HL Deb 27 November 1980 vol 415 cc314-20

11.55 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Belstead) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 20th November be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the House will recall that during the passage of the Imprisonment (Temporary Provisions) Act through another place, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary tabled a Government amendment to reduce the period in which the provisions in Part I of the Act remained in force without renewal from three months to one month. In doing so, he responded to genuine concern that the powers conferred on him by the Act should be available for no longer than absolutely necessary. In asking your Lordships this evening for a renewal of those powers, I assure the House that they remain as necessary today as when the Act was passed.

The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has in a report drawn the special attention of both Houses to the paucity of information contained in the Explanatory Note to the draft instrument. I see from the report of the oral evidence to the committee that officials from my right honourable friend's department have agreed that if agreements are made the Explanatory Note will set out the provisions of the Act being referred to. Perhaps that points to the fact that I should give a little detail to the House about this order.

I think I ought to remind your Lordships of the consequences of the action taken by the Prison Officers' Association in pursuit of their claim for certain meal break allowances. In many establishments there has been a serious deterioration in conditions for prisoners, and many of the normal facilities for work and other important aspects of régimes have had to be withdrawn. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, I think, will be particularly aware of just how much deprivation the loss of such facilities can be to prisoners. The consequences of the prison officers' actions, however, have not stopped at the prison gates. The Prison Officers' Association have at many establishments continued either to refuse prisoners from the courts or to limit the number they will receive.

This has led to the detention of some 3,500 prisoners in police cells for prolonged periods. Your Lordships will be aware of press reports on the unsuitability of the majority of such cells for this purpose. Indeed, the Government have from the very beginning of the dispute, stressed the undesirability of detaining prisoners in police cells in conditions which are often unsatisfactory for the prisoners concerned and which may not meet the necesssry standards of security. The problems of security were brought home to us by the escape of eight prisoners who were being held at Highbury on Monday evening. Nevertheless, while the prison officers refuse to admit prisoners from the courts, there is no alternative. I know that the House will share my gratitude to the police for the way in which they have handled this additional burden. The scale and nature of the industrial action taken by the prison officers has put the operation of the entire criminal justice system in jeopardy. That is why the Government asked for and were given the wide powers contained in the Act. That is why I now ask for the renewal of those powers for an additional month.

In view of the time, I feel that perhaps that is all I would say in proposing the order to the House. There are other details which I expect noble Lords opposite expected I would refer to, such as the opening of Frankland Prison and Rollestone Camp, and a variety of other matters as well. But I think that it might be for the convenience of the House I if stopped now and answered any points which your Lordships might put to me in debate. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 20th November be approved.—(Lord Belstead.)

11.59 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, we shall not, of course, oppose this Motion and, owing to the lateness of the hour, I do not think I want to do more than ask a certain number of questions, to which I could perhaps have Written Answers if that is easier.

There were a number of points which we got assurances for when the Bill was passed, and I think I must check that those things for which we received assurances are being dealt with. Last Tuesday my noble and learned friend Lord Elwyn-Jones asked how many of the 4,000 prisoners, to whom the Home Secretary referred in March this year, have yet been released. I would couple that with asking what use has yet been made of the provisions of Section 3 and 5 of the Act, which empower the Home Secretary to release, under Section 3, prisoners on remand and, under Section 5, prisoners already sentenced.

I should like to ask, also, how many cases have arisen under Section 4, where offenders who would normally have been sent to prison for failure to pay a fine can be released. If any, have they been totally freed or have their cases been simply postponed? Thirdly, we had long discussions about the question of remand, and I should like to know how many prisoners have been released on remand, how many prisoners on remand have asked that they should be sent up at the end of eight days to a court, and in how many cases under the Act has a court demanded that they should be?

In the Committee stage, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor took on board my request that after 32 days, unless the person did not want it, he should automatically be presented in court. It is nearly 32 days since the Bill was passed. I should like to know whether in the next three days that will begin to happen, or, if not, what has been done about it. Lastly, on remand, I believe that it is almost impossible for probation officers to see prisoners under present conditions, in such a way that they can ask for a remand for psychiatric reports. Does this mean that none of the prisoners who are now remanded is getting a psychiatric report, or is there anything to be added to that?

Fourthly, I asked particularly about separate accommodation for juveniles. I am informed by the probation officers that, in some cases, 16 year-olds are locked up for 24 hours a day. Are they getting books? Have they any occupation? Have they packs of cards? Have they sets of halma? Is anything at all done for them? I should like to know details of that.

The movement around the country is producing great difficulty for the legal representatives and probation officers to see their clients. There was a South London man who was eventually traced by his probation officer to Devon. So that there is a lot of rather a serious kind which we need to know about. I do not know whether it would be better to have a written reply to this, or whether the noble Lord would like to keep the House sitting to hear his reply. But it cannot be done very lightly or very quickly.

