HL Deb 16 November 1972 vol 336 cc879-905

6.25 p.m.

LORD DONALDSON OF KINGS-BRIDGE rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether it would not be wise for the Home Office to relax certain old-fashioned restrictions on inmates of Her Majesty's prisons and to establish regular means of communications between inmates and the authorities for discussion of conditions and treatment rather than to allow the iniative to pass into the hands of demonstrators. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I think the calm and dispassionate atmosphere of your Lordships' House at half-past six on a November evening is a suitable place in which to discuss the rather passionate background of the Question I have put on the Order Paper. I chose the form of an Unstarred Question to air the problem of prison conditions because I believe that airing is exactly what they need. I think that the official attitude tends to be rather stuffy, though I know that many officials are very progressive. In preparing what I am going to say to-night I have had a great deal of help from my own staff at NACRO and the Howard League, and my only fear is that the material will interfere with my respect for the clock. I shall do the best I can to be short, but there are a number of things which I think must be said, and there are very few people whom we are hurting to-night, save the Minister who is obliged to stay. So I am not going to cut, out of respect for your Lordships' feelings, what I have to say.

My Lords, I am quite certain that the Prison Service, from top to bottom, from the Home Office to the newest uniformed recruit, really is anxious to treat people in their charge properly and to make prison into something more than a purely negative experience. It is because of this, and because I believe that this can be brought about only by a vast improvement in the staff/inmate relations that I am so hostile to the machinations of the organisation called the Prisoners' Rights Organisation—PROP—which at one time, I think, did something to undermine these relations. This seems to me absolutely fatal. Ninety per cent. of the people in prison think that they were wrongly convicted, and those who do not think that feel that they were unfairly sentenced. So clearly there is a great deal of ground for grievance and for anybody to stir up trouble. But the grievances, whether real or imaginary, are, I believe, surpassed by the daily frustration caused by lack of communication and the feeling, which is certainly not imagined, that it is next to impossible to get anybody to listen, let alone to give an answer which is not felt to be a bureaucratic "brush-off".

Every prison governor knows that he is sitting on a volcano. I was in "The Tombs", the remand prison in New York, a month ago: it is a terrifying place—though perhaps this is not the place to say so. Among other things, I was watching high school certificates being given to graduates who had been on remand long enough to qualify, when a journalist came to my companion and said, "Have you heard? It has just come through on the 'ticker', that the warden of Washington Prison has been taken as a hostage?" And indeed, my Lords, he had. He was quite soon released in return for a promise of earlier hearings. But my companion turned to me and said, "This, you see, is what we have lived with at the back of our minds the whole time, ever since Attica."

We in this country are not, by quite a long chalk, as bad as that, but I have to confess that some remarks by Mr. William Cahn, President of the United States National District Attorneys' Association which were published in The Times last year, after he had made a tour of our prisons, were pretty depressing. Among other things he said: Overcrowding in British jails is a short fuse on a long stick of dynamite. We saw three men crowded into small cells and heard about the cells being locked at 3.30 or 7.30 until 7.00 or 8.00 next morning. I do not think that prisons should be like some sort of social gathering or country club, but this sort of thing is just not healthy. We know this, my Lords, but it is rather depressing to find someone from the United States where, on the whole, conditions are so much more difficult than ours, making this kind of criticism. There was, in fact, a nasty feeling in the air in the summer when, as a result of outside agitation, there were some concerted acts of disobedience. The staff dealt with these acts in such a very old-fashioned, British policeman, way that there was no trouble of a serious kind and there was no violence. The members of the revolutionary organisation, like many better revolutionaries before them, are now fighting among themselves, and I think that this particular organisation will not give us much more trouble. But because all prisons are dangerous, I believe that we must try very hard to eliminate all unnecessary sources of friction.

I should like to begin by denouncing the petty restrictions on governors. I should like the Minister to study the standing orders which, with their weekly crop of amendments, adorn each govnor's desk, and wherever he can (which I think would be several times on each page) strike out the order and substitute: "Leave to the governor's discretion." I know that every governor breaks his standing orders every day of his working life in order to treat his charges better and more liberally than his orders allow. In the end, men have to come out of prison, and to prepare them for this their self-respect must be restored. That means, in the long run, trusting them. When to begin this operation is the most difficult thing to determine, and only the man on the spot can make the decision. But if we do not trust the governors, how can they teach trust to the men? They are not even allowed freedom to delegate. Governors have to do many things which in my opinion they ought to be able to pass down the line; and this is thoroughly bad for the morale of the prison. If the Minister would go through the standing orders with the idea that staff/inmate relations are the most important thing in prison, and that governors should be chosen because of their ability to control men in their own way, he would in my opinion do more to effect the sort of change that we all want to see than he could in any other way.

My Lords, the action procedure of reception into prison seems to be—and I think very likely was originally—designed to take away a man's self-respect. Such things as the substitution of a number for a name or of ill-fitting prison clothes for the man's own, or the failure perhaps of the police station to forward possessions, so that a man may be left several days unable to read without his glasses, produce bitterness at the beginning of a man's term. On the question of clothing, is it really necessary to fit everybody out with prison clothes when they have, and would prefer to wear, their own? Must we have uniformity? If we must, would it not be possible for men with more than short sentences to go straight to the tailor's shop and be fitted out with a new suit which they could then keep for the rest of their time? I understand that at the moment the tariff to get one is three ounces of tobacco. I think that this should be laid on in some other way.

