HL Deb 05 July 1976 vol 372 cc1079-132

5.34 p.m.

The Earl of LONGFORD rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to reduce the prison population in accordance with the policy stated, more than once, by the Home Secretary. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I rise to ask Her Majesty's Government the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I yield to no one in a general appreciation of our Labour Government, and I yield to no one in my respect for the abilities and good intentions of my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich, who is to reply. I am delighted that he has been asked, we understand, to take over responsibility for prison questions within the Home Office. I would be happier still if he were to be publicly designated Minister for Penal Affairs, or given some such title, because no Home Secretary will ever have time to give adequate time to prisoners, although he must always retain ultimate responsibility. However, that is a matter for another day.

My Lords, even the best of Governments are subject to human fallibility. In the area selected for discussion today, the reduction of the prison population, the record of the Government is, indeed, a sad one. Obviously there is some excuse at a time when crime has been rapidly increasing, an issue highly relevant to our discussions this afternoon, but I must leave that also for another occasion. I submit that this excuse is quite insufficient, particularly in view of the declared attitudes of the Home Secretary.

When I opened a general debate on prisons in this House two years ago, the Home Secretary had recently committed himself to a vigorous attack on the numbers confined to prison. The latest figures available at that time revealed a prison population of 35,000. On 31st July last year, a year later, the Home Secretary had this to say at the annual meeting of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, usually known as NACRO. The Home Secretary said: The prison population now stands at over 40,500, 5,000 up on the previous figure. It has never been higher. If it should rise to, say, 42,000 conditions in the system would approach the intolerable and drastic action to relieve the position will be inescapable. We are perilously close to that position now.

We may have been rather close then, but we are a great deal closer at the present time, for now, a year later, the prison population, according to the last figures available to me, stands at 41,800, so we have practically reached the position the Home Secretary said would be intolerable. That is the position we have reached now and, of course, at this rate, we do not know where we shall be a few months from now.

We are entitled, to say the least, to know from the noble Lord on behalf of the Home Secretary whether the Home Secretary and his colleagues are prepared without delay to take the drastic action which the Home Secretary promised last year. Many suggestions have been made, and are being made, for dealing with this intractable problem. There have been a good many valuable contributions in the newspapers. There have been articles in the Daily Telegraph, discussions in the correspondence columns of The Times, and the Guardian never fails to show a deep interest in penal affairs. Mr. Nicholas Hinton, Director of NACRO, has made suggestions of particular relevance. My Lords, in addition to proposals which I shall myself be dealing with, NACRO calls—and I pick out three points in particular—for additional accommodation to be provided through the medium of both housing associations and local authority housing stock; education, especially in literacy, through facilities which already exist, and employment by the provision of occupational workshops such as the pilot model which NACRO has been running in Manchester for two years.

For a long time, a much more liberal use of bail has been widely demanded, and I am glad for that and other reasons, that the great expert on these matters, in the form of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, along with other notables, will be speaking later in the debate. The new Bail Bill carries us a little way in that direction, although many of us would like to have gone forward much further, and faster. NACRO and the Howard League put forward three basic proposals for improving the Bail Bill, and I hope that my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich will be able to say something as to whether the Government can or intend to meet them in a substantial way.

My Lords, for reasons of brevity, I must confine myself to three topics: first, a more liberal use of parole; secondly, shorter prison sentences; and, thirdly, a rapid extension of alternative remedies to prison. Let us first take parole, which was last discussed in this House about a year ago. At that time, I accused those responsible for parole—that is, the Home Secretary, the Home Office and the Parole Board—of being far too timid. I accused them of being much too frightened of public opinion, real or alleged, to give effect overall to the ideas of humanity and wisdom which I have no doubt they share with us at heart. I must regretfully repeat that charge today.

However, I strive to be fair. I repeat my previous tribute to the benevolence and distinction of the Chairman of the Parole Board, Sir Louis Petch. I acknowledge—I could not fail to acknowledge —that the proportion of those receiving parole has risen considerably during the last year. To quote the Parole Board report: The percentage of favourable recommendations was 32.8 per cent. in 1974 and 39.7 per cent. in 1975.

It would be agreeable to think, but perhaps over-vain to think, that our debate here last year, which the Home Secretary was good enough to describe as very constructive, played some small part in bringing about that improvement. But whether or not that is the case, let us say to those responsible in this immediate connection, "Thank you for the small, the not so very small, mercy revealed in the improvement in the figures ".

But alas! the old confusion of mind—or should we call it the old Jekyll and Hyde mentality ?—is still distorting the practice of the parole authorities. In response to a suggestion of mine and others, here and elsewhere, the Parole Board have been good enough to publish the guidelines provided for the local review boards. If anybody has plenty of time to spare I suggest that he studies those guidelines, but not otherwise. They are appallingly verbose, they run to about six pages, and I would think that any normal local parole board might well be befuddled at the end. Sir Louis Petch put the matter much more clearly in a recent lecture, and I am now quoting him: In the case of those who have committed serious crimes of violence or major professional crimes, parole is only to be considered when there is good reason to believe that they will avoid crime in future—in other words, there must be positive evidence of a change. But in other cases "—

that would be, of course, the great majority of cases— parole should be seriously considered, unless there is positive evidence of a continuing antisocial attitude and an intention to return to crime ".

As I say, if you have only time to read what Sir Louis Petch wrote or the six pages of instructions, I should choose what Sir Louis Petch wrote.

The principles here stated are unexceptionable enough. The trouble is that the Parole Board so often fail to live up to their own principles. I have only time for two examples. Last year several of us raised the case of Mr. Michael Luvaglio, who had then served eight years in prison without being even considered for parole. A year later he has still not been considered, and he is a model prisoner who should obtain, is expected to obtain, an Open University degree by the end of this year. I repeat what I said last year on this subject, and what others said, with interest, in every sense. In the last few days we have read that parole has been refused to Mr. John Poulson. I can only describe that as an indefensible piece of cruelty. I have not met Mr. Poulson or been in touch with him, though I visited Wakefield recently, incidentally meeting Mr. Luvaglio for the first time, and Mr. Poulson is in prison there. The Bishop of Wakefield, who, unfortunately, cannot be with us today, sees both Mr. Luvaglio and Mr. Poulson regularly. I am assured that Mr. Poulson, like Mr. Luvaglio, is a model prisoner, though in a different sense. Mr. Luvaglio is bursting with energy, a young man full of vigour. I suppose I should not call Mr. Poulson an old man, because he is slightly younger than I am, but he is by many standards elderly, and he is in feeble health. No one in Wakefield, or anyone else, supposes that if Mr. Poulson were released he would represent any kind of danger to the public; no one outside a mental home would suppose that. It is the old, wretched story. The authorities—of course, I cannot distinguish here between the Home Secretary and the Parole Board; we do not know what goes on as between them—are so anxious to avoid this hypothetical public criticism that they cannot bring themselves to do what they know as well as we do is the only just and decent thing in a case like this. Or so it seems to me. Is there some other explanation? Could it be that the Parole Board are confusing their function with that of a sentencing judge and deciding for themselves that such-and-such a sentence is appropriate for Mr. Poulson's crime? If that is their state of mind, I would say they are totally misunderstanding their duty.

At this point I should mention the strong and growing demand in criminological circles that when parole is refused the reasons for the refusal should be given. It would appear that the door here is not altogether closed, to judge from what Sir Louis has written in the last report of the Parole Board, and we may hear more about that from the Minister when he replies. I add my voice with conviction to those who are pressing for a change. I think myself that the intellectual confusion of which I feel bound to accuse the Board would be largely dissipated by the change.

It may be, of course, some people say, that no individual is confused; and I do not think Sir Louis is likely to be easily confused; he is clearly not only a very honest but also a very straight-thinking man. It may be, we are told, that differences between members of the Parole Board cannot be reconciled in a coherent statement. There are rumours that the judges—and I shall have a word to say about them later; it would be unfair to say that we have none of the judges here because they are represented here—are inclined to demand a tougher line than their colleagues. Contradictions of this kind could not, I believe, long survive exposure to the light of day. Reasons for refusing parole to, shall we say, Mr. Poulson or many others like him would look so nonsensical if they were actually published that he and many others like him who are now refused parole would receive it, and receive it the first time round.

I am afraid that I have reached the conclusion that the confusion of thought to which I have referred is so deeply embedded in the theory and practice of our parole system at the moment that a more radical change is needed. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who, like Sir Louis, has done splendid work in his time as Chairman of the Parole Board, has pointed the way forward, last year and again more recently. Lord Hunt has written to me to express his regret at being absent. lie summaries his conclusions in this sentence: My view is that parole should be the normal expectation of eligible prisoners—those serving more than 18 months.

That would, of course, mean that a great many more people obtain parole. Without subscribing to every detail of the noble Lord's proposals, I declare my support emphatically for him in principle, that parole should become the normal expectation. I should like to ask the Minister—and he has had notice of this one question—whether legislation is necessary for such a proposal as that made by Lord Hunt, and now by me. If not, let us get on with that proposal forthwith. If legislation is required, the sooner it is prepared the better. The Minister shakes his head; so we can assume that legislation is not necessary. I beg him to get on with it fast.

My remaining two topics are shorter sentences and alternatives to prison. They cannot be kept strictly apart; they could be perfectly well combined. Precise comparisons are not easy. Perhaps Lord Gardiner will speak at greater length on this. But there seems no doubt that sentences today are a good deal higher for the same offence than they used to be. If the Home Secretary controlled the length of sentences an obvious method open to him of reducing the prison population would be to cut down the sentences. But, we are told, the Home Secretary does not in fact control the sentences and therefore cannot be blamed for not reducing them. Obviously, there is some force in that, but not, I submit. the whole truth.

It is reasonable to ask what steps the Home Secretary and his colleagues, not- ably the Lord Chancellor, were taking to educate public opinion, and above all, to educate the judges who are primarily responsible for the sentences which, in the opinion of most people taking part in these debates for many years, are too heavy, and getting heavier. I am sure that Mr. Blom-Cooper, QC., chairman of the Howard League, is absolutely right and it is imperative to pass legislation reducing maximum sentences. I am aware that a year ago the Home Secretary asked the Advisory Council to undertake a major inquiry into sentencing; a report is expected by the end of the year. We cannot, I suppose, expect much action before then, but can we expect it then in the light of the recent record?

