HC Deb 01 March 1989 vol 148 cc277-89 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about private sector involvement in the remand system.

In my statement to the House on 30 March last year, I announced that, among other measures which were in hand to deal with prison overcrowding, I intended to make a further study of the possibility of involving the private sector more closely in operating the remand system. To this end, I published last July the Green Paper "Private sector involvement in the remand system". I appointed the management consultants Deloitte, Haskins and Sells to study the practical implications of the options set out in the Green Paper, namely, that contracts might be placed with the private sector for the provision and operation of new remand centres, and for the escorting of prisoners to and from court and their custody at court.

The consultants' report is today being made public, and copies have been placed in the Library. The study was carried out with the help of criminal justice system experts with a wide range of experience of police, prison and courts matters. The consultants advise that, on certain assumptions and subject to further examination of certain issues, private sector involvement would be feasible both for remand centres and for escorting and court duties. They make recommendations on practical procedures and safeguards to ensure that, in any part of the system that was contracted out, prisoners' rights and public safety are properly protected. They also tackle the important question of accountability.

Many of the comments received on the Green Paper concern the issue of principle. It would be wrong for the Government to abdicate their responsibility for the proper treatment of prisoners. It would be wrong for coercive powers to be exercised by those over whom there was no proper control and for whom nobody was adequately accountable. I would not want to proceed unless I was satisfied that a suitable framework of safeguards, controls and accountability could be created. The studies that have been carried out show how such a framework might be devised, and, if this can be borne out in practice, I do not believe that these issues should stand in the way of attaining the practical benefits that private sector involvement may bring.

Some critics have overlooked one point of principle, which is that prisoners should be accommodated in decent conditions which respect their dignity as well as ensuring the protection of the public. If the private sector can contribute to achieving this, that must be to the good.

Having weighed the discussion so far, I propose to move forward on both the escorting and remand centre options, in different ways. Even among those respondents to the Green Paper who had reservations about private sector involvement in the operation of remand centres, many saw the potential advantages of a change in the escorting and court custody arrangements. There is a good prospect that the private sector could provide a better service than at present and at lower cost. The extent of private sector involvement remains to be settled, but I am clear that the existing complex and overlapping escort systems of the police and prison services must be rationalised. The arguments for relieving the police and prison services of the escorting task, so that they can concentrate on their real jobs, are compelling.

Further detailed study will now be undertaken to determine the precise composition of the contract areas; there will be detailed consultation with interested parties about exactly how their requirements should be specified and paid for: the consequences for police and prison service staffing and finance will also need to be considered. We shall need also to be satisfied before a final decision that there is adequate provision for the selection, training and discipline of staff, and for their answerability to the courts.

On the possible private operation of remand centres, there are also positive indications. These indications will now need to be tested in further detailed investigation of potential contractors and their costings before we finally decide whether to propose that we go ahead with the establishment of privately operated remand centres. No potential contractor should enter this field believing it will be an easy option. Standards would be high and would be rigorously enforced. I want to ensure that potential contractors fully understand this and are capable of providng a cost-effective service in these conditions.

My accountability for the treatment of prisoners and the safety of the public would need to be maintained. To achieve this, I would propose that, in line with the consultants' recommendations, each contract would be subject to permanent on-site monitoring by a Government official appointed by me. This official would also have under his direct control the exercise of disciplinary sanctions over prisoners and the hearing of complaints. I also agree with the view that most of the respondents to the Green Paper expressed that contracted-out remand centres and escorting services should have boards of visitors and be subject to inspection by Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons. Subject to the results of these further investigations, I would intend, when the parliamentary programme allows, to bring legislation forward to provide a legal framework which would be needed to enable contracting-out to go ahead.

