HL Deb 27 June 1979 vol 400 cc1544-90

5.22 p.m.

Lord SOPER rose to call attention to the proper use of prisons as a factor in maintaining law and order; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to introduce the Motion which stands in my name on the Order Paper, and I wish immediately to say "thank you" to those noble Lords who intend to take part in the debate. Owing to a seepage of speakers, I consider, if I may presume to say so, that a maximum of 14 minutes each will be acceptable so as to fall within the time limit to which we are committed in this particular debate.

There is nothing that needs more stringent and continuous attention by any society than processes in which imperfect human beings endeavour to deal with those who, in their judgment—and quite rightly so in many cases—are even more imperfect. That is a very sufficient reason for the regular investigation of matters that have to do with imprisonment. But that general proposition has added significance and pertinence at a time when, in the general view, there is an excess of behaviour which is anti-social and an increase in crime—and I shall not spend any time analysing whether it is an increase in human wickedness, or an increase in the availability and the actual practice of, and opportunities for, crime—as well as at the same time a deep sense of suspicion that things are not by any means as well as they could be within the general fabric of the system that we call the prison system.

It is indeed true that for a very long time now the questions that have very properly been asked about the prisons have been questions which began at least in the sense that something must be very seriously wrong. At this moment the august body of the Methodist Conference, across the road, is continuing in the tradition which goes as far back as John Wesley himself: that a constant scrutiny of what goes on in prisons is a very necessary part of a civilised community's attitude to crime and, even more, to the criminal. Mind you, my Lords, John Wesley was much more concerned about the permanent condition of those temporarily incarcerated, than he was, shall we say, about the reform of the actual conditions in the prison system.

I believe that a new dimension has emerged, and it requires even more careful attention. There is no longer only the question of whether prisons need to be reformed, or whether the prison system as it stands needs to recover or in fact to initiate a different kind of programme and performance. There are not a few—and I happen to belong to them—who believe that it is now a question of whether the prison system itself is viable, and it is in the light of that conviction which has come to me that I would append what I have to say in introducing the debate.

There is a rough and ready guide to the question, what should prisons do? They should endeavour to punish, they should endeavour to deter, and they should endeavour to reform. I shall say something about the performance and programme of punishment, the intention of deterrents, and the hope of reform. The facts which stare into the face of anybody who takes the trouble to look at the prison system as it now stands, or now totters, are that there are 42,000 people in the prisons of this country—a larger number than in any EEC country —and that 11,000 of them are in cells in which two people occupy a space which in Victorian times was built to contain just one. Furthermore, no fewer than 5,000 of our prisoners are in cells equally small and are three to a cell. This is an abomination.

When I was a prison chaplain many years ago I hoped and prayed that this intolerable situation would be dealt with, but it remains. I should have thought that, because it remains, probably the first of all the intentions that ought to belong to a debate of this kind should be to see to it that, if a prison system is to be continued, it practises to those who are incarcerated a humanitarian attitude which does not permit to occupy a single cell two or three people who have never known one another before and who are likely to impose upon one another not the best of relationships. This is to say nothing of the imminent and continuous processes in the sexual field, on which we are seeing in some respects perhaps rather more publicity than is good for us. Nevertheless, I cannot forbear to mention this matter—namely, the problem of homosexuality, which has increased considerably among many people who are compelled to live three in a cell. This is an intolerable situation, and if I say nothing else, I hope that the Government will take every means in their power to bring it to an end.

It is also equally true that there are still 3,000 alcoholics or drunks in the prisons. The previous Government enacted resolutions which, thank God! implied that there was no direct line to a prison, for the man who was simply drunk. Yet, by the imposition of grossly enlarged fines, those same drunks have now by another route found an inescapable end in the prison cell. You do not do any good to an alcoholic or a drunk by putting him in prison. I shall say later that you do not do any good to anybody—but let us start there.

I am satisfied that there is very much that is wrong with prison administration, but I shall not dilate upon that scene because the May Inquiry will no doubt tell us in detail a little later in the year what ought to and could be done to reduce the perturbation in the public mind, as well as do what I am sure other speakers will adumbrate and I shall refer to it: transfer the whole emphasis away from the solid block system of Pentonville, which I know so well, and translate the custodial necessity which still remains to smaller and more open kinds of establishment.

I shall not say any more about the dreadfully imperfect and dangerous con- dition in prisons as such, except to remind myself, and perhaps the House, that punishment ceases when it becomes just the after-effect of a deadening process which quite obviously—and in many cases—disappears within a few weeks. The first impact of prison is the reformative and deterrent one. The longer a man stays in prison the more he becomes deadened to the processes which might otherwise contribute to his reformation and his improvement, and it is the deadening effect of the prisons as they now stand which I believe is perhaps the first argument for a total repudiation of the prison system and its replacement by something of very much greater value.

Secondly, as to deterrence, this House will know, or should know, that 50 per cent. of those who are in our prisons are back again in our prisons within two years, and for young offenders the figure is 65 per cent. Nobody says that imprisonment is not a deterrent. Any unpleasant experience in prospect is a deterrent. But the idea that the best kind of deterrent is imprisonment is totally invalidated by the evidence. There are very much better ways of deterring people. Perhaps the best of all is, of course, to make it much more likely that they will be caught if they engage upon anti-social activity. But the idea that deterrence belongs to the prison system is invalidated by the evidence. There is of course an element of deterrence in any process that involves punishment, but there is no evidence that the prison system as it stands, and as it has been improved, makes deterrence more effective.

Now as to reform. I was a prison chaplain for 30 years. I cannot remember a single man who was reformed by being in prison—not one. I can remember those who, serving very short sentences, were for a time, perhaps, brought to recognise something of the gravity of what they had been doing; but I am completely convinced that the longer a man stays in prison, the longer he stays in that kind of incarceration, the less is the prospect of reform and the more certain is the process of decay. That is why I have consistently tried to say that any man who is imprisoned in one particular set of circumstances for more than five years is probably dead for life. It is highly unlikely that those who have endured that kind of monotonous deadening will be able to recover in the real world what they have lost in the artificial element and environment of prison life. There has been, I think, in my time, a considerable increase in the amelioration of conditions in prison; but, to refer again for a moment to the artificiality of it, the longer a man stays in prison the less capable he will be of recovering his place and establishing his position back in the real world to which he is increasingly made alien by the very processes which he undergoes.

This Motion asks about the place of prison in the preservation of law and order, but I would presume to say to your Lordships that both prison and law and order are means, not ends. Law and order is another means to the condition in which a prison system, if it is to be valid and viable, must work. I do not believe that you can evaluate true law and order unless you first set it within a framework which is much larger than the preservation of (shall we say?) the integrity of the individual from assault and the preservation of the rule of law. It depends who makes the laws; it depends what is their kind of order. In fact, it finally depends on what sort of society we live in.

As a professing Christian I am profoundly grateful for the reminder that none other than Karl Marx provides for us: that there are many more people who are improved by living in a community, the environment of which suggests goodness, than who are improved by even the most fervent evangelical jamborees, where they are invited to save their own souls by individual repentence. Not that I am against individual repentence—far from it. But I am perfectly satisfied that if we could look at the prison system as playing a part in the community which we look to, a community of service and not merely a community of getting and spending, we should by that means have evaluated any place that it could possibly take in that new society. I do not believe that as it stands now it can; I believe it is incorrigible. What I do believe is that there are elements within the prison system which could be preserved. No doubt other speakers will extend the argument in that field, and I shall be very grateful to listen to what they have to say.

I will conclude, if your Lordships will allow a Methodist minister to give his experience, with a reminiscence. I re- member one autumn night when I was taking a service in Pentonville Prison. Noble Lords may be astonished at the selection of hymns that prisoners are wont to choose. Let me quote a verse from one of them, which I heard them sing: Slowly the hours of daylight fade; So fade within my heart The hopes of earthly peace and joy, Which one by one depart". I believe that is the truth about the prison system. It is destructive; it is not creative. There are many good and decent people seeking to operate it, but it stands condemned because ultimately it is a dead end.

I would wish that we were prepared to spend our time, energy and money on other means of semi-custodial and custodial agreements as to what should be done with the anti-social members of the community—and I do not share the sentimental nonsense of those who pretend that there is nothing particularly wrong with criminals. Many of them are very bad people; but I hope that out of this debate will come the increasing assurance that the basis of the prison system is evasive—put them out of the way and then you need not worry about them—and that it is irremediable. I hope that out of this debate we shall come to conclusions on which we may build a better system of dealing with those who are anti-social, who misbehave, but who, I believe, again as a professing Christian, are recoverable if only they can be set within a society in which they will breathe a cleaner air and in which they will have a reasonable chance of seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, however long that tunnel has to be before they emerge from it. I beg to move for Papers.

5.37 p.m.


My Lords, your Lordships will no doubt have noticed by looking at the clock that the noble Lord, Lord Soper, has kept strictly within the time limit which he set for himself, and I hope it may be encouraging to the House if I say at once that I hope to beat that limit by a substantial margin. Indeed, it is always a difficult thing to follow the noble Lord, Lord Soper, partly because he has usually said everything that one intended to say oneself and also because one is always faced with the fact that it would be impossible to say it better. What I would say to the House in just a few minutes this afternoon is really nothing but an addendum and a footnote to what the noble Lord has been saying.