At the time of our general debate on prisons two years ago the report of the Advisory Council on Young Offenders had just been published. It would have kept a large number of young people out of penal institutions and provided supervision in the community. The chairman of that committee was Sir Kenneth Younger, and may I take this opportunity of paying heartfelt tribute to one of the most unselfish and unwearying of all penal reformers. The House welcomed the report with enthusiasm, as did Mr. Roy Jenkins—then and now Home Secretary. But what has happened in the last two years? For all practical purposes, nothing. We can place the responsibility on more than one pair of shoulders. We can place it on those of the Probation Service for their reservations, or on those of the Home Office for dealing without any special rapidity with those reservations. But, from the point of view of penal progress, the result is a bad story. I can only hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that at last some positive action is being taken to follow up the main conclusions of the Younger Report.

It would be unfair not to recognise that more than one alternative to prison has been introduced in recent years, but the numbers involved are still small. A few days ago I visited a day training centre, which I visited before the debate of 1974. There are now perhaps 70 inmates in the four day training centres; but 70 inmates is not very many compared with 42,000 in prison. It is, of course, understood to be an experimental affair. I have formed a most favourable impression of the part they could play as an introduction to a pro longed period of probation. The clients and the probation officers spoke with equal enthusiasm about the new sense of mutual trust and shared responsibilities, so I hope that this experiment will be pushed forward and a very large expansion of day training centres follow.

Another alternative which has been expanded far more rapidly is the community service orders. Under these orders, as the House is aware, a man or a woman is required to undertake work of value to the community in his spare time, probably at the weekend. In the last full year community service orders have been imposed on just under 5,000 individuals and the rate is accelerating, with eminently satisfactory results. A high proportion, perhaps half of these, would otherwise have gone to prison, so maybe 2,500 people—not by any means a negligible figure, but a limited figure—have been kept out of prison during the past year for varying periods.

So far, so good. I am not here just to say that everything is wrong and nobody is doing anything. Far from it. But if you ask why many more thousands are not kept out of prison in the same way, the answer received is disquieting. To multiply the community service orders and, for that matter, to make use of other alternatives to prison, we should need to expand rapidly the number of probation officers and, under the latest economy plans, this is forbidden. But the folly of—


My Lords, with great respect to my noble friend, whom I am following, the Probation Service is one of the very few that is being allowed to grow in the current financial year.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, I did not say all expansion was forbidden. I am afraid that the noble Lord was not following me as closely as he usually does, because I said "rapid expansion "; an expansion of the kind that would involve many thousands more people being placed under community service orders. I carefully said "rapid expansion ". Of course I know that some expansion is permitted. Referring to what the noble Lord has just said, perhaps it is my bad articulation.

But the folly of this argument in the area under discussion becomes apparent when we compare what it costs to keep a man in prison, on the one hand, and out of prison on a community service order, on the other. A precise comparison here is impossible, so perhaps I had better not even attempt one; it will only lead to me being shot down by the noble Lord and we should spend time on arguing the details. I will not try to make comparisons. It is enough to say that it costs about £3,000 a year to keep someone in prison. We are all aware that it costs a small proportion of that to place him on probation, or put him under a community service order. However you make the comparison, the disparity is so staggering as to demonstrate conclusively that it is the falsest of false economies to keep men in prison if they could be given treatment outside.

I must emphasise that I am not suggesting anything that would involve an increase of public expenditure beyond what is planned. It will happen some day, but I am not arguing for that now. But the way that expenditure is allocated may prohibit for the time being an adequate expansion of the Probation Service. I am not saying it would prohibit every expansion but an adequate expansion, an imaginative expansion of the Probation Service. In that case—and I admit that I do not think that I have given the noble Lord notice of this, perhaps I should have done—why not second sufficient men and women from the Prison Service to work with the Probation Service in supervising offenders in the community? I feel confident from my inquiries that such a plan, a combined co-operation between the Probation Service and the Prison Service, would appeal to all the most enlightened members of our Prison Service. I do not say that just because I wish it were so: I have made inquiries. At present that Service earns our national respect, but it suffers from the handicap of a certain isolation which would be partly remedied by what I have suggested.

There are other alternatives to prison which I would gladly explore if there were more time, along with the ultimate issue of whether there is any place at all for prison as we know it in a just society. PROP, the organisation of ex-prisoners, insists that prison should be turned into a place of social education. That would involve a much more constructive role for the average prison officer, which indeed he himself aspires to, and which some of us here and elsewhere have been proposing for many years, going right back to the first debate we ever held here.

I give the Government credit for having no love of incarceration for its own sake, and for being entirely sincere in their desire to reduce the numbers in confinement. Yet these same numbers go up and up and the Government of the day, irrespective of Party, flap their hands in feeble remonstrance and seem unable to rouse themselves to action. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, will be able to tell us that the time for deliberation is over and that the Government are setting out to give effect to their own instincts, and their own promises, and to take at last the practical steps to achieve their own accepted purposes and ours.

5.58 p.m.


My Lords, I am very pleased that the noble Earl has raised this point again, because there are one or two things I should like to add to what he has been saying. Over this weekend I have been reading a report by a lady called Charlotte Banks who interviewed 800 prisoners in the South-East of the country. She found that 90 men, over 11 per cent. of these people, who were in prison for petty offences, were homeless. When it came to people who were re-convicted, 66 per cent. were homeless as opposed to 26 per cent. of those who were not homeless. That rather makes one think that one way of reducing the prison population is to deal with the homeless situation, because we all know that accommodation, particularly for single people, is falling quickly, both in hostels and lodging houses.

A number of voluntary bodies are endeavouring to work in this connection and one, the Cyrenians, with which I am particularly involved, has 27 communities affiliated to it. It said in its annual report for 1976: We are concerned that no man or woman, young or old, should join the ranks of rough sleepers simply through lack of adequate housing. In the same way, a large number of people who turn up in these houses have been for a short or long time in psychiatric hospitals, while quite a number of them have been in prison for offences which should not now be imprisonable. I am thinking particularly of drunkenness by itself, and we should like to see the repeal of the Vagrancy Acts and the Licensing Act 1872, which I think created the offence of simple drunkenness. I have no wish to defend those who are drunk and disorderly, but it seems shocking that a person should go to prison merely for being drunk. I am pleased to note that the Home Office has given help to a number of hostels—I think nearly 200 hostels have been helped by grants from the Home Office. That is a good way to reduce the number of people who may go to prison.


My Lords, being a magistrate sitting in Central London, I am very interested in what the noble Lord is saying about drunkenness. I cannot off hand remember the last time when somebody was actually sent to prison for being drunk. I therefore wonder from where the noble Lord gets his figures.


My Lords, I do not know of anyone having been sent to prison for that offence, but I know someone who was arrested and kept in custody for 24 hours merely because he was drunk. There was no question of the person in question being drunk and disorderly; just drunk, and indeed he was drunk at the time. That shows that what I said can occur and I should like to see that possibility being removed, even though it may not occur often.

There is another way to reduce the prison population, though perhaps not greatly. One comes across mentally ill prisoners, people suffering from some sort of mild psychiatric trouble, who are not bad enough to be sent to Broad moor or the other place, the name of which escapes me, which is for dangerous psychiatric prisoners. However, great difficulty is found in finding hospitals prepared to take them, so they are sent to prison, perhaps not for long, when really they need some sort of mental treatment.

While I do not wish to appear unkind or unfair—and I do not think it is the fault of my medical or nursing colleagues —perhaps much is due to the fact that some of those who work in hospitals (I will not say which type) say that they do not want such a man to come into their hospital because he may be dangerous or cause trouble. That sort of thing is what one must accept if one decides to work in the Health Service; one is liable to a certain amount of danger, and that danger may come from a patient injuring one or by one getting an infectious disease from a patient. I should like to see that attitude changed so that it would be possible for a court to send a man or woman for medical treatment and not be obliged to send him or her to prison simply because the hospital authorities say they cannot admit the person.

Another, perhaps minor, point I wish to raise may not have much bearing on the prison population, although it might. So far as I know, there is at present no de-toxification centre in National Health Service hospitals for those who are drunk to get detoxified. Things have been promised about this and the matter has been discussed, including the question of the homeless and the drunk. I support the noble Earl, Lord Longford, in asking this Question in the hope that we can find ways of reducing the prison population. I will not repeat the various examples which the noble Earl gave—they are on the record—but he quoted a number of cases which I would support. I therefore hope that when the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, replies, he will be able to give us some encouragement.

6.7 p.m.


My Lords, I ask for your Lordships' indulgence on this occasion when I am addressing the House for the first time. I hope to contribute occasionally in future to discussions which affect the rights and freedoms of individuals as contrasted with the rights demanded by organised groups of people. In that context, this is an apropriate subject because even prisoners have some rights left to them. There is a second reason why this subject is appropriate for me: I have been in prison and so I speak to your Lordships literally with inside information.

I do not think one realises how utterly precious and priceless the basic freedoms are—the freedoms of action, of movement and, possibly more especially, of communi- cation—until one has been deprived of them; and I believe that it is the right of prisoners to have those freedoms restored to them at the earliest possible moment. I start by drawing attention to two examples of what I would describe as administrative casualness in relation to the granting of parole. The first appears in the actual licence to prisoners released on parole and is illustrated on page 23 of the report of the Parole Board for 1975, the relevant piece of which I will quote: The Secretary of State hereby authorises the release on licence of…within 15 days of the date hereof. What could be more casual than that? Why not say, "at the earliest possible moment "? It is a horrible example of the casual attitude which creeps into the administration of parole.

The second example covers a much larger proportion of prisoners. I am not saying that the first example covers anyone, but the second example affects a very large number of prisoners. It is a small but very important effect. It arises from the eligibility rules which are laid down in Section 60 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967 and, again, it is illustrated in the report of the Parole Board (page 16): The Secretary of State may, if recommended to do so by the Parole Board, release on licence a person serving a sentence of imprisonment other than imprisonment for life after he has served not less than one-third of his sentence or 12 months thereof, whichever expires later. This relates to the 12 months limit rather than the one-third limit because 12 months is 52 weeks and one day. If it were exactly 52 weeks, it would not matter, but 52 weeks and one day means that, for every prisoner sentenced on a Friday who is eligible for parole under the 12 months' rule, the earliest date of eligibility will fall on a Saturday in the following year. Prisoners are not released from prison at a weekend, so every prisoner sentenced on a Friday has to spend an extra weekend in prison—that is, 52 weeks and three days instead of 52 weeks and one day. I faced my judge on a Friday and I spent that extra weekend in prison.

