HL Deb 04 December 1979 vol 403 cc624-79

5.36 p.m.

The Earl of LONGFORD rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will define their attitude to the Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the United Kingdom Prison Services (the May Report). The noble Earl said: My Lords, I rise to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will define their attitude to the May Report on the Prison Services. The May Report has had, on the whole, a thoroughly bad reception from those qualified to judge. I cannot speak, of course, for the Home Office. The noble Lord will he speaking for the official world, and, still more importantly, for the Government, later on. The dissapointment and, in many cases, the indignation of the Prison Service, whether governors or uniformed staff, are undoubted. It happens that during the last fortnight I have spent a considerable time in three of our major prisons. The comments about the May Report are not such that I would care to repeat to your Lordships, who have no taste, I believe, for strong language. I am not now referring to the prisoners, who have not yet had time to study the report, but I would not expect to find their remarks any more favourable.

Of course, the proposals on pay are regarded as utterly inadequate—a view I certainly share at a moment when the prison staff is, I believe, something like 25 per cent. under the strength required to eliminate excessive overtime. I have said in this House more than once before now that our Prison Service at all levels is seriously underpaid. The Guardian, in a leading article yesterday, said that the May Report had uncovered how well paid prison officers already are. The May Report also uncovered what the Guardian does not mention, at any rate in this article: that to obtain adequate remuneration prison officers have to work abnormally long hours of overtime, which everyone agrees is most unsatisfactory. I know myself, from prison officers, how damaging this can be to private lives. A crucial meeting is taking place today of the Prison Officers' Association. I shall say nothing more about pay at this moment for fear of making agreement less likely in a delicate situation.

But, my Lords, it is not only a question of pay. The May Committee seem to have failed totally (so it is felt, certainly throughout the Service) to appreciate the vision of a much more constructive and professional Prison Service—a vision which has for some time inspired the governor grades and the prison officers alike. There are certainly some helpful suggestions. Under the May proposals, the chairman of the Prison Board would be in a stronger position than at present in various ways, and that is certainly to be welcomed. But what the governors have been pressing for, for some time, is a professional head of their Service. On that point, what do we find in the May Report? The chairman, we read, should be either a career civil servant as now, or an ex-governor, or someone from outside the Civil Service ", which of course means precisely nothing. Lip service is paid at considerable length in the report to the idea of a more constructive role for prison officers, and of appropriate training, which the prison officers have demanded for quite a while, but one can read the report more than once without being much wiser as to how anything of this kind is likely to happen.

My Lords, it gives me no pleasure to criticise the report in this way. Nothing could have exceeded the courtesy and consideration shown me—and I know others had the same experience—by the chairman and his colleagues when I gave oral evidence for an hour and three quarters. My hopes were, perhaps, unduly raised. I thought that gentlemen so charming and so obviously intelligent would be bound to produce a good report. But I suffered from an illusion. I have already testified elsewhere that in the time available—I repeat, in the time available—the committee worked very hard and very fast. They have collected, arranged and published a mass of information which will for a long time he of great value to students of our penal system. But the time available was totally inadequate for the task assigned to them; their job was always impossible.

The May Committee was set up, as the House will recall, in November of last year in a state of near panic and with the haziest kind of mandate. It seemed to reflect the painful confusion of mind of those who established the committee. The Government were being faced with a dangerous confrontation with the prison staff. It would have been possible to set up a limited inquiry into pay and conditions and to have called for a report in a few months; but, for reasons not altogether clear to me, the terms of reference turned the inquiry into a general examination of most aspects of the whole prison system. Yet the Government went on urging them, having started in November, to produce their report by March. That date soon became ridiculous and it was extended. The committee have managed to complete their task within a year. The result was bound to suffer accordingly. It was literally impossible for them, with all their many personal merits, to master their subject in the time or to arrive at a really independent and well-thought set of recommendations.

However, do not let me fail to give credit where credit is due. On the subject of the length of sentences, all that they have to say is valuable although not all of it is novel. They make some telling comparisons with Holland. Per head of population, we send three times as many people to prison as do the Dutch. Between 1964 and 1975, crimes in both countries roughly trebled. That is an awful thought in itself; but there was roughly a similar increase in crime. But the number of custodial sentences increased by only 50 per cent. in the Netherlands and here by 218 per cent.—by more than four times as much. If your Lordships take the view, as I do, that prison is a prima facie evil, which can be justified only if some positive benefit accrues either to the prisoner or to the community, it would seem that we have a lot to learn from Holland. The committee lay much emphasis, I am glad to notice, on a quotation from the interim report entitled The Length of Prison Sentences, published by the advisory council in May 1977. They quote the advisory council as saying: We have come unanimously to the conclusion that a large number of sentences are longer than they need be in the interests either of society or of the offencer ". The May Committee themselves then continued: We have neither received nor have our inquiries disclosed any evidence that conflicts with this view. We are unanimous in emphatically endorsing it "— that is, endorsing the view that a large number of sentences passed in this country today are longer than they need be. It remains the case, say the May Committee, that Dutch and Scandinavian experience demonstrates that civilised society can co-exist with significantly lower sentencing tariffs ".

I am sure that all sensible people and all of your Lordships can agree with them there. But I must pause to press one or two questions on the Minister, of which I have given him a little notice; it is less than 24 hours' notice and it may be that he is not yet ready with an answer today. I hope, of course, that he will be. Do the Government agree with the May Committee about the need for reducing sentences? If so, what steps are they considering to achieve this purpose? Of course, we all recognise that individual sentences should not normally be tampered with by Government action. But total sentencing policy has frequently been affected by Governmental action, legislative or otherwise. If the Government are convinced that the sentences in this country ought to be substantially reduced, they would not be content, surely, to fold their hands and excuse themselves on the grounds of impotence. So I must ask the Minister whether he can tell us how the Government intend to promote the reduction of prison sentences.

It is when they come to the alternatives to prison—the crucial question of the day discussed so often in our debates here—that the committee show themselves at their weakest. They are well aware, from Home Office research, for example, that there is no reason to conclude that long sentences are any more of a deterrent than short ones. That was the conclusion of a quite careful Home Office study; that is to say, long sentences are now demonstrably no more effective than short ones in dissuading potential criminals from committing crimes. The committee also call attention to what they consider is the decline in the belief in the reformative powers of imprisonment. It is good news that scepticism on this point has now spread to official thinking. It is something that many noble Lords—some of whom are taking part in the debate this afternoon—have been stressing for a number of years. In a quarter of a century, I have never found a belief in the reformative value of imprisonment to be prevalent among people close to the scene, whether prison staff, social workers or prisoners. Very few of us, if we have ever had a friend or relative in trouble, have supposed that prison would be positively good for him. We have been aware for many years that prison, although it does not always do harm, is likely to do more harm than good to the individual in prison; and the longer the sentence, the more moral damage is likely to be done.

I myself have never found any intelligent person who seriously believes that a prisoner was likely to be a better person after 15 years in prison than after 10 years. We are all aware that suffering can ennoble people in unpredictable ways; or, rather, that the human spirit is capable of drawing from suffering unpredictable benefit. But that is no reason whatever for inflicting suffering on our fellow humans unless there is some overwhelming reason for doing so. In the case of prisons, the overwhelming reason has always been alleged to be the deterrent effect, but, as I mentioned just now, the deterrent effect of long sentences is more and more discredited—which leaves the imposition of the continued suffering with less and less excuse. For these and other reasons, including economic ones—although in my view those are subsidiary—the arguments for finding alternatives to imprisonment become more and more powerful. But here, I am afraid, the committee have more or less "chucked in their hand ".

The feature of the report which has aroused most attention is the demand that the capital expenditure on prison buildings should be doubled. It is true, to be fair, that they will spell out candidly enough the possible alternatives to prison in addition to the shorter sentences already mentioned; but the committee are depressingly pessimistic about what can be achieved by these means in the foreseeable future. For instance, they take a narrow view of the possibilities of liberalising the parole system and expanding the scale of community service orders. In regard to alternatives to imprisonment in general, the May Committee conclude: For the purposes of this inquiry, none of these means offer substantial relief ". Therefore, on their argument, the prison population is going to go up and up; therefore, a much bigger prison programme, on their argument, is ineluctable and, indeed, of the utmost urgency if the present lamentable overcrowding is not going to get worse and worse. As on their gloomy assumptions as to what is feasible in the way of alternatives and as to what is the likely attitude of Governments, their train of reasoning makes sense. But penal reformers and serious people generally see no reason why we should lie down under these far too gloomy assumptions.

The case against the committee's philosophy can be put in various ways. No one has put it to me more simply than Mr. Martin Wright, the much esteemed secretary of the Howard League. He writes to me: The main thing was that they haven't tackled head on the crucial problem that prisons are overcrowded with a lot of people who ought not to be there, therefore the solution must be to provide the sorts of places they ought to be in rather than prisons ". Of course, I agree with the committee that much larger resources over a long period and even in a time of restriction ought to be devoted to penal expenditure. But, if indeed we can obtain larger resources from the Governments of the future, our first priority should be the attempts to improve career prospects in the prison service, including the governor grades, to pay them better and give them much more scope. Hand in hand with that, there should be a doubling of the probation service to make possible the supervision of delinquents outside prison. The committee seem to assume that the Probation Service has limits already fixed.

I do not say that we should not spend any more money on prisons if we are not allowed to use it for any other purpose. But the claims of men, not of buildings, should be first met. To quote Martin Wright again: Bigger cuts are possible by spending more on probation so that really substantial savings could be made on the planned prison building programme. Prison departments should be left with enough money to do up old prisons, but not to build new ones ". The Home Office attitude, if one can judge from many debates in this House, is precisely the opposite, and it is the Home Office view which has prevailed with the May Committee. The committee make a gallant but, in my eyes, unsuccessful attempt to redefine the objectives of imprisonment. I am afraid that their formula would come to lay more stress on security, which is already over-done, and still less on trying to improve the character of prisoners. When I said that prison usually does more harm than good, I must not for a moment seem to belittle the devoted efforts of all those who work in prisons: governors, uniformed staff, probation officers, chaplains and others. Prisons may be likely to do harm; but prisons would do far more harm if all these men and women were less dedicated.

There are many sensible suggestions among the 170 conclusions of the report. No doubt some of them will be mentioned by other speakers. There are also omissions, and no doubt they also will be touched on. There are some subjects which, however wide the terms of reference of the committee, they might fairly regard as outside their remit. For example, the far-reaching question of prisoner's communications with the outside world, and the still more far-reaching question of prisoners' rights in general must await another occasion.