Then there is the question of letters. Prisoners on remand complain constantly and from every quarter of difficulty in communication with the outside. In my opinion there is no excuse whatever for this. In the first place, it is difficult sometimes to get a sheet of paper. It is difficult sometimes to get a pen. It is necessary to get hold of the welfare officer or the chaplain, and they are very busy. I was speaking to a governor the other day who said that he would like to go out and buy 100 mirrors, but this was more than his job was worth. This is ridiculous. People in that position ought to be able to spend out of petty cash enough money to make the prison run properly.

I come to censorship. I think there is a case for censorship in the case of dangerous men who may be likely to escape. In the case of disturbed men, who may be very much upset by a letter, I think the more paternal sort of governor can sometimes save trouble by anticipating the effect of the letter. But surely in normal cases this could be a random censorship, and not 100 per cent. The fear of the authorities that if they allowed prisoners to write as many letters as they wished the staff would be flooded out, because of the censoring, has always been proved, whenever it has been tried, to be false. It was tried a few years ago in Broadmoor, as a result of the agitation of my friend Mr. Peter Thompson. There is now no restriction on letters, I understand; and no trouble whatever. The look on the Minister's face makes me hope that I am not exaggerating. I believe that it is one of the most important things of all. Few prisoners are anxious to write letters, and those few who are anxious to do so should be allowed to do so.

My Lords, particularly in regard to a person who is on remand, a governors application is required, which means turning up at 7.30 and all the paraphernalia that we used to know in the Army for far too many things. On remand, one has to do this to get extra appeal letters and every other kind of thing. This is an irritation which not only maddens the prisoner but wastes the governor's time, because when he is in the prison he must, under prison regulations, take all applications personally—another thing that I think is wrong. If a person wants to see a dentist while he is in prison, he has to go on sick parade at 7 a.m. and wait in his cell until 11 or 12 o'clock until somebody comes to see what is the matter with him. These are trivial things, but they are the kind of things which could be put right and the abolition of which would go a long way to avoid the risk of explosions.

It is not much to the credit of the powers that be that pretty well every improvement in the visiting of prisoners by their families and friends has been the result of volunteer action, though it is much to the credit of governors that many of them have given the volunteers every encouragement. But you really cannot shut a man up miles away from his family and make no proper arrangements for the family to visit. With honourable exceptions—none too many—visiting times are arranged for the convenience of the prison and never for the convenience of the visitor. I had to go and see somebody in Winchester the other day. Visiting hours are 9.30 to 11.30. The trains are such that you either catch the half-past eight or the quarter to nine, which, if you live out of London, as many visitors do, means starting very early, or you catch the next train at a quarter to ten, which means that you have only a quarter of an hour with your husband or whoever it may be. Governors and prisoners behave very well in breaking these rules, but my point is that those rules should not be there for them to break. I should like to see a directive to all governors of prisons to say that they must have a shelter for people who are waiting outside until the prison opens to visitors; and they must have a crèche inside the prison for children. Money should be put aside for this; and this is money the prisons should have to spend. We in the voluntary movement would provide the workers. If it is not sure what is wanted, the visitors themselves, if they were asked, would certainly tell you.

My Lords, there is a rather more serious but less obvious thing—and I believe this, too, may be important. I think that every governor in the service would agree that he wields enough stick, but not enough carrot. The cycle of behaviour of a fairly long sentence man is predictable. First of all, he suffers from shock and resentment, and in this time he may blot his copybook and lose his remission. Then he becomes apathetic for a period, and resigns himself. And finally, in the best cases, he makes an effort to get through the rest of his sentence constructively. He studies, paints or does something to make things go, and becomes a useful and good member of the community. Governors ought to be able to reward this sort of man for good behaviour. They want to, but they cannot. It was recently suggested by Mr. Hugh Clare that they should be allowed to award a good deal of extra remission during this period, but as things are, they are not even allowed to put back the remission which the man has lost earlier. I should like the Minister to look at this point carefully, because I think it is as important as any point that I am making.

The parole system has worked marvellously well for those people whom it lets out; but, as I know my noble friend Lord Hunt agrees, it has left many serious scars on those people it has not let out. I am inclined to think that the principle needs looking at again. At the moment, a man is eligible for parole after 12 months or a third of his sentence. A good many men are not suitable for parole at that time, and they get turned down—the prison slang is that they get "a knock back". That has a very bad effect on people, particularly when it has happened two or three times. As the cases come up every year, and as parole has been going for about four years, a man could have been turned down four times by now. This is not conducive to restoring confidence. My own feeling is that the eligibility for parole should be something that a man has to earn in prison; that he should not be automatically eligible at any time, but have to earn it on a governor's report. That would give the governor a carrot, and would, I think, give the whole prison an initiative and stimulus to work towards the same end. The one thing that all prisoners want to do is to get out of prison: and we might get a whole prison working in the same direction in this way which it would be very difficult to do in any other.