I was reminded this afternoon, when I was thinking of what I might say here this evening, that 10 years ago, shortly after I came into this House, we had a debate here initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge. That was back on the 5th March 1969. I do not know whether the noble Lord remembers that, but the subject-matter of the debate on that occasion was to ask Her Majesty's Government: whether they will report on the progress of the reform of the penal system since the Criminal Justice Act 1967; and in particular, to draw their attention to the lack of adequate long-term support for the after-care of prisoners on discharge". As always, I avidly looked to see what I had said on that occasion, and I was rather pleased to note that I finished what I had to say in this manner—and I am quoting now from Hansard of 5th March 1969, column 178: I do not know how many of us will still be here in 1979, but we may then have another debate in which a noble Lord will get up and ask whether the Government will report upon the progress of penal reform in this country. How far shall we then have gone under our present system? Will the Minister at that time be able to report that we then have working several experiments on the lines of the Albany one? Will he be able to tell us in ten years' time that there has been any substantial alteration in the whole system?". Unhappily, my Lords, the answer to that question must be unquestionably, No.

There is only one aspect of this matter to which I want to refer tonight because I do not want to detract from what I want to say by venturing upon other avenues of interest and discussion. I should have thought that it was unquestionable that, in one area of the penal system as compared with 10 years ago, our condition is manifestly much worse than it was, and that is in the matter of the overcrowding to which the noble Lord was referring. Mr. Roy Jenkins, when Home Secretary, said that if the figures of the daily prison population in this country topped 42,000 we should have reached what I think he described as breaking point. We are over that figure, as the noble Lord has reminded us.

Indeed, had it not been for the measures for finding alternatives to imprisonment which we have been able to invoke during these past 10 years, those figures would have been very much worse than they are. If I remember rightly, the estimate given by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, in the debate that we had some months ago, towards the end of the last Parliament, was that, had it not been for the alternatives to imprisonment, the figure of the daily prison population would be little short of 50,000 today.

The noble Lord says quite rightly of course that there are many theories about the purposes of imprisonment and the purposes of the penal system: rehabilitation, reform, deterrence and the like. There are of course wide differences among the people of this country about the purposes of imprisonment. There has never been in our history any consensus upon the objects that imprisonment is designed to achieve. However, there is one matter upon which I think all informed people are agreed: the overcrowding which has been an endemic condition of our system over the past two or three decades is an unmitigated evil. There is nobody who would be anxious to try and defend that situation. The noble Lord has reminded us of what it means: no fewer than 16,000 people every day—as on this day of this week—are confined in prison and are living either two or three in a cell. It means very often these people are herded together for 23 hours out of 24 in a cell, as the noble Lord reminds us, designed for one person.

The other fact of the matter is that these conditions exist in some of our most antiquated penal establishments. We should also remind ourselves that these conditions are imposed not only upon convicted criminals but upon those on remand who may never be sent to prison at all and who may be found to be innocent. In my opinion this is a system which not only degrades and humiliates the people upon whom it is imposed, but it also degrades and humiliates the prison officers, the governors and all those who have to carry out the awful responsibility of supervising the system.

It is no use saying that this is intolerable, as we sometimes do, because we tolerate it and have tolerated it for 10 years, 20 years. Much has been rightly said in the past about the unspeakable physical burdens and conditions which this system imposes upon those who suffer under it. Less has been said and written about what I regard as just as great an evil: the terrible psychological strain which this system imposes upon those who are subject to it.

I believe that among the many basic, deep human needs is the desire of all of us at times to withdraw and be alone. I should like to hear the noble Lord, Lord Soper, preach a sermon—I dare say he may have done it—upon the text of those occasions when Jesus went into a place apart from his family and from his disciples. The poet Wordsworth expressed perhaps better than anybody else in the English language the importance at times of solitude. Everyone of us—criminals and others—has at times need of our own private Gethsemane. This is the deep human need of which this system of overcrowding deprives the people who are subject to it.

That is really all I wanted to say in this debate. It amounts only to trying to underline some of the things the noble Lord has said. I do not go as far as he does in saying that we have to find some completely radical, new alternative to the whole system of imprisonment. I do not think that is practicable; but there are many avenues which can be explored. The importance of this problem of overcrowding was emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge—and I am glad that he is present and that I can remind him of it—in the debate back in 1969 when he said that there is a prerequisite to any prison reform, and that is to get rid of overcrowding. Unless we are able to solve this problem, unless we are able to reduce the prison population so that people can be contained in elementary conditions of decency, then none of the other penal problems will be solved.

However, there are avenues which can be explored and which have not been explored. One of them would be to seek to find further ways in which people can be dealt with in the criminal courts without being taken out of the community and put into prison. Another would be a deliberate decision by society that we would cut the level of all prison sentences. Another one would be to extend the arrangements for remission and extend the application of the parole system. There are all these things to be considered.

An even more radical suggestion was made about a fortnight ago at a conference of NACRO by a prison governor who said that he thought that some dramatic, political initiative was the only way in which the enormous strains on the prison system at the present moment can be alleviated. That, he said, was by an amnesty granted to a large category of prisoners which might give to the prison system the breathing space that it requires in order that it can try and improve its arrangements. It is because I believe that this is the sine qua non—the solution of the overcrowding problem is the prerequisite of all penal reform—that I am glad to take part in this debate and support what has been said so excellently by the noble Lord—and, my Lords, I have kept within my 14 minutes.

5.50 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of ROCHESTER

My Lords, one of the minor consequences of the two main parties in this House changing sides is that my noble and reverend friend Lord Soper now looks across at us on these Benches with characteristic irreverence for the establishment, instead of sitting behind us and being able to prod and exhort us in his own inimitable way. We are all very grateful to him for initiating this debate. If one consequence of it is that it has kept him from the Methodist Conference, let me say that I have been there and, as always, have been refreshed by Methodists' singing, and by their equally vigorous social concern.

Not one of us in any part of this House can fail to be concerned about the present state of the Prison Services. I want in this short debate to discuss the staffing situation in our penal establishments. The initial inquiry established seven months ago under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice May has a part of its task to consider the need to recruit and retain a sufficient and suitable staff as well as the need to secure the efficient use of manpower in the Prison Service. If men and women are to be attracted into the Prison Service who have not only the right qualifications but also the right motivation for their work, they will need to be assured not just of adequate pay but also of being able to achieve satisfaction in their work and to gain opportunities of real interest and commitment.

The situation at the present time is not just one of considerable discontent and frustration. Things have in fact reached a pass in many prisons where the aim set forth in Prison Rule No. 1, which states that .… the purpose of the training and treatment of convicted prisoners shall be to encourage and assist them to lead a good and useful life has been made virtually impossible. Conditions are now such that officers have to be content with what the home affairs correspondent of the late lamented Times newspaper described in one of its very last editions in November as "little more than humane containment"; and as a philosophy, he said: It is more suited to a zoo than to a prison". Prison staff are stretched at the present time to the limits and in all too many cases are able to perform only the basic essentials. They are quite unable to engage in in-service training for those basic tasks, let alone being able to look towards more distant horizons of joint welfare projects. Many of the staff want to pioneer in this field, but at best they can do so only if some of their colleagues are ready to sacrifice staffing levels to make that possible.

I think we always have to remember that members of the prison staff share many of the conditions to which the prisoners themselves are subject, including the overcrowded conditions, which the noble Lord, Lord Foot, has described to us so vividly. When to that are added long hours, over-dependence on overtime, a complicated pay structure and uncertainty as to how their role relates to that of the Probation Service, I think we can begin to see why the report and the recommendations of the May Commission are awaited so eagerly. And how very important it will be that the Government respond to it, not by anything in the way of panic legislation but by long-term planning and by a creative approach to the place of prisons and custodial sentences in the maintenance of law and order.

I, too, like the noble Lord, Lord Foot, was interested to read of a proposal for some form of amnesty to allow a breathing space to be obtained so that any new policy put forward by the May Commission in its report would stand some chance of success. I would not presume to judge whether such a proposal is realistic. I would, however, have thought that we might begin to tackle the matter of reducing the present prison population by taking action on some of the recommendations already put forward in numerous reports made in the last ten years.

In 1977, 16,040 people were received into prison for not paying fines: yet in 1970 the Wootton Committee recommended that non-custodial penalties should be truly non-custodial. In 1977, 2,641 men were received into prison for not paying maintenance: yet the Payne Committee in 1969 and the Finer Committee in 1974 favoured the abolition of imprisonment for such defaulters, the second report describing it as, … an essay in economic and social futility". In 1977, 2,697 receptions into prison were for drunken offences: yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Soper, has already told us, the 1971 Home Office Report recommended that the right place for such people were detoxification centres. On 31st December 1977 it was estimated by prison medical officers that 682 prisoners were suffering from mental disorders which would have warranted detention in hospital for psychiatric treatment. Yet the report of the Prison Department for the previous year, 1976, said this: Apart from the inhuman aspects of committing mentally disordered offenders to prisons and Borstals, it is not possible to provide many of these unfortunates with the medical and nursing care their conditions require while they arc in custody". Finally, there was a recently-published survey of the sentenced prison population in South-East England, carried out by members of the Home Office Research Unit, which showed that 30 per cent. of all those in prison were there for petty or minor offences. Twenty-one per cent. were assessed as mentally disordered and no fewer than 30 percent. were assessed as homeless. A third of the total prison population was assessed as being divertible from prison on the grounds that they had not committed any serious offence against the person, had made no gain from their crime and had no obvious competence or ability to plan.