For my part, I miss most of all a sense of the human tragedy of long-term prisoners under present conditions and with present prospects of parole—or the absence of it. The week before last I visited six life prisoners in Parkhurst Prison and since then I have visited others, male and female. No glimmer of hope was being held out to any of them by high authority. I thought of Christ's message in the parable of the sheep and the goats: I was in prison and you came to me; insomuch as you did it to the least of my brethren, you did it to me ". Christ did not say that he was just a petty thief or political dissident—rather unlucky to be in prison at all. He was representative in that parable of all prisoners, even of those who had committed the most awful crimes. Can anyone seriously suggest that we treat prisoners, especially long-term prisoners, even leaving out the theology, as though they were members of the same human race as ourselves? Those who decide their destiny, whether in passing the original sentence or in the decision to retain them indefinitely in prison, will argue that the interests of the community require the continuance of what can only be called prolonged mental torture. The same arguments for a long time were used in favour of hanging. They have been gradually discredited.

Whether or not I agree with the precise recommendations of the May Report, I feel that they have done a great service in one all-important respect—they have reminded us yet again that there is less and less social excuse for the long-drawn-out suffering that we inflict on many criminals. For much of it there is no intellectual or moral justification. If the May Report helps us understand this more clearly than in the past, it will take an honoured place in history.

5.56 p.m.


My Lords, I promise to detain your Lordships for only a few minutes tonight, partly because I am preceded and followed by people who are much more knowledgeable on this matter than I am, and partly because I am interested to know the answer that we are going to get from the Minister. Very often people who ask Unstarred Questions are asking rhetorical questions, and are not really seeking an answer. On this occasion it is very important that we should be told if the Government are able at this stage to give us some indication of the action they propose to take on the basis of the May Committee Report. I do not share the noble Earl's very strong criticism of the work of the committee and indeed the report of the committee. I think that they were—as he acknowledges—circumscribed by their terms of reference in a way which has precluded them from tackling some of the basic questions which arise on the matter of imprisonment.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord? I was not criticising them so much because they had not dealt with a number of questions. What I said was that it was impossible for them to do this task in the time allotted.


I appreciate that. My Lords, I am sure the May Committee themselves and the chairman of the committee realise that they had been given a very difficult task in trying to cope with the problems in the time allowed, even with the extension of the time which was given.

The only matter about which I want to say a few words tonight is this. There are some good things in the May Report and, in particular, one of the things which I welcome is the proposal that we should rewrite Rule No. 1 of the Prison Rules. The old rule was a piece of sanctimonious hyprocrisy and held in general derision by both prison officers and prisoners alike. The Committee suggest that Rule No. 1 (which deals with the purpose of imprisonment) should be rewritten in this way: The purpose of the retention of convicted prisoners shall be to keep them in custody which is both secure and positive, and to that end the behaviour of all the responsible authorities and staff towards them shall be such as to:

  1. (a) create an environment which can assist them to respond and contribute to society as positively as possible,
  2. (b) preserve and promote their self-respect,
  3. (c) minimise, to the degree of security necessary in each particular case, the harmful effects of their removal from normal life,
  4. (d) prepare them for and assist them on discharge ".
I regard that as a sober and modest presentation of the best that imprisonment can do.

I quote also from the report when the Committee speak about the degrading nature of imprisonment for many people today. They write this: No prison routine is so sterile, degrading and harmful to the prisoner and exceptionally barren for the staff who have to operate it than one in which an inmate is locked in his cell for a substantial part of the day and only released perhaps for the statutory one hour's exercise ". It is a sobering and sombre thought, is it not?, that that routine—so sterile, so degrading and harmful, in the committee's view—is the routine which prevails in the majority of prisons today and particularly, of course, in the local prisons. That is the routine; and it is the routine which is so condemned by this report. But while the report does contain, in my view, some valuable and admirable objectives they are all unrealisable, it seems to me, unless we can find an answer to the problem of prison population and the overcrowding in prisons. Everything depends and turns upon that.

This subject was considered at great length by the committee in their chapter 3 and in particular they gave consideration, although not very optimistically, as the noble Earl said, to the alternatives to prison which we have tried already and which we might try in the future. They came to the conclusion—a pretty gloomy one, but I think it was realistic—that the room for manoeuvre in this matter of alternatives to imprisionment is very limited. It is unrealistic to suppose that in some sort of way we are going to be able to cut down the rise in the population in the prisons simply by that means. That is not to say that the alternatives which have been devised and used in past years have not been very profitable. I think the noble Lord, Lord Harris, told us about a year ago that the estimate of the Home Office was that if it were not for the alternatives to prison which we have devised we would have a prison population today not of 42,000 but of something like 48,000. So I do not in any way want to underestimate what has been achieved towards keeping the prison population down by those methods. But I think the committee are right in saying there is not much further room to introduce alternatives to imprisonment.

I think the fundamental problem here, when everything has been said about shortening sentences and so on, and the reason why we have been baffled by it for so long, is that there is no correlation between the sentencing policy of the courts and the capacity of the prisons to cope with the people disposed of by the courts. That is the fundamental difficulty; and t will conclude, if I may, by quoting to your Lordships from a representation made to the May Committee by my party. I do not quote this in any partisan spirit, but am fortified in quoting it because in March last the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, saw fit to quote what the Liberal Party had said, and to commend it. With your Lordships' leave, I will just make two quotations from the representation they made to the committee. They said: We therefore reject totally the idea that the prison system can be considered in isolation from the methods by which people reach it and which determine how long they stay, since this merely reflects the illogical divorce between the courts and treatment of offenders ". They went on in their proposals under the heading of "Structure" to say this—and these were the words which the noble and learned Lord quoted: The present illogical system which separates the policies that determine the number of prisoners and the periods of their imprisonment from those concerned with their housing and treatment must be ended. Responsibility for the prison service should be taken away from the Home Office and the prison department should form part of a new organisational structure which—

  1. (i) allows the work of the courts (i.e. the Lord Chancellor's office) and the prison service to be closely integrated.
  2. (ii) Provides a service career with opportunities for those working in prisons to reach the highest levels.
  3. (iii) Is capable of laying down clear objectives for the prison service, whilst permitting maximum flexibility in the treatment of offenders in each prison.
  4. (iv) Encourage full co-operation including interchange of staff, between those concerned with trial, treatment and aftercare of offenders ",
They went on to say this: There are several ways in which these objectives could be achieved including an independent Prison Commission and a new organisation covering prosecution, sentencing policy, the courts, treatment of offenders, the probation service and aftercare. Such reorganisation however raises the question of the future role and structure of the Home Office and ministerial responsibility for trial, treatment and aftercare of offenders. In view of this we recommend an urgent inquiry into this matter ". Because of their terms of reference, the May Committee were prohibited from making an investigation of that kind, but that urgent inquiry which my party called for when it issued this document earlier this year remains to be done. Until we have tackled the question of getting some co-ordination between the operations of the courts and those of the prison service and prisons, I am afraid we are not going, to see the end of the many very serious problems which the May Committee have shown we now face.

6.7 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of ROCHESTER

My Lords, the May Report is the first report of its kind for over 80 years. None of us, therefore, should be surprised that it was eagerly awaited by everybody concerned with the Prison Service. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that expectations were very high indeed, even by those who recognise that there could not be a worse time than the present for putting forward creative and far-reaching proposals likely to involve both hard cash here and now and long-term investment later.

While I am sure we must be grateful for a very detailed report produced remarkably quickly, particularly considering all the visits to institutions made by Mr. Justice May and his colleagues, I think it has to be said, however sadly, that the report seriously fails to challenge the attitudes and priorities of our society as a whole about the Prison Service. Let me say at once that the closing paragraph of the opening chapter includes what the committee itself calls the "hackneyed observation" that a great deal of a society's character can be seen in the way in which it runs its prisons. They go on to say that if we turn our back on our prisons we also turn our back on our society and our values; but is it not because we have all too often shown our concern only when something has gone wrong, and because for far too long we have failed to invest enough to transform 19th century institutions into prisons that are acceptable in the 20th century. that today we are faced with so many difficulties simultaneously?

Whatever the Minister has to tell us of what the Government cannot do—and we all realise he will be obliged to do that so far as public expenditure is concerned—I hope very much that he will be able to assure us that, as a result of this inquiry, the Government are determined to see that there is a far greater openness about the Prison Service. It seems to me that so many of its problems arise from the separation of the whole of the prison community from the rest of society.

The boards of visitors have a very important role to play and I personally am glad that the committee propose an extension rather than a restriction of their functions. I wonder, however, whether the committee do not underestimate the importance of a board of visitors being seen by prison inmates as an entirely independent body. If boards are given formal responsibilities for the welfare of staff and for staff relationships, there will surely be the danger in disciplinary cases of prisoners asking, "Whose side are they on? The chairman and members of a well run board of visitors engender a good relationship with governors and prison officers by the manner in which they fulfil their regular inspections and by the way in which they conduct their adjudications, as well as by their personal links with them.

I would also most heartily support the committee's recommendation that boards of visitors should consider themselves to be not only independent outsiders for the local community, coming into a prison as overseers of the inmates' interests, but also informed insiders with a duty to increase their local community's knowledge and understanding of what goes on in prison. However, the committee does not make many suggestions as to how this can be done—ways in which the free society outside can be made more aware of and more conscious about what goes on inside.

It occurs to me that the chairman of a board of visitors could be required to report regularly to the local magistrates and that there would much to be said for a board's annual report to the Home Secretary being edited for general publication locally. Indeed, a chairman who was well known locally and who had a sympathetic governor might well speak on local radio, or answer questions on the report at a Press conference called as a matter of routine and not because of a crisis. I can imagine some fairly sharp reactions to these suggestions. All I would say is that, if they are unwelcome, then surely it behoves those who find them so to suggest alternative ways in which boards can be encouraged to fulfil the recommendation of the committee that they should do more to involve their prison, its staff and its inmates, in the local community.

There is considerable evidence in the report about the urgent need to reduce the size of the prison population. Reference has already been made in the debate to this question, and we spoke about it at some length in the debate on 27th June, which was introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Soper. There is no doubt whatever that if the various reports which have been published in recent years had been implemented the number of people sentenced to imprisonment would already be very much smaller. I have a strong feeling that we have already passed the point where we are going to achieve this aim by persuasion. Therefore, I hope the Minister will be able to tell us about the attitude of the Government towards extending the parole system. Indeed, I would make so bold as to ask him whether the Government have considered parole being made automatic for all except those classed as dangerous, either because of the crime they have committed or because of their behaviour in prison. We have to face the fact that half of the prison population is not at present eligible for parole. This is one of the factors which keeps overcrowding at its present rate.

I do not see how the committee's very important recommendation with regard to altering Prison Rule I can possibly make sense if the large groups of petty criminals and inadequate but non-violent offenders, about which the report also talks at some length, continue to be held in custody. I am bound to say that, while the committee dismiss as out-of-date rhetoric the phrase the training and treatment of convicted prisoners ", I do not think they go far enough in explaining what they mean by "custody which is secure and yet positive ". I do not regard the word "training" as a sanctimonious word. In every walk of life outside prison I should have thought that there is an increased emphasis upon training, and retraining and in-service training. I hope that the Minister will tell us what is the Government's attitude towards the proposed rewording of Prison Rule 1 and whether, even if the aim of training for life outside prison is muted, while custody may well be secure they do not think that it is much less likely to be positive. The committee say they do not think that the present poor showing on the industrial work front is unavoidable. I think there are many who would agree with that statement.

