencing guidelines commission on the Minnesota model. Although provoked by a problem of overcrowding comparable to Britain's, but on a smaller scale, it was introduced in a way that has brought about some similarity in sentencing policy in courts throughout that state.

The Government could also look at the recommendations of Justice, made as long ago as 1980 in an important report called "Breaking the Rules", on the decriminalising of unlawful action. More than half of criminal offences involve strict liability with no regard to the state of mind of the offender. That series of recommendations is meritorious and overdue for consideration.

There remains a serious mystery about the Government's attitude to day-fines. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will clear it up. In January the Home Secretary said that the Government were not yet ready to relate fines to the ability of the offender to pay. Why not? The failure to tackle the problem of fine defaulters has distorted the prison population and could be tackled if the Government moved in that sphere. I cannot think why the Government are so reluctant to move on day fines. They should also remove the option of imprisonment for certain petty offences and perhaps ask the criminal law revision committee to review that prospect as a matter of urgency.

Under article 3 of the European convention on human rights, prisoners are entitled to be protected from degrading treatment and punishment, but the conditions in British prisons today are such that we may conceivably be regularly in breach of that right. The Government do not even appear to be planning to arrive at agreed codified standards and, in their abandonment of the recommendation that prison standards be codified, they have taken a step back.

Prisoners' grievances can and should be tackled in two ways. First, in matters of discretion, a prison ombudsman is appropriate. In matters of rules which convey rights, prisoners should enjoy legal assistance in the preparation of their case. They should also have more ready access to a legal remedy than at present.

The incoherence and vapidity of the criminal justice policy being pursued by the Government is one of the most serious social blots on our current society. I believe that the Home Secretary recognises that. What he plainly does not recognise, and what it is the duty of the House to bring home, is that it is within his power to take action urgently to reduce the prison population. That is the only solution to the problems that we face.

6.10 pm
Mr. Charles Irving (Cheltenham)

First, let me pay a tribute to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and his ministerial colleagues. We tend to think that all the problems, disasters and miseries associated with the disgraceful dustbins of prisons in this country have been created in the last few years. But the position has been deteriorating for 30 or 40 years—perhaps even longer. We now treat inmates in all such establishments far worse than did the Victorians, who built their prisons to accommodate one person per cell.

I do not want to go too much into the miseries, the degradation and all that goes with such conditions. My prime interest is not in the taxpayer spending hundreds of millions of pounds on the development of new prisons without the removal of old ones. I want to see an enthusiastic, encouraging and much larger programme for organisations with which I have had the privilege of working ever since they were started—the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, Stonham housing association, the National Association of Probation Officers, and others throughout the country. Those organisations are constantly using their best endeavours to take people out of the prison system. But, sadly, they have been starved of funds. At present, 1,200 people are lodged in police cells or cells in magistrates courts, at a cost of well over £1,000 a week per person. That is more than it costs to stay at the Ritz or Claridges. I am not suggesting that we take over the Ritz—although it would be less expensive, and the rooms are a much better size, with their own loos, bathrooms and telly.

Yet we allow the present position to continue. We have to tell Stonham housing association and NACRO that they must live through a long-winded, badly thought out, miserably excused and disguised moratorium while we examine our position. Early this year the moratorium imposed by the Home Office was lifted, and we were told that this would be of great help to the problem of overcrowding. There would be 450 extra beds, spread over three years. I do not think that that is very good, taken in the context of over 1,200 people being held in police and magistrates' courts cells.

Owing to the length of some of the speeches, we shall miss the opportunity of hearing some hon. Members on both sides of the House. That is a pity, in a short debate, but both sides show little sign of enthusiasm or interest in this important issue.

Last year, because of the frustrations and pent-up emotions in the prisons, over £14 million was spent on putting right damage caused by riots and disruptions. That can be easily understood. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and his colleagues will be urged by the House to pay far more attention not necessarily to building prisons without getting rid of the old ones, but to establishing units outside. For instance, a place in a probation hostel costs about £155 a week. A place in a Stonham hostel costs about £90 a week, and a probation order costs very much less. Surely it makes sense to develop and use the alternatives that are already available. There is no suggestion that we have no alternatives.