To turn to more serious matters, I do not understand why 100 per cent. of those who are in open prisons are not given parole at the first review. They are not, however, and it is chiefly those with longer sentences—those of four years and over—who do not get their recommendations at the first review. It appears almost as though there were an unwritten rule that prisoners with longer sentences should serve at least half their sentence. Your Lordships will see that the statistics of the Parole Board tend to confirm this. Page 27 of Appendix 3 contains Table 2, which sets out determinate sentences, sentence cases considered at first review by the Parole Board in 1975, showing the percentage of favourable recommendations according to the type of offence and length of sentence. The type of offence is not what is interesting here; rather, it is the length of sentence. Of those who receive sentences of under four years, over 66 per cent. are recommended for parole at the first review because it is the only review they have. However, as soon as one reaches the sentences of four years and over, successful recommendations on first review drop right down to 39.6 per cent. for four years and 20.7 per cent. for four years 11 months and thereafter. So it appears as though the Parole Board were acting according to some unwritten rule. I should like to suggest that what the noble Earl, Lord Longford, said is right and that the Board appear to be acting in a semi-judicial capacity.

My final point is the question of reporting for parole. The reports have to be put in by all sorts of officials. It is a very difficult task for them. They have to report positively on each case. It is arduous for the prison officials making the reports; it is sometimes alarming for the prisoners who are subject to those reports. I want to give my own example. I faced an interview with a very senior prison officer who was very friendly. He welcomed me and, when I had sat down, asked me how I was getting on in job X. It is true that I had applied for job X six or seven weeks before the interview. I did not get it until seven weeks after the interview, yet there was a senior official reporting on me—favourably, I hope and assume—to the Parole Board and he did not know what I was doing in the prison.

I should like again to support the noble Earl, Lord Longford, in his last proposition. I believe the time has come for the guidelines to the Parole Board to be reversed. I believe that the reports should only be negatived and that prisoners should be assumed to be suitable for parole at the first opportunity unless the negative reports against them have built up to the extent that the Parole Board have to recommend that parole should not be granted. My Lords, I hope that what I have said tonight may help one or two prisoners to get their parole a little more quickly than happens at the moment.

6.18 p.m.


My Lords, it is a great pleasure to me to be the first to be in a position to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Spens, on his maiden speech. We usually say of a maiden speech that it should not be too controversial and we always welcome any speaker with knowledge of his subject. I felt that the noble Lord's speech was the most moving and courageous I have heard. It will assist the House in the serious questions before it. The noble Lord spoke with experience and I hope that he will not feel that this maiden speech is, in the view of the House, sufficient. In this House, we cannot have too many of those who have personal knowledge of the field of penal reform and I hope very much that we shall hear the noble Lord speak again before long.

I suppose that I must start, as do most of us who approach this subject, with the same facts as were mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Longford. May I say at once how indebted we all are to him for having put down this Question? therefore begin with the unacceptable number of 42,000 to which the noble Earl referred and with the fact that we have only 193 to go to reach that figure. I also return to the fact that something really must be done to reduce the appalling overcrowding in our prisons.

There are many categories to which one might refer. The cases which depress me most are those of young people of 14, 15 and 16 who are being given custodial treatment in ever greater numbers. The proportion of crimes which they commit in the community has increased, but it has not done so in more than the proportion in which crimes committed by adults have increased. So really they are only following their elders and betters in their example. There must be a more sensible way of dealing with 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds than sending them to custodial institutions. During almost all my time at the Bar I heard the tedious repetition of approved school, borstal, prison, almost as though the second and third were bound to follow the first. I think that society may yet have to pay a heavy price for the extent to which it is now herding young criminals together.

There are many other categories whom we ought seriously to consider whether they should be sent to prison at all. I cannot conceive what sense it makes to send drunks to prison—either for being drunk or for not paying a fine which they have not the money to pay; and very often there are cases where time to pay is refused—nor prostitutes, debtors, the passive inadequates and those of whom the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, has spoken, who obviously need psychiatric treatment but cannot get any hospital to take them. Naturally, I fully agree with what my noble friend Lord Longford said as to the need to develop the alternatives, particularly community service orders and day training centres, which have already thoroughly justified themselves, but whose expansion is so very slow.

There is also the question of improving parole. Here I hope that the Home Office itself will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Spens, for the practical points he raised; and of course I agree with everything which my noble friend Lord Longford said on that matter. There is also the matter of bail, which we have recently discussed at some length in this House. I do not know whether my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich will be able to tell us whether the Government felt able to move any further in the other place, particularly on the question of not refusing bail for an offence which is not an imprisonable offence.

Furthermore, there is a subject which I believe has not yet been referred to—decriminalisation—which a number of countries have considered. A Justice Committee is now sitting, dealing with the question of decriminalisation, and considering whether there are not matters which are criminal offences at the moment and, whether or not they are good conduct, really ought not to be criminal offences at all. The Committee has experienced a little delay because it did not know how many criminal offences there are. The Committee asked the Home Office, but it said that it could not find out. The Committee now has a grant in order to start making the first inquiry which apparently has ever been made into how many criminal offences there actually are.

Personally I should place more stress on that which has already been referred to both by my noble friend Lord Longford and the noble Lord, Lord Amulree—namely, the reduction of sentences—than on any of the other methods of decreasing the prison population. I would not myself at all approve of the Home Secretary being able to direct judges on what sentences they were to pass. We need our independent Judiciary. But it is a mistake, I think—subject to what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest, may think—to say that judges do not receive with appreciation helpful information. After all, considerable research work has been done by the Home Office Research Unit, the Cambridge Insitute and other bodies over the past 20 years as to what are the comparable effects of treating people in different ways. This type of material is not regularly given by the Home Secretary to the Judiciary for its information.

Why is it, for example, that such a far higher proportion of our population is in prison compared with the proportions in the populations of, say, Norway, Denmark, Holland and Belgium? Have our judges been made aware that when Holland, a few years ago, reduced sentences there by 50 per cent. it had no adverse effect of any kind on the crime rate? If every judge, when thinking of passing sentence, would reduce the sentence he had in mind by one-sixth it would have an enormous effect on the overcrowding in our prisons and on the financial position, because my noble friend Lord Longford has already pointed out that all the alternatives to imprisonment are so very much cheaper than imprisonment.

My Lords, I do not want to say anything further on any ground already touched upon, but I wish to say few words on a subject that is not usually dealt with in this kind of debate; namely, the prison rules. I am delighted to hear that my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich is now the Minister in charge of prisons. A year or two ago I attended a rather long conference on detention, which was the first one organised by the British Institute of Human Rights. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Kilbrandon, was the chairman of the conference and we had three committees: one on detention before trial, conviction or acquittal, of which Sir Kenneth Younger was chairman ; one on detention in emergency conditions, of which Sir Leslie Scarman was chairman ; and one on detention after sentence, of which I was chairman.

My committee's report and recommendations were accepted by the conference as a whole. The conference comprised mainly judges, lawyers, probation officers, justices of the peace and men with considerable knowledge of their subject, and it unanimously agreed to the following. I am not going to mention all the points, but, first, my committee felt that the Home Office should give some thoughtful study to the question how far our prison rules conform to the standard minimum rules of the United Nations. Secondly, we said that, naturally enough, we were appalled at the degree of overcrowding. Thirdly, we said We invite the Home Office to appoint a body to inquire into the present system of boards of visitors; we are of the opinion that their two functions of (1) inquiring into the administration of a prison and hearing complaints and (2) hearing and determining disciplinary proceedings ought to be performed by different bodies. We think that such inquiry should also cover the questions: whether disciplinary proceedings should not be an oath; whether prisoners and prison officers should not be entitled to be represented… and so forth. The Home Office took no action on that. But the Howard League for Penal Reform and NAC Justice and NACRO appointed a committee, of which the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, was chairman. The committee made a long and careful report which bore out very much what we had said. It is quite incompatible for a body which is, so to speak, the prisoner's friend, hearing complaints on Monday, then on Tuesday determining disciplinary complaints in which its powers are considerable—because if it orders loss of remission of six months, that is equivalent to sending a man to prison for another nine months. That careful report was made more than a year ago and I should be grateful if my noble friend can tell me what progress the Home Office has made in giving consideration to the report.

My committee also said : We hope that the Government will implement the recommendations of the Franks Committee on the Official Secrets Act and so diminish the extraordinary degree to which secrecy is maintained by the Home Office about everything which goes on in our prisons. I shall not disguise from your Lordships that I am not a very strong supporter of what I think is called investigative journalism. At the same time, I think that in some respects we are not as open a society as we should be. What goes on in prisons is, or ought to be, clearly of interest to the community as a whole, just as one of the first things I think I did with the assistance of the present noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack was to issue a call for more criticism of the administration of justice. It is good for everybody to be able to criticise, and in a democracy they ought to be able to do so; but everything to do with prisons is so wrapped up in a veil of secrecy. Why on earth should the prison chaplain be subject to the Official Secrets Act? Why should any welfare officer who finds something very wrong in a prison be unable to mention it to a soul except the Home Office? This covers really everybody in our prisons.

Then we said: We also welcome the steps taken to free from censorship mail in women's prisons and open prisons, and believe that, save for very clearly defined exceptions, all mail in prisons should be free from reading and censorship except that incoming mail should be examined for contraband in the presence of the prisoner. Of course, there is a topical example in this field in the case of the man who was refused permission to write to a solicitor about legal proceedings, in consequence of which we got into difficulties because of a breach of the European Convention. Some of us, I must say, are very disappointed that, while the Home Secretary has altered a prison rule to allow a letter to a solicitor for legal proceedings, this has been so narrowly framed as not to include a prisoner who wants to petition the Home Secretary, perhaps to ask him to refer his case back to the Court of Appeal—and, as your Lordships know, too often lately the truth in a case has come out not on the appeal but only when the Home Secretary has referred the case back to the Court of Appeal subsequently; and I explained the reasons for that in the debate last week. But here is an important occasion on which a man may quite properly, I should have thought, want the advice of his solicitor in the framing of his petition: but as I understand it the Home Secretary says, "No, a petition is not a legal proceeding, and therefore we cannot let prisoners write to a solicitor except to the very minimal extent provided by the decision at Strasbourg."

Then we said: We strongly urge the Government to look again at the difficulties placed in the way of discharged prisoners by their having unstamped insurance cards. We believe that the case for their cards being stamped, which has for so long been pressed on successive governments by all those concerned with the difficulties of discharged prisoners, is an unanswerable one. Then we said: We consider that, except on security grounds, a prisoner should be entitled to buy, or order through the public library, any book or publication available to the general public ". I really cannot see why not. I noticed from an Answer in the other place quite recently that at one prison a prisoner was entitled to receive the New Statesman, whereas at another prison he was forbidden to receive it. I do not put the point merely as an ex-chairman of the New Statesman, but it would not, I hope, be thought to be an extraordinarily subversive publication.

