HL Deb 13 March 1978 vol 389 cc1135-63

7.25 p.m.

The Earl of LONGFORD rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the progress made in regard to community service orders and analogous alternatives to prison. The noble Earl said: My Lords, not long ago I was taking my leave of a prison governor of much experience. He asked me whether I had any specific criticisms to make, and after a moment's hesitation I replied, "I am afraid I think the whole situation is wrong. I would like to see half your prisoners dealt with outside prison, and then you would be able to provide constructive treatment for the other half". He looked at his companions—the deputy governor, two assistant governors and the chief prison officer—and said, deliberately and rather to my surprise because he was essentially a conservative prison governor, "I think you would find that all of us here agree with you" That prison governor was about to retire after a most distinguished career in the Prison Service. That story cannot spoil his promotion prospects and is hardly likely to affect his pension, so the House will forgive me for telling it.

A number of us have raised time and again in this House the need to press ahead much faster than hitherto with alternative remedies to prison. In the old days the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, was well to the fore in these matters, but of course, for a time at least, he is rather hamstrung. The last two Home Secretaries and their admirable representative here, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, have not been altogether unsympathetic. Indeed, as Churchill said during the war, when somebody congratulated him on a speech, "If it were only a question of making speeches I should have beaten Hitler long ago". Likewise, if it were only a question of speeches by Home Secretaries—the last two Home Secretaries and Home Secretaries before them—the prison population would have come down sharply.

Home Secretaries have stressed repeatedly their desire to see the prison population reduced. The prison governors have given important evidence to the same effect to the Parliamentary Committee on Expenditure. That is all very good and that is therefore the accepted wisdom today. But where do we find ourselves in practice? It would be not only churlish but ridiculous to talk as though no steps had been taken along the lines discussed. With the steady and lamentable increase in crime, things would have been still worse without the steps that have been taken. But I cannot forget that when I first became a prison visitor 40 years ago there were 10,000 people in prison; that when, in your Lordships' House, in the middle 'fifties, rather more than 20 years ago, I opened the first debate on prisons, there were 20,000 in prison, and that now there are over 40,000 in prison.

I am sure I am expressing the views of many noble Lords when I say that the rate of progress in the development of alternative remedies has been intolerably slow. I am not saying that only because of the deplorable overcrowding in prisons, to which the prison governors and many other less qualified persons have called indignant attention. Nor am I saying it as one who rejects the whole idea of judicial punishment. All citizens should be aware—I am sure my sincerity will be believed when I say this—that if they break the law they stand to be penalised with greater or lesser severity according to their crime. But incarceration in prison involves a denial of freedom that, if sustained over any length of time, is more likely to do harm than good to the prisoner, certainly as compared with a number of other alternatives. Prison, we can all agree, is a rotten answer to the problem of crime and punishment, and should be adopted only if nothing else is available.

I have just received a letter from a young man who is doing quite a long sentence in prison, and he is the first to agree that he was rightly punished. He writes, I myself am imprisoned for the serious offence of armed robbery. I followed temptation and consequently made a dreadful decision for which I am deeply ashamed. So undoubtedly he accepts the justice of a sentence of imprisonment. He goes on to say a number of things about prison which many people older than himself have stressed repeatedly. He writes, When a man is identified only as a prison number during his stay and forced to abandon all vestiges of individualism in favour of adopting the institutionally acceptable pattern of behaviour of a pre-pubescent child, is it really surprising that many already inadequate personalities emerge as moulded jail fodder, fit only for a pathetic career in recidivism? That was written by a young man whom I know quite well, who is full of promise. I am sure that he will make a good citizen in the end, but that is his opinion, and it is the opinion of many others who come at it without that special experience.

So not only because the prisons are overcrowded do I make this strong plea for alternative remedies. I have with me a booklet entitled Alternative Penal Measures to Imprisonment, issued from Strasbourg in 1976 by the European Committee on crime problems. It sets out the alternatives to prison under half a dozen headings which I will mention quickly. The first is, Deferment or withholding of sanction. The second is, Supervision on probation or under suspended sentence. The third, Financial penalties. The fourth, payment of compensation to victims. The fifth, Community service. The sixth, Semi-liberty and semi-detention. It also provides a list of what it calls "other noncustodial sanctions", and of course parole was not forgotten.

This evening, as indicated in my Question, I shall concentrate on the fifth heading, Community service, and in particular on community service orders as we have begun to develop them in Britain. I do not wish to restrict other noble Lords from discussing other alternative remedies to prison in their own way. As some of us will remember, community service orders originated with the recommendation of the 1970 Report of the Advisory Council on the Penal System. It will always be associated not only here, but far away, with the honoured name of the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton of Abinger. She was hoping to be able to intervene in the debate this evening, but I gather that that is now impossible. The Advisory Council proposed that the court should be given power to order offenders to carry out a specified number of hours' work for the community in their spare time, and that the probation and after-care service should be responsible for administering the arrangements. That was the first main recommendation.

The recommendation was translated into law in the Criminal Justice Act 1972, which introduced the community service order as a new sentence of the court. The offender has to be aged 17 or over. He or she must have been convicted of an offence for which a sentence of imprisonment can be given, though in practice this does not at all mean that those who are given community service orders would otherwise have gone to prison. If we had 10,000 or more community service orders being administered, that does not mean that 10,000 people would have been cut off the prison population. Perhaps the noble Lord the Minister will help us with the calculation of how many people have been saved from prison by community service orders. The consent of the offender is necessary, though he will not of course be a completely free agent, as if he rejects community service he will encounter some other penalty. As the scheme has been worked hitherto it has been generally accepted that the work done should be of benefit to the community, but would not otherwise have been carried out; for instance, no one else's employment is jeopardised. The work is chosen for its usefulness, not its unpleasantness.

