HL Deb 13 December 1977 vol 387 cc2063-106

6.52 p.m.

The EARL of LONGFORD rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will review the present restrictions on communications between prisoners and the general public, particularly in the form of letters and visits. The noble Earl said: I rise to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. Originally I intended to deal with prisoners' visits as well as prisoners' correspondence, but correspondence itself will keep me busy for any period that the House will find appropriate. I hope that other speakers will deal with any aspect of communications between prisoners and the general public which seem to them significant.

This topic of prisoners' letters has always interested me, as it must interest all of us who visit prisoners. I have received much help in approaching this debate from the Howard League, of which my noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner—who I am glad is to speak—is President; the National Council for Civil Liberties, Professor Zellick and other experts, including those with first-hand knowledge of the European Commission of Human Rights. I draw particular attention to an important booklet on prison secrecy in general by Professor Taylor and Professor Cohen which should appear early in the New Year.

As regards prison letters, after a thorough investigation they reached this conclusion: all censorship of letters should be abolished unless grounds for censorship—and they mean in a particular case—can be established before an independent body. I personally endorse that conclusion; but it is expecting rather too much of our excellent Minister, when I can obtain his attention—

The MINISTER of STATE, HOME OFFICE (Lord Harris of Greenwich)

I am listening carefully to my noble friend, my Lords. I am not sure in which particular direction he would like me to point my head, but he has the whole of my attention.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, I thought that the noble Lord had turned away to study some more attractive issue. At any rate, it is expecting rather too much of our excellent Minister to demand that he should make an announcement to that effect without further reflection. Naturally, I hope he will go as far as he can. As no doubt the House is aware, we in Britain in recent times have been found guilty on one occasion of breaching the European Convention of Human Rights in regard to prisoners' correspondence. Unless our Government act quickly a still worse fate is likely to befall us in the near future. Early in the New Year seven cases—I think that is the latest figure; they have been boiled down from a good many others—are coming before the European Commission of Human Rights. All of them deal with prisoners' correspondence and all of them come from this country.

There seems little doubt—I do not think that the Home Office can seriously contest this—that our rules in this country regarding prisoners' correspondence are more restrictive—I would say much more restrictive—than those which generally prevail in Western Europe. My first submission must be that we should take urgent steps to put our own house in order of our own free will before we are forced to do so under pressure from decisions by the European Commission, and it may be the European Court.

I must pass from generalities to criticisms of our actual practice. Anyone who tries to take up the cudgels for a prisoner whose correspondence has been interfered with or suppressed, is overwhelmed—and this is not the only area in which this happens—by the Home Office Ministers—bless their hearts!—with a stream of complicated references to prison rules and regulations of one kind or another. The principal Statute affecting prisoners is the 1952 Prison Act. The principal rules are contained in the Prison Rules 1964, as amended at various times. There are, I believe, about 100 such rules with sub-headings and so on, and one reaches a total of rules and subordinate rules of perhaps 450 of one kind or another. But we have only just begun to describe the maze of regulations which are not available to the public. The Prison Department produces a large number of standing orders. Incidentally, in an important speech made to the New Bridge—of which I am President—last year, the former Home Secretary, Mr. Roy Jenkins, said that he was going to investigate the standing orders many of which he appeared to think—and I agree with him—had become inadequate. A question which I will put in passing to the noble Lord—of which he has had notice—is how far in the 18 months or so that have passed since then have the Home Office proceeded with this investigation of the standing orders?

The standing orders are not by any means the end of it. They are amended and elaborated in a further series of circular instructions. I am told—I have not counted them myself—that the section dealing with communications alone contains some 500 separate instructions about how the relevant prison rules should be applied. These various standing orders and circular instructions are classified as secret, but even now we have not reached the end of it. A further series of procedures are set out in still more secret documents such as those in the governor's Handbook, and I have not obtained a copy of that.

The prisoner is kept in total ignorance of these regulations. His only right, if one can call it a right, is to be provided with: information in writing about those provisions of the rules and other matters which it is necessary that he should know". New prisoners should be given—they are not always given—a bare Home Office summary of those parts of the rules which are thought to be applicable to them. In any controversy about a prisoner's right to send or receive letters, the prisoner will be told in the first place that he has no rights and that these are just privileges. Even passing that aside, he will be struggling blindfold if he is trying to discover the actual regulations which are being operated and with which he is supposed to comply.

I must leave the legal pursuit of these matters to my noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner. All who are concerned with the welfare of prisoners will insist that much more information should be given to prisoners; for example, in regard to correspondence—though that is only one issue—about the rules with which they are supposed to comply. We must insist that the standing orders and circular instructions should be made available to the general public, including journalists. In theory, these standing orders and circular instructions are available in the Library of the House of Commons. That is not always so in practice. They have not up till now been available in the Library of the House of Lords. The blame may be shifted this way or that, but in fact they were not available until about yesterday in the House of Lords. I do not know how far they are available at this precise moment, but they have not been available here previously and they have certainly not been available to the public.

Turning to the regulations themselves, I shall take for the purposes of illustration a reply which was sent to me recently by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, to a letter which I submitted on behalf of a Mr. Roy Carne, who was then in prison but is now a free man. Mr. Came complained about the stopping of seven of his letters. In one case, the Home Office offered an apology for an error of judgment. That happens so seldom that I think we should rejoice over "the one sinner who repented": at any rate it was a notable event. In the other cases there was no apology and the Home Office stood their ground.

I shall take one answer given by the Home Office to one of the complaints. I was informed by the Minister that the letter from Mr. Carne to Mr. Kilroy-Silk was stopped because it contained a complaint about the prison treatment which Mr. Carne had not first ventilated. The House will be aware that Mr. Kilroy-Silk is a gifted young Member of the House of Commons with a special interest in penal reform; so if a letter cannot be sent to him it cannot be sent to anybody. The reference there is to the ventilation of a matter in prison, but in my experience a prisoner is prevented from communicating with a Member of Parliament unless the matter has been investigated, and of course investigation may take quite a few months.

The first question I must ask the noble Lord is whether I am informing the House correctly about this. What is the present rule about communication of a complaint to a Member of Parliament? I want to be sure what the facts are and what investigation has to take place before a prisoner is allowed to communicate with a Member of Parliament. Whatever the present position is, I would urge very strongly that a minimum improvement which would carry us a little way towards the European standard would be complete freedom on the part of a prisoner to write to a Member of either House of Parliament without any restriction.

That is only part of what is necessary. No long ago, we were severely condemned, as I said at the beginning, in the Golder case for restrictions placed on communications between the prisoners and their legal advisers: that is something the Government must know more about than I do. Since then, minimal changes have been made. Constitutional lawyers appear to be agreed that the adverse decision of the European Commission was interpreted by the authorities here in the most limited manner possible. I strongly urge, without prejudice to the wider issue, total abolition of suppression and censorship. Prisoners should be completely free to communicate with their lawyers.

Finally, I come to the general issue of the censorship and suppression of prison letters to and from the ordinary public. I say "censorship and suppression" because one can inspect letters without suppressing them. One can imagine the prison authorities being left with a right in some circumstances to open and inspect letters without their having a right to suppress them coming in or going out. It could be argued that, in some circumstances at least, prison authorities should be allowed to open the letters of prisoners if they have grounds for suspicion that contraband, drugs and so on, might be smuggled in.

However, I should have thought that in principle we could all agree that it was desirable for prisoners to maintain and develop the fullest possible range of human contacts while incarcerated. I am sure that noble Lords who speak later who have had a lot of experience about this will dwell on that point, and, when I talk of maintaining and developing relationships and friendships, I am thinking most of all of developing a family life. Many prisoners feel very much inhibited in writing to their families when some prison officer with whom they live cheek by jowl is allowed to investigate their most intimate correspondence. Above all, I am arguing that prisoners should not have their letters suppressed, even if in some circumstances it was thought essential to look at them.

There is another aspect to this. I shall not go into it now but perhaps someone else will. There is a restriction on whom you can correspond with, as distinct from what you can say to people or what they can say to you. There is a rule that prisoners cannot correspond with those whom they did not know before going to prison; and although I admit that it is often mitigated, in practice it can operate very harshly, particularly in long-term cases. A prisoner who is in prison for many years is bound to lose contact with many people and with his family—perhaps with everybody he knew before—so if he is not allowed to make any new friends one can take it that he will become more and more isolated.

There are printed regulations which are not available to the public, though some members of the public become aware of them, which restrict the right of prisoners to communicate with the Howard League or the National Council for Civil Liberties. Total communication is not forbidden, but communication with those bodies is very much restricted by regulations at the present time. If we agree in principle—and I should have thought that we must all agree in principle—that the greatest possible freedom of correspondence is in the interests of the prisoner, it surely follows that Home Office Ministers, whoever they may be—and this is said without any reference to personalities—are under an obligation to provide a justification, if they can find one, for any particular act of suppression.

