HL Deb 29 June 1977 vol 384 cc1115-41

3.56 p.m.

The Earl of LONGFORD rose to call attention to the crisis in the penal system; and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, a number of exceptionally well qualified speakers are to follow me and it would be invidious to begin to mention them at this stage; they will make their presence felt soon enough, and that is a special reason why I should try to keep my remarks within bounds.

It is about three years ago that I opened a debate in this House on prisons; I have opened lesser debates on the same kind of subject since then. The Home Secretary, Mr. Roy Jenkins, had just delivered a speech that gave many of us a great deal of encouragement, but in the meanwhile there has been much to criticise and little to praise. The number in prisons has increased, in round figures, from 37,000 to 42,000, with all the obvious consequences of overcrowding and undue strain on the prison staff, not to mention the prisoners.

But it is not the fact of the increase which is the main feature of our indictment. Ministers are entitled to point out that crime has gone rocketing ahead during these three years, and over a short-run period few of us would hold the Government of the day directly responsible for the increase in crime. It would be unworthy to suggest that a great Government Department such as the Home Office, presided over by zealous Ministers, some of them much esteemed in this House, have made no efforts at all to make things better or to prevent them from getting worse. We welcome the steps that have been taken in regard to bail, though many of us would like them to be much more decisive. We welcome the announcement of the Home Secretary this week in regard to drunken offenders but, speaking generally, all who are concerned with penal reform are bound to criticise, and criticise severely, the distressing incapacity on the part of our rulers to make any moves in a forward direction. When I refer to "our rulers" I am referring to the present dispensation; I am not implying for a moment that any other set of rulers readily available would have done any better.

What matters now is the present and the immediate future. I come before the House this afternoon with the earnest plea that the Government should take an absolutely fresh look at the whole penal problem. The dreadful overcrowding provides one urgent reason, but it is not the only one. Two reports which have just come out place the whole situation in a new light. For reasons of time, I must lay down several propositions a shade dogmatically. In fact, I lay down four, of which the first three have been laboured by myself and others quite often in this House. I submit therefore, first, that many fewer people should be sent to prison and that prison sentences should be much shorter; secondly, much more use should be made of alternative forms of punishment or treatment; thirdly, parole should be granted much more liberally. I will come to the fourth a little later and, as noble Lords will be glad to hear I have set myself a finite limit, I may not have much time to develop it.

In the last few weeks a most significant event has occurred—at least, I hope it has—in the history of sentencing. The Advisory Council, of which my distinguished neighbour, Lady Serota, who is to speak this afternoon, is of course the chairman, has come out unequivocally in favour of shorter sentences for the less serious—that is to say, the great majority —of offenders; the more serious offenders in that report are left over, as I understand it, for later treatment. The thinking behind this recommendation is just as striking as the recommendation itself. On page 5 of the recently-published report of the Advisory Council we read: The climate of informed opinion has changed in recent years. Few of those who know the prison system today retain much of a simple faith in its effectiveness as an agency of reform. We believe that, as more attention is directed to the problem both by public figures and by the media,"— I break off to say that there is a lesson for all of us there— people will become increasingly aware of the futility of imprisonment". I should like to stress that. Surely it is one of the most important statements which has ever occurred in the report of a Government Committee. I repeat it: … people will become increasingly aware of the futility of imprisonment". So it is against that background that we are discussing prisoners and the penal system today.

Almost at the same moment, the prison governors have emerged with a very important series of recommendations, and I should now like to quote the prison governors, who are quite independent of the Advisory Council. The prison governors say: Action is urgently required to relieve the worst excesses of overcrowding if damage to inmates and staff is to be avoided"— and much more to the same effect. I have not seen their proposals in full, but from the summaries in the Press they would appear to reach the same general conclusions as the Advisory Council. So we can refer to these bodies as coming to an identical point of view.

It happens that I was privileged to attend the conference of the prison governors in February, which led to this report. There is an old biblical question: Is Saul also among the prophets? I am very happy, if I may say so respectfully, that the prison governors are, for the first time in my now over-long experience, taking their place collectively among the leaders in penal reform. I hope that the Minister of State will spell out carefully for us this afternoon the attitude of the Government to these two striking documents. May we take it that, broadly speaking, he and the Government agree with these documents—I say "broadly speaking" because we cannot expect them to be committed to the details—and, if so, how do the Government propose to proceed to give effect to these documents? I hope that they do not just fold their hands and say, "It is good thinking, but there is nothing we can do about it".

I am of course aware of the difficulty that confronts the Government when they desire to influence the sentencing policy which is actually carried out by the judiciary. In the long run, no doubt, legislation reducing maximum sentences would be the most effective answer. In the short run, may we look to the Government in general—I think that the noble Lord knows that I am going to put this question to him, and I believe that his colleague knows too—and to the Lord Chancellor in particular, whose voice as the head of the judiciary is listened to, I understand, far and wide throughout the Judiciary, to exercise their full influence in the direction which all of us here seem to agree is not only desirable but essential?

I hope that the report will prove a turning point in our sentencing policy, but whether or not it does depends primarily on the Government and the judges. I agree with the Advisory Council that it is up to all of us in public life to try to influence public opinion much more actively than hitherto. I do not think that we can just hand this to the Government and say, "It is all over to you".