The special qualities of community service have already been extolled on many occasions. The present Lord Chancellor, for example, has said of community service—and I echo his words—that it avoids the disruption of everyday life, combines elements of reparation and punishment, and enables the offenders to make a contribution towards helping other people which will, as a by-product, turn him into a more responsible person. As would be expected, the Lord Chancellor has put this as well any anyone can.

Others with first-hand experience of community service have picked out its keynote as involvement in the community, whereas the essence of prison is to cut off the prisoner from the community and to segregate him from all except his fellow criminals, who may do him more harm than good. Community service tries to involve offenders with the community and the community with the offenders. It places the offender in the role of helper, rather than helped. He can gain a positive experience from it, as opposed to undergoing the negative one of imprisonment. That is perhaps a somewhat idealised picture. It is the aspiration, but it is achieved in a great number of cases.

Such tributes as I have mentioned, which are well justified, entitle us to ask what progress is being made with the expansion of community service orders. We are entitled to ask why progress is still not faster, and to ask what future, now or later, the Government see for this alternative to prison. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, m ho is always a faithful servant of the House, will no doubt give us the up-to-date statistics, and I will not try to duplicate his narrative in advance.

From figures with which he has been kind enough to supply me, I note that in the year which ended March, 1977 rather more than 10,000 persons were given community service, compared with rather fewer than 5,000—that is, rather less than half—during the previous 12 months. In the Inner London Probation Area the increase in the year 1977—that brings one to the end of the year and is therefore a different and rather later period—was 63 per cent. over the previous year. Could the noble Lord, to whom I have been able to give a little notice, give us, along with other relevant statistics, the latest figures for the country as a whole, as compared with the preceding period? Would he be kind enough to tell us what proportion of the country is now covered, not only in theory but in fact? Are any major urban areas—the real danger spots—still not included?

This brings me to a central question. What are the main restrictions in the immediate future on a much greater use of community service orders and noncustodial measures in general? Let me take first the restrictions due to the so-called economic stringency. I can never remember a time when there was not an economic stringency. A good many years ago I was chairman of a bank, and in those days it was not a Labour Government who were in power. During six out of eight years at that time there was some kind of restriction or other due to abnormal difficulties. I will not be convinced very easily that Britain today is passing through a period of economic stringency with which we were not previously familiar. At any rate, when it comes to pleading for quite a number of reforms we are given the answer that we are passing through a period of economic stringency.

In the recent Government publication called A Review of Criminal Justice Policy there is a crucial passage at the top of page 7, which I venture to suggest that noble Lords should study in full. I will give only a sentence or two from it here. The passage begins as follows: While policy must be to encourage the use of existing non-custodial disposals"— that is a nice piece of jargon— the development of those who employ probation manpower can proceed only as fast as extra resources become available. From that I must extract the meaning that non-custodial sanctions cannot be expanded as rapidly as would otherwise be desirable while the Probation Service remains more or less at its present level. Therefore, the crucial question becomes: How fast an expansion of the Probation Service is to be permitted?

Here I must press the Minister—again, having given him a little notice—about the Government's intentions. Is it really the case that in the next three years the Probation Service is going to be expanded by only 200 members? Are the Government still adamant, as they were on some earlier occasion, in their determination to spend nearly £5 million on new prison building, thus giving (to put it crudely but truly) a higher priority to prisons than to alternatives to prison? How many more prison officers are to be recruited in the same period? Perhaps the noble Lord will enlighten us there.

One of the difficulties of bringing out the real folly of this policy is that no official answer can be obtained as to the cost per man per week of non-custodial remedies such as community service orders. We are told that it costs perhaps £100 a week to keep a man in prison. To employ him on community service costs, on many calculations, a tenth of that; but on any calculation it cannot cost more than a fifth. It is almost incredible that we should be told that economic reasons make it impossible to expand the much cheaper remedy.

Of course I realise (because I have heard it from the eloquent lips of the noble Lord before now) the Government's way of formulating the best answer they can dredge up. They say that in the immediate future the prison officers are there—this is what it comes to, though they wrap it up more than this—and the extra probation officers are not there; so it costs more in the immediate future to expand the non-custodial remedies because they are, in a sense, a new service, or an addition to an existing service. But looking ahead not very far, all common sense and experience demonstrate coercively that community service orders, and even relatively expensive measures such as hostels, are a big national economy, and that any argument to the opposite is, to put it mildly and loyally, moonshine.

Passing from that and becoming more interrogative than critical, may I ask the Minister (again having given him notice) some questions about the future of community service orders as he sees them. Does he take the view that the work to be done under these orders must continue to be work that would not otherwise be performed?—because that is obviously a big limitation. Does he consider that plenty of this work will be available in the foreseeable future? Does he also consider that, as now, the great majority of the orders will be applied to those under 25 and to those who have committed the less serious crimes? Would he agree that, if the answer to these questions is affirmative, there is on the face of it, quite apart from national economies, a sharp limit to the number of prisoners who can be reasonably extracted from prison or prevented from going to prison by this particular alternative of community service orders? Would the Minister agree that, if the fullest use were made of community service, this would still leave us a long way short of a really drastic reduction in the prison population, and would fail to provide an alternative to prison for a large proportion of the whole population now in prison? if so, ought we not to be thinking about alternatives to prison, in addition to community service, which would apply to a further substantial proportion?