The traditional reasons have been those of security. These, in my experience, are not today taken very seriously by anyone on any side of this argument. Hardly anyone today seems to suppose that prisoners who are really determined to make subversive plans are prevented from doing so by this censorship of letters. I do not think anyone supposes that.

A more serious point may be thought to be the attitudes of the prison staff. Certainly their attitudes cannot be neglected, but I hope and believe they would not wish to exercise a right of veto on any liberalisation. It could be argued that if censorship were abolished the prison staff would be unprotected against malicious comments, but already any prisoner who wishes to indulge in criticism of that kind can do so orally during visits without anybody interfering in any way at all and any visitor can then pass the comment, malicious or otherwise, to the Press if he wishes.

For some years, the authorities have refrained from systematic censorship in the open prisons. From my enquiries in an open prison last week, I believe that the experiment was successful and that the particular problem of defending prison staff did not cause trouble. I am sure that the total burden on the staff would be very much lightened by the abolition of censorship. As I said at the beginning, censorship should be abolished, except where grounds for it can be established in an individual case before an independent tribunal.

I repeat that we must not expect too much from the Minister today, but I hope and believe that we shall not be met with a blank wall of negation. Whether we like it or not, great changes are coming, in this and related fields with the ever-increasing importance of the European Commission for the purpose of penal reform in this and other countries. Let it not be said that we were forced by outside pressure into making these changes. Let us prove, on the contrary, that not for the first time we are capable of giving a lead to Europe in social policy.

7.10 p.m.

Viscount LONG

My Lords, I am sure that we must all be very interested in the Question of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, this evening. All parties who are concerned with either the prisoners or the victims, as well as the associations involved, will be interested to read the report of what he has said. I am probably completely and utterly out of step with all of your Lordships. As a young boy of 19, my first duty in the Army was to guard hardened criminal soldiers who had gone berserk. My sergeant turned to me and told me to release the prisoners, in order that they could have their afternoon exercise. He said, "At a certain time you will give an order, and those prisoners will go back into their cells". Later I was utterly amazed, because when I gave the order nothing happened. The prisoners bent down their heads, turned away from me and continued walking around.

My sergeant, realising that there was a problem, marched very smartly into the centre of the arena, gave a command in English sprinkled with French, and every single prisoner went back to his cell. Then my sergeant glared at me and said, "Never trust a single prisoner". I was very frightened. That was only one occasion when I had to deal with prisoners. There were others in hospital who were far worse, and I was only 19 when I had to deal with them. So your Lordships may well say to me that I start off on the right leg. I have little sympathy and little sentimentality, and I say that because I was also shot at by certain prisoners.

I can only say to the prison staffs, the wardens and the governors, who look after our prisoners, that they do a magnificently brave job. They can never take their eyes off their prisoners, in case anything should go wrong. Nearly every month we hear of someone breaking out of or being injured in prison. So I speak with a great deal of anxiety. I was amazed to hear the noble Earl begin his speech by talking about getting our house in order, tackling the EEC and the question of human rights. That was different from what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear what we were going to do about the subject. I do not want to hear about the intellectuals and the visitors, because it is too easy to criticise and too easy to go inside and visit a prisoner. The noble Earl has great experience and visits prisons more often than I do, but, with my minimum of experience, except for having been shot at by several people and being handcuffed to others, I would say that we want to look at this situation a little more closely.

I believe that the prison staff—not you and I—are the ones who really count the people who have to administer the discipline after a prisoner goes inside. It is essential not to undermine the prison staff, but to give them inspiration in their job. I know how lonely it is for a prisoner to be locked up in a cell and to hear the lock go "clink"; it is the most depressing sound that one can hear. I know that most of the time a prisoner is out of touch with the community. But what is he there for? Is he to be kept in a Butlin's holiday camp? Is he there so that we can have sympathy for him? Have we lost our sympathy for those in society whom a prisoner has hurt? We really ought to look at that side. I should not like to take on a warden's job.

I feel that we ought not to look at what the intellectuals have said—and there are many in your Lordships' House who will have sympathy for the parents, the wives and the children; their position is indeed a tragedy, and let there be no doubt about it—but to remember that there are other men and women who leave families behind them in sadness. I should like to look at what the people concerned, the Prison Officers' Association, think. As your Lordships know, they have a general secretary, Mr. Daniel, who takes advice from and listens to the prison staff. He hears their side of the story. It stands to reason that the operation of prison rules represents a fair balance of competing considerations. But what about this idea of freedom of mail? Has anybody considered the outcome if a prisoners' mail did not have be to censored?

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, the noble Viscount is aware that the abolition of censorship is operating in a number of prisons at the present time?

Viscount LONG

My Lords, that is quite right; but not for those in the higher bracket, such as the IRA. I agree that this happens for the lower bracket in the open prisons; but it does not happen in the top bracket, and that is the danger of this debate tonight. The noble Earl has not mentioned the dangers from those such as members of the IRA. We cannot allow them freedom. They have ruined society and the lives of families. This must not be allowed to happen.

Secondly, I should like to mention what the wardens feel about the mail. Censorship of mail and supervision of visits are obviously necessary in order to prevent the communication of drugs, cash and, above all, escape plans. Furthermore, they help prison officers to know of any domestic upheaval going on within a prison, which could take the form of a prisoner wanting to commit suicide due to depression. So that the mail concerns every aspect of what a prisoner might want to do. What I worry about is that he could even write to his Member of Parliament and enclose a further letter to be sent on to another family. It could be a mischievous letter. It could mean, also, that that letter, unbeknown to the warden or the governor, would result in a problem. It may be that the prison staff would have no knowledge of the letter until a delegation rang up or arrived at the prison doors. That could be embarrassing. Unless there is continued censorship in the case of certain brackets of prisoners—I am not speaking about those in open prisons—I do not believe that lack of censorship of letters is safe.

A third point which the Prison Officers' Association have considered concerns visiting facilities. I understand that these facilities have been improved and that they extend to more than the prescribed half an hour. I believe that to be good. Probably it prevents loneliness being felt by prisoners. However, we are speaking about communications by letter with the outside world. I believe that the intentions of the noble Earl are good, but after my experience I should not like the authority of prison wardens to be undermined as a result of mail being allowed to go outside prison without their knowledge.

The noble Earl made an interesting point regarding human rights. A Mrs. Sarah McCabe, an eminent criminologist at the Oxford University Centre for Criminological Research, believes that: the relevant sections of the prison rules are too restrictive". I think that the noble Earl made this point. I am afraid I cannot agree. There must be rules. Mrs. McCabe went on to say that the prison rules are too restrictive and far too discretionary and a cause of great bitterness to prisoners. I believe that all prisoners are bitter and have vengeance in their hearts; life has gone wrong for them. Mrs. McCabe asks why we do not have a Bill of Rights that applies also to prisoners, with certain specific restrictions which are clearly spelled out when a sentence of imprisonment is imposed. A great deal of work would be involved in looking at the record of each prisoner. And how would such a Bill of Rights be operated in the prisons? An officer would have to deal individually with each prisoner, and there might be a dozen, or 40, or 50 of them. I do not believe that that idea would work. Nor do I believe that it is sensible for prisoners to be given luxuries, or any more than is necessary. I know that it is a lonely life in prison, for the reason which I stated earlier—that once the door lock goes you are an outcast and there is no go-between between you and the outside world. However, I must come back to law and order and to why a prisoner is in prison.

7.24 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Hale for agreeing to transfer our names on the list of speakers. I have not had the experience of the noble Viscount, Lord Long, but among those who are taking part in this debate I have one unique advantage. I have seen this problem as a visitor; I have also seen it as a prisoner. During the First World War I was in seven prisons and guardrooms: the Tower of London, three prisons in London, Chester Castle, Walton Prison in Liverpool and Lincoln Prison. Therefore I think I can speak with some knowledge of conditions as they were so many years ago.

May I acknowledge at once that there have been changes in the prison system since then. I was the Joint Secretary of the Prison System Inquiry Committee whose recommendations had a considerable effect, particularly the recommendation that the silence rule in prison should be ended. This was a rule whereby a prisoner was never allowed to speak, even to wardens, except on official matters. However, the regulations regarding visits and correspondence have changed very little over the years. We were permitted one visit a month from our families and, necessarily, we spoke about matters of an intimate, domestic character. Our families were carrying on while we were in prison, and during those visits we concentrated on domestic subjects.