The introduction of the private sector into the management of the prison system in the way I have outlined would certainly represent a bold departure from previous thinking and practice. It offers the prospect of a new kind of partnership between the public and private sectors in this important, though often sadly neglected, aspect of our national life. We should not be scornful of new ideas which, if successful, will make an important contribution to the Government's programme of providing decent conditions for all prisoners at a reasonable cost.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

Neither in his statement today, nor in the Green Paper which preceded it, has the Home Secretary even attempted a rational justification of the decision which he has just announced. Even the survey by Deloitte, Haskins and Sells, on which he relied so heavily, examined only the practicality, and not the propriety, the desirability or the advantages of privatising the remand system. That company was handed an item of dogma and was asked to decide whether the Government could get away with it. Its conclusion, which appears on page 49, is that the difficulties of privatising the remand service should not be underestimated.

The Home Secretary has made no attempt to explain how or by what figure his proposal would reduce the number of prisoners held on remand—a major element in the crisis of prison overcrowding. That is because his proposal will have no effect on the figure. Last year 10,235 prisoners were held on remand compared with 5,795 in the first full year of Conservative Government. Why does not the Home Secretary implement real measures which would reduce that intolerable total—the encouragement of magistrates to award bail more consistently and the insistence that prisoners held in custody all over England should have their trials completed in 110 days?

Is the Home Secretary aware that there is something deeply unpleasant about the false piety of his promise that the Government will not abdicate their responsibility for the proper treatment of prisoners"? Will he confirm that Deloitte's report—which in many particulars is of a quite different tone from that in which the Home Secretary has spoken today—proposes that standards in private prisons should be enforced "progressively" through escalating warnings, financial penalties and ultimate contract terminations"? What will happen to prisoners in inadequate circumstances while all that protracted legal wrangling is going on? They will certainly not have the instant redress which prison visitors and Her Majesty's inspectors can provide under the present system but which will be denied when commercial prison managements argue about contractual obligations.

Will the Home Secretary understand that there are many people, not just on the Opposition Benches, who regard it as wrong in principle that holding a man or woman in prison should be an activity from which profit is made under any circumstances?

On the subject of escort duties, the Home Secretary has told us that there is general agreement about the need for change. Again, as is often his practice, he was less than frank. The general agreement about the need for change is not a general agreement that the change should come in the form of privatisation. Why, if the change is necessary, does he consider only one option?

What the Home Secretary has announced today is as objectionable as it is absurd. It clearly has two intentions. The first is to create the illusion of activity—the Home Secretary's increasing preoccupation. The second is demonstrated by the tentative, apologetic and intellectually inadequate nature of his statement. This announcement is intended to prove that he is prepared to swallow any item of Conservative ideology no matter how distasteful. What he has announced today will damage the prison service and his reputation in equal measure.

Mr. Hurd

The right hon. Gentleman's facts are out of date. The remand population fell by 550 last year. He knows perfectly well of the measures that we are taking through the imposition of time limits, imposed for the first time in England and Wales by the Government, through the creation of bail hostels and through bail information schemes, precisely with that aim. I visited the Greater Manchester probation service yesterday and was much impressed by everything that it is doing in that area.

The contracts would specify standards which would be higher than many of those which are in effect at the moment in local and remand prisons. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are working steadily, and now with some success, to reduce overcrowding and to bring proper sanitation into the conditions in which remand prisoners are held. The question before us is whether, in addition to doing that in the public sector, we should use the skills of the private sector more widely than we do at present.

There would be no abdication of responsibility in that. The decision to remand in custody would remain with the courts, and I would continue, through the system of the monitor suggested by the consultants, to be accountable to Parliament for the security and well-being of prisoners. The Home Secretary would exercise that accountability through the contract, through the effective monitoring and inspection arrangements. The contracting-out of services does not diminish in this or other areas the contracting authority's responsibility for the quality of service provided; it is simply using a different method to deliver the service.

The right hon. Gentleman is right. My approach to this is cautious. But it is not right to close our minds to new ideas or to new ways of achieving what every sensible hon. Member wants, which is to achieve a higher standard, particularly for those who are held in our prisons before trial or sentence.

Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that his announcement will receive a very warm welcome from a great many people, not least the majority of the members of the Home Affairs Committee, which, in a report in 1987, made this very recommendation? The Home Affairs Committee made that recommendation because there were two major things that it wished to see achieved. First, what is proposed will advance the humanitarian care of prisoners by providing a contrasting management style and improved conditions for remand prisoners. Secondly, it will help to bring buildings and other resources into use to deal with the overcrowding of remand prisoners, about which the whole House and many members of the public are concerned.

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend is perfectly right: the report of the Home Affairs Committee had a powerful influence. Anybody who reads the consultants' report will see that this is not a cost-cutting exercise but an exercise in the use of resources to provide a better service. The private sector believes that is could provide decent conditions for about the same amount per prisoner per day—£31—as the current poor conditions in many overcrowded remand centres and local prisons cost.

As for escort and court duties, the private sector says that it could provide a substantially cheaper service that is just as good, if not better. It is worth remembering that at present 1,000 policemen and 800 to 900 prison officers are involved in escort duties every day. That is a commitment which does not require a tithe of the wide range of prison and police skills in which these men are fully trained.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Does the Home Secretary no longer accept the principle —which, in a speech that he made on 18 July 1987, he appeared to accept—that the coercive powers of the state that are necessary to enforce the deprivation of liberty of the subject should remain the direct responsibility of the state? Why has he backed down from that principle, in the face, no doubt, of Prime Ministerial pressure?

Secondly, is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Deloitte report, in seeking to examine the only conceivable justification for what he has proposed—the cost-effectiveness of the private sector—brings in a not proven verdict and makes it clear that, with regard to reform possibilities, further studies comparing the public sector with the private sector need to be made before a decision can be arrived at? Does he not agree that, even on the basis of cost-benefit criteria, this report does not support the action that he intends to take?

Finally, does not the Home Secretary recognise that the Deloitte report draws attention to, and gives a grave warning about, the management difficulties of operating at the interface between the private sector and the public sector when the private sector breaks down?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman is quite right in saying that the report suggests that research and negotiation are necessary. That is exactly what I have announced today. The report also makes it clear that it should be possible to find ways of preserving accountability, the responsibility of the courts and the responsibility of the Home Secretary, while, in order to provide better conditions, making use of the skills of the private sector. Both points are made clearly in the report, from which my statement flows logically.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Will not the British people view with incredulity the hostility of the Labour party to proposals that will release many of the 1,000 policemen who, each day, are engaged on escort duties? My right hon. Friend's proposals will mean that some of those policemen can carry out their real function—protecting the innocent from the guilty.

Mr. Hurd

I agree with my hon. Friend. One thing on which I thought the Labour party and I agreed was the urgent need to improve conditions in our prisons, particularly the conditions of those held on remand. This is one way, beginning with two or three remand centres, of doing that. Are we to exclude that possibility for dogmatic reasons?

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

Does the Secretary of State realise that in abdicating his responsibilities and admitting that he and his Ministers are incapable of organising even proper remand centres he is not helping the many thousands of men and women who are held on remand? One such person is my constituent, Abdul Rehman, who is in Preston prison and has been on remand since 29 January 1988–13 months. His trial will not take place until April at the earliest. What will the Home Secretary do about such cases? My constituent's business and family life have been ruined while he is still an innocent man.

Mr. Hurd

It is right to say that some people are held on remand for too long. However, that is not under my control.

Mr. Hattersley

It is.

Mr. Hurd

Of course it is not. I do not decide when cases come to trial. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) knows better than that. The right hon. Gentleman also knows that the House introduced the concept of time limits for bringing people to trial. That was taken in a modified way from a system in Scotland. He also knows about the new steps we have been taking on bail hostels and bail information schemes to reduce the number of people held on remand. He will have been glad to hear the figures I announced a few moments ago, which show that there has been a reduction in the past year.

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) and the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) mentioned the Deloitte, Haskins and Sells report. Would it not have been better if they had not been so selective in their quotations but had continued reading from the report? It says: We do not underestimate the work that would be involved in realising the proposed approach. It went on to say: We believe, however"—

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Paraphrase, please.

Mr. Hanley

It went on to say that it believes that the outline suggested is realistic and practical. Therefore, Deloitte, Haskins and Sells thinks that my right hon. Friend's approach is practical and realistic.

I welcome the report. I was a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs and I ask my right hon. Friend to take urgent steps, having introduced an experiment, to ensure that the detention of immigration suspects and women's prisons form the next step in the progress being made.

Mr. Hurd

The immigrants who need to be detained are already held under arrangements where we contract out to the private sector. The case is not an exact parallel, but there is a precedent about which I have not heard complaints from Opposition Members. I agree with my hon. Friend, and I hope that hon. Members who are interested in the matter will look carefully at the report, which does not go overboard. It points out the difficulties and, having examined them, suggests ways in which they can be solved. It is on that basis that we now propose to set in hand the further work I announced in my statement.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)

Will the staff employed in the privatised sector of the prison service be free to join the Prison Officers Association? Will the POA have negotiating rights on their behalf?

Mr. Hurd

That will be a matter for the contractors.

Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield)

Is not the key issue one of accountability? Does my right hon. Friend agree that if tough and tight contracts are drawn up with private contractors which give incentives for good performance and penalties for poor performance, there is no reason why accountability should be not only maintained but strengthened?

Mr. Hurd

That is right. It would be on the basis of a contract. In addition to the contract and its enforceability, there will be the three provisions outlined in the report and which I mentioned in my statement. There will be the monitor, who will be an official directly responsible to me. He will be handling questions about, for example, discipline and prisoners' complaints. There will also be the inspectorate—we have seen the effectiveness of Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons, particularly in the last year or so—and there will be the board of visitors, as there is for a normal prison.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

The Home Secretary's announcement does not address the real issues facing people in north Wales, in particular. I refer to the policy decision on setting up a remand centre in such rural areas. I am sure that the Home Secretary is aware that the remand centre at Risley is almost 60 miles from the courts in my constituency. I do not see how the Home Secretary's announcement will help towards the provision of a remand centre in north Wales. It matters not whether the transport structure is public or private. Public and private transport can equally be stuck in traffic jams. Will the Home Secretary address the real issue of the provision of decent accommodation for prisoners in north Wales?

Mr. Hurd

I am familiar with the hon. Gentleman's point about north Wales. I should not like to give him a commitment that, if Parliament agrees, one of the new centres might be in north Wales, but the general answer to his question must be yes. Of course we are pressing ahead, first, to reduce the size of the remand population and, secondly, to improve conditions in which prisoners are held. In both respects we are making some progress, but the question is whether, in addition to those two things, we should experiment with and try to bring in some private sector skills to help with those tasks. [HON. MEMBERS: "What skills?"] People who automatically say no to that are being careless of the need to improve conditions in remand centres.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

My right hon. Friend's announcement is most welcome. Does he agree that what is objectionable and absurd is not what he said but what the Opposition have said? To anyone who has investigated the problems in our prisons, as the Home Affairs Select Committee did, it is quite clear that there is an urgent problem in improving conditions, particularly for remand prisoners. My right hon. Friend's statement is not about profit or political dogma but about improving conditions for prisoners on remand.

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. These exchanges show that, on this occasion, dogma lives on the Opposition Benches. We are not proposing to privatise existing remand prisons. We are not proposing to alter in any way the arrangements for convicted prisoners. We are simply saying that it is worth seeing whether, alongside the improvements we are seeking within the scope of the prison service, the private sector can help. It is dogmatic to rule out that aspect.

Ms. Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Is the Home Secretary aware that his Department's last experiment in private prisoner farming was the prison ships run by Securicor on which unfortunate Tamil refugees were held? With reference to his remark about skills in the private sector, is he aware that the training given to the Securicor guards who were holding people in the most difficult and delicate circumstances was derisory and lasted for only a few days? What steps will he take to ensure that, in their search for profit, private sector companies running remand centres will not skimp training, as Securicor did in regard to the prison ships and the Tamil refugees?

Mr. Hurd

With her experience, the hon. Lady will know that the arrangements at Harmondsworth, for example, were run pretty well. They are reviewed from time to time. In the time that I have been at the Dispatch Box, I have not heard great outcries from the Opposition about the way in which that arrangement works. [Interruption.] Of course there are complaints abut. particular cases, but I am talking about the general system. I have not heard complaints about that. The hon. Lady is quite right. As I said in my statement, the selection of staff and their training are crucial in the management of remand centres. Both aspects clearly will have to be covered by the contract.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

Surely there is nothing inherently unreasonable in what my right hon. Friend proposes. If there is a perceived public need, must it always be met in the public sector? Surely the criterion should be whether it can be done more efficiently and effectively. All the party political dogma is coming from the Opposition.