A reduction of the prison population on such a scale would transform the whole situation for the prison staff and would enable them to feel that they were no longer just "turn-keys" but were part of a nation-wide service that was better able to achieve the right balance between containment, retribution and rehabilitation.

It is inevitable—and we all know this—that the May Report will have to be considered and implemented at a time when reductions in expenditure are the order of the day. Nevertheless, I hope we shall find that the Government, with their concern for law and order, will see that a creative and long-term approach to the Prison Service, whatever the initial cost may be, will not only further the proper use of prisons in maintaining law and order, but will also restore to their rightful place the true objectives of the Prison Service—the training and treatment of convicted prisoners—and give real job satisfaction and proper recognition to the men and women of the Prison Service, who on behalf of us all, do their work out of sight but, I hope, never out of mind.

6.1 p.m.


My Lords, I am rather relieved that my name appears fairly high up on the list of those who are speaking in this debate, because I feel that if it came very much lower down all the points that I was thinking about would already have been taken. But we must all of us be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Soper, for giving us this opportunity of discussing, while we are waiting for the May Committee report, some aspects of what is one of our most baffling social problems bedevilled as it is, not surprisingly, by a perpetual and continual lack of resources.

Sending people to prison in this country has not always been looked on as a punitive measure. Time was when it was the prime task of the prisons to keep in safe custody suspected offenders, who waited there until the judges came round to clear the gaols. But I fear that as things have gone prisons are now an essential part—or perhaps the appropriate adjective is an inescapable part—of our system for dealing with offenders, notwithstanding the rather fundamentalist approach by the noble Lord, Lord Soper.

I should like to make two initial comments about the role of imprisonment. The first is that, although the prison population has reached a distressingly high figure, the totals of those who are convicted of crime have been going up even more markedly. To elaborate a point which the noble Lord, Lord Foot, made a little time ago, my calculation is that over the last decade the development of alternatives to imprisonment has meant that the proportion of convicted offenders who actually go to prison has just about halved, and that if these alternatives had not been in force the prison population would have been not 50,000, but something considerably more. So in sheer numbers the population has been kept down, although the figures are still frighteningly large and, as has been said, compare ill with other European countries. However, we are still a long way behind the United States.

But the development of these alternatives to imprisonment has not made the task of the Prison Service itself any easier. Many who end up there have already been through the gamut of alternative penalties, whatever a gamut may be, and are already the failures of the penal system, so it is not very surprising that the prison system should fail with them, too. Many are afflicted by emotional and personality disturbances. There are prisoners who, by the very nature of their crimes, are shunned by their fellows. There are the increasing numbers of life-sentence prisoners and of terrorists, both of whom present special problems of their own. Some of those who, in the past, might have provided some element of stability now go out early on parole; and there is the particularly difficult problem of the custody of the dangerous prisoner who presents a special security risk.

There are those who dislike the policy of disposing them in small groups, and who would prefer to go back to the solution of housing them all in one supremely secure establishment—a course favoured by the inquiry which was chaired so skilfully by the noble Earl, Lord Mountbatten of Burma. I must say that I myself still feel fairly dubious. No one could possibly argue that the present policy has turned out to be ideal in all respects, but I think that the Government would want to think long and hard before constructing fortresses—and the numbers are such that there would now have to be two of them—to a standard of security from attacks, from within and without (and we know from today's news the risk of attacks from helicopters), on a scale unparalleled anywhere, so far as I know, in the free world; certainly, much more formidable than Alcatraz used to be when the United States federal prison system ran that as its main security prison. The expense would be enormous, but apart from this I really wonder whether it could be the right policy to concentrate in one place, or in two places, all the really dangerous prisoners and, nothing but dangerous prisoners, with nothing left if things go wrong.

The second aspect that I want to touch on is the suggestion one hears quite often that prison is too soft. We have heard quite a bit already this evening about conditions in prison, and I wonder whether that is a view which would long survive going to the slopping-ou[...] during the early morning in, say, Armley Gaol. But I know that there are those who think that prisons should be used more for punishment, and that deprivation of liberty, and life in sordid conditions are not enough. On this, I can only say that experience suggests that deliberately harsh and punitive treatment tends to result in more crime, not less. We constantly have to think about the victims of crime, but we have to think about possible future victims as well.

It is sometimes overlooked, even, if I may say so, by chief officers of police, that imprisonment is but an interval between periods of freedom. Hundreds of people come out of prison every week and I cannot believe that society would gain, or that crime would be reduced, if they returned to the community embittered against authority by deliberately punitive treatment while in custody. Nor would such a régime be fair to the conscientious men and women of the prison service, as the right reverend Prelate has said. It is perhaps not possible for the service to do very much nowadays to encourage and assist those in its care to lead a good and useful life, as the prison rules put it, but that is not to say that the treatment should be humane. I wonder whether, in practice, there is quite so much difference between humane containment and rehabilitative treatment as is sometimes supposed.

I suppose that it sounds rather platitudinous to say that the most important aim of imprisonment should be to keep it genuinely as a sanction for those for whom there is really no alternative, but I go along with previous speakers in wondering whether we have really yet done enough.

The right reverend Prelate referred, among other things, to the fact that a number of mentally disordered prisoners are in prison who ought not to be there. The estimate he quoted was something over 600. Nobody knows precisely what the figure is, but obviously there are several hundreds, and they are prisoners requiring especial care in prison. I should like to ask the Minister whether he is able to say anything about the present state of play regarding what the Committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Saffron Walden, had to say about regional secure units for some of these offenders. The story has been quite bizarre, to use a fashionable word. Approval has been repeatedly given in principle and, as I calculated it, something like £24 million has been allocated. But progress is very hard to discern, except, possibly, in the area where the noble Baroness who is to follow me has been able to exercise a little local "push". It is now nearly 20 years since the idea was first mooted, and what have we got? We may have 200 places—rather less than that, I suspect—and I should like to ask whether the Government accept the principles of the Butler recommendations and, if so, whether they see any prospects of acceleration.

Then there are the two recent reports of the Advisory Council on the Penal System on the length of sentences. I wonder whether the present Government endorse the views expressed by the council in their interim report two years ago that shorter sentences could often be appropriate for those in the lower and middle ranges, as they put it, and whether the statistics are yet showing any sign of a change of policy on the part of the courts.

Then, at the other end of the scale, there is the recommendation in their substantive report last year about the proposal for power to impose sentences of exceptional length on certain offenders, simply for the protection of the public against harm. I do not happen to agree in detail with what the council suggested; but their proposals have never been discussed in either House, and the dilemma that they are dealing with is very real. The Butler Committee, too, had something to say on this topic. There is an existing power to impose extended sentences but, although it dates only from 1967, it fell into desuetude even more quickly than its predecessors. I realise that this proposal cannot be considered in isolation from the rest of the report, but it would be interesting to know whether the Government have any thoughts about replacing the existing power, which has clearly failed.

Then there have been references to "drunks". Is it true that the fears that were expressed when the straight sentence of imprisonment was abolished have proved to be justified? Has there been an increase in the number of those committed for failure to pay fines or for some other type of offence, such as a minor assault? Is what we read in the newspapers about the future of the detoxification centres at Leeds and Manchester as gloomy as it sounds? Are there any proposals for a rather simpler establishment to which the police can legally take drunks?

I have just time, I hope, to pose one or two more questions. Is it known when the power of the courts to suspend a sentence in part will be brought into effect? Are there any proposals under review for taking yet more current offences outside the criminal law altogether? Are the Government content with the number of places in bail hostels for those with no fixed address who otherwise would end up in prison?

I am not expecting the Minister to attempt to answer this evening more than a few of the questions in that examination paper, although I hope that he will be able to comment on some of them. However, I am posing these questions because all of them seem to me to relate— and I come back to this in my last few words—to the need to do all that we can to see that only those are sent to prison for whom there is genuinely no alternative; that they are sent there for a period which is as right and fitting as human ingenuity can devise; and that when they are there they are treated with the humanity that the social conscience of our democracy calls for.

6.15 p.m.


My Lords, everything that I was going to say has already been said. Perhaps, therefore, your Lordships will forgive me if I throw away my speech and comment on what has been said by other noble Lords in this debate. We are particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Soper, for introducing this Motion—and I say "particularly" for the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Foot: that for 10 long years there have been debates in your Lordships' House, that NACRO have done a magnificent job of work, that there have been pleas from different people throughout the country and yet we seem to be in a worse position today than we were 10 years ago.

Having dealt, as has the noble Lord, Lord Soper, with a number of people in prison, I have always found that they have a tremendous sense of justice. They know that there is a code by which we live in society and that if we do not adhere to that code there is no freedom for anybody. When they have been caught and justly convicted, many of them have said to me at the time, "Well, Miss, it was a fair cop". What they do not think is fair is how they are dealt with afterwards. And the fact that they feel that it was a "fair cop" means that at least with some prisoners, at any rate, we have something to build on. It is when they move into these tremendously overcrowded conditions that the sense of injustice sets in.