The only other visit that we were allowed was from a minister of religion. I had entered myself on the register as an agnostic. The prison authorities were not quite sure what religion that indicated, so I was placed on the list of the Church of England. In most of the prisons I found that the Church of England chaplain was formal, rigid and even distant. At Walton Prison. Liverpool, he was not; he was sincere, humane and deeply emotional. We had three executions while I was in the Liverpool prison and the clergyman who had to go to those executions became a nervous wreck before he had to fulfil his duty. I had almost to strengthen him rather than him strengthening me. Those were the only visits that were allowed. Fortunately, when I went to Lincoln Prison, the Governor was sufficiently aware of theology to put me down for the Unitarian minister as being rather nearer to an agnostic than others, and I was able to have serious, intellectual discussions with him.

The first point I want to make arising from that experience is that today it is very desirable that there should be allowed into prisons not merely visitors from the family, who speak of domestic matters, or ministers of religion, who may or may not be able to discuss wider subjects. There should be a system which allows visitors to go to prisons without even the restrictions which now exist.

There is the restriction that a visitor must have known a prisoner before he was in prison. That applies also to correspondence. I know both men and women who, if they were allowed to go to prisons as visitors, would undoubtedly have a good effect upon the prisoners. I agree that the prisoner should be given the right to say whether that visitor should come or not but I know cases where prisoners have expressed a desire for such a visit and the visitor has not been allowed because he or she has not had knowledge of the prisoner before he was in prison. I know that some of those men and women could only he of value in the rehabilitation of a prisoner if they were allowed to make that visit.

I wish I could convey the psychology which exists in prison. Even in society outside prison classes are inclined to think in terms of "they" and "them"; in prison that becomes the psychology of the entire prison population. It is "we" and "them". "They" are the warders and the authorities above them. I want to say at once that I pay my tribute to the warders. In my day, they were almost as much prisoners as the prisoners themselves and in prison I took some part in the formation of a prison officers' federation. I have the utmost sympathy with the warders but when people are under prison conditions they inevitably feel, as a result of all the restrictions of their life, an antagonism to the personnel which is responsible for that administration.

In my day I described prisons as "crime factories". I welcome all the changes that have been made, including the association of long-term prisoners and the open prisons. But I am not sure that prisons today are not greater crime factories than in my day because of the overcrowding, with two and three in a cell. Their only contact is with each other, talking about crime and about "they" and "them", and the only way in which one can penetrate that psychology is to include contact between the prisoner and those who are valuable in society outside the prison. That is why it is so essential that there should now be greater liberties in correspondence between public service minded people outside prison and the prisoners—and the prisoners and "them".

I shall speak with some difficulty about my second reason for taking part in this debate tonight. I have become a prison visitor without really having had any intention of doing so. I became involved with two IRA prisoners. They were in prison before the new regulations which later on restricted their liberties. They are able to write to me continually. Less than a month ago I visited them in their prison and visited them in the freedom of a small room with a table where we could talk quite freely. The door was open and the warders were outside but we were without such appalling restrictions as one sometimes sees where, as a visitor to a prison, one has to speak through a glass or through a gauze. Because I want to be fair and do not want to claim too much for myself, I can only say this to the House, but I have not the least doubt that that freedom of contact in correspondence and in visits has enabled those two prisoners to develop a new attitude to life which they would not have reached if that freedom had not been allowed.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, was very modest in the speech with which he introduced this debate. He is a much more regular prison visitor and I have no doubt that, as a prison visitor, he has influenced men and women who are in prison to a determination to lead new ways of life when they leave prison. I say in this debate that, if one is to influence the psychology that exists in prison today, making prisoners form a combination against administration and against society, one must have more contact with those who are outside prison and who have a sense of identity with the prisoners. The influence there will be for the prisoners' good when their term of imprisonment is ended.

7.38 p.m.


My Lords, it is always difficult for anyone to follow my noble friend Lord Brockway, particularly when he is speaking, as he has tonight, in a field in which he has so much personal experience. I too support this Question. All it asks is that the Government should review the present restrictions on communications. This is not of course simply a matter of the prisoners. Anyone connected with the Howard League knows that the two things which concern prisoners most—and I expect my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich will agree with this—are, first, visits and correspondence and, secondly, parole. Visits and correspondence are their only communication at all with the outside world and it is not mainly they themselves who are concerned. It may very often be the determining factor in whether or not a marriage is going to break down.

There are grave hardships in this for the relatives as well. I had a letter only last week from a woman whose adopted son is a life prisoner. She is a widow aged 84, unable to travel except by car, she lives in Dorking and he is in prison in Manchester. If I may I will send the letters, including her son's letters, to my noble friend in case he can do anything for her. I suppose it is obvious that whether or not she sees him again while she is alive is problematical. It is no good thinking of just the prisoners; there really are other people who have a right to be considered.

I promised my noble friend Lord Longford that I would say something about the law. We are in some difficulties in this field, I think; I do not know whether my noble friend Lord Harris would agree. My noble friend Lord Longford is right in saying that we have much stricter measures than in most Western European countries, particularly in relation to the censoring of correspondence. Views which have been expressed in this field, I can assure the noble Viscount, Lord Long, have not simply been expressed by do-gooders not knowing anything about the subject, or by sentimentalists.

The first conference the British Institute of Human Rights ever had was on detention. Those attending, apart from myself, were fairly respectable people. We had three committees; one chairman was Sir Kenneth Younger; the second was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman; I was the third. The chairman of the whole conference was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Kilbrandon. The place was full of judges, prison visitors, justices of the peace, probation officers, people who knew a very great deal about the subject. They said they did not believe there was any sensible reason why any mail should be censored, except, of course, incoming mail, for contraband, which should be opened in the presence of the prisoner.

It may be that there should be exceptions. As I understand it, since then an experiment has been conducted in which in the open prisons ordinary domestic mail is not censored, except for spot checks, which are no doubt necessary to see that it is not being abused. I hope my noble friend will tell me whether I am right in saying that no difficulty whatsoever has arisen from this. If that is so—there is trouble about the IRA, I suppose, but in ordinary local prisons—could not the same thing perhaps be extended to them?

So far as the law is concerned, we are in this difficulty. I am not clear even at the moment how far we have escaped, so to speak, from the Golder case. We do like to exercise our rights, and I think, naturally, to criticise other countries in the field of human rights. But if we are going to continue to be able to do that it is desirable, is it not, as far as possible, that our own record should be clean. We are a party to the European Convention on Human Rights. In the Golder case the European Court of Human Rights decided that we had broken the terms of the Convention—Golder being a case in which a man was prevented from writing to a solicitor with a view to taking civil proceedings. That was found to be against the provisions of Article 6 which provide a right of access to the courts, and, as the Court of Human Rights said it is one of the fundamental rights of any democratic country living under the rule of law that there should be access to the courts. Here again, as I understand it, in most Continental countries a prisoner has a complete right to take any legal pro ceedings he likes. Why in this field we should be as restrictive as we are, I do not know.

The second difficulty about it is this. The Convention, like most Continental law, begins with a statement of principle and then it allows for exceptions. We were, so to say, convicted under Article 6, denying access to the courts. But if one takes Article 8, for example, which deals with correspondence, we find it says: Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety, or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This seems to me sensible. You first announce a principle, the privacy of correspondence, and then you say that any party to this Convention may by its own law write in any exceptions in a wide variety of circumstances. That seems quite reasonable.

One of the difficulties I think we are liable to get into is this. The Prison Act 1952 is law. The prison rules, which are made out of it, are delegated legislation, and, therefore, they are law. But so many of the restrictions depend much more on standing orders and circular instructions, which are not law. There is no reason, of course, why standing orders or circular instructions or the governor's Handbook should be law. Every employer, of course, is entitled to give instructions to his own employees as to how they are to carry out their duties, and from that point of view it is perfectly reasonable that they should not be law. But as the European Convention is drafted in this way, and as it says, "This is the general principle, but any country can make exceptions according to their own law," we are in difficulty if so many of these restrictions come under standing orders and circular instructions.

The other thing I wanted to do was to make an appeal as to whether we could not do something to simplify the rules, because it is so difficult to understand—and all those who know about this field are impressed by it—which rule qualifies which. The first general rule is: The Secretary of State may, with a view to securing discipline and good order or the prevention of crime or in the interests of any persons"— whatever that means— impose restrictions, either generally or in a particular case, upon the communications to be permitted between a prisoner and other persons. That is sweeping, not subject to any exception at all, and it means that no prisoner has any right to have a visit, to see anybody or to communicate with anybody, unless the Secretary of State agrees.

