HL Deb 12 April 1961 vol 230 cc254-7

2.49 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the average prison population has risen by about a quarter since 1955; whether the number of escapes from prison in the same period has risen from 87 in 1955 to over 300 both in 1959 and in 1960; how they explain this increased rate of escape; and whether it has continued in 1961.]


My Lords, the figures quoted by the noble and learned Lord are correct, and I am sorry to say that so far there has been no improvement this year. As was indicated in the latest Report of the Prison Commissioners, the reasons for the deterioration between 1955 and 1959 are not yet clear. A systematic analysis of escapes is now in hand which it is hoped may throw more light on this very serious problem and suggest possible remedies.

About three-quarters of the escapes in 1959 and 1960 were from open prisons, outside working parties and escorts—for example, to an outside hospital for examination or treatment. In these circumstances some risk of escape must always be present, although all possible steps are taken to minimise it.

The remaining escapes from closed prisons give particular cause for concern, and prison governors have recently been reminded of the paramount need for maintaining security. The acute overcrowding in the local prisons, which has resulted from the increase in population to which the noble and learned Lord refers, has made their task much more difficult, and the prison building programme makes provision for many new secure prisons, borstals and remand centres.


My Lords, may I thank my noble friend for that Answer and ask him whether he is aware that alarm at these figures is increased by the fact that so many prisoners seem to escape by the same method; and whether it is not true that, if a small part of the efforts now expended in trying to recapture escaped prisoners were to be devoted to preventing their escape, the public would be much safer?


My Lords, I have indicated that there is much concern at the Home Office with regard to these escapes. The particular method of escape to which the noble Lord refers is, of course, from visits to hospitals or other centres of medical aid outside the prison. Far that reason, new instructions are being issued, and we are experimenting with new methods.


My Lords, would not the noble Earl agree that it is most unfair to prison governors and staffs not to make it quite clear that in some local prisons it is virtually impossible, because of lack of staff and overcrowding, to supervise prisoners to anything like the degree necessary if the number of these escapes is to be cut down, and that it is no use blaming governors when they have not the staff or facilities to look after the prisoners?


My Lords, I had hoped that I made it quite clear from my Answer that there is no question of putting blame on prison governors or staff, and I am quite certain that all your Lordships will agree that they carry out magnificent work in most difficult circumstances. But I thoroughly agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, has said, with regard to overcrowding; and as I hope I indicated in the last few lines of my Answer (and we shall be hearing more when the Criminal Justice Bill comes before the House) steps are being taken which, it is to be hoped, will in the fairly near future remedy the position about which the noble Lord has spoken.


My Lords, would the noble Earl agree that the experience in relation to open prisons has been much less satisfactory than it was in the early days of those prisons, when very few escapes took place? It is obviously very easy to escape from an open prison, and the whole problem is really to select for the open prison the sort of man who is not likely to escape. Can the noble Earl tell us whether the same care is being taken to screen prisoners before they are sent to open prisons?


Yes; every care is taken to screen prisoners, and one of the mysteries is why so many more prisoners from all classes of prison are showing an inclination to escape, whereas, say, ten years ago not so many made such attempts. Obviously, that is another reason why secure prisons are so overcrowded.


My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that those of us who have taken an interest in this subject, and have been, as I was for some years, a Minister at the Home Office, are deeply concerned to learn for the first time that three-quarters of these escapes are from open prisons? When we come to discuss the Criminal Justice Bill, will he, or one of his colleagues, devote some part of his speech to discussing the reason for this?


My Lords, I am quite aware of what the noble Earl says, but it is not the escapes from open prisons that are causing so much concern. We are, of course, concerned over those, but it is escapes from secure prisons, and, above all, from working parties, or during visits to medical centres, to which I referred, that are causing my right honourable friend the greatest and most serious concern at present.


My Lords, did not my noble friend the Minister say that three-quarters of these escapes were from open prisons? Does not he think that is a very serious thing?


My Lords, it is a very serious thing, as I have agreed; but those particular escapes are not so serious as the others I have mentioned, from secure prisons.