There are a few other points that I wanted to ask. What about boards of visitors? We asked that something should be done about them. Is it being done? What about the notification of parents when prisoners are sent to unexpected places? Is that being done? What about visits to people in police cells? Are there any visits and, if so, are they satisfactorily arranged? Is the main camp, the name of which escapes me for the moment, working well and are any other camps expected?

Finally, this has been extended, I understand, to Northern Ireland. I should like to know whether there is anything special to be said about the very difficult conditions there. In normal circumstances, I should have had a good deal more to say, but that is a very quick summary of the least we must ask of the noble Lord. But I should be quite content to have a written answer.

12.5 a.m.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to ask two more questions. The first relates to the conditions under which prisoners are now living: the number of hours that they are locked up in their cells and the denial to them of privileges, of correspondence, et cetera. The tinder around the prisons is massive, and the danger of trouble is obviously very great. Secondly, I should like to know what progress is being made in the negotiations with the prison officers to terminate this unhappy dispute.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I should like to reply to as many of the questions which the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, have put to me as I can. There has been no use of Sections 3, 4 and 5 of the Act. I am very glad to be able to reply to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, on that point.

The noble Lord asked me a series of quite complicated statistical questions. So far as the statistics are concerned, I should like to write to the noble Lord. However, they were all aimed at the way in which Section 2 of the Act is working. As this was a matter which both the noble and learned Lord and the noble Lord mentioned during the passage of the Bill when we were originally debating it, I am particularly anxious to make it clear that in response to the concern expressed both in this House and in another place the courts have been made aware of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary's view that it is highly desirable that defendants be legally represented if their remand hearing takes place in their absence. We have been in frequent touch with the courts about the operation of Section 2, including a check as recently as yesterday. As a result of those checks we have no reason to think that Section 2 has operated other than in the way that we intended.

May I refer thirdly—I think this is the most difficult of the questions—to what I call the 32-day practice which was the subject of a very short exchange at the Committee stage when the Bill was going through this House. Pursuant to what I have just said, may I make these points. The courts have the power to issue a direction ordering the production of a prisoner. In view of what I have just said, it is our understanding in the Home Office that as reasonably and as frequently as can be expected, prisoners are being legally represented. Therefore the decisions which the courts are taking with regard to the desirability of production is being taken, so far as we know, in the light of proper legal representation of the case on behalf of the prisoner.

It is in the light of those facts that it seems to me that if we were to accede to the expression of opinion which was put forward, I think by the noble and learned Lord in Committee, that it would be desirable after 32 days for the Secretary of State himself to review cases in which no production had occurred during those 32 days, one would have a rather unsatisfactory situation where the courts would have decided, in the light of legal representations, that they did not think production was necessary and where it would then be necessary for the Secretary of State himself to look at a case without having the advantage of any legal representation before him. It is for that reason that, as things stand at the moment, the wording of the Act remains as it is and that the power is there for the courts to demand production. But there is nothing written in and there is no intention at the moment to move beyond that and to accede to the suggestion which was made by the noble and learned Lord that the Secretary of State should look at cases which have been outstanding for longer than 32 days.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, referred to the question of psychiatric reports. I believe it is sometimes proving difficult to obtain medical reports on defendants who are not in prison custody. Prison governors are being asked to arrange, where possible, for a prison medical officer to visit defendants who have been remanded for reports and who are being held in police cells. Where this is not possible or where an extended period of observation is needed, governors should let courts know.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, raised a point about which I know he feels particularly strongly; namely, the position of offenders under the age of 16. I think the noble Lord will be pleased to know that no offenders under the age of 16 are detained either in Frankland Prison or in the camp which is called Rollestone on the edge of Salisbury Plain, and while I cannot give a guarantee I can at present foresee no circumstances in which that would be necessary. I know that does not cover the whole of the point which the noble Lord put to me, which was what are the conditions of those who are in the other establishments, and I am bound to say that in the very short opening speech I made, I referred to the conditions of all prisoners. Let us not blink the matter: the conditions of all prisoners are most unsatisfactory at the present time, and undoubtedly will continue to be unsatisfactory until this grievous dispute is settled.

If I have any further information to give to the noble Lord on the particular points he made to me I will include it in what I write to him. I think the noble Lord will be pleased to know that boards of visitors were appointed by my right honourable friend for both Frankland Prison and Rollestone Camp immediately they opened. They were drawn from the boards of visitors of nearby establishments, and I am very grateful to those boards of visitors for the extremely conscientious way in which they have been taking on this additional task.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, asked me about notification of prisoners' whereabouts on reception into Frankland Prison or Rollestone Camp. All prisoners are given a reception letter which they can then use to inform the person they wish of their whereabouts. The police are following a similar practice and I understand that police stations will be able to give assistance with information about prisoners held in police cells.