Then the next one is much the same as to correspondence: Except as provided by statute or these rules, a prisoner shall not be permitted to communicate with any outside person, or that person with him, without the leave of the Secretary of State. Then the next one, as to letters: Except as provided by these rules, every letter or communication to or from a prisoner"— then, it used to be "shall" but it is now "may"— be read or examined by the governor or an officer deputed by him, and the governor may, at his discretion, stop any letter or communication on the ground that its contents are objectionable or that it is of inordinate length. Objectionable to whom, we do not know; objectionable in what way, we do not know. These are the overriding powers. Later on, when it says: A convicted prisoner shall be entitled to send and to receive a letter on his reception into a prison and thereafter once a week", that, as I understand it, all has to be read subject to these wide and sweeping rules at the beginning.

Lastly, I should like, if I may, to make a plea for a lesser degree of secrecy about all this. It is not as easy as it used to be to deal with amendments to the rules. The reason for that is that the relevant section of the Prison Act says that a draft of the rules is to be laid before Parliament, and they are to be subject in effect to what we call the Affirmative procedure. I am sorry to say that while I was in office the Home Office pulled a fast one; I never spotted this myself. This was altered in the Criminal Justice Act 1966 to provide that in future they would not have to be laid, and it would be the Negative procedure. This shows how careful parliamentarians have to be.

I had no recollection of this at all, but I have looked to see what happened. There was no such provision in the Bill introduced by Mr. Jenkins in the other place, nor any Amendment. When it came up here, at the end of a very long Committee stage—I think that it was Amendment No. 146 or something like that—my late noble friend Lord Stonham, among two or three miscellaneous Amendments included one to provide that in future the Negative procedure should be used. He did not give any explanation. He did not say why. Nobody asked him about it, and so it was passed. The first time that it appeared in the other place was as a Lords Amendment. My noble friend Lady Bacon, then Minister of State, moved, "That the Commons do agree with the Lords in their Amendment". The only explanation she gave was that it was a more convenient procedure. No one said anything except Sir John Hobson, who said words to the effect "Of course, when you say 'convenient' you mean convenient to the Minister. I hope that this will not set a precedent." Therefore, whereas formerly the matter was laid before Parliament and we had a simple procedure under which we could criticise amendments to the rules, now, of course, it is a very different matter.

The situation is still more complex as regards standing orders and circular instructions. In a Question to which I received a Written Answer on 27th June, I asked the Government about the standing orders and circular instructions. In his reply, my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich said that they had been placed in the Library of the House of Lords. I do not want to go into that matter and I do not know who was at fault. However, for the last few days I have been trying to get hold of standing orders and circular instructions. I have managed to get some of them from the House of Commons Library, a few from the Howard League, and a number from the Home Office which I gratefully acknowledge. One of the interesting factors is that they are all supposed to be standing orders and circular instructions relating to letters and visits, but I do not think that I have had two alike from different people. Therefore, obviously, none of them is complete.

Having now seen them all, I can only say that my sympathies are entirely with prison governors and officers. A wealth of paper descends on them. In one year there were more than 100 circular instructions, all dealing with minute details. How anyone can be expected to keep that degree of administration in their heads I cannot imagine.

If possible I should like to put forward a plea for a greater degree of simplicity. Those standing orders and circular instructions are nearly all confined to visits and directions. For example, Standing Order 5A-34(2) already gives governors a discretion to allow prisoners to use plain notepaper when writing to a child under the age of 16. The instructions concerning engaged couples and extra-marital associations have been amalgamated—I think it is a rather nice phrase—so that the previous requirements, that an engaged couple should both be serving sentences of more than five years and that the period of cohabitation under an extra-marital association should have been at least three years, have been removed. The new standing orders emphasise that the decisions must be reached jointly by the governors concerned. An unconvicted prisoner may in future apply to have a battery shaver. The amount of detail is extraordinary. If they could be simplified in any way I am sure it would be of great advantage to everyone, including of course the prison staff.

However, this is a very human subject. I hope that the experiment which was started in the open prisons—and I understand very successfully—could now be extended at least to open prisons, and that the whole question of censorship might be reconsidered.

If anything can be done to make more information available to people it should be done. My noble friend Lord Longford said that the Official Secrets Act applies. In a sense that might mean that I ought not to have them, but I have the terms of the Official Secrets Act with me. The form which everyone in a prison signs makes clear that the Official Secrets Act, so far as he is concerned, applies to all the information which he receives in his employment. If such a person receives standing orders and circular instructions he cannot send them to anybody. As regards the Home Office, I am sure they mean to be helpful but for those legitimately concerned in the subject, such as the legislators, I really think that these documents are not as available as they should be.

7.55 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to confine my contribution to prisoners and their families, because for some 10 years I have visited wives when their men have gone to gaol. A settled and secure home must be everyone's dream. However, to those in prison that dream can become a nightmare. Obviously, day-to-day contact between a man and his family outside is impossible, but even the two letters per week, written and received, prove to be inadequate. We all suffer from second-class postage, so we know the problems. Wives trying to cheer up their husbands will write only of the good things that happen at home and not of the day-to-day problems. That is a fact. All of this increases the difficulties for the man inside. It makes him totally unprepared for the true situation at home—readjusting to his children, who may well resent him when he comes out because he will then take up more of their mother's time. His picture of what life is like outside is usually very different from that which he finds when he is released.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, after our debate on 29th June kindly wrote to me, but held out no hope for more money for extra visits. I understand his difficulties at present, but I hope that the situation may be improved. The situation has now become worse for many families because of the conditions in various prisons throughout the country as regards the facilities available when they visit their men. Here, unfortunately, I have to disagree with my noble friend Lord Long, because there are some prisons which are appalling. Why should these families have to queue outside in all weathers? Why should there be nowhere for these women and their families to tidy up? Why should there be nowhere for them even to change the baby's nappy? Of course, prisons are built to contain offenders, but surely in a so-called civilised society more consideration should, and in fact must, be given to this appalling state of affairs. I make no apology. I am not exaggerating. The situation in many areas is becoming worse and not better.

As I have said in previous debates, without regular family contact there is no hope of keeping men out of trouble when they leave prison. Wives and families are being punished through no fault of theirs by these very bad visiting conditions. I know that the noble Lord. Lord Harris of Greenwich, appreciates the problem. I only hope that he can give us some encouragement as regards improvement before too long. Most wives cope remarkably well with their finances, but the emotional strains on them are an extra burden which we should certainly try to alleviate.

7.59 p.m.


My Lords, I shall not detain your Lordships for lone, but I should like to add my support to my noble friend Lord Longford in his efforts to improve the situation. It is fairly clear from the speeches that we have heard that there has, in fact, been a good deal of improvement over the years. However, it is quite obvious from what has been said this evening that there is ample room for a great deal more. I very much appreciated what my noble friend said about the complexity of the arrangement under which the prisoners live and which they have to do their best to understand.

What my noble friend said was underlined, with every "i" dotted and "t" crossed, by the speech of my noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner. I thought that that speech was an extraordinarily instructive commentary on the general points made by my noble friend Lord Longford. Surely, as he said, there is great room for simplification. Not only is there great room for simplification, but there ought to be simplification. I hope that when the Minister replies he will be able to tell us that matters are being put in train for simplification and the improvement of the situation.

The present rules put those who try to help prisoners into very considerable difficulties, quite apart from the difficulties under which the prisoners themselves labour. Certainly for long-term prisoners, more than one of whom I have been in touch with, it is a most frustrating experience to read the Home Office instructions. For example, a prisoner under a life sentence would gather from the material which is put before him that if he behaves himself for 10 years, at the end of that time he has a very good chance of being put on parole and regaining his freedom in society.

We should bear in mind throughout all these discussions that the prisoner is, in fact. a citizen and is still entitled to very many of the rights of the ordinary citizen. To a certain extent we have to deprive him of them, but the onus ought to be upon the authorities to show that any particular withdrawal of his rights as a citizen is required—and required in the interests of the community as a whole. I do not think that the authorities have gone very far towards discharging that burden. At the end of that 10 years when the long-term prisoner finds that the hoped-for parole, for which he has been praying for a very long time and for which he has been working very hard, turns out to require him to remain a prisoner for another two years, it is very difficult for him not to come out of it all with extreme bitterness in his heart. There is a sort of attitude which insists on this additional two years of—I shall not call it "durance vile" because no doubt the conditions under which the last two years are served are an improvement on the earlier ones—deprivation of freedom, and the man is very conscious of that. The whole position of these long-term prisoners requires to be looked at again.