The committee go on to press for a development of the facilities for education in establishments and say that subject to certain considerations these should provide a full-time alternative to work. This is a very interesting part of the report. I am glad to see that a brief reference is made to the importance of developing the inmates' social skills and social conscience. This is surely something which should be part of the structured programme of prison education. It should not be left as some kind of extra-mural activity to be run out of hours by education officers and chaplains of all denominations, with the help of voluntary groups. I am confident that governors and staff in many prisons would welcome encouragement from the Home Office to explore this kind of thing in an adventurous way and to do it both at the intellectual and at the emotional learning levels. As Chapter 7 of the report suggests, this is surely another area in which there could be more of a two-way traffic between the prison and the local community as well as between different branches of the Prison Service.

As has already been said, this is an immensely long and full report, of great importance. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, is not asking today for the Government's detailed answers on all the matters which it raises, but he has asked Her Majesty's Government to define their attitude to the report. Speaking from these Benches, I hope so much that the Minister's reply will be such as to evoke a response from your Lordships in every part of the House. I would dare to say that what some of us look for is the will and commitment to bring about improvement in a prison service, in a system which creaks and groans at many points.

This must involve political will, but I would hope so much that those of all political parties and of none would be equally committed and equally encouraged by the Government's attitude. However cautious or negative the Government have to be at the present time about adding to public expenditure, I hope they will accept that this is not the only aspect about which many of us are concerned today. We shall be greatly encouraged by a serious commitment to seek fewer and shorter custodial sentences and to improve probation and after-care services. We would he further encouraged if the attitude of the Government to the report makes it clear that they accept its call for a greater openness about the Prison Service, about independent inspections and, above all, about the need to foster a high quality of prison officers and to maintain their pride and their morale by every means possible.

The moral quality of a society is to be judged by the treatment it gives to its outsiders, to strangers within the gates and to those of its citizens who are on the margin. Prisons are on the margin of society, whether we like it or not. Society must act sympathetically and intelligently to bring them in closer—inmates and prison officers, governors and administrators alike—and, once in, they must not form a secret citadel divorced from all the rest of us. The great Bishop Westcott said: It is the office of the State to give effect to the will of the people, while it is the office of the Church to inspire the people to true ends ". I would hope that your Lordships, in all parts of the House, from wherever they may find inspiration, will be united in wanting the Government to give effect to the will of all those people who sincerely and urgently desire that the prison service should be more worthy of our country.

6.23 p.m.


My Lords, my first task must be to thank my noble friend Lord Longford for enabling us to consider this Question tonight. This is something of a formality, but I do not intend it to be a formality. Recently I have had occasion in public to suggest that we do not treat those public-spirited citizens who serve on Royal Commissions and committees as well as we should. It is work that takes up an enormous amount of time, and particularly of course if they are working under pressure to a time limit. For the chairman, who is usually expected to produce the first draft of the whole report himself, inevitably it becomes almost a full-time occupation. Of course, Royal Commissions have their own premises and staff, but departmental committees have to make do with whatever the department provides for them.

There was an interesting Question and Answer in the other place on Monday, 26th November, when Mr. Sheerman, who I think is the honourable Member for Huddersfield, East, asked the Question: how many reports of Royal Commissions were debated in the House between November 1964 and November in the current year "— that is a period of 15 years— and what percentage this represents of the total number of Royal Commission reports published during that time ". The Answer was: A total of 29 reports were published during this period, of which 11 (37.9 per cent, of the total) were debated ".—[Official Report, Commons col. 423.] So, if any of your Lordships are asked to be chairman of a Royal Commission, as may well happen, you will be able to bear in mind that, apart from any other difficulties you may suffer, it will be two to one that your report will never be debated in the elected chamber at all.

It is precisely here that I think we have great advantages in this House, and one which I think is of advantage to the whole Parliament is that we can find the time if a Member of the House will take the trouble to put down a Question and insist on its being discussed. My noble friend Lord Longford, who is fleet of foot, as we know, has lost no time at all in enabling us to consider this important report at an early date. Your Lordships may remember that it was on the 31st January that he introduced the question of the crisis in the Prison Service. He introduced it because the prison governors had written an open letter to the Home Secretary saying, "The total breakdown of the prison system is imminent "; and they added a reference to a deplorable lack of leadership from the Home Office. That obviously must have cost the prison governors a lot. I remember a time when some prison governors, including the chairman of the Prison Governors Association, signed a memorial in favour of the abolition of capital punishment and were told by the Home Office that if they did it again they would lose their pensions. Of course, all their communications otherwise with the Home Office come under the Official Secrets Act and for governors to write an open letter to the Home Secretary containing those sentiments must indeed have shown how strongly they felt about the appalling conditions which existed in the prisons.

We put forward then many suggestions. My noble friend Lord Longford suggested that there should be a Minister for prisons in the Cabinet although I could not myself see that that would be very effective. The Liberal Party had just published their report on the subject, suggesting taking the prisons away from the Home Office altogether. For that no doubt there was something to be said, but it seemed to me to go a little too far. I had a great deal of sympathy with the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who was emphatic that there should he a great deal more communication and cooperation between prison staff, police, probation officers and the courts. I myself proposed what the Howard League had suggested for a long time; namely, that there ought to he an independent inspectorate of prisons reporting directly to the Home Secretary.

Now we have the report. It is a long report, starting with an introduction and the history of prisons, prison populations, the objectives of imprisonment, resources, and then dealing with what clearly is the primary task because the cause of the threatened breakdown was that because of the high degree of overcrowding in the prisons, prison officers were going slow and as the noble Lord, Lord Foot, said, men were being kept nearly all day, except for exercise, in their cells and there was a resulting increase in tension between prison officers and prisoners. It is, of course, for that reason that the May Report—and I seem to be the first Member of your Lordships' House who proposes not to attack the May Report, for reasons that I will explain—dealt at great length, first with the Home Office and a degree of maladministration by the Home Office, and the numerous reforms which they proposed, and then dealt with the governors and prison officers, their recruitment, their training, their pay and allowances; the continuous duty credits, industrial relations and working conditions.

I agree with the sentiment of a great deal of that which my noble friend Lord Longford expressed, but the reason I do not myself feel in a position to criticise the May Committee is simply this. First, so far as pay is concerned, I do not know whether the proposals are to pay them too little or too much—I suspect it is too little but I am in no position myself to form a view. They were appointed on 17th November to report by the end of March. That was obviously hopeless, and the period was then extended to the end of the summer—and here comes about the only question which I shall venture to ask the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, and I am sure he will have no difficulty in answering it. It is this: May we know the date of the May Report? It is very unusual, in my experience of Royal Commission reports and departmental committee reports, that it has not got a date. I know it was published by the Home Office. Usually the date is on the same page as the signatures, but this report has no date. Could we please be told? We do not know at the moment—at any rate I do not know—how long they did take, because we do not know what was the date of their report.

They have arrived at 174 conclusions and recommendations, and disappointment has been expressed by my noble friend Lord Longford that they did not deal, or did not deal adequately, with a number of different matters. Here may I come to what I think are the good things in the report. First, they have recommended that there should be an independent inspectorate reporting directly to the Home Secretary, and in the same part of the report, at page 95, they deal with the excessive secrecy which has gone on for so long, and which has been insisted upon for so long by the Home Office, about everything which goes on in a prison and the need to make things public. They said: We have no doubt both that the prison service would benefit from and that public sentiment requires that as many aspects of government, which includes the prison service, should be opened up to as wide an audience as possible ". Therefore, in proposing an independent inspectorate reporting directly to the Home Secretary, they made it clear that his reports were to be published.

Secondly, they drew attention to the interim report of the Advisory Council on the Penal System on the length of prison sentences and thought that that should be acted on. That is now getting old. So fas as I know, the Government have taken no step whatever so far to act on that report. I hope and believe that we shall be told by the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, whether they do intend to do so and, if so, how soon.

They dealt particularly with the training of prison officers, which is something which the Howard League—which includes in its membership a number of prison officers—has been calling for for years. Under that heading alone there are some 15 detailed recommendations. They also call for a greater degree of co-operation between prisons and the local community. On that the right reverend Prelate has already made some observations. At page 158 of their report it says: … greater consideration than at present should be given to involving prison officers, on secondment, with a range of activities that take place outside penal establishments themselves, for example, pre-release hostels, bail hostels, day centres and day training centres, and all other types of establishment that are presently or may be in the future used in connection with noncustodial measures … there is scope for increasing the involvement of local volunteers and community groups outside in appropriate activities within establishments ". They call for another extension of the role of officers: }"… but it would also be a means of introducing a further degree of openness and public awareness into the running of penal establishments. That, as we have observed elsewhere, is something to which we attach importance ". Thirdly, my Lords, I would welcome what has been said, so far as it went, on the prison population. At page 50 the report draws attention to those who are mentally disordered—and thanks to the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, we have already, of course, discussed the Butler Report in full—and all those who ought to be moved out of prisons, as we have all been saying for a long time. It is not only the mentally disordered; it is the alcoholics, on which the noble Lord, Lord Soper, will no doubt have observations to make, and the inadequate petty offenders and fine and maintenance defaulters. Here again, on Monday of last week there was an interesting Answer in the other place to a Question as to how many of those imprisoned were without previous convictions, how many had had one previous conviction, or two or three or four or five or more. The answers in each case were about 2,000, except those who had five or more, where the answer was 19,000. These are all the hopeless people, and what good it can possibly do to keep in prison people who are no danger to the community at all is, I must say, something I have never discovered.

My Lords, I had one grave disappointment and this was that the May Committee did not accept the recommendations of the Jellicoe Committee; I still regard as quite incompatible the two functions which boards of guardians and visitors have performed. With regard to buildings, while I appreciate the criticism made by my noble friend Lord Longford, I think to some extent he may have misread the report, because they have made it quite clear that they consider that the first priority must be to deal with existing accommodation rather than with new accommodation. The first task must be to bring the state of our prisons into line with the United Nations minimum rule for prisoners, and in particular to end cell-sharing and to end not having, proper sanitary arrangements.

My Lords, when I said that I did not propose to criticise the committee all I had in mind was this. They were working under great pressure to deal with a crisis which was very largely a crisis of relations as between the Home Office organisation and governors and staff in prisons. They touched on a number of these matters. There were some fields in which they said they would like to have made recommendations but they simply had not had the time; and in other parts of their report, where they do deal, for example, with the classes of people who ought not to be in prison at all, they were unable to work out detailed proposals because they simply had not the time. When one regards the time factor I think it is difficult to criticise the committee for not having done more than they did.

Finally, my Lords, may I point out that we are still in a state of crisis. The Prison Officers' Association are said to have given notice to end the overtime agreement, and all day today and all day tomorrow the Prison Officers' Association are meeting. I trust very much that they may feel able to exercise a considerable measure of patience and restraint, because the position is still a crisis position. Everything now really depends on people, including prison officers, keeping their cool, and on the Home Office acting with determination and with a considerable degree of speed to give effect to the most important of the recommendations which the May Committee made. We shall, therefore, all be listening closely to what the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, has to tell us. He will not, I hope, say after all this time that the Government must have time for thought and consultation and so forth. We hope to hear from him that they are now going to act, and act with speed.