I agree with much that has been said about the need to change some of the methods of taking care of offenders. Look at what we do to offenders in this place! If anyone offends here, he is duly judged, and we give him 10 days' holiday with full pay and all allowances. There are different approaches, but I think that the humanitarian approach, the sensible approach, the economical approach is through the voluntary housing system, which has all the apparatus ready.

When I see people such as fine defaulters—19,000 of them—remanded in custody and then released, it appals me. I was involved in 1947 with the original Discharged Prisoner Aid Society, and since then I have been involved with NACRO and Stonham. We cannot seem to see the wood for the trees. I do not know where the blockage is. However, I feel certain that unless my right hon. Friend and his colleagues, along with other hon. Members, take some positive action to relieve the immense pressure on the prison system, we shall pay dearly for it.

I accept what my right hon. Friend says about magistrates and judges. After all, I frequently accept what is said by my hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches. We should not interfere with the judiciary, but there are ways of dealing with these matters. I suppose that the ultimate sanction that the Lord Chancellor has is early retirement for a few of them. That may be a good thing. Indeed, it might be a good idea to have a retiring age in the House.

Mr. Douglas Hogg


Mr. Irving

My hon. Friend has a long way to go, so he need not worry.

Nothing is too trivial to examine. We are in the most perilous national crisis for a very long time. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been in office for three and a half years. It is probably the worst job in the Government—most former Home Secretaries tell me so. I have been associated with the Refreshment Department for nine years, which is almost as bad. There is no release there.

The debate has produced a mass of statistics on how much we will spend over the next 10 years putting more and more people into prison. But we should be concentrating on a remedy that is within the bounds of public safety and public order. Few of us here are stupid enough not to realise that there are people who deserve and will have to go to prison and be kept there for a long time. Nevertheless, statistics reveal that an appalling number of people are remanded and ultimately released, either innocent or with no prison sentence.

I hope that the Home Office, the Home Secretary and everyone else will help to meet and resolve the major dilemma that is facing the community and the prisons. Such co-operation is necessary if we are to avert a national disaster in our prisons. I pay tribute to the prison officers, because the conditions in which they work are almost intolerable. Certainly there have been improvements, but when one is working in a pent-up, tense atmosphere, humanities go out of the window. Problems will come straight in through the window if the House, the Government and all concerned do not take some early action to resolve the difficulties.

6.20 pm
Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving), who speaks so much sense. One contrasts the brevity of his remarks with the unmitigated diatribe that we heard from the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), who clearly did not understand the subject. Sometimes such things need to be said. I intend to be as brief as the hon. Member for Cheltenham, who put his finger on it when he said that the question to be asked is, not how to house the prisoners we have, but whom we should imprison. I declare an interest in that respect.

Over the years we have seen the growth of what is called tariff sentences—for a certain type of crime the sentence will be a certain type. Unfortunately, we have begun to sentence the offence rather than the offender. That is an appalling mistake. Such a mistake happens frequently in the Crown courts. Colleagues of mine have told me how they have heard Crown court judges say, "Of course, the tariff for this is X number of years." There is no question whether, in the particular circumstances of a particular defendent, there is an alternative way of dealing with him.

If we continue such sentencing practice, more and more people will be sent to prison because more and more people are committing crimes. Nobody has ever bothered to find out why. I understand from The Independent of a few days ago that the Minister has put together a team of 11 Ministers to inquire into that. What do 11 politicians know about it? Criminologists, psychologists, sociologists and various other persons have spent their lives studying that subject. Apparently no one bothers to ask them but rather asks Ministers. Perhaps it is amusing to note that on page two of that newspaper are reported the views of the British Medical Association about the order or priority for saving people after a nuclear war. I noticed that politicians came at the bottom of the list. It is possible that, in respect of prisons, the BMA has got it right. If we are to think about crime and punishment and how to solve our appalling prison crisis, we must ask the experts. We must ask what makes people commit a crime and how to deal with them when they do.

There has not been a Royal Commission on this subject since 1979—the year in which the Prime Minister came to office, which sheds some interesting light on the matter—and I accept that such commissions take time. The subject is important enough, however, to let the experts have their say. We should see if we can begin to undo the damage that has been done.