In opening the debate in 1974 in this House, I welcomed warmly the report of the Advisory Committee on Young Delinquents and I praised the Government for—and these were their own words "strongly welcoming this broad approach"; that was the approach of the Younger Committee under which there would be many fewer young delinquents in institutions and many more under supervision outside. If I am asked what action has been taken since then, I would say that, apart from endless discussions, I can point to none. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, will put me right if some action not visible to the outer world has in fact been taken, and perhaps in any case he will say a word or two later about the Younger Report which, three years ago, was welcomed so warmly by all of us here and, it would appear, by the Government. It would be a tragedy if this last report of the Advisory Council and the recommendations of the prison governors met with the same treatment as was meted out to the Younger Report. So much for sentencing for the moment. No doubt much will be said about it by other speakers.

I turn now to alternative remedies. It would be wrong to ignore the fact that the proportion of convicted criminals who are being sent to prison has fallen considerably in the last ten years. That is a fact, and we must take some pleasure from it, while those who feel that they have helped to bring this about are entitled to take some pride. Certainly the community service orders are an encouraging development. The noble Baroness, Lady Wootton of Abinger, whose Committee produced the idea in, I think, 1970, deserves the utmost credit. But the extent to which these orders and other alternatives to prison are actually used is still far too limited. The total prison population rises inexorably.

What is the excuse or alibi here? Financial stringency is the one usually produced. We are told that the alternative remedies cannot be afforded. This is a matter which must be pressed upon the noble Lord and which, I am sure, will be pressed not only by myself, but by others. But the excuse claimed here is obvious nonsense, if I may say so. Common sense tells us that it is ever so much cheaper, in almost all cases, to treat a delinquent outside rather than inside prison. For instance, the Howard League for Penal Reform reckons that it costs only £8 a week to administer a community service order, compared with £80 a week in prison. No doubt the matter is rather more complicated than that, yet by common consent it is still much cheaper to handle delinquents outside prison.

One would have thought that it was almost indefensible to defend a preference for prisons—institutional treatment—on economic grounds, but Home Office Ministers have been inclined to attempt the impossible. They say, in effect, that the prisons are there and that the extra probation officers who would be required for supervision outside prison are not there, and so there would be a net increase in expenditure, in the short run at any rate, if more use was made of supervision outside prison. If that line is to be pursued seriously, I must take leave to quote from the Howard League counter-argument, leaving the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, the President of the Howard League, to develop it more fully —and there may be others who will have something to say about this. The Howard League, in recent criticism of the Home Office view, said this: Lord Harris has recently said that 4,700 new places in prisons were to be completed by 1981. The Howard League reckon that at a conservative estimate the running costs of the new prisons would be nearly £10 million a year—one-third of the cost of the entire Probation Service for 1974/5. Yet the Home Secretary said on 24th May that the Probation Service is only to be allowed to extend by about 200 officers by 1980/81".

As I say, this point has to be pursued in greater detail, but my broad submission is that it is very much cheaper to deal with prisoners outside prison than inside.

I would submit that our official masters, no doubt with the good intentions which we always attribute to them, have got the whole balance of their thinking wrong. The argument that it is cheaper to keep a man in prison than to employ him on useful work for the community simply will not work, and I hope, respectfully, that the Minister of State will not inflict it on us when he speaks later. However, if he does not inflict that argument on us, then I am not quite sure what argument is open to him; but he is full of ingenuity, and no doubt he will make his own speech.

I should like to say a few words now about parole, on which I have spoken several times previously. I said last year that the policy being adopted was altogether too timid. I repeat that now. I also acknowledged last year that there were signs of progress and that progress has, I think, continued; it would be right for me to recognise that. However, I still have some strong criticisms to make. I am sure that it is all wrong that reasons for refusing parole are not given. Last year I got the impression that a major concession on this point might be on the way. I was sorry to read that the Home Secretary has recently decided that that hope must be deferred, though I realise that an experiment is being conducted. I wonder whether we can hear something about that experiment. Will the noble Lord, Lord Harris, be kind enough to tell us more clearly than hitherto why reasons for refusing parole cannot be given? As he well knows, the pressure will be continued.

More widely, I endorse the suggestion, increasingly put forward in well-informed circles—and, of course, we have the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, to speak to us in a few minutes, whose authority in this field is unrivalled—that parole should be quasi automatic after a third of a sentence has been served; that is, in my way of looking at it, automatic unless there are exceptional reasons for not granting it, which would clearly have to be set out. It is high time, as some of us have said before, that the Parole Board stopped trying to play the part of a judge, stopped trying to decide that so-and-so deserved such-and-such a sentence. It is high time, too, that the authorities ceased to show such a craven attitude when confronted with what are called notorious prisoners. In our debate last year r described as indefensible cruelty the refusal of parole to Mr. Poulson, an elderly man—admittedly somewhat younger than myself, but still an elderly man by any normal standard—in broken health. Eventually, I am glad to say, he received parole, but the delay undoubtedly damaged his health further. Does the Minister, or anybody else, seriously suppose that, as a result of denying Mr. Poulson parole for a year, the public were in some mysterious way protected?

Life prisoners are in a different category, if only because there is no such thing as a third of a life sentence; but they, also, are human beings and have human rights. This point seems sometimes to he forgotten. Not long ago Lord Gardiner, Lord Carr, Lord Hunt and myself called on the Home Secretary and urged him to introduce a rule that, after 10 years at the outside, all prisoners would be considered for parole. That does not mean be given parole, but be considered for parole; that is, have the right to go before a local review board and have the chance to state their case to at least one member of it. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to give us this afternoon an affirmative reply to this careful submission.