The same young prisoner I quoted earlier writes in this way—and I am reading a quotation from a much longer letter: Perhaps alternatives such as hostels where an offender could be properly and humanely encouraged to reform whilst retaining a job and making constructive amends by repaying, from his wages", could provide a solution, at any rate partially. That was what was in his mind; and he went on to say that in this way a prisoner would be able to make reparation to the community, as he cannot do in prison. That is for the noble Lord to tell us. I agree that I have given him notice of a number of detailed questions about community service orders, and so I cannot expect him to range too far afield; but I hope he will have something to say about the general question.

We are awaiting the report of the Advisory Council on long-term imprisonment. We all recall that their interim report suggested a sharp reduction in sentences. I hope and believe that this Advisory Council will recommend a marked reduction in the length of sentences. When, four years ago, the Advisory Council suggested a method of using young delinquents on work for the community under supervision—I am referring to the so called Younger Report—the Government welcomed it but did absolutely nothing whatever about it. I hope that this report, when it comes out this year, will not share the same fate. But as my governor friend, quoted at the beginning, said, it is beyond question that prisons contain a substantial number of men and women for whom prison is quite inappropriate, even though not all of them are suitable for community service. Their offences are often trivial and their life histories often pathetic. These are the people whom judges and magistrates could keep out of prison if an adequate range of alternatives were provided. Taking it now broadly over the whole field of alternative remedies, this is one of the major reforms that would actually pay for itself.

Looking to the future, my Lords, I believe that some but not all of the principles in the field of community service, which have, on the whole, been successful, provide the basis for a much wider system of alternatives to long-term imprisonment. However, that raises a wider issue than the one contained in my Question. I am sure that we shall all benefit greatly from hearing the constructive views of other noble Lords, and in particular from an up-to-date account from the Minister.

7.47 p.m.

Viscount LONG

My Lords, I am sure the House is most grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for asking this very important Question; and I must say that, in view of the number of questions he has already asked his noble friend, he leaves me no room at all to ask the Government any more. So I am quite happy to put my points personally and from this side of the House, together with those of any of my noble friends who care to take part, in the hope that we can contribute something to the noble Earl's inquiries as to what is going on in this sphere. This is my third debate in recent weeks. I listened to, though I did not take part in, the debate on law and order; I took part in the very interesting debate, ably instigated by the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, on crime prevention, which I then said was the "nitty gritty" side of law and order; and now we come to the noble Earl's important aspect of how some of this punishment is being doled out.

My Lords, I shall range a little widely during my opening remarks because I really feel that we ought to know what is going on and what is being said; I think it is vitally important. During the last 25 to 30 years we in this country have been experiencing an epidemic in crime which has the hallmark of becoming completely and utterly out of control unless we within Parliament can now start to talk about it and act on it as soon as possible. This means, I am afraid, that the punishment must fit the crime or the crime must fit the punishment. We must look at the matter from all angles.

I should here like to mention a further serious problem which has arisen over those years; that is, that our cities have become increasingly larger, and the populations in those cities have become alarmingly larger. That has brought with it great difficulties for the administrators: the Government, local government, public authorities, the police and all the different organisations that have to handle the daily problems of the cities and the alarming rate in the growth of population.

I say that, my Lords, because I think there ought to be a background to this. Within the city explosion of population comes the alarming and terrifying increase in crimes such as violence and mugging. This weekend we saw a section of the crowd at an ordinary football match in London go completely berserk, and the situation was indeed very nasty. It is difficult to know how magistrates are to deal with these young people. It must be a problem as large as one can make it. The problems are now openly discussed in public. The public are demanding to know what is going on in Parliament to create a society free from some of the things that are happening. They are asking not only what goes on but what punishments if any are being doled out.

I wonder whether we have gone too far, and if treatment by psychiatrists and sociologists is now becoming an obsolete weapon. I believe that we have become a little too soft and punishment must be toughened up in every way. With such an upsurge in crime as is going on I do not believe that the psychiatrist and the sociologist can continue to make excuses. This morning in the Daily Telegraph I read an article by a young man called John Wheeler. I should like to read one paragraph out of his article, because I felt it was relevant to our debate this evening. He wrote: With all the massive efforts of reform and resources we have been rewarded by natural levels of lawlessness that have reached record heights and give every indication of going on to worse things to come. This is what we have been on about for some time. Certain criminals who constantly turn back to crime are almost immune. It is an extraordinary thing that rats which have been poisoned now are immune. We are now having to search our minds to stop the prisons from becoming so full, to try and go back and stop the crime at its early stages. We have seen that rats now have to be given other poisons. I make that analogy because I believe that prisoners, young, middle-aged and old, are becoming somewhat immune.

Following what the noble Earl has been saying, we have been looking a great deal at the idea of short-term sentences for prisoners. It is very natural to say that the psychological treatment and humiliation of prisoners and the irritation of short sentences should well stop them from going any further, but I do not think it is happening. I do not believe that these community service orders are working as well as we want them to. I believe that they are a good idea. I can understand the irritation of someone who has committed a crime having at weekends to leave his family at home to do a weekend job as punishment. I can see that this is an aggravation, but it is a two-edged sword and the wife could be very angry with the husband for committing the crime and leaving the children and her at home when they might be going down to the sea. I can see that situation, but I do not believe it is really working. The fact is that our prisons are still filling up and I shall be very interested to hear comments from the Government on this. If it is beginning to work that is for the good. If it is working at 100 per cent.—which I do not believe—we would not be debating this matter this evening. I do not believe we have yet got down to the correct type of punishment.