Then we said: We hope that steps will be taken to ensure that the rights of prisoners under the Legal Advice Act are made available to them without their having to petition the Home Secretary… We would welcome an extension of contacts between prisoners and the local population…In our view "— and this is a thing, I am afraid, on which I have spoken in your Lordships' House before— the prison medical service should form part of the National Health Service and prisoners should have a right to independent medical advice ". Then we said: We would emphasise in conclusion the extent to which proper standards of treatment are all affected by the degree of overcrowding in our prisons. A relatively small reduction in the average length of prison sentences is the only way in which the degree of overcrowding could speedily be reduced ". As those were all unanimous recommendations of men and women of considerable experience in this field, if the Home Office happen to have read the report, and if my noble friend can tell me what conclusions they have come to, I should be grateful.

6.35 p.m.

Viscount AMORY

My Lords, I am sure we are all very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for having introduced this subject to us, and for having enabled us to have this debate. We all enormously respect the amount of thought and study that the noble Earl has given to these problems of the penal system over many years. I should like to strongly support what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, said in offering our congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Spens, on his thoughtful and frank speech, which we found very interesting indeed.

These brief remarks come from one who, apart from membership for 18 months of an abortive Royal Commission, has no direct knowledge or experience of this subject. However, during those 18 months, as the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, will remember, we paid visits to a good many institutions, and certainly during the course of those visits I formed a very definite view that the whole philosophy and the policies underlying the use of prison sentences were in urgent need of rethinking, and that in the process of such rethinking the public must be brought, somehow or another, into full participation. Successive Home Secretaries have for decades declared themselves in favour of a wider substitution of sentences alternative to the custodial sentences in a great many cases, but in spite of that the prison population continues to rise. Obviously, a large number of offenders are in prison solely because the sentencing and the administrative authorities do not really know what else to do with them. It is significant that today, I think, there are 7,500 persons serving prison sentences of less than four weeks' duration. That really makes one think.

In passing, it is worth remembering that there is, I believe, a prison rule which is a reminder that people are not sent to prison to be punished there. The rise in crime, both in grave and in petty offences, over recent years must have aggravated the problems terribly, but the lack of progress in achieving an aim which has been for so long an agreed aim is deeply disappointing. Though my own view is clearly, from what I have already said, largely an uninformed one, I think I ought to declare my own conviction that the protection of the public ought to be the first and dominating aim of the penal system. Treatment and rehabilitation of the offender, if they conflict with that aim, must be secondary, though they should be pursued with energy and with a dedicated sense of purpose; but effective deterrents are essential.

Often, of course, these two aims of deterrence and treatment go together, and can be reconciled because the successful rehabilitation of an offender protects the public by eliminating the probability of a repetitive offence. The aim must be right, my Lords, that only those ought to be sent to prison who must be held in custody for the protection of the public or because the particular treatment they need cannot be obtained in any other way. If that aim could be achieved, the prison population would shrink dramatically, of course. Unfortunately, the authorities seem a very long way indeed away from finding themselves in a position where they can adopt such criteria entirely. I suppose the main reason is that in many cases it has proved very difficult indeed to devise alternatives to prison sentences which, in existing circumstances, are thought to provide equally effective deterrents. The notion of prison is understood and traditionally feared by most potential offenders, and it carries with it in a very marked way, of course, the disapprobation of one's fellow citizens.

Therefore, I suppose, arising from that, alternatives are apt to be regarded by the general public as soft options and, therefore, regarded with a certain degree of suspicion. Myself, I am not suggesting softer penalties for breaking the law. Indeed, I think a prison often presents inmates with too soft and undemanding challenges. I am not really suggesting lighter sentences—sometimes they seem to me to be not severe enough—but different sentences. I am suggesting that if we mean what has been so often said by successive Home Secretaries, that prison sentences should progressively become a means of last resort, then we must adopt far more readily a variety of alternatives which may involve certain limited risks to the public. Because of that, I think it is of crucial importance that the public should understand the reasoning behind the changes involved in the penal policies.

I have no new ideas myself, far less any panaceas, to propose. All I suggest is that which I think the noble Earl, Lord Longford, too, was suggesting: that having obtained a wider understanding by the public of the need for changes, then every public authority involved in sentencing or in treatment must push ahead, making use of all the various forms of non-custodial treatment already known even at some risks which I think are of a minor order. This, particularly, for that numerically large body of relatively minor offenders known as social inadequates, who need some degree of individual support but very seldom, one imagines, full custodial treatment: more bail, more use of parole, still more use of fines—and one wonders sometimes whether larger fines might not be used and fines the payment of which would be spread over a much longer period—more use of open and semi-open prisons and different kinds of hostel; continued use of suspended sentences; further experiments with day treatment and community service in appropriate cases. I was glad to hear the noble Earl, Lord Longford, say that the record to date of community service had been encouraging. That, I think, is a very good thing indeed—the kind of case where, if we get the door open a little and find the going is good, we ought to push for harder.

These are not heroic remedies; but if a much higher proportion of offenders could be treated out of prison, living in their own homes, earning their own livings, fulfilling their family responsibilities and being kept in normal circulation, the gains would be enormous. Treatment and rehabilitation would become more effective, large sums of public money would be saved and those really needing to be kept in custody would not interfere with the treatment of others.

My Lords, above all, I should like to support what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, said about the juveniles. Let us do everything we can to keep them out of institutions, if it is possible. I know how difficult that must be for magistrates and that often it is not possible for magistrates; but penal institutions, whatever new names they may be euphemistically given, really ought not to be places in which juveniles are put unless it is absolutely essential. They should be places, again, of last resort; because young people, adolescents, really do need desperately the natural challenges of home and jobs and normal life.

I think that while keeping before us the dominating importance of ensuring effective deterrents, all these various alternative forms that we have been talking about surely do offer the road to some further progress and the changes involved should be sought by trial and error and practical experimentation. Some of them will succeed; some of them will fail; but it seems to me that the price that has to be paid for following that route is so much less than the price that will have to be paid if we simply sit and accept the present position which is eminently unsatisfactory. My Lords, that is all that I have to say, and far more than I have any right to say, on this subject.

6.45 p.m.


My Lords, this is not the first occasion in this House when I have been grateful as have we all for the initiative of the noble Earl, Lord Longford. I want to thank him again for the opportunity he has given us of considering one of these vital matters in our common life. It may be necessary, and I think it is, for me again to state my own position. I believe that the prison system, in itself, is wrong and that, sooner or later, it must be abolished in order to give place for something more creative, less cowardly and much more effective. In the meantime, I am quite sure that sentences in one parameter of more than (shall we say?) six years are likely to irremedially and irreparably damage those who suffer those sentences. If your Lordships regard these opinions as far-fetched, may I say that I fetch them myself. As a prison chaplain for many years—which does not entitle me to say to the noble Lord, Lord Spens, that I understand fully (as I was fully moved by what he said) that deprivation of liberty that he suffered but I have a little more imaginative insight into what it must mean, having been within the walls of prisons for many hours and believing as I do that sooner or later a civilised community must supplant the whole system which is now called the prison system.

It is therefore with alacrity that I leap to the opportunity of saying a little about the alternatives and the prospects. If I may use one illustration as a catalyst, as a text, a text which is at one and the same time an opportunity for expounding a theme and a gate into a much larger field, I will presume to take the hostel for which I am responsible, a probation hostel called the Katherine Price Hughes Hostel which has been in existence for 25 years. Since the Criminal Justice Act 1972 and the new bail proposals, two startling and impressive changes have taken place in that hostel. It has always been difficult to remove from those who were committed to it for a compulsory period of 12 months the distinction in their own minds between that and prison; and it had this penal context. Since 1972, those who have been sent to this particular hostel, this probation hostel, have been sent first for observation that it may be considered after a very short time whether this is a suitable place for them to recover and to be rehabilitated and to become decent citizens again. The change has been electric. The whole atmosphere of a penal settlement has been replaced by a sense in many cases of a renewed opportunity. Now that we are also finding places within that hostel for bail people, we are discovering new opportunities within this field of improving on situations which have lagged into almost complete and absolute paralysis for so long.

The fact is that of those who come to a probation hostel under these new conditions, many are for the first instance people who need to be treated for detoxification, for conditions of alcoholism and we have quite quickly realised that the detoxification programme which, if I may remind the Minister, is included in the 1972 Criminal Justice Act has, in large measure, been ignored. I have dredged what evidence I can find. I believe that there are some stirrings in Nottingham and one or two in Kent; but, apart from that, I know of no detoxification centres which are officially established. But we have the possibility within the framework of St. Luke's and St. Mary's hostels for alcoholics and the West London Mission, already made, cheaper and, in some cases more efficient method of doing the three-tier system. Detoxification is the first stage; rehabilitation is the second stage and protected housing for the permanent convalescents—which is as much as can be hoped from an alcoholic—is the third stage.

If those who come to the probation hostel are in need of detoxification, then here is an opportunity which has not yet been seized of equipping voluntary organisations such as ours with the means of proceeding to deal with this ever enlarging, increasing younger generation of people who are the victims of alcohol. Moreover, we discover within a few days at a hostel, such as the Katherine Price Hughes Hostel, those who are mentally in need of special treatment and those who are addicted to drugs. Those people have often been able to conceal that from those who have been responsible for their sentence to the place to which they have to go.

This raises the whole question of the variety of semi-custodial, but not prison, opportunities which could, if it was amplified, redress in very large measure that over-plus of people, particularly young people, for whom prison does not help but destroys hope. That, in large measure, is the prelude to a life of permissiveness and—I am most anxious not to sound parsonic—a life which is without hope and faith, neither of which is generated within prison walls.

Regarding bail, we have discovered that long-term bail people can be accommodated fairly satisfactorily within the framework of hostel accommodation. We are certain that short-term bail people require specific hostels in which they have to be cared for. There is a startling difference between the attitude of those who are unlikely to be called before the courts —and we can think of one young fellow who has been eight months in the hostel to which I am referring. These are far more easily accommodated and far more tranquil than those short-term bailees, so to speak, for whom I am certain there is paramount need for the setting up of specific bail hostels. I know of very few of those hostels. I think this is an imperative and urgent task.

I will not delay your Lordships to say what are the opportunities and needs of parole. As a fellow Methodist, perhaps it is my responsibility to say how much I hope the words by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, about Mr. Poulson will be heeded. Mr. Poulson is a fellow Methodist, which is a moral advantage not shared by everybody. But, at the same time, I am anxious to say a word about the conditions applicable to chaplains. I was a visiting chaplain to Pentonville and Holloway Prisons for 25 years. I was forced to practise a sanctified amnesia about prison rules in order to have any opportunity whatsoever to deal frankly and effectively with those under my care. I did not do them much good, anyhow. I am satisfied that part of the reason for the failure was the oppressive atmosphere which denied them, as I have already said, both faith and hope.