I accept that that damage has not occurred only in the past 10 years. When the Labour party was in government it made exactly the same mistakes as the present Government did in their early years of office. I do not blame either party, and I do not want to be political in this respect. We have all failed to anticipate the crisis and to put resources into the system early enough. For once let us accept the responsibility. Let us be big enough to say "Stop, we have got it wrong." Let us see if we can get it right.

I congratulate the Home Secretary on the prison building programme. The tragedy is that unless we change the sentencing policy we shall never catch up on the number of prisoners who are made available to the system. That is not the fault of the Government, the Home Office, the prison department or the courts because the sentencing pattern was established some 150 years ago when we gave up transportation. That is when the mistakes began. We began with the principle that imprisonment was the only alternative.

1 remember being in a juvenile court when a 15-year-old boy appeared on his first charge of burglary. He was the lookout who was drafted in at the last moment. The stipendiary magistrate sat there in all his severity with his two lay colleagues. Before the magistrate had heard the mitigation or any explanation from the defence, he said, "Well, I think we will have reports on this. Obviously I am considering custody." That was the primary consideration on that first offence. That was lunacy. It is the sort of lunacy that has developed from a policy that gradually evolved as people said, "The crime rate is going up: what can we do about it?" We should have asked how we could deal with the offender in a way that would not make him reoffend. Instead of that it was considered best to lock them up and take them out of society. We have had the short, sharp, shock treatment which was then abandoned and the old borstals which were later abandoned.

Rather than examining the offender and the reasons for the offence, we have always said, "Let us see if we can deter." We have been naive and we have not approached the problem with an open mind. We, the lawyers, are as guilty as anyone and we, the politicians, are equally guilty.

The time has come for us to stand back and accept that we have failed all the way. We must accept the mess that we are now in. Let us see whether we are big enough to say that we shall simply ask the experts. We should see what they have to say and seek to solve the problem on that advice. Such advice will not come from politicians. We are imbued in our philosophical approaches and we have our prejudices. We are subject to the pressures of the postbag and often to the pressures of the press. We tend to give in and scream when we think that sentences are too short. We are not always objective. The criminologist, the sociologist, the psychiatrist—the expert—is objective.

I urge the Under-Secretary to consider a simple request. Let us see if we can break the record of the past nine years—I am not being political in this respect—and appoint a Royal Commission to ask two questions. First, who do we want to send to prison? Secondly, what is the purpose of imprisonment? If we find the answers to those questions, we shall certainly incarcerate the villainous and the evil who must go to prison, but we shall do it in a way that may rehabilitate them. We may just resolve the problem of reoffending.

It is interesting to consider the words of the prison officer at Chelmsford whom I met a few months ago. He said, "Gerry, I watch them come in for the first time like little lambs and I watch them go out after three months as professional villains." It is time we began to think seriously.

6.28 pm
Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (Surrey, South-West)

I wholeheartedly endorse the welcome given to my right hon. Friend's speech. It is extremely important to have a Home Secretary who does not regard the prison population as out of sight and out of mind. My right hon. Friend's openness in making the board of visitors' reports available, his frankness when discussing the problem and his proposals for the future are welcome to many of us.

I shall not dwell on the facts and figures—the 22 per cent. increase in staffing with the lower increase in the number of prisoners, the enormous plans for prison building and for further places. All of us are searching eagerly for ways of meeting the rising prison population.

When Fresh Start was introduced I expressed the hope in an Adjournment debate that the Prison Officers Association would work constructively with those proposals. I am still concerned that too many prison governors, who have responsible and onerous jobs, spend far too much of their time worrying about the shenanigans of the Prison Officers Association instead of worrying about the welfare and the needs of their more difficult prisoners. Too many members of the Prison Officers Association believe that a ballot at their local branch is as important as organising the prison. They refuse to work with women officers and lock out prisoners and refuse to accept more prisoners. Something like one third of those in police cells are there because of the obstructive and negative behaviour of some leaders of the Prison Officers Association.

I have been associated with this problem for many years. Unlike many hon. Members, I speak free from fear or favour, as there is no prison in my constituency. It is high time that the Prison Officers Association realised that it has to co-operate, and that the governors, not the unions, should manage the prisons.

Many people hope that my right hon. Friend will either move towards legislation to prevent the POA from taking strike action, in the same way as with the police and the Army, or to go further, in his privatisation or other proposals, to reduce the union's powers. The problem has been concealed for far too long and my right hon. Friend should realise that many people feel profoundly arid strongly about it.

I recognise that the Fresh Start proposals have begun in many prisons, but difficulties still exist. Despite increased recruitment, the pressure of staff shortages clearly makes changes in working practices difficult, and I ask my right hon. Friend to continue to look favourably on the need for more staffing.

Many hon. Members have spoken about the desirability of non-custodial sentences. The majority of prisoners have not committed violent offences; many go to prison for failing to pay fines. Clearly it is essential that my right hon. Friend tries to extend to the adult sector many of the policies introduced in the juvenile sector.

There is much to be said for extending to adult sentences the criteria set in the Criminal Justice Act 1982 for custodial sentences for young offenders. I ask my right hon. Friend to do more and to draw the attention of justices' clerks and judges to the disparity in sentencing practices. He spoke effectively about the distinction between the independence of members of the judiciary and their isolation. There is much more to be done in highlighting, particularly to judges, the vast discrepancy in sentencing practice.

I must say again that I hope that my right hon. Friend will find a way to remove 14-year-olds from penal custody. It makes no sense for 500 youngsters to go into detention centres each year. They are not serious offenders. if they were, they would be covered by section 53 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. The vast majority of them reoffend within two years. The child goes from following a delinquent career to becoming a career delinquent. Once young people have been inside a detention centre, they feel that that is where they belong and that they are hard men. Their chances of ending up in prison are increased.

Alternatives to custody were introduced in the juvenile sector by the development of local projects and local initiatives, often using the voluntary sector. It is interesting that those who object to the concept of privatisation fail to realise that the voluntary sector, while not providing services for profit, forms an alternative to the state providing all services. The other key lesson from the juvenile sector was that the local providers of the service—the police and the probation service—worked very well together to inspire the confidence of the courts, so that when sentencing a young person courts would not consider alternatives to custody a soft option.

My right hon. Friend's initiative in discussing punishment in the community provides real hope for the way forward. It is sometimes thought that the probation service is caring, helpful and advising and the prison service is custodial and punitive. That is an artificial distinction. It is high time that the probation service and the prison service realised that, although they are at different ends of a spectrum, they must both combine the skills of caring and controlling. That is why the immediate reaction to electronic tagging—which I was disappointed to hear from the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley)—is ridiculous. If we can find a way of identifying where offenders are and thereby deterring crime, we should use it.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the cause of crime. I cannot give him a definitive statement about the cause of crime, but I spent 10 years as a psychiatric social worker and 10 years as chairman of a juvenile court and I used to write papers on the subject. The vast majority of crime starts impulsively. It is circumstantial and involves youngsters who have few skills or advantages.

If electronic tagging can make a potential criminal, a remand prisoner or someone on a community probation service order feel supervised and watched over and, therefore, he does not commit a crime, surely it is the height of irresponsibility to rule it out of order. A remand prisoner at Chelmsford prison wrote in a recent letter to a newspaper: When people talk about civil rights being infringed by the use of electronic tagging, what do they think about my civil rights in gaol whilst I await trial? The great delays in awaiting trial and the damage caused to family life are part of the same problem.

Broadly, I endorse the strategy that my right hon. Friend is pursuing. We have to maintain the confidence of the public and we have to ensure the co-operation of the judiciary. It has been said clearly and well that sending people to universities of crime is a costly alternative. It may be necessary for those who need to be kept out of circulation, but we must do all that we can to ensure that our prison system is effectively and efficiently managed, and to deter people from going to prison in the first place.

6.37 pm
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) and others who have spoken in the debate have illustrated clearly some of the basic facts about the present crisis in our prisons. Nationally, we have 50,500 prisoners in a system designed, sometimes by Victorian standards, for a prison population of about 42,000. Bedford prison has a capacity for 176 prisoners and holds 346 prisoners. Leeds prison has a capacity of 642 and holds 1,381 prisoners. Leicester prison, which my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) was hoping to mention but he had to leave the debate, has a capacity of 200 prisoners but contains 435 prisoners. It is clear that there is massive overcrowding and pressure in our prisons.