On training, I should like to ask the Minister how many men—I know he cannot give me a numerical answer—come out of prison having learned something which is useful to them and which they did not know before they went in. I am afraid that there are only a few. Only one adult in 35 receives vocational training, and in borstal the figure is one in four. The working week, though it has got better, is still only 28 hours, and the tragic thing is that 25 per cent. of the effective work force is employed on cleaning or sewing mailbags—which is quite a large proportion. I do not mind necessary cleaning, but I do not care much for unnecessary cleaning. I object very much to men sewing mailbags by hand, and I think that most people in the Service also object to it. I should like to ask the Minister to make his target for 1973 the abolition of mailbag shops. It is a task which is hardly better than picking oakum, and it is just as useless. I do not want the Minister to fob me off with the old fox-hunting defence that the fox throughly enjoys it. I know that there are a few old stagers in prison who get very good at this absurd job and they can sew 30 mailbags a day—or is it a week? I cannot remember which.


A day.


And these men make quite a decent amount of money by prison standards; but they are very few. All right, let them; but do not let us see even the most villainous young man, however wicked, in full health, coming from perhaps an athletic life, put on to this heartbreaking job. It really is not fit for our society. Where we provide proper work, I think we fail to give enough incentive by way of production bonuses. I believe that this is something that should be looked at carefully. I do not know whether this is included in the new Prindus scheme which the Minister mentioned last week, but it probably is.

As to prisoners' pay, we know the difficulties but I beg the Minister to be bold. I know that he cannot solve this problem, and I know that he cannot arrange for cards to be stamped and for a man to get full pay straight away, but I do believe that he could fairly easily pay more than he is paying. I see no reason why in open prisons, where there are very many less difficulties than in closed prisons, people should not do a full day's work and get a full day's pay. I believe that most people think this is probably what ought to be done. There has been a kind of block about doing this and I want to see the Minister kicking some of the bricks down. I should also like to know whether current rates of pay have even kept up with inflation, because I am not at all sure that they have.

There are one or two further points that I would mention. First, pre-release employment. Should this be restricted to men with four-year sentences? Could it not be made available for people serving shorter sentences? There is an anomaly that even if you have pre-release employment and are keeping your family, you cannot draw F.I.S. because you are not living at home but in prison. These are two pieces of bureaucracy working at cross-purposes, and I should have thought the situation could fairly easily be put right. I know that prison governors must be able to deal with violent and dangerous men, but is bread and water really the right way in 1972? I observe that there were 1,200 cases of restricted diet mentioned in the latest statistics, and they were all in the same sort of prison. Also, similar prisons had many more cases of restricted diet than others. I think it is time this was stopped. I do not believe it is an effective punishment, and any governor who cannot do without this is probably where he ought not to be.

My Lords, as regards sanitation, we all know that it is still disgusting; we all know that "slopping out" is a terrible thing. We all know there are difficulties about the right answer, and we all know that ours is the worst there is, and so I should not want that problem to lose the Minister's attention for one minute. Then there is the question of savings. A man gets £4 when he comes out of prison, which is the same as it was in 1964. I must remind the Minister that there has been inflation and that probably a man ought now to be getting £7. There has been an increase of the most complicated kind—so complicated that I have not brought the circular with me—which applies to homeless men in certain restricted conditions; but otherwise the ordinary man still gets £4 eight years later, after the biggest inflation ever known. Worse than that, the means test is applied rigidly. If a man has up to £5 saved, he can still draw his £4 on discharge, but if he has £6 in savings he can draw only £3; if he has £7 then he can draw only £2—so much so that the better type of welfare officer says to the man. "All right, let us take your savings and I will put them in a savings bank for you so that you will still get your four quid". It probably works all right in many cases, but it is the wrong way round, and it should not be there.

Lastly, as regards food. The allowance in prisons is £1.20 per head as opposed to £2.15 in a mental hospital. Curiously enough, I believe it to be sufficient. I have seen enough prison meals which were perfectly adequate and which the men liked, but I believe there are many prisons where this is not the case. If there are prisons where there are many complaints, then I believe this to be a question of inefficiency. I should like the Minister to tell us whether there are prisons which have regular complaints of this kind and, if so, why something cannot be done about it. There are people like Mr. Lyons and other experts who could probably do better than is being done at present.

My Lords, the biggest single failure—and my time has already run out—is communications. Few prisoners feel that anybody is doing anything for them at all. They are shunted from pillar to post; the staff are moved from one place to another; they never have the opportunity of forming a proper relationship, and the arrangements do not lay out before them opportunities for complaint or discussion. There should be wing meetings in every prison every week. There are in most central prisons, but I do not believe there are in local prisons. There were in Winchester when I went there the other day, and I believe there are some also in Swansea. But not many prisons have them. There ought to be prison committees over everything. There ought to be a kitchen committee, a television committee, a sports committee, an entertainments committee; and there ought to be "Any Questions" once a week, to give prisoners an opportunity to say what they like and blow off steam. This is done in the best central prisons, and it ought to be done everywhere.

The man who is shut up is deprived of initiative in the outside world, and he must be given more initiative in the world within which he is confined. I believe that in many prisons he is given virtually none. I believe this is the most important way in which one individual at the top of this organisation could change things. I do not think it would be difficult to change. I believe that more communication could easily be established, and I hope that the Minister will give this his attention. It is very easy to talk. The Prison Department has a terribly difficult job. I only ask that we do not make it more difficult than we need by failing to get rid of those rubs and blisters which are quite unnecessary, and it is with this in mind, my Lords, that I ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

6.47 p.m.


