HL Deb 24 November 1981 vol 425 cc714-45

6.19 p.m.

The Earl of Longford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to deal with the grave situation revealed by the letter in The Times of 19th November by the governor of Wormwood Scrubs Prison.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, over the years this House has had to listen to me many times on the subject of prisoners and prisons. When I first became involved in penal matters as a prison visitor before the war in Oxford there were about 10,000 men and women (as always, mostly men) in prisons. When I opened the first debate held in this House in 1955 there were in prison about 20,000, and now there are 44,000. It is not exactly a success story, either from the personal or from the national standpoint. Today I shall he quoting mostly the views of others, although my own attitude should become plain before the end. If for reasons of time I rely mostly on the The Times I apologise to other newspapers, particularly the Guardian, which has a unique record in this field.

Noble Lords will surely agree that the letter which appeared in The Times last Thursday from the governor of Wormwood Scrubs was perhaps the most startling in living memory. I will refresh the minds of your Lordships with a few quotations. The governor began his letter to The Times: As the manager of a large penal dustbin I wish to write about the latest proposal of the Home Secretary to reduce the prison population". He then discusses that proposal, finds it very inadequate, and proceeds: From my personal point of view I did not join the Prison Service to manage overcrowded cattle pens, nor did I join to run a prison where the interests of the individuals have to be sacrificed continually to the interests of the institution, nor did I join to be a member of a Service where staff that I admire are forced to run a society that debases". I will pick out only one more sentence: I wish to give notice that I, as the governor of the major prison in the United Kingdom, cannot for much longer tolerate, either as a professional or as an individual, the inhumanity of the system within which I work"— a system for which, I hope I can say without discourtesy, the noble Lord must be held responsible in this House, though the ultimate responsibility lies elsewhere.

I had assumed when I read that letter in The Times that the governor would be called upon to resign, that he might indeed have been called on to resign before I read the letter. Not at all, I am glad to say. By the next morning we learned that there was no intention of reprimanding him. The impression was gained, or has been gained by me and others, that for the governor's point of view there is a good deal of sympathy in the Home Office, not least on the part of the Home Secretary, and I do not doubt on the part of the noble Lord who is to reply to this debate. Outside those circles widespread support has been expressed almost everywhere.

I hope that the House will agree that this matter cannot be left in this unprecedented condition. The governor of our largest prison indicates that he intends to resign unless something drastic is done. Is something drastic going to be done? The Home Secretary cannot shirk the responsibility—and our much-respected Home Secretary is the last man to shirk any responsibility—of responding to the governor's letter in clear words and urgent action There is general agreement that something drastic must be done. But let me acknowledge at once that there is not agreement as to what form that action should take. I would hope that this debate would clarify the options and in that way promote positive reforms.

Before the Conservative Party Conference Mr. Whitelaw appeared to favour a policy of introducing automatic parole for short-sentence prisoners. To quote The Times of Friday—and I am quoting The Times, and these might or might not be my own views: Since the Party Conference Mr. Whitelaw has gone cold on the idea… He is now ready to ditch it". Well, The Times may know more about what has been going on in Mr. Whitelaw's mind than I do. It may well be, and I am ready to believe this, as perhaps a slightly more glorious explanation, that he has had to give way under pressure from the judiciary at all sorts of levels. Be that as it may, he is now in fact abandoning the proposal which he favoured earlier and he is backing the idea of the courts being given power to suspend part of a sentence.

To quote The Times again: There is a vast difference between these two conceptions. Automatic parole could mean the immediate release of people already in prison". It is reckoned that within a fairly short period the prison population could be reduced by up to 7,000. The decision would not be that of any court. By contrast, under this newer proposal of the Home Secretary, giving the courts power to suspend part of a prison sentence could have no possible effect on the existing prison population and would be outside the Government's control. I believe other eloquent and more expert speakers may develop some of these points much more closely.

I have already mentioned two methods of attempting to reduce the prison population, which I will call, without disrespect, Whitelaw Mark 1 and Whitelaw Mark 2. I must at least touch on, or at any rate mention, several others, and I do not pretend that the list is exhaustive. In its leading article on Saturday The Times mentions the possibility of an amnesty. It points out that when M. Mitterrand took office 5,000 prisoners were released. Indeed, some of your Lordships may recall, though perhaps not from first-hand memory, in 1910 the same kind of step was taken by Sir Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, at the beginning of the new reign.

To mention another variant, the All-Party Penal Affairs Group of the Houses of Parliament has recommended the extension of remission from one-third of one-half of the normal sentence, and later they have supported the plan that I have called Whitelaw Mark 1. The prison officers have made a number of suggestions of their own, including the removal of mentally disordered prisoners from prisons. In that particular proposal I am sure there is total concurrence. There is also a strong case, which is growing stronger all the time, for legislation which reduces the level of maximum sentences. As I say, there may be other suggestions which could be made, or perhaps will be made, this evening.

Whatever the precise solution or combination of solutions that we favour, we must face a large disconcerting clement in the situation. Democratic government in this country is carried on through Parliament, whose views are expressed through the Cabinet, acting more particularly in this area through the Home Secretary of the day. If we say, as we do say, that the will of the people must prevail in a democracy, we mean that within his own departmental area, that is the penal area, the will of the Home Secretary backed by the Cabinet should prevail. It is utterly wrong that the Home Secretary should be thwarted, as he now appears to be thwarted, by the judiciary, as I say at all levels. The judiciary are the respected custodians of the legal standards in this country. They of all people must never place themselves above the law. Let me dwell for a moment, before I close and give way to better speakers, on the ambiguity contained in the phrase "the independence of the judiciary"

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, may I intervene for a moment. There is absolutely no truth in the suggestion that the judiciary thwarted the Home Secretary; nor have they the power to do so. Since read a certain piece in the Sunday Times I have been particularly at pains to discover that. The idea that the judiciary could disregard the will of Parliament is utterly repugnant to their whole attitude, and there is not a word of truth in it.

Several noble Lords

Hear, hear!

The Earl of Longford

Well, noble Lords say "hear, hear", without much reflection. I would say there is not a word of truth in the observations that have just been offered to us by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. I am not going to give way for a moment; there is not a word of truth in the observations he has just offered us.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I do not know on what authority the noble Earl is questioning my word. I have been at great pains to discover the truth; there is no truth whatever in the suggestion that the judiciary have any desire whatever to thwart the will of Parliament, and I deeply resent that my word should be questioned on that matter. What is true, of course, is that the judiciary were consulted and expressed their view, as they were entitled to do. But of course they accept the sovereignty of Parliament, and it is wholly wrong for the noble Earl either to suggest that the contrary is true, or to challenge me when I assure him on my word of honour that it is not so.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I must point out that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has challenged me and has said that what I have said is untrue, and what is sauce for the goose is, I am afraid, sauce for the exalted gander. The truth is that the Home Secretary is having very great difficulty—if the noble and learned Lord prefers to put it this way—in persuading the judiciary to give effect to the declared will of Parliament. There will be plenty of this tonight, so it is no good treating me as though I am some sort of eccentric. This view will be expressed several times and noble Lords had better get used to it.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, this is a question of fact and not a question of opinion. The Home Secretary is entitled to consult the judiciary as to what they consider to be desirable. The judiciary are entitled to express their opinion when consulted. But to suggest, as the noble Earl has quite unambiguously done, that the judiciary are seeking to thwart the will of Parliament which has not so far been expressed in an Act of Parliament, is wholly untrue and I have been at great pains to discover the fact. It is an allegation which ought never to have been made and that is a question of fact and not opinion.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I am afraid that the facts here are, in fact, the sentences which are being passed by the judges. It is not a question of the psychology of the judiciary; it is a question of what sentences they are passing and at the moment the sentences that they are passing are thwarting the will of the people declared through the Home Secretary. If the noble and learned Lord feels happier about that formulation, then so be it, but that is what I am saying.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, this really will not do. The noble Earl is now changing his ground. The noble Earl was talking about a plan which my right honourable friend consulted the judiciary about. They expressed their opinion upon it, but the idea that they were thwarting the will of the people—whatever that may mean—or the Home Secretary or Parliament is entirely wrong and it ought never to have been made. Now the noble Earl is making a totally different allegation which is totally false too. Parliament lays down what are the maximum sentences to pass and the judiciary decide as a matter of their own independence and judgment on the facts of the particular case what is the appropriate sentence. This attack on the judges is wholly wrong, ought never to have been made, is utterly without foundation and ought to be withdrawn.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord says that it ought to be withdrawn. Why should it be withdrawn? I repeat every word that I have said. I have no need to withdraw it at all. What I am saying will be said, in effect, by other noble Lords. I suggest that the noble and learned Lord cools it a bit because I think that he will get quite a bit of this medicine during the evening and if he gets equally annoyed with subsequent speakers he will have a bad time of it. I repeat every word that I have said and Hansard must judge between us.

