HC Deb 28 March 1996 vol 274 cc1281-8

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

10 pm

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

This debate was originally due to take place on 6 March, after a scheduled one-and-a-half hour debate on the Education (School Premises) Regulations 1996. However, the motion for that debate was not moved, largely because the Minister responding to the previous debate on community care finished 10 minutes earlier than expected.

It is interesting to speculate why on that occasion the Minister took only eight minutes to reply to a five-hour debate. All I know is that there was considerable media interest in the issue of women in prison, and the feedback that I received suggested that there was considerable nervousness on that day about the spotlight being put on the Prison Service.

My sources say that a relatively quiet period for the women's prison service had been transformed in a matter of days into a crisis because expected places at Eastwood Park, which had suddenly become famous as the "battery hen" prison, did not become available. We shall probably never know whether my debate was deliberately scuppered by the Government, but at least we are now here at a reasonable time of night.

I wanted to give this subject another airing because of the continuing concern about the increase in the female prison population and the conditions in which people are housed. I hope that the Minister of State will be prepared to demonstrate an objective approach to the humanitarian and practical issues concerning female offenders.

The Minister is on record as having said that, as well as punishment, an important role for the Prison Service is the rehabilitation of offenders. I echo her comments on the BBC programme "Question Time" on 29 February, when she said that she needed to make no apology for taking out of circulation people who prey on the general public. I agree that serious and persistent offenders should be gaoled, but I hope that tonight she will acknowledge the fact that the public would be better served if fewer female petty offenders were given custodial sentences. That would give the Prison Service more scope to pursue its work in the rehabilitation of more serious offenders.

I understand that the female prison population this month is about 2,100—an increase of about 40 per cent. over the past two to three years, and more than double the numbers incarcerated 20 years ago, when it was predicted that in future fewer women would be given prison sentences.

The flippancy with which the Home Office has reacted to that huge increase is illustrated by the written answer by the other Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), to my question asking about the increase in the number of women sent to prison, and requesting his assessment of the reasons for that increase. He wrote: Some 2,952 women were sentenced to immediate custody in 1994, compared with 2,158 in 1992 … The reason for the increase … is the rise in numbers sentenced to custody by the courts."—[Official Report, 20 April 1995; Vol. 258, c. 266.] One might expect from that information that we are in the midst of an epidemic of crime committed by women, but the number of convictions for indictable offences has steadily declined from 47,500 in 1987 to 39,500 in 1994. Violent offences have also gone down from a peak in 1989. The figures show not a rising tide of female crime but a greater readiness to imprison women. The result is overcrowding and inhumane treatment, as has been graphically recorded in recent months.

In December, the new chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbottom, pulled his inspection team out of Holloway. The team included a past governor of that establishment. Sir David reported that prisoners were being locked up 23 hours a day. Prisoner officers complained that they were being forced into acting like 18th-century turnkeys. Conditions were reported as extremely dirty. The Minister of State admitted that she had visited the prison six months previously.

More recently, newspaper reports emerged of "battery hen" cells, measuring 6 ft by 6 ft, or 8 ft by 8 ft—that is debatable—at Eastwood Park, which have been described by zoo managers as conditions that would drive even animals mad. I know that we can take newspaper hyperbole with a pinch of salt, and perhaps prisoners transferring from tatty dormitories at Pucklechurch might consider their brand new cells an improvement. However, is the Minister prepared to defend such conditions, when women might be locked up in their cells for 14 hours a day, and perhaps more, as at Holloway, particularly in view of forthcoming budget cuts?

Can the Minister imagine prisoners on basic regimes allowed free association on only two evenings a week, spending their time lying on their beds, their heads inches from their toilet bowls? Does she find that acceptable? A prison officer has been quoted as saying, "I feel like a concentration camp guard." Although it is acknowledged that about a third of the women moving into Eastwood Park are likely to be mentally ill or suffering from a personality disorder, and many have a history of sexual abuse, the health care centre has only 10 cells for an eventual population of 135 prisoners. It seems appropriate at this point to mention the 1991 Home Office study which showed that 56 per cent. of female sentenced inmates were mentally ill. We surely have to ask ourselves whether those women's experiences in prison are likely to help or to hinder their rehabilitation.