A couple of years or so ago we had a very useful debate in this House on the parole system. It is high time that we looked at it again. Many of the proposals which my noble friend Lord Longford has put before us are very reasonable. This has been an interesting debate in which quite a number of your Lordships have taken part. With only one exception, everyone has agreed with the general outlook of my noble friend Lord Longford and, generally speaking, with the detailed proposals which he has made. Even the one nugatory speech, if I may so describe it, went some distance towards supporting the proposals of my noble friend Lord Longford. I believe that the noble Viscount, Lord Long, was certainly very much in favour of the additional freedom which has been granted in the way of correspondence and in other ways in the open prisons. We should aim at applying the conditions in open prisons as far as possible to all the prisons.

Much of the improvement in prison conditions and in the standard of rehabilitation in prisons is due to the rather mundane but very obvious system of incentives for good conduct, which I think we must agree is a very powerful encouragement to prisoners to behave well. Undoubtedly it has that effect. If with one hand we give and with the other hand we take away, we destroy much of the value of that sort of work.

I can foresee a system under which very much greater freedom of correspondence and communication with, in particular, relations will prevail. The prisoner is not only a citizen, but in most cases he is a family man. The policy of improving the situation as an incentive or reward for good conduct in the prisons is one which has not been pursued as far as it could be. Can the Minister tell us that a working party will be set up to look at these prison rules, in order to get them simplified and confined within a reasonable compass, so that an averagely literate prisoner can understand what they are about and can rely on their being performed not only to the letter but in the spirit by the authorities? If so, I think that the situation would improve a great deal.

8.7 p.m.


My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Longford for raising this issue again and would say immediately how I entirely agree with his request to the Government that there should be a reconsideration of the whole question of censorship, with proper safeguards. Over the last 50 years, I believe that there have been great improvements. When I was first appointed a prison chaplain, 50 years ago, it was my melancholy experience to have to chaplain those who were taken to the scaffold. One of those great improvements could almost be taken as the text of what I shall endeavour to say. My noble friend Lord Brockway pointed out that contact with the outside world is an imperative value, and he would know, though he did not say so, that since I first began as a prison chaplain the Prison Visitors' Association has transformed the access of the prisoner to the outside world. I shall return to that anon.

The Question asked by my noble friend, Lord Longford, is a gate into a very large field. It is impossible to treat it satisfactorily—to till the soil of that field—unless some of its dimensions are designated. As a prison chaplain my experience is that many a prisoner has been unable to distinguish between prison as the punishment and prison as the place where that punishment was inflicted. There is a real and in many cases a divisive difference. The idea that a man in prison is subject to all kinds of regulations of which he has no cognizance and to which he has no access, may well produce that sense of hostility whereby, with the best will in the world, those who are required to look after him are placed in a permanent state of animosity or other receptive elements in that condition of animosity. Was it not the obstreperous but yet honest schoolboy, referring to the headmaster of Repton, who said that he was a beast, but a just beast?

A great deal of what can happen in a well-regulated prison depends on the accessibility of prisoners to the content and nature of their deprivations. Not only are they segregated and kept within walls, but they are also subjected to all kinds of other regulations of which, as I have said, in many cases they have no knowledge at all. A wider dispersal of a much wider element of information can, I think, reduce many of the tensions which now turn a great deal of prison life into a perpetual squabble.

But it is another issue which I think is of greater importance still. Long served sentences do irreparable damage to those who have to undergo them, because apart from the first two or three weeks in imprisonment, which are the creative and dynamic weeks, what happens to a prisoner is that he becomes habituated to an entirely artificial type of life in which many of the normal reactions to which he would be subjected, and in which he would be encouraged outside, are nonexistent. We have paid altogether too little attention to the nature of that artificial life, which disposes the prisoner to all kinds of reactions and activities which are alien to any consequential opportunities that he may have, when he conies out of prison, to lead a decent life and recover the kind of social habits which have been very largely destroyed in that artificial atmosphere.

Many of the prisoners become "stir drunk", and it is because they are totally segregated against the contacts of the world which would keep them more or less sane. It is true that some great spirits have overcome these difficulties. I was reading the other day of John Bunyan's 12 years in Bedford Gaol. He came out from those 12 years with the same bright and splendid spirit in which he entered them. But things were very different. He was invited to preach in London during that incarceration, and he took the weekend off and went to London and preached, and came back on the Tuesday. His wife cooked meals for him. In fact, their marital relations were not totally obliterated, and at least one of his children was the result of conception within that set of circumstances. This speaks a great deal about the corruption of the warders, but it also speaks of the way in which there is an almost necessary—I would say quite necessary—relationship between the prisoner, even when he is in prison, and the world to which it is hoped one day he will return with a greater chance of repairing the damage and leading a better life.

It is in that light that I believe the restriction on letters and particularly the restriction on visits, the paucity of opportunity to maintain a real contact with the world outside, is one of the most debilitating and dangerous elements in the prison system itself. It is for that reason that, although this is not the debate this evening, I am totally opposed to the prison system. I recognise that segregation and incarceration are inevitably necessary in some cases.

I will not delay the House with a long speech. But wearing the kind of collar I do your Lordships will not rebuke me if I refer to a very important effect of the kinds of restrictions by which prisoners are segregated from the real world, and become artificially conditioned to a way of life which is, in so many ways, degrading, and in all ways unsatisfactory. The answer is this: Among the other intentions of imprisonment is reformation. I would put it first, but whether you put it first or lower down the list it is nevertheless true that it is the ambition, or should be the ambition, of those who punish that those who are punished should react in such a way that they come to penitence and begin to lead a different and better sort of life.

It is almost impossible to sustain the element of contrition and penitence within the artificiality of prison life. It is the rarest exception that a man in those conditions becomes imbued with a new sense of his moral obligations, detests what has been his past, and intends to do whatever he can, by the grace of God, or whatever other means are available, to lead a new life. It is this total absence of the conditions which promote any sort of reformation which is the most detestable and dangerous element in prolonged prison life in any case.

When a man (or a woman for that matter) is in fairly constant contact with the people, in many cases, whom he or she has wronged most of all—and how heartily I agree with the noble Baroness; the wives, children and lovers, and so forth—and they are constantly presented to him, even in conditions which are artificial, short and squalid, they can yet maintain that moral link which I believe is of imperative necessity if afterwards such a man or woman is to acquire a new kind of dignity and restore something to the society that he, or she, has so largely impaired.

This is one of the outstanding needs of the present situation, and it is one of the ultimate principles lying behind what my noble friend Lord Longford has been trying to say. By all means let us be careful. Let us secure where we can. Let us make certain that advantages are not taken of too great freedoms that may be offered. Let us by all means regard imprisonment as a condition necessary in some cases for the kind of reparations that are required. But having said that, let us, in God's name, keep those prison sentences short. Let us vary them in ways which will keep real contact with the world outside. And let us remember, if you will allow me finally to say this, that there, but for the grace of God, go most of us.

8.16 p.m.


My Lords, I am so overcome by the ability and clarity shown in the debate that has taken place that I am, for once, a little reluctant to take it further. There was the voice, for example, of the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, from whom I think I learnt so much of my early knowledge of penal reform: the clarity of the speeches of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner; the moving words of the noble Baroness.

There is something quite terrible about the Tory Front Bench—not in its present occupant but in its effect upon people who come on to the Tory Front Bench—in that it transforms so charming and gifted a speaker as I know the noble Viscount, Lord Long, to be, into a victim of all the inhibitions that have been accumulating in that place for so many years. He spoke fairly about the prison warders. The last time I was with the noble Earl, Lord Longford, on an investigation of penal reform, we saw the prison warders and we were astonished at what they said. They said, "We don't want to be turnkeys. We want to be warders." They said, "We don't want to have no discretion at all. We want to help. We went into this job thinking it was worthwhile and might be rewarding."

I know since then that some prisons have given a little more discretion in many ways. There are prisons which have special privileges. I have visited prisons everywhere I have been, and seen the loneliness of a prison. I do not think, whether it be a single room with a bucket in Thailand, or whether it be a solid cell in Dartmoor, that hearts innocent and quiet take them for an hermitage". I understand that there are always lonely people who like to be lonely. But I recall the day when, as a Labour delegation, we were looking for the Labour Party in the middle of Greece. They had all disappeared. I said, "Let us have a look in the prison". We were admitted to the prison because we were an official delegation of the British Government. We found all the Labour Party there—every one of them. They were quite a cheerful lot because they could associate, although they were suffering a little from malnutrition and consumption. The right of association is something which is helpful.