I should like to be practical and, therefore, to ask some very practical questions of the Minister. First, I should like to know how many young men between the ages of 17 and 21 who have been sentenced to borstal are still being held in prison. The longer that these young men between the ages of 17 and 21 stay in prison without being moved on to borstal the more they are harmed.

First, they start to make relationships with the prison staff. Many of these young men have been rejected. They await movement to borstal. They are moved eventually, but not for a long time. Secondly, they are not receiving the education programme which they should be receiving in borstal. Thirdly, they are taking up the time of the prison staff—time which should, perhaps, be allocated to men over the age of 21. One borstal boy, who was in Oxford prison, has written to me. He was in a cell with three others. He had a fight in that prison cell on a very hot night after an argument had broken out. He knocked out the teeth of another man. He looked at me hopelessly and said, "It was right that I was convicted, but it is wrong that I should live in these conditions".

What are the alternatives? In our last debate I put in a plea that there should be more hostels. A number of men would not need to go into prison if there were more hostels. One man regularly used to come to see me and say, "Goodbye, Miss. Happy Christmas". This was three days before Christmas. I used to say to him, "But it isn't Christmas yet". He said, "No, but I've work to do". The work he had to do was to "clock" a policeman in order to spend Christmas in prison. Now that we have a hostel in Oxford, that man is no longer in prison at Christmas; he is able to spend Christmas in the hostel.

I know that there are difficulties over the setting up of hostels. Nobody is prepared to have a hostel near to him. Furthermore, there is the question of the expense, although I would point out to your Lordships that hostels are not nearly so expensive as keeping a man in prison. There is not the money to set up the hostels, but we do not involve the community adequately in projects. I speak with particular feeling because I have the greatest admiration for, for instance, the Church Army, the Salvation Army and other religious organisations running hostels and I know that through the housing Acts it is possible to set up a hostel. What it is not possible to do, either through central Government funds or through local government funds is to raise the money for the furnishing. For a hostel for 90 men we needed £30,000 to furnish it. In one year we raised that £30,000—not from people who were wealthy, not from trusts (although we did have some money from trusts) but from the people of Oxford: the taxicab drivers, the firemen, the police, the men at British Leyland. And because they paid for the furniture at that hostel they are involved and take part in taking the men out from that hostel.

I know there are difficulties in regard to hostels for drunks and drug addicts; nevertheless, with a certain amount of assistance, with a certain amount of public work in the community, it is possible to get these hostels. I suggest that we should involve the community in setting up many more hostels, not just in one place or another, but throughout England.

Taking up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Foot, about an amnesty, I would say just this. Of the men leaving prison at the moment there are a great many who, when they leave, have nowhere to go. Therefore, should the Government ever consider such a thing as an amnesty it would have to be a planned amnesty, otherwise it would be quite impracticable. Even at this time there are men leaving prison with nowhere to go. I know of one man who left prison and walked from, I think, the other side of Birmingham to Oxford in order to get into one of our hostels. It is unacceptable to the authorities that have set up a hostel that the authorities which have not set up a hostel are discarding their responsibilities.

In regard to the question of fines, I am astonished that the attachment of earnings order is not used more. Very often people say that the attachment of earnings order is not possible because either the man is out of work, in which case it can be worked out with the Supplementary Benefits Commission, or he has changed his job. But even if it were that in only a third of the cases there was an attachment of earnings order, at least, as the right reverend Prelate has said, there would be that one-third fewer people in prison because they had not paid their fines. Why is it that the attachment of earnings order is used so little?

I also ask why we, as a country, have not developed attendance centres. Nobody knows more than I do how difficult it is to staff and run attendance centres, but I believe that there are many people in this country who would give up their Saturday afternoons. I was speaking to three young men who had been arrested in the Oxford football ground for particularly nasty attacks on people and I said to them, "If you are found guilty, what will happen? "They said, "Oh well, we shall be sent down". I said to them, "If you were given the choice by the court to go to an attendance centre every Saturday for a year and not be allowed to go to a football match or to anything else on a Saturday, or to go to prison, which would you choose?" They said, "We would choose the attendance centre". I have often wondered why we do not have people sent to attendance centres with an order that the first time a person does not turn up at the attendance centre without good reason he will go to prison. I believe that would do a great deal that was constructive in the attendance centre system.

I wonder about community service orders. Here again I know that there is a division of opinion as to how they should be used, but I believe that rightly used they can, for a proportion of prisoners, be of positive value. I had two boys working in the garden of one of our establishments and they stole. I simply gathered everybody together and said, "There has been a theft. It will not be reported and if next Sunday the watches and the pens are on the table, no further action will be taken". They were on the table.

With regard to the question of overcrowding, I come from Oxford where, as the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, knows, we have the most overcrowded prison in the country, but it is one of the happiest prisons in the country. Why? To start with it is small; secondly, it is right in the centre of the city, near a bus station and a railway station and it is possible for social workers and the Social Services Department and probation officers to arrange for families to visit the men. There is nothing which humanises and helps a man more than to have his family visit him. People say to me, "But how awful for the children to visit". I do not think it is. What the child minds about is seeing his father; he does not mind what kind of house he sees him in. In fact a child said to me, "Did you know that my father lives in a big house?" It does not really matter what house he visits his father in, but the prison staff tell me that the men to have visitors to see them are far easier to handle than those who do not.

That brings me to the question raised by one noble Lord about more prisons. Of course, I agree that there must be high security prisons, but I wonder whether we ought not to think of small penal establishments throughout the country so that there can be visits by relatives and friends and so that there can be an involvement with the community. Many people who have prisons in their midst have no idea what goes on inside them. I think there needs to be much more involvement of the community.

Finally, I should like to take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, in regard to the Butler Committee report and recommendations. Sadly the secure units for prisoners who are suffering from mental illness have been extremely difficult to implement. Why? First, because nobody wants that kind of unit near them. I wonder whether we have failed to make the right appeal to the people of this country. Secondly, and sadly—and I say this with some diffidence and hesitation—the trade unions have not helped in this connection because they have said, "We must safeguard our workers and the conditions involved in working with such men would be too difficult". Therefore, I do not think we could abolish the prison system, but I think we could greatly change it. We could get many more people out of prison and therefore improve our Prison Service.

6.30 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, am deeply indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Soper, for introducing this debate this evening. I am unhappy, if I may say so, that I have not the privilege of following the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who is in a Committee upstairs and therefore has taken his name off the list, but I am delighted to be able to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, because she has said so many of the things I would like to say and probably will. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Soper, and one of the things that struck me very forcibly about his speech was the fact that he never once mentioned the victims, the aggrieved, the people who have had harm done to them, though it is because people are aggrieved that people are in prison. I think that at all times more of us should think of those people who have been hurt.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, as the noble Baroness has been so kind as to mention me, may I explain that I was involved in a Committee upstairs dealing with victims, and may I venture to lay before her the fact that I am introducing a Bill on that subject next Tuesday? I hope she will be a strong supporter.


My Lords, I think I should declare an interest in this debate, or perhaps I should declare qualifications. I have been a magistrate. and therefore I have had the onerous duty of sending people to prison. I have been a magistrate for 25 years. I have also been chairman of one of the most difficult juvenile courts in this country for the last eight years. I am now also a member of the Parole Board. So I hope I have not a bias, but I think perhaps I have more than a passing interest in this debate this evening.

Of course, I would agree that prisons are fundemantelly supposed to be a deterrent. They are also supposed to be a place for rehabilitation. But they are also a place for those against whom the public are supposed to be protected. It is perhaps in that category that, as a member of the Parole Board, I find the real problems of dealing with prisoners who have been in prison for two years and more. I should tell the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, that in none of the cases in all the dossiers with which I have dealt on the Parole Board in the last 18 months have I known of any prisoner who has been sent out on the instructions of the Parole Board without somewhere to go.

I know that many of us who sit in courts are worried about the extent to which the law allows us—and I use the word advisedly—to send people to prison. Mention has been made of drunks, mention has also been made of fines. I would also say that in another category where we are allowed to send people to prison—that of rate arrears—it is an excellent deterrent. I have on many occasions sent people downstairs for not paying their rates, knowing very well that the man had got the money in his pocket; there was never any intention on the part of the person who owed the money of going to prison.

When we are speaking of overcrowding in prisons—and I do not want to labour this point because other noble Lords have covered it better than I can—I think we must also look at the next generation. The generation of juvenile delinquents with which I am now dealing may be—one always hopes not—the prisoners of the future. One of the things we should try to do to see that the prisons are not over crowded because there are more law-abiding citizens in the country, is to ensure that the young people in our country are brought up to be law-abiding. This, I know, is an enormous subject, one that is almost mind-boggling when one realises the extent of juvenile delinquency in our country today.

May I say that I am 100 per cent.—more than that if that were possible—behind my right honourable friend in another place, William Whitelaw, the Home Secretary, when he puts forward the idea of very short, very sharp sentences for young offenders. This, we know, has been tried and has proved not very successful for very many years. The reason, in my view, has been that the sentence has not been short and it has not been sharp. When I suggest that perhaps an ex-regimental sergeant major might be put in charge of somewhere where young people would be deprived of their liberty and sent for short sentences, I think they would come out wanting never to go in again.