The report of the Advisory Council is not primarily concerned with long-term prisoners, but it does have this to say on the point—and I am now quoting the Advisory Council: It is highly relevant that the damaging effects on the prisoner of a long-term prison sentence are now generally recognised". So it is now generally recognised that a long-term sentence of imprisonment damages, or is likely to damage, a prisoner morally. The Parole Board too often give the impression that they suppose that someone is likely to be a better citizen if he can only spend a little longer in prison; that he is likely to be a better citizen after, say, 11 years than after 10. That hypothesis must now be regarded as finally discredited. With life prisoners, who have no definite date for release, there is, of course, the additional danger of understandable hopelessness setting in. "He gave hope to the hopeless" would not be a bad epitaph for a Home Secretary or even, if I may say so, for a Minister of State at the Home Office, though I hope the time has not arrived when we have begun to write their epitaphs.

Before I come to my fourth and last general proposition, I would select out of many possible criticisms two in particular. There is a widespread view—and I think the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, who is so much better qualified than I am, will have a word to say about this—that the present access of prisoners to legal advice is quite inadequate. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, knows that I am concerned about certain prisoners who were involved in an affray in Albany last September. I am not going to go into the merits of that or of the punishments meted out, or into the way they were treated or maltreated in prison, but I put this point to him because I saw two of these prisoners in January —that was four months after the affray—and they had not been able to obtain access to legal advice four months after these very controversial events. After five months, I believe, they were in fact able to obtain access. But the whole position about access is so obscure and, in my opinion, disquieting—and that appears to be the view of the Howard League, the National Council for Civil Liberties and Amnesty—that I hope the noble Lord will be able to explain why it is that a prisoner cannot see his solicitor for five months after some development of this kind, and why he is allowed to see him after five months instead of after four. However, I hope the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, may deal with that question more widely.

My other selective criticism—not to the surprise, I am sure, of the noble Lord, and perhaps not to the surprise of this House—refers to women prisoners. Here, again, I will take a particular illustration. The House may be aware—I raised this matter last week in this place—that some time ago a top security wing was built at Durham. It was one of four constructed at that time to house the most dangerous male criminals. The conditions were so restrictive and claustrophobic that protests were vociferous. The late Bishop of Durham initiated a debate in this House with special reference to the top security wing at Durham which naturally he knew quite well, and eventually the wing was closed for men. But what is going on now? It is now a so-called living tomb which Lord Mountbatten, when he carried out his inquiry, said: no country with a record of civilised behaviour ought to tolerate any longer".

This "living tomb" is now made available to women. "Made available" is perhaps putting it in a rather euphemistic way: women are drafted there. If you ask, "What women?", they are not only five of the so-called dangerous women, the Category A women—I would not personally think they were so very dangerous, but still—but 30 other women who have been brought from other prisons, such as Holloway, where they were not subjected to these conditions. So we have the situation where five so-called dangerous women and 30 others have been drafted from outside apparently because this place has got to be filled up. I was actually told on the spot that it was necessary to have 11, and various explanations have been offered; but, at any rate, this top security wing, intended for the most dangerous criminals, is now being applied on quite a wide scale to perfectly ordinary women prisoners. I would call that an absolute scandal and I hope the noble Lord, who was not able to help us very much last week, will be able to say something more constructive today; but I do not think he will as long as this scandal continues. I only submit, respectfully, that if any noble Lords or noble Baronesses, perhaps particularly Baronesses, visit Durham—perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Ward, who knows that part of the world so well—they will reach the same conclusion as I do: that it is a lamentable scandal.

My fourth point is a wide one but, having spoken for 22 minutes, I am not going to dwell on it at all this afternoon. My fourth proposition is two-fold. I urge that we should do far more than is done now for victims of crime, and that punishment should include a much larger element of reparation. I will not go into that further for reasons of time, but I have in fact managed to arouse a certain interest in this subject and there will be a meeting to discuss it all in much more detail next week. I think it would hardly be in accordance with the traditions of this House if I used this place as a kind of platform for announcing the time and place, so if anyone is interested they must find out as best they can.

I have not, of course, mentioned some of the most vital questions—the whole issue of after-care of prisoners; the prison rules: the Jellicoe Report, on which I believe the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, will speak: and many other things—but as I draw to a close I must say a word about the prison officers, and at the same time about all who work in prisons, whether or not they are officially members of the prison staff. I have paid tribute before, and I pay it again, to the good nature, tolerance and zeal which is widespread among the prison staffs, but I have before now in this House described prison officers as isolated. I fear that that isolation is growing. Under the economy measures, the prison officers feel hardly done by, and I can sympathise with their feelings. Their prospects of making a reasonable living and doing a good job have been temporarily interfered with for the sake of a rather negligible economy.

Twenty years ago, when I initiated the first debate ever held in this House on prisons, I expressed the hope that prison officers would increasingly become social workers. That is a view that many of us have expressed often enough here and elsewhere, but, of course, it has not come about. It is the view, I may say, of the more responsible elements in the ex-prison population, such as the members of PROP. But it has not come about, and it will not come about, unless far more is done to provide prison officers with the opportunity for training to become prison social workers. At present they get two months' training while probation officers get (shall we say?) two years, and one cannot expect that in two months the prison officers can reach the standard of social work expected from the probation officers.