6.40 p.m.


My Lords, Mr. Justice May must be very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for initiating this debate. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, has pointed out the number of reports by Royal Commissions which are not debated, but, while we are all very grateful and acknowledge the work that the commission has done, many of us, as has been said by other noble Lords, are somewhat disappointed. However, we realise that the Commission was set up only on 17th November 1978, and it presented its report to Parliament in October 1979. It was given, as the noble Lord, Lord Foot, pointed out, somewhat narrow terms of reference. So, we pay tribute to it, realising its very great difficulties as regards both time and terms of reference, while at the same time having to admit how very disappointing we are with some areas of the report.

I shall base my speech on one prison as being the prototype of all prisons throughout this country. That one prison is, of course, Oxford Prison as Oxford is the area from which I come and Oxford Prison is probably the most overcrowded prison in the United Kingdom. I wish to comment on four aspects and I realise that these points have previously been covered by other noble Lords. I wish to comment first on the recruitment of staff; secondly, on overcrowding; thirdly, on the very worrying numbers of custodial remand cases in prisons due to arrears of work in the criminal courts; and fourthly, on the Butler Committee Report.

I turn first to the question of the recruitment of staff. Like other noble Lords I do not want to prejudice the outcome of the meeting being held today by the Prison Officers' Association. Therefore, I shall say little. But, I wish to draw the attention of your Lordships' House to the fact that the basic pay of a prison officer on first entering the Prison Service is £63 a week. A man out of work and with two children is subject to and receives £55 a week on supplementary benefit and insurance. He often, rightly or wrongly, gets other jobs, such as gardening which bring his pay up. Therefore, unless the prison officer when he first enters the Prison Service is going to work enormous overtime, the poverty trap will rear its ugly head yet again.

Many of the officers in Oxford prison are working between 18 and 30 hours' overtime. That cannot be right for the quality of their work or for their own personal lives or the lives of their families. We seek prison officers who have stability within themselves and within their family life and such men will not enter the Prison Service if they have to work such a large amount of overtime in order to earn a decent wage. I should like to make only one comment on that; namely, that it is the point of entry which is preventing many people from entering the Prison Service. We are losing many good men who would otherwise wish to work in this service.

I then come to the question of buildings and overcrowding. It is said by many that we should do away with and knock down many of our Victorian buildings. Many of the Victorian buildings, if they were not overcrowded, would be good buildings. They have a sense of solidity. In the case of Oxford Prison, it is well placed in the centre of the city, near the railway station, near the bus station and easily reached by solicitors, probation officers and, most important of all, the relatives of the men. But Oxford Prison was built to take 137 men. In November 1979 crises proportions were reached when it contained 362 men—that, of course, means three to a cell. In fairness, I should say that the regional headquarters reduced the number by 20, to 342, by 3rd December, but even then most of the cells were occupied by three men.

I would submit that overcrowding leads to recidivism. A warder can get to know the men in the gallery he supervises if there are 30. He relates to the men personally; he accords to the men the dignity of a relationship; he is able to talk to them about their relatives, friends and girl friends and their private lives. Also, there is a dignity preserved with regard to the personal, private lives of the men. If there are 60 in the gallery, the uniformed stair relate, but they do not relate so well—they cannot do so, they have not the time. If there are 90 men in the gallery, as there are today in Oxford Prison and in many other prisons, there is no personal relationship between the uniformed staff and the prisoners whom they really wish to serve. Therefore, the plight of the prisoners is one where a hardening of attitude sets in, a feeling of unwantedness, a feeling of not being cared for simply because the staff cannot possibly give the time.

That overcrowding also affects the education programmes. Those programmes have been spoken of by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester and by the noble Lord, Lord Foot. Where there is overcrowding it is impossible to have good educational programmes. Therefore, on discharge from prison the men have not been given the type of help that they might have been given in the areas of under achievement which most of them experience. Thirdly, the noble Lord, Lord Foot, talked about exercise. I know that in the prison in Oxford, in the centre of the city, with three men to a cell, the men have half an hour's exercise in the morning and half an hour's exercise in the evening and they fetch their food—otherwise, they are in the cells all day.

I turn to the question of custodial remand. The noble Lord, Lord Foot, has, to some extent, shown the lack of link between the courts and what the prisons have to offer. Of the 342 prisoners in Oxford Prison, 220 are unsentenced or on remand. There is one man who has been in prison on remand for 11 months, as the prosecution is even now not ready to take his case before the court. The number of untried prisoners remanded to Reading Crown Court is surely cause for deep concern. Despite the 1976 Bail Act, I think that I am right in saying that there has been an 80 per cent. increase in the number of prisoners on custodial remand. The arrears of work building up in the criminal courts seem to lead to these delays. I should like to mention—although it has been mentioned before and has been debated in your Lordships' House—the Butler Committee and the situation of mental patients who are not placed in mental hospitals as was recommended by the Butler Committee. There has been very little movement, I would submit, in that direction.

I turn to recommendations. There is no easy solution. There is no quick resolution, but there surely needs to be a sense of direction and boldness laid down by Parliament, instituted by the Home Office and possibly by the outside inspectors recommended in the report. First, I am surprised, sad and sorry that the May Committee did not consider, for instance, weekend detention. In paragraph 218 of' the Fifteenth Report of the Committee on Expenditure, weekend detention was recommended. I suggest that we look at Holland and New Zealand and that we might have a pilot scheme to show whether or not this could work. Speaking as a social worker who has had to work with families of men in prison and bearing in mind what we have heard today about the rate of unemployment, I know that no man wants to lose his job. If he does lose his job, it is an expense to the country because his wife and children must draw supplementary benefit.

Why, then, could we not have weekend detentions, say, for a year, with the man being at home during the week, working, keeping his family and maintaining contact with his family? I imagine that many noble Lords in this House go away for weekends. Therefore, it would not be so strange for those men to go for weekend detention. If they were offered either full-time prison or weekend detention, I know that they would chose the latter. Secondly, with great respect to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, who sits on the Woolsack, I submit that we might look into the arrears of work in the criminal courts which delay court appearances. I realise that this might mean the appointment of more judges and the setting up of more courts. But could that he any more expensive than keeping 220 people in custodial care on remand?

I wonder whether my noble friend Lord Belstead will comment on the young offenders, many of whom are kept in prison. Were the young offenders to he taken out of the Prison Service and dealt with elsewhere, it would reduce the prison population to two to a cell. I shall not go into the non-custodial sentences, as I know that this will be covered by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt; nor shall I talk about the alcoholics, as I know that that problem will be covered by the noble Lord, Lord Soper.

On the question of maintenance and debt defaulters, in this country 2,564 people are in prison due to maintenance and debt defaulting. I should like to suggest that courts should consider attachment of earnings orders. I point out to my noble friend Lord Belstead that, when I was working as a social worker and people fell into arrears with their rent, it was cause for deep concern that families might he evicted, leaving the children and the mother homeless, and that we might have to accept the children into care. We used volunteers to visit a family every week on pay day in order to persuade them to pay their debts on a regular basis.

I have been asked by my noble friend Lady Vickers to ask my noble friend Lord Belstead whether particular thought has been given to help for the ethnic groups, many of whom cannot follow their religion, obtain the special food that they must eat, or, indeed, speak our language. On entering your Lordships' House today I asked an eminent Member of this House whether she was taking part in this debate. She said: "No, it has all been said before and nothing has been done". Perhaps it is cause for very deep concern that, in fact, more children in this country are in custodial care than in any of the countries of our EEC partners. We also have a high proportion of adult prisoners in custodial care, With my party's promise of law and order in mind, like other noble Lords, I ask my noble friend what the Government propose to do.

6.55 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to my noble friend Lord Longford for reintroducing an issue which it seems your Lordships' House has been attracted to debate on a number of occasions recently, and on which I have ventured to speak on matters which are cogent to this particular issue. I must be careful to remember the biblical warning that one is not necessarily heard for one's "much speaking ". Nevertheless, I believe that this is an aspect of a crisis which goes far beyond the merely custodial or prison system or the Prison Service as such. I cannot conceal from myself, and I would not endeavour to conceal from this House, my belief that the prison system as such is irremediable. In as much as this report does not say so, I am consequentially disappointed. But that disappointment is considerably abated by the fact that, although it will take some time to replace the system, the best should be made of what can be done, if anything, to improve it.

What I have to say is largely interrogatory. I should like to know the Government's attitude to matters raised rather than solved, or of the attempt made to solve them, in this report. There is nothing that is more of an abomination than the overcrowding in prisons. Perhaps noble Lords will permit me to reiterate what I have said on previous occasions, that as a prison chaplain I regard the use of one small cell to accommodate two or three people to he an insufferable intrusion upon the privacy of an individual, whatever he has done, and a den of vice in so many aspects of his continuing relationship with others with whom he has no point of necessary contact, and in circumstances in which he happens to be the younger and the less adult he is probably inoculated against any remedial processes and encouraged to the very life of crime which, in the first instance, brought him into that prison. What do the Government have to say about the immediate need—whatever may be the cost of it—to enable a prisoner to serve his sentence in the privacy and decency which is still his right—not because he is a good man but just because he is a human being? If there is any therapeutic treatment that can be offered to him, it must come within the framework of that privacy and that sense of human dignity.

What do the Government have to say about long sentences? I have repeatedly said in your Lordships' House that it is my conviction that any protracted sentence over six years in the same conditions is liable to destroy a moral dimension in those who suffer it. It does not mean that after six years a man should be let loose on the streets again, but it does mean that unless there is some kind of light at the end of that tunnel, we are performing an act, in the name of what we might call social justice, which is impermissible on moral and spiritual grounds.

However, I turn, if I may, as has already been indicated, to matters with which I am particularly concerned. The report makes a very strong case—and in this it is to be highly commended—for alternatives to the prison system and the Prison Service. It claims, for example, that therapy of any kind within the Prison Service should not be applied—even if it is attempted—to those who are mentally insufficient or disturbed. This is for the simplest of reasons. As a parson I am always looking for texts, and here is one on page 50 which is particularly apt. Here is a report. Prisons contain a lot of people in a small space against their will. There therefore has to be a rigid daily timetable of movement: unlocking, collecting food, exercise, and so on. The mentally disordered cannot cope with this routine or with prison discipline. As prisons are at the moment, a therapeutic environment can be provided for only a tiny minority of inmates ". I am not sure even of that tiny minority.

If you are prepared to incarcerate, under the Mental Health Act (which makes it more difficult to do anything else about it), those who are mentally afflicted within the general framework of the Prison Service, then how can you expect an overworked and understaffed prison staffing to deal with the peculiarities and idiosyncracies of those who are less normal after they have been in prison than they were even before they entered it.