There are other points regarding these community service orders. If they have not had an impact on the level of crime then what is the next stage? Is it a fact that the Government realise that we are short of people to operate these community centres? Is it a fact that people are given too severe sentences and therefore we are not seeing the number of people going into the community service centres which might prove them? We have to consider the expense; we have to look at the voluntary associations which deal with these community centres and see if we have the money to pay them, and, if we have the money, whether we have the manpower to do the job. In theory they should work, but in practice I do not believe that they are doing any good at the moment. Perhaps in another five years we may see this happening, but I doubt it at the moment.

I do not wish to say very much more because the noble Earl has said so much with which we can agree or not agree. I come back to the fact that we cannot let loose on the severe punishment, the deterrent, which is prison. Last week I mentioned the cane and the glasshouse, and I still maintain that we must talk about these things in order to frighten the criminal and stop him from breaking up society as he is doing. I am grateful to the noble Earl for what he has said. I am sure that there is a great deal more which we will want to say in two or three years' time if we can see this approach is working, but I still maintain that we have a long way to go yet.

7.56 p.m.


My Lords, I appreciate the noble Earl, Lord Longford, encouraging me to speak this evening because it gives me the opportunity to ask a number of questions of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, who is always extremely courteous and takes a great deal of trouble to write to me on various points which I have raised in the past. It can be a shattering experience for any family when the father or a child goes to court and gets sentenced. I agree with the noble Earl and the noble Viscount that for the adult, in very many cases, prison is no deterrent. On the other hand, borstal most certainly is a deterrent, and community service orders, day centres, et cetera, may be successful with some. I shall be interested to hear about this from the noble Lord.

We are bombarded daily on television, in the newspapers and on the wireless with details of the appalling increase in crime, especially in urban areas and in certain parts of those urban areas. Crime is committed by the young and the very young. Surely nasty medicine now would be preferable, otherwise it seems to me inevitable that these youngsters will end up in jail. The Isle of Man has the birch, rarely used, but no Liverpool boy who has had it ever returns. Should we consider it here? I am putting this as a question; I am not stating it as my own opinion. I agree with the noble Viscount that glasshouses are a possibility with regimental sergeant majors or the equivalent—short and sharp treatment, strict discipline. Parents would understand this. In many areas—and I know this for a fact as I visit the wives—parents are scared of their own children, so what sort of society are we living in?

Noble Lords know that I have never advocated revenge or an eye for an eye, even though I have had very good cause to do so. Prevention, please, now so that the less serious cases—men, women and children—can be dealt with by other means. I feel strongly that we must back up the police—who have not been mentioned this evening—who often despair of real action on the part of this Government or any other Government. Something I do not understand is why senior ranking officers in the Metropolitan Police have to retire at the age of 55 while in the Provinces the age is 60. This seems utterly crazy, and especially so now when we need the really experienced officers. All measures to combat crime must be tried and, hopefully, many will succeed. We must hope for a more peaceful society. A nephew of mine was mugged the other day by four white boys. He said that one was no more than 13. He was stabbed twice in the liver after his money was taken. They are 13 or 14, many of them. They are hard and must be treated as such. This they will understand.

Professionals and volunteers do so much to try to help. Perhaps the Government can stop them from being swamped by the increasing burden which is placed upon them. I wonder whether the noble Lord is satisfied that the results of the generic course recommended by the Committee of the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, in 1968—he was Mr. Seebohm then—is working well; or should training be more specialised? I can only repeat what I have said previously: preventative medicine now, please! Indeed, why not put it to a referendum?

8.2 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, was kind enough to ask me to take part in this debate and I accepted because I thought he was doing me an honour rarely done to me in this House since I have been here—and certainly never by the Front Bench. Secondly, I accepted because I have spent with him (sometimes in disagreement with him) many years of labour, of which I was proud, in the field of penal reform. In these moments of enthusiasm I forget that I am an aged man of failing qualities, a matter which is constantly in the mind of the Labour Front Bench although they realise I can still walk through a Lobby if I am asked to do so and if someone indicates the direction I should take—without promoting anything other than something in the way of revolt.

I admire immensely the noble Baroness, Lady Sharples. I admire what she has said. No one has a right more than she to say what she has said. No one has a right to be heard with more respect than she. I myself know that the situation in respect of violence is such that it cannot be dismissed as something to be dealt with lightly. But I have to say quite firmly to the noble Viscount—who knows that I have a great regard for him; for he is one of the Front Bench which treats me with exceptional courtesy and charm—that I have heard his remarks made before. They were made by a gentleman called Lord Justice Goddard who acquired great fame and esteem and who had many qualities that I admired. I do not want to criticise; but it was he, and he alone, who said—and he was followed by the judges—"We are going to wipe out crime by punishment."

It was he who took that view over that period after the war when we were dealing with a difficult situation—where husbands were coming back from the Far East to be reunited with families they had not seen for years, when kids were brought in from playing in the back streets during the war because their mothers had been drafted into work and so on. We had problems of refugees still more terrible than those referred to today. I put down a number of Questions at the time and I found out the extent to which sentences were being increased by the Judiciary. Quite a few little bulwarks of society were destroyed at that time. The result was overcrowded prisons. I can understand the argument that punishment may have some deterrent effect. I have never seen much evidence of it. I wish that it were available. But putting people three in a cell does not cure anybody because—and I have said this before, and I apologise for repeating myself—the theory that Little Lord Fauntleroy may redeem Bill Sikes does not work out. I have no doubt the noble Lord is bearing a note to point out that Little Lord Fauntleroy was too young to be classed with an adult offender—although it has happened to a remarkable extent.