My Lords, I hope that my noble friend who has just sat down will not interpret a comparatively empty House as an indication of the triviality of the subject matter of his Unstarred Question. I assure him that there can be no more important topic than the one on which he has embarked; and I, for one, have found it impossible to fault any of the observations he made. I would respectfully suggest that perhaps a number of the things which he said were unknown to your Lordships until he said them. That in itself, I believe, is an entirely satisfactory state of affairs—only satisfactory in relationship to the problem which it reveals, and the need to look at this matter not so much as a series of complaints and injustices which should be put right but rather against a backcloth which is much larger. My noble friend does not need to be told by me (because he knows it better than most of us, probably) that he has only touched the tip of an iceberg, or perhaps has indicated the thin end of a wedge. As for myself, I should like to think of this not only as an attempt to deal with a number of sprats but also as an attempt to provide a sprat to catch a mackerel of a much larger size.

I hope that your Lordships will indulge me if I try to relate some of the things which have been said to a condition of affairs which is much more general. When I first began to be a chaplain at Holloway, and afterwards at Pentonville, the ethos, if I might call it by that name, of prison life was solitariness—one man to a cell, the prohibition of almost any contact except in the necessary procedure of work, and the total prohibition (which nevertheless was contravened) of discussion or talking at exercise. What has happened since those days, now 30 years ago, is that there has come into being what I suppose could be called a prison society; and that prison society should be viewed with the gravest attention because I believe it is likely to provide a very undesirable alternative to the real society from which, either temporarily or for very long periods, a prisoner is relieved of any responsibility and is shut off.

One of the most pernicious elements in the cell—and I use that word in both senses of its use—of that society is the crowding, as my noble friend has said, of two or, preferably, for homosexual reasons, three men into a cell. This is a total abomination. I plead with the Minister that whatever else he takes away from the conversation to-day, he will press on as quickly as humanly possible with provisions whereby men can at least tolerate life within the size of a cell intended for one, and not for two or three people. Here is the seedbed of a great deal of a thoroughly squalid and unnatural community.

When I was at Pentonville I was told—and I had no reason to doubt it—that about 3½lb. of tobacco was thrown over the prison wall into the grounds every week. Where did that tobacco go? I did not have it; the warders got only some of it; it was largely acquired by the "barons" and distributed by them. One of the most dangerous elements in any prison society is that it becomes a totally corrupt society, because those who have the greater power, and are the more corrupt, are liable to produce in that society the very worst elements that go with any community that we can think of. Therefore I should be extremely chary of any process whereby we attempted unduly to create within the prison the kind of society which I believe can, in the long run, be only deleterious to the true interests of 90 per cent. of the prisoners. That does not exclude the proper use of leisure time, and the occupation of that time in constructive and objective ways. But the idea of shop stewards and a trade union of prisoners within the prison itself is, if one thinks about it, utter rubbish and contemptible.

There is nothing more dangerous than the cultivation of this unhealthy society, and the inevitable promotion of some of the elements that make it so detestable, which are inevitable if we attempt to reduce the amount of solitariness to which a prisoner has hitherto been committed, and endeavour to provide him with some kind of social life in leisure or some useful occupation—much preferable to sewing mailbags. It is against this backcloth that I regard my noble friend's Question to-day as of supreme importance.

If we believe that whatever deterrent and remedial and reformatory processes that can be applied to a prisoner have the intention of returning him sooner or later. suitably improved in social habits and personal behaviour, to a real world, then it is of the highest importance that while he is within the framework of a prison society he should not be cosseted or encouraged into a kind of unreal world—an unreal world in which, as soon as you enter its portals, you are aware of its distinctive smell. I am talking now of the block prisons. I well recognise that when the Minister comes to reply he will tell us that what we are talking about is not some attempt to produce a vis a tergo impression on the Government, but an attempt to recognise that the Government are already in motion and what we want to secure is overdrive. I do not believe that the various experiments which have been made fall under the kind of condemnation that I have presumed to utter. But I am assured from my own continued experience that until we finally get rid of the block system of prisons we are in grave danger of creating the kind of society which, instead of seeking to return a man to probity and decency, will only drive him deeper into the dirt and misdemeanour of evil.

As I see it, one of the most important and significant elements in this discussion is the way in which we can keep alive and stimulate the real world in the minds and attitudes of those who for a time are necessarily exposed to all kinds of temptations, and indeed circumstances, which, temporarily at least, create an unreal world.

Here are some of the suggestions that I would respectfully submit to the Minister. I am impressed by the immediacy and availability of the telephone. The more I think about it, the more I am satisfied that a great many of the matters raised so eloquently and persuasively by my noble friend could find some immediate amelioration and help if, for instance—and I now chance my arm and make a concrete suggestion—there were upon every landing a telephone, which could be suitably monitored and which from time to time those who had adequate reasons for seeking to use it would be permitted so to do. They might, if this was expensive, pay out of their allowances for the use of the telephone.

What would it do? My experience as a prison chaplain is that there is nothing so impersonal as occasional letters, or so frustrating as the delay which often accompanies the answers to them. There is nothing so frustrating as the sense that by this means real contact is not being established, and the perturbations that follow are agonising. I am thinking, for instance, of women in Holloway anxious to know about their children. They write letters, but the replies come infrequently. I think of the immense satisfaction and improvement to their psychological condition if they can from time to time find directly and immediately at the end of a telephone the kind of information they seek, the kind of communication with the outside world—particularly that which is near and dear to them—which is now so much a matter of dull print and occasional postage.

