HL Deb 27 January 1981 vol 416 cc689-97

7 p.m.

Lord Belstead rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd January be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the continuation of this order. During the debate on 15th December in another place on the order renewing Part I of the Act, the then Minister of State at the Home Office, my right honourable friend the Member for Cleveland and Whitby, outlined the terms of the offer that we had made to the Prison Officers' Association. As your Lordships will know, the delegate conference called by the POA from 16th to 18th December failed to take up that offer and they continued with their industrial action.

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary made it clear to the POA how much he regretted their decision, and when my right honourable friend met representatives of the National Executive Committee on 12th January he emphasised his determination to achieve an early settlement. My right honourable friend stressed that it remained the Government's view that the way forward from the dispute lay in the adoption of a new duty system designed to eliminate the anomalies which gave rise to the dispute. He therefore renewed the offer made to the Prison Officers' Association in December with certain adjustments to meet objections raised by the POA, mainly concerning the timing of the negotiations on the new duty system, and the return to normal working after the suspension of the industrial action. But essentially the features of the offer made again in January were the same as the offer made in December. As my right honourable friend stressed on that occasion, on 12th January, and I repeated when your Lordships debated the order on 18th December, the acceptance of the offer and, in particular, of the new duty system would not only benefit prison officers considerably in their conditions of service, but would also enable the management of establishments to be placed on a more efficient footing.

Following their meeting with the Home Secretary, the POA announced their decision to suspend their industrial action from midnight on Saturday 17th January, pending further consideration of the duty system. The great majority of local branches of the POA suspended their action in accordance with the decision of their national executive committee. Subsequently, however, the Ashford branch of the POA took legal action against their national executive committee on the grounds that the decision to suspend action should, under the POA constitution, have been taken by a delegate conference. On Friday, 23rd January, the court found in favour of the Ashford branch and made an order compelling the NEC to rescind the instruction suspending industrial action. The operation of the order itself was, however, suspended for a period of six weeks. We do not yet know what consequences that decision will bring. However, we must all hope the POA will find a way to carry through their earlier decision to suspend action while negotiations continue.

As the House will know, the main consequence of the prison officers' industrial action has been that up to 5,000 prisoners at any one time have had to be held either in police cells or in Frankland Prison near Durham or in Rollestone Camp on the edge of Salisbury Plain. The first priority after the suspension of industrial action was to secure the orderly transfer of these prisoners to normal prison accommodation. Clearly, we were anxious that this should be achieved as soon as possible. It has been grossly unsatisfactory that prisoners should have had to be detained for long periods in accommodation never intended for that purpose. Moreover, we were determined that the additional burden placed on the police and the armed services by the prison officers' action should be lifted as soon as possible. I should like to place on record once again my thanks and those of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary for the way in which the police and the armed services have shouldered that burden.

The transfer of some 5,000 prisoners into prison is a complex process, especially as the prisons are simultaneously coping with their normal intake from the courts. Moreover, the process is hindered by the continuing refusal to receive prisoners of the few establishments, including some local prisons, which are continuing to take industrial action. Nevertheless, the process of transfer is well under way and by this morning, there were only some 1,656 prisoners in police cells, as compared with 4,027 before the suspension of industrial action; 183 in Frankland as compared with 603 before the suspension of industrial action and 11 in Rollestone as compared with 352. We propose, in the interests of flexibility, to retain Rollestone until the process of transferring prisoners is completed.

The process of transfer cannot, however, be completed by midnight on 28th January—tomorrow—when the currency of the order approved by your Lordships and another place on 15th December ceases. That is why we have laid before the House the present order. The House will be aware that we have not sought to renew Sections 3, 4 and 5 of the Act, which enabled the Secretary of State to reduce the numbers in prison custody by authorising the release of unconvicted and unsentenced prisoners, by restricting the powers of the courts to imprison for the non-payment of fines, and by authorising the early release of prisoners. My right honourable friend made it clear that these provisions would not be used unless absolutely necessary, and they have not been used. We believe it is right that we should not come back to your Lordships' House and ask for these to be renewed again in this order. However, I must make it clear that we cannot take for granted a settlement of the dispute or the continuing suspension of the industrial action. If it became necessary, therefore, we should not hesitate to ask the House for the reactivation of Sections 3, 4 and 5.

However, this evening I am asking that Sections 1 and 2 of the Act should be renewed for a further period. Section 1 permits prisons to be held in places other than prisons approved for the purpose by the Secretary of State. Thus, so long as prisoners remain in the places approved by the Secretary of State—either in Frankland Prison or in Rollestone Camp—Section 1 will be needed. We hope that both places will be empty in the foreseeable future and, of course, they will not be used for this purpose again unless there is any further serious industrial action.