The point I particularly wish to make is that at the beginning of a long sentence, when a man is called upon to face a long and desperate future, his one hope is communication with a loved one; his one hope is that someone remains to trust or to help. That is why, time after time, clients go on pleading not guilty when they do not have any chance with a jury. They do it because, having pleaded not guilty, they can say to their wives, "I told you I didn't do it". It may not be noble but it is very human. It is at that time that a man wants a little consideration, a little consideration to start with and not to have to work for privileges for perhaps 15 years and the right to communicate with his missus or, if you like, his mistress. In this connection I think the noble Viscount, Lord Long, unintentionally did a little injustice to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who in his opening sentence said that he had consulted friends who had suggested that there might be exceptional cases. I should have thought the IRA was a fairly obvious one at any rate for consideration, or instances where half the gang have not been arrested and situations like that. Nobody is asking for a blanket rule which applies to the most difficult cases.

I recall going to see a show prison, as it was called, in Italy where they had a whole series of instruments which looked remarkably like those machines where one puts a penny in a slot and presses a button. Those machines were for the examination of prisoners immediately they had been sentenced. They tested their thyroid gland content with one machine, they took a brain reading with another and an absolutely full heart reading with a third, so that by the time all the readings had been taken they had a complete record of the man, except for one matter about which I asked them. I asked, "When a chap has just received a sentence of 20 years, including five years of seclusion, do you think he is in a normal condition to be examined in this way?" They replied very frankly, "Of course we appreciate that point, but think of the cost of bringing him back from Brindisi". Yes, I suppose we must think of the cost when we have devised a monetary system under which the more money we have the harder up we are and which involves an immediate revision of interest rates because we have too much money in the bank.

Penal reform must be the most meanly treated subject in political terms. For 20 years I have been trying to get Oldham Hospital made fit and I have made speeches about Strangeways Prison. I am told by the authorities, "Yes, but let us have the hospital done first. It is a question of priorities". It is of course a question of priorities.

Great experiments were conducted on the Continent, and of course great problems remain in an inter-racial society. I thought I was as free as a man could be of a colour bar until I found a solitary white man in a prison in Nigeria with a whole series of mixed races and dialects of that great area of Nigeria. I talked to that man. "What can we do?" I asked him, and he replied, "Do nothing. You mustn't. I can maintain myself here as an individual only by resignation. There is nothing else left. I was guilty and I have no right to complain". Nevertheless, it was tough for such a man—think of the diet alone—a man who has been used to European food.

In a previous speech on this subject I mentioned the suggestion box in a prison in Peking. I know that we have reached the stage when I shall be told that all this is an illusion. They were quite frank about their prison in Peking; people moved about all night, they admitted. They said, "These prisoners would go mad if we kept them locked up in this sort of climate". Nevertheless, for 24 hours a day at the four corners of the prison there were guards armed with guns and who were instructed to shoot. That was the price they had to pay, a price which I think the British public would never accept, for an otherwise sensible routine.

I have no doubt that I am speaking at an inconvenient time of the evening. If that were not the case I am sure at least 100 noble Lords on the Benches opposite would get up and say, "All that sort of thing in prison is laid on for you like an opera, and none of those things really happen". I assure the House one cannot wander round a great city like Peking and think it is all an illusion; see the young girls on bicycles going to work and think of what it was like a few years ago. It is no more an illusion than when I was in Red Square in Moscow in 1938 and was deceived by the cardboard tanks which later conducted the defence of Stalingrad. But I am getting rather wide of the subject.

There is so much that could be done. I am in danger now of making the mistake I made when Mr. Butler, as he then was, now the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Saffron Walden, was Home Secretary, and who replied to letters I had sent him in which I suggested that correspondence chess was about the one occupation which could occupy a man while in prison, which could give him the opportunity of playing in the light or in the dark, and the pieces for which could be made fairly easily with a pen-knife in the workshop. I was told they would not be interested; but I should love to try the experiment, even now. Chess is the simplest game in the world to learn to play badly, and to play badly is the best way to enjoy it; people who play it supremely well are nearly all going mad under the strain, and that would not be the wish I should like or desire to achieve.

Many other Governments, right back to a year or two after the war, were trying experiments. There was a collective experiment into repetitive crime in the Netherlands where they tried to do something about people who stole bicycles, went on stealing bicycles and the moment they were released stole more bicycles, and they made a considerable impact on that curious aspect of the problem of repetitive crime. One French Prime Minister—I cannot remember which but it was probably Mendes-France—took the old prison near Fontainebleau that was built at the time of Dartmoor and for the same purpose, for prisoners of war, and gave the governor a free hand, saying, "We will send to you the worst men we have and do what you can with them," and he did. After long talks he showed me one of his star pupils, a charming, gifted man of 25 or 26. I said, "How long has he been here?" He replied, "He has been here eight years". I said, "Governor, you told me that according to the rules he could not be here for eight years, that he could not have had a sentence at that age which would keep him here". The governor replied, "He was not sentenced to imprisonment. He murdered his father and mother and was sentenced to the guillotine".

I am really rather a hardhearted, blunt and straightfoward individual, thinking sometimes very much like the noble Viscount, Lord Long, that tough people and those who shoot at one and so on, deserve severe sentences, and I apologise if I have overstrayed the mark. We now have 42,000 prisoners, and let us be frank and say that this started shortly after the war with the judges deciding to give heavier sentences for grave crime. It started when Lord Justice Goddard announced that he was going to be punitive, and within three years sentences for grave crime, very grave crime and violent crime went up by half or by twice as much. We got three men in a cell, and when you get three men in a cell you are fortunate if you get three good ones. If you get one bad one that is where crime can be plotted. That is why we who believe in penal reform say that we are not accepting the burden of the increase in crime which is now visible all over Britain.

8.33 p.m.

Baroness MASHAM of ILTON

My Lords, perhaps it is natural that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharples, and I, who are wives ourselves and know the problems of children, should speak for the families. I should like to bring just one topic to your Lordships tonight. This is to do with voluntary work done by women who help prisoners' wives, girl friends and children. If you are a woman with a husband in prison and have a baby or young child which you have to bring with you to the prison, life can be very difficult. The journey can take a long time, perhaps from changing from train to bus and then having to walk. The weather can be cold and foggy; the children get tired and the baby's nappies get wet. Groups of women, such as those belonging to the Mothers Union, who are responsible and have had their own children and have plenty of time, under-stand these women's problems. What can be more helpful for these unfortunate prisoners' wives or girl friends than to have a nappy-changing crêche or a place to leave the children where they will be looked after while they make their visit? Many of the girls are not married; they have numerous social problems. The women who run the crêches at the prison can watch some of the girls' progress in their pregnancy and help them as the pressures become greater.

There are not enough such crêches in our prisons and institutions, yet I have heard that one such crêche at an institution at Boston Spa in Yorkshire has had to close because of the security risk. Knowing some of the splendid, kind ladies, such as the wife of the Reverend Dean of Ripon who is a trained nurse, I am rather surprised. There are many responsible women who have time and who can help in all sorts of ways with prisoners' families and social problems. Is it true that the Government are not encouraging this sort of voluntary work? I should be very pleased to hear the Minister say tonight that he is grateful for the voluntary work and that he will encourage it. These women do not worry about the hours of work that they do and about doing overtime at weekends. They do it because they want to help some very unfortunate women, some near desperation, and some little children who cannot help that their fathers are in prison. With the country in its present financial difficulties, can we do without this free voluntary help?

8.36 p.m.


My Lords, I do not want to stand between the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and the House at this time. I had no intention of speaking in this debate but I feel I must say one word to the noble Viscount, Lord Long, whose last sentence I think was, "After all, what are they there for?" The answer is that they are there to be cured. This Session was opened with divine worship; this is a Christian country, and it seems to me that we are held in this matter that we have to do good to those who despitefully use us.

My interest in speaking is that I happen to have been for 25 years the chairman of the largest borstal in Scotland, and inevitably in that time one is in touch with parents and with boys in a cumulative number. I should like to say this one word to the authorities: never once in those 25 years was there complaint, either by parents or by boys, of being in any way stopped by any kind of regulation or by any of the issues which have been very rightly brought up tonight, but certainly were not being used in that regard.

I have another interest in the fact that for more than 25 years in the community in the Island of Iona, to which I belong, we had without cessation a borstal camp, the first such camp ever run, bringing borstal boys out to live in camps. Our only rule was that they should be back in I the camp at 10 o'clock at night, and never once—and when you think of 24 boys at a time over 30 years this adds up to a large number of people—was there a boy who did not appear at the right time. Never once was there a pilfering or even an accusation in the Island of. Iona that anything had been taken by anybody. There was this tremendous sense of response.

This has been greatly enriched by the present governor, who now arranges that this camp should go on, not just as a camp for borstal lads being run by a group of people but with the borstal lads and an equal number of children who are mentally defective. Each borstal lad was given the care of a child who was mentally defective. Never once in the last five years have they made a mistake in this experiment. Always they have been the essence of courtesy and concern, helping the handicapped children to bathe and so on. The possibilities are quite tremendous. All that is being asked for in this debate is that there should be proper communication, and I am certain that that will be seen to by the authorities.