Many prisoners are being held in remand in police cells which are supposed to hold people for a few hours but are now holding more than 1,000 prisoners on remand, often in subterranean cells with inadequate light and ventilation, not for only a few days, but in too many cases for weeks or even for months. Whichever way we look at our custodial arrangements, for those who are convicted and for those who are not convicted there is a crisis. If a crisis of such magnitude existed in an area other than prisons, there would be a public outcry. As we all know, prisoners' rights are very low on the political agenda—in my view unwisely, because our treatment of prisoners is counterproductive to the long-term interests of society.

In his reasonable and responsible speech, the Home Secretary paid tribute to the work of the prison officers. I was somewhat surprised and disappointed by the comments of the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley). We expected her to show more understanding of the pressure under which prison officers have to work.

I remind the House of what massive overcrowding means for those who are working in the prison service. Some prisons contain double the number of prisoners for which they were built. Two or three prisoners are being held in a cell that was designed for one person. Prison officer numbers are often below establishment. About one third to one half of all prisoners are locked in their cells for 23 out of 24 hours each day. Education facilities have been cut back and the association of prisoners with each other is limited. The Home Secretary acknowledged the importance of prisoner association in preventing incidents, such as suicide. Exercise, sport and access to workshops are all restricted, to say nothing about sanitation.

In those conditions, prison officers can attempt to do only one aspect of their job—containment. They can do nothing about educating, training or guiding prisoners in an attempt at rehabilitation. The result is that they are trapped in a vicious circle, which leads to prisoners being more difficult to contain. I hope that Conservative Members will join the Home Secretary in dropping their criticism and blame of prison officers and that they will work with prison officers to make Fresh Start a reality. The Home Secretary promised prison officers that by 28 February there would be full manning levels to enable Fresh Start to begin. That promise has not been fulfilled, so it is not surprising that prison officers feel that it is difficult for them to work under their present conditions—that it it difficult to tolerate the intolerable.

Those who are involved with prisons and penal policies—prison officers and civilian staff in prisons—agree that there is a crisis. The report of Her Majesty's inspector of prisons illustrates clearly that crisis. Boards of visitors in gaols from Leicester to Wandsworth have expressed exasperation about their pleas for action having been ignored, thus proving the case for the introduction of minimum standards. The probation service, which has not been discussed in great detail in this debate, believes that the mental and physical deterioration of prisoners who are on remand is extremely severe and that prisoners are not always adequately represented in court because they have been "lost" in the system.

We have been considering what should be done. I want to consider two aspects: first, how the present prison population can be reduced, a point with which the Home Secretary did not deal, and, secondly, how further increases in the prison population can be prevented. Every time the Home Secretary has introduced panic measures to reduce the prison population—for example, by increasing remission in July 1987, which we supported—there has been a quick resumption of the relentless climb in prison numbers, which proves that short-term measures are not the answer.

The Home Secretary could introduce several measures to reduce the prison population that would have a direct impact. First, he could introduce a supervisory scheme. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook referred to the significant contribution that that could make. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department will be able to say with which of his predecessors the Home Secretary agrees and whether any movement can be expected in the near future.

Secondly, the Home Secretary should do more about the delays that people experience before they appear in court. There should be a national system of time limits, not just the slowly-slowly approach that the Government have adopted so far. The Home Secretary has never explained why there cannot be a national system.

Thirdly, Ministers should think again about clause 139 of the Criminal Justice Bill. The clause will increase the number of people held on remand as it allows remand periods of up to 28 days. Fourthly, the Government should reverse the decision of the Nottingham justices so that those who are charged and held on remand are provided with sufficient opportunity to make their case for being released on bail.

All these measures would reduce, to varying degrees, the immediate pressure on our prisons. None of them would increase the risk to society, a point that we must all bear in mind.

In the longer term, there must be a change in sentencing policy. We send a higher proportion of offenders to prison than most of our European neighbours and we have a high level of recidivism. Six out of 10 prisoners are back in prison within a relatively short time, which does not exactly prove the success of that approach. We need to look at the principles of sentencing.