I urge strongly on the Government—although they cannot perhaps do it today or tomorrow—to transform the training provided for prison officers, and so eventually to make sure that this idea which so many of us share (and I am glad to see the Minister nodding his head) of prison officers as social workers is realised. I beg the Minister, not only on this last issue but on others, to bring a fresh mind to bear on these questions. There is the urgency of overcrowding and there are these two reports which give him —I was about to say an excuse; but he does not need an excuse for I believe that his heart is in the right place and, therefore, an excuse is only of advantage in his struggles with his colleagues. I must, I am afraid, go back to a point I made earlier: that we cannot bring about these great changes without a new attitude on the part of the judges; so the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is really essential in all this forward looking. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.21 p.m.


My Lords, I came here this afternoon armed with the customary opening gambit suitable for a later speaker which says in effect that at this stage in the debate all the main factors bearing on the subject or the Motion will have already have been dealt with. In view of the position in which I belatedly found myself, I need only mildly amend that gambit to the effect that, in view of the succession of distinguished speakers who will follow me, I am quite confident that all the main points bearing on this subject will be dealt with; and, therefore, I will confine my remarks to rather a few. But, from this position, it gives me the opportunity of expressing to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, my personal appreciation in more than a perfunctory way for giving us the opportunity of discussing this vitally important subject. I have to tell him with regret that a later engagement which I could not avoid may make it impossible for me to be here towards the end of the debate. For that I apologise to your Lordships and to the Minister who is to wind up.

My Lords, we will all have listened to the noble Earl with our usual respect and interest. He made four propositions for reform of what he has described as the crisis in our penal system. I have reservations about the word, "crisis", but I will deal with that in a moment. I largely agree with all the broad propositions and I will confine myself to making comments on some of the points which I think can be said to arise out of those propositions. I should like to talk about the state of our prisons; I should like to talk about the future of parole and about the community alternatives to imprisonment.

First, with regard to the state of the prisons, I think it would be no had thing if it were more generally known to the public that the United Kingdom has the dubious distinction of being second in the European league in regard to the numbers of people serving sentences in closed institutions in relation to the size of the population and that, with West Germany with 81 per 100,000 and ourselves with 75 per 100,000, we are way ahead of the rest of the field. Belgium comes a respectable third with 58 and Holland a meritorious last with 21 per 100,000 of their population.

I know the dangers of bandying around statistics. I have these from the organisation of NACRO; and I accept them. But, in my view, this is a deplorable state of affairs and I do not think it can be explained away by caveats about the differences in our history, in our culture and our traditions nor even by the differences in our respective laws. Despite the facts about our rising crime rate—and I, with everyone else, would agree that they are disturbing and particularly so among the young—it surely cannot be the case that our criminality as a people, as a nation, is four times greater than that of our near neighbour across the North Sea. What makes that contrast more striking and significant is the fact that, until recently, in Holland, where there is a well-developed community participation in penal treatment, the crime rate has actually been falling.

The basic reason for our state of affairs is an out-dated penal policy as laid down in our criminal law and as applied and practised by the courts. I see this as a very serious matter and I see it as serious for three reasons. First, because by overcrowding the prisons it bears adversely on the Prison Service; secondly, because it places a strain on the relations between the Probation Service and the courts, the probation officers being servants of the courts; and, third, and most important, because it has an adverse reflection on the all-important respect for the law and for the Judiciary which is the cornerstone of an ordered society.

My Lords, I need hardly persuade your Lordships that there are people in the community today who are intent on and skilful in exploiting these situations for their own political purposes. For these main reasons, I see bold and imaginative Government leadership as urgently necessary. Public opinion, like the law, cannot and should not be disregarded; but public opinion in the matter of penal reform is likely only to he persuaded by results. I should like to add my voice to those who believe—and I now understand, for I have not had the opportunity to read the report, that the Advisory Council has now come out in the same vein—that fewer offenders should be sent to prison and that for many of those who must be put away for the safety of the public many sentences could, with benefit and safety. be shorter. Those are very general propositions and I shall read with interest the report of the Advisory Council which doubtless has made more specific recommendations.

Having said that, I am concerned lest the tide of penal opinion against imprisonment, aided and abetted by some political opportunists, should go too far. I do not totally accept that other general proposition or generalisation which is advanced by some penal reformers, that prison does no good to anyone in any circumstances; that, in fact it can do only harm. I have picked up the phrase, "futility of imprisonment" which I understand has been taken from the report. I do not know the context and I will not comment beyond the fact that I think it may be true in general, but that it need not be true in particular. I do not agree that its only justification is a negative one of protecting the public from evil and dangerous men. There will always be some offenders, not intrinsically evil and, especially, the younger men, who need a spell of stern discipline. There are others who can best be helped under strictly controlled conditions for a strictly limited time.

When we express concern about the Prison Service today and of the state of our prisons today, it is worth recalling that before the Mountbatten Report, some 10 or 11 years ago, which greatly tightened security, much useful work was being done in our prisons under more liberal and relaxed regimes and high hopes were entertained by the Prison Service which felt confident that they were doing a constructive job. It is worth mentioning that the current experiments in sharing social and welfare work in the prisons between the probation officers and the prison officers, to which the noble Earl, Lord Longford, referred, is by no means a new idea. Many prison officers, with the support of their own professional association, had wished this to be part of their job long before the probation officers were brought into prisons in 1966 to man the welfare departments.