For example, does the indiscriminate use of restraints for prisoners who are sick or vulnerable help? I am sure that the recent furore about the unnecessary shackling of female prisoners in labour will be remembered by the Minister of State for many years to come. Just as that died down, after new guidelines were issued, another story emerged of a woman shackled by two prisoner officers throughout the funeral service for her 10-day-old baby. That woman was obviously not a security risk; she had been allowed to visit her baby in the neonatal intensive care unit at Great Ormond Street hospital without handcuffs or chains. What sort of reign of terror is the Minister presiding over that leads prison staff to abandon all sense of common decency?

The Royal College of Nursing has specifically requested that I raise that issue with the Minister. I hope that she will agree to its call for an urgent review of the use of restraints for female prisoners. It is a tragedy that high-profile escapes of dangerous male prisoners should have resulted in such inhumane treatment of women, who, as an analysis of the prison population shows, are not a danger to society.

Of the 2,000-plus female prisoners, only between 260 and 270 have been convicted of crimes of violence. As many as 35 per cent. of women prisoners are first-time offenders, compared with 12 per cent. of men. Although only 11 per cent. of men convicted of theft are gaoled, the figure for women is 23 per cent.

As I have said, most of the recent increase in the female prison population is attributable, first, to the increase in the numbers of females sent to prison and, secondly, to the more recent trend of imprisoning women with convictions for theft and fraud, many of whom are in multiple debt, have dependent children and would be better and more constructively punished in the community.

Considerable concern has also been expressed at the large number of women fine defaulters who are gaoled, not because they wilfully refuse to pay but because they are poor. Since 1984, gaol for non-payment of fines has increased by 63 per cent. for women, but by only 5 per cent. for men. There is plenty of evidence that magistrates are failing in their duty to use prison only as a last resort, and even to abide by their own guidelines. Research—including that carried out by the Home Office—shows that the overwhelming majority of fine defaulters are people struggling to live on benefits. A dossier of cases compiled by Rona Epstein of Coventry university demonstrates that, despite their poverty, many fine defaulters make considerable efforts to pay off their debts but their cases receive cursory attention in the courts, with many magistrates regarding the application for deductions from benefit as creating too much paperwork.

Home Office figures show that, nationally, only about 2,000 women on income support have fines deducted from benefits. An alternative ostensibly open to magistrates is to impose a money payment supervision order, yet the use of that measure has declined dramatically. Last week, the justices' chief executive from Wolverhampton told me that the probation service was not actioning MPSOs, with the result that this was not an option for the court. Will the Minister take action to put that right? That action must include ensuring that there are adequate resources for the probation service.

As I have mentioned on many occasions in the House, the courts in England and Wales—unlike their counterparts in Scotland—do not have the option of imposing community service for fine defaulters. It is now more than a year since I raised this matter with the Home Secretary, and I was pleased to see the recent publicity revealing a change of heart from his initial dismissive attitude. I hope that the Minister will announce real progress tonight, because there is plenty of evidence that magistrates are out of touch with the realities of life for people on poverty incomes, whose numbers—unfortunately—have increased dramatically in the past decade or so.