It is clearly common ground that those who are convicted of serious and violent crimes, including anybody who might be a danger to society, should receive custodial sentences, but for those who are convicted of less serious offences the courts should first consider non-custodial sentences. The Government could have helped to ensure that by accepting our amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, which would have required courts to state why a non-custodial sentence was inappropriate. That would have been one way to deal with the disparity of sentencing policy in our courts, to which the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West referred.

Those who appear before the courts in one part of the country rather than another are far more likely to receive custodial sentences. There is a marked difference in sentencing policy. In Rotherham, only 8 per cent. of adult males who appear before the courts are given custodial sentences, whereas at Tower Bridge 39 per cent. of adult males receive custodial sentences. In Bournemouth, 12 per cent. receive custodial sentences. In Brighton, 25 per cent. receive custodial sentences. The Government must surely agree that greater consistency is needed. I hope that they will look again at our amendment as one way towards achieving that aim.

Today, as on other occasions, the Government have said that they wish there to be greater use of non-custodial sentences, but as yet they have done little to ensure it. The probation service is willing and ready to take on more supervision of offenders in the community. A sufficient number of alternatives, including intensive supervision, already exists. The probation service does not need more powers to extend its work. If the courts would use these as alternatives to prison rather than just as alternatives for those who would not receive a prison sentence anyway, more constructive work could be done by the probation service.

The probation service wants to emphasise the constructive side of its work. It views with dismay parts of the draft national standards for community service orders. The fact that physical work should be stipulated, as suggested in the draft, could cut across the positive approach that is now proving to be successful in so many areas. What is more, the option of expanding the probation service would also save public money. That must surely appeal to the Government.

To keep somebody in prison costs £252 a week. To keep somebody in a probation hostel costs £155 a week. Somebody who is on a probation supervision order costs £15 a week and somebody who is on a community service order costs only £13 a week—a very striking difference. If we were discussing prisoners who are a threat to the public, cost would not come into it, but we are talking about the vast majority of prisoners—petty criminals, for whom there should be an alternative to prison, an alternative that would provide benefits for the prisoner and for society.

The probation service has shown that, for £2.5 million, 3,000 additional people could be kept out of prison. That seems to me a wise investment, especially in view of the amount that is to be spent on prison building. It would achieve a great deal in a short time.

It is not in the public interest for Ministers to get so carried away by their rhetoric about being tough with criminals that they lose sight of the main problem. I repeat the point of agreement. We all believe that custody is right for dangerous and violent criminals, but if we are to stop others falling into a cycle of crime we need a different emphasis. Our sentencing policy pushes someone with a conviction into a crime trap, where prison increases the likelihood of his reoffending and drives a rift between the prisoner and his home, family and community, all of which might have helped to prevent his reoffending.

All of those who work in the penal system—the prison officers, probation officers, educationists and medical staff—rightly demand a system that they can operate successfully, and society rightly demands a system that will protect them effectively. It is our duty to ensure, and I hope that with co-operation on both sides we shall ensure, that we provide such a system.

6.51 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

This has been an important debate, and it has certainly been a rare one. The House is grateful to Mr. Speaker for giving us this opportunity to debate prisons. It has enabled us at least to bring together in a coherent whole the various policies that we are pursuing in our conduct of the prison service and of criminal justice.

My only regret is that the debate has been so short. Several hon. Members who wished to participate and had much to say have necessarily been excluded, most notably perhaps my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington, South (Mr. Butler), for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) and for Norfolk, South-West (Mrs. Shephard). Their absence and inability to contribute is a loss to our debate. It is a pity, too, that the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) was unable to speak.

Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene. I appreciate his generosity in referring to those hon. Members who have been unable to contribute to the debate.

My hon. Friend will know of my concern about Ford open prison. I hope that he will say something about open prisons. He will know the problem of categorising prisoners, with violent prisoners coming through the system and upsetting the delicate balance of the local community, the problem of lack of records, about which I know he is concerned, and, above all, the shortage of staff, and of his Department's not responding to recommendations of his own inspectorate. If my hon. Friend covers those points he will do a great service to many of us.

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall) has shown that in a few crisp words one can encapulate a speech that some hon. Members would take 15 minutes to deliver. I have had the opportunity to discuss those points in private and otherwise, and my hon. Friend will know my reactions to what he has said.