Let me turn to the problem of alcohol. I was vastly interested to see that my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich—and I wish he was here to correct me if I read wrongly what he said—seemed somewhat surprised at the very large relationship between alcohol consumption and the criminal rate and the penal system in general. This is something to which I have been committed as a proposition for many years. I would invite your Lordships to consider what has been done, and what is now in process of being undone by the Government.

Under Circular 21/73 provision was made whereby the DHSS, through local authorities, could fund social endeavours, hostels, and so forth, to take people who are in danger of alcoholic consumption, who indeed are suffering from alcoholic diseases of one kind or another, out of the prison system altogether, as it is quite right and sensible to say that they should never be there. Now the Government are apparently considering, so far as I can understand—and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, can disabuse me of this—within the next few months withdrawing the subventions funding those local authorities. Eleven of those local authorities have already said that they can no longer sustain the voluntary organisations which can keep alcoholics out of prison, and give them a reasonable chance of rehabilitation. They have expressed the opinion that detoxification centres cannot so be funded.

It is no secret that we have made certain presentations to the DHSS. The last time that this question was raised in your Lordships' House the Minister, in reply, indicated the possibility of two years in which to reconsider this matter, and not so to impoverish such voluntary organisations within the next few months as to bring to an end the very process of keeping alcoholics out of prison, because they never should be there in the first place. I very much hope that we can have an affirmative answer on this particular issue. I would only add that I am the more convinced every day that if you could reduce the alcoholic content in the general crime rate, you would reduce the crime rate itself by something like 40 per cent.

I would finish on rather another theme, and you will acquit me of any professional zeal in introducing, so to speak, an ecclesiastical commercial. The affairs of this day here were introduced with the prayer: Present us O Lord in all our doings with thy most gracious favour; and further us with thy continual help in all our works begun, continued, and ended in Thee ". This document is a work. It begins with no reference whatsoever to religion. It continues with no single reference to religious matters, and it ends with no propositions that have a religious context. I find that peculiar. Indeed, I personally find it intolerable. I do not want merely to dilate on the fact that there seems to be an element of basic hypocrisy in praying like that and then proceeding as if the prayer does not mean anything. I agree that it would be unsuitable to prescribe certain forms of doctrine as therapeutic in prison services, though I am of the opinion—I hope I am wrong—that the Government are preparing to instil some kind of religious education into the short, sharp practice of sudden and quick sentences, about which we have heard in the last few weeks.

I am well aware, too, that very few of those who will be exposed to any religious education will be, so to speak, already in a kneeling posture at the communion rail and ready to be converted. I am also aware that, if the alliteration is not too apt, they are not in the pew, and therefore are not aware of the general substance of the faith to which we would endeavour to persuade them. But they are in the porch, as it were, and I would suggest to the Government, if I may, that quite apart from the particular religious education which specifies a particular form of doctrine, far more effective than the short, sharp sentence and the application of what is, after all, very much like violence, there is a profound need for a recognition today on the part of many young people, and older people, of the moral issues which are largely obscured and, in many cases, are not even mentioned. I do not think it is beyond the wit of those who can contrive, if you like, or can bring together, a general symposium that does not depend upon certain theological propositions but does depend on the main difference between what is right and what is wrong. That dimension seems to me in many cases to be lost.

The other day I submitted to a lie test, and was very gratified that I was a very bad liar. I took that to my comfort. Mind you, I am not going to say to your Lordships that I could not tell a lie, but I have an inbuilt tension as soon as I try to tell one. It is not particularly to my credit; it is the fact that I have been brought up in that kind of environment. I noticed that on this particular test actors and criminals had no such tension or, if they had, Mr. Nimmo concealed it with excellent expertise.

I think that this is not an inconsiderable point to make. I believe there is a real place, in the therapeutic treatment of the prison system, with all its inabilities and failures, for trying to represent that kind of moral discussion. I earnestly hope that the Government will be prepared to introduce, as part of the educative process which is indicated in this report, that kind of discussion, because I have a sneaking feeling that quite a number of those who are now in prison will be much more likely to respond to a free and fair discussion of moral issues than they are prepared to think that they will be the better for a short, sharp treatment on something like a barrack square.

Let me conclude in this way. I hope that the Government will answer the questions, or seek to answer the questions, which have been posed this evening. If the attempt is made to answer them, they will attract the admiration and the support of many who feel that, at the moment, nothing very much is being done, but so much ought to be done.

7.10 p.m.


My Lords, this is the second time in a matter of weeks that I have had the pleasure of following closely the noble Lord, Lord Soper, delivering an ecclesiastical commercial. The last time I recollect having appeared to disagree with him in your Lordships' Chamber, but I hope I made my peace with him outside the Chamber and I take this public opportunity of assuring him and your Lordships that I do not really dissent from the proposition he has put to the Government this evening.

I join with everyone in thanking the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for giving us this early opportunity to debate the May Committee's report. The fact that he has done so so soon after its publication should serve to impress on the Government the urgency of acting, at least on its more important recommendations. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, spoke about the institution of Royal Commissions and committees of inquiry. I too had that point to make, and I will make it briefly because he is right in saying that the institution of such commissions and committees has come in for a good deal of criticism, on the grounds of the amount of time they take, the cost to the taxpayer and the fact that after many months, perhaps years, of patient and thorough investigation, nothing or very little happens as a result of all their labours.

I speak, as no doubt other noble Lords could, with some feeling about this, having served on a Royal Commission recently and on a number of such committees. My point this evening is not to complain about this situation but to make the point that, despite the lack of public interest in the prisons, to which Mr. Justice May himself alludes, here is a report produced with the necessary speed to cope with what was well described by Lord Longford as a crisis, some of the observations of which and, I would say, the main tenor of which would be ignored only to the discredit of the Government—although they did not themselves set up this committee—and certainly against the public interest.

I propose to strike a more positive note than the noble Earl and some other speakers, and I am glad to join with the noble Lord, Lord Foot, in doing so, and I shall, I assure your Lordships, touch on only a few of the main areas in the report. I would say about those who criticise it that there are dangers in striking a general note of condemnation about a report of this importance in perhaps encouraging the Government to take little or no action on it; it is necessary to be positive. It is logical to start with administration and management. In mild disagreement with the noble Earl, I was personally glad to note the proposal that the chairman of the Prisons Board, as head of the service, should not necessarily be a civil servant; and equally, if not more importantly, that he should serve for at least five years, and preferably for seven years.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, I was not complaining of anything except the way in which they made their proposal, which renders it completely meaningless. He should either be a civil servant or not, or an ex-governor. I was not criticising anything except the absurdity.


I shall be coming to that in a moment, my Lords. I intend no disrespect whatever to the very able deputy secretaries who have held this post for a number of years in the past, but I say that the lack of identity within the service and in the mind of the public at large of the head of the service and the limited term it has been held have, I think, been one of its main structural weaknesses. I was glad to note the prospect which is held out to prison governors to aspire to this summit, this peak of their profession, and I hope that future service chiefs will, as May has recommended, serve for a full seven years. Taking the noble Earl's point, surely the essential point is that the best person should be selected for the job regardless of where he comes from, and that he should serve for an adequate time.

At the level of the prisons, I like the references to a new management style and to leadership from the centre. A uniformed service is of course necessarily traditionally hierarchical, but I am convinced that under able management—and let there be no doubting the wealth of management skills among the governor grades in the Prison Service—the service could be democratised without detriment to essential discipline, and I take a side glance at the noble and gallant Field Marshal in the hope that he will support me in that thought.

I turn to the welfare and social problems of people serving sentences in prison. The probation and after care service has traditionally been charged with the social problems and the welfare needs of men and women in our prisons. It is not a popular role among probation officers, but it is accepted by those officers who serve inside that their training and skills cannot be dispensed with and that they form a bridge for supervision and care of prisoners after release. The involvement of prison officers in the welfare of prisoners which the report alludes to as a recognised secondary role of the prison officer has a lot to commend it. In fact it has been going on informally for a very long time. But by making if official it can serve to generate collaboration—I was glad that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, referred to this—and postulate an equal status between prison officers and probation officers. Even more to the point is that it enables a human relationship to be established and maintained between prison officers and inmates, that "humane containment" which is referred to in the report on which the very viability of life for everyone inside our prisons really depends. I hope that when the Minister replies he will be able to confirm that there will be no delay in developing the practice which has been proven by experiment in the five prisons.

I speak for myself, knowing that it is a contentious point and is not agreed by many social workers and probation officers, when I give my view that the report is right in making a further recommendation that prison officers should have the opportunity to serve on secondment outside prison. It has long been my belief that suitable officers could provide a continuum of fairly close supervision from prison into the community of certain difficult offenders who might otherwise place the community unfairly at risk.

I am quite purposely repeating what has been said by everyone in this debate in saying that the most important general point in the report is the weight it has given to the policy of reducing the prison population. So much has been said about this, not only this evening and not only in your Lordships' House but outside it and for so long—by the Advisory Council for Penal Reform in 1974, the House of Commons Select Committee on Expenditure in 1978, the National Association of Probation Officers, prison governors, criminologists, and every respectable independent body such as NAPO, working positively and responsibly for penal reform—that I will limit myself to enjoining on the Government once again the importance of heeding the words in this report. What is needed, what is overdue, is not more words, but action. Will the Minister forecast some steps within their power to bring progress in this critical matter of reducing the prison population?

The corollary of that main point in the report is of course the need to press ahead with methods of alternative treatment in the community, for which the noble Baroness has billed me to say something, but I will say very little because of time. One has to mention only community service orders (referred to in the report), intermediate treatment (which, so far as I know, received no mention), detoxification centres (which the noble Lord, Lord Soper, mentioned), day centres for ex-offenders, day training centres, and probation orders. I was very disappointed in the rather pessimistic note struck by Mr. Justice May about the prospects of increasing probation orders. My own view is that they can usefully be combined with some of the other types of treatment that I have mentioned.

Quite recently I visited three of the four existing day training centres. Only last week I was down at Pontypridd, and I mention this only because I came back more convinced than ever that, expensive through they are, and selective though they have to be at the moment because there are only four of them in the country, I believe them to be potentially the most productive of all alternatives to imprisonment for difficult offenders, hardened to crime and inured to prison. in enabling them to come to terms with themselves and with the community.

I have spoken of alternatives to prison, but of course they are not alternatives in terms of this report and its recommendations. There has to be action both in the provision for the prisons and for non-custodial methods. As Mr. Justice May has pointed out, the main areas of his recommendations are a package and must be taken as a whole. Again, I hope that the Minister will assure the House not only that there will be further expenditure on the prisons, but that there will be no cut-back: indeed, on the contrary, that there will be the means for extension of non-custodial alternatives to prison.