I would advocate them going into such an institution for the much too prevelant offence of mugging, the offence of assault, and the offence which is far more worrying to me than any other now among young people and that is the carrying of an offensive weapon. I do not know if your Lordships realise that only four weeks ago at the Old Bailey there were three young men aged 16 who had individually been carrying offensive weapons with which they had killed three people. I feel that if they had not been carrying those weapons, if society had demanded that they should not carry offensive weapons, then at least three young people would be alive today. It is the citizen's right to be protected from the wrongdoer, especially the wrongdoer who commits robbery with violence—those who commit assault on the person. Unfortunately, one does have to face the fact that the only way to deal with these people, the only way that society can compensate it self for the damage that is done is to take away their liberty.

Of course we need more prisons. We need much better conditions in prisons. But in the present climate, as I understand, it it is not likely that we are going to get more prisons. I have one suggestion to make. As the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, has alluded to community service, I am going to follow it up. I must admit that I did not really think that it would ever work; I thought it would too be haphazard. However, I have just read the Inner London report for the last six years and it does seem to be working, and I am delighted to report that. I am going to ask the Government this evening whether they will consider reducing the age of community service to 15. It is now 17 and over. But it is the 15 year-olds and perhaps younger whose minds and future behaviour can be steered in certain ways. I should like to advocate that magistrates and juvenile courts throughout the country should be able to ask for community service to be part of penal punishment meted out to those aged 15 and over.

My reason is this. To my certain knowledge and experience, a great number of young people are bored, a great number have nothing to do, a great number want to be told what to do. I ask the Minister to consider the proposal that young people should, through community service, be sent to hospitals where there are geriatrics, psychiatrics, subnormals, children who are perhaps so severely handicapped that some of us would not sleep in our beds tonight if we saw them; and the disabled—in other words, people very much worse off than any of the offenders who come before us in the courts. I have proved that, because they come into contact with people worse off than themselves and because they are given the responsibility of looking after patients worse off than themselves, they suddently realise that they are not so badly off after all, and that they can give something to society, instead of taking. It is only a small request, and it will suit only a small number of people. However, I can think over the last 10 years of at least a hundred children whom I should have liked to send, through community service, to precisely those sorts of institution where they would come up against people worse off than themselves.

I have spoken for 12 minutes and we were told that we must keep to a tight schedule. However, the basic fact surely remains that until we can persuade more of our citizens to obey the laws of our country, our prisons will unfortunately continue to be overcrowded.

6.42 p.m.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, I, too, am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Soper, for introducing this Motion today. I wish to confine my speech entirely to Asians in prison and to consider why so many of them are there. The major trouble is two-fold. First, there is often a lack of understanding of the English language and law. Secondly, many Asians are in prison because of a breakdown in communications.

I should like to refer to Law and Practice of September 1978. It deals with a case which I hope proves what I am trying to say. The court was told that the defendant wanted an interpreter, who was present, to help him. The judge then asked the man whether his name was Sohal and naturally, knowing his own name the man replied, "Yes". From that exchange it appeared that the judge thought that the man could speak English. He then asked the man what his religion was. The man consulted his interpreter. There was a long conversation and the judge became rather impatient and said that he wanted the defendant sworn because, "I don't believe him". This, although he could not understand what the chap had been saying because he had been speaking to the interpreter. The Sikh oath was then read to the defendant by the interpreter, in English, and he repeated it phonetically word by word.

At the end of the recitation, the judge remarked that his clerk could have done it just as well and said that there was no need for an interpreter. He then put questions to the man who managed to say that he had "children"—in fact he had three—and managed to say that he was "self-employed". Then the clerk informed the judge that the man had a clothing shop. The man was asked how much money he earned and he said, "Five hundred pound, maybe six hundred pound … sales …". He said the word "sales", but apparently the judge thought he meant gross takings. The judge then said that as he was a man with a wife and three children; he had money and he should either pay tax of £400 or go to prison for 21 days. I feel that was a very unfortunate misunderstanding for that Asian.

There is a need for interpreters at an earlier stage, not merely in court, because if they were present during the preparation of the defence misconceptions on the part of legal advisers would be removed. There should be a real understanding of what has happened before the matter goes to court, so that misconceptions need not be passed on in court. As a result, many men would receive shorter prison sentences or perhaps none at all.

For many years I worked in Malaysia and had from time to time to attend magistrates' courts. We had excellent interpreters in Malay, in Chinese in six dialects and in Indian in three to four. In this country we need better interpreters. An excellent survey has been made by Mrs. Horabin who is an Indian lady, educated in this country, and who is at present a probation officer at Wandsworth Prison. She speaks Hindi and Urdu. When, for example, she asked a prisoner why he did not defend himself he replied, "Well, you can't argue against the English burra sahib". That is the attitude which many take. Although they live in this country they still have their caste system. So, when they are asked to undertake laundry work (dhobi) or gardening (mali) or tailoring, it is considered below their social standing and it makes them feel like untouchables and that hurts their pride.

Another difficulty is, of course, that everyone is asked his or her religion. If when asked, a man says that he is a Moslem, he is put immediately on a Moslem diet and he cannot have the bacon, eggs or sausages which he has been used to eating at home. When they are asked their religion, they should be asked whether they are practising Moslems. If, for example, I say that I am a Roman Catholic—and everyone has to declare a religion—then I do not necessarily eat fish on Fridays. Therefore, I think that they should be given the choice of diet and that will make some of them much happier in future.

There is a further difficulty such as that of a young man quoted in this survey. He was 21 years of age; unable to speak the language of his parents and had no one to turn to unless he could get a very good interpreter in his own language. There are also cultural difficulties. Families may feel that a member of their family brings shame on them and they become frightened of going to the prison, becoming involved with the police, the courts, or probation officers or white officials who neither speak their language nor understand their culture, and so they cannot get help.

Nearly half the Asian prisoners do not have social inquiry reports. There is no record of contact with the probation officer at the time of sentence. In fact, no one seems to explain to the prisoner what is going on. I should like to suggest that a social inquiry report is needed and should be given to the prison welfare officer. As many men when they are working send their money back to India for their relations, their relations should be informed that they are in prison and the reason why money cannot be sent.

In Mrs. Horabin's survey mention is made of a Swiss lady, Mrs. Ellis, with whom I worked as regards au pair girls and who since then has been carrying on work for prisoners. She did an excellent job and was awarded an MBE. She now has support from the Gulbenkian Foundation and the British Council of Churches. She works with prisoners and immigrants. She does voluntary work herself, but she has three paid organisers and councillors. Training is provided for them by the social services. Those people deal with the welfare problems of immigrants chiefly at the Channel ports and the prisons at Canterbury and Maidstone. I hope that the noble Lord will see whether—if he has not done so already—someone can go and see this experiment because it would be worthwhile to try it in other areas. We need counsellors to give help to people in prison.

I should also like to suggest that Asian volunteers should be asked to collect books and recreational material, and to visit and help prisoners to write letters. Many prisoners cannot write for themselves. They need their own literature and their own recreational facilities. Embassies and High Commissions could be notified when one of their nationals is in prison. Moreover, students might be encouraged to visit. A prisoners' wives service is needed. I am due to speak to an Indian women's organisation next Tuesday and I shall ask them whether a number of them will get together and visit very lonely wives many of whom are unable to speak English. We want speakers in Pushtu, Tamil and Bengali. I shall try to find them and see if we cannot get a service going for these women. Perhaps we could have qualified prison officers in the prisons to teach English to the prisoners. Furthermore, they have a need for their religion and for visits by priests. I gather that they are not very good at doing this at present, but it is rather offending that the Moslems have to take off their tawiz and the Sikhs their bangle. I believe that practising Moslems are often not given adequate time for prayer.

Finally, I should like to join with the right reverend Prelate in praise of prison officers. They are doing a very difficult job, particularly as many of them have no training in relation to people from overseas who are now in prisons in considerable numbers. I am told that the older men—those who fought in the war—get on very well with some of the prison officers because they have an understanding; but the young ones simply have no understanding of the treatment they receive and become very resentful.

I agree with the right reverend Prelate that at present prison officers are poorly paid for the work they have to do. Their rest days are often lost; their one weekend in a fortnight may be lost, if they are called back on a Saturday or a Sunday to perform their various duties. With so many people unemployed, could not the Home Office persuade some of them to take up this very honourable profession? Day after day we hear that, for example, the Post Office is 7,000 employees short and that the prison officers are not up to complement. I think that we should encourage some of these unemployed people to take up these worthwhile jobs.

I hope that my noble friend Lord Belstead will take up some of the points that I have raised. Apart from my last suggestion, they would not cost anything. Such work can all be done by volunteers, who would be a tremendous asset and help. If my first suggestion is adopted, fewer people would find themselves in prison and those who did reach prison would be happier, have a better time, and a better understanding.

6.52 p.m.