At the heart of our problem, as has been focused correctly by many hon. Members, is overcrowding. This has been caused by the steady increase in the number of prisoners who are committed to the prison system by our courts. But we should be under no illusion about this. In committing people to prison in ever-increasing numbers, the courts are broadly reflecting public attitudes and opinion. A penal policy that is not in accord with the grain of public sentiment is difficult to sustain over a long time. It is important to focus on public opinion because, if we are to make changes in this sphere, it is necessary to carry the public with us. We must understand the premise on which we stand.

Mr. Bermingham

Does the Minister agree that 20 years ago when somebody went to prison everyone in the street, school, club and pub knew about it, and it was a public disgrace? It is now becoming so frequent to go to prison that when it is referred to in the school, club or pub people say, "Johnny has just gone away for a couple of months, ha, ha, ha!" Prison has lost its meaning because it is over used.

Mr. Hogg

I do not think that is right. Prison has not lost its meaning; it serves as a deterrent. As I shall suggest, I do not believe that everybody who is in prison should go to prison, but that is a different point.

One of the major causes of overcrowding in our prison system is the rapid increase in the remand population, which, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, is now about 22 per cent. of the whole prison population. I find it deeply disturbing that so many unconvicted people are held in custody, and I find it even more disturbing when I reflect that the presumptions are precisely contrary to a refusal of bail. These are matters upon which we need to focus.

There are a number of things that we can do about the remand population. First, we can appoint more judges; and we are doing this. Secondly, we can ensure that more bail places are made available; and this we can do. We can ensure that the courts receive more information about defendants, which we are doing as well. We can ensure that the Crown Prosecution Service is more consistent in its approach to bail questions, and we can impose time limits.

The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) and his hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) asked why we do not introduce time limits at once. Our intention is to have the time limits in place in England and Wales by 1990. We do not think that it is possible to do that country-wide sooner, because the courts and other relevant institutions will not be able to make an effective response to bring in time limits sooner than 1990.

Mrs. Ann Taylor


Mr. Hogg

I am sorry not to give way to the hon. Lady, but I have only four minutes in which to complete my reply.

We must not forget that we are talking about judicial systems and decisions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) rightly said, judges are very independent, and jealous of that independence. But, at the same time, we are in the business of asserting and repeating that bail should be refused only if there are grave and compelling reasons for its denial. The presumptions are and must remain in favour of granting bail.

Several hon. Members have stressed that people are in prison who should be elsewhere. Anybody who has dealt with the criminal courts knows that that is true. I do not believe, however, that the solution to that problem can be found in denying to courts an ability to send people to prison for the range of offences that attract custodial sentences. It cannot be right to argue that only those who are guilty of violent offences should serve a prison sentence. The courts must have the power to send to prison persistent burglars or, say, the recidivist thief. I am glad that the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook agrees with me.

At the same time, we need to devise and come forward with a yet wider range of alternative sentences, not involving custody, but of a nature that implies real punishment, entails real control and is accepted as doing that by both courts and public alike.

In the few minutes remaining, I shall deal briefly with prison officers, upon whose compassion, good sense and discipline the weight of the prison system rests. As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) said, we have had our differences with those who represent prison officers. I deeply deprecate their willingness to resort to industrial action, which I find difficult to reconcile with the fine traditions of the ordered and disciplined service that I have come to admire. It is also right to say that the ordinary prison officer is a fine public servant doing a difficult and somewhat unpleasant job in a disciplined and professional manner. We have recognised that fact by the introduction of Fresh Start, which has done away with the necessity of working long hours of overtime and established a higher degree of continuity and job satisfaction in an important public service.

It is inevitable in a short debate that I should omit many points, and I apologise for that. But this is an occasion for some broad points to be made. No person, whether convicted or unconvicted, should be committed to prison unless justice and the public interest require it. At all times, we must remember that prisoners will be discharged back into the community. It is better for us all that the regime that we administer does not degrade more than is inevitable. In degradation lies alienation and the loss of self-respect, and that is dangerous to us all. Therefore, we need to improve the quality of life that is to be found in our prison system.

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.