There is a great deal else in the report. I think that most of the points have already been touched upon and I shall restrain myself from saying more. However, I should like to add a tailpiece. No one who is familiar with our more decrepit and disgraceful prisons would dispute the need to renovate and to replace at least some of them. But I had a touch of sadness about the committee's reference to Dartmoor. I am well aware that my feelings will not be shared by the staff and inmates at Princetown Prison, Dartmoor, though when I was last there there was still something of a cachet about doing time on the "Moor ". I once made an interesting route up the wall of Dartmoor Prison. It was from the outside, and it will not be a popular route. The only point I want to make is that I venture to hope that when the time comes to dispose of this historic place, the Home Office will consider placing a plaque to mark that spot.

7.23 p.m.


My Lords, in adding to other tributes that have been paid to my noble friend Lord Longford for enabling us to debate this important matter, may I assure the House that at this late hour I have no intention, even if I were capable of doing so, of entering into the theological or philosophical concepts which arise from a discussion of prison reform and the prison crisis. I want to concentrate upon a few points that have already been dealt with by your Lordships in the course of the debate, and I want to try to make them short, interim points on short, interim measures to deal with the current crisis, as it has been so aptly described by my noble friend Lord Longford.

All of us will share in hopes and dreams that there will be found more alternative remedies than we have already thought of, be they the extension of community service orders, be they the extension of other alternatives to imprisonment. The fact is that at the moment the prison system is there, and therefore I want to direct my speech towards some short questions to the Minister arising from the present critical position and the measures that could he adopted fairly quickly in order to relieve an impossible situation which now exists.

First, may I deal with the question of the prison officer, and may I at once disclose an interest, in that I happen to be the senior partner of a firm of solicitors who have been legal advisers to the Prison Officers' Association for very many years. Quite apart from that, it has been mentioned that it would be a most undiplomatic moment—I think the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, said that—at which to discuss the question of prison officers' pay. I do not want to do that. What I want to refer to, and ask the Minister about, is a reference in the report to something which can he done and which arises from the present conditions for prison officers. I refer to paragraph 10.15 on page 239 of the May report. I regard the matter as most important in view of the vital role that prison officers must play in our Prison Service—as one noble Lord after another has said tonight—in connection with both educational and welfare matters; and in the hope that they will take more than a custodial and a security role in the service.

I quote the report as follows: The increase in inmate numbers has also exacerbated already cramped conditions for staff, and we have seen for ourselves the difficult and unsuitable circumstances in which many work, often without the standard of recreational and canteen facilities enjoyed in other occupations. However soundly-based the civil service rules governing the provision of such facilities (and the department's interpretation of those rules), these factors have further convinced prison officers that management lacks any real interest in them as people and is unconcerned with the betterment of their working environment ". There is then a reference to the Scottish Home and Health Department, which is a flattering one to it in regard to the way in which it has improved staff conditions. I shall omit that, and quote as follows: It is clear that an essential feature of good industrial relations in the prison service is that not only should management be as concerned for staff as inmates, but that it should be seen to be so ". I ask the Minister if in his reply he can indicate whether improvements are being considered; what steps are being taken to deal with this very important matter regarding prison officers which has been raised by the report?

Reference has been made to the increase in the prison population. I should like to indicate the seriousness of it—not that anybody has any doubts about the position—and I shall quote from only one set of figures contained in the report, at page 31. Since 1947

the average daily population has increased by nearly 24. times. The number of remand prisoners "— a matter that was emphasised by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, in her most interesting contribution— has increased more than fourfold: this is partly the result of increases in reception but also partly due to the increased average time these prisoners are held on remand ". I therefore emphasise the point that the noble Baroness made in reference to the one prison that she knows so well—though I am sure that there are other prisons that have also had the benefit of her interest—but I should like, apart from the statistics that she quoted in regard to that one prison, to give your Lordships the overall picture as revealed by this report; namely, that the 1978 population of prisons of 41,796 included 5,631 remand prisoners—a proportion of one-eighth of the total population. While realising that it is not the reponsibility of the Minister who will graciously be replying to this debate to see that trials are speeded up and that remands are very considerably shortened—it is certainly not part of his responsibility, as I understand it, outside the magistrates' courts—may I plead with him that he, together with the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, should, as was said earlier in this debate, consider it as a matter of prime importance that at least that part of the population of our prisons is decreased very considerably?

My Lords, I do not want to repeat things that have been said by other people, but I should like if I may to refer for a moment to that other element within our prison population which, if I may say so, is an absolute scandal—that is, the presence within the population in the prisons of the mentally disordered, to which reference has already been made. It has been said, and absolutely correctly, that this House dealt with the interim report, and indeed the final report, of the Butler Committee on Abnormal Offenders when there was a Motion before this House by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale. My Lords, a firm recommendation was made in that interim report, as long ago as July 1974, that there should be set up regional secure units in the 14 health authorities that would be capable of accommodating, among others, disordered offenders in prison. It was interesting that, following upon our other debate, the Department of Health and Social Security, in giving evidence to this inquiry, said that there were at present plans to provide 1,000 places in what are now termed (in the usual way that we do these things) RSUs in programmes which were expected to be completed in 1985.

My Lords, the report also comments on the fact that there were very few regional health authorities which had set up interim units. May I ask the Minister how many such units have been set up? And, realising the problems that there are, both with planning permissions and with procuring the right staff, what is the policy of the Government in regard to carrying out the recommendations of the Butler interim report in 1974? How far are we going to get with those recommendations over the next year? Is there anything in the Government's plans over the next year to deal with what is a scandalous situation quite apart from its effect on the prison population and the disturbances caused in prisons as a result of these poor people being where obviously they ought not to be?

My Lords, there is plainly a part for the National Health Service to play in this. It has been said—it is quoted in the report—that the National Health Service has failed in its obligations in this regard. Has the Minister, from his or his right honourable friend's discussions with those responsible for the National Health Service, any constructive plans to offer in this connection?

7.35 p.m.


My Lords, I am very pleased indeed to be able to follow the most eloquent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. He speaks so eloquently on so many subjects that it is indeed a privilege to follow him this evening. I am also grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for introducing the May Report to us, even at this late hour at which I am on my feet. I should also like to pay a very great tribute to the chairman of the committee, Mr. Justice May. I have the privilege of knowing him fairly well, as one of the reasons I am able to speak tonight—and I shall be only a very short time—is that I am, and have been for the last two years, a member of the Parole Board, apart from the fact that I have also been, for 25 years, a magistrate. I am inhibited tonight in speaking at all after the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who was the first and very worthy chairman of the Parole Board, but it is in the context of my membership of the Parole Board and of the dossiers that I am able to read more or less fortnightly that I have gained some knowledge of the prisoners' views of problems within the prisons, and can perhaps make a very short contribution to the debate on this very important report.

My Lords, as everybody will know, there are 117 prisons, including borstals and detention centres; but I think that what is important to our deliberations tonight is the fact that 40 per cent. of prisoners are sent to prison for terms of under six months. Perhaps it is that population that we should be turning our minds to this evening, because in Chapter Three it says: Every effort should be made to reduce the population in prisons". I am sure we would all agree with that. The noble Lord, Lord Soper, has suggested that alcoholism is a very big contributing factor to people being in prison. I should like to add the mentally disordered, to whom other people have alluded, and I would also add a third group, which has come through the dossiers I have read, and that is those who suffer from epilepsy. It is perhaps not quite so widely realised that epilepsy can lead to spasmodic violence, and violence is one of the causes of people being imprisoned almost (shall I say?) forthwith.

Bearing in mind these three conditions—mental disorder, epilepsy and alcoholism—I should like to suggest that it might be possible, before the magistrates send a prisoner to the Crown Court for sentence (or even, indeed, before they themselves send a prisoner to prison) they should be asked by the Home Office to have a medical report on the prisoner concerned. Of course, alcoholism and the treatment of it are not by any means as easy to deal with as the other two conditions, because as far as I know alcoholics are not always amenable to treatment. One reads in the dossiers of those who will join Alcoholics Anonymous with every good will in the world and with every good wish for their survival outside, but who, directly they get outside, even if it is part of their parole licence that they should not drink, are likely to go overboard and celebrate their coming out of prison with a drink, and it starts again.

Voluntary effort has been alluded to in the report, and I feel that this would he enormously helpful within the local confine of a prison. As I happen to know from my work in another sphere, there are so many people of goodwill who, I am sure, would he prepared to help certainly the alcoholics in the problems that they have.

Although I am told on reliable authority that 40 per cent. are sentences of six months and less, that leaves 60 per cent. who are in prisons of all kinds—prisons which are run on very good lines and prisons (as we have heard tonight) which are antiquated, early Victorian and have nothing at all to commend them. These hardened prisoners, the hardened criminals, the recidivists, are sent to some of these prisons. As I have said so often in this House, as a magistrate I have always felt the public must be protected from people like armed robbers, arsonists and murderers; but I should like to allay the fear of anyone who thinks that people are not educated in prison. Of course, education cannot be undertaken in every prison; but it is possible. What is not possible is to persuade some of the prisoners that they need to be educated. It is not always possible even to persuade prisoners that they should be able to read and write.

I was interested to read, at least a year ago, of a probation officer who wrote: Snooks was glad to have been imprisoned, the reason being that it has afforded him educational opportunities and the encouragement to improve his knowledge which, sadly, he had never had outside. He has gained two City and Guilds certificates on the vocational training course in engineering; he is doing a correspondence course in navigation and is also studying photography ". I know that prisoners also can study bricklaying, radio and television, painting and decorating, GCE courses (and can take examinations in that) and can also study at the Open University.

But we have a long way to go; and the people who are primarily responsible within our prison walls are, of course, the prison staff. Other noble Lords have warned us that we should not discuss the prison staff tonight; but I should like to say that I think that it was perhaps unfortunate that the May Report came out with a recommendation of a 6 per cent. increase. That does not give the true picture whereby, being civil servants, the prison staff start this year with a 22 per cent. increase, added to which there might be possibly a 6 per cent. one or perhaps even more.

I should like to pay my tribute to the prison staff for their dedication to the people in their care. The staff themselves have almost doubled in the last 15 years and from my experience of them I have come to feel that prison staff are certainly born and not made. They have a sense of duty and loyalty. Their working conditions have been alluded to in the May Report. I am sure that the Government will do everything in their power to make their quarters up to date and their working conditions as good as it is possible for them to be. It was very interesting to me to read of the prison officers' desire to extend their roles with a wider range of duties. This seems to me to mean that they want to help their prisoners even more than they have done before. It cannot be easy to have strict discipline while at the same time being almost a friend, and perhaps even a welfare officer, to the prisoners within their wing. I should like to say how much those of us who have to deal with the various reports rely on the wing officer's report. The May Report is vitally important for the future of prisons, the staff and the inmates. Much needs to be done in the light of the report. Like other noble Lords, I await to hear from my noble friend Lord Belstead of what the Government have in mind.

