HL Deb 31 October 1979 vol 402 cc394-400

3.47 p.m.


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

"The Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the United Kingdom Prison Services under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice May has been published today. First, my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Northern Ireland, and I, thank Mr. Justice May and his committee for their remarkable efforts in producing so comprehensive a report in the space of only 10 months.

"The May Committee was established because, as I know my predecessor, the right honourable Member for Leeds South, will confirm, all is not well with our prison system. But, as the committee themselves have emphasised, that does not mean that nothing is right. I endorse entirely the committee's view that we have been fortunate indeed in the men and women who staff our prison services. This does not simply mean the prison officers and governors—it includes all of the staff of individual establishments, regional offices and headquarters. A particular tribute is due to the staff of the Northern Ireland Prison Service who have had to work under conditions of which the House will be only too aware.

"The report draws attention to some fundamental problems. The rise in the prison population and the consequent overcrowding in many prisons is perhaps the most obvious. The committee recommends that we should pursue alternatives to imprisonment wherever possible but concludes that there are no acceptable developments which will absolve us from the need to support for the foreseeable future a substantial prison population. Moreover, there are other major problems such as the decay of many of the buildings, the poor physical conditions and sanitary arrangements, the rise in the number of criminally sophisticated and violent offenders and the consequent increased problems of control.

"We welcome the report's insistence on the constructive aspects of imprisonment and its concept of positive custody ' with its emphasis on work, education and openness of approach. For non-violent offenders we welcome the committee's advocacy of shorter sentences.

"The committee saw one of the principal requirements for the future as being the improvement of morale and efficiency in the prison services. To this end, it has made a number of far-reaching recommendations, confined to England and Wales, on the management and organisation of the Prison Department. I welcome the objectives that the committee has set and its emphasis on the standing and sense of identity of the Prison Service and shall have them firmly in mind in considering this important group of recommendations.

"The committee makes a number of recommendations on pay and allowances, some for implementation straight away, and some for further consideration in conjunction with the unions concerned. It recommends that the pay of prison officers should continue to be linked with Civil Service rates under the formula which has been in operation since 1958 in accordance with the recommendations of the Wynn-Parry Committee. In recognition of the increased demands of the prison officers' job since the review by the Wynn-Parry Committee, the May Committee recommends new pay scales involving an increment of about 6 per cent. on the third stage of the pay increase agreed this year under the existing formula. The committee also recommends new pay scales for prison governors again involving an increase on the third stage of the Civil Service pay settlement and that all the new rates should date for pension purposes from 1st April 1979. The committee also considered a number of claims by the Prison Officers' Association for the payment of what are known as "continuous duty credits", and it recommends the acceptance of three of these claims from varying dates. In addition, the committee made recommendations relating to the Northern Ireland Prison Service. The Government for their part accept and are prepared to implement all these recommendations on pay and allowances.

"The committee stressed the need for greater efficiency in the use of manpower and for reductions in the present high level of overtime. We share the committee's view. We shall need to examine carefully in consultation with the staff associations ways in which we can achieve these important objectives and deal with the recommendations on such matters as industrial relations, the role and training of staff, recruitment and conditions of service. The committee has also recommended a significant extension of the prison building programme as well as improvements in working conditions and facilities for staff. We shall need to study these recommendations carefully, taking account of the nation's total resources and the many claims upon them and our commitment to support and improve the prison system.

"The May Report presents all of us who are involved in our prisons with an opportunity and a challenge—an opportunity to tackle the problems of our prison system and a challenge to build on what has already been achieved. As the committee has said, those who would turn their backs on our prisons, turn their backs on society and its values."

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.

3.55 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for repeating this important Statement this afternoon. I should like also to join him in thanking the chairman, Mr. Justice May, and the other members of the Committee of Inquiry for the thorough way in which they have carried out this inquiry, for all their strenuous work, sometimes carried out in unusually difficult circumstances, and also for having done their work so expeditiously for an exercise as demanding as this. It is true that it has taken longer than was originally envisaged, but it would have been quite wrong for them not to take additional time. I should like also to join with the noble Lord in the tribute he has paid to all of the staffs of the prison services in their very difficult and not infrequently hazardous task, and particularly to underline and commend his observations about the staffs in Northern Ireland.

I would ask the noble Lord to accept that we on this Bench agree that time will be needed to study many aspects of the report. It is a very detailed one. It will need close examination and, no doubt, consultation with appropriate bodies including the Prison Officers' Association. But there are some things which are more urgently needed, some of which the noble Lord has indicated in repeating the Statement this afternoon. I refer to some of the recommendations on industrial relations matters.

The noble Lord will recall the main reasons why the May Committee of Inquiry was set up originally, which concerned the very serious situation and industrial unrest, indeed approaching anarchy, in some quarters. I would ask him to bear in mind the need for some action on some of the recommendations on industrial relations—which matter is particularly important.