Let me dwell for a moment on the ambiguity contained in the phrase "the independence of the judiciary". Of course we rightly pride ourselves on the independence of the judiciary when the courts are dealing with particular cases. We certainly do not want any political interference there. But no-one, after a moment's reflection, could say that the sentencing policy of this country, the general level of sentences passed in this country, should be determined exclusively by the judiciary. Certainly the sentences which judges do pass are very much influenced by legislation. They are, in fact, acting within laws passed by Parliament. So to say that sentencing is a matter which entirely rests with the judiciary would be an absurdity. I had better not get too worked up because it might escalate as between myself and the noble and learned Lord. No one could possibly argue that after a moment's reflection.

No one supposes, for example, that judges should be allowed to decide whether we do or do not have capital punishment in this country. They might or might not wish to have it. It might seem to be their idea of a good sentence, but in fact the law has decided to abolish it and they must act within the law. The noble Lord opposite is frowning as though in bewilderment. It is a perfectly clear point. We either decide on the general level of sentences through the democratic process or we leave it to the judges, and at present it is left far too much to the judges.

Let me make the point plain. If it is concluded by the Government of the day, supported strongly by the opposition parties, that sentencing policy in this country is too severe—and that is on the whole the conclusion of official reports—compared with the sentencing policy in other European countries, then the courts have no right whatever, moral or constitutional, to defy the implementation of that policy. I am sorry to speak bluntly but it is high time that this issue was brought into the open.

I shall now give way to other speakers who may have a tranquillising effect. I have had dealings with well over a dozen Home Secretaries on penal matters. There is none for whom I have a higher personal admiration than Mr. Whitelaw. I would like to believe that this debate will strengthen his hand. I implore him to recognise that the variety of the remedies suggested is no excuse for failing to take drastic and urgent action. I hope and believe with all my heart that he will not fail.

6.36 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I warmly welcome the initiative of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, in raising this important question, and I am glad to follow him into some of the areas where he has perhaps entered into some controversy although I shall attempt to pour a little Largactil on troubled waters, if I may put it that way.

I must begin by agreeing with the noble Earl that it is totally unheard of for the governor of one of our major prisons to ventilate his anxieties in the columns of The Times, and I think that the only pity of it is that a person within the system, such as the governor of Wormwood Scrubs, who had seen what was coming from a mile off, had waited until, as Mr. McCarthy put it, his patience and tolerance were finally exhausted. He has put his head on the block. I hope that other governors and that chairmen of boards of visitors will now speak about what is going on in the prisons, so that public opinion can be alerted to the intolerable strains which are being imposed on staff, the absence of any pretence whatever of rehabilitation for prisoners and the imminent risk of a total breakdown of the prison system.

I am going to refer to some of the recommendations of the Parliamentary All-Party Penal Affairs Group which has already been mentioned by the noble Earl, and I want to ask the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, whether he has had a chance to study those recommendations and whether he will be good enough at the end of this debate to make some comment on them, in particular on those which I would now like to mention.

The report was published in June under the title Too Many Prisoners and it contained quite a number of proposals which would greatly alleviate the strains now being imposed on the prisons. I mention first the important recommendation which the noble Earl also touched on, that mentally ill and disordered offenders should not be in prison at all. Because the National Health Service has not made provision for these patients, hundreds if not thousands of them have to be accommodated in the prisons, including Wormwood Scrubs, where I visited the medical wing not so very long ago and found that there were between 30 and 40 patients being cared for who the principal medical officer told me ought really to have been in psychiatric institutions.

The all-party group refers to the Butler Committee on Mentally Abnormal Offenders which recommended that in each of the regional health authority areas of England and Wales there should be secure psychiatric units for these persons. Not a single one has been constructed and although there are temporary units, I understand, in which some 170 patients are accommodated, that is a drop in the bucket compared with the need. I should like to ask the noble Lord the Minister: What are the Government's present plans for providing units such as the Butler Committee recommended—secure psychiatric units—in England and Wales?

There is one thing that the Government have done. The all-party committee mentioned that the courts' powers to impose restriction orders under Section 65 of the Mental Health Act 1959 should be limited to those cases where the public needs to be protected from serious harm. I was very glad to see that this is in fact embodied in Clause 26 of the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill because it was found that hospitals were reluctant to accept patients when they could not be allowed out or transferred to another hospital or discharged without the leave of the Secretary of State.

More generally on the mentally ill offenders, the all-party group recommends that: there should be a substantial increase in hostel provision and other forms of accommodation catering for the mentally disordered. The range of voluntary after-care hostels for offenders grant-aided by the Home Office should include some projects catering specifically for offenders suffering from mental disorders". I should like to ask the noble Lord the Minister: What is being done? The all-party group stresses that it is indefensible for a mentally ill and disordered person to be detained in prison, and yet we know that there are many thousands of them who have to be accommodated there because no other provision is made for them by society.

I want to refer to the particular problem of prisoners who were sentenced for acts of violence and who may be thought to be dangerous to other prisoners. In this matter our practice, under Rule 43 of the Prison Rules, seems to be to segregate those persons, which gives the governors of prisons a quite draconian power to lock a man away in a segregation unit virtually for an indefinite period. In our prison system at the moment there are three men who have been virtually in solitary confinement, where they have not seen another human being for the last three years and more. I really think that this is intolerable.

We shall have to consider in a more general way whether Rule 43 should be modified so that we do not run the risk, as we are at the moment, of violating Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, by reason of the fact that we are imposing a cruel and inhuman punishment on these individuals by locking them away from all other human society for substantial periods of time. So much are they isolated that they are not even permitted to attend church services or to go to the prison library; so they may go throughout the day without encountering another human being. The psychological effect of this over a period of time can only be imagined. Yet although the board of visitors has to approve the renewal of the segregation order every month, a prisoner with whom I have been in touch tells me that he is only visited by a member of the board of visitors every 12 weeks and that he is practically never examined by psychologists to see what may be the effect of these prolonged periods of isolation on his health.

Related to the problem of the mentally-disordered offender there is the person who commits offences while under the influence of drink. The May Report said that prison should be avoided for drunkenness itself. Even the Home Office in 1971 said that the right answer was to establish detoxification centres. The all-party group repeats that detoxification facilities should be established in every urban area where there is a substantial number of arrests for drunkenness. I go along with that. However, I should like to add something to it. The Home Office should spend much more on prevention by encouraging, wherever possible, voluntary effort, such as that of the Conservation of Manpower Unit, which aims to treat and give support to alcoholics within the community. I think that if there were more agencies like this—I should be grateful if the Minister would consider this—the courts might be able to refer offenders to them instead of giving them custodial sentences.

There is a whole host of other people who are in prison who ought not to be there. There are fine defaulters and maintenance defaulters, and there are plenty of ways in which they can be kept out of prison and in which their financial obligations can be met. There are those who are in prison for soliciting, and we have had several debates on that in your Lordships' House. There are those people who are convicted of simple possession of cannabis; convictions under the vagrancy Acts, other than for "sus"—which I am glad has been abolished—indecent exposure, and a whole host of minor offences for which prison is really not an appropriate penalty.

Then there is the important question of detention pending deportation after a non-custodial sentence, when it is quite common for a person to spend five or six weeks in prison for the simple reason that, if, for example, the offender is a shoplifter and is sentenced to a fine, the Home Office will call for the person to be detained under the immigration Acts pending deportation because they are afraid that the person will go to ground. There are many cases which I have referred to the noble Lord's colleague in another place, Mr. Tim Raison, where, after the courts have imposed a non-custodial sentence, nevertheless the offender spends five or six weeks in prison waiting for the expiry of his right of appeal against conviction and sentence and against the country of destination. It is absolutely intolerable that the court should give someone a non-custodial sentence, but that they should end up spending several weeks in prison.

Even after the end of a person's custodial sentence—because the Secretary of State does not normally make up his mind whether to accept the recommendation of the court that the prisoner should be deported until very near the end of the sentence—it quite often happens that he remains in prison awaiting the decision of the Secretary of State and the expiry of this right of appeal against the country of destination. Even if the prisoner says that he does not want to appeal, as the law now stands he must be given the time to exercise that right.

I turn to the length of sentences on which, rightly, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, concentrated. I want to refer to the Advisory Council on the Penal System and its recommendations of 1978. It seems to me that the council proposed a very sensible scheme: that we should review all the maximum sentences that the courts could impose and reduce them to 90 per cent. of the maxima that were actually used by the courts during a period of three years—I think 1974 to 1976. In conjunction with that, the council provided for an exceptional sentence in the case of certain offenders who, it was thought, because of the nature of their offences and the circumstances in which they were committed, ought to be taken out of circulation for the safety of society. A great deal more about that has come to light since the advisory council reported, because the Home Office has produced this excellent research study, Taking Offenders out of Circulation, which shows that because of: The infrequency of really serious crimes of violence, their apparently generally random quality and the rarity of anything like a genuinely dangerous type' offers little encouragement for a policy which aims to reduceserious assaults by selective incapacitation of those with violent records". I am inclined to the view that we should accept the advisory council's recommendation on the reduction of maximum sentences, but without the corollary of the exceptional sentences for these so-called dangerous offenders who are so difficult to identify.