Mr. Hurd

That is so. The longer the exchanges go on, the clearer that becomes. The Government and the House, because this matter will require legislation, will need to be clear about the lines of accountability and clear that they can call the Home Secretary to account if something goes wrong in a remand centre under private management, as they can now. However, the consultants' report shows ways in which that need can be met, and if the Government and Parliament are satisfied that that can be done, there is everything to be said for seeing whether we can improve the present prospects by the proposals in the report.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)

Is not the Secretary of State aware that we are all in favour of improvements? He has failed to make out the case for improvements in this instance. Will he take on board the fact that there is already sufficient anxiety about the operations of private security forces? It is particularly repugnant that a system involving forced incarceration and, in some cases, violence, should be in private hands and privately controlled when the state should be dealing with the matter. Will he give us an assurance that he will not attempt to persuade the Secretary of State for Scotland to consider the same proposal? If he does, the people of Scotland will bitterly oppose it.

Mr. Hurd

I am not answering for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. The hon. Gentleman says that all Opposition Members are in favour of improving conditions. The Labour party has consistently opposed and sniped at the present building programme, which is the best immediate way of improving conditions. I have found that a remarkable and rather disgraceful paradox.

The Labour party is opposing, as a matter of principle and without considering the practicalities, this proposed experiment to see whether we can use the private sector more effectively. I am driven to the conclusion that the Labour party's enthusiasm for improving the standards in our prisons is a matter of words only.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I must have regard for the subsequent business, which is a debate on Wales. There is considerable demand to take part in it. I shall allow questions to continue for 15 minutes and then we must move on.

Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham)

Although I can see that escort duties could be performed more cheaply and perhaps with great advantage by the private sector from the new remand centres, can my right hon. Friend explain how the custodial responsibilities could be carried out more cheaply by these methods, as any company offering such services must do so with the expectation of profit, and bearing in mind that responsibilities for custody must remain the same as under present arrangements?

Mr. Hurd

The responsibilities will remain the same and the contract will ensure that. The advantage that a private contractor might have over the present system is that he would not start with the existing range of agreements and practices, which we are reforming and changing through the Fresh Start reform. Anyone who examines the system carefully knows that such agreements and practices exist and make it more difficult to raise standards. In the area to which my hon. Friend referred—managing remand centres—there are not likely to be cost savings, but the private contractors might be able to deliver a higher standard of service, without overcrowding and with proper sanitation, for example, more effectively and at a comparable cost to the present cost of holding people under prison conditions which are much inferior.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Why has not the Home Secretary mentioned that private sector tenders for two remand centres—Everthorpe near Hull and Cookham Wood near Rochester—have already been received by his Department? In the case of Everthorpe, planning permission has not only been sought, but granted; it was sought five months ago, in October. Who are the contractors for those private prisons? Why have the Prison Officers Association and the Civil and Public Services Association not been told of the plans? Why does the Home Secretary talk about proposals when behind our backs, for five months, he has been discussing with contractors to get these private sector remand prisons built?

Mr. Hurd

As the consultants have made clear, there have been discussions, but far more detailed discussions will be needed, as recommended in the report, before any decision can be taken. The new framework, if we propose it to Parliament, will require parliamentary approval. There is no question of decisions having been taken.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the public will view this measure as giving magistrates the maximum opportunity to protect the public from people who should be locked away and not be granted bail—

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman, not I, takes responsibility for what he says.

Mr. Hind

Does my right hon. Friend consider that the new remand centres should be built in the centre of our cities, close to our courts, so that relatives and those who represent people in courts will suffer the minimum inconvenience and the costs of transportation will be lower?