The fact is that we have tried heavy punishments. We tried them. And we were told that we could not spend any more money on prisons because of the increasing cost of all this. I do not suggest that that was the cause. That would be nonsense. There were many causes. A lot of crime comes from America, organised crime. Mass organisation of drug trafficking came largely from America, although quickly more rapid routes were established.

I am not proposing to put forward any favourite theories of my own today. I have always said and I have always agreed with the noble Lord to this extent. There are crimes so grave and severe that when you are trying to deal with a situation such as we have today, you have to have a form of punitive segregation which prevents the criminals from mixing. We always give them the chance by long good conduct of getting some possibility of improved penal conditions. But if there are overcrowded prisons, then you mix the unredeemable with those who can be redeemed.

I think that I have to say as an Agnostic—and I do not often speak as an Agnostic—that sometimes deep-seated religious principles are a bar to reform. The theory that you must endeavour to treat everybody evenly is a good Socialist foundation, but there always comes the point when you face the ultimate dilemma of society when the boat is sinking and only a small number can be saved. Then you have to pause for a moment to determine to save those who can be saved and to abandon for the time being those who seem beyond redemption. I do not believe that in this situation you can go very far beyond that.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, with great courtesy, has given me a great deal of information. It was an impertinence on my part to accept his invitation although I did so with gratitude and appreciating the courtesy. I would very much like to see this man, whose principles no one doubts, with whom I have found myself in my life in agreement on at least 50 per cent. of the causes—which is a high percentage for me—continue to fight them with courage and sincerity, obvious sincerity and earnestness.

I thought he was a little hard today on the noble Lord, who does not seem to have suffered very much in his normal placidity because of it. I think that what has been done in connection with the community service orders is a very remarkable achievement. After all, I came into this House about the time when the Criminal Justice Act 1972 was being discussed. That made out in two or three successive sections the procedure for community service orders. It was a major departure. It was one which, if it had been over-publicised, might have attracted criticism from the same people who always start a public campaign in this way; that is, to the effect that some mental sufferer is given a chance which proves to have been, on later reflection, injudicious. It is a great reform.

I said that I agreed about fifty-fifty with the noble Lord. There is one person with whom I agree 100 per cent.—and only one now; that is, the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton of Abinger. The reason for that is that if ever I disagree with her, she has, with a few cogent arguments, brought me to her side and I accept her arguments without question. This is another of those major reforms, mainly due to the sponsorship and authorship of this very remarkable lady. Her life seems to be devoted to nothing but service and her reputation grows with her age.

I said I had not intended to intervene at all, but I see from the clock that nine minutes have already gone. I think the clock is always inaccurate when I look at it, but I will at least bow to what it says. I hope the noble Lord has time to mention something about the short community service for young offenders, generally speaking, in borstal. I think a figure of 100 was reported from 1972. Not much information has been coming forward since. There again, I can well understand that to some extent the full light of publicity should not play. My noble friend Lord Longford has put questions of high importance, and those of us who are keenly interested—and I apologise, for I have done little recently—anticipate that the Minister has for once and very properly been provided with an opportunity of pointing to some measure of achievement and success.

8.12 p.m.


My Lords, I shall intervene for only two minutes. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, outlined several different ways in which the offender could be dealt with, but he did not pursue them. I am a simple soul and believe that there is one way to keep out of prison; that is, not to commit a crime. Occasionally we are led along the path of believing that punishment must be the only reparation. It must also be a deterrent. I assume the noble Earl did not see a programme on Saturday on BBC 2 television where certain people undergoing community service orders were interviewed. It was very interesting that they were all questioned whether they would do the same thing again. With supreme honesty—which people seem to have when faced with a television camera—they all said, Yes they would but they would not be caught. It seemed to me that that particular group could hardly be held to be a group where community service orders had been successful.

Let us hear a little more about compensation. I am amazed that the suggestion is that people are imprisoned for trivial offences. This cannot be so from the London courts. In all the years that I have sat in a London court nobody has gone to prison for a parking fine so far as I can recall. They have gone to prison for serious offences, for the simple reason that we have been warned to keep people out of prison. I should be interested to know where this person is who has been put into prison for a trivial offence. We always hear of these. I do not know whether I am alone in this, but I get tired of listening and seeing programmes where we hear the plea of the prisoner. We never hear why the prisoner has been sent to prison; we never hear the story of the victim.

I know that the noble Earl will tell me that he is also on the side of the victim. I want prevention and I think that any part of the punishment must be deterrent so that this person does not commit the same offence again. Let us have more compensation, more supervision and, if you like, short, sharp deterrent sentences. We now have these things. But, above all, we must keep in front of us that if certain action is taken, another course will follow this action. Otherwise, I feel we are never going to get to a point where we have prevented people from committing crime.

8.16 p.m.


My Lords, I have had the pleasure of speaking on this particular range of subjects on what appears to be a fairly formidable number of occasions in recent weeks. Therefore, I shall start off with the apology that the House may be aware from time to time that I am straying over rather familiar ground. With that apology in advance, let me deal first of all with the direct question which my noble friend Lord Longford put to me about community service, and then come on to some of the more general questions raised; namely, the other range of non-custodial alternatives.