I should like to say one other thing about the need for the initiative of the voluntary hostels and voluntary measures by which non-custodial and non-prison application may be made to this category of hopeless and helpless, and often sinful, people. It is this. The voluntary associations of which I have any knowledge are desperately short of funds and we shall be out of the market very soon unless there are generous grants made to us and unless it is made possible for us to do the work which we can do and are ready to do, furnishing the material in the sense of people who are dedicated and vocationally inspired, setting up the peripheral organisation which is imperative if the initial stages of such non-custodial, semi-custodial treatment, need to be reinforced, as they do, by setting people as quickly as possible again within the framework of the real society from which prison excludes them. These are comments which come not out of a handbook but out of deepening experience, where we are committed and continue to work. I earnestly plead with your Lordships that what has been asked for today is a greater need in the actual wealth of the community than a thousand other projects. Without being unduly provocative at the end of what I have to say, I feel that if we were prepared to spend a lot less on the means of killing people and a lot more on the opportunities of redeeming them, we should have a much more peaceable and better society in which our children could live.

6.58 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of LEICESTER

My Lords, I should like to join with others in welcoming the frank and courageous speech of the noble Lord, Lord Spens. We often say that in your Lordships' House we can get an expert on every subject; and we have heard today of another dimension of experience which has been frankly and honestly put at our disposal during this debate, and for that we are very grateful. When one rises to speak in general support of the point of view advanced by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, as I propose to do, there is always a risk of being misunderstood and of the view gaining ground that one is thinking only of making things easier for prisoners and offenders and forgetting the harm that they may have done to others and the harm they may yet do in society.

I should like to begin by saying that I firmly believe in the educative force of law. I have the gravest doubts about the prison system as I shall make clear in a few moments. I believe the criminal law is, sadly, the only moral code known to a large number of our fellow countrymen, and I believe that there has to be a deterrent element in the criminal code. This element does not arise from the fact that a potential offender thinks out seriously the likely cost of a certain course of behaviour and decides against it, but all society becomes aware of the community's rejection of certain types of behaviour. This rejection needs to be analysed. It falls into two separate elements which are often confused in the public mind. There are some cases —we should all agree with this—where there is a real danger to the public in allowing certain people to continue to exercise their freedom. These cases will normally require, I am sorry to say, rather long sentences.

However, there are other cases where severe sentences are a means of expressing society's abhorrence of certain types of behaviour. This distinction should always be in our minds between the element of protection in the literal sense and the element of protection in the sense of a testimony to the kind of behaviour that society will tolerate. Here we have this enormous prison population of over 40,000—a record number—in our country's custody. This cannot be entirely laid at the door of the Government, because even between 1973 and 1974 the number of indictable crimes known to the police rose by 21 per cent. The prison population did not rise by anything like that amount; otherwise it would be very much larger than it is. But only Government can assist in preventing this increase in crime leading to further intolerable overcrowding in our prisons, and perhaps prevent the discovery of far more creative methods of dealing with offenders.

Undoubtedly the length of sentence is one of the important elements in this matter, and these lengths of sentences have been analysed by those who concern themselves with such things. The analysis is expressed in terms of an index. If one takes 1961 as the starting point and calls that index 100, in 1967 the index for length of sentence had dropped to 93; but by 1972 it had gone up again to 128. So it seems that for one reason or another sentences have continued to rise over recent years.

We know that many steps have been taken and others are contemplated, all of which are in the right direction. They have all been mentioned today and include such things as the use of suspended sentences. the increased use of parole and community service orders. In this connection I remember so well the debate we had on the Report by the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton of Abinger, on alternatives to prison; and we now see that beginning to bear fruit in these community service orders. There is also the intended provision to make bail more frequently and easily given. I realise the importance of that, having been so often in our Leicester prison and in another prison in my diocese, and having seen those remand prisoners in the front and wondered what their future might be and how much was at stake in their lives.

All these things will help, but I return to this distinction between the idea of danger and the idea of abhorrence, because I believe that few things would help more in the situation that we have now than if the public could learn to distinguish between those two things. The element of danger, if I may say so, is a clinical matter; one that has to be judged on the record of the offender by those who are capable of estimating his or her likely behaviour in the future. It is a cold and calculating matter and should be removed from the whole area of hysteria. The element of abhorrence is a matter of psychological reaction on the part of the public, and many long sentences are given, I believe, in order to satisfy this hunger on the part of the population in general for some very marked denunciation of some particular action.

It seems to me that we have to educate the public in this country and I would start, as did the noble Earl, and indeed almost every speaker in the debate, with the conviction that the prison system itself is just about the worst way of dealing with offenders, apart from a limited number of cases where literal containment is necessary for the protection of the public. We all know the vast expense of keeping people in prison. We begin by saying to the offender: "All right: you need no longer work for yourself, even if you worked for yourself before. We will keep you and we will keep your family if they need support. We realise this may very well break up your family pattern and we shall be keeping you in a place with other people of a similar record to yourself so that there is every likelihood of your contaminating them or being contaminated by them."

All this seems to add up to a serious indictment of the possibilities of prison being able to cure these people merely by improving the conditions. In my diocese is one of the most modern of prisons, with every facility for education, including engineering workshops, where young men can become apprenticed to engineering. The last time I was there I saw men studying for the Open University and taking advanced classes in various academic subjects. The whole place seemed to be a thriving centre of active and creative work. Yet a few days after I had left the whole place was literally in a flaming riot—and that had nothing to do with my visit, I may say. It shows that there is something in the whole prison situation which, however well one tries to organise it, still evokes no response in general, but only the worst kind of spirit of reaction and rebellion.

I am personally very keen on the alternatives to prison, such as community service orders and the kind of hostel of which the noble Lord, Lord Soper, spoke. We have some of those in the City and County of Leicester, and they are doing most splendid work. All these things will help to reduce the excessive overcrowding, and will make the prison system a little less oppressive. They will also give the prison officers a better opportunity to do their work. But I am sure that the only immediate step we can take—and here I am not looking quite so far ahead as the noble Lord, Lord Soper, to an idealised situation where we can do without prisons altogether, because one cannot honestly visualise that coming very soon in our society—is somehow to accustom the country to expressing its abhorrence by shorter sentences. If that could be done I believe we should have taken a step forward.

At the present time, if a man is sentenced to 30 years or some enormous time like that, everybody gasps and thinks either, "That is what he deserves ", or, "That is just an impossible sentence to carry out in any humane manner ". But if we could gradually accustom the nation to the idea that 10 years was a very severe sentence, apart from those cases where absolute protection of the public is necessary, we shall have taken a step; and it is an extremely difficult one to take because we have to contend with a very confused public opinion in which there is a certain amount of rightful moral indignation against what is wrong and also a great deal of fear and often a great deal of hysteria. I believe we should try to guide the nation into thinking of these things in a creative and constructive way, but to do that involves a very difficult problem and one that we do not expect the Government to he able to answer in a few sentences.

7.10 p.m.


My Lords, may I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Spens, and say that I am grateful to him for teaching me the intricacies of the parole system which I had found it difficult to understand, and I hope that may learn much from him. Also, may I join with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, in asking the noble Lord, Lord Harris, what became of the recommendations made at the conference two years ago at which I also was present, and have since sought to find out what happened.

Last Friday, I visited a prison, well-known to me, built in 1850 to accomodate 161 prisoners. Last week, there was a low number for that prison of only 283, but in the previous four weeks it had varied between 291 and 299. In the majority of cells, built for one prisoner, there were three and last Friday it was very hot. It is therefore with conviction and feeling, on this and on other counts, that I support the noble Earl, Lord Longford, both in initiating this debate and in his recommendations about the prison population, not just to reduce the numbers but in the interests of a proportion of the prisoners, and without threat to the peace of the community.

One could not but respect the staff of the local prison which I visited. Their morale and quality of work was high. Unlike a number of other prisons in the country, the number of operational staff was up to establishment allowing a five-day, 40-hour week with every other weekend off duty. But there were no supporting staff, although they are allowed for on the establishment. That meant that when men were drawn, as they have been in the last four weeks, for special duties in certain cases, other men had to double-up. In another prison that I visited not so very long ago, a prisoner was sent to hospital suffering from haemophilia. He was a danger to himself and to the community. He was suffering severely and needed three officers in 24 hours, in eight-hour shifts, to sit with him.

I have not checked my facts. May therefore ask the noble Lord, Lord Harris, whether reports are accurate that a prison in Birmingham is 16 officers short, which has, in some measure, meant that 400 men are not doing their usual work, thus diminishing the quality of life of the prisoners, causing them to associate less with each other and to do less work, which is tending over a period of time to render at least some of them more difficult to rehabilitate?

Clearly, at this time of debased currency there is a need for a cut-back in public expenditure. On the other hand, the alarming rise in the prison population cannot go on without more resources within the prisons, or without seeking alternatives to supplement the Prison Service. As an alternative for some prisoners, may I make a plea that there should be a planned alternative programme in the community, covering the country from North to South and from East to West, and that these resources should be costed out against the present cost of the Prison Service, and against what must inevitably become increased expenditure if the present upward trend continues. I submit that if such alternative resources within the community are to be effective, they should cover the country as a whole and not develop in pockets of the country where there is particular initiative and good will.

Walking along a street in Oxford, I saw the head of our Simon Community following a man who, quite clearly, was either a drug addict or had taken too much drink. He asked me whether I would watch the man while he fetched his car, so the man and I sat together on the pavement and by way of conversation I asked him where he had come from. He said that he had come from a Midlands town, so I asked him what he was doing in Oxford. He replied, "I was told by the people in the Midlands town that there was nothing for me there, and I had better make my way here because here I would find "—and I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, will be pleased to hear this—"a Simon Community ". In the areas where there has been magnificent voluntary effort and hostels have been set up, there has unfortunately been a spin-off if the surrounding areas do not have hostels. People say, "We do not want to set up a hostel, because if we do it will attract people to this area."It means that those of us who are trying to set up hostels have a double task, because we have to persuade the community to accept not only the people in their own area, but those from surrounding areas, and then we are faced with the city council or the county council turning down a planning application. Therefore, my plea is that, here and now, there should be an overall plan in this country for dealing with and providing alternatives.

I suppose it is true to say that some of us look back with regret to the passing of the casual wards which made provision —albeit austere provision—throughout the country for those of no fixed abode. We do not really regret their passing as they were then, although many men received a sense of security and solace from them, including the Supertramp; I have just read W. H. Davis's autobiography again. But because there was a network throughout the country and the problem was equally spread, and help was readily available to those in need, there was not, as the right reverend Prelate has said, quite the fear among the community that there is today. To fill this gap, a valiant attempt has been made in many areas to provide hostel accommodation. As your Lordships know, this is being done by some principal probation officers and a number of outstanding voluntary organisations, with grants from the Home Office and through housing associations. But I think I am right in saying that the contributions never amount to more than 50 per cent. of the need, and the rest of the money has to be raised voluntarily. This may not altogether be a bad thing, but it puts a tremendous strain on those having to do the work.