Furthermore, if it be true that only about 37 per cent. of those entitled to various benefits within the Welfare State take the trouble to seek them, this is particularly true of people in prison. In my experience, they are, through carelessness, or perhaps inability to read the small print—or even the large print—unaware of what they can do. There is nothing that would stimulate their sense of self-reliance more than the opportunity to find a direct approach to such welfare authorities, and indeed potential employers, as might give them a chance when they come out of prison.

There is one thing that I am sure my noble friend would have added to his list of conditions which prevail among prisoners; and that is not only the apprehension felt by a prisoner when he comes into prison, but the even more terrifying apprehension that he has about a week before he is likely to go out of prison. This is due to the fact that he has been in a protected and a particular kind of society to which he has become acclimatised and conditioned. In most cases he is frightened of the world which awaits him when he gets outside the prison walls. The most likely welcome will be to take him to the local pub and "souse" him up, rather than give him any constructive help. The telephone carries with it a number of possible dangers, but I have every reason to know that probation officers and prison visitors are quite sure that this would be an immense improvement to the situation, so that communication can be maintained with the real world at the time when the menace of the unreal world is so compulsive.

This is not said in any spirit of sentimentality about prisoners. Professionally I am against sin; and practically I have had plenty of experience of what happens to people when they repeatedly behave in anti-social ways. But, as I see it, there is no justification for any kind of punishment which does not, however long the tunnel, indicate some kind of light at the end of it. There is nothing more conducive to persuading a prisoner to look at that light and take his comfort from it as the regular and periodic acquaintance with and renewal of contact with the real world. I am bound to say as I sit down that I do not believe in the prison system anyhow. But half a loaf is better than no bread; and this must serve in the interim between now and the time when we can reverse the whole idea of prison life as one of getting people away, putting them away and forgetting about it; the time when we can indeed demolish all the block prison systems.

I am persuaded that we do nobody any good by prison of the traditional type; that the recovery rate is extremely small. And, having but lately embarked upon an adventure in seeking to care for boys out of borstal, I am reinforced in the conviction that what is much more necessary than almost anything else at the moment—and I hope the Minister may feel disposed to say something about this—is a different kind of custodial treatment altogether. It may be that open prisons and suchlike institutions are moving in that direction. If that is so, then may the pace increase, and quickly! But there is no answer to about seven out of ten of the observations and comments that were so magisterially made by my noble friend within the framework of a prison system which does not totally and utterly reject the assumed premises upon which people hitherto have been incarcerated and treated in this kind of segregated fashion.

My Lords, as I have tried to say, the all-important element in a prisoner's hope is that he will not finally be frustrated in his attempt, if he wants to make it, and will not be finally denied the opportunity which may stimulate that desire, to return to a real world; and that real world, I am sure, must still be kept before his eyes within the walls of prison life and within all the framework of custodial treatment which very properly he may have attracted by his evil doings and ought properly to serve. It is in that regard that I have been very happy to listen to what my noble friend has said, and shall be equally happy to listen, I hope, to what the prisoner has—I mean, to what the Minister has to offer.

7.2 p.m.


My Lords, I do not think I am that quite yet, at any rate. The noble Lord, Lord Soper, was good enough to say to me recently in respect of the speech I made on the humble Address that there were areas of it with which he agreed. I can return the compliment to-day, because there was very little indeed in the speech he made—if I may deal with the individual point about the telephone in a moment—when he was dealing with more general matters, with which I should wish to disagree; save, possibly, for the question of smell. It may be that I am not acute enough in the nose to notice it, but it has certainly not been something which has struck me in an my peregrinations around the prison system.


Not at Pentonville, my Lords?


I have not been there, my Lords. That may be the exception, but otherwise it has not. The other point that I am not altogether certain about is exactly what he means by "the block system". If he means "Victorian wings", I am with him. In that case there is another area of agreement between us. When we come to the idea of the abolition of custodial treatment altogether, or indeed different sorts of it, I am only too happy to consider constructive proposals tending in that direction. After all, if we are talking about alternatives to custody I hope I have already demonstrated to the House in what I said on the Criminal Justice Bill that I was as enthusiastic about them as anybody.

However, rather than get on to major philosophical points on an Unstarred Question, it might be good if I tried to attend to the particularities of the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, and some—I hope I can cover the majority—of the things he said. I should like to preface what I say with this. Having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, and the items he produced by way of complaint, I would say that if I thought there was any one establishment in the prison system Which corn-billed all those defects I should be in despair. What I think the noble Lord has done—and I hope that those who have been listening to him will appreciate this—is to pick up from a large number of different establishments the one or two things that have gone wrong there. It really must be plain—and I must make this point in advance—that all those defects that he has mentioned do not occur simultaneously in any one single establishment within the prison system. It would be intolerable, I entirely agree with him, if they did.


My Lords, I must say one word to the noble Viscount. The feature which I think pervades most prisons is the lack of communication, which is something rather less concrete than the complaints I made.


My Lords, I am going to come to that point, but I think that is not altogether right, either. It must be said that we do not operate a system where all these horrendous accusations can accurately be made about any one establishment. Going on from that, the fascinating aspect that I have found (the noble Lord was good enough to tell me in advance the points that he was going to make) is that there is not a single one of them—nor, indeed, Lord Soper's telephone—which is not already under active consideration by the Prison Department. I have been through this matter with the greatest care and I will refer briefly to what has been said, point by point. Every single one of those points is at this very moment undergoing study by the Prison Department.