First of all, there is certainly absolutely no doubt that community service has developed extremely rapidly since its inception. My noble friend Lord Hale said it was and has been an outstanding success. I think that is so. I was slightly disappointed to hear what the noble Viscount said, because the general view of those members of the late Administration who were involved with community service—namely, the noble Lord, Lord Carr of Hadley, and his colleagues at the Home Office at that time—as I know from conversations with a number of them, is that they regard this as one of the more hopeful developments with which they were associated. I think it is only right to say that on an occasion such as this.

May I say to my noble friend Lady Phillips that I did not have the good fortune to see the programme on Saturday evening and I do not know how old these particular young men were. As my noble friend is aware, nobody under the age of 17 can get a community service order. If they had been in a detention centre or a borstal it may well be that they would have given almost exactly the same reply as the one she reported to us a few moments ago. There is no certainty that there is any form of punishment that certainly deters this alarming group of young men who are determined to commit crime.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharples, referred to the use of corporal punishment. For obvious reasons, I cannot fall into temptation by commenting on the situation concerning the Isle of Man. But this idea was specifically rejected as long ago 1938. I do not know of any evidence which suggests that a return of corporal punishment, unknown in any other Western industrialised democracy in the world, is the right way of proceeding. I do not think it will achieve any of the objectives which all Parties in this country endorse.

As my noble friend Lord Hale said, community service schemes are largely due to a report with which my noble friend Lady Wootton of Abinger was associated. Appropriate provisions were put into the Criminal Justice Act 1972 which introduced the community service order as a new sentence and—as has been constantly reiterated today—as an alternative to imprisonment. An order requires an offender to carry out from between 40 and 240 hours of unpaid work for the community.

The community service schemes were introduced on an experimental basis in 1973 and 1974 in six probation and after-care areas in England, and the progress of each pilot scheme was monitored by the Home Office Research Unit. That was the situation when the present Government came into Office and my right honourable friend and I decided, in the light of the Unit's findings, to give all probation and after-care areas the go-ahead to introduce community service arrangements in their areas from 1st April 1975.

I think the Probation Service has put a great deal of effort into this development, so that today there are community service arrangements in the whole of 35 of our probation areas and in parts of 20 others, leaving only one area in Wales—Dyfedat—at present without a scheme of any sort. We estimate—this is in answer to a question put to me by my noble friend Lord Longford—that over 80 per cent. of the population of the country live in places where there are schemes, and from 1st April this year there will be extensions to the existing schemes which will bring in Birmingham, which is by far the largest centre of population outside the scheme at the moment, together with Sutton Coldfield, Solihull, Bury, Rochdale and Trafford, as well as Stockport, Middleton and Heywood. There will be other areas also, I suspect; but all these, as their names indicate, are major centres of population and they will have community service in those areas from 1st April.

The speed at which individual probation areas have been able to introduce community service has been influenced by the constraints on spending which have had to be applied to all public services. My noble friend Lord Longford tempted me slightly to go into a rather detailed refutation of his approach to public expenditure but, if he will forgive me, I shall not do so on this occasion because I have a substantial amount of ground to cover. All I would say is that I believe the reason why this country is now emerging from its economic difficulties is that the Government decided to have a rigid control of public expenditure. I repeat: that is one of the reasons why we are now emerging from our past problems. In these circumstances, the Probation Service had to operate within those constraints. However, such is the importance which the Government attach to the development of community service that extra money is being made available in the forthcoming financial year specifically for the extension and strengthening of community service schemes.

In making this additional provision the Government have two aims. The first is to ensure that community service schemes are operating throughout England and Wales by the end of the next financial year. In other words, by the end of March next year there will be community service in every probation area throughout England and Wales. Secondly, we wish to ensure that individual schemes have a capacity to accept all offenders whom the courts regard as suitable for community service orders. We consider that it is in the interests of justice generally, and indeed of individual offenders, that these twin objectives should be fulfilled so that suitable offenders can be dealt with by community service orders, regardless of where the offenders live.

It is with these aims in mind that we have considered applications from probation areas for a share of the extra resources we are providing. The total sum sought by the areas has turned out to amount to more than we at present have available and we have had to allocate rather less than each area has asked for. But I am satisfied that our decisions on the applications, which we have recently communicated to individual probation committees, should enable community service arrangements to be introduced during the course of the next financial year to all court areas still without them. They will also enable a considerable reinforcement of existing schemes to take place.

My noble friend Lord Longford asked me a number of questions about the use of community service in the courts. The latest returns from the Probation Service show that in the period 1st December 1976 to 30th November 1977 12,133 offenders were given community service orders. That compares with 9,020 in the previous 12 months: in other words, within a single year there was an increase of well over 30 per cent. I think that increase speaks for itself as an indication of the growing importance of community service as a sentence and it has, of course, taken place during a period when community service schemes were not fully developed throughout the country as a whole. I think, therefore, that the potential for further growth remains considerable. Naturally, it is impossible to make any serious forecast as far as precise numbers are concerned, but given the fact that there are going to be, as I have indicated, significant extensions of the provisions of these schemes, I think it would be not at all unreasonable to expect to achieve something in the region of 15,000 orders a year in the near future.

Again, it is a source of some satisfaction that we have managed to make such a great deal of progress in a relatively short period, and I think it is right to pay tribute, during a debate of this kind, to those who have made it possible—to the Probation Service, who have put a great deal of effort into organising these schemes; to all the voluntary bodies and other organisations which have cooperated in providing work for offenders, and also to the courts and the public for their readiness to make use of and accept these innovatory schemes.