With diffidence, I was going to enumerate the alternatives to prison, but that has been so ably done by other noble Lords that I will not do more than make one or two comments. First, on the homeless, many men attempt to get to prison because they need shelter and accommodation. I have a great friend—by name, Jim—who used to come a week before Christmas and wish me a happy Christmas. When I said, "This is a little early ", he replied, "I have to do a job ", and it was very carefully thought out that it was bad enough to get him into prison for Christmas but not too bad to keep him there too long. He always succeeded. This cannot be right.

If I may make one comment on the community service orders, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has said that 5,000 have been made. But may I submit that community service orders are not being used throughout the country as yet. Also I would put in a plea for many more detoxification centres for alcoholics. There are those in prisons—I think possibly in the rag shops—who are there because they possess inadequate personalities and can never sustain life in the community. May I ask the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, what became of a report made in 1966 called, I think Quo Vadis, and written by Anglican and Roman Catholic priests then working at Pentonville Prison? The report recommended the setting up of communities where the inadequate could live and where there were sheltered workshops. I have not seen such centres in Germany, but I am informed that they are self-supporting.

I pass over the question of the mentally ill and handicapped as it has already been covered and is dealt with in the Butler Report. I have not covered children and young persons as this subject also has been debated in your Lordships' House. Suffice it to say that if overall planning provision had been made prior to the passing of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969, possibly some children would not have had to be placed in prison.

Perhaps of greater importance is the need to look at the underlying reasons for the prison population. I link this to the plea of the most reverend Primate for the establishment of sound family life, and would recommend that we in this country should practically and positively pursue policies for the support of families and children. For two years it was my privilege to attend a prison every time there was a discharge of prisoners. I was always asked by the men, how and what: "How are we going to treat our children? "and "What are we going to say to them? "Every time they would come back to the position that, had they received understanding in early life, possibly some of them at least might not be there. Would we, I wonder, have such a rising prison population if we as a society provided a service of quality to the children in our schools, in the orbit of the family and in the community embodying the ancient precept of consideration for one's neighbour and all that that implies? Wordsworth was perhaps right when he said: The child is father to the man.

7.22 p.m.


My Lords, I have some sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, in having to answer this debate at a time of economic stringency. I should think that among those of your Lordships who are present today we could probably amass a great deal of unanimity on the projects that we should like to see go forward. I think also that we would be a little alarmed at the amount it would cost to carry them into effect.

On the question of public expenditure, there is, unfortunately, a paradox which was referred to, among others, by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner. We complain, and rightly complain, about the present overcrowding in prisons. It is no joke for prisoners and certainly it is no joke for the staff. My noble friend Lady Faithful! referred to this point which manifests itself, of course, in physical overcrowding. In times of economic stringency, the position is worse still because in the evenings there is loss of association. Evening classes have to be cut out, not because there is anything wrong with the "telly "or because the person who takes the evening class has gone sick; it is because staff overtime has to be reduced in order to produce economies. That in its turn reduces the standard of living of the prison officers. They, too, suffer from the economic crisis of the country and so do their families.

It is no use blaming the Prison Service, whatever may be the millennial ambitions of the noble Lord, Lord Soper. At present they have to receive and hold for so long as is required the remanded and convicted people whom they are sent, and they have no option but to do their duty in that respect. It is right that one should remember that those are the conditions against the background of which this debate is taking place. However, I must refrain from going on about the Prison Service because the question is about alternatives.

Of course, economic stringency also means that we cannot build all the different kinds of new hostels that we should like; we cannot have the detoxification centres; and we cannot do all the things that we should like to do for those different kinds of inadequate persons who at the moment find themselves in prison—a point which was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, the noble and learned Lord and others. These persons are a great problem for the Prison Service. I remember that there were a number of officers at Pentonville—perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Soper, knows them, too—who specialised in trying to do something for those who were in prison for a very short sentence indeed. They found that their work was cut out in trying to deal with them, but at least they tried—and I should think that they try today.

The paradox is that although I believe that we should be able to devise and, indeed, are in the process of devising a number of alternatives which are going to work, they have to be made to prove themselves in public opinion before they can take the place of massive numbers of sentences. While this is going on, the two systems will have to run in parallel; and while you have not the alternatives, or cannot afford the alternatives, equally you cannot cut down on the number of prison establishments and reduce your expenditure in that way.

I do not know whether the noble Lord has thought about the question of transfer of resources but it has always seemed to me that in a transitional stage it is one of the most difficult objectives to achieve and get the public to accept. In those circumstances, perhaps the Government might pay particular attention to what has been said by a number of noble Lords about the role that can be played by volunteers in the fields we should like to see go further forward, fields such as the noble Lord, Lord Soper, mentioned. I believe that money spent now on that aspect might be a very good investment indeed. It might not only achieve a great deal, but would prove to the public that a great deal can be achieved. And that is half the problem.

I do not wish to make a list of all the alternatives of which we know, any more than did my noble friend Lady Faithful!, but I should like to know how some of the provisions that we introduced in the 1972 Act—this is no Party point—are working out. I know that community service is now almost universal among the probation areas, although I expect it is slightly patchy in some of them. However, can the noble Lord tell us as a matter (it will have to be) of judgment whether the people who have agreed to and been sentenced by the courts to community service orders really are the kind of people who otherwise would have gone to prison? That was the point of it, and I think that it would be a matter of very great interest to those of us who are here this evening to know whether that is so. Again, can the noble Lord say anything about the day training centres. It may be that there are not very many of them but they were designed for a specific kind of person—indeed, sometimes the inadequate. Can the noble Lord throw any light on whether those persons have been saved from going to prison?—because again that is what we want to know.

Everything that has been said about hostels must, of course, be right. The noble Lord, Lord Soper, spoke about them from first-hand experience and so, too, did my noble friend Lady Faithful. Those are the kind of provisions which I should think, and would expect the noble Lord to be able to confirm, keep people out of prison—like the bail hostels. These are the matters upon which I am sure that we should concentrate all our enthusiasm. After all, I believe that 15 per cent. of the prison population is there on remand, and those are the people for whom the bail hostels would really do something; and they would cut down the local population in the local prisons, where I should think a great deal of the overcrowding takes place.

My Lords, I want to say a word or so about parole. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, particularly stressed this. I, too, should like to welcome the signal maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Spells. I agree with him that the aim should be to restore at the earliest possible moment all those freedoms which he mentioned. The difficulty of judging what is the earliest possible moment is the one that vexes those who have to run the system. I would say four things about this. First, having had a hand in this myself for a period of time, I can genuinely tell the noble Lord that there are no unwritten rules, or, if there are, I never saw a trace of them. The problem about these cases is that each one is different. It is quite impossible, I should have thought, even if you wished to, to invent something in the way of an unwritten rule, because it would not be applicable over anything like a range of people to which a rule would apply. I do not think that the noble Lord need fear that such a thing goes on.

Secondly, if you look at the reports of the Parole Board over the years and, indeed, if you look at the genesis of the whole idea, I am sure it was wise to start cautiously. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, if I may say so, was very much on target when he was speaking about what I think I can paraphrase as a sense of outrage which sometimes underlies public reaction to crime, and is sometimes reflected in the length of sentences. The parole system was a brave step forward. The right reverend Prelate is perfectly right in saying that these things cannot succeed unless they go hand in hand with public education. The Parole Board has taken particular care to attempt to do this. It started cautiously, and started cautiously on purpose.

My Lords, the third thing follows straight from that: that they are now proceeding equally carefully, but equally steadily, with the encouragement of the right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary, to take what might previously have been thought of as more risks. The important thing that seems to me to emerge from the 1975 Parole Board report is that the failure rate has remained exactly the same. It is 7.7 per cent. now, and has been 7.7 per cent., despite the progressive risk-taking for a considerable period of time; in other words, parolees are responding to the trust put in them, and the Parole Board is evidently picking the right people. That, I think, is what will underpin confidence in this kind of attitude, and will prevent the sense of outrage if people are seen to be released even fairly early in their sentence, even if it was a long sentence at that.

Fourth, I would say that I am very critical of the noble Earl, Lord Longford. I have read with great care the guidelines published as the fourth appendix to the Parole Board's report. If I may respectfully suggest to the noble Earl, it is too facile to say that one can take two or three sentences from the chairman and suppose that lay people in training prisons all over the country can interpret those simple precepts, so that they can accurately assess an enormous range of different personalities, against different backgrounds of different crimes, and of different prospects, without the fairly detailed guidance that they have now been given. I am delighted to see it. It is the distillation of a great deal of wisdom and experience, and I am sorry that the noble Earl saw fit to disparage it. It will be of great guidance to all those who are taking a greater and greater responsibility in the parole world by reporting directly to the Home Secretary. I hope no one will think the less of that set of guidelines because of what the noble Earl has said.

My Lords, the last subject upon which I should like to touch is the level of sentences. I am not sure that judges and magistrates should be put under pressure to reduce sentences below what they think is condign to the offence. After all, they have been given the maxima by us in Parliament, and against that yardstick they tend to judge what it is in the public interest and what it is, in the case of that particular crime, suitable to impose. In fact, maximum sentences are rarely used, but they are there as the indicea of what Parliament thought about the seriousness of the offence—and, of course, again the right reverend Prelate's point about deterrence, also mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, comes into this. I wonder whether in this we in Parliament ought not to lead the way. It is a pity that we tend to look at the sentence for each individual offence only in the context of the enactment in which it occurs. We seldom have an opportunity to look at the whole range, to make proper comparisons, to see whether as a whole the maxima are set too high, or too low, or about right.

Therefore, if we are to have an opportunity, whether by way of legislation or debate, it would be useful for us actually to take this bull by the horns, because until we do, I do not believe we can expect a great change in the level of sentences that the courts put forward, because they follow what we do by way of a lead. Therefore, I should think that the responsibility lies with us.

Finally, my Lords, what I would say on the question of sentences could take in the question of decriminalisation mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner. I should like very carefully to look at instances where it is suggested that a criminal offence is no longer apposite. So long as there are criminal offences, and sentences and convictions for them, the important thing thereafter is what has been central to this debate: that is, the incidence, for individuals at the right time, of the parole system; and I must say that I hope that those who have to operate this system will get some encouragement from the debate we have had this afternoon.

7.38 p.m.


My Lords, may I begin by welcoming the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Spens. It was an interesting maiden speech which I think will repay careful study, and given my own responsibility with the Home Office, I will carefully consider what he said about the practical implementation of parole policy. Secondly, I welcome the fact that on this occasion I am following the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, who has made a characteristically thoughtful speech. I follow him with particular interest because we have both now had a similar Ministerial experience. He has had responsibility for prison matters in the Home Office when he was Minister of State, and I now assume that particular responsibility.