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That point has been raised with me many times over the past few years. It is valid and needs to be taken into account.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Does the Home Secretary recognise that his announcement this afternoon is an admission of the Government's failure to deal with the real problems facing remand centres, with people there who should not be there living in appalling conditions? Does he accept that many people will view the prospect of Butlins and Securicor bringing together their comparative skills to provide the service as a half-baked idea which should be dropped? He should concentrate on coming forward with a positive solution to the real problems of remand centres.

Mr. Hurd

I do not regard this proposal as a substitute for what we are already doing, which I have sketched twice already this afternoon. The figures suggest that that is beginning to have some effect. Eventually, the question for the House is whether, in addition to the new resources we are putting into bail hostels, tightening time limits, the bail information scheme and the prison building programme, which is opposed by the Labour party, we should conduct experiments. I believe that we should.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that existing prisons are largely expensive colleges of crime? Should not the Opposition recognise that the new remand centres will offer the opportunity for higher standards which are more likely to lead to self-discipline? Will my right hon. Friend also encourage more families to foster juveniles, whom local authorities, lamentably, have failed to keep out of trouble?

Mr. Hurd

I agree with the first point. The object of the exercise is to see how we can achieve higher standards.

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

All hon. Members would agree that the present standards for remand prisoners are appalling. If the Secretary of State is going to set high standards for the private remand centres, it would be untenable, legally and morally for those standards to be higher than the standards in the remand centres run by the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State will, therefore, have to improve the standards in existing remand centres in order to be able to enforce the conditions in the private remand centres. But if the standards in state remand centres can be improved, why do we need to change?

Mr. Hurd

The Opposition cannot have it both ways. They cannot say that the proposition is wicked because standards will be too low as profiteers make profits and that it is wicked because the standards will be too high, which is what the hon. Gentleman has just suggested.

If we go ahead with this scheme, the contract will ensure higher standards in the two or three new remand centres than exist in some, but not all, prison service remand centres. We must work all the time, as we are doing, to improve the standards in prison service remand prisons.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Will my right hon. Friend take it from me that his reputation will be enhanced by what he has said today if for no other reason than that to some extent he has put his own career on the line by having this experiment? If it is successful—as I expect—he will be given the plaudits due to him, but if it fails Opposition Members will have been proved right. Their indignation should wait until they see how it turns out.

Mr. Hurd

We are doing many new things and we start them cautiously with experiments. I make no apology for that because new thinking and cautious experiments are what are required in the criminal justice system. This suggestion fits neatly and logically into that pattern.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)

The Secretary of State must be aware that security firms are now two a penny throughout the country and that they recruit their employees from people on the dole and pay them extremely low wages. Is he telling the House that those security firms are to take over from the Prison Officers Association, which is the representative of a skilled profession? Why does not the Secretary of State take some positive action by introducing legislation to reduce the time spent on remand, as has happened in Scotland, and invest in some bail hostels run by professionals?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman should know that I am doing both those things.

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)


Mr. Speaker

Was the hon. Member present for the statement?

Mr. Ashby

No, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

In that case, I shall have to call the hon. Gentleman on another occasion.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)

Will the Home Secretary explain what contribution his contracting-out statement will make to alleviating overcrowding in Armley in Leeds, which his Department concedes is the most overcrowded prison in Britain? What will his statement do to address the current crisis of young unconvicted prisoners being held there on remand when they should not be, which has resulted in five young people committing suicide already and numerous attempts? Would it not be better for his Department to fund bail provisions such as bail hostels and bail support schemes—schemes that have been put to his Department by the probation service? Would they not be a better means of tackling the crisis in our prisons?

Mr. Hurd

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am concerned about the position at Armley. He may also know that I have asked the deputy director general of the prison service to make a special report to me because of the suicides that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I am sure that he is right to take those tragedies seriously. I have now received that report and am studying it. I shall make known our conclusions very soon.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I call Mr. Skinner—briefly please.

Mr. Skinner

I am always brief. Does the Home Secretary realise that he cuts a sorry figure in trying to impress the House with this sleazy operation, which is more about him grubbing around for votes among his Cabinet colleagues, satisfying the Prime Minister and lining the pockets of the people who represent the Tory party and of those who pay into its funds? Who will get the contract for Father Ryan? Will it be Trusthouse Forte, Avis rental cars or even the Guardian Angels?