The community service order is a positive sentence which offers a constructive means of dealing with an offender convicted of an offence punishable with imprisonment. Among its chief merits—and this is a point which was touched on by the noble Viscount, Lord Long—is that it deprives the offender of his leisure time and enables hire to make reparation to the community by the work that he does. As an added advantage, many of those given community service orders are in fact made aware, probably for the first time in their lives, of the problems of the aged, the sick, the mentally handicapped and the others with whom they work. Again, one must not become over-sentimental about this particular consideration but, as I have looked at schemes in carious parts of the country, I have had brought to my notice examples of various offenders or ex-offenders who, having discharged the whole period of their community service order, have continued to work on an entirely voluntary basis for some of these perhaps mentally handicapped children or old people. Let us not forget that many of these people have had previous criminal convictions, because very seldom do people get a community service order on their first appearance in court. If I may say so, they certainly should not get one, because in most cases it is seen, in effect, as an alternative to imprisonment. Therefore it seems to me, quite apart from these other advantages, that in quite a significant number of cases ex-offenders continue to work for some of our deprived fellow citizens on an entirely voluntary basis.

Looking ahead, now that we are in sight of achieving our objective of covering every part of England and Wales with community service, where do we go from here? We are in fact at the moment reviewing the possibility—and I emphasise the word "possibility"—of extending the use of community service areas to fine defaulters. Any viable alternative to dealing with these cases could have a most welcome impact on our overcrowded prisons. Section 49 of the 1972 Act makes the necessary provision which would allow us to do this. But it has not yet been implemented, as we thought it essential to extend community service, as it was originally conceived, to England and Wales before widening its use.

The addition of fine defaulters to those eligible for orders could add considerably to the Probation Service's work, judged by the fact that in 1976 just under 16,000 people went to prison for non-payment of fines. Implementation of Section 49 will not be feasible until the Probation Service has sufficient additional resources to cope with the extra work involved. But there are also a number of other practical considerations involved in extending community service to fine defaulters and, in the light of these practical considerations, we shall embark on a consultation with all the various Probation Service interests concerned, so that we can come to a decision as to whether we should move ahead in this direction.

I do not want at the moment to go into any detail about these practical problems, but some of them are fairly self-evident. For instance, at the moment community service is recommended by a probation officer only in certain types of cases, but, if it is extended to fine default, almost certainly there clearly could not be this same selective approach. There are problems about this and we want to discuss them with the Probation Service, recognising in so doing that, if we are able to move ahead in this direction, we shall almost certainly be able to make a fairly significant impact in terms of the size of the prison population.

My noble friend very properly devoted a great deal of his speech to the question of community service, but of course, as he recognised by his Question, there are a number of other alternatives to custody. One of them is probation hostels which provide one alternative, particularly for some of the inadequate, immature and socially irresponsible who have fallen into a pattern of repeated offending followed by short prison sentences, and who might be helped to adjust to living a useful life in the community by a period of residence in a stable, supportive environment. There are now 55 probation hostels for adult men and women, with 907 places. A further two hostels with 31 places are expected to open in the next 12 months.

Then there are the bail hostels and to these we are devoting a great deal of time and attention at the moment. The Government have been much concerned to reduce the number of people who are remanded in custody while awaiting trial, many of whom are not, in the event, convicted; or, if they are convicted, are not given a custodial sentence. Among those who have previously been remanded in custody are a number who are so remanded largely because they have no settled address, and cannot be relied upon to turn up in court at the appropriate time. These people can often be released on bail if, but only if, accommodation is available where they can live under some form of supervision and be on hand for interviews for the purpose of reports to the courts. It is also possible for some work to be begun on personal problems which may have contributed to their appearance in court, sometimes to an extent which would enable proposals to be put before the courts which might influence them towards imposing a non-custodial penalty.

In the best tradition of voluntary effort, a pioneering bail hostel, established by Mrs. Xenia Field in co-operation with the Salvation Army, showed the feasibility of this type of provision, and with this encouragement a programme was begun for the provision of bail hostels to serve most of the major centres of urban population. Six of these hostels are now in service, with 75 places. A further seven hostels with 85 places are expected to open in the next 12 months, and six more with approximately 60 places are planned. There are, in addition, four combined probation and bail hostels in operation, with a total of 69 places, and seven more with about 140 places in various stages of preparation. In addition, most ordinary probation hostels will make some bail accommodation available if they have vacant places.

I should now like to deal with one innovatory scheme in Inner London, which is a rather hopeful development. This is the provision, on an experimental basis, of a scheme which goes under the name of Bulldog. The scheme was introduced in 1975 by the Inner London Probation and After-Care Committee, in association with the Vera Institute of Criminal Justice in New York, and is modelled on the Wildcat scheme which, since 1972, has provided employment for ex-offenders in New York. Bulldog was set up as a feasibility study to see whether a scheme on the Wildcat lines could work in this country and, because of its experimental nature, has been largely funded by the Home Office. I have taken a very keen personal interest in this development, and I am bound to say that I am very encouraged by the progress which has been made.

Bulldog is a private company which draws on the Probation Service and on industry for its managers. It provides work for young men and women, under supervision, who are recommended by their probation officers. All of those taken on have a bad work history—often a virtually non-existent work history—and a fairly non-existent school career as well. They were very often long-term truants who drifted out of school, drifted into crime and never did a day's work in their lives. Obviously, work among a group of this character has a great potential, if one can teach these people the work habit, and that is the central objective of the Bulldog scheme. So far, it has had a quite remarkable record. These young men are paid for the work they do and may be employed for periods up to approximately eight months.

