HL Deb 02 November 1978 vol 396 cc38-41

3.34 p.m.

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

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

"The Government have decided to set up an Inquiry to consider the causes of the present situation that exists in the prison system. The Inquiry will examine the organisation and management of the prison system in the United Kingdom, including its use of resources and working arrangements, conditions in prison service establishments and the structure, pay and conditions of service.

"The Secretaries of State for Scotland and Northern Ireland and I am consulting the appropriate staff associations and I will inform the House of the composition and terms of reference of the Inquiry. We shall ask for a report with the utmost urgency. In recent months, unofficial action has been taken in some penal establishments which has had the effect of disrupting the criminal justice system as well as the running of the prisons themselves.

"The Government make clear that such action cannot be allowed and with the establishment of this Inquiry they expect all staff to work normally and to present their case to the Inquiry in due course."

Baroness ELLES

My Lords, we on this side of the House welcome the Statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, and the setting up of this Inquiry. Perhaps the noble Lord would answer three questions of which I have given him notice. First, can he give any indication as to whether the setting up of this Inquiry will in any way obviate the action threatened by the prison staff for next Sunday? Secondly, will some kind of time limit be imposed on the body making the Inquiry so that the report is available both to Parliament and the persons concerned as soon as possible? Thirdly, with reference to the criminal justice system, does the noble Lord envisage that this Inquiry will also take into account alternative penalties under the criminal law, cases where people need not be sent to prison, people who fail to pay fines and the like? Will that be included in this Inquiry? I should be grateful if the noble Lord would reply to those questions.


My Lords, we on these Benches also welcome the setting up of this Inquiry, but we are a little perturbed that it may turn inevitably into a somewhat protracted one. It will have to deal not only with mundane questions of pay, meal allowances and matters of that kind, but with sensitive areas—the relationships of the members of the Prison Staff Association with their own leaders, the relationships of the prison staffs with the Home Office and the whole fundamental question as to whether it is possible to have a contented Prison Service feeling they are doing a worthwhile job in prisons where the conditions are as squalid as they are at present in some of the older institutions. All this must inevitably take some time and we are a little perturbed that the prison staff may not feel disposed to wait that length of time and may in fact take action with the inevitable catastrophic consequences that would follow. I would therefore suggest to the noble Lord that the Government might consider inviting the Inquiry as a matter of urgency to issue an interim report dealing solely and simply with pay and conditions of service, and then proceed in a somewhat more leisurely way to examine the more fundamental problems involved.


My Lords, I am obliged for what the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, and the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, said—all the more so the noble Baroness who has stepped in at the last moment to deal with this particular issue. She asked whether the Statement I made would prevent unofficial action. Of course, I do not know whether it will or will not, and that really deals with the last question put to me by Lord Wigoder. I very much hope it will. If there were widespread industrial action at a number of Prison Department establishments, there is no doubt that it would put an enormous strain on our system of criminal justice, and that would be an extremely serious matter. I do not wish in any way to minimise, so far as this House is concerned, the potential seriousness of the situation.

I must, however, emphasise to the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, that it is only a number of branches of the Prison Officers' Association who are involved. The Prison Officers' Association naturally have made it absolutely clear that they are opposed entirely to the action which is being taken, has been taken in the past, I fear, in a number of establishments and is likely to take place, or so we are told, from Sunday onwards.

The noble Baroness asked me about a time limit and the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, raised a similar point. There is no disposition on our part to delay. I spoke to the Secretary of the Prison Officers' Association at lunch time today and suggested that we have a meeting at the Home Office on Monday of next week so that we can start discussing the terms of reference. We want to get on with this matter as quickly as possible, but I do not think that at the moment, as advised, it would be sensible to take out one particular element of the problem and ask for an interim report on that. The problem that we are facing is far more substantial than simply a question of pay.

The last point put to me by the noble Baroness was whether the Committee of Inquiry will have the opportunity to go into wider questions, such as alternatives to imprisonment and so on. No, we have not suggested that because, frankly, if we were to suggest that, I think that the Inquiry would in reality be open-ended. It would have so many issues thrust before it that it would be very difficult to get a report with any reasonable degree of dispatch. For that reason, we have drawn the terms of reference in the way we have to exclude consideration of issues of that kind.

The Lord Bishop of ROCHESTER

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether the terms of reference will include consideration of the constitutional question and the relationship of the Prison Commission to the Home Office?


My Lords, I was interested to see some discussion of this matter in the Press recently to the effect of whether the Prison Commission, or some similar body, should not be re-established. The Prison Commission was brought to an end in, I think, about 1964 by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor. It is often argued that it would be a good idea to reestablish the Prison Commission. I am never totally persuaded that it is necessarily sensible to re-create a body 14 years after it was abolished for reasons which, to Parliament at that stage, seemed to be fairly self-evident. Nevertheless, having said that, the Committee will have the opportunity to go into this particular matter, so that if it wishes to make recommendations about the way in which the Prison Service is administered from the Home Office, it will have every opportunity to do so.

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