The noble Lord also asked me about visits. There are practical difficulties in connection with providing suitable accommodation for visits in police cells, but the police follow the general principle that as far as possible prisoners being held in police cells should be treated as if they were in prison. Where possible, facilities are made available for visits by prisoners' legal advisers and families, and the noble Lord might be pleased to hear that certainly at Frankland Prison—I am afraid I am not quite sure about Rollestone Camp—the allocation of visiting time is exactly double what is in fact laid down in the prison rules.

Rollestone Camp is, if I may put it this way, working well. I visited it myself the day after it opened, and on behalf of the Home Secretary I should like to express my thanks to the members of the armed forces and also members of the prison service who are running that camp in circumstances which had to be started very suddenly. The noble Lord finally asked me about Northern Ireland. I think that is a matter about which I must obtain a written reply from the Northern Ireland Office.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, asked me again about the conditions of prisoners who are already in prison. Again, if I may—and I think it bears repetition—I must simply repeat what I have already said: that this is a dispute which is causing conditions in prison to be far less suitable than we could have wished. The sort of action which has been taken by prison officers has extended from what is known as "controlled unlocking"—a form of go-slow which effectively restricts the time available for réegime activities—to such things as a refusal to supervise workshops and, in some places, I regret to say, education classes.

Finally, the noble and learned Lord asked me about the progress of the negotiations. The Government have reason to assume that, if the negotiations continue to go forward, the industrial action being taken by the Prison Officers' Association could be suspended well before a final decision is taken on the new duty system early in January. But, of course, the absolutely important point is that we believe, and I hope the House may believe, that the way forward lies in the adoption of a new duty system. Your Lordships would not expect me to explain in detail the basis of the discussions which have been held, but I might finally add that if both sides can agree to the introduction of a new duty system on the terms we have indicated to the association the new system would bring real advantages to prison officers in their conditions as well as in the management of prison establishments.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for those brief answers. I want to make only two further comments. There is a possibility of this situation running on into January. We all hope it will not. I do not think that the absence of the 32-day rule which we asked for would be tolerable if it became 64 or 96. I think there must be some answer in writing from the Home Secretary to me, possibly put into Hansard, or perhaps I would put down a Written Question. I do not think we can leave it that if the thing drags on somebody can be lost in a police station somewhere. I do not think that is acceptable. Secondly, I should like to have some response to what adults and juniors who are confined in police stations can do during 24 hours. I do not believe there is a library service or any games. I think both should be provided at once in every police station where anybody is confined. I see no difficulty in it at all, and I am disappointed we cannot be told something. It may be that it is being done; if not, I should like to hear about it.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I do apologise. It was rather a long list of questions and I thought perhaps I was losing my way in the middle of them. With regard to facilities being provided, I have on my right honourable friend's behalf visited cells both in the Metropolitan Police area and also in other parts of the country. Where a remand prisoner is being kept in police cells his relatives can bring books for his use. I have already covered the question of notification of the whereabouts of a prisoner in a police cell. Books and other amenities are made available to prisoners where possible, although the police are not able to provide them as a matter of course.

In some cases police officers have provided prisoners with newspapers and games out of their own money, and with my own eyes I have seen use by prisoners of the television set which was being used in the rest room of a police station. I think it is fair to say that best efforts are being made in this respect. The other major point which the noble Lord has repeated, about what in shorthand I am calling the 32-day procedure, is something I can only add to by writing to the noble Lord.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I am happy about the latter, but I am not really happy.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I wonder if the noble Lord could ask a question. We must get away from having a dialogue across the Floor; if the noble Lord could ask a question very quickly, we could have a written answer and we could adjourn.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I am very surprised at being asked to do this. This is a most important order concerned with civil liberties. There is no question of my being confined to asking questions. I do not know whether it is the general view of the House that one has only to ask a quick question. It is not my understanding.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, my noble friend had introduced the order. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, and the noble and learned Lord had given my noble friend a full list of their questions. My noble friend has said he would write. I just wondered whether the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, would not think that he is pressing my noble friend a little hard at this hour when my noble friend has given an undertaking that he will write and cover everything that he has said?

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I do not agree with this at all. I shall not be long, but I shall not ask a question at this moment. I shall make a statement. I think that it is absolutely improper that the amenities in police cells should be dependent upon the charity of the police. I think that in these circumstances the Home Secretary has a duty to ensure that amenities are available in police cells, and I hope that we can hear that something is being done about the matter.

On Question, Motion agreed to.