I welcome another point made by the noble Viscount; that is, that he pointed out the public expenditure implications of the problem we are discussing today. I think the one thing that nearly everyone had said before the noble Viscount rose to speak, was that, of course, they were not suggesting any increase in public expenditure. But I regret to say that, in quite a number of those speeches, and the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Faithful, gave a good example, ideas were put forward that the implementation of proposals of this kind frankly carry with them public expenditure implications. If one says at a time like this that it is necessary to control public expenditure because of the grievously difficult economic situation, I am afraid it is exceedingly difficult to keep on arguing the case for special cases.


My Lords, if I may intervene at this stage, I carefully said that no alternatives should be embarked upon until costed out, and if the whole scheme could be costed out against the prison expenditure, then we should go forward.


My Lords, I will come in a moment to the point the noble Baroness made about hostels. It is a particularly interesting matter to which I have recently been devoting a certain amount of attention. But hostels are expensive, and at a time of rising crime it is exceedingly difficult to limit the size of the prison population. That is why my noble friend Lord Longford has put down this particular Question today. We are having this debate today against the background of the rapid rise which has taken place in the level of crime, and of the very unfortunate results of the heavy additional burden which this puts on the entire criminal justice system in this country.

Certainly I welcome the fact that my noble friend has put down this Question today. I do not, he will not be altogether astonished to learn, quite follow him in all his views on this matter. He said that the Government's record on this matter was a sad one. He was kind enough to add that there was some excuse, referring to the rising rate of crime, but he said this excuse was insufficient. I will do my best to deal with that particular argument head-on.

On 15th June—and that is the last date for which figures are available—the prison population was 41,622. I think we will all agree this is far too high. It is indeed, as my noble friend pointed out, very close to the figure of 42,000 which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary referred to only a year or so ago as being an unacceptable level. It is only fair to say that in the year 1975–76 there were an additional 1,000 places added to the prison system, and we hope to achieve something of this scale in the current financial year. That by no means disposes of the entire argument; of course it does not.

In the few weeks that I have been responsible for prisons in the Home Office I have visited a number of prison establishments, as I know the noble Viscount did most assiduously when he was Minister of State in the previous Conservative Government. Certainly when one sees the conditions in which three men live in a cell, and sometimes indeed two men live in a cell, one sees they are conditions which are, frankly, an affront to any civilised society. I in no way underestimate the seriousness of overcrowding in our prison system; it is intolerably high. But having said that, it is necessary to consider how in fact the prison population arises in the first instance. After all, the prison population is a product of two factors; the number of offenders who appear before the courts, and the proportion of that number who are sent to prison, either on remand awaiting trail or sentence, or because they have been convicted and sentenced by the court.

We have to accept one blunt truth. That is the point I made a few moments ago: that over recent years the number of indictable crimes known to the police has been rising steadily. That is a very unfortunate fact of life. It is not something that can be willed away by a Government or a Home Secretary. There were, for example, 1.3 million indictable crimes known in 1966, compared with 2.1 million last year. That is a rise—the right reverend Prelate touched on this point—of 62 per cent. in only nine years. An increase in crime of such proportions, even if detection rates remain much the same, can only lead to an increase in pressures on all parts of the penal and criminal justice system, and that obviously includes prisons.

But while in consequence the number of prisoners has increased, it is important to underline the fact that there has been a substantial decrease in the proportion of offenders who go to prison, either on remand or following sentence. The proportion of persons sentenced to immediate imprisonment for indictable offences in the higher courts declined from 42 per cent. in 1964 to 30 per cent. in 1974. In the magistrates' courts in the same period it declined from about 8 per cent. to about 3 per cent. I think it is necessary to bear those particular statistics in mind, because they at least demonstrate how much more serious the problem would have been if the sentencing practices of the courts had not changed as dramatically as they have done.

It is a sad but inevitable fact that whatever steps we take there will continue to be a need for imprisonment. This is where, with great respect, I differ from my noble friend Lord Soper. There will continue to be a need for imprisonment to protect us from men, and increasingly, I regret to say, from a number of women—people of violence, and from those who have shown by their record that they are a menace to society and will not respond to more humane or constructive methods of treatment. The question is what steps are being taken to avoid the imprisonment of those who do not fit this particular description.

I turn first, if I may, to bail. The Government are continuing to take urgent measures to reduce the remand population to the minimum compatible with the interests of justice. My noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner referred to the Bail Bill, which has passed through this House and is presently being considered in another place. The Bill makes a number of significant changes in the bail system. Most important, it creates a presumption in favour of the grant of bail and requires a court to give its reasons when refusing bail. The effect of this is that a court will have to consider the question of bail each time a defendant appears before it and is to be remanded, and will have to grant bail unless the defendant is considered likely to abscond, commit offences on bail or otherwise obstruct justice.

There are other important recommendations of the Working Party on Bail Procedures in Magistrates' Courts. These do not require legislation and they were commended to the courts in a circular issued last October. I am glad to say that preliminary indications are that, following the issue of this circular, there has been a real reduction in the remand population. One of the most important elements in these proposals was the point about bail verification schemes. We have asked probation and after-care committees to consider, in consultation with the courts, how far it would be possible for them to participate, within existing resources—and I must emphasise that point—in any such schemes which might be introduced in their areas. Some probation areas are already participating or considering taking part in the schemes. There is, as is well known, the bail verification project in Inner London, which was introduced by the Inner London Probation Service with the co-operation of the Vera Institute of Criminal Justice in New York, and there has been a recent report on this by the Inner London Probation Service which I am sure will be interesting to those Members of the House who follow these matters. This scheme was begun at Camberwell Green magistrates' court and has now been extended to cover two other courts in London. And there have been some significant developments outside London.

To take one example, I was in Cleveland a relatively short time ago, and I was talking to the chief probation officer there who was telling me what they were proposing to do. In Cleveland a scheme has been introduced which has been supported by the Manpower Services Commission's job creation programme. Although it was only introduced earlier this year, it has now been extended to cover the two major centres of population in Cleveland. Of course, these are only a number of examples of what can be done. I must emphasise this to the House. These schemes are being introduced, these policies are being implemented, despite the existing grave economic situation. They do point the way. They do indicate that by moving in this particular direction, bail verification schemes, which certainly I regard as highly important, one can, by giving more information to a court when a man appears before that court, often on the first occasion, ensure that he is remanded on bail rather than remanded in custody and then pushed into one of our already grievously overcrowded prisons.

Finally, on the subject of bail, we are increasing the number of places in bail hostels so that courts in the areas where hostels are provided need no longer refuse bail because the alleged offender has no fixed address. So far—I think my noble friend Lord Soper was a little pessimistic about this—six of these hostels have been provided, and another two will be brought into use this year, and another 20 hostels of this character are now in the pipeline. Again, of course there is a greater need than this for bail hostels. There is a greater need for many other types of hostels, but again I come back to this: despite the current extremely difficult economic situation, we are still succeeding in making some progress in this direction.

The noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, referred to the problem of hostels, and I very much shared her view about the problem which is created when local inhabitants discover that they are about to have a hostel on their doorstep. I suspect that the noble Viscount had the pleasure, as I have, of receiving a number of deputations on this subject. There is no doubt that when people discover that they are about to have a hostel next door to them, or on the other side of the road, they sometimes react in a very hostile way. But, with respect to the noble Baroness, I do not believe we can get over this problem by some form of overall national plan. I do not take the view that the "gentleman in Whitehall always does know best ". I never have taken that view. I think this is a matter for local decision. Of course the central Government have to provide the resources. That is perfectly true. But this is really a matter for local decision, and if there is a dispute it will have to take place in the local planning committee—perhaps in the local council chamber—and ultimately there may be a planning appeal. I think that that is the way in which we should proceed.

My noble friend Lord Soper referred to the question of the financial problems of voluntary hostels, and I take his point. They play a most important role, and I would not in any way want to minimise that. But, as my noble friend will be aware, the Government have fairly recently introduced a new system of financing these hostels, and I know that many in the hostel movement are to some extent satisfied; I had better not use the term "satisfied ", but some of their anxieties have at least been minimised, or reduced, as a result of the introduction of that new scheme.

Next, if I may, I will turn to the measures available to the courts when an offender has been convicted. There is a long and valued tradition in this country that the decisions of the courts and the sentences which they impose should not be subject to interference by the Executive. Our role as a Government, therefore, is to prescribe by legislation the maximum penalties for particular offences. It is for the courts to decide, in the light of all the circumstances of a particular case, what the sentence should be within the maxima provided by the law. The Government consider that the time has come to have a look at these maxima. The Advisory Council on the Penal System is at present undertaking a review of the general structure and level of maximum sentences of imprisonment available to the courts.

May I at this moment say I am delighted, as I am sure the whole House will be, to have heard the news today that my noble friend Lady Serota is taking on the very formidable job as the new chairman of the Advisory Council. It is certainly, as I am sure my noble friend will be the first to agree, too early to say what may result from its deliberations, but it has been asked to consider whether the present maxima represent a valid guide to sentencing practice, and whether further provision needs to be made regarding the suspension of periods of imprisonment.

My noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner, and my noble friend Lord Longford, asked about the need for some closer communication between the Government and Judiciary. As I think will be known, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, together with the Lord Chief Justice, have jointly set up a Working Party under the chairmanship of Lord Justice Bridge to consider the training of the Judiciary and the communication of information to the Judiciary. I think that that is at least some move in this particular direction. We must, of course, ensure that the range of options available to the courts is such that they are not prevented, for one reason or another, from imposing a non-custodial sentence where that course of action would be most appropriate. To this end, the Government have been assessing and developing, where appropriate, a number of newer non-custodial penalties which were introduced, as the noble Viscount rightly said, in the 1972 Criminal Justice Act.

A quite wide use is already being made by the courts of their powers to defer passing sentence up to six months, to order compensation or the forfeiture of goods, and, in appropriate cases, to make a criminal bankruptcy order. But the main thrust and this has been pointed out by a number of speakers in today's debate—has been the establishment of community service schemes. I think that this is a good example of how we should move in this direction. The power to create community service orders was created by the 1972 Criminal Justice Act by the noble Viscount and his friends, who introduced six experimental schemes in six probation and after-care areas in this country. The present Government, on coming into Office and looking at the first examples of research from the Home Office Research Unit, decided to extend this to the remainder of the country as soon as resources would permit. Again I make that clear qualification. Nevertheless, community service has now been set up in at least part of 52 out of the 56 probation and after-care areas in England and Wales. They will be further extended as from 1st August of this year. In the 12 months since 1st April 1975, when these arrangements began to be extended, the Probation Service have estimated that between 4,900 and 5,000 offenders became the recipients of community service orders.