My Lords, I paused because I wondered whether my noble friend Lord Longford, who has arrived, wished to speak. I suppose that this will be the first penal debate ever in which he has not spoken. I personally regret that. It is 20 years since I first heard a debate in your Lordships' House, which is 10 years before I was honoured by joining it. In that debate, I heard the noble Lord, Lord Soper—to be revered even if not technically reverend—make a splendid speech by which I was very much impressed. I thought that he was mostly right then, and I think that he is mostly right today. I am very grateful to him for opening this debate so lucidly. It is a debate which is deliberately designed on a fairly narrow basis, because this evening we are not concerned with the battle against crime as a whole or even with the perplexities of after-care; we are concerned with the central sanction, which is prison.

I can think of no one who thinks that our use of prison today is all right as it is, and certainly no speaker has shown the faintest complacency. I am quite aware that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, has had the best part of a month in which to put things right, and we shall be very surprised that he has not succeeded in doing so completely. However, in due course he will tell us what he will do. It is a very difficult assignment for him, because this has been wrong under a number of Governments for a number of years. My own organisation, NACRO, of which I am proud to be the president, has been encouraged and helped by successive Governments to make, and assist others to make, experiments, and many of them have worked very well-but always on a small scale. There have been some real improvements, but the fact is that the conditions of 90 per cent. of the people in prison are as cruel, as frustrating and as incapacitating today as they were those 20 years ago, even though there have been some small improvements.

During these 20 years I have petitioned, on one subject or another, every Home Secretary. I have known well the rapidly changing heads of the prison service and their rapidly changing senior officials: governors, assistant governors, uniformed staff, probation officers and welfare officers. From top to bottom all these people seem to be dedicated towards trying to do what we are all trying to do. Yet for some reason nothing happens at all. That is the object of this debate. In advance of the publication of the conclusions of the May Report—which I suppose we may expect by the end of the summer—we thought it would be wise to have a little general discussion. It is like those desperate charity committees, where eight good and unselfish people sit round a table and achieve absolutely nothing except to fight like cats and dogs. We must assume that there is something fundamentally wrong if so many people who know their business agree that something ought to be done, and nothing is done. It is a very frightening situation. A high percentage varying with different opinion from 30 per cent. of the prison population which is the figure the right reverend Prelate used, to 60 per cent. of the prison population, should not be in prison at all. This has nothing to do with overcrowding. Of course, it produces overcrowding. But we are con-cerned that those people ought not to be in prison at all. It is doing them harm and making the containment of the dangerous criminals, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, referred, who must be contained, increasingly difficult.

There is general agreement on the categories. The right reverend Prelate listed them, and I need say no more, except to run through them again. They are: the regular drunks, the mentally disordered, the petty inadequate, the drug addict, the fine defaulter and the illegal immigrant. These are all people who no one thinks ought to be in prison. Of course, occasionally, the odd one is a criminal, but that is a different matter. There is total agreement on this. We have had the reports of Butler and Payne, to which reference has been made, and the Weiler Report. My successor, as chairman of NACRO, sat on the Weiler Committee eight years ago. Nothing has happened. We seem to be going backwards in a I number of ways.

There are a variety of alternatives to imprisonment, which have also been listed this evening. I shall not go through them again. Under this heading it is very disturbing that there has been a serious falling-off in the number of probation orders made by the courts. This must worry the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, certainly as much as it worries me. I should like to know whether he has any plans for counteracting that because it is a very serious matter.

I want to refer to an interesting document which throws a slightly new light on the problem—at least it did for me. I shall not waste your Lordships' time by discussing it at length. It is an expansion of the evidence given to the May Committee by two academics, Dr. Roy King and Mr. Rodney Morgan. They believe that failure to improve our penal system occurs because the objectives of the Prison Department have been totally confused by rule 1 of the Prison Rules, which puts the first objective of prison as rehabilitation through training and treatment. It is a long, extremely able and far-reaching report, and no doubt Mr. Justice May will pay attention to it. Incidentally, I hope that he will not be inhibited by his terms of reference from examining the one really important problem of prisons; namely, why there are so many people there who ought not to be there. However, I think his terms of reference cover that.

A case has been made out that rule 1 should be dropped and that the main objective of imprisonment should be recognised to be no more and no less than "humane containment". They argue—and I am inclined to agree—that if the prisons were reorganised on this principle, with many more local prisons and many fewer specialised training prisons and, more controversially, with the adoption of the Mountbatten rather than the Radzinowitz solution for the Category As—although, with the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, I am not certain it is the right answer; it is a difficult point—much of the overcrowding could be avoided without building new prisons. In other words, much of the overcrowding is administrative rather than inevitable. Obviously if one could save some of the large sums which must be put aside for new prisons, there would be something left to build the alternatives we have been asking for for so many years. I have to admit that some of our prisons have certainly to be replaced, but this is something which is quite different from building new accommodation, for new people, which will simply be filled up as soon as it is built. The replacement of prisons is something which I think is unquestionably overdue.

May I suggest that we change our whole attitude to prison; that we should accept that its true function is humane containment, and that we should concentrate on training and treatment facilities for offenders before they are sent to prison and, if in the end they have to be, for when they come out. The prerequisite of humane containment is to take the non-dangerous offender out of prison and do positive work with him in the community, not in building new establishments or packing them like sardines into local "nicks".

The various alternatives I have referred to, with one or two exceptions, are not in themselves punitive. But they are applicable to the petty and inadequate offender on whom punishment is shown to be totally ineffective. The sanction of prison lies behind such measures and experience shows that, in many cases, diversion from a life of crime can be at least temporarily achieved. At the other end of the story it should be possible to increase automatic remission—some noble Lords referred to this—from one-third to a half of sentence, which would reduce the prison population by about 6,000 at a stroke, and to allow much earlier release in return for an agreement to undergo further treatment of the kind referred to.

Every court should have at its disposal locally a number of possible alternatives to prison. Some would be punitive in the sense of compulsory work and deprivation of leisure, and some would not. But the courts would then have the answer to the question they continually ask themselves: "I know prison will do him more harm than good, but what else can I do? "That is what we have to try and deal with. The noble Baronesses, Lady Macleod and Lady Faithfull, spoke about the community service order. My information is that 77 per cent. last year were carried through without breakdown which, if correct, is very good.

Enough has been said about the regular drunks and the mentally ill for me not to develop this point. May I say that I was surprised at the suggestion that the trade unions are being difficult about this, and if so I think this is a matter that we could perhaps take up through the TUC.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for mentioning this. I was talking about the difficulty of the trade unions in relation to the secure units attached to mental hospitals, not the drug centres.


My Lords, I am upset if they are being difficult about anything, because it is an important point. I wish to say in all humility to the noble Lord that my information, which may not be right, is that there is a sort of departmental tangle here over the detoxification centres, of which the Weiler Report recommended a nationwide series, and of which two were built and one is now being closed. I gather that it is impossible, between the DHSS and the Home Office, to get proper agreement. I understand that a certain amount of money has been put aside for the secure mental homes suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, and that this has been not so applied.

Before I sit down may I make two rather serious criticisms of the Prison Service, which I think on the whole I have been sufficiently long associated with for them to know that I am on their side. First, it is the system and not the men I am speaking about. It has not altogether diverted itself of the Victorian determination to humiliate the prisoner—shaved heads and the broad arrow have gone, and so has flogging, but not bread and water, not numbers instead of names; not slopping out, and not mailbag sewing. Letters are censored, which is a ridiculous precaution for any but category A prisoners, and a humiliating one. It is almost impossible for a prisoner to make a telephone call, which is absurd in 1979.

The treatment of unconvicted men on remand, to which my noble friend referred, is a disgrace to the country. I hope to talk about this on another occasion, as it is too big a question. The treatment of prisoners on remand is totally intolerable. It is also disgraceful that unconvic- ted men should be treated, whether they are Members of Parliament or dustmen, as Messrs. Thorpe and company were treated while the jury were out at their recent trial.

Is it the judge who decides that they may make a last minute break for freedom, and so suspends their bail? I can see that there may be exceptional cases when this is necessary. But I cannot believe that it is the judge who decides that they are so likely to make a bolt that they must be handcuffed on their way to the remand prison. Is this a routine precaution? Is it reserved for Members of Parliament? Phineas Finn was never treated like that when he was accused of first-degree murder. He had a room to himself with a fire and a book case, so the picture shows. I am afraid it is probably a routine practice for all classes, and just as unnecessary for the small as for the great. I want to know how we can change it. I should like some suggestions. If the noble Lord thinks that we can help him to do so we will, because it is absolutely monstrous.

Let me end by saying this. Despite the fact that prison is extremely expensive and damaging; despite the fact that agencies working in the area from the probation officer to the prison governor, and including many judges and magistrates, are united in their criticism of incarceration for a substantial number of offenders, we continue to lock them up. All informed opinion is against this; it is time now to take committed and positive action. Apart from shorter sentences, which we can perhaps discuss another day—and obviously that is one of the two main solutions for dealing with this—a wide ranging series of moderate and sensible proposals to reduce the prison population have been put forward and are working; some working better, and admittedly some working worse.