First of all, the Question deals with old-fashioned restrictions. One has to bear in mind that restrictions of any sort in a prison are the attempt to secure a balance between security and good order, on the one side, and a constructive and humane régime, on the other. It is certainly not an immutable balance. One is always prepared to consider shifting the point, the pivot, and this is a process that goes on all the time. But both the noble Lord and his noble friend Lord Soper were very right and apposite in speaking about overcrowding as being a root cause of a great deal of trouble. To take three obvious points, problems about visiting, problems about pay and type of work and problems about sanitation are all inextricably tied up with obsolete buildings and far too many people trying to share far too few facilities. It is for this reason, if for no other, that even if there were not a question of the increase that we foresee in the prison population, we must go ahead with the prison building programme on which the Government are absolutely committed. This is a most important and fundamental point, and I agree with both noble Lords on it. That is one side of the problem.

I also recognise, within what the noble Lord has said, a point that equally may not occur to some noble Lords who have not the familiarity with prisons that previous speakers have. The kind of small things, or apparently small things, on which the debate has so far concentrated can assume a quite disproportionate importance in the minds of people in a confined place such as a prison. A small complaint gets out of all balance in the importance which is given to it by those who think they do, or truly do, suffer it. So I am glad to be able to report an on-going review on these matters.

The first theme is one of management. As to the first half of the noble Lord's Question—and this attaches to a great number of the detailed points he made as well—the origin, as the noble Lord, Lord Soper, has indicated, of the present prison structure, the management structure and régime, goes back a long time to conditions which were totally different from those that we know to-day. They of course required a good deal less demand on staff in those days, both in time and in expertise. Apart from special conditions such as would be found, perhaps, at Grendon, with which I know the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, is familiar, or in "C" wing at Parkhurst, where we have a very interesting experiment going on, the type of régime of the old days has gone. What we are aiming towards now is the individual treatment and individual case work on prisoners, not the solitariness about which the noble Lord, Lord Soper, spoke. Of course if you change your entire philosophy there is a great deal to be said for looking again at your management structure.

We have already dealt with headquarters; we have already set up a regional system for the Prison Service, and what is now going on is an examination of the management structure within each establishment. Before I started to look into it, I found this a rather woolly idea. I did not know particularly what it meant. It is not the point about a functional group working; it is not getting the best out of the staff: it is not a question of how to deal with troublesome inmates. It is much more fundamental than that. In a nutshell, there have been identified by headquarters the kind of régimes that one wants to see in a good modern prison or borstal. A team is now out on the ground looking at some of these establishments to see whether they live up to the rôle that they are supposed to fulfil—and if not, why not? That is actually going on at the moment in the Midland region and it will cover the whole system. This is the sort of exercise which will pinpoint the underlying reason for some of the problems that the noble Lord spoke about, and I think this is a constructive way to do it. Incidentally, I would add that in the process the prisoners are being consulted as well as the governors and the rest of the staff, so that that in itself is an important piece of consultation. We hope that this will produce some proposals next year. In parallel with that there is at the moment in process a Working Party on rewards and punishments which was announced by my right honourable friend in September, and I hope that also will produce some results before long.

I will try to deal with some of these points within a reasonable time, although it may be that I shall be unable to get through all of them. In regard to restrictions on governors, what I have already said I think indicates that this is being done in any event. What the noble Lord may not altogether have put over to the House is that many of the restrictions contained in standing orders are the minimum. If, therefore, relaxations are made they are not breaches of standing orders; they are a reflection of the fact that the situation in the prison is such that you do not have to work on the minimum. You can be more liberal. This is not a breach: it is a perfectly sensible and legitimate exercise of discretion. We must have discretion for governors. The noble Lord is perfectly correct in saying that they must have the power to deal with a personal or a local problem, although at the same time one has to try to see that there is a uniform method across the system of dealing with prisoners. It would not be just if a governor in one prison was treating his inmates much more leniently or in a much more relaxed fashion than another governor in a similar prison somewhere else. This is the balance that one has to find in the process that is going on at the moment. I think that probably we are reaching the stage now where the governor is the manager, or even the managing director, of a much larger affair and he is much less the boss of a regimented penal establishment, as in the old days.

There is one other thing that I should like to add about governors. I think it is right that even if the complaint or the application is trivial there 'should be access to the governor if the prisoner insists upon it. Certainly there is an enormous amount of delegation—I think possibly much more than the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, gave us to believe. But in the end I believe it is right that the governor should be approachable by the individual inmate on something which he really wants to see him about.

As to reception, we must of course spot drugs and weapons—and I am afraid that we still spot lice. But I agree that the machinery and the method for carrying it out could be improved, and at this moment we have training on reception procedures for staff starting in one of the regions. We tend to do it region ally and when we get some results they will be spread round the whole system, With regard to clothes, the fit, size and range of all clothes has been very much improved recently. We have better shirts and better shoes, and all this is in fact halfway through a five-year programme of improvement. Of course women now wear their own clothes in prison, and if necessary they go out to get others in shops. We have not found it possible to follow this procedure with men, but we are attempting to allow men to take their outer prison clothing which has been fitted to them when they transfer from one establishment to another.