The noble Viscount asked what is the central question, "Well, how many of these people would have gone to prison if it had not been for community service orders? "As he would be the first to accept, it is exceedingly difficult to look into the minds of a Crown Court judge, or a bench of magistrates, whatever it might be; but in talking to people in the Probation Service who deal with these matters on a day-to-day basis, and chief probation officers and others, I think it would be right to say that they would estimate that somewhere between—and this is obviously very much a "guestimate "—at the lowest possible level 65 per cent. and arguably as high as 80 per cent. of these people would otherwise have gone to prison. Again this is another illustration of the extent to which we have already moved. I think my noble friend wishes to intervene.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, I did not wish to be overheard. I am sorry. The noble Lord gave figures very different from those which have been supplied to me, not from the Government, but from those very much concerned with the administration of these orders. I gave a figure of a half, but really fear that it is less than a half. I should like to think that it was very high in this respect.


My Lords, I would say to my noble friend—and I would defer to him in many matters —that I am responsible for probation and after-care questions in the Home Office. I have spent a great deal of my time travelling around the country and discussing this with the representatives of the Service. The estimates that I have given are the figures I was given by people with day-to-day responsibility for dealing with this matter. I have indicated that it was clearly a "guestimate". There is of course no absolute, clear figure which we can immediately adopt and say that it is a certain percentage. It is clearly a matter of judgment; but the figures which I have given arc the figures which I have been given by those with day-to-day dealings in these matters. I think, with great respect to my noble friend, they are at least as likely to be accurate as any figures he may have.

We are also at present assessing the results of the four experimental day training centres, and I know that my noble friend visited one of them quite recently. These, as he said, were opened to receive certain types of persistent criminals who can be sent there as a condition of a probation order. The probationers attending these centres include many who would almost certainly otherwise have been sent to prison. If my noble friend says that only a limited number of people go to these centres, of course he is absolutely right; there are only four of them, and clearly the numbers we are talking about are limited indeed. But I must point out to the House that they are extremely expensive to run; they are manpower intensive so far as trained probation officers are concerned and we cannot shrug this aside. We are dealing with this problem at a time of great national economic difficulty and we cannot just will the resources out of the skies.

The noble Lord, Lord Amulree, my noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner and my noble friend Lord Soper, referred to the question of detoxification centres. The first experimental centre which was set up by the Criminal Justice Act 1972, under Section 34, was opened in May of this year; the second is expected to open in Manchester at the end of this year, and there are one or two other proposals in the pipeline. I am sorry to say once again—and noble Lords will, I hope, acquit me of any determination to bore them—that this programme is clearly subject to the same restraints as are all other public expenditure programmes.


My Lords, Circular 21/73 puts the responsibility for detoxification centres on local authorities. Is that so, and, if so, have they done anything about it?


My Lords, I have indicated that this is not just primarily but exclusively a matter for the DHSS rather than the Home Office. I have indicated that two exist, but again I must come back to the point that there are very limited resources and there is no point in demanding an immediate extension of extremely expensive projects of this kind without realising that if one must add expenditure in one particular area, one must cut it elsewhere.

These are just some of the ways in which the Government are attempting to extend the non-custodial disposals available to the courts. But if the prison population is to be significantly reduced, the courts will need to choose non-custodial sentences for a large number of offenders who at the moment receive custodial sentences. The problems created by the treatment of such offenders within the community could be considerable. In these circumstances, questions must inevitably—and quite properly— arise as regards the protection of the public itself and the demands which might be made on community resources generally. It is essential, therefore, if the courts are to make the fullest possible use of the non-custodial measures available to them, that they—and indeed the community at large—should have complete confidence in the ability of the people concerned with the administration of these measures to cope with a more difficult and more demanding range of offenders.

This has particular lessons for the Probation Service. It is the Probation Service that would have to undertake the major burden of coping with any increased flow of work over the whole range of treatment in the community. It is very understandable that the Probation Service should have a particular regard to the interests of an offender. One of its main functions, within the administration of justice as a whole, is to provide objective advice to the courts on the likely response of an individual to particular measures. But this concern with the needs of their clients must not obscure the obligations which the Probation Service has to the court and to the community as a whole. It is of paramount importance, if we are to sustain a humane and caring criminal justice system, that we should have a Probation Service which not only operates within the main stream of professional social work, but also commands the confidence of the courts and of the public. I do not think that the Probation Service as a whole sees any real antithesis between a controlling and a caring approach. But it is essential that the Probation Service generally should be seen to be aware of its obligations to society as a whole and to be ready to exercise, in the interests of offender and public alike and in the context of their rehabilitative function, a necessary degree of supervisory control over the offenders with whom it works.

I return to the question of alternatives to imprisonment. These, I am sure, we should all agree, must have the confidence of the Judiciary and the public. There is, it is fair to say, an additional constraint, and that is, again, this question of cost. Not all alternatives to imprisonment are cheap. Indeed, very few are. Many are costly, not only in terms of money but in terms of resources such as trained manpower. Moreover, the provision of an alternative facility does not necessarily lead to an equivalent saving in prison expenditure. I fear that in these difficult times for this country, proposals for more spending on the care and treatment of offenders must satisfy the same harsh tests as other calls on public expenditure. I come to the question of parole which, quite rightly, has occupied a major part in this debate.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, I did not give the Minister advance notice of a rather important proposal which I placed before the House. Perhaps my noble friend will at least undertake to look into it. I refer to the idea of combining prison officers and probation officers for supervision. Perhaps my noble friend does not have the answer.


I have, my Lords, and I hope that I have time to answer my noble friend. As he said, he did not give me notice of it and I am sure that he will acquit me of any discourtesy in not dealing with the point. He will appreciate that I have been asked many questions and it is impossible for me to deal with all of them in the confines of this debate. However, I have been studying this particular matter with some care and I had the opportunity quite recently of visiting, as I think the noble Viscount did, two of the neighbourhood borstal projects which are particularly interesting because there is a high degree of co-operation—it is very high and it is very intensive co-operation—between prison officers and members of the Probation Service. One of these neighbourhood borstals deals with boys in a closed situation while others deal with them in an open one. There are obvious problems about this at a time of I am sorry to have to return to this point again —very heavy pressure on resources, but the fact that there has been quite significent progress in this direction at these two institutions is a very hopeful development indeed, and I should certainly like to move ahead in this direction as soon as we possibly can.

I am aware that I have already spoken for a formidably long period and I come to the question of parole. Obviously, parole forms an essential part of the Government's strategy for dealing with offenders in the community. In effect, a prisoner released on parole before the normal date of release with remission, is serving the balance of his sentence in the community, under supervision and with a liability to be recalled to the prison if he behaves badly. It is estimated that there are about 2,000 offenders who would at this moment be in prison if they had not been granted parole. The scheme accordingly makes a valuable contribution to minimising the size of the prison population, although this is not its central objective. Since the debate on the parole system which took place in June of last year in this House, the parole system has moved forward significantly. Most important of all is a substantial increase in the rate of parole. The noble Earl on that occasion said that the paroling rate had reached a plateau. The latest statistics available at that time related to the year 1974. Up to then, there had been a steady increase in the rate so that about 40 per cent. of the parole eligible prisoners were granted some parole before the normal end of their sentences.

This tendency was further stimulated by a decision by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. As he said in another place on 4th August, having consulted the Parole Board, he was satisfied that more use could properly be made of parole without exposing the public to increased danger from serious offenders. This was a point which was made by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville. He said he was anxious to see parole being granted to more of those who then did not get it, and earlier in their sentences to those who did. In the event, during the whole of 1975 the rate of parole rose from around 40 per cent. to nearly 50 per cent. I should add that, as the noble Viscount said, the number of parolees whose licences are revoked has remained constant at about 8 per cent. That is a fairly considerable achievement so far as Parole Board is concerned.

My right honourable friend and I have reason to hope that the paroling rates will rise still further this year. On 18th December in answer to a Question in another place, he said that revised detailed criteria for the grant of parole had been agreed with the Parole Board, and would be issued for the guidance of the local review committees at prisons which are responsible for initial parole reviews. The same criteria will, of course, also be adopted by the Parole Board. Copies of the documents setting out these new criteria are available in the Libraries of both Houses.

I referred at the outset of my speech to the wider front on which the Government are promoting measures to reduce the prison population. I briefly in conclusion mention some of these. One point made by my noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner related to the work of the Jellicoe Committee. It was a most interesting report which my right honourable friend and I have read with great interest and attention. As I indicated when I spoke to the conference of boards of visitors a few weeks ago, we are considering these conclusions at the moment. Frankly, some of them have resource implications and I do not think it possible to hold out a great deal of hope at a moment like this for recommendations that have significant resource implications. I have made my position on that very clear. Nevertheless, there are other recommendations and we shall certainly consider them with great care.

We are also looking at the criminal law to see whether there is any further possibility of removing from its scope particular acts or behaviour which society now tolerates, or which should lead to treatment outside the penal system. Again, this was a point raised by my noble and learned friend. We have considered removing imprisonment as a penalty for particular offences. The noble Viscount asked me for an example. One might be the Road Traffic Act 1974.

I should just mention one other point before concluding. My noble friend Lord Longford and others have raised the question of individual cases. I do not think it appropriate to comment on these. The Parole Board have a difficult duty to discharge. Parliament has considered it right to set up an independent Parole Board. I am sure that that is right and that it is far better to have these powers in the hands of an independent Board, responsible to Parliament, than to have it in the hands of Ministers. That being so, I think it right at least to give the Board the benefit of the doubt in some of these difficult decisions.

Since I took up my present job I have had the responsibility of reading the details of a number of difficult decisions taken by the Parole Board. I am sure that the noble Viscount had a similar job when he was in office. I am bound to say that I am deeply impressed by the tremendous care and attention displayed not just by the Board itself but by the members of the local review committees who go through the cases of this sort most painstakingly.

Viscount COLVILLE of CULROSS: And the staff, my Lords.


Yes, indeed, my Lords. From discussions that I have had at a number of penal establishments that I have visited I know how seriously they regard matters of this sort. I have tried to survey the field in as much detail as time allows, and I see that it has already allowed 37 minutes! While we should all, including my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, like to see faster progress, I am certain that the Government have done as much as could reasonably be hoped at a time of rising crime rates and severe economic difficulty. We have succeeded in maintaining growth in the Probation Service at a time of the harshest financial restraint. I do not ever hope to persuade my noble friend that we have done enough, and it is right that the Government should be subjected to unremitting pressure to move in the direction which my noble friend favours. However, I believe that our record in this area is one of considerable progress.