These involve a punitive element in that they usually deprive individuals of their leisure time, and there is also an element of reparation to the community; or else sometimes the opportunity for constructive achievement and a sense of personal fulfilment and worth, where people meet with non-delinquent volunteers, and the results can be very good. It is time now to invest our energies and resources in these alternatives, and to cease oversubscribing to what increasingly appears to be a highly damaging punishment both for those who receive it and for the society which suffers the consequences; always remembering that the theory of humane containment means that the dangerous man, in so far as you can identify him, must be humanely contained. We have had an interesting debate and I shall be interested to hear what the noble Lord will have to say to us.

7.8 p.m.


My Lords, in this House we make a habit of expressing thanks to noble Lords who are responsible for contributing subjects for debate. However difficult the questions—and the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kings-bridge, has put his share of difficult questions—raised in a debate in this House we are accustomed, from the Government Bench, to thank the noble Lord who is responsible. Well, I can genuinely say that I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Soper, not only for teaching us how to make a wonderful speech, but also because the problems presented by the prison system are matters for deep concern.

If we refuse to face these problems, unless we start, or at least try to start, from first principles and then set our sights on longer-term aims, we shall be unable to ensure that the hard-pressed Prison Service makes the most effective contribution possible to both law and order. Because this debate has concentrated our minds on these problems, I join with other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Soper, for introducing this debate today.

Almost without exception, I guess that your Lordships who have taken part in this debate can forget more about the prison system that I have yet been able to learn. However, I have had an opportunity to see some of the work of the service at first hand and I feel I must pay credit to prison staff for all they do, often in the most difficult circumstances. From his speech, I would also guess that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester would agree that prison officers are as anxious as any of us to see that their establishments should be put to the most effective use so that the prison system may contribute as effectively as possible to the criminal justice system.

It is sometimes said that there are four main objectives of that system: to protect the public; to punish; to deter; and, more debatably, to try to rehabilitate offenders. Inevitably the priority attached to those four objectives alter as over the years changes occur in professional and public opinion. I think I am right in saying that in the past, and particularly after the enhancement of prison security following the Mountbatten Report, it was generally thought that the first three of those objectives would be fulfilled by imprisonment, and it was then thought that the main challenge for the prison system was how to improve the facilities for rehabilitation.

That situation, I realise, has been changed by two clear developments; a growing disbelief, voiced in your Lordships' House tonight, in the reformative effect of custodial treatment, linked with increasingly intolerable pressures on the prison system. With a heritage of Victorian buildings, the system has become desperately overcrowded. During last March the prison population climbed to a new peak of 42,500, with over one-third of all prisoners living two or three to a cell. Undeniably there is excessive overtime working for disciplinary and other essential staff. The Government hope that the report of the inquiry into the United Kingdom Prison Service under Mr. Justice May will provide a basis for setting the prison service on a stable and productive course for the future. We shall consider the committee's recommendations as soon as the report is received, but it is clear that it will be some considerable time before the necessary changes will be able to exert their effect.

It is against that background that the Government intend to make the best use of the very substantial investment in prison building and staff resources and to look for initiatives to relieve pressures on the system. A reduction in the prison population would obviously bring much relief to the service, but I must say that we have to consider such a reduction in the context of wider questions of penal reform. Nevertheless, the courts have in recent years succeeded in keeping the proportionate use of imprisonment fairly stable, despite the considerable increase in the number of offenders appearing before them.

That leads me to say that we must ask this question: Could the courts go further by reducing that proportion even more? Reported indictable crime has risen at an alarming rate in recent years. For the protection of the general public, in many cases prison is the only available sentence which a court can possibly give. At the same time, it is the case that no countermeasure—I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Soper, that this includes the act of imprisonment—taken by itself, and judged by the test of whether it prevents crime, has ever provided a conclusive answer to criminal involvement.

Given that some forms of sentence make less demands on resources than others, it is reasonable to ask: how can we refine custodial disposals or develop non-custodial disposals as part of a wider criminal justice policy? How can we introduce greater flexibility into the system so that it makes a more discriminating and effective impact, particularly on young offenders? These are the matters the Government are studying in the light of the recent Expenditure Committee report and the previous Government's Green Paper on youth custody and supervision, and it is valuable for Government to have the benefit of the views of your Lordships' House.

I will now try to answer some of the points that have been made by noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Soper, spoke about the deterioration of prisoners in prison and, with respect, I agree with him that, without some hope, imprisonment becomes intolerable to the prisoner and to those who are to look after him. To give some hope for the future is not a soft option, and the expansion of the parole scheme was mentioned by my noble friend Lady Macleod. In 1969, the first full year of parole, 27 per cent. of those eligible were released on licence; last year the figure was 47 per cent. And, of those, only 9.1 per cent. were recalled, with less than one half of them recalled for further offences.

So far as long-term prisoners are concerned, every effort is made to place the prisoner appropriately both from the point of view of security and individual needs, with an attempt to have a progression to less secure accommodation, with a review ultimately to release on licence. Your Lordships might be interested to know that in 1978, 81 life-sentence prisoners were released in that way. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, referred to the view of Dr. King and Mr. Morgan and went on to commend the adoption of the Mountbatten solution for Category A prisoners; I am thinking of this in terms of long-term prisoners and high security prisons.


I did say that was a very controversial suggestion, my Lords.


My Lords, I apologise if I misrepresented the noble Lord, who has now made it quite clear. I am really trying to put my own response to the King and Morgan view into the general context of what I am attempting to say tonight, but I wish to say a word about category A prisoners. I feel there are three interrelated issues here. First, there is the question of how to deal with category A prisoners; secondly, there is the question of what is the appropriate régime for longterm prisoners in conditions of high security where it has been the aim of successive Governments to provide a liberal, humane régime within a secure perimeter; and, thirdly, there is the recurring question of how to deal with long-term prisoners who present control problems.

As your Lordships know, in 1968 the Government of the day decided to adopt the dispersal policy. The policy has regularly been reviewed, and the suggestion has been made by more than one noble Lord that there still exists the Mountbatten suggestion that it would be more desirable to concentrate category A prisoners in fortress prisons, or that a variety of those proposals would deal more effectively with one or more of the major problems which I have tried to set out.

I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, who, with his experience, counselled caution in respect of the Mountbatten solution, and, with his experience of Northern Ireland, I am sure Lord Donaldson will not mind my saying that I am sure he recognises the obvious difficulty that could arise from placing within one or two prisons only a substantial number of prisoners who are adherents to terrorist groups, particularly those concerned, for example, with Northern Ireland politics. On the other hand, I realise that this subject raises serious administrative, financial and social arguments. Some of the arguments have been put to the May Committee and the Government await with interest what the committee may say.

Meanwhile, the problems of operating dispersal prisons are the subject of regular consideration and discussion with governors and I wish to assure the House that there is a readiness on the part of the Government always to consider seriously any suggestions for improvement in this field, but at this stage, and having heard the words this evening, we are not persuaded that there are good grounds at the moment for radical change.

It is often argued that the Government could rapidly solve the problem of the overloading of the prison system by a massive transfer of resources from custodial to non-custodial treatment. In essence, I thought that was the case put by Lord Soper tonight, and the words I have used are quoted from evidence given to the May Comimttee by the noble Earl, Lord Longford. In principle this goes to the nub of the debate. This is an attractive idea, but with respect, I consider that it has an element of placing the cart before the horse because any transfer from custody to non-custody must start with a transfer not of resources, but of offenders. To meet the demand which additional offenders given non-custodial sentence would place on, in particular, the Probation Service and allied facilities, additional resources would have to be allocated to these services at a time when, at any rate for some time, no less money would need to be spent on prison staff and buildings. Of course in effect this is the direction in which Government have been going through community service, though no doubt at a slower rate than some people would wish. But let us suppose that a massive expenditure programme to prime the pumps of non-custodial service were embarked upon. Would it in the longer term enable prison expenditure to be reduced so that overall expenditure was less and not greater? Of course it is impossible to say. The Government provide—

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, in the longterm there really could not be any argument about it. Everyone knows that it costs far more to keep a person in prison than it does to keep him outside—it may be 10 times as much. Whatever might be said about the immediate situation, I should have thought that the long-term situation was incapable of being looked at two ways.


My Lords, with respect, I consider that the noble Earl is pre-empting what he believes everybody else would believe as well. The difficulty —which I think the noble Earl has disregarded—is that while the Government provide penal facilities, they cannot prescribe how they are used. That is the task not of your Lordships' House, but of the courts. Legislation and other declarations of Government policy in relation to sentencing practice can of course go some way to guide the courts—I do not deny that—but a wide discretion must be left to the courts. Therefore, it is quite possible that new, non-custodial facilities would not be used by the courts wholly or even mainly in place of custodial sentences. The upward—


My Lords, may I stress the point that I hear again and again from magistrates and judges: that they would use non-custodial facilities if they had them. I believe this to be true; and it is certainly true that there are not nearly enough such facilities for them all to be able to use if they so began.


That may be so, my Lords, but all I can say to the noble Lord is that the upward trend in the use of custodial sentences, for instance over the last three years, suggests that the courts would not be as ready as noble Lords may seem to think to see a marked switch in sentencing practice towards non-custodial measures.

The speech of my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve reminded us of the difficulties of people who are victims of crime and of the importance of having the alternative of custody for non-payment of fines and for arrears of other monetary payments. I am not being too hardheaded about this, but I am saying that the courts are to some extent influenced by public opinion as they perceive it, and they might well feel that the present public mood is not in fact in favour of more and more leniency.