Morale in the Prison Service is less high today—I would not put it more seriously than that—in no small degree because that constructive work is rendered well nigh impossible in some prisons by the congestion, and I would almost say the squalor, created by overcrowding, and by the tension and intimidation engendered by the policy of dispersing evil and desperate men into the whole population of high security prisons from which everyone in the prison—those who staff it and those who are inmates—suffer. In that respect I think the recommendation of the Committee chaired by the noble Earl, Lord Mountbatten, that such men should be concentrated, ought to be looked at again, and I should be interested to hear anything that the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, has to say on that subject.

I should like to join with the noble Earl, Lord Longford, and hopefully with others who will be speaking in today's debate, in paying tribute both to the management and to the uniformed staff in our prisons. I think it needs to be better appreciated by the public that if it were not for the general fact of their humanity in their daily face to face contacts with the inmates, quite apart from their skill as custodians, there would doubtless have been many more disturbances than the few that have occurred in the last seven or eight years in such prisons as Hull, Gartree, Albany and Parkhurst.

On the subject of prisons, though the situation may be described (as it has been) as critical in regard to certain prisons, I beg that the bad should not be allowed to obscure the good. Even under today's conditions there is some good work being done in our prisons. By way of example I would refer to the psychiatric treatment at Grendon Underwood and in the special wing at Wormwood Scrubs; to the factory work at Coldingle prison; to the education, particularly of illiterates, in many of our prisons, and to the relaxed regimes in our lower security training prisons and in open prisons. There is also one example of a different kind of prison, one exclusively for life sentence prisoners, at Kingston in Portsmouth.

My Lords, I now turn to parole and would enter a plea that the undoubted shortcomings of the parole system, as experienced by those who have been refused parole, should not be allowed to obscure the good that has come from this product of the 1967 Criminal Justice Act. Today there is a disturbing number of people working for penal reform, as well as others from both extreme political wings who are out to "knock" it. I deplore that, because this reflects and may affect public opinion—the kind of treatment meted out to the subject of parole by the recent Man Alive programme put over by the BBC in which the noble Lord, Lord Carr, and I took part. It is worth remembering that since 1967 well over 27,000 prisoners have been allowed, subject to certain conditions, to complete part of their sentence in the community, to the general benefit of themselves and their families, with minimal harm to the public and at much less cost to the taxpayer. Fewer than 8 per cent. have had to be recalled to prison during their parole and less than half of that very small percentage have been recalled for committing fresh offences.

These are surely remarkable and positive facts. There is the further fact that the parole board has recorded no increase in the failure rate even after raising the overall percentage of paroles from 39 per cent. in 1973, when I left the board, to 54 per cent. in 1976. Surely this makes the clearest possible case for going much further still. Like the noble Earl, Lord Longford, I believe that there should be a general presumption in favour of parole and a requirement incumbent on the Home Secretary whenever possible to show cause in exceptional cases why it is not expedient.

I do not agree with the all or none theory. This may necessitate a review of the resources and strength of the Probation Service, but it is my view that by no means all parolees need any special conditions written into their licences. Quite a number do not need or do not want any help. No doubt there is a considerable number who should be made subject only to one condition and that is to be of good behaviour. In other words, that is what they are given their parole to do. Of course they can opt voluntarily for after-care from a probation officer, but for those who have only to be of good behaviour this can be supervised perfectly well by reports to the police station, relieving the load on the Probation and After-care Service.

My Lords, my final point is about the community alternatives to imprisonment. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, has praised the introduction of community service orders. Indeed, this seems to be an almost universal view, apart from an extremist Left-Wing comparison with "chain gangs". As I listened with interest to the Answer to the Question put down by the noble Lord, Lord Barnby (an excellent suggestion, as I might tell him if he were here to hear me), I could not help thinking that this is the sort of thing which is susceptible to the kind of slur and sneer that this would be chain gang work. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, has also pointed to the small number of orders which have been made so far. It is true that a good deal more use could be made by the courts of community service orders.

There is a lot of disappointment in the Probation and After-care Service about the situation of no growth imposed in the present economic situation. But their use by the courts has grown quite encouragingly and quickly from, I think, 862 orders in a four-month period in mid-1975 to 6,200 cases in the last four months of last year. Quite irrespective of the policy of no growth, the scheme ought to be allowed to grow progressively as it becomes increasingly accepted by the courts and by the public. I do not think it is suitable for sudden and spectacular expansion. The rate of growth of community service orders must also be dependent on the resources available to the Probation Service, particularly in their ability to recruit more ancillary workers and their willingness to accept more volunteers. Meanwhile, it is satisfactory to note that the scheme has already made a start in 53 out of the 56 probation areas and there is very telling testimony from some of those offenders who have been or are carrying out those orders, many of whom I have met and talked to and about whom I have had a number of reports. From meeting offenders under these orders I certainly had no impression of what one might call a "chain gang" complex. For many of them it was a matter of discovery, for the first time in their lives, that there were other people with problems at least as great as, if not greater than, their own and that they had an opportunity to help them. I think it speaks for itself, that the rate of successful completion of community service orders is over 80 per cent. and at a cost (I think it was worked out by the Durham Probation Service) of one-tenth of keeping the same offender in prison. I wonder how the Government justify the policy of freeze imposed on this most promising penal measure.