On the question of parole, the all-party group recommends, as the noble Earl mentioned, something very like the Northern Ireland system of one-half remission. I suppose that if we did that, the parole system would still continue to grant that extra one-sixth that would remain with longer sentences; so that if a person qualified for the total of which he was capable, one-sixth plus one-half would be equal to the two-thirds reduction in the length of sentence that he may enjoy at present.

On this point I was, as was the noble Earl, dismayed to see the reports that apparently the judges and the magistrates—I am putting it as uncontroversially as I can—have persuaded the Secretary of State to withdraw the proposals that he was on the point of introducing for automatic parole on shorter sentences. I am obliged to agree with the noble Earl, Lord Longford, that just as the Executive should not be allowed to interfere with the courts, equally it is intolerable that the judiciary should exercise a veto on legislation. I agree that they have not stopped Parliament from doing something which it might otherwise have done, but I think that the question is whether the degree of influence that was exerted on the mind of the Home Secretary was tantamount to dictating to Parliament what it might or might not do.

This is what the noble Earl was talking about; that before the proposals have even been laid before your Lordships or laid before another place, the judiciary have had the ear of the Home Secretary in a way that Parliament has not, and so they have dissuaded him from taking what most people thought to be a very sensible step, which would have had the effect of reducing the prison population by something like 7,000 persons. And all the King's horses and all the King's men, all your Lordships and all the Members of another place, are apparently not going to be able to restore the scheme that the Home Secretary originally had in mind, but instead of that we are going to have a system which, according to the director of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, far from reducing the prison population, is actually going to increase it. When these proposals come before us we shall have to consider them carefully to see whether, despite the objections of the judiciary, we cannot in some form restore and reinforce the Home Secretary's original intentions.

Finally, I hope that the Government will do their best to expedite the discussions which are going on in the Council of Europe on a draft treaty to enable prisoners to be returned to their countries of origin to serve their sentences. It is not only a humane idea that prisoners should be among people who speak the same language as they do and who follow the same customs, but it would have the incidental advantage of reducing the burden on our prisons because it happens that there are several times more foreigners serving custodial sentences in Britain than United Kingdom citizens in prisons abroad.

We should not merely be looking for expedients to reduce the prison population because of the tremendous pressure on the system which the governor at Wormwood Scrubs has outlined, but the proposals which I have mentioned and the noble Earl has mentioned are all desirable in themselves, and their urgency is manifest in the letter from the governor of Wormwood Scrubs.

6.52 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, we are all indeed grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for raising this problem in his Unstarred Question this evening. May I at once assure him that all of us in your Lordships' House, and a vast number of people outside, are very disturbed at the conditions in some of the prisons today which are mostly caused by overcrowding but of course in some cases by old buildings. Although the subject of the Question is specifically Wormwood Scrubs and the Governor's letter, we all know of other major prisons which are suffering some at least of the same problems outlined in the Governor's letter.

I should like to take this opportunity, as a member of the Parole Board, of personally thanking members of the prison staff of all levels for the great care that they take in the dossiers that we see as members of the parole board. It is quite obvious that they give a great deal of time to reporting on the inmates for good or ill, and it is my belief that they go out of their way to say the best things possible for the prisoners under their care.

Of course to accommodate the perpetrators of serious offences—some 2½ million serious offences—we should like to see more prisons built where each inmate could have his own cell, no slopping out, with adequate education and work facilities. But as a prison would take at least 10 years to build we have to tackle the overcrowding problem in a different way. Whatever is done I submit that it is impossible to satisfy the judiciary, the magistracy, Parliament, the prison service, the Home Office, and the general public. As my right honourable friend the Home Secretary recognised in a recent speech to NACRO—I think it was 10th November—there is a good deal of public anxiety about the level of crime. I think it follows that those members who have been mugged, burgled, robbed, and had violence used against them should want the offenders taken out of circulation.

The Home Secretary also said that it must be the first priority of any Government to maintain public confidence in the criminal justice system as a whole. In this context the possibility of reducing automatically by a specific amount any sentence passed in any court did not commend itself to anyone despite the fact that up to 7,000 prisoners would have been discharged at once.

In his NACRO speech the Home Secretary hinted that Section 47 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 should now be implemented as a means of reducing the prison population. As noble Lords will know this section provides for the partial suspension of prison sentences between six months and two years. As it stands, the part to be held in suspense must be not less than a quarter nor more than three-quarters of the whole term. I am sure this would be helpful as far as it goes, and I am equally sure that the judiciary and everybody involved would respond to that.

However, as a magistrate, I should like to widen the scope of this provision. We are not empowered to imprison an offender for more than six months. Therefore, this section does not apply, as it stands, to magistrates. I should like to see the reduction in the sentence time to three months plus, and also the power to make the minimum period in custody to 28 days. This would also mean a far wider range of dispersal than before which in itself, in my view, would be a good thing. Incidentally, I wonder whether the Minister could tell me if it is envisaged that remission as practised now would be part of the sentence. We are constantly being told that even one month without one's freedom is a very salutary lesson and can be a deterrent. We are shortly to have a Criminal Justice Bill, and I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister is able to give us any indication of the Government's thinking on these points.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, would the noble Baroness allow me? What does the noble Baroness think of the suggestion that has been made by the director of NACRO that the more the minimum is brought down, as she has proposed, the greater the likelihood that the courts will use the sentence to give a taste of imprisonment to those who otherwise might not have been awarded a custodial sentence at all?

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, the noble Lord will be most surprised to hear that I am just coming to that. I know that some people will say that given these powers some magistrates may abuse them, but especially if we have guidance from on high, and being well aware of the prison problems, I personally feel confident that this will not happen. There will inevitably be a quicker turnover of inmates in some prisons which might necessitate more staff in these prisons to do the paperwork, because I believe that there will be a great deal more paperwork. But we must try something, and I believe that as it is possible to implement this almost straight away, and if the Home Secretary agrees and this is his thinking, then I for one, realising that these are his thoughts and his thoughts are on the right course, will certainly support it.

6.58 p.m.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, we are debating this evening a situation of extreme crisis in the prison service. I should like to thank the noble Earl for having introduced this debate this evening because there is no question which is more serious at the moment, no more overriding social problem that goes to the whole root of the concept of law and order, a matter so close to the hearts of the party opposite. For two years or more warnings have poured into the Home Office of the possible collapse of the prison system, not least from those noble Lords who have spoken in a number of debates here in this House.

Twenty months ago the prison governors' branch of the Society of Civil and Public Servants said: The prison system is collapsing under the weight of numbers. We are running out of cells to overcrowd. We doubt if members of the staff can be expected to tolerate these conditions through this summer". For two summers they have managed to hang on, but it is doubtful whether they will be able to hang on for a third summer. Since then, the all-party Penal Affairs Group, to which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, referred, has kept up a constant stream of practical suggestions to the Home Secretary as to how this crisis might be met.

I suggest that now the time for further discussion and argument within the context of a Criminal Justice Bill, as suggested by the noble Baroness, is past. Now—immediately—firm, clear action is required to reduce the prison population by 5,000 people. Tomorrow the prison governors in this country will demand to know what proposals the Minister has put forward tonight to meet this crisis. Prison officers are waiting to hear the same. The Penal Affairs Group, NACRO, the Howard League, the Prison Reform Trust, and of course, overwhelmingly, the prisoners themselves, are waiting to hear.

Eighteen months ago, in a debate on the plight of remand prisoners, I pleaded with the Minister for hard action and no more soothing syrup. I submit that the time for pleading has come to an end and that it is now a matter of making demands. I suggest in all seriousness that the Home Secretary should now convene a prison crisis meeting of no more than 10 or 12 individuals; of himself, the Lord Chief Justice, a representative governor, preferably Mr. McCarthy—one of the most enlightened of all governors at the moment in the prison service—a representative of the prison officers, a representative of the probation service and of the magistrates, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, from the Parole Board, and, particularly, a Treasury Minister, preferably Mr. Leon Brittan, who has had long experience of this matter. The agenda for that meeting should be very simple: first, that within two weeks proposals should be put forward to reduce immediately the prison population by 5,000 and, secondly, that within four weeks proposals should be forthcoming to maintain the prison population within the level of the certified normal accommodation laid down for each institution.