Although there are examples of good practice within magistrates courts—I would, for example, commend the South Gloucestershire petty sessional division—magistrates frequently make unreasonable demands for sums of £5 or £10 a week from people whose total income is not much more than £50. But the House should not just take my word for it—hon. Members should listen to a quote from an affidavit from Mrs. P. M. Allen and G. W. Catteral, Esq., magistrates from Wigan, about the case of Debra Fitzmartin: Since the last hearing the defendant had paid only a total of £10 resulting in the 21 day term being unaffected. Mr. Rigby then informed the Bench of the contents of Debra Fitzmartin's letter before the Court today. Her written response was to ask the Court to once more grant her a further opportunity to pay, by again postponing the issue of the committal warrant. She had referred once more to her difficulties in making payments due to being a single mother coping with two children, and also that she was now pregnant and experiencing some haemorrhaging resulting in her having to attend her local hospital. She also requested that the arrears outstanding be deducted from her Income Support benefits. Mr. Rigby informed us that case law permitted a committal warrant being issued in a defendants absence provided a means inquiry had previously been held in the presence of the defendant … Taking everything that had been stated in open court into consideration, we were advised by the Clerk that we had to decide if there was before us a sufficient change in Debra Fitzmartin's circumstances so as to justify not issuing the committal warrant. We decided that although there had been a slight change in that she was now expecting a third child and experiencing some difficulty in that pregnancy, such did not amount to a sufficient change. We also concluded that to instruct the Local Authority to withdraw today's proceedings and arrange a deduction from her Income Support benefit was inappropriate in all the circumstances. The magistrates ended up issuing a new warrant, committing Debra Fitzmartin to prison for a term of 21 days. This imprisonment was declared unlawful by the High Court in December 1995.

What troubles me is that no penalty, no inquiry, no retraining or no public censure is imposed on magistrates—there is absolutely nothing. They are carrying on with the same attitudes today.

Take also the case of Ann, a 25-year-old widow, whose husband committed suicide after being made redundant in January 1993. She was living on income support, with two children aged eight and six. She suffers from severe depression and has attempted suicide. At a hearing before Mold magistrates in respect of poll tax arrears, she told the court of her problems. The magistrates imposed a prison sentence of 28 days, suspended on payment of £10 a week. Not surprisingly, she found that difficult to pay, asked for deductions at source from her income support, and believed that £5 a week was being deducted. However, on 10 November 1995, she was arrested and taken to Risley prison, having been told that there had been a hearing in her absence on 3 November at which she had been committed to prison. After spending four days in gaol, she was released on bail and applied for judicial review.

A series of cases have been taken to judicial review, which shows that magistrates are breaching their powers in committing fine defaulters to gaol. Since the abandonment of the system that made magistrates take into account people's income when setting the level of fine, poor people have been expected to pay sums that are completely beyond their means and further exacerbate their already parlous financial circumstances. Despite their poverty, it is amazing that many fine defaulters make considerable efforts to pay off their debts.

Let us consider the example of a woman in Calderdale who, in June last year, was sentenced to 16 days' immediate imprisonment for poll tax default. She is a 40-year-old married woman with four young children—the youngest is one year old. Since the birth of the youngest, she has suffered from a heart condition and general ill health, and in January 1995 had a stroke which caused paralysis. She was in a wheelchair for five months. She tried to pay off arrears, as ordered by the magistrates, but after making some payments had a stroke and entered hospital. She told the magistrates of her ill health and asked for deductions from her income support, but they committed her to prison immediately.

There is even an example of one woman who was imprisoned for a day at Risley when 74p remained outstanding from a £48 fine for theft. I have here the warrant, which clearly states the amount outstanding as 74p.

Rona Epstein's research, which I drew to the attention of the House more than a year ago, confirms that there are many unlawful committals, for example, of women with debts of less than £200, who have been gaoled for more than the prescribed seven days.

Of course, many of the sentences may be considered to be quite short, which means that, although around a third of prison receptions are for fine defaulters, the prison population of such people at any one time is quite small. Those short sentences should not, however, be dismissed as trivial in terms of their effect on people's lives. They may have devastating effects on the imprisoned debtor and her children.

It is now nearly two years since I introduced a Bill that would have removed the power of magistrates to gaol fine defaulters for culpable neglect. No one would argue against gaol as the ultimate sanction for people who have the money but wilfully refuse to pay, but I hope that I have demonstrated that many fine defaulters, particularly women, do not come into that category.

Our women's prisons are bursting at the seams, not because there are more criminals—their numbers have gone down—but because petty offenders and fine defaulters are increasingly being sent to gaol, where they will come into contact with the drug culture that pervades those institutions. According to Judge Tumim, they go in as shoplifters and come out as drug addicts. Public money is being wasted. It costs more than £500 a week to send someone to gaol and lives are thrown into disarray by the policy.