My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord for interrupting. There is no freeze on community service. There will be a further number of extensions of community service in a few months' time. Of course it has to be within existing resources, but a number in the Probation Service take the view that this is such an urgent priority that they are prepared to find these resources from among their existing staff.


My Lords, I am very glad to have that early assurance from the noble Lord. There are a number of other community alternatives to prison. But my plea to everyone concerned with social work training—those serving on probation and after-care committees, to the Service itself which operates those alternatives and to the Government who are concerned with grant-aiding some of those alternatives—is that they should not be encouraged to proliferate. This I know is controversial; not everyone would agree with me, but I believe this very much myself. Some are very expensive in overheads in relation to the numbers who can benefit from them, and others are not appropriate for a great many who need to be controlled and helped.

What is more, I am concerned about the increasing diversification of skills and resources required in and by the Probation Service. In a recent review by a practitioner, in the journal Probation, of the tasks undertaken by the Service, he listed no fewer than 53 identifiably different tasks carried out by probation officers. I may be old-fashioned, but my view is that the main contribution which the Service can make, as it has always made, in penal treatment is its traditional one of face-to-face, one-to-one relationships with clients. Community service orders may be added. They show great promise, and it is very much to be hoped that the courts will soon make a great deal more use of them. The range of proven alternatives is limited and I hope that the courts will also revert to a more frequent use of probation orders.

My last word is to suggest that, in dealing with more offenders in the community, we ought to take a leaf from the record and experience of Holland and other countries where the community, or more members of the community than is the case in this country, are involved in the all-important neighbourhood job of helping offenders to lead a lawful life.

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, today, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, as indeed I was three years ago when I made my maiden speech about the wives of prisoners and their problems. It is true that there have been improvements in certain areas, and for that we should be grateful. However, there are still difficulties facing prisoners' families which could surely be resolved without much, if any, extra expenditure.

The vast majority of prison governors now allow visits every 14 days, yet a travel warrant is still given only every 28 days. Surely this discriminates against poor and large families, especially when the husband is imprisoned a long way from home. The Department of Health and Social Security is overworked and even has to tell some wives that 14 days is not sufficient notice in which to issue a travel warrant. I know from visiting prisoners' families that they blame Social Security for the present situation when, of course, in this instance Social Security is only acting for the Home Office.

To reduce unnecessary administration, effort and frustration, why could not visiting orders, plus travel warrants, go direct from the prisons to the wives, whether or not the families are on Social Security? Alternatively, at the end of a visit, could the prison not hand the next visiting order and travel warrant to a wife should she ask for them? Perhaps the noble Lord replying to this debate could tell the House what the total cost might be should either scheme be adopted. Finally, my Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, why the Home Office has no statistics of the number of dependants of men in prison.

3.44 p.m.

Baroness SEROTA

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for the opportunity he has given the House today for a wide-ranging debate on the penal system at a time when all are agreed that the sheer size of the prison population is placing intolerable burdens on everyone directly concerned. The noble Lord made kind reference to and quoted directly from the interim report of the Advisory Council on the Penal System on The Length of Prison Sentences which was published a fortnight ago today. As Chairman of the Council, following the grievous loss of Sir Kenneth Younger—that great public servant who was our chairman for 10 years and to whom we pay our personal tribute in the foreword—I should like to say a few words about the origins of that report and the purposes which we hope that it will serve.

In July 1975 the Advisory Council was invited by the then Home Secretary, Mr. Roy Jenkins, to review the present system of maximum penalties of imprisonment available to the courts and to determine, in particular, whether they represent a valid guide to sentencing practice. This was a very large and important remit, much larger than the terms of reference might at first glance imply, since it represents the first attempt to consider the overall structure of maximum penalties in this country since the patient and industrious efforts of the Criminal Law Commissioners in the 1830s and 1840s finally petered out in failure.

It did not take us long in our review to realise that the present system of maximum penalties is an extraordinary structure which has grown up piecemeal largely over the last 100 years, as prisons became the core of our penal system when transportation and the use of capital punishment for a wide range of offences other than murder came to an end. In general, maximum penalties are set so high that they have in our view a negligible influence upon the sentencing practice of the courts. One effect of this position is to give to the Judiciary a wide discretion when imposing prison sentences for any criminal offence.

I scarcely need to tell the House that there are different views about judicial discretion in sentencing. Some—and this includes some Members of this House—believe that a wide discretion is necessary to deal adequately with the peculiar circumstances of each individual case. Others take the view that judicial discretion should be carefully restricted in the interests of a uniform sentencing policy that assures to every convicted person a like sentence for a like offence. I do not want in this debate to stir up the controversy which so often surrounds this issue. All I wish to emphasise is this. Parliament has taken to itself the power to set maximum penalties of imprisonment, and this power represents the principal method of controlling judicial discretion in sentencing.

But, when we fix penalties in individual Statutes, do we always give the matter the attention it deserves? When new offences are created, the penalty provision is often regarded as a routine matter and we do not successfully grapple with the problems of fitting individual penalties to the penalties for other offences, or to the penalty structure as a whole. Even more important, the tendency to set maximum penalties so high that they do not impinge upon the practice of the courts means in effect that Parliament has largely abrogated its responsibility for influencing sentencing policy.