During the last two years, the Secretary of State has had at his disposal three outstanding prison governors—at Maidstone, Brixton and Wormwood Scrubs—each one of them farsighted, experienced and deeply concerned about this problem. They knew, and they know, what should be done. If only the Secretary of State had listened to them instead of listening to the so-called "law and order" lobby, this crisis might have been by this time partially resolved. The governor of Maidstone has now resigned early and gone. The governor of Brixton has been removed as a scapegoat following an escape from that prison. The governor of Wormwood Scrubs, who has already been referred to, has broken every rule in the rule book on behalf of his staff and charges, and has threatened to go as well.

Those governors have all known, and to my knowledge have all known, and must surely have advised the Home Secretary, that the vast majority of the 4,000 remand prisoners now in local prisons should be got out of those prisons; that the "inadequates" referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury—the drunks, prostitutes, vagrants, personal possessors of cannabis, and so on—should not be sent to prison under any circumstances whatsoever; that the hostel provision should be given an immediate crisis priority; and that the vacant places in open prisons should be filled.

The building trade is in recession and men are crying out for work. Sites are available in the South of England close to the central criminal courts and Inner London Sessions, and private enterprise could erect within months, if not weeks, two remand centres with hostel accommodation, with minimal but sensible security, to house three-quarters of the remand prisoners who are cramming these prisons in filthy and uncivilised conditions, with half an hour out of the 24 allowed out of their cells. These are unconvicted members of the public who have not been sentenced. Half of them receive no custodial sentence or are acquitted. What has been done since we in this House debated 18 months ago this appalling situation? I hope the Minister will tell us at the end of the debate. I suggested 18 months ago using hutted camps for the purpose. "Impossible", said the Minister, but, immediately the prison officers' crisis arose, hutted camps were introduced to hold men who were on remand and were not being received in prison.

I turn briefly to the matter of the judiciary. It is symptomatic, is it not? that in a debate of this importance, and in every debate which I have heard in the not long time I have been in your Lordships' House, no member of the judiciary is ever to be seen on the Cross-Benches, yet this is a matter of profound importance to the question of law and order.

Lord Rawlinson of Ewell

My Lords, how could a member of the judiciary in your Lordships' House, other than the Lord Chief Justice, be present who has any responsibility for sentencing for criminal offences?

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

It is not a question of their responsibility but of their interest in the question, my Lords. For too long members of the judiciary—and, I say, members of my own profession—have taken the attitude that their job is to get on with the trial of persons and offences, to see that the law is obeyed and that defendants get a fair trial. When the trial is over they pay no attention to what happens to their clients, to those persons who appear in court, after sentence has been pronounced. For too long has that gone on, and we have seen that one of the main causes of the appalling situation in the prisons is the inability of the judiciary—and the judiciary come from the legal profession—to understand that shorter sentences must be passed, that we must move with the times, that we must see what happens in other civilised countries of the western world, and not remain at the top of the league for long sentences. Notice should be taken by the judiciary and members of the legal profession of the results of the sentencing in the courts.

I said the Home Secretary was lucky to have had three outstanding prison governors. He is also lucky to have a remarkable Lord Chief Justice now. He has shown himself acutely aware of the crisis in the prisons and has laid down a number of sensible guidelines for the judges to pass shorter sentences. I do not believe it was his influence that led the Home Secretary to withdraw his previous enthusiasm for supervised early release. If there is opposition to that in the judiciary, I suspect that it comes from the magistrates and the circuit judges. I doubt indeed that it comes at all from the High Court Bench.

One of the factors—and I say this in the presence of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor—that bedevils decision and action in this area is the inability of the Home Secretary and the Lord Chief Justice to get together and hammer out a solution. I suspect that the historic fear of the interference of the Executive means that contact between these important persons is still minimal. Surely in this situation—

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I must contradict the noble Lord there. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has constantly consulted the Lord Chief Justice, and is still doing so. It really is quite unfair to both the Lord Chief Justice and the Home Secretary, who are in close touch with one another about these matters, with my full approval, and sometimes at my suggestion, to suggest that their contact is minimal. That simply is not true.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, I am only too happy to hear those words fall from the noble and learned Lord who sits upon the Woolsack, and of course I entirely accept that that is the situation. If that is the situation—and I accept that it is—and that constant meetings are taking place between the Home Secretary and the Lord Chief Justice on this vital matter, then I sincerely hope that, as I mentioned earlier, some solution will be found, rather than have to resort to an amnesty, to which I fear the Home Secretary might finally have to resort. That was suggested by the noble Lord who spoke earlier, and it would be an amnesty which would be the absolutely final solution, making clear the total failure of any controlled or thought out policy.

The partially suspended sentence—and I say this with respect to the noble Baroness who mentioned it—will not solve the problem. All the evidence indicates that far from reducing the number of persons in prison, it is highly likely to add to their number. All the evidence points in that direction, and in any event it cannot be a solution to this crisis which is upon us.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, will not the noble Lord agree that until it is tried, we do not know?

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

I am so sorry, I did not hear the noble Baroness.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

I said, will not the noble Lord agree that if we do not try it, we do not know? It has not been tried.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, Well, my Lords, it can always be said that if we do not try something, we do not know. We have tried suspended sentences. It was thought that suspended sentences would result in a lowering of the number of people sent to prison. It had exactly the opposite effect. The trouble is, I am afraid, that in the magistracy—and I say this with the greatest respect to them—there is an overwhelming temptation to give people what is called a taste of prison. If magistrates use this new power, instead of putting people on probation, binding them over, or even giving them a suspended sentence, the result will be more people in prison than ever before.

Supervised early release was supported for a long time by Mr. Merlyn Rees in the last Government, and then abandoned by him at the last moment. The present Home Secretary appears to have gone through the same process, yet, as has already been mentioned, this system is in force in Northern Ireland. I cannot believe that the judiciary here in any shape or form would compensate—

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, will the noble Lord forgive me for interrupting? I do so only in order simply to correct the record, as I was a Minister of State when Mr. Rees was Home Secretary. At no stage when he was Home Secretary did he consider any such proposal as supervised early release.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

Then I am obviously wrongly informed, my Lords. I had understood—and unfortunately I do not have the context with me, but I have seen it; otherwise I would not have mentioned it —that in fact he supported this idea, but then made up his mind to drop it.

I was going to say, before the noble Lord intervened, that in Northern Ireland there is no evidence whatever that the judges have in any way compensated for the 50 per cent. remission, and there is no reason to think that they would do anything different in this country.

Of course, there are judges who would like to abolish the caution. There are judges who do not like the right to silence, who object to the safeguards of identification, who do not like the presence of solicitors in police stations. Indeed, there are some judges who have said openly that they get on much better without the inconvenience of a jury. Those are no reasons for Parliament not to legislate for human rights; and the noble and learned Lord the Master of the Rolls has spoken out at length on the abuse of power in sections of society. But for minor judges and magistrates to continue to send accused persons to prisons which cannot accommodate them, to retaliate against the implementation of early release by passing longer sentences, would in itself be an abuse of power. Such abuses of power do from time to time take place and are worthy of the attention of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning.

I implore the Minister to go back to the Secretary of State tomorrow with a message from this House that there are many here—I would say the majority here—who would demand this one solution of supervised early release, which could be brought in at once. He should think again seriously about introducing it at the earliest opportunity.

I hope sincerely that this will be the last debate in this House on the matter of the crisis in the prisons. There cannot be anything more to be said about the matter. There is only one thing to do now, and I am sure that all prison governors agree. Everybody who has studied this problem over the past four or five years agrees that it is no longer any good tinkering with the question. The population of the prisons has to be reduced immediately, and it has to be reduced by a minimum of 4,000 to 5,000 persons. Once achieved, that reduction must be maintained. The only person who can introduce the requirements necessary to produce that result is the Home Secretary. I look forward, and shall listen with great concern and deep interest, to what the Minister has to say tonight as to what he now proposes should be done.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask whether he would not consider that there must be an advance on two fronts, within the prisons, but within the community too? If there are to be fewer people in prisons, there must be somewhere outside for them to live. Unless there is held a conference of organisations such as the Church Army, the Salvation Army, and many other bodies, in order to set up hostels, it will be very difficult to avoid keeping people in prison.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, I entirely and absolutely agree with the noble Baroness. I think I said earlier in my speech that priority—a crash programme—for hostels for that very purpose is one of the vital necessities at the moment.

7.19 p.m.

Lord Soper

My Lords, I venture to take part in the debate because I share the desperation indicated in the letter from the governor of one of the block prisons in London. It is a long time ago since I was responsible for Nonconformists and others in Pentonville prison. I remember very distinctly the realisation that then came to me, and which has not altered through the years, though now my visits to prisons are not so frequent as they used to be. The realisation was that a prison such as Pentonville or Wormwood Scrubs is one of the most uncivilised elements in a community which at least claims some civilisation as part of its normal and public life. There have of course been improvements. There has been the right of congress within the prisons, which I welcomed and which is a token of many improvements which are still being made. But those improvements do not alter in any vital degree my complete conviction that the block prison system is uncivilised and immoral, let alone unchristian.