Section 2 is also needed in the present circumstances. The speed of the return of prisoners to prison establishments is, to a large extent, dependent on the availability of police and prison officers for escort duties. The ease of reception and the absorption of prisoners at prisons is also affected by the number of prison officers available. For these reasons, and because there are still some prison officers taking industrial action, we are asking for the continuance of Section 2 so that the provision of escorts to take prisoners to remand hearings does not hinder the return of prisoners to normal custody. However, we shall be exhorting the courts to restore the usual cycle of remand productions as soon as possible. Under Secton 2, courts can issue special directions requiring the defendant to be produced, and we shall recommend the courts to use that power generally as soon as they are satisfied that it is reasonable to do so in their area.

The powers in Section 2 were sought as an emergency suspension of the ordinary law to deal with specific difficulties of the last few months. It is clearly right that the effect of the ordinary law should be restored when practicable. Having said that, I think that we should all acknowledge that Section 2 seems to have worked with fairness and without trouble. I know that misgivings have been expressed and, indeed, many probing questions have been asked in this House and in another place about Secton 2. Also, points have been raised by the probation and aftercare service. But if, in its practical application, Section 2 has had effects which have worked to the disadvantage of defendants, I must say that they have not become evident to the Home Office. I thought that your Lordships would wish to know that my right honourable friend's department has undertaken another survey, this time asking questions of 56 magistrates' courts along similar lines to the survey to which I referred when this order was last debated in your Lordships' House. I base what I have just been saying very much on the result of that survey.

The prison officers' action has, at best, been suspended and not terminated. Nevertheless, when the dispute is resolved, I suppose that the most fundamental problem facing the prison system is going to be the size of the prison population. Your Lordships will have noted on previous occasions that the fall in the numbers in custody has been quite considerable. The numbers have actually gone from 44,000 down to the present figure today of 41,300 people in custody. This is a welcome feature of the last few months. We naturally have the reasons for this fall under examination. It may well be that the reasons do not quickly become apparent or, indeed, that they are not all even established beyond doubt. Some of them may prove of purely temporary effect. But there are signs during the last week of a worrying increase again in the numbers in custody.

I assure your Lordships that the Government, for their part, are continuing to search for acceptable means of reducing the prison population consistent with the protection of the public. Indeed, my right honourable friend has taken up a helpful and constructive suggestion made to him by the Governors' Branch of the Society of Civil and Public Servants last year. This should, we hope, result in a modest, but useful, reduction in the prison population. The Prison (Amendment) Rules 1981, which have today been laid and will come into force on 23rd February, allow those with very short custodial sentences to qualify for one-third remission for good conduct. At present, sentences of one month or less do not qualify for remission, and remission may not operate to reduce a sentence below 31 days: in future remission will be available on any sentence of more than five days but will not operate to reduce a sentence below five days. The present qualifying period of one month is, of course, arbitrary and it seems right in principle to apply remission to as many prisoners as possible. The five-day limit has been retained to avoid anomalies arising from Section 109 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1952, which allows a magistrates' court to order a convicted defendant to be detained in police cells for not more than four days.

This is a problem which I think can be resolved now by the passage, I hope, of the order in question in a month's time, but there are many other problems to which we must devote our full attention when this dispute and its consequences are finally over. In the interim, I am asking your Lordships' House to approve the order before it to enable us to cope with the remaining consequences of the prison officers' industrial action.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd January be approved.—(Lord Belstead.)

7.13 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his full explanation of what is going on. May I begin by saying that we shall certainly not oppose the continuation of the order in its reduced form. We are very glad that the form is reduced and we hope that it will not be necessary for very long. The noble Lord said that the court order stopped the prison officers' committee from stopping the strike for six weeks. Did I understand that aright?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, may I just reply to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson? As I understand it, the judge suspended his own order for a period of six weeks—the effect of the judge's own order.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

I see, my Lords. Thank you. There are one or two things which are extremely interesting about this. The figures are a great credit to all concerned. To reduce from 4,000 to 1,650 in police cells, and from 603 and 352 to 183 and 11 in the two camps is remarkable. I understand that in spite of the court order this is still going on. I suppose not quite so fast, but still going on. This must be a matter of great credit to the prison officers who are carrying this out in spite of the various things which have happened.