With regard to letters and pens, the noble Lord is not really fair to us on this point. The standard ration, of course, is one letter for which the State provides postage and another for which the inmate can buy a stamp himself in the canteen. But there is really not the shortage of pens that the noble Lord spoke about. We have just increased the supply of pens and there are very few wing officers who do not yet have them, and indeed many prisoners have them individually. I do not think the situation in this regard is quite as black as the noble Lord suggested.

This leads on to censorship. Of course the restriction on the number of letters went back to the weight of censorship, and that is one of the reasons why we have been trying freedom from censorship. This is now being tried in four open establishments, except for individual people who may have to undergo this particular procedure. Three women's establishments are soon to have this freedom and the aim is to relax censorship at all open establishments altogether. When that happens there will be virtually no limit on the number of letters that can be written, save for the cost of the stamps, for which the prisoner himself will have to pay.


My Lords, if I may intervene for a moment, may I ask whether there has been any increase in the number of letters written? I do not suppose the Minister will be able to answer me now, but I am most interested in it. I have always assumed that there would not be much difference—there was not at Broadmoor when the relaxation was made, but I should be interested to know.


My Lords, I do not know whether I can tell the noble Lord that at the moment. The important thing from the point of view of the prison authorities is that there has been no fall-off in picking up welfare benefits. I particularly asked about this when I went to one of the establishments where this is going on.

The telephone was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Soper, and that fits well into the communications side. It is perfectly true that it is exceptional for prisoners to use telephones but again as it so happens we are experimenting at Winchester. There we have experimented by allowing unconvicted prisoners to ring up certain people. We are proposing to extend this experiment to Risley, which is another remand centre in the North, and we shall see what the results are and whether we can extend it.

The noble Lord mentioned visiting. Last year a survey took place with the co-operation of the Treatment of Offenders Committee of the Magistrates' Association, and they found that there had been a good improvement in the last two years. We spent £200,000 a year on improving visiting facilities. I agree with the noble Lord that there is a great deal that volunteers can and should do. I am afraid, however, that it is simply old and obsolete buildings being the problem in many cases. I agree it is deplorable, but what can one do, with the greatest ingenuity, unless one rebuilds or does major adaptations of the gatehouse, and this is going on in a number of places.

It is not true to say that timing is designed to suit the prison rather than the visitor. The noble Lord said that there were honourable exceptions. I would say the other way round, that it must be a case of dishonourable exceptions. A great deal of trouble is taken to fit in with special buses and trains and other visiting facilities. If Winchester is bad, one of the reasons may be the pressure on staff in attending courts. After all, Winchester is a prison that serves a large number of courts in that part of Hampshire and further afield.

On the questions of remission and parole, I will not go into these in detail to-day because these are very much matters that are now before the Working Party on Rewards and Punishments. What the noble Lord said was very interesting and I think that our minds are working along the same lines. What the conclusions will be I know not, but I assure him that he made good and valid points.

The number of people working on mailbags has been reduced from 1,900 in March of this year to just over 1,500 at the present time. Such work has almost entirely gone in training prisons. I will see what I can do in 1973, but the trouble is that while nobody likes mailbag sewing for its own sake, one is faced with the problem of providing a simple job which can sometimes be done in an individual cell and is susceptible of being picked up and put down by somebody who may be going for an interview or may be on only two or three days' remand. Simple, unskilled handwork is difficult to come by in industry nowadays. We are doing our best to replace mailbag work but, with the best will in the world, the alternatives are not easy to find. I agree with the noble Lord, however, on this issue—and I am not here going into the "foxhunting refuge".

Pay is another matter currently before the Working Party. The noble Lord mentioned bonuses and incentives. We have incentive schemes in operation, and about 4,000 prisoners under such schemes are now earning up to £1.84 a week. There are a large number of other establishments where work is done on piece rates, and that includes the cleaners and kitchen staff who are rewarded as a result of work study according to effort, which shows that this process goes right across the establishment. I assure noble Lords that these schemes keep up with inflation; the rates have been put up three times in the last three years.

Regarding the pre-release employment scheme, the reason for the four-year threshold is that it is considered—the line must be drawn somewhere—that that is the moment at which people can become institutionalised, and it may be useful to introduce them to the outside world. The trouble at the moment is that the hostels are under-used, partly because probation is taking away people who might otherwise be suitable, and it is difficult to find jobs of the kind that people can do in the immediate vicinity of the hostels we have. This is a very worrying situation.

As for "slopping out" and sanitation, the new prisons do not suffer from those indignities. Again, overcrowding is a basic cause. Old buildings are another. If we could get rid of overcrowding the position would be a little less intolerable; but the only real answer is major reconstruction. The discharge grant which the noble Lord mentioned is also before the Working Party, as are many of these points, including that of bread and water. The purpose of the grant has changed since 1964. It is now meant only to tide someone over his immediate expenditure until he can get supplementary benefit on going out, and an extra £4 can be paid direct to homeless people as an advance for rent. This is an improvement, though the noble Lord was a little "sniffy" about it.

On the question of food, the essence is training of catering staff and imagination in the use of money. I was pleased, after the business of the dogs and the prisoners at Leicester Prison, to read a transcript from a local Leicester Radio programme the other day which said that the food had been carefully looked at by people who I think were not likely to be biased in favour of the Prison Service, and we came out very well on quality, amount and variety. This is, therefore, some- thing that is very much in our minds. The important thing is to get the catering staff trained. The other day I went to Kirkham, where there is a training scheme running in conjunction with the Technical College in Blackpool. The food is excellent—I had lunch there—and the results of the courses will, we hope, improve yet further the standards as people go back to their prisons and borstals and put into effect what they have learned.