In the light of what the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, has just said, it may be, however, that the very success of the limited experiments for non-custodial disposals will confirm, for both Government and the people of this country, that we should continue the search for further non-custodial sentences. I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Foot, and Lord Allen of Abeydale, that without these initiatives the prison population would have risen to intolerable bounds.

I have said some things which obviously sound unfriendly, and so I should like to make it clear that the Home Office and the Probation Service regard voluntary aftercare hostels, for instance, as an extremely valuable aid in the fight against recidivism. One of the initiatives of NACRO has been support for the many other voluntary organisations engaged in this field, and I should like to acknowledge the value of their efforts. Under the Home Office after-care hostel grant scheme we currently grant-aid through voluntary organisations 225 hostels, which provide 2,300 places for offenders; and a number of new schemes are in the pipeline.

My noble friend Lady Faithfull asked me about the number of young men aged between 17 and 21 who are in prison or remand centres waiting to go to borstal. They number 97, and I am sure my right honourable friend at the Home Office will want to look carefully at the speech of my noble friend. Other initiatives by voluntary organisations in partnership with the Home Office, the Probation Service, and other central and local government departments have established (as the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, knows much better than I) employment, education, and other day activity schemes for the care and resettlement of offenders. Combinations of these facilities are, and have been, accepted by the courts as viable alternatives to imprisonment. Here I will give the noble Lord a point. I thought that he made a very telling point—certainly it told with me; and I know the truth of it from previous years—about courts asking the question: apart from prison, what else can we do? Obviously, we must pursue, though within the general climate of public opinion, non-custodial sentences.

My noble friend Lady Faithfull asked me about attendance centres. I am glad to be able to say that, since the Government came to office, three more junior attendance centres have been opened, bringing the total number to 80, and a further nine new centres are in various stages of planning. We are determined to make such centres available in each area where there is a demand for one and where the number of boys convicted of indictable offences is large enough to make a centre viable. But there is a difficulty here about the number of 18, 19 and 20 year-olds who appear to be suitable for attendance centres, and, on that particular point and on the matter of the placing of the 17 and 18 year-olds, I should prefer to write to my noble friend.

Both the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester, asked me about mentally disordered prisoners, a matter which I think worries all your Lordships. It is true that there unfortunately remain in prison a number of offenders who are suffering from mental disorder of a nature or degree warranting their detention in hospital for treatment under the Mental Health Act 1959. The most recent returns I have show a total of 520. It is a cause of concern that the mentally disordered find their way to prison when they ought to be in hospital, and the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Security are doing all they can to find solutions to the problem.

The noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbey-dale, asked me specifically about the development of regional secure facilities by the National Health Service, as recommended in the Butler Report. Progress in their establishment has, I know, been terribly and disappointingly slow, though I appreciate the difficulties being encountered. However, the picture is not so entirely black as it may seem, and while we would wish that more had been done, it is worth acknowledging that interim secure facilities are now available in the Mersey, North Western, Trent, Wessex and Yorkshire Health Regions, and I am glad to say that plans have been received by the DHSS from 11 Regional Health Authorities for the provision of permanent secure facilities. The noble Lord—


My Lords, the noble Lord referred to the areas which are covered, but am I right in thinking that the actual places so far available come out at less than 200?


Yes, my Lords; so far as I know, the noble Lord is right in thinking that, and some of the extra places that I have indicated are, I understand, being provided at the present time. If I have made a mistake about that, I shall certainly write to the noble Lord. Following that exchange, it is right that I should mention that the noble Lord asked specifically whether the Government accept the Butler point of view. My right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for the Home Department and for Social Services remain committed to the establishment of these units as a matter of priority.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, the right reverend Prelate, and the noble Lord, Lord Allen, also asked me about detoxification centres, if I may use that shorthand expression. The Government are awaiting the result of research into the two detoxification centres in Leeds and Manchester to see whether these seem to have any effect on the incidence of the offences of drunkenness. Before any of your Lordships jump down my throat for saying that, may I say that I am beginning to become persuaded, although I have not been to visit Manchester or Leeds on the ground, that it may also be important to look at other initiatives of a more continuing nature. The DHSS has been spending substantial sums of money —nearly £1 million last year, I discovered to my surprise—to extend the range of treatment and rehabilitation facilities for alcoholics, including drunken offenders. I think that this is the sort of initiative which might meet Lord Soper's criticism: that by giving a drunk more continuous stability and enabling him to pay whatever fine he has to meet, we may thereby reduce the likelihood of further offences relating to drunkenness.

What is happening, therefore, is that the Probation Service refers homeless offenders with drink problems to both voluntary and statutory after-care hostels, and those requiring specialised treatment may be referred to the facilities which I have mentioned, funded by the DHSS. It would therefore be wrong to think that detoxification centres are the only, or indeed the most appropriate, answer to this problem. They are important, yes, but they are only one of a range of possible answers.


My Lords, to be quite clear, may I ask the noble Lord this question? This amounts to a rejection of the Weiler Report recommendations, I take it, in 1971? This is the first time we have heard this.


No, my Lords. was at great pains to say that I have not myself had the opportunity to visit either Leeds or Manchester, and I ended up by saying that I felt it would be wrong to think that detoxification centres are the only, or indeed necessarily the most appropriate, answer to this problem. This may well mean that they are part of a pattern, which is always good Conservative logic.

I have gone on quite long enough. If your Lordships will bear with me for just one moment, perhaps I may finish by very quickly answering three of my noble friends. I was startled, I must say, to hear my noble friend Lady Vickers say that there was a lack of social inquiry reports before custodial sentences for Asian offenders, and this is something about which I should like to try to learn more. Perhaps I may reply to the other points which my noble friend made in her speech by letter. May I thank my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve for the forthright speech which she made, particularly in supporting the proposal in the Conservative Manifesto for what is known as the short, sharp shock treatment for young offenders. If I may say so, I agree with my noble friend that if such treatment would prevent further progression to custody, then I think there is much to be said for it. But at the moment we are still considering the best way to give effect to this.

My noble friend specifically asked me about the reduction to 15 in the age of eligibility for community service. I was very interested both in this suggestion and in my noble friend's recommendation that community service for young people should be served with other people who are more disadvantaged than themselves. Of course, the reasons for not having lowered the age in the past are that a community service order requires responsibility, co-operation and, indeed, also, consent to the order. There are certainly arguments for lowering the age. I should like to draw my right honourable friend's attention to the speech which my noble friend has made. Finally, may I say to the noble Lord, Lord Allen, on his question about bail hostels, that provision has been made, or is currently being made, for bail hostels in all the major urban conurbations. Before further commitments are made the Government will wish to consider the use made of existing hostels, and the effect on them of the Bail Act.

The Prison Service is an essential part of the system for maintaining law and order, whatever weight any of your Lordships may place upon it. But I join with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester in believing that the service needs to know more of what is expected of it. I also agree with all noble Lords who have spoken that it is virtually impossible to do this in the present conditions of overcrowding. The Prison Service must be able to raise its aspirations if it is to guide prisoners from the adverse effects of imprisonment, offer worthwhile tasks, attract good quality staff and maintain public confidence. We shall come back to these important issues when the May Report is available; and I hope your Lordships will understand why, this evening, I do not go beyond recognising the questions raised in this debate while acknowledging the fundamental significance of them for us all.

7.35 p.m.


My Lords, I imagine that I have just a few moments, and I should like to occupy them by first of all repeating the thanks which I offered at the beginning of this debate to all those taking part in it, and not least for the reply of the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, the sympathetic demeanour which he has demonstrated, the options which he has left open for us and the prospects which lie before us. I may perhaps be permitted to make one comment about detoxification. When a Question was asked in another place not so long ago, I regret to say that the Minister repsonsible for the reply did not know much about it. He could have consulted me, if I am not arrogant about it, because I have been engaged in this job for a very long time now, and I would venture to say only this to the Minister. Detoxification by itself is a waste of time, unless it is followed by a rehabilitation programme and unless it eventuates in something like protected housing for at least some of those who are dried out. May I therefore, without presumption, invite the Minister to consider that kind of tripartite attempt to deal with one of these problems which, if it is successfully dealt with, will keep people out of prison.

I would accept the gentle rebuke of the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod. I hope she will acquit me of any lack of sympathy for those who are the victims, but I would suggest to her that pressure upon sympathy for the victim can very often mutilate the argument to which we were invited to attend this afternoon and this evening, and it is for that reason that I presumed not to mention it.

I would finally say this to the noble Lord, Lord Foot. When he spoke of loneliness I wondered whether he knew that it was the pure genius Pascal who said that a man's quality consists in what a man does with his loneliness; that is to say, when he is free to develop that loneliness, which is communion at its best, then his quality improves. The prison system is not what a man does with his loneliness but what is done to him by enforced isolation. It is the fundamental artificiality, I think, of the system, to which I will not revert in any argumentative sense; but I would suggest that the true loneliness, the individual capacity, the individual incentive, the highest point of the individual, can be served only when many of the suggestions that have been made this afternoon and tonight are carried out in a truly civilised society. My Lords, I am more than grateful for the opportunity to initiate this debate, and I am more than grateful for what has happened during its course. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.