Let me give some examples of the kind of work they do. Some employees are assisting in the work of renovation of Highgate Cemetery. Others are fencing a plot of land which will be used by a voluntary allotment association. Still others are working in small decorating teams which are refurbishing property for Hammersmith Council. Yet another recent project has been the decoration of a hostel for homeless young people in South London. The main conclusion to emerge from the research carried out by the Home Office Research Unit into the scheme is that Bulldog has achieved a satisfactory balance between supporting the employees and, at the same time, obliging them to face up to the demands of the ordinary work site. The results encourage me to hope that, if and when resources allow, it will be possible for the Probation Service in some other areas outside Inner London to set up similar schemes.

I have given a number of examples in which the Government are pressing ahead with important innovatory schemes aimed at diverting offenders from our prisons. My noble friend Lord Longford has asked a perfectly reasonable question: Can we not go still faster? Can we not press on a great deal more energetically? Let me just deal with one point, before I come to what was the central proposal in his speech. He indicated, from figures that were available to him, that there was to be an expansion of only something in the region of 200 in the size of the Probation Service. However, the planned growth between now and the end of the financial year 1980–81 is just double that—somewhere in the region of 400. A great deal of the present expansion of community service is being carried out not by probation officers but by ancillary workers who have a very important part to play in these schemes.

Secondly, my noble friend's central proposition was that if we made a major switch of resources from the Prison Service to non-custodial alternatives, we should be able to achieve a dramatic improvement in our penal establishments. I am bound to tell my noble friend that I believe his view is wholly illusory, and I shall explain why. My noble friend asked whether there were to be more prison officers, to which my answer is, Yes, there are indeed, for two reasons. First, there will be more prison establishments. I shall come in a moment to a particular point relating to that matter. But, if there are to be new prisons, obviously one must have prison officers to run them. Secondly, without more officers there will have to be ruthless cuts in the quality of life in prison establishments.

In the past the noble Baroness has quite rightly pursued me on the question of whether or not there should be improved visiting accommodation in some of our prisons. If there were to be a great switch in resources of that kind, we should be unable to improve any of our visiting accommodation because it costs money. Prison officers would also have to be employed in that new visiting accommodation, otherwise a series of gross abuses could go on within it. Upon issue after issue, the facts are borne in upon one that without more prison officers in a number of our prison establishments the quality of life for the inmates will deteriorate very sharply indeed. This brings me to the question of the cost of keeping people in prison.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, the noble Lord is being most interesting. I am particularly glad to hear that the figure I had been given of an increase of 200 in the next two years or so is to be only half the actual increase in the number of probation officers. Is the noble Lord able to give us the planned increase in the number of prison officers over the same period?


My Lords, I am afraid that, without notice, I cannot do so.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, I thought that I gave the noble Lord notice of this question.


My Lords, with great respect to my noble friend, he has asked me a substantial number of questions, with which I am dealing. If my noble friend will forgive me for saying so, I have spent virtually the whole of my speech answering the points he has made rather than dealing with the speeches made by other Members of the House. I should therefore be grateful if my noble friend would listen to the argument before intervening.

Turning to the question of whether or not we should have new prisons, which is related to the question of whether or not we should have more prison officers, my noble friend has pursued me, again quite rightly, about the fact that a number of women prisoners have to be kept in the North of England, either at Styal or at Durham. The reason is the rebuilding programme that is now taking place at Holloway; there are now far fewer places at Holloway because of that rebuilding programme.

During the last few weeks my right honourable friend and I have had to take a very disagreeable decision. We have decided that a small new establishment near Rochester, which we intended to reserve for young prisoners between the ages of 17 and 21, will now have to become a women's prison. In my view, that decision is absolutely unavoidable. The gowth of the female prison population is such that there is no alternative but to take this extremely disagreeable decision. As a result, it may be possible in the future for the first time to have a number of the cases to which my noble friend referred kept in a prison in Kent rather than in a prison in either Styal or Durham. That will be possible only because there is to be a new prison, but without the prison expenditure there would not be that prison. Another establishment is being built at Low Newton in Durham. It will be a new, purpose-built dispersal prison. As my noble friend will know, it is to be reserved for Category A and Category B prisoners. It will be the first purpose-built dispersal prison that will keep within its walls some of the most dangerous people who are at the moment in prison.

My noble friend might well say, "If you did not build that prison but spent all that money for a different purpose, look what you would be able to do with community service". But the point is that you cannot put members of the IRA on community service. You must have an establishment and spend very substantial sums of public money in order to contain those people within its walls. That is the disagreeable choice. Obviously I should prefer by far to be in a position to make substantial sums of money available to create still further extensions of non-custodial alternatives to imprisonment, but the disagreeable reality is that in the present situation that is not a serious option. At the moment the prison building programme is running at a low level. As with everything else in our society, it has to make its contribution to public expenditure cuts. All I can say to my noble friend is that it is absolutely inescapable that if still further cuts have to be made in the programme, the quality of life in our grossly overcrowded prisons will deteriorate even further.

How shall I sum up this debate? I do not believe that the simple switching of resources of the kind recommended to us by my noble friend is a viable alternative policy. Despite the public expenditure cuts, of which we have had to bear our share, we have been able to make an important move forward in extending non-custodial alternatives to imprisonment. So far as community service is concerned, so far as bail hostels are concerned and so far as the Bulldog scheme in London is concerned—and in quite a number of other areas as well—I do not think that it is a bad record.