I begin with one or two recriminations, because I think they ought to be made and need to be made. Anybody who had seen the slopping-out in a prison—I have repeatedly seen it—would be disgusted. They would regard the squalor there as no therapy, but would immediately call to mind the suggestion of the dustbin, although, at least, in some circumstances a dustbin is regularly emptied and slopping-out is a continual process, disgraceful and degrading. Then there is the fact that so many prisoners have to be accommodated two or three in one cell—a cell which was originally built in the 19th century to accommodate one person, and small at that.

We had better face one or two facts about this which seem to elude general consultation and attention. There are the sexual problems. The problems of homosexual practices are far more widespread to my knowledge and experience than a great many people would like to think they are; and the overcrowding is quite intolerable. It produces a situation in which those who are required to supervise this particular dustbin must feel continuously that they are doing something which is totally unproductive and something of which they themselves should really, in their better moments, be ashamed, though they are doing a job and they feel they must continue to do it as best they can.

But I would invite your Lordships, if I may, to consider two fundamental issues which hitherto have not been introduced into this debate. The first is the concept of prison as a therapy; a remedial process; the kind of process which meets the needs of a crime-laden community and can advance the general wellbeing of that community. I do not believe that is true; and I believe that the experience of governors such as the governor of Wormwood Scrubs is that they are employed upon a task the end product of which is unavailable and the processes, therefore, ineffective.

One of the aspects of this particular issue, of course, is the assumption, which I dare say the judiciary, or some of them, share, that if prison is a good thing then more of it would be a better thing. I have learned—and I would pass on to your Lordships what I have tried to say in previous debates—that it is highly likely that those who suffer long sentences will deteriorate progressively; and the idea that the longer you have the opportunity to correct the offender the better will be his prospect of success is totally wrong. The effectiveness of prison—for good, that is—is more or less confined to the first fortnight of incarceration. After that time there begins the artificial process of contracting out of the real world and accommodating yourself to an unreal world; and when you finally emerge you are much less able to deal with its problems than you might otherwise have been. That is one aspect of the matter.

The other aspect is the traditional attitude, which I think must colour a great deal of thinking even among those who ought to know better, that when we put somebody in prison we can confidently leave them there and not ask too many questions as to what is happening to them. We put them away and we do not want to remember them; we do not want to think about them; we do not have to think about them any more, or we do not have to think about them with any great attention. I hope your Lordships will accept at least my friendly conviction that a great many people who talk about prisons know nothing about the real facts that belong to a prison life, and that only those who have had some more or less innocent awareness of this problem are competent to make the kind of judgments which I am afraid many of the judiciary are incompetent to make. The idea that, somehow, a taste of prison, or a prolonged sentence, will produce the desired effect of reforming the criminal, or at least making him inoperative in his criminal ways, is one of the issues which lie behind the desperation and, indeed, the problems that now face prison governors in the block system.

However, recrimination, as Winston Churchill said, is only valid if it is a spur to action. What is to be done? I believe that a reduction in the numbers in prison today is a priority, an absolute priority; and I have the conviction myself that many of those who would be released under various plans which have been advocated and ventilated tonight would be far more likely to lead a decent life when they come out than those who will be retained in the crowded and dangerous conditions in prisons today, who will become hardened in the very processes which will make it much more unlikely that when they do emerge they will be able to find their way back to a reasonable place in society.

I turn now to an issue upon which I would claim some knowledge. For the last 40 years I have been engaged in endeavouring to provide semi-custodial provision for girls in need of care and protection and coming out of conditions of prostitution, and so forth, who otherwise would have been sent to prison. I have some knowledge of bail hostels, and, indeed, was instrumental in setting up the first complete alcoholic rehabilitation centre in Lonodon. There is the detoxification, which is the first stage; the accommodation to a new kind of life, which is the protective stage; and thirdly the provision of some kind of continued protection by way of protected housing, and so forth. I would not be stupid enough to say that we have had extraordinary success in these ventures, but I believe they are infinitely to be preferred to incarceration, particularly of those who have committed drink-related offences. I believe there is a very much greater likelihood that they will recover; and their release would indeed reduce the population of the prisons at the moment and give us time to see what better provision could be made for the delinquents in our modern society.

I would not wish to add to what has been so cogently said by others. What I would ask is that, when provision is at least proposed for this kind of release, as the Home Secretary previously suggested, it is surely not fair that that issue should finally be decided by the judiciary, because I do not believe that, with all the competence that they have, they are necessarily any more able to form a final judgement on these matters than even people like myself. I believe we have to look at the whole question at a deeper level.

I would permit myself one final comment. A man is more likely to return to sobriety, decency and a life of usefulness if he is not deprived of access to the real world in which, alone, that exercise can be fulfilled. The final argument against the block system is that it takes people out of the real world and leaves them in an artificial area for a period sufficiently long to deprive them of many of the vicissitudes and aptitudes which otherwise they might be able to call upon when the time comes for them to be released. The imperative need, it seems to me, for those who would look to a reform of the whole prison system and the abolition of the abuses which now stain it is an attitude whereby those who are miscreants should find their answer within the framework of the same society as they have abused, for it is only there, I believe, that their true future, and the amenity and wellbeing of the community, can be assured.

Let me end where I began. This is a desperate situation, and those who would seek to minimise it should listen most carefully to what has been said by previous speakers tonight. It is a situation in which the one answer is to be prepared to criticise at root the prison system itself; to begin by taking as many as possible out of it, with the risks that will attend that taking out but which, nevertheless, I think will be justified. Finally, we have to do something better than that which is traditionally called the prison system of this country. It has collapsed. There is no chance of its true resuscitation. We have the time, but it is short, to do better. I pray that we shall.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has done your Lordships' House a considerable service by introducing in his Unstarred Question this very important subject for debate; but some of your Lordships may feel, as I feel, that it was a pity that he made an unwarranted attack on Her Majesty's judges, an attack which was wholly irrelevant and utterly misconceived. Some of your Lordships—and I am one; although I have only just the privilege of being here—must say that I feel it was a pity that it was made.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to interrupt. Whether I was right or wrong, what I said was completely relevant. I am saying that it is impossible to give effect to what Parliament requires unless the judges alter their attitude. That is relevant.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Earl. I shall be at pains to seek to convince your Lordships, by, I hope, a fair process of reasoning, that what the noble Earl has said about Her Majesty's judges is wholly irrelevant, that it does not serve to clarify the subject and that it does not serve to criticise at root the situation—which is surely the wish of all on all sides of the House—to examine this problem. That the overcrowded state of our prisons has reached the flashpoint of unacceptability is not in issue. What is in issue is whether the policy of Her Majesty's Government, on fair and objective review, is open to some of the criticisms which your Lordships have made.

Are they to be criticised for the situation that has arisen; are they to be criticised for the steps that they are now taking to deal with the situation? It is the policy that has to be examined fairly and objectively—as all of your Lordships would wish to do—and, in my submission, on examination, Her Majesty's Government are not subject to the type of strictures some of which have been made.

The prime cause—and let us not forget it—of overcrowding in prisons is the increase in numbers of criminals who commit serious crimes and who have to be sent to prison in order to protect society In this context, as criticism has been made of the judges, and I am no judge, I have to declare my interest as a recorder. I do on occasions send people to prison for substantial sentences—with no relish, but as part of what I conceive to be, and have been brought up to understand to be, a public duty to protect society. Two and half million serious crimes were committed this year and 44,000 of those who committed them are in prison.

In my submission, it is wholly wrong—and I will come in a moment to the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Longford—to attribute overcrowding, which is the evil, to neglect or to ineptitude on the part of prison staff, prison officers or prison governors. They are a wonderful body of men.

It is equally wrong to attribute this overcrowding to Her Majesty's judges, either the puisne judges, the county court judges or recorders down the line like myself or magistrates, as part of their sentencing policy, because there is no desire that I have come across either in myself, if one examines oneself, or in one's colleagues when one talks to them, to wish to pass cruel, long, harsh, useless sentences. One passes what one feels one must pass. It is, as we know, usually the supervisory control of the court of appeal which will always reduce a sentence that is unconscionable or wrong.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, does the noble Lord pay no attention to what the Lord Chief Justice has said to all those whose duty it is to sentence persons in the courts to attempt to pass shorter sentences? And if he does not pay attention to that, would he tell us why not?

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I do pay attention to it. In the circumstances—although your Lordships may see the force of the intervention, as I do not; and I do pay attention to it—I propose to continue. What I was about to seek to show was that paying attention to it and accepting it, it is wholly irrelevant—if this be so, if this be right, if judges pay attention to it, if such is their attitude and if there is the Court of Appeal as a supervisory and regulating agency—to seek to attack the judges because it is an attack without profit and it ends in no answer.