8.40 p.m.


My Lords, let me say at the outset that I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Longford for having initiated this debate and giving us the opportunity of discussing the broad range of issues that we have discussed this evening. Let me say at once that I have no wish at all to see unreasonable restrictions of prisoners' communication with the outside world. I want to see the Home Office continue to work towards the abolition or the easement of restrictions which are unnecessary, but I must begin by pointing out the obvious: that a degree of restriction on prisoners' activities is not of itself unreasonable. Some of it—I must be quite blunt—is inevitable.

I should like to say something right at the outset about the situation affecting prisoners' relatives and friends because, very naturally, this has been one of the issues constantly referred to by speakers during this debate. There are clearly strong humanitarian grounds for enabling a prisoner to maintain close links with his family and his friends. The separation which takes place between a prisoner and his family affects them just as much as it does him, and their loyal support when he is in trouble may help him to keep out of further trouble when he is eventually released from prison. The prison rules in fact recognise these factors, and allow a prisoner to communicate with relatives and friends without the special permission that is undoubtedly required in other cases.

I accept at once that there is not the same freedom to communicate with members of the general public; people who were not known to the prisoner before he went into prison. Strangers who want to write to or visit a prisoner may well be extremely well-intentioned; and some of them, indeed, do visit prisoners. I shall come to that particular point later, if I may. Others may be merely curious; and some others may not always have, necessarily, particularly agreeable motives. Let me take one obvious example. I do not think there would be many—albeit there may be some, but not many—who would take the view that there should be unrestricted access to a person serving a sentence of imprisonment by his criminal associates, or his former criminal associates. I think that raises quite a number of real issues, and it is impossible to dismiss them with a wave of the hand or to say that one should be able to impose some clear-cut set of rules on a prison governor. One would find it, I may say, extremely difficult to do so.

However, having said that, I should come to this particular point. My noble friend Lord Brockway referred to cases where, as he described the situation, people who would have helped a prisoner to rehabilitate himself had been denied access to a prison. If cases of this sort occur I think it is undoubtedly regrettable, and, certainly, if they are raised with me I shall look into them. But let me say this quite clearly. The rules are not absolute. There is a discretion on a prison governor, which is quite often exercised by that governor, to permit contact between a prisoner and people whom that prisoner has not known before he went into prison. That discretion is utilised quite often, and in my view absolutely rightly so.

My noble friend Lord Longford raised a number of questions, and perhaps I may deal with some of those which appeared to me to be right at the heart of his argument. I will deal with three particular issues. The first is what I might describe as the question of European practice, which was also referred to by my noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner. The second is the New Bridge Lecture by the last Home Secretary, and the question of prison standing orders. Lastly, there is the question of complaints by prisoners to Members of Parliament. I think these are three important issues, and with my noble friend's agreement I will deal with them in a little detail. My noble friend began by referring to the fact that some cases are to come before the European Commission on Human Rights. He is absolutely right; there are indeed going to be some cases in the New Year. He went on to say—and my noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner also implied—that we are in something of a European doghouse, in that we have practices here which are not permitted by anybody else. I am not quite sure of the evidence for that view, but—

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords—


I will in fact deal with this, my Lords.

The Earl of LONGFORD

But I did not say that.


My Lords, I would say to my noble friend that, if he looks at Hansard tomorrow, he will find that he did say something remarkably similar to it. Let me just deal with this particular matter.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, will my noble friend give way?


I will in a moment, with pleasure.

The Earl of LONGFORD

But my noble friend is mistaken; I really must ask him to give way. I did not say that we were doing something which was not done by anybody else. I said that we were falling below—and I thought well below—the normal European standards, which is a different thing.


I see. My Lords, I take note of what my noble friend now says, and I hope that, when I look at Hansard tomorrow, I shall see, as I am sure I will, that my noble friend has stated the position quite accurately. But I must say to him quite clearly that the impression his words left on me was that our practice in fact falls behind that of other European countries. I am saying to him quite frankly that that is not so. Indeed, it is not only my noble friend who has said this; it has quite often been stated in the Press and elsewhere that this is so. What I would say to my noble friend and to those others is this—and if my noble friend does not in fact acknowledge that this particular point was made by him, he must allow me to deal with those who have used this argument outside this House.

I want to give only one particular indication that there is very little merit in this argument, and that is by looking at the German Penal Code. Germany, after all, is one of our major partners in Europe and it does not seem to me at all inappropriate that one should look at the German experience and see what the rules are so far as German prisons are concerned. The German Penal Code for 1976 deals with the matter in this way as far as letters are concerned. I am dealing with correspondence at the moment. The list of reasons for which a letter can be stopped is in fact a pretty formidable one. It includes these various headings: If the objective of treatment would be jeopardised; if the forwarding would constitute an offence; if grossly distorted descriptions of prison conditions or serious insults"— presumably to prison staff or others— are included; if social integration of another prisoner might be damaged; if illegible, incomprehensible, in code or unnecessarily in a foreign language. That is the German Penal Code of 1976. I would not for a moment say that every statement in that code would properly be introduced in this country. I would not say that for a moment. What I would say is that this constant suggestion which is made, let us say, to use the most neutral language at the moment, outside this House, that in some special way the situation in this country is a great deal less satisfactory than it is in Europe, is not, in my view, justified by all the circumstances. I shall come on to a number of other foreign experiences, if I may, in a moment, but I htink that that is not an unimportant consideration for the House to take into account.

I have referred to Germany at the moment, but indeed many other European countries admit frankly that they impose censorship on the grounds of security, and sometimes for other reasons as well. Similarly, many admit restrictions on those who may do it, and who may correspond. I have cited the German example. There are others, but I think I have made the point right at the outset of this speech that, although the situation that I have described, and will describe this evening, is not in my view wholly satisfactory—I would not for a moment suggest that it was—the suggestion that the situation in this country is a great deal less satisfactory than it is in the rest of Western Europe does not, in my view, stand up.

I turn now to the second point; that is, the New Bridge Lecture delivered by the former Home Secretary, in which he indeed announced that there would be a review of prison standing orders. This has been put in hand. In fact, the section dealing with privileges—that is, Section 4 of standing orders—has been completed, and is going to be discussed with the staff associations within the next few weeks. There is a second review which is now starting—that is, on Section 7 of the prison standing orders—which deals with religious education, physical education, libraries and welfare. A working party will deal with this. It has been set up already and, again, once conclusions have been reached the matter will be discussed with the staff associations.

While on this point, I should like to deal with a point made by my noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner, who raised, in my view, an absolutely legitimate criticism of the amount of paper sent to prison governors. I agree that there is almost certainly a formidable amount of this material and often it is difficult for the governor to make a decision given the amount of paper which is sent to him by the Home Office.

Having said that, I must draw my noble and learned friend's attention to the reasons why this paper is sent in the first place. To take one or two examples, a letter may come from a Member of Parliament or a Member of this House which directs attention to the fact that a particular prisoner has been treated in a particular way at one prison, has been moved and is treated in a wholly different way in another prison. The prisoner says, "I am in the same prison system. Why should I not have the same rules applying to me affecting this particular privilege?" Often the decision of the Minister—be it one of my predecessors or be it one of my successors—will be that he thinks it desirable to regularise this practice so that a particular privilege should be a privilege as of right and not provided in just the case of one or two named prisoners. Therefore, out go the instructions to the prison governors. This is a problem which I am sure my noble and learned friend will recognise. I agree it raises formidable problems so far as prison governors are concerned. I am aware of it and I take note of the point. It is a weighty matter which it is right to bear in mind.

On the question of access as far as Members of Parliament are concerned, my noble friend Lord Longford referred to a letter which was sent to him about a prisoner who, I understand, is now out of prison. He raised the question and was kind enough to say that I had apologised to him—

The Earl of LONGFORD

Not on that point, but on another, my Lords.


In the course of that letter he implied that I had offered some apology on behalf of the prison authorities. I am glad that I did so, but I cannot remember the circumstances. I should be happy to apologise on behalf of the prison authorities where I think a mistake has been made, but I do not intend to apologise if I do not believe that a mistake has been made. I do not think it would be reasonable if I were to do so.