At a time when we are all deeply conscious of the severe problems of overcrowding in our prisons and are searching for new forms of non-custodial penalties or administrative procedures for relieving the pressure, it seems strange that we have largely ignored the most obvious and direct approach—and not turned our attention sooner to the actual sentencing policy of the courts.

In the Advisory Council's interim report we have called for the passing of shorter sentences for the ordinary offender in the short and medium-term range of sentences. We have stressed—and I must make this point crystal clear, most particularly in view of the recent public discussion and concern about the Holds-worth case—that our comments do not apply to dangerous or serious crimes of violence. We say quite categorically: There are certain offenders who present a serious threat to society and from whom society finds it necessary to seek protection". We believe that there is a clear distinction to be drawn between serious crimes of violence and the offences committed by the majority of those who enter our prisons system.

I should not like to give the impression that we have recommended this course only because of the urgent and practical need to reduce the size of the prison population. That was naturally—as indeed I believe it should be—one of our concerns, but not the overwhelming one. As we have tried to make clear in the report, we are convinced that many of the sentences passed in the short and medium-term are too long and that much informed opinion within our criminal justice and penal systems shares this view with us. We have unanimously reached this conclusion as a result of our own study of current sentencing practice, of our contact with the views of others in the criminal justice system and of our own personal experience. Here, I should perhaps emphasise that many of us in the Council have first-hand experience of sentencing practice in the courts; two of our number are judges, and a third has just joined us, one is a recorder and several are active, practising magistrates.

From time to time, there occurs the notable case where a sentence imposed is patently too long and the position is redressed by the court of appeal. In general, however, the problem is one of sentences which may be only marginally too high: for example, the two-year sentence which could as effectively be 18 months or the 18 months' sentence that could be 15 months. One identifiable problem that we have pointed to in our report is the case of the suspended sentence which is longer than the appropriate sentence would have been had it taken immediate effect. Perhaps it would help the House if I were to give an example.

In November last year, the Appeal Court heard the case of a young woman called Willis who had pleaded guilty to possession of almost 12 grammes of cannabis resin. She admitted that she smoked, but there was never any suggestion in this case that she had trafficked in cannabis. For this offence, she was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment, suspended for two years. The Appeal Court, quite rightly, cut that sentence by half and imposed nine months suspended: some might feel that an even lower sentence would have been appropriate. The essential point is—and this is why I quote this case—that, had she been found after her conviction in possession of even a minute quantity of cannabis, she would have stood to serve a sentence of imprisonment quite out of proportion to the gravity of the original offence. How many such people may be serving activated sentences of that kind today? Even if the answer is only a few, it is a few too many.

On the Advisory Council we had planned to draw attention to this important question of the length of sentences in our final report on maximum penalties, which I hope will be ready for publication some time early next year. But we were so impressed by the fact that the issue was gathering momentum in public debate and by the humanitarian argument that no-one should continue to be given sentences which are commonly agreed to he unnecessarily long, that we felt obliged to take our initiative now: hence an interim report.

The general reaction to that report has, I am glad to say, been favourable, and I have good reason also to believe that the Judiciary are not wholly unsympathetic to our suggestions. I hope that that will bring some comfort to the noble Earl. I was particularly pleased, for example, to hear the other day of a case where the Court of Appeal, in making its decision to grant leave to appeal against the sentence, referred specifically to our report. Naturally, I hope that the process will continue.

But, even if our interim report achieves its aim, that is not the end of the task which currently faces the Advisory Council. In the next few months we hope to complete our proposed new structure for maximum penalties and for sentencing generally. Of course, I cannot at this stage anticipate the Council's decision or give any details of the kind of structure that we are likely to propose at the end of the day. All I can say is that in the work that we have done so far we have made every effort to avoid constructing proposals on the basis of our own subjective value judgments. We do not propose to spend our time arguing in the abstract the relative gravity of different offences. If that were our aim, I am afraid that we should argue for 20 years without reaching a conclusion among ourselves, let alone achieving a consensus for the ultimate implementation of our proposals.

We hope to be able to bring forward a viable structure which will bring maximum penalties into a more realistic and perhaps therefore more influential relationship with the actual sentencing practice of the courts. We recognise that it may be difficult to win complete acceptance of the changes that we have been proposing. Inevitably, there must be a period of public discussion and careful thought on a subject as important as this. But Parlia- ment will have an important part to play in the consideration of our proposals. What I hope they will offer is the opportunity, which some may feel is long overdue, for the legislature to play a constructive role in the sentencing policy of our courts—for it is the courts, my Lords, that daily decide the size and nature of our prison population.

3.56 p.m.


My Lords, I must first apologise for the fact that, owing to a long standing engagement, I may not be able to stay to the end of the debate. What I have to say can be said in about four minutes and it does not, as your Lordships will see a little later, require any answer from the Minister.