7.44 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to follow the noble Baroness in a number of things that she has said. I am particularly interested in epilepsy and crime. I think we do have a number of successes through education and I entirely agree with her about the dedication of many people within the prison officer service. But if I am going to get through the three points that I particularly want to make in reasonable time, I do not think I can follow the noble Baroness on those matters. I begin by saying that Sir John May said that he hoped that the report would stimulate the kind of public debate that we think desirable. Closed institutions, above all, require open, well-informed discussion. I had the honour to chair just such a discussion last Friday. It was organised by NACRO. of which I am proud to be president, and Sir John May, Mr. Dennis Trevelyan, head of the Prison Department, and Dr. Roy King, from University College North Wales, were the speakers. Mr. Trevelyan praised the report; while Dr. King attacked it root and branch. On balance, I think that Dr. King had the better of the argument, but not by any means easily.

The report is constructive and sound in its condemnation of prison conditions, both of prisoners and of staff, and in its amazed recognition of the appalling treatment or remand prisoners are who caged up for a month and then, in many cases, found not guilty or fined; so they are more severely punished before the verdict than most short-term prisoners after the verdict. Nearly every noble Lord who has spoken referred to this point. It is probably the worst thing in our system. The report slips a bit in its attitude to what I think important: visits, letter censorship and the use of the telephone. But it is sound on work, on education, on the length of sentences, and, above all, on independent inspection which I think extremely important. It was not swayed by Home Office arguments to give up its point there.

Its description of the building needs of the Prison Service, I find convincing; although disputed by Dr. King. I am clear in my mind that, even if we are able to do what I believe we ought and could do—which is to reduce the prison population by 10,000 and the number of prisons to, say, 100—we should still need to spend large sums to bring the remaining buildings up to standard. Dr. King, I thought, was unfair in his accusation that the Home Office is only interested in pouring money into the estate; but I think the report failed to do justice to Dr. King's argument for the redistribution of population among existing prisons. This is my first and most important point. If I may follow his criticism in my own words, the first and most important problem in penal affairs is to stop sending people to prison who need not be sent there. This is something to which most noble Lords referred. Out of the latest figures from the Home Office research unit in the South of England, we learn that 30 per cent. of the offenders are petty offenders, 21 per cent. are mentally disturbed, and one-third of the 42,000 they believed to be divertible from prison. Obviously, there are enormous difficulties in doing this. My complaint about the May Report is that it was very weak on this side of it. The prerequisite for any prison planning must be the reduction of the population in this way down to, say, 10,000 and 100 prisons, if and when necessary. I will say something later on about how this can be done—the clue to which, curiously enough, is at the bottom of one paragraph in this report.

The second point is to give more weight to maintaining family ties than to training. Imprisonment is a disaster in anyone's life but family visiting is its main mitigation. It is more important to confine men near their homes than to try to rehabilitate them, because you will not rehabilitate them if you take away the one link they have which really means something. This means reviewing the whole layout of prisons throughout the country. At the moment, training prisons are not overcrowded, some indeed are under-used, and conditions are good. Yet, local prisons are grossly overcrowded and the conditions are appalling, as the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, made only too clear.

As training meets with a minimum visible success, there seems no reason to punish one lot of people by viciously bad conditions, while looking after another lot by good conditions which produce no important results. Without adopting the full King-Morgan plan of abolishing 21 training prisons in favour of better local ones, it must be right to effect some changes in this direction. I confess that I think that the report missed a major chance in not accepting some part of this recommendation.

I will not go into the argument about humane containment versus positive custody. Both conceptions are undefined and one cannot discuss them without clear and precise definitions. No doubt the average citizen in Thailand would consider humane containment to be given to the 50 or so men condemned to death whom I saw seven years ago contentedly playing cards in their fetters. But I do not think that we should quarrel about this. Clearly, every prison should meet a minimum standard of humane containment which the overcrowding, the lack of occupation, the long periods locked up and the sanitary arrangements in most local prisons do not meet. The report is strong on all these points.

Over and above this, surely there can he no doubt that facilities for individual development of all kinds, of the kinds the noble Baroness has been speaking about—educational and recreational—should be freely available, and the admitted desire of staff to do more than just enforce custody should be encouraged. This does not justify the present distribution of good and bad conditions, if I may so put it, whereby the longer-term prisons are well treated and the shorter-term are badly treated. I most earnestly ask the Minister to study the King-Morgan evidence to the May Committee on this point. Some change of attitude, and hence some change of planning, is overdue here. The May Report took far too little notice of the new and original suggestions in that evidence.

May I turn now to the crucial point. No report on prisons can be anything but tinkering which does not at least attempt to deal with the main problem, on which we all agree, that there are far too many people in prison who should not be there. This is not the point that overcrowding is bad; it is the point that, if you do not need it, prison is bad. Home Secretary after Home Secretary has agreed with this. I and my colleagues, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, said, have been saying so for well over 20 years. Yet nothing happens. There are of course real difficulties: the public desire for crime to be punished cannot be ignored, nor can the judiciary's determination to maintain its freedom of action.

This brings me to the one really encouraging paragraph in the May Report, isolated among some particularly weak and hesitant paragraphs concerning action on parole, alternatives to prison and executive action generally. Paragraph 3.58, on page 56 of the report, has the following two sentences on flexible remission: In addition, of all the possibilities, it is schemes of flexible remission which are the most nakedly linked to prison population levels and, accordingly, the least reflective of what it was the court on individual merits thought appropriate. Such objections might be reduced, however, by devices like putting to Parliament in annual debate the decision on the appropriate remission rate for a 12 month period ". The suggestion is put baldly—and it is not put baldly in the report—that Parliament should decide each year what size of the prison population was tolerable, and should reduce all sentences by the proportion necessary to produce that figure. Thus if the prison population is 42,000 and it was thought desirable to reduce it by 10 per cent., an overall reduction in all the sentences of the necessary percentage would be enforced from a certain date. This could be done year by year, each time bringing the population down as required. The precise figure would not be difficult to calculate. The judiciary would behave as usual and would not know what reduction in their sentences would be imposed and so should have no temptation to increase their sentences to allow for it. The public would hardly notice it as sentences would remain stern and the speed at which Parliament decided to reduce the population should not of course be too fast. Meanwhile, the other things which we all think ought to be done like the alternatives, like the amnesties, like the parole, like the week-ends, could be worked out; and, in due course, they would be effective. There is not time to discuss this fully. But at last a serious suggestion has been made—however pipingly—in a major report which contains the seeds of a solution to our age-long prison problems. We could thus really approach our first target of reducing the population by 10,000 and closing anything over the hundred prisons, leaving a hundred to be properly reconditioned and maintained over a period.

My Lords, I am going to stop after I have made two small points. I cannot agree with the right reverend Prelate; I do agree with the noble and learned Lord about boards of visitors. I was chairman of a board of visitors for over 10 years and I think that it is totally wrong to try and combine getting the confidence of the inmate and the staff with adjudications. I do not think it is a starter. May I say one last thing: this report is not really very well written. I think it is a great pity that a report as important as this should violate so often the rules which we laid down the other night in our debate on the English language. My Lords, I should like to speak for hours but I will stop now.

7.57 p.m.


My Lords, this is the first time that either House of Parliament has had the opportunity to debate the report of the May Committee since its publication. This debate is of great value in assessing the recommendations of the report of Sir John May's committee because all your Lordships who have come to the House to speak today have a personal commitment and knowledge of the subject about which we have been talking. In addition to that, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who has once again done a service to your Lordships' House by quickly raising the subject of the Prison Service. The reason I say this is because this debate reminds us of the vital importance of the prison system, an importance which is constantly stressed throughout the report. In some ways—and this has come clearly through this debate—the report paints a sombre picture of the prison system, pointing to overcrowding, problems of control and the physical decay of some prisons with the associated poor working conditions for staff. Yet, as the committee has forcefully pointed out, everything is by no means black. The Prison Service has in the past 10 years had to cope with all these problems and many more. But it has coped and, not only that, it has done a great deal to maintain civilised and humane régimes in the prisons.

I mean by that that the Prison Service has in the past 10 to 15 years carried through a really extraordinary modernisation and expansion of prison industries, positive developments in education—although I know that may of your Lordships would like to see further progress in this direction and the introduction of parole, and of course the service has meanwhile maintained control of an increasing number of dangerous prisoners.

The May Committee recognised these things and paid a justified tribute to the staffs of the Prison Service. It cannot be said too often—and I repeat it now—that the service has much of which it can be proud; but no one can read the report and no one could have listened to this debate without being able to understand the magnitude of the difficulties which undoubtedly face us. Nonetheless, I think one of the great advantages of the report is that it gives us a chance to do something about these difficulties.

Of course the committee has not provided us, and it did not claim to have done so, with a magic formula to solve all our problems. I would suggest to the House that there is no such formula. It is going to take a great deal of hard work and goodwill on the part of all concerned. But May has given us an opportunity to work for a better future and I think it was very important that the committee should have reported as it did, after an enormous amount of hard work, in under a year. The report was made, I can say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, on 28th September.

The noble Earl said in his speech that it should have been possible last year for the previous Government to set up a limited inquiry into pay and conditions. I must say that I do not accept that assertion. The May Committee argues convincingly that the deterioration of industrial relations in the Prison Service has been a symptom of more fundamental problems, and for that reason alone I think it was terribly important that the previous Government should have taken the view that the terms of reference should be wide.

The committee saw one of the first priorities as being to restore confidence and to improve morale and, to this end, proposed a major reorganisation of the Prison Department within the Home Office, designed to raise the standing of the Department and to enhance the unity and identity of the service. The Home Secretary has welcomed these objectives, and work is now proceeding on those recommendations as a matter of urgency. I realise that the noble Earl has taken a deep interest in this particular aspect of the Prison Service, and I should like to assure him, together with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that changes in management and organisation will result from our consideration of the report.

In this context, there is one decision which the Home Secretary is convinced it is now right to take. The noble Earl, I know, has previously argued that a weakness of the present structure of the Home Office is that the Director General of the Prison Service is not responsible or accountable for the conditions of service of his own staff. May takes the same view. Therefore it is clear to my right honourable friend that the functions now performed by the division in the Home Office Establishment Department concerned with prison service grades should in future he exercised within the reorganised Prison Department.

As I have said, the other organisational proposals made by the committee on the structure of the Prisons Board, the regions and the inspectorate—a matter which I very much take to heart—about which noble Lords have spoken this evening, are under consideration. We are not committed to the May scheme; we are committed, after discussions with those involved, to trying to get matters right. I do assure your Lordships that it is not just a form of words when I say that we shall announce decisions on these matters, as soon as possible, having taken seriously into account what has been said by your Lordships in this House.

I would particularly draw attention to the report's conclusion: that the Prison Service cannot, any more than any other part of government, be insulated from the need to be accountable to Parliament and public. Thus it is that the report recommends the continuation of the Home Secretary's final responsibility for the service to Parliament. I must say I personally think that this is essential. I find it hard to be persuaded by the noble Lord, Lord Foot, to whom I must say I listened with the very greatest interest, that in some way an independent commission would be able to adjust penal policy to prison capacity, attractive though that sounds. It occurs to me that such a policy would encroach upon the independence of the judiciary— an independence which after all is vital to our freedom—and I doubt whether a policy of that kind would he acceptable to Parliament and public.

