HL Deb 10 October 1980 vol 413 cc715-9

11.17 a.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the second Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many accused men and women respectively were remanded in custody for psychiatric reports in each of the years 1976 to 1979 inclusive; what was the average length of time so spent in custody by men and women respectively, and how many men and women subsequently did not receive a custodial sentence.


My Lords, the only information that is readily available relates to the numbers of reports prepared on persons remanded in custody for psychiatric examination. The figures for the years 1976 to 1979 inclusive are as follows: 1976—males, 9,604, females, 1,453; 1977–8,820 and 1,172; 1978–7,635 and 1,108; 1979–7,470 and 1,024.

I regret that information regarding the length of time spent in custody pending medical reports, or on the number of persons who subsequently did not receive a custodial sentence, is not available.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the opinion of MIND, whom I have consulted about this matter, the number of remands in custody for psychiatric reports is grossly excessive and that the figures that he gave certainly confirm that epithet? Bearing in mind the Home Secretary's expressed wish to reduce the prison population, does not the noble Lord think that where magistrates are considering asking for a psychiatric report they should be advised to inquire whether the accused could attend as an out-patient for that purpose?

Where the accused has been on hail and has responded to the bail, should not the magistrates be advised that it would be unnecessary to remand the accused in custody in that that person has already demonstrated that he or she is unlikely to abscond? Does not the Minister agree that the figures that he has just given to the House require serious investigation to see what advice can be given to magistrates to reduce the use of this power?


My Lords, I am a little surprised that the noble Lord refers to the assessment of the organisation MIND that these figures are excessive, when the figures which I have given to the noble Lord show that, so far as men are concerned, the numbers have reduced from over 9,500 in 1976 to under 7,500 in 1979. Therefore, I think, in fairness, it shows that the trend is downward, and I join with the noble Lord in welcoming that trend, as I am sure he does.

The noble Lord asked me two questions, which really add up to this: should not the courts (whose decision, of course, it is) try to make every effort possible to see that there is no practicable alternative to a custodial remand for medical treatment? As I am sure the noble Lord is aware, that was precisely the advice which was included in paragraph 11 of Home Office Circular 206 of the year 1977; and I am only too happy to say that I entirely agree with the noble Lord on this particular point.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that mentally-handicapped people charged with offences which are not serious are sometimes remanded in custody with most unfortunate effects and in circumstances in which such action is not really justifiable? Has he any information as to the extent to which the figures he has given apply to mentally-handicapped people, and can he enlighten the House about the policy which has grown up with regard to their treatment in this respect?


My Lords, I am afraid I really cannot help my noble friend on the specific point which he puts to me, but there is one thing I think I ought to say, and that is this. I know that many people, and not least the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, feel deeply that there should be court lists of doctors and psychiatrists more readily available so that the sort of cases which my noble friend Lord Renton is referring to need not occur. Action is in hand to see what progress has been made on this by the courts.


My Lords, is it not right that not a considerable amount of comfort can be drawn from a figure even of 7,400 males and a constant figure of just over 1,000 females who are remanded in custody for this purpose? Is it not a matter of grave concern that the vital information as to the average length of time so spent in custody by men and women does not appear to be available, and does not the noble Lord the Minister feel that a suitable instruction ought to be given for such statistics, which are so essential, to be available?


My Lords, I shall look carefully at what has been said from all parts of the House so far as statistics are concerned, because different points have been made, but I think that in fairness to the Government I should end by making one point, and that is this. There is a difficulty in the Question which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has put down, in the sense that he referred to the number of men and women, respectively, remanded in custody, and as a matter of fact the statistics which we hold refer to the number of reports made on cases where a remand has been necessary. That is the reason for the way in which my original Answer had to be given, and that is the reason why I cannot give the statistics for which the noble Lord originally asked.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the reply to my noble friend's question will give satisfaction in the sense of the reduction in the number of persons at present held in custody, but can he answer two supplementary questions, if not now possibly by letter? Are there shortages of staff qualified to carry out the examinations which are making these figures still disturbingly high, and, if so, can my noble friend comment whether there are regional shortages and, if so, whether the Home Office have any plans to counteract this problem?


My Lords, this will become clearer when the action which I referred to as being in hand, to see what progress has been made by the courts so far as having available lists of doctors and psychiatrists, has been completed.


My Lords, is there a problem of the availability of psychiatrists for this work? If there is a shortage, I have no suggestions to make how that could be remedied, but perhaps the Minister could help us about that.


My Lords, I think I can only repeat that this will become clear when the court returns are received. There is one final thing which, if I may, I should like to say. For convicted persons remanded on bail for sentence, the courts within the catchment areas of four establishments—Holloway, Brixton, Durham and Risley—may remand prisoners on bail subject to their attending the establishments for medical examination, but, for some reason which we are not clear about, very limited use is being made of these facilities. For their part, the Government would welcome more use being made of these facilities, and we, I am sure, will try to find out the reason for this.


My Lords, while the Minister's figures show that, following Circular 206 of 1977, a reduction has been effected in the number of persons remanded in custody for psychiatric reports, would he not agree that there is still cause for concern, and will he at least consider the possibility of reducing the power of magistrates to remand such persons in custody where there is no previous history of mental illness and the person has answered to bail?


My Lords, I have nothing to add to what I have said on the general subject of this Question today.