Magistrates must be given the option of passing non-custodial sentences for fine defaulters. Those who cannot pay simply because they are poor must be offered debt counselling and helped into work. Gaoling should never be the option for people who cannot afford to pay their television licence, and I know that many magistrates agree.

Let us stop sending women petty offenders to gaol and use those institutions to punish and offer effective rehabilitation for persistent and serious offenders, who really are a danger to society. Perish the thought that, at this very moment, the Home Secretary is contemplating building another women's prison. Just a fraction of the money that that would take would work wonders if spent in the community.

10.18 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Miss Ann Widdecombe)

Although I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) on obtaining this debate on what should be an important subject, it was marred by her introduction and some considerable factual errors. She suggested that somehow there had been a deliberate plot to prevent her from having this debate earlier; so great was the national interest in the debate, that we had deliberately frustrated not only her previous debate but the one before and the one before that—all to prevent her from delivering a 15-minute speech. I find that unlikely, but the truth should be put on record.

The Labour Front-Bench spokesmen were not present to move their motions as they should have been, and the business of the House collapsed. I was most disappointed, because I could not respond to the hon. Lady. She said that I had visited Holloway six months before the inspection. That is amazing. I certainly would not have any locus to do so, because I was not in this office six months before the inspection. Eastwood Park opened not late but on time. The increase in the number of women prisoners is not, as I think I heard her say, 40 per cent. but 21 per cent.

I object most of all to the hon. Lady saying that I wished to avoid the spotlight falling on the Prison Service. Not at all; I welcome any opportunity for the spotlight to fall on the Prison Service and on its achievements, and especially on its achievements in the three years since it became an agency. I start my reply by again paying tribute to the amazing achievements of both management and staff in the Prison Service.

Since the Prison Service became an agency in 1993, it has had to cope with a sustained increase in the prison population. As of today, that increase stands at 24.3 per cent. Despite those pressures, by the end of December 1995, escapes were down 83 per cent. compared with the December 1992 figure. When I spoke in the House on 24 January, I reported that 96 per cent. of prisoners had 24-hour access to sanitation, compared with only 70 per cent. in March 1992. I take pleasure in telling the House that that figure has risen to 99 per cent. and will be 100 per cent. by the end of next month.

Dr. Lynne Jones

Although I commend the achievement of having sanitation in cells, I have visited Winson Green, which admittedly is not a women's prison, where I found the facilities somewhat objectionable. As I said, toilet bowls are close to beds and prisoners often have to sit next to a lavatory, which they sometimes share with another prisoner, and eat their food. That is not a high standard as we approach the 21st century.

Miss Widdecombe

It is a considerable improvement on slopping out, which in-cell sanitation has replaced. If I have time, I will return to prisoners sleeping with their heads up against lavatories. That allegation was levelled at Eastwood Park. That is untrue, because there is a screen.

I was talking about the achievements of the Prison Service, and before I reply to the main points that the hon. Lady made about Eastwood Park, the shackling of the lady who attended her baby's funeral and fine defaulters, I want to finish my remarks on the Prison Service. The hon. Lady rightly agreed with my statement on security and rehabilitation. It is worth recording that the service provides almost 300,000 more hours of purposeful activity for prisoners than when it first became an agency. That has been done while the number of prisoners spending more than 12 hours out of cell has risen from 10,400 to 18,700.

In keeping with the Prison Service goal to prepare prisoners for their return to the community, which the hon. Lady rightly said was an important goal. provision is being made for national vocational qualifications to be achieved during sentence so that prisoners have tradeable skills in the outside labour market. To the end of December 1995, prisoners had accrued between them 12,447 accredited units. In the past few years, the Prison Service has developed some excellent offending behaviour programmes and we are very confident of their quality and their worth. Although I would like to go on praising the Prison Service, I must turn to the main points that the hon. Lady raised.