Nonetheless, having said that, we were then brought back to this subject head-on by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, who, by referring to the report, drew the attention of your Lordships to the practical importance, as he saw it, of the proposals for reduced or remitted sentences. If the noble Lord will forgive me, I would rather not try to answer him across the Floor of the House this evening but, if I feel I can add anything, I should prefer to write to him after the debate.

Also in connection with this area, may I say that I do understand that those involved in the day-to-day problems of running so diverse and complex a service as the Prison Service may sometimes feel that their problems and their objectives are not sufficiently understood. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, has gone further and laid the very great difficulties which have been faced by the service at the door of the Home Office. If he will forgive me, I believe this criticism is not fair, but I accept that what is needed on the part of all involved in the Prison Service is a greater understanding of each other's problems.

The May Committee has emphasised that ultimately the problems of the Prison Service are the responsibility of the service. I believe that means that leadership is needed by giving not just directions, but direction, to the tasks of the service—something which I understood the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, to be saying to the House—and that a response is called for from members of staff at all levels, because together all members of the Prisons Service are facing very great problems indeed.

The May Committee were quite clear that the prison population is too large. My noble friend Lady Macleod reminded us in her speech that there are violent offenders who really can only be sent to prison. So, in the words of the committee, we shall have to support for the foreseeable future a substantial penal population ". I agree with the tenor of what many speakers have said, that that does not absolve us from the obligation to continue to seek ways of reducing it. We accept unreservedly what the committee say in this respect. We do so with realism because, at a time when the proportionate use of imprisonment has declined over the last 25 years, the scope for creating further non-custodial alternatives may become the more limited. But there is, surely, hope. The committee endorsed the view that shorter sentences would be appropriate in many cases, and so added weight to what I believe, and what I have certainly taken away as being the feeling of this debate, is a growing body of opinion. Their recommendations on this matter were welcomed by my right honourable friend in another place and I know he is determined to try to make progress on this issue.

Similarly, the Government have welcomed the committee's firm recommendation that mentally disturbed offenders falling under the terms of the Mental Health Act should be transferred to hospital, where they belong. I agree that is where they belong. Although my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services is continuing to press the health authorities to make proper provision for these offenders, we should recognise—and I would just inject this into the discussion—that the transfer of mentally disordered offenders would take only some 200 or 300 people out of the prison system. None the less, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, and other speakers that it would bring a great deal of relief to the staff of prisons for whom such prisoners pose problems of control out of all proportion to their numbers, and that above all to do something in this respect would be right. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, asked me the direct question: What is actually being done? The information I can give him this evening—and I should have to write to him to give him more—is that 11 out of the 14 regional health authorities have now submitted plans for the setting up of regional secure units.


My Lords, the noble Lord has been so gracious in dealing with the comments which I and others have made that I hesitate to interrupt him. However, I am wondering about the accuracy of his figures, only because I took the trouble—this is also referred to in the report—to see what were the figures given by the prison medical services on 31st December 1978 as to the content in the prison population of those who were mentally disturbed. I believe that this is reported in the Official Report of the Commons on 12th June 1979 at cols. 162 to 168. The figures are 519 such persons on that date, of whom 389 were sentenced.


My Lords, I must admit that I have a feeling that the noble Lord is right. Having to reply to him immediately across the Floor of the House, certainly I am not going to contradict him and say that my figures are right and his are wrong. I wonder Whether the House would accept it from me that in this matter I believe I may be mistaken and that in order to put it right, if I am wrong, I shall most certainly write to the noble Lord so that the figures are on record in that way.

Speaking of reducing the prison population, emphasis has also been placed by the May Committee as well as by your Lordships on the need to redirect more offenders away from prison and towards non-custodial penalties. All I would say on that this evening, because of the confines of time, is that the Government are committed to the development of non-custodial penalties, so far as possible, and that we are trying to show the honesty of our intentions by the support which we are giving to the work of the Probation Service.

Reducing numbers would go some way towards alleviating our immediate problems. As the committee have said, and said forcefully, one of our greatest problems is the condition of the prison estate. To quote the report, the worst prisons are very bad indeed. The right referend prelate the Bishop of Rochester and my noble friend Lady Faithfull provided the answer to this: that in the past, Governments have given too low a priority to the prison system in the allocation of resources. This is not a political point. In its way, this reflects society's view of prisons. The committee noted without much surprise that public interest in the penal system has been fitful. In these circumstances, it is understandable—although I know it is not excusable—that the prison system has been undercapitalised. But we now have a worthwhile capital programme designed to bring into operation one prison in each of the next five years.

I say openly to the noble Lord, Lord Soper, that if we are to achieve the targets set by the May Committee—the elimination of enforced cell-sharing and the introduction of integral sanitation—we shall need more resources. In the present economic and financial climate, with many competing claims, this is not going to be easy, but the Government are committed to supporting and improving the prison system. We shall seek to ensure that prisons receive that share of our resources which fairly reflects their importance to our national life.

I reply, if I may, to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, who quoted paragraph 10.15 of the report: that what I am saying about the capital spending on prisons applies not only to the building programme recommended by the May Committee but also to their proposals for improvements in facilities and amenities for staff. It is sometimes forgotten—although the noble Lord very much reminded us this evening—by those with a legitimate interest in the welfare of prisoners that staff, too, have to spend much of their lives in and close to prisons. The May Committee quite rightly laid stress on the importance of providing properly for staff, and we shall be giving this issue the priority that it deserves.

Tackling these problems, if we can—the size of the prison population and the physical condition of the prison estate—will make it easier for us to ensure that we can maintain and improve the kind of constructive regime towards which we are always aiming. We no longer entertain the kind of exaggerated expectations relating to the rehabilitative value of imprisonment which were current even a short time ago. To that extent I meet the case which was put so powerfully by the noble Earl. However, as the committee said, that does not mean that we should be tempted to abandon all attempts to be positive and just fall back on what is sometimes called "humane containment".

To do everything that we should like would require fewer prisoners, better buildings and more staff. In this context, I am pleased to report that recruitment is improving. Moreover, the diversity of the prison system militates against general prescriptions. Positive custody will mean different things in overcrowded local prisons, or borstals, or dispersal prisons, or open prisons. Nevertheless—and this is my answer to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester about our attitude to the committee's rewording of Rule 1—the Government will heed the committee's injunction to redouble our efforts to ensure that every prisoner has at least the chance to use his or her time constructively, and that the staff have the opportunity to extend their role in a positive manner.

If your Lordships would forgive me for just a second, I should like to say this, because many of your Lordships have spoken personally. In the short time that I have been working at the Home Office, I remember very well one evening reading the umpteenth parole case. In it, I suddenly realised that there was a report by one of those whom my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve called "wing prison officers" on a particular offender who was seeking parole. As I read that report I realised that, although the report was analytical and accurate, the officer could not conceal from the reader his genuine concern about the future of the prisoner about whom he was writing. I am bound to say to your Lordships that there is a lot of scope for increased welfare work, if I may put it broadly, by members of the Prison Service.

Before I come to the end of my remarks, may I turn to two points about which I was asked. In her speech, my noble friend Lady Faithfull gave details of the overcrowding at Oxford Prison. My noble friend may like to know that Reading Prison is about to take up the function of a local prison. This has been planned for some months. I had the opportunity to visit that prison some months ago and the staff at Reading were training at the time so that they would be ready to take up this new function. I very much hope that this move will be a real help towards alleviating the overcrowding at Oxford.

The other point I should like to take up is the one which was put to me by many of your Lordships, about the desirability of what the committee called "openness in the Prison Service". I think it is sometimes underestimated how much in recent years the prison system has been opened in some ways. For example, agreement was reached recently with the BBC on a major study of life in a prison—not dissimilar to that which was carried out for the Royal Navy some time ago. In addition to this, the new Select Committee on Home Affairs in another place will doubtless be interesting itself in the Prison Service. All that falls into this category, and I think it is desirable.

I am convinced that there is a great deal to gain from increasing public understanding of prisons. That is why we shall pay heed to the May Committee's suggestion for greater openness. The committee made a number of proposals as to how we might meet that objective: for example more positive public relations, a more open management style, greater involvement of local communities—about which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester made many interesting suggestions—non-executive directors, if I may put it that way, on the Prisons Board and a more independent inspectorate. We shall genuinely be looking at these points in the immediate future.


My Lords, may I presume to interrupt the Minister before he sits down because I asked a specific question about the funding under 21.73 of hostels dealing with alcoholics. The arrangement has been that such funding will end in March of next year. May I ask whether the Government will be prepared to reconsider that in the light of the very serious position it will raise in the next two years before we have opportunities, if the Government continue to press that point, of making alternative arrangements?


My Lords, since the noble Lord spoke I have been in touch with the Department of Health and Social Security, and the answer that I should like to give to the noble Lord is that this was indeed an option which the Department felt had to be considered. No decision has been taken and the terms of what the noble Lord has said are being drawn immediately to the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Security.

May I finally just turn to the question of industrial relations. The Committee argued, as I said when I began to speak, that the deterioration in industrial relations in the Prison Service was symptomatic of more fundamental problems of the kind which we have been discussing today. It also reflected changes in attitudes to industrial relations in society generally. If that analysis is correct—and I am sure it is—a lasting improvement in industrial relations can only be achieved by tackling those problems and by changes in the attitudes of all concerned. I like to think that the Government have shown an absolutely straightforward attitude on their part to the importance of pay, by my right honourable friend's immediate acceptance of all the committee's recommendations on pay and allowances. I accept that some in the service are disappointed by the size of the increment recommended by the committee on the third stage of the general Civil Service pay settlement, but it would be a tragedy if concentration on questions of pay were allowed to blind us to the real chance we now have to create a better deal for the Prison Service.

I think perhaps there has grown up a certain cynicism about reports of this kind, to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, drew attention in his speech. Committees are established (so the story goes) to buy time until a difficult but possibly temporary problem blows over. Reports which are unwelcome or uncomfortable are simply shelved or pigeonholed. I really do not think that either of those things applies in this case. In Opposition we welcomed the establishment of the May Committee, and in Government we have no intention of shelving the report. The Home Secretary is determined that we shall make progress on the basis of the report. The May Report is typical of the age in which we live: it is realistic, it eschews rhetoric, because rhetoric solves nothing; but if, as the right reverend Prelate says, this is not a Gladstone Report for the present day, what is it? In my view it has indicated the directions in which the Prison Service should go in two main ways: the recommendations on positive custody, Home Office organisation, the building programme, the prison population and many others are significant contributions to our thinking on future strategy.

But secondly, and potentially even more valuable, the report challenges all of us involved in the Prison Service to take the initiative in solving our problems. It challenges us to improve the quality of management at all levels; to increase public understanding of the prison system; to end the scandal of the physical conditions to which many of our prisons have sunk. In this sense, too, I do not think the committee would be unduly worried if we did not accept to the letter everything that they recommended. They did not claim a monopoly of wisdom, any more than do the Government. If I have read the report correctly it is more important to the committee that we get on with the job in hand—and that, my Lords, the Government intend to do.