The situation as far as access to Members of Parliament is concerned was in fact dealt with by the last Home Secretary in a Written Answer which he gave on 1st December, 1975, in another place. I could quote this extensively if my noble friend would like me to do so, but basically it says this—and I emphasise that I am quoting only part of the Answer. He is setting out the new procedures as far as Members of Parliament are concerned, and that applies to Members of both Houses. It says: First, a letter to a Member will no longer be stopped or sent back to the writer for amendment unless it contains a complaint about the administration of an establishment or the actions of staff that has not been raised and considered through the normal internal procedure. Secondly, a visit to a prisoner by a Member, acting in his capacity as a Member, will no longer be within hearing of prison staff, unless the Member so requests, or there are specific reasons of security, as in the case of prisoners in security category 'A' who form less than 1 per cent. of the prison population. It is clearly desirable that Members should, on these occasions, give prisoners no encouragement to circumvent the well-established procedures for enabling complaints against prison administration and staff to be considered by the governor, the board of visitors, and the Secretary of State". —[Official Report, Commons, col. 378; 1/12/75]. I could go on, but the text is available in Hansard.

When writing to Members of either House, I normally draw attention to this arrangement, which was a liberalising arrangement. It carried the frontiers forward significantly as far as access to Members of Parliament of both Houses is concerned. There is no mystery about it. That statement was made by a former Home Secretary in another place about the situation which would arise. I cannot comment on this particular case without reference to the correspondence, but on the basis of my noble friend's suggestion it presumably was the case that this particular provision was not accepted by the former inmate to whom he has referred. That is the situation on three specific points raised in the speech of my noble friend.


My Lords, will my noble friend allow me to intervene? He said—and I am grateful that he has taken so much trouble; I agree it is better to have referred back to that statement by a former Home Secretary—the complaint cannot go forward to the Member of Parliament until it has been raised and considered. The question is, what does consideration involve? It may involve a delay of many months before a complaint is thoroughly investigated. I have cases, not the one referred to the noble Lord, but others where it takes months before an investigation is completed. I do not know whether that "considered" means it must be disposed of.


My Lords, it depends on the circumstances of the case. Many cases take many months to dispose of. It may be an allegation of assault by prison officers or something like that. I have seen the results of detailed investigations which apply in matters of this sort. It is a grave matter. It is absolutely right that there should be exhaustive investigations. Inevitably, in some cases there is a delay of many months. I would not suggest this is not the case. I would put it to my noble friend and to others that in matters of this sort it seems to me to be right that the matter should be vigorously investigated first of all. If there is then what is regarded as an unsatisfactory outcome, the MP's help can be enlisted. I think that that is done widely by prisoners in situations of this sort.

In considering the frequency with which prisoners may conduct their correspondence or receive visits, I should like to emphasise that the entitlements stipulated in the Prison Rules are regarded as minimum entitlements and that, wherever possible, actual allowances are greater. The Rules stipulate that a convicted prisoner may write and receive one letter weekly and may receive a visit every four weeks. For all practical purposes, there are no restrictions in the case of unconvicted prisoners. In local prisons and in remand centres, where staff are heavily committed to escort work for the courts and where the population includes un-convicted prisoners entitled to daily visits by lawyers and friends and relatives, very often governors have limited resources of staff and accommodation to handle extra visits and letters for convicted inmates.

Nevertheless, even here, the minimum allowance is two letters weekly, inward and outward, and in training prisons usually three weekly and in some cases, more. In most training prisons, visits are allowed at two or three-weekly intervals. Nevertheless, I want to improve, and improve substantially, the regularity of visits where this is practicable, for the most obvious reasons. I must say there are real problems and I have referred to some of them. There are very substantial limitations on accommodation and pressure on staff resources. These are bureaucratic terms, but they are a real issue to a governor who has only a limited number of staff available and a pitifully inadequate amount of accommodation, in many cases, in order to house not only the wives and girl friends of inmates but also their children. The noble Baronesses, Lady Sharples, and Lady Masham, both referred to this point.

The noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton, asked me to say that the Government were not opposed to voluntary effort. They certainly are not. Indeed, only two weeks ago, I was in a prison in Preston, Lancashire, and I took the opportunity then of saying how grateful I and, indeed, everybody was to the two ladies looking after small children in a creche in the visiting area of the prison. These people do most valuable work on behalf of the community. They allow an inmate to have a talk to his wife in a condition of privacy and still to have access to the children when he wishes to do so. Having seen examples of this, I want to move ahead as rapidly as possible in this area, though once again I have unhappily to state that the resources available are extremely limited. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, referred to the closure of a creche for security reasons. I do not know anything about that, but I shall make inquiries and write to her.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharples, referred to bad conditions. I have confirmed that. Nevertheless, it is only right to say that there has been some improvement in recent years. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharples, may be aware, a survey is already under way in cooperation with Mrs. Joyce Williams, JP, who conducted an earlier survey in 1971, to discover and determine the remaining deficiencies in the facilities in the area that I have been talking about. Certainly, I am highly seized of the importance of doing something here and I shall do everything I can to improve the situation.

On the general question of the regularity of visits, I have recently discussed this matter with the Department, and I have asked the Chief Inspector of the Prison Service and the regional directors of the Prison Department to give particular attention to visiting arrangements during their regular visits to prisons. I have asked the Inspectorate in particular to pick out this particular situation when it prepares its regular reports on prisons which go to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

I shall now return to the subject of censorship of correspondence. The main guiding principle of our policy is to gear censorship to the needs of the safe custody of prisoners and of good order in Prison Department establishments. Certainly, I agree entirely with my noble friend Lord Longford on one point; that is, that I think it would be misleading the House if I suggested that censorship of itself could always prevent people succeeding in planning an escape; could always prevent the intimidation of witnesses; or could always prevent the smuggling of drugs into a prison. Of course, there is no question of being, able to guarantee a 100 per cent. record of success, or anything approaching that, by having censorship, but I would say that, time-consuming and unprofitable though it is, it has on a number of occasions undoubtedly helped to frustrate attempts in this particular direction. Given the character of some of the inmate population of our prisons and given the fact that, quite apart from the criminally sophisticated, we have nearly 100 convicted terrorist prisoners, it would be a remarkable decision for Government totally to disregard considerations of this sort.

In my judgment, there are thus valid reasons for maintaining censorship in those prisons holding our most dangerous prisoners; namely, those in security categories A and B. In open prisons—and indeed my noble friends Lord Longford and Lord Gardiner referred to the situation regarding open prisons—holding the least dangerous prisoners, censorship of correspondence with relatives and friends has been virtually abolished. That again has been done in the lifetime of the present Government. One is not facing absolutely total immobility so far as the Home Office is concerned. This important development, the abolition of censorship in open prisons, has only taken place in the lifetime of this Administration. I have referred to category D prisoners, and also to category A and B prisoners. With regard to prisoners in category C, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has stated his intention of extending the practice at present which we have in our open prisons as soon as it is practicable to do so. There is no disposition on our part to be wholly resistant to this.

Another problem which I should like to mention (and this is something which I do not think has been touched upon by many speakers in this debate today) is the prisoner who receives no visits from friends or relatives, and who, if he is serving a lengthy sentence, is at some risk of losing touch with what goes on outside the walls of the prison, never having any contact with anybody other than a member of the Prison Service or his fellow inmates. A prisoner of this character can be a desperately lonely person, and the good which a visit can bring from someone from the outside world, quite unconnected with the prison staff, is enormous. I have no doubt that prisoners value highly the opportunity to talk to someone about ordinary matters of everyday interest; someone who will take an interest in him and his family; someone who might perhaps be able to help him to understand how he has gone wrong, and with whom he can discuss his future plans when he finally emerges from a prison régime.

Above all, prisoners need someone to listen to them, a person with more time than many prison staff can find available to offer in today's extremely difficult circumstances; someone not obviously part of the system itself. Many such prisoners are helped by voluntary prison visitors—if I may say so to the noble Baroness, Lady Masham. I should like to pay tribute to the selfless work which they carry out on behalf of many of these lonely, friendless men. We have at the moment somewhere around 550 voluntary prison visitors. Their numbers are by no means evenly spread. There is undoubtedly a problem in this area. Several prisons are well served; some, frankly, not at all. We are making at the moment strenuous efforts to try to fill some of these gaps.

Let me conclude by saying that it is right constantly to examine our attitude to the present restrictions, which undoubtedly exist so far as communications are concerned. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary and I try to ensure that in applying the rules we preserve a reasonable balance between the complete freedom of visits and correspondence which some undoubtedly desire, and the restrictions which absolute security would undoubtedly impose. The operation of the rules is kept constantly under review and is being reviewed now.

The maximum discretion is encouraged in extending facilities for communication in terms of both letters and visits, where feasible. We are always willing to try out new ideas in order to ensure that prisoners are treated sensitively and with humanity. Certainly I think we have made some progress—perhaps some considerable progress—towards this objective. But I concede at once that a great deal more is both necessary and desirable, and my right honourable friend and I are determined to try to do our best to achieve it.

House adjourned at ten minutes past nine o'clock.