First, I must comment on Eastwood Park—particularly as my right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope) is interested in the subject. I believe that Eastwood Park is located in his constituency, and I am grateful for his presence in the Chamber tonight. The cells at Eastwood Park are exceptionally well laid out. There are screens for the toilet and for the sink. The door opens to a full 90-degree angle and the cells measure 8 ft 9 in by 6 ft ½ in. They do not hold people for 22 hours a day, as a newspaper article alleged. The cells are bedroom cells and prisons will be out of their cells from 8.30 am and will not return to them until 7.45 pm, with just two 15-minute periods per day when there is a roll call.

The very smallest cells in the prison are below the recommended standard by only 4 in on either side. Some cells in the prison are well above the average and there are segregation facilities and good hospital care facilities. Prisoners at Eastwood Park have moved from a prison where they spent far more time in their cells. At present, no one at Eastwood Park was imprisoned for non-payment of fines. The chief inspector of prisons has conducted an unplanned spot check of Eastwood Park and his report will be published shortly. I do not expect it to be in the same lurid terms as the hon. Lady's description.

Sir John Cope (Northavon)

I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend. I have visited the prison in my constituency and I visited the facility when it was a young offenders centre. The old Pucklechurch prison was also located in my constituency and the new prison is a great improvement on that facility. It is very unfair to judge the regime at Eastwood Park in the first three weeks of its operation before it is working properly. Of course it has teething problems, but it will be a much better prison than Pucklechurch.

Miss Widdecombe

There is no doubt that it is a vast improvement on Pucklechurch. Teething problems in a newly opened prison are not exactly unusual.

I turn now to the case of the lady who was shackled while attending her baby's funeral. The hon. Lady said as a matter of fact—with amazing confidence—that the lady was not a risk. However, she failed a risk assessment which was carried out before her attendance at the funeral because of her attitude, behaviour and aggressive state together with an alleged assault on a member of Prison Service staff during a previous escort". Therefore, she was considered too great a risk to attend the funeral without handcuffs". It is true that the lady was not handcuffed during her visits to her baby while the baby was in hospital. That is because the room in which the baby was kept was secure: it is not because she was considered fit to be in public without restraints. It is essential that, when prison officers and governors are criticised—that is what it comes down to—we get the story absolutely right.

I turn now to the other points raised by the hon. Lady. She did not leave me a full quarter of an hour in which to reply, so if I run out of time I shall endeavour to respond to her in writing regarding the issues that I do not cover.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

It is her debate.

Miss Widdecombe

That is true: the hon. Lady could have left me only one minute in which to respond—or no time at all. I am merely explaining why I shall not be able to cover all the points that she raised. It is merely a courtesy—I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has recognised that fact.

We must be clear about the types of crime for which women are held in prison under sentence—that subject formed quite a significant part of the hon. Lady's speech. Provisional figures show that one third of sentenced female prisoners held in prison in mid-1995 had been convicted of a primary offence of a violent or sexual nature or an offence of robbery or of burglary. More than one quarter were held for a drug-related offence, with one fifth held for theft or handling and 7 per cent. held for fraud or forgery. At the same time, 26 females were held in prison for non-payment of fines.

Dr. Lynne Jones

Have those percentages increased at the same time as the prison population has increased, bearing it in mind that the number of crimes has decreased?

Miss Widdecombe

I am citing the latest figures that we have: I would not give the hon. Lady selective figures. I do not have comprehensive figures beyond those, so I cannot answer the hon. Lady's question precisely. However, I shall look into the matter and, if I can later respond later, I shall certainly do so.

The hon. Lady also expressed concern—I think reasonably—about imprisonment for fine default. She will be aware that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary recently announced a review of the powers and procedures available to the courts to ensure that they can enforce the payment of fines without resorting to imprisonment, save in the most exceptional circumstances. I am sure that that undertaking meets the spirit of the hon. Lady's speech.

I believe that the Prison Service gets a very unfair press and that individual incidents are blown out of all proportion. The day-to-day work done in both our male and our female prisons is impressive and extremely hard and it is carried out in the most difficult circumstances. I have pleasure in paying a tribute that is so noticeably lacking from the Opposition.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.