For the sake of brevity this afternoon, I would refer to four paragraphs only on this matter in the summary of recommendations on pages 286 and 287 of the report, where it is said: Despite the substantial fund of loyalty and sense of duty that still exists in the prison services, willingness to resort to industrial action has increased in recent years, and still continues". It goes on: Action taken has affected the administration of justice, prison administration and the welfare of inmates and has, on occasions, run counter to the stated position of the POA on the limits of acceptable action". There are two other matters on the following page to which I would refer. They are: Staff must acknowledge that there are certain issues which can never he settled locally, and must be for national negotiation"; and: The Home Office and the CSD"— that is, the Civil Service Department— should give consideration to a return to the situation in which matters of pay and conditions of service are negotiated directly between the Home Office and the POA". There are important and urgent matters in the sphere of industrial relations which need more urgent attention than perhaps some of the other recommendations, and I would ask the noble Lord to bear that in mind. What he has said about pay, following the committee's recommendations on pay, I would welcome very warmly indeed and commend the Government for the speedy action they have taken.

I should also ask the noble Lord to bear in mind, in considering the action on this report, that as far as the structure of the prison services is concerned, particularly in England and Wales, full weight should be given to the need to maintain ministerial and parliamentary accountability. I think it noteworthy here that the report does not recommend, for example, a return to the old Prison Commission. The report also mentions—and perhaps he would feel that this is another significant point—the need to improve the lines of communication.

There are only two other brief points that I wish to mention. The first is the role of the prison officer. One of the commonest criticisms that one hears—and it comes from many prison officers themselves—is that they are not able to play a full part in the treatment and rehabilitation of offenders. I would ask the Government to keep that point, too, in the forefront of their minds in considering action. I think it is also vitally important in deciding on the future of the prison services to consider, at the same time, the alternatives to prison. Here I would agree with the pointers that the noble Lord has given. The report has some valuable comments on this. Also in this connection, there is at least the comment in one of the paragraphs of the Statement (where the noble Lord is referring to a passage in the report) saying: For non-violent offenders we welcome the committee's advocacy of shorter sentences". This is something that my noble and learned friend Lord Elwyn-Jones urged on magistrates up and down the country during his period as Lord Chancellor.

The only other question I would ask the noble Lord is concerned with buildings. In a reference to the report the noble Lord said: The committee has also recommended a significant extension of the prison building programme as well as improvements in working conditions and facilities for staff. In this connection I would ask whether or not the exemption from expenditure cuts of law and order matters applies here. In my submission, we must aim for greater public awareness of the problems of the whole of the prison services; and, given that and the will, improvements can and must be made.

4 p.m.


My Lords, may I join in thanking the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. I should like to join most heartily in paying tribute to the members of the committee and, of course, in addition, to the chairman, Mr. Justice May. I would again pay tribute to the prison services. As to the recommendations, it is difficult to suggest degrees of importance; but would the noble Lord agree that high priority should be given to the recruitment of staff suitable for this type of rather specialised work and, secondly, to pressing on with a new building programme? It is true that all this costs money; but is it not also a fact that it would be a wise economy to incur this expenditure and that in the long run it would be for the benefit of the life of the community?

4.1 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to both the noble Lords, Lord Boston of Faversham and Lord Wade, for their comments on this report. May I just say this in reply: although, as the committee says, there were fundamental reasons for the setting up of the May inquiry, of course the immediate reasons were the disputes on pay and conditions. The committee recommends that it is important to tackle the causes and not the symptoms of trouble. In picking out the particular recommendations on industrial relations which the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, picked out, I would guess that he agrees with that general recommendation of the May inquiry that it is the causes and not just the symptoms which need to be tackled.

I should like to give the noble Lord an assurance that my right honourable friend will be having early discussions with staff associations on the report's findings, not least on the matter which the noble Lord raised and on which I know the May Committee and many prison officers feel very deeply—the idea that the prison officer's role should be extended. On the second point to which I need to reply to the noble Lord, he was good enough to note in his remarks what the Statement said—namely, that my right honourable friend had accepted absolutely the report's recommendations about the increases in pay. So far as the building programme is concerned—a matter to which both noble Lords referred—your Lordships may like to know that there are five new prisons in planning at the moment—and this stems from the previous Government—which will provide some 5,000 new places by the end of the 1980s. We shall consider very carefully over and above that, taking into account our total resources, the further capital expenditure which the May Committee recommends is needed on our prisons.

The noble Lord, Lord Wade, asked about recruitment. He is absolutely right: the current shortage of prison officers at the moment, as against the staff establishment, is about 1,200. However, the current shortage, if one is to do away with unconscionable overtime, is about 3,500 prison officers. At the moment my right honourable friend's Department is engaged upon a considerable recruiting campaign and we are finding that there is a response.

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