So if it is inappropriate to attribute overcrowding to the judges, or to attribute the evil of overcrowding to the prisons officers and on that we are all agreed—then I am sure we should all be agreed that it is equally inappropriate to attribute this evil of overcrowding to the want of humanity on the part of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Home Affairs or of any of his predecessors under previous Administrations. The problem is that this has built up under successive Governments. True, it has risen to a flashpoint under this Government but it has been building up for years and there is no sudden escape and no instantly available panacea.

The policy of Her Majesty's Government is right. It is relevant and it has been wholly pragmatic. On the one side, they have sought to curtail, to stem, the increasing tide of crime: and to do this they have increased police pay, they have heightened recruitment, they encourage patrols—and this is a positive step forward to reduce the amount of crime.

That is the first way that one should seek, as a matter of policy, to deal with this problem. The obverse is to seek to make available much more accommodation—and here I take the point made by more than one noble Lord. But by the end of this year an extra 5,000 places will have been made available. Over the next decade there will be 60 projects; and this very year £23 million has been spent on 14 new projects. This cannot all be done at once. The question is: Is the broad policy right? One could end, with respect, perhaps by accepting that some special consideration should be urgently given to the position of the mentally ill; that some immediate consideration again should be urgently given to the length spent in solitary confinement. Here I declare another interest because as a prisoner—albeit of war—I spent about 9 months, off and on, in solitary confinement. I would certainly wish that anything that could be done to ease the lot of those who spend years in solitary confinement should receive attention.

I accept, speaking if I may wholly personally, that the inadequates who should not go to prison require consideration. I accept that the remand prison situation also warrants investigation. I for my part welcome the type of prison crisis meeting which has been suggested but not in any atmosphere of recrimination where motives of the judiciary are called in question.

If the case for reform is undeniable, is it not equally plain that the requisite remedial remedies should in no way weaken the rule of law and that they should in no way weaken the confidence of the public in our criminal system? In this regard, I would respectfully suggest that partial suspension may be a possibility but that amnesty or automatic remission is wholly inappropriate, and that although immediate consideration should be given to the matters that have been mentioned on the basis of a crisis meeting, there is nonetheless as matters now stand no fair or objective basis upon which Her Majesty's Government may be properly criticised in this regard.

7.44 p.m.

Lord Noel-Baker

My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in expressing my gratitude to the noble Earl who opened this debate. I rise to offer a view which I formed many years ago when I was close friends with a man whom some noble Lords will remember, Colonel Borden-Turner, who for years was governor of Wormwood Scrubs. In my many conversations with him he used to tell me that he was deeply unhappy about the imprisonment of first offenders. He said to me constantly that in his belief the vast majority of all first offenders were in prison only by accident; that they were essentially good men who desired to live by the law and be good citizens. He said—of course we all know it happens—that a long term of imprisonment can turn a good man into a confirmed criminal for life.

The suggestion which I desire to offer is that the prisons should now be relieved of a proportion of their present population—the appalling figure of 44,000—by an immediate and total amnesty to all first offenders, unless in any particular case there should be some special reason why that amnesty should not be given. I believe that that would mean an immediate relaxation of the present problem, and that if it were made a principle not to send first offenders to prison, unless there were some specially grim reason why it should be done, that would continue the relief of the prison population which the original amnesty would bring about.

I venture to agree with the noble Lord who said that what is now vastly important is that we should consider the whole prison system and in particular the efficacy of punishment as a preventive of crime. I recall a book which I read many years ago. I should "boggle" the name of the author so I do not attempt it. The title was The Crime of Punishment. I believe it to be true that prevention of crime can be dealt with much more efficiently and give far greater economy at far less expenditure of present funds by other methods—in particular by improvement in our system of education. I cannot develop the theme, for it would take me much too long.

The fact that the prison population has risen from 10,000 in 1955 to 44,000 in 1981 accords with the figures which I believe to be generally accepted: that the cost of crime to the nation in 1972 was £2,000 million and that in 1981 it is £5,000 million. I believe that the Government should spend £1,000 million a year: £500 million on making a reality of their declared policy of sport for all, and £500 million on making a reality of their policy of music for all. Sport and music are the two most potent factors in education which are at present unused or under-used in our schools and universities. I believe that that would work a drastic reduction in the incidence of crime perhaps in the short period of time.

Your Lordships can judge that by what used to happen when a boys' club was opened in a region of London and the level of juvenile delinquency was immediately reduced—perhaps by more than half—when the young people were given somewhere where they could comfortably spend their evenings, where there were games, dances, music and fun. I believe that this is an aspect of policy to which the Government should give the most urgent and careful consideration.

If by spending £1,000 million on improving our education with these two most powerful instnunents of sport and music they could save £2,000 million or £3,000 million on the cost of crime and bring it back to the figure of £2,000 million in 1972, it would indeed be a splendid bargain for the nation. I urge this on the Government with all my power.

7.50 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, it is only for a few years that I have had the privilege of being a Member of your Lordships' House, but never have I risen to address your Lordships with more of a hope in my heart that action will result from the speeches following upon the unstarred Question for which I think the House ought to be indebted to my noble friend Lord Longford.

This is no new problem that is being discussed in this House. The May Report is two years old. Debates in this House on the worsening conditions of our prisons have taken place, and I believe that your Lordships tonight are dealing with a critical problem about which discussion has taken place before, but in an atmosphere of crisis with which the Secretary of State, if I may say so respectfully, must deal as a matter of emergency. Without any doubt at all, that crisis has been emphasised by a very courageous governor of Wormwood Scrubs Prison, by writing a letter to The Times, which my noble friend has quoted to the House and which I need not repeat.

The chairman of the Association of Prison Visitors, Mr. McFarlane, has emphasised that crisis only yesterday, as reported again in The Times, by saying that unless something is done he can see—and he is a very responsible person—that there could well be outbreaks in our prisons, the like of which we would not wish to see. He, too, expressed a view that there was no way of dealing with the crisis, in his opinion and with his specialist experience, by merely having the remedy of partially-suspended sentences.

It is, as I said, in this situation of crisis that one has to look to the Government for action. I make no criticism whatsoever of the judiciary in the speech I have to make to your Lordships. I think, if I may say so with respect, that is irrelevant. It is for the Government to take action at the crisis level of 45,000 plus prisoners, when all of us know that the maximum capacity is somewhere in the region of 35,000. So in the closing minutes of this debate let us try to see whether we can put to the Home Secretary from this House not only an urgent plea for action but some constructive proposals—and many have been mentioned in this debate, not least by my noble friend Lord Hutchinson and by the dissertation of the whole question of prison life which was given by my noble friend Lord Soper, whose work in this field has met with the admiration of so many, and not least of his colleagues in this House.

What are the things that can be done? The first think that has got to be done, in my humble submission, is not to think ahead for years and years of something that may in fact reduce the prison population. I am all for it, and the process has to be continued; but what can be done at this moment to reduce the prison population to a tolerable number of 40,000? It means that 5,000 prisoners have to be released.

Many of us have an admiration for the Home Secretary. We regard him as a man of humanity, and I believe that his humanity is still there despite the rather extraordinary atmosphere he had to contend with on 13th October at the Conservative Party Conference. I have enough faith in his courage, apart from his humanity, to hope that he has overcome the shock he had on that occasion from his political colleagues at that conference. It is perfectly true, and has been freely commented on, that he did have the idea of the two-thirds remission of sentences which were not long sentences: one-third to be under supervision and one-third to be, as it were, absolute.

It may very well be that those who have criticised that plan have good grounds for doing so on the grounds that the courts might be tempted, knowing of the remission, to see to it that the sentence which was going to be remitted was one they thought appropriate, bearing in mind that they wanted a minimum practical period of the sentence to be served. It may be that criticism is right. It may be that the probation officers, whose views upon this I believe are accurately reported, may have taken the view—and it is understandable—that with their present numbers and their present burdens they could not supervise this one-third period when they were supposed to be doing it.

That may well be so, but if in fact it be true, those of us who thought it was a good idea find ourselves up against a series of practical difficulties in this crisis. Ought we not to be looking very seriously indeed at the proposal that, certainly up to a 12-month sentence—and that cannot be for a very serious crime, or for those who have come back to prison time and time again—save where that sentence be one for violence, because that is something we are all very concerned about, that one-half of the sentence should be remitted? That would in fact, so I am told reliably, lead to an immediate evacuation of our prisons by some 4,000 people, and we are well on the way to the 5,000 mark. Is it not right, therefore, to consider that as a very definite priority?

Reference has been made in this debate, by my noble friend Lord Longford and others, to the suggestion made in The Times of an amnesty. Again there are arguments for and against that. If we have an amnesty for those who are serving sentences of less than a certain period, we do not have to be very imaginative to know that some unfairness results, because those who have just got sentences of a little more have to remain in the prison in those conditions for the whole of their sentences, and they have to see go free somebody who may in fact have been convicted of a more serious crime, but who was fortunate enough to appear before a more merciful court. It follows logically that those who have just come in to serve their sentences fare rather more happily than those who are right at the end of their 12-month sentence, if that sentence in fact be the one that is deemed appropriate for an amnesty. But the situation is so critical that, whatever be the criticisms, these proposals have got to be considered as matter of urgency.

I come on to the third proposal that has come out of this debate and that has been made before. Reference was made to it in the May Report. I refer to those who suffer from some mental disability who are not certifiable. It is an absolute, positive scandal that they should be in prison. It is not just a scandal in regard to them. It is a scandal for the National Health Service that ought to have this responsibility. Furthermore, it is not only a question of overcrowding. What you are doing by having those people there is putting a burden upon prison officers, who do not know how to cope with them, and who are therefore having their time and energies taken up, which makes the whole problem for all the other prisoners, and the duties that those prison officers have in regard to them, all the more difficult and makes the problem of overcrowding all the more serious.

Reference has been made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and others to the petty offenders who ought not to be in prison at all and to those who ought to have less severe sentences. In the latter connection, I must humbly pay my tribute to the Lord Chief Justice, who has certainly, both in his guidelines and in other ways, brought all the great influence of his high office to bear on seeing that the question of shorter sentences is well in the minds of the judiciary and indeed of the magistrates.

I do not think that long speeches at the end of a debate register quite as much as speeches of more moderate length. Therefore, I shall not do any more at this stage than conclude my remarks by saying, as I began: please do not let us be put off in this debate —and I beg the Minister not to be—by recitations of the failures of previous Governments to deal with this matter. I take the burden most humbly by saying: all right, I concede that former Governments have neglected this problem. It is not an easy matter in a Cabinet room—I have never been in one—serving as a Cabinet Minister. But I rather imagine that it is not the easiest job in the world for a Home Secretary to plead his cause, when there are so many priorities, for expenditure of large sums on prisons.

I hope that the present Home Secretary has enough courage—I know he has that—and enough powers of persuasion, too, to see that this problem is not always made the Cinderella in regard to social services. In my view, it has a very high priority. I am trying in this summing-up speech to put upon the Government the very definite responsibility, at this moment, to listen to the proposals that are made, and that have been made in the past, and to see that something is done urgently to deal with the problem that has been highlighted by the Question that we are considering tonight.

I conclude with a quotation from the Committee's report, delivered two years ago and unimplemented as yet. This is a sentence that I think each individual member of the May Committee and its illustrious chairman would want to have repeated at the end of this debate. It reads as follows: If we turn our backs on our prisons, we turn our backs on our society and on our values".

8.4 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, the Question of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, concerns the grave situation in our prisons and that the situation is grave is not in dispute. Indeed, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, who, at the beginning of his speech, said, in essence, that the problems are both pressing and serious. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has taken the lead in the past two-and a-half years that he has been in office in drawing public attention to the problems faced by the prison system. In speech after speech, both in another place and elsewhere, my right honourable friend has referred in the plainest terms to the appalling difficulties created by overcrowding, and by a legacy of neglect which produced no new closed prison or borstal built in England or Wales in the 40 years from 1918 to 1958.

However, there has, I think, in the past few years been a considerable increase in public awareness of the problems of the prison system, and I believe your Lordships would accept that the Government's openness of approach—perhaps well epitomised in the television programme "Strangeways", which is being repeated at the present time—has contributed much to a better understanding of a system and a service about which most people in the population know very little.

The problem is essentially one of an imbalance between the resources available to the prison service and the demands made upon it. The Government's objective is to rectify that imbalance by increasing the available resources, by making better use of resources or by reducing the demands made upon them. But, in practice, we have to try to do all three. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, expressed the hope that my right honourable friend would argue effectively for resources for the prison service. I think my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway gave the answer to the noble Lord, when my noble friend referred to the Government's prison building programme. Six new prisons to be started between this year and 1984 with further starts being planned, and major reconstruction at over 60 establishments during the 1980s, constitutes a substantial programme and I hope that it gives the prison service some real encouragement for the future.

Incidentally, it is a programme that is going to make a major contribution to the improvement of conditions at Wormwood Scrubs, where a great deal of new accommodation is now to be provided, as my honourable friend the Minister of State, Mr. Mayhew, stated in another place in the adjournment debate on 20th November. But, of course, we have also to try to make better use of the resources now available.

We propose to go some way to reducing the heavy burden of court escort duties by providing in the Criminal Justice Bill which my right honourable friend intends to introduce shortly for the courts to be empowered to remand accused persons in their absence. We do not intend to disrupt the present eight-day cycle of remand hearings. Provided, therefore, that prisoners give their consent and are legally represented, our intention is that the court will be able to remand offenders in their absence, but only for up to a maximum of three consecutive remands. The safeguards that I have mentioned are very important for this proposal, which ought to bring some relief to our overpressed prison service.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, is right, just as the Home Affairs Committee of another place was right, in pointing to the overriding need to reduce the sentenced prison population, if we are going to rectify the imbalance to which I have referred. That is the Government's position. It has been reiterated many times by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. It is central to our objective of bringing relief to the pressure under which the prison system operates—an objective which is clearly shared, whatever our different views about how to do it, by all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate this evening.

Despite that general remark, I realise that some of your Lordships spoke of specific offenders who are in custody. The noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, spoke of remand prisoners and asked; what is being done? In the Crown Court, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has, as I am sure the noble Lord will know, opened new courts and appointed extra judges and this has already achieved a significant reduction in the backlog of cases.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and others of your Lordships, including the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, in the final speech, spoke about mentally disordered offenders and drunken offenders. So far as what we call the regional secure units for mentally disordered offenders are concerned, at last a start has been made with 30 places provided, 170 places to be available by the end of next year and 500 places by 1985. The Government will continue to pursue policies aimed at finding alternative ways of dealing with such offenders, but the great majority of the prison population are sentenced prisoners who are there because their actions are serious enough for the courts to feel that imprisonment is the only response for the offence and for the offender.

In this context I think that a significant statistic to bear in mind is that the great majority of sentenced prisoners have three or more previous convictions. Only 15 per cent. are known to have less than three previous convictions. Some of these I have no doubt are petty and inadequate offenders whose actions are a nuisance and who deserves to be dealt with firmly—but also in the hope that they can be steered away from custody. However, there are many others who do not come into that category. As my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway said, there are offenders whose offences simply cannot be overlooked so far as custody is concerned.

Of course the Government attach importance to fostering alternatives to imprisonment. As proof of that, the figures for the making of probation orders have now begun to increase which, in the total context of the increase in crime, I find encouraging. And the numbers of community service orders have increased dramatically. En many cases, however, there has to be imprisonment. Nevertheless, consistent with the gravity of the offence and the protection of the general public, sentences ought to be as short as possible. I would not have the temerity to say that off my own bat but it was the basis of a number of recent judgments of the Court of Appeal, of which the best known are the cases of Upton and Bibi of about a year ago.

The criminal statistics of last year show that there was a discernible reduction in the average length of sentence in both the magistrates' courts and the Crown courts following those judgements in the Court of Appeal. I understand that the reduction implied a decline in the prison population of as much as 2,000 to 3,000 prisoners, but in practice the increase in the number of offenders being dealt with by the courts has eaten into what would have been savings. But this development in sentencing policy is of crucial importance if a sustained reduction is to be achieved in our prison population and if we are to give those responsible for running our prisons the opportunity to operate regimes consistent with standards of decency and dignity and to emulate the very good work which is being done by staff, where positive policies for prisoners are made possible wherever there is a reasonable level of numbers of prisoners. So far as that is concerned, last summer the prison population did indeed rise to just over 45,500 for a certified normal accommodation of under 40,000. Since then, however, the population has fallen back to rather less than the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, mentioned—to just under 44,000—and has stayed there now for many weeks. Nevertheless, this represents a level of overcrowding, particularly in local prisons like Wormwood Scrubs, which cannot he sustained.

In developing the policy to be set out in the Criminal Justice Bill, shortly to be introduced, my right honourable friend has had very clearly in mind the need to reinforce the trend towards shorter sentences. At the same time, a Bill of that kind must incorporate powers which enable the courts to deal adequately with offenders. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, referred to the role of Parliament and to the role of the judiciary in sentencing matters in terms which drew an intervention with which I must make it clear I wholly concur. Of course it is for judges and magistrates to decide on appropriate sentences in individual cases. Parliament's responsibility, surely, is to create the right statutory framework within which the courts feel that they can give the right sentences. This is the basis upon which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has been considering how to move ahead.

Last May, the Home Office Review of Parole put forward proposals by which the benefits of parole might be extended to prisoners serving sentences below the parole threshold, mentioned by all noble Lords who have spoken this evening—what we call the supervised release scheme. The proposal was put forward as one way of reinforcing the call of the Court of Appeal for shorter sentences. But while there was much support for the scheme—indeed, that support has been reiterated this evening—many doubts were voiced about it. I was interested in the speculation of noble Lords about reactions to supervised release. If they will forgive me saying so, it was a remarkable allegation by the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, that probably the circuit judges and magistrates have persuaded the Government to abandon supervised release.

Let me tell the House the truth. It is true that we had estimated that the supervised release scheme might have yielded a reduction of up to 7,000 in the prison population, but that was on the most favourable assumptions and related to a scheme under which offenders were automatically released after one-third of their sentence to serve the middle one-third under supervision in the community. But it was clear from the reactions that we received that the early release proposal would have created, in the opinion of many, a gap between the length of sentence given and the actual sentence served which would be too great and which could be reflected in longer sentences. If that happened, that in itself would have meant that the estimated saving in the prison population simply would not have been achieved. What is more, the progress made towards encouraging the courts to exercise their sentencing discretion in favour of shorter sentences would have been lost.

Let me go on a different tack for a moment. Let us suppose that the early release scheme were to be applied with judicial discretion. Again that would have made any estimate of the reductions the scheme would have achieved very much more uncertain. We also had to take into account that real doubts had been expressed by the probation service itself, among others, about the likely effectiveness of short periods of supervision under a scheme of that kind. Incidentally, I do not for one moment deny what the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, said: that the probation service also had in mind that they would need the resources to be provided. But nothing has been said so far as that is concerned to prevent the service from feeling that the resources would be there when such a scheme would be brought into effect.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, would the Minister tell the House whether the hostile reaction to the proposal came from the judiciary?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, we undertook consultations, which I think was a perfectly natural thing to do, with a whole variety of people: the judiciary, the magistrates, the probation service—a variety of other people who were all free to come to talk to us and with whom we consulted. The situation is exactly as I have set it out there. The reactions and the reservations were of the kind that I have just explained. It was because of those reservations and because of the damaging effects, as we saw them, both upon the savings which would otherwise have been made by an early release scheme and possibly upon what is happening to the sentencing trend of the courts at the present time that we looked elsewhere. We have not reneged, therefore, on a cast-iron opportunity to reduce the prison population by 7,000. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, that we took a balanced appraisal which suggested that the likely benefits of the scheme were at the best uncertain and at the worst could work against the trend of sentencing practice as it is becoming apparent. Therefore, it was, as I say, to Section 47 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 that we also looked, the section which gives to the courts the power to suspend part of a prison sentence.

My noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve put her finger on a most important point when she said that Section 47 has one immediate advantage over the early release scheme, in that Section 47 is already on the statute book and can, therefore, be brought into effect much sooner than a scheme requiring legislation. This is a point which think should weigh with your Lordships because many of you this evening have said in terms that time is not on our side in these matters.

I should also like to remind the House that, in their report, the Advisory Council on the Penal System, about which a good deal has been said this evening, pointed out that the decision to incorporate a partially suspended sentence provision—incidentally, on the form of which they were consulted—in the Criminal Law Bill in effect pre-empted a recommendation that they would otherwise have made. The Advisory Council on the Penal System concluded: We view the partially suspended sentence as a legitimate means of exploiting one of the few reliable pieces of criminal knowledge, that many offenders sent to prison for the first time do not subsequently re-offend". It is with just that objective that the Government now intend to implement Section 47, subject of course to the agreement of Parliament.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord the Minister would allow me to intervene and ask him just two questions. First, while one always welcomes U-turns from the Government and sometimes does not receive them, is it not a fact that the Home Secretary himself took the view that the partial suspension procedure, when recommended elsewhere, would not be efficient? Is that not the case?

The second question I wish to ask the noble Lord is this: during what period of time is this scheme likely to reduce the prison population? Also, can he say by how many during that period of time it is estimated that the number of prisoners would be reduced?

Lord Belstead

With regard to the first question which the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, asked me (a question which I think was asked of my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve during her speech, and which my noble friend answered) it is indeed a fact that we have said quite openly during debates—and also I think it was said quite openly in the Review of Parole on behalf of the Home Office—that we were suspicious of Section 47, and indeed in his speech the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, gave the reason. It was because—to use the jargon—it might mean that the courts would feel that "a taste of custody" would be appropriate.

I have been at pains this evening to try to say something, and indeed to back up what I have been saying with some evidence, about the trends of sentencing policy shown by the courts as a result of advice given by the Lord Chief Justice in the Court of Appeal. We believe now that there is a good chance that the purposes of Section 47 will be achieved—the purposes of Section 47 which it was hoped would be achieved when it was written into the 1977 legislation.

So far as the savings of places are concerned, I hope I have also shown in my speech what a conjecture this is. I repeat quite openly that we believed in the Home Office that there could be a saving of some 7,000 places in the prison service by an early release scheme but it soon became apparent that this was subject to all sorts of considerations which would almost certainly reduce those numbers. I should like to write to the noble Lord about this, but I understand that we certainly could be talking about something up to 4,000 places if Section 47 were to work out in the way that might be hoped. But nobody can say for sure what in fact is going to happen. If I have got that wrong, I will write to the noble Lord.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, can the noble Lord give an estimate of the period of time which that would take? We are facing an emergency situation. What answer are we going to give to the governor of Wormwood Scrubs tonight—"Wait, wait, wait. We will try some other remedies"?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, with respect to the noble and learned Lord, that is an extraordinary intervention. If an early release scheme had been put into legislation, that legislation would not have been through both Houses of Parliament for probably another eight months and then it would have been necessary to put such a scheme into effect, which would have taken a further considerable time. Section 47 is on the statute book. I give no undertakings this evening, but there is no reason why Section 47 should not be brought into operation, in some form, in the reasonably near future, although of course, if we are to alter the effect of Section 47 in the way which my noble friend Lady Macleod recommended in her speech, that would need some legislation which would add to the scope of the section. With respect to the noble and learned Lord I do not think that is a very good point. One of the strong points for bringing in the 1977 legislation on this particular ground is the fact that here is something which can be tried very soon, whereas the scheme which was floated in the Review of Parole was something which, whatever happened, could not have come into effect for a very considerable time.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I have been trying to intervene, to ask the noble Lord whether he was going to deal with the other suggestion which I made, which is that the Government should consider adopting 50 per cent. remission, as we have in Northern Ireland. No doubt the noble Lord will be able to give the House an exact figure of the number of people who would be released from prison by such a scheme, because it is readily calculable, whereas in the case of the provision which the Government are now contemplating, the matter is one of conjecture.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I think really I have covered that point. Of course we have considered such a matter carefully. Anyone who did not consider as many of the options as possible would be very unwise but that particular proposal falls into the difficulty of the perceived gap (particularly by those who are responsible for sentencing) between the sentence which is actually given and the sentence which is served, as the noble Lord knows.

Lord Avebury

I did not know that.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I thought the noble Lord did know it, but as the noble Lord apparently does not know there was not a parole system in Northern Ireland—

Lord Avebury

I did know that—of course I did.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, it was not considered either feasible or easy to introduce a parole system into Northern Ireland and resort was therefore made to the 50 per cent. remission.

For the reasons which I have given to your Lordships we have turned to Section 47. We believe that it will give the courts the opportunity to reduce effective sentence lengths while at the same time marking the seriousness of the offence by the sentence given. That would secure a method of supplementing the trend towards shorter sentences within the bounds of the kind of judicial discretion which our consultations carried out in the context of the Review of Parole proposals suggested was necessary and which I think the courts will themselves welcome.

I have no hesitation in admitting that the effectiveness of Section 47 depends on the way it is used. For the reasons which I gave just now after one of the interventions, we believe that in the present climate of opinion it will be used as intended in cases where otherwise full imprisonment would be unavoidable and we believe it will enhance the move towards shorter sentences.

This debate on a very difficult matter and in a very grave situation is, nonetheless, welcome because I think it has given a chance not only for the Government to hear what has been said by your Lordships but also for the Government to explain something of our strategy for relieving pressure on the prison system. But, of course, it is a strategy which is not ultimately subject to rigid control. As your Lordships will know better than I do, the criminal justice system does not work like that. Of course, there are uncertainties inherent in any course of action which is not rigidly controlled centrally. The effect of a supervised release scheme would for many reasons be uncertain, and the Government believe that partially suspended sentences would be the better approach.

But there is one certainty; namely, that we can only hope to contain the crisis in our prison system if the demands made upon the service are brought into balance with the resources which we have. This debate has shown the many and complex matters with which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary must contend if this balance is going to be achieved. Unless it is achieved, it will leave the Government with no option other than to use what would amount to executive powers to relieve the situation. That is the measure of the seriousness of the problem with which this debate has been concerned and against which the Government's policy is being formed.