I should have asked my noble friend about this, but we have only just met this evening. Is it possible for the prison officers' executive to appeal against this order? I should like to know whether it is possible, or whether they are likely to do so. The noble Lord referred to the reduction of the prison population, which of course is the fascinating fact about this and an entirely unexpected one. It is nearly 10 per cent., and it suggests that both police and courts have concluded that in an emergency of this kind anyway it is not essential to prosecute and imprison quite as many people as in the past. As a result of this there seems to have been no lowering of public safety—at least, I have not heard of any complaints of increased pickpocketing, or petty crime, or any other sort of crime. I should like the Minister to say something about this either now or in a letter.

I have a note here to ask the noble Lord whether these facts are being monitored, but he has already said that they are and I am most grateful. I ask that we should have either a statement or a public report of whatever the results are. It is extremely important. We, who have been saying for 30 years that a great number of the prosecutions and imprisonments did more harm than good and were not in the least necessary for public safety, are anxious to get a conclusion which will reinforce this, though we have to be honest and if it does not we cannot pretend that it does. The facts will be interesting.

If the numbers go straight back to their old level—and the noble Lord said one thing that worried me a little, that they were rising at the moment—will this not strengthen the case which we have been pressing for a long time for vigorous parliamentary action to reduce the prison population? Does it not suggest that there is not any other way of doing it?

I am extremely pleased with the new order that the noble Lord has revealed about applying a one-third remission to prisoners of a month. He was kind enough to tell me about this earlier in the day. I have checked what this means. There were apparently about 2,320 prisoners serving a month or less during 1979, and I do not suppose that it is very different this year, They would average about eight days remission, and this would reduce the daily numbers by 50. But if you included fine defaulters, that would bring it up to 300, which would be quite worthwhile. It is not very much, but it is a good thing and a small start in the way that the Home Secretary has to go, and we are encouraged that he is beginning to go in that direction.

Obviously this dispute is the result of things not being tied up in the past, for which all our Governments are probably guilty. The May Committee made a clear recommendation. It said that it was important to agree on a procedural arrangement which should include a clear statement of what issues are reserved for national resolution; the nature of negotiations at establishment level; the time to be allowed at each stage; the form in which the regional office will be involved; how the headquarters organisations on each side will operate; what forms of conciliation and arbitration are appropriate if it is decided to include them; and the nature of unacceptable industrial action. Can the Minister tell us whether, roughly speaking, these things are included in the negotiations which are going on, and what hopes he has of their coming to a happy conclusion? Having said that, I am happy to support the order.

7.20 p.m.

Lord Foot

My Lords, I apologise to the Minister for not being in my place when he rose to speak, though I am glad to say I had the opportunity of hearing his remarks about Section 2 of the order, which is my particular concern, and I hope it is appropriate for me to make a few general observations about that. Some years ago, I cannot remember in what connection, I moved an amendment in your Lordships' House to try to amend the law which requires a person remanded in custody prior to conviction or committal to be brought before a magistrates' court every eight days. I argued on that occasion—as indeed everybody who practices the law in the magistrates' courts of this land knows very well—that in many cases the appearance of an accused person in that way is absolutely pointless. It is pointless unless he has some application to make to the court, as for example an application for bail or a renewal of an application for bail. It is quite pointless for him to be brought before the court as a pure formality.

Viscount Colville of Culross

My Lords, I am reminded that the occasion to which the noble Lord refers was the passage of the Criminal Justice Act 1972, when we had a flee vote on the matter.

Lord Foot

I am obliged, my Lords, but I am afraid the vote went against me. I was about to urge that possibly that matter might be reconsidered after this period of years. I argued then—I do not think it is in dispute—that in many of these cases, where a person is brought before the court in that way every eight days, it serves no useful purpose from the accused's point of view, unless, as I say, he has an application to make as to bail. In a great number of cases this must be repeated in our magistrates' courts (prior at any rate to the introduction of this order) every day in hundreds of instances. People are carted about the country from prison to magistrates' court, put in the dock, the prosecution, the police, apply for a further remand in custody, the man is asked whether he has any objection, he says he has none and he is then taken down to the cells and carted back to the place from which he came.

It is a charade, an ugly one, I suggest, and a very expensive one because innumerable trained prison officers are engaged every day in the absurd, tedious and pointless duty of escorting these people about the country. Hundreds of vehicles and their drivers are involved in taking these people about, taking them to court and bringing them back, often over distances running into hundreds of miles. And there is in all prisons which hold remand prisoners an elaborate administrative procedure officered by skilled personnel to ensure that the prisoners get to the right court on the right day at the right time.

I hope that now, as it were by a side wind, we have an amendment of this procedure to deal with the emergency arising from the prison officers' dispute, while this situation continues to operate the Home Office and other authorities will he careful to monitor the way in which it is working with a view to considering whether we might later on, I hope without undue delay, amend the general law of this country to introduce into the system the benefits which have been disclosed as a result of the order. I hope that will be done. I was grateful to hear from the noble Lord, if I understood him correctly, that, so far as he can see, the operation of the procedure under this order has not resulted in any unfairness to accused people. It would be a useful, although small, improvement in our penal procedures if we could learn the lessons of this section so that before long they might he introduced into the substantive law of the land.

7.26 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, for the acceptance and welcome he gave to the order and to the noble Lord, Lord Foot, for his remarks. I agree with Lord Donaldson that it was desirable to try to reduce the scope of the order, and I feel from what both noble Lords said that they accept that my right honourable friend has taken the first opportunity to do just that in moving the continuation of the order in this House and in another place today.

I am also grateful—this is no mere form of words—to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, for his remarks about the reduction of numbers in police cells and in Frankland Prison and Rollestone Camp as a result of transferring prisoners to prison establishments. Indeed, it is a matter of credit to all concerned, and not only is it of credit to prison officers for accepting an increase in their prison populations which has put many establishments above the certified normal accommodation. It is also a credit to members of my right honourable friend's department and members of the Governors' grade of the Prison Service who have been engaged in the last few months in the very difficult problem of trying to see to what establishments prisoners could be allocated, and who in the last week or so have been involved in this movement of prisoners back into prison establishments. I confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, that it is a matter for the national executive committee of the Prison Officers' Association to lodge any appeal if they felt it was desirable for them to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, wondered whether the reduction in the size of the prison population had been accompanied by any increase in the amount of crime and expressed the view—which again I confirm, as far as I know, is correct—that there has not been any particular increase in crime which one could ascribe to the reduction in the prison population. I say that as a general reply to the noble Lord, not tying my reply particularly to the latest statistics of crime, but I am not aware that the noble Lord was in any way wrong in the assertion he made.

What I think the noble Lord wishes to hear from me is that I know my right honourable friend wishes to do no other than to share with Parliament and all who are interested any results which we can find within the department as a result of what has been going on during the last few months. In that connection, the noble Lord asked a specific question about what in essence were the recommendations in the May Report about procedure agreements with the Prison Officers' Association and the prison department of the Home Office. As a matter of fact those recommendations (which the noble Lord took from the May Report) are not part of the current negotiations to try to set to rights the present industrial dispute. However, I am most anxious to say that we certainly hope to make progress in due course on that particular front.

One of the fundamental problems of the prison system at the moment—and I was not in the least surprised that the noble Lord raised it—is industrial relations, and my right honourable friend is determined to seek with the POA ways of avoiding the industrial action which has scarred the situation not just for the past three months but for many years.

The noble Lord, Lord Foot, has, from the point of view of those of us who work in the Home Office, a very sympathetic ear when it comes to his criticisms of the expense and man-hours involved in escorting prisoners to remand hearings in courts. I would corroborate what the noble Lord said; namely, so far as we know, Section 2 of this Act has worked without unfairness. I like to think that the survey to which I referred, and with which I shall not burden the House this evening—it is really a repetition of the survey carried out over a month previously, though it was conducted in some different courts, and on a slightly wider basis—shows that as far as possible Section 2 has worked in a reasonable manner. On the other hand, I am sure that the noble Lord will be the first to say to me that we need more evidence about the way in which Section 2 has worked, and we shall be glad to receive views about this from practitioners and others.

However, it is fair to note that the approach which is embodied in Section 2, with its preservation of weekly remand hearings, and its power to direct the production of the defendant, is different from any proposals to modify the law on remand production that the House of Lords or the House of Commons has considered in recent years. In that way I think that Section 2 is interesting. Therefore I respond to the noble Lord's question by saying, yes, we are certainly doing our best to try to find out not only what has been the cause of the reduction in numbers of the present prison population, but also how the emergency procedures, including Section 2, have been working. Once again it will be my right honourable friend's desire to share with Parliament any of the findings which we can reach and in no way to keep them secret.

That brings us back to one of the two sections to which I am this evening asking the House to agree. I seek the continuation, I hope for no more than a further month, of Sections 1 and 2 of the Act. I ask your Lordships to agree to the passage of the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

7.34 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 7.45 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.34 to 7.45 p.m.]