My Lords, I am afraid I have had to deal briefly with many of the points that have been raised in the debate, but one could write an essay on each one of them. I must, however, deal with the question of communications. I will leave out the existing channels of communication through which prisoners can go. I appreciate the interest of noble Lords in this matter, but there is a varied and very complex hierarchy of communication. It is important to remember that these communications exist. All I will say about them is that in the process a great number of grievances are put right. When they are not put right to the satisfaction of the prisoner there is usually a very good answer. If there is not, and if a mistake has been made, it almost always comes to light and is rectified. The official hierarchy of complaint and grievance procedure is thorough but, as a result is not necessarily very quick.

However, I feel that what the noble Lord was really asking was: how far in this day and age should prisoners have as it were a corporate voice in the discussion of conditions and improvements? I say "how far" because in about half of the prison establishments and borstals there are already schemes whereby people can take part in consultative committees of groups of one sort or another. For the most part these groups are functional. They discuss matters like catering, and they sometimes draw prisoners to some degree into the management of institutions and give them an opportunity to contribute to decision-making. Experiments are taking place to see how much further this sort of functional committee system can sensibly and safely be taken

We must, of course, take care to bring the staff with us and make certain that they are convinced, as are the prisoners, that this is a good way to go about the matter.

However, I do not think that committees of this sort provide the complete answer. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that they are widespread merely to show that it would be wrong to draw from the noble Lord's speech the idea that there are no channels of corporate communication in the system now, or that there is nothing but a gulf between the authorities and the prisoners. We are looking at matters in addition to the ordinary functional committees on television, catering and so on. There is at one prison a quite sophisticated experiment going on whereby staff/prisoner consultative committees are built into each level of the line management of the prison. For example, there are on each wing committees representing the staff and prisoners, with a central committee discussing matters that cannot be disposed of by wing committees. There is a good deal to be said for the noble Lord's suggestion that the wing should meet as a whole, rather than having elected committees. There are difficulties about this in large local prisons, as the noble Lord will recognise, but it is important to see that the management structure of the prison provides for points raised in discussion to be taken further. This is where we start to run into difficulty.

A talking shop may be all right but it can increase tension rather than reduce it, and that kind of situation arises when people start demanding things that neither the wing officers nor the prison as a whole, nor even my right honourable friend the Secretary of State himself, can provide. If you get to the situation where they are negotiating either against, or possibly over the head of, the local prison staff, then you get into a dangerous situation and one where you can cause more trouble than good. It is that sort of balance and care that we have to use in studying this machinery. We are trying to provide advances in this field. We have looked at difficulties that have arisen abroad and on the whole I think I can tell the noble Lord that we are pursuing this matter as carefully as we can and with a good deal of enthusiasm, though with some caution. These points really all pull together, because that also is a management matter.

What I must finish up with—I am sorry I have gone on for rather a long time, but the noble Lord asked me a great many questions, and he was entitled to an answer to them—is that when one is talking about these individual aspects of prison life and régime, on the one hand, and, on the other, the constructive approach that the noble Lord, Lord Soper, was particularly mentioning, of involving prisoners realistically in aspects of their life where they can participate to their own satisfaction and to the satisfaction of the staff, you have to talk about it against a background or found it upon a substructure of orderliness, discipline and mutual tolerance, at the very least, between prisoners and staff. I say "at the very least" because that has to be built up by every possible means so that you get the whole relationship: there is one of training staff and retraining them if necessary to deal with the individual aspects of each prisoner, which I mentioned before. We have to build it up to a total environment—if I can use the overworked word—of rehabilitation. But that kind of reform and rehabilitation will never be possible without that substructure of good management and orderliness. I believe that when my right honourable friend stressed this the other day he was perfectly right.

I have been reading (and I get masses of letters passed on to me from prisoners) of complaints from people in prisons where demonstrations and troubles took place. They said, "We took no part in these, yet we could not go out on exercise and the food was late and cold. We did not go to work. We have had no pay. The place has been in chaos. Why should we be subjected to this treatment?" Of course, if the staff are engaged in putting down a major demonstration and are getting people down off the roof, other innocent people do not get on with any rehabilitative work at all and it stands to reason that they suffer. I am sorry about that, but the first priority is to restore order and get things back to normal. That is the first way in which lack of discipline and order affects the individual lives and individual rehabilitation of the prisoners themselves. It is interesting, but it goes further than that. I know myself of one important meeting of senior officials in the Prison Department who were dealing with just the kind of thing that the noble Lord has been talking about this afternoon, but who could not meet because of the demonstrations. The meeting was put off, the discussions did not take place and the reforms were put back simply because they were diverted by people raising cain in one prison or another across the country. It is worth saying these things. I said so on television on one occasion because people should realise that this is what it means when people try to take the law into their own hands and upset authority and discipline. We must build in the way that the noble Lord has suggested, but we must build on that good order and discipline first. What has been so pleasant about this debate is that it has been orderly and constructive. I am grateful to the noble Lord for the Question and I hope that I shall be able to report further progress later on.