Mr. Hurd

That was a hit laboured. For his light weekend reading I shall send the hon. Gentleman the Green Paper, the consultants' report and the Select Committee report. Perhaps he will then reach a different conclusion.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

The Home Secretary has conceded that what he describes as the "proper" conditions in prisons are his responsibility and that of the Government. That being so, why have the conditions in Armley prison, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) referred, deteriorated so badly over the past 10 years? Bearing that in mind, will the Home Secretary explain a little further what he means by the "special expertise" which he feels will solve the problem?

Mr. Hurd

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there has been a substantial increase in the prison population over the years. However, in the past year not only has the remand population fallen slightly; the prison population has been held fairly steady. But I am not making too much of that because it might change again in the wrong way. If the hon. Gentleman studies the current figures, he will see that there has been some relief from the overcrowding pressure from which we have suffered.

The staff at Armley have done an amazing job in extremely difficult circumstances. The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) said that the people there should not be in prison, but it is, of course, the courts that decide whether bail should be granted in certain cases, not me. We are trying to make it possible for the courts to find alternatives to remand in custody in more and more cases. That is extremely important. However, that effort, which clearly needs to be continued and intensified, does not absolve us from looking at any new ideas and new people who may come forward.

As I said in my statement, the proposals will be tested and further work will be done, so the hon. Gentleman should not say that there is no contribution, no help, and no new ideas that can be brought to bear.

Mr. Bob McTaggart (Glasgow, Central)

If the Secretary of State is really concerned about the conditions of prisoners, and especially of remand prisoners, should he not address himself to the fact that many people are held on remand without any limit on time and that the majority of them end up receiving non-custodial sentences? If we attacked that question more seriously, that would do a great deal to alleviate some of our problems. Will the Secretary of State inform the House where the skills of the private sector were obtained and learned? Presumably it must have been in Scotland.

Mr. Hurd

I shall try to deal with both the hon. Gentleman's points. First in effect, he complained about the working of the Bail Act 1976. I am anxious that the Act should work properly and that the number of cases in which people are refused bail and then either acquitted or not given custodial sentences should be kept to the minimum. However, that is a matter for the courts. Our job is to provide as convincing alternatives to remand in custody as we can, and the hon. Gentleman knows that that is what we are doing.

Secondly, we know that there are skills involved in escort duties because they have already been tested, and there are certainly skills involved in the design and construction of prisons. In the light of the consultants' report, I do not see any grounds for denying that there could be skills in the management of remand centres also.

Mr. Hattersley

Does not the Home Secretary realise that the weakness of his argument was demonstrated by his denial about the figures for men and women held in prison on remand—figures that were given to me by his Department just over two hours ago? Despite the small reduction of which he was so proud, the fact is that the remand population is now twice what it was when the right hon. Gentleman's Government came to office. If he is really concerned about that, why does he not implement the 110-day rule instead of talking about it?

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman again to answer the question: what are the special skills that private contractors have for running remand prisons, other than the willingness to make profits out of human misery?

Mr. Hurd

"Let us test and see" is the message of the consultants' report and it is entirely reasonable. The right hon. Gentleman has taken a dogmatic approach and is denying the possibilities of the proposal in the face of evidence from the Select Committee report and in the face of what has been said as a result of the consultants' work. "Let us test and see", is the summary of my announcement today.

On the right hon. Gentleman's first point, in answer to an earlier question I conceded that there has been a massive increase in the remand population—as there has been in the prison population as a whole over the past 10 years. What I am saying and what evidently surprised the right hon. Gentleman is that during the past calendar year there has been a sizeable fall in that population. That might be temporary, so I do not want to overrate the argument. However, that fall may show that some of the efforts that have been made to contain and reduce the remand population are working. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act for the first time gave me powers to impose time limits. The right hon. Gentleman knows that I am doing that—[Interruption.] If he does not, he is ignorant. He knows that I am extending the arrangements steadily across the country and that before he is much older time limits will apply throughout England and Wales. That is progress, which was not attempted—or attempted successfully—by Labour Home Secretaries.

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