For some time I have been thinking about alternatives to prison sentences. Almost everyone, I think, agrees that for all except the hardened criminal prison is a last resort and unlikely to give much chance of reformation to the convicted person. Moreover, the overpopulation of prisons and the constraints against improving and increasing prison accommodation mean that there is little hope of improvement in this direction. I am sure that community service is an excellent sentence, and should be expanded as fast and as far as is practicable. It seems to me, however, that for younger people, for some with only a short criminal record, and even for some first offenders, there is a gap which could be filled by what I will call "social work camps". These would be analogous to the Swedish model and in some respects fulfil the function of Army detention, which was started to avoid the stigma of prison. What I have in mind are short sentences under strict discipline, involving working hard on some socially worthwhile project. Forestry in otherwise uncommercial areas, the rehabilitation of industrial wasteland and waterways are some possibilities which spring to mind. The cost of such social work could be minimal. In crude terms, temporary accommodation in Nissen-type huts, a perimeter fence and staff would be all that was needed. Some camps could be fairly remote from urbanised areas, they could if necessary be demolished when the project was finished or when their need was no more, and the trade unions could not reasonably object.

I have discussed these ideas with the Home Office. Their main objections and difficulties are, first that there are not many people in prisons who are physically fit and would be suitable for such camps. My reply is that there are a number of offenders, particularly those who have committed violent crimes, for whom the other alternatives such as fines are not the answer, but for whom prison would be even more inappropriate. Surely a sufficient proportion of these are adequately fit. The second difficulty is that the cost, although possibly small in relation to prison accommodation, would nevertheless be significant, particularly for the staff and their families, who would be difficult to find. Such costs would be in addition to existing commitments. The latter is obviously a very valid point, but we are all aware that some way must be found to break the present impasse. I also question whether the actual recruiting of staff need be a major problem. After all, there are those coming out of the Army who have experience and who are also fitted for this sort of work. I want to put this, idea before your Lordships, so that it can be given wider consideration, and I think that I have at least mentioned the salient points in the correspondence with the Home Office, and their difficulties in agreeing to such a course.

4 p.m.


My Lords, I must confess at the outset that on this subject I am a Philistine, and an unrepentant Philistine. My primary belief is that the security of the ordinary citizen and his children is of paramount and overriding importance. Secondly, I believe that the protection of those whose duty it is to uphold and enforce the law is of almost equal importance, be they judges, juries, police or prison officers. To my mind, punishment is a very inferior consideration—barely one at all. There is a great deal of difference, however, between a punishment and a deterrent.

For the purpose of a court order, according to the Mental Health Act, a psychopathic disorder is defined as, a persistent disorder or disability of mind … which results in abnormally aggressive or seriously irresponsible conduct … and requires or is susceptible to medical treatment". This legal definition implies that not all psychopathic behaviour responds to purely medical treatment.

I suggest that two elements are involved in crime. First, there is emotional instability; that is, inherent weakness of personality, associated with various degrees of subjective symptoms. I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Harris, whether it is the case that in some prisons more than 25 per cent. of the men themselves report sick on psychological grounds, requesting help. Secondly, the choice of evil courses comes from selfish reasons —greed, lust, cruelty and power. The degree of responsibility—that is, to what extent the second element of greed, lust, cruelty and power may predominate over psychopathic reasons—is really known only to God in each and every case. But medical officers are called upon to make psychiatric assessments and recommendations for treatment. Only genuine psychotics can be regarded as wholly a medical problem.

These two points are subtly intertwined, and a striking feature of the criminal personality is the impressionable, imaginative quality, so often over-developed that reason and conscience are overwhelmed and suppressed, and moral considerations are lost by force of habit. When people get into this condition—that is, when they are governed wholly by their emotions for wrongful aims—the only way of appealing to them to stay their evil courses is through their emotions, and the strongest of the emotions is fear. This is, to my mind, the only conclusive and telling argument in favour of corporal and capital punishment, and it is of course certified by centuries of experience. When the threat of corporal punishment was removed in 1948, the "get rich quick" fraternity took up coshes. When the threat of the death penalty was removed in 1965, they threw away their coshes and took to firearms. Screens in banks and post offices are very recent in the United Kingdom.

I have heard it said that in the last 20 years the figure for crimes of rape has gone up by 400 per cent. I wonder whether that is correct. In the past 10 years, persons convicted of murder have not increased so dramatically, I think because the charge is often reduced to manslaughter on grounds of provocation, or because of the old Scots law of impaired responsibility, which I believe is now incorporated in the law of England and is so often argued on dubious psychiatric grounds.

In Scotland, crimes of violence and murder are very definitely on the increase. The Secretary of State for Scotland has recently stated that in 1976 there were 63 cases of murder made known to the police, compared to 47 in 1975. Provisional figures for 1976 give 159 cases of attempted murder and 4,442 crimes of violence, compared to 137 cases of attempted murder and 4,206 crimes of violence in 1975. There has been a rise of over 30 per cent. in the Scottish murder rate in one year. Last weekend in Glasgow, the number of outbreaks of violence and vandalism was so great that the Glasgow Herald reported in its leader on Monday that there were "outbursts of unaccustomed intensity". They included a break-in at an electricity station, resulting in the black-out of hundreds of homes.

Today, the reason why the prisons are so full is that the element of fear has been removed from the underworld. It is the threat that counts. You do not have to birch or execute everyone convicted of serious violence or murder. A very few really outrageous ones are all that are needed to deter the slightly lesser spirits. There seems to me to be no sign whatsoever that the rate of crime will even out in the foreseeable future. The only inference that can be drawn from the annual rate of increase is that it will certainly grow even more in the immediate future. Certainly, let us try every possible palliative that we can think of, for all will be needed, and unless more radical action is taken overcrowding in prisons will be with us for a very long time yet.