HL Deb 28 April 1982 vol 429 cc867-901

2.48 p.m.

The Earl of Longford rose to call attention to the position in the prisons; and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. I must begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Elton, on his transfer—what I would regard as a promotion—to one of the most arduous positions in the Government. We all recognise his merits, and of course I am eternally grateful to his father whose famous book England Arise had more influence on me than any other book in converting me from conservatism to socialism.

I always understood that there were 20 minutes for the opening speaker and I thought that I was doing rather well by deciding to keep my remarks to 15 minutes, to which I shall keep them. However, on behalf of those who have taken part in debates on penal reform, I should like to express all our good wishes and thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, who did such splendid work here in his ministerial capacity.

We have been warned about the time, and therefore I shall come quickly to the point. It is now generally admitted that the overcrowding of our prisons and the resulting squallor is a disgrace to our civilisation. The Home Secretary has repeatedly emphasised the gravity of the situation and has expressed the hope that judges could be persuaded to pass shorter sentences. It is recognised that sentences here are, generally speaking, heavier than those passed in similar countries. The inspector-general's report lays bare once again that sorry state of affairs. In my short speech today I shall deal with remedies.

Last May the Home Office produced a Review of Parole in England and Wales, with a foreword by the Home Secretary, which raised great hopes among those concerned with penal policy. The well-informed calculations at that time were that under those plans the prison population could be reduced by 7,000 people. The proposal which aroused most interest was the automatic extension of the parole system to short-term prisoners. In the introduction of that important report Mr. Whitelaw was careful not to commit himself to that particular proposal. But he allowed it to be widely understood—and anyone who glances at the press will realise this—that he was strongly sympathetic. In the event, all such hopes were shattered, though not I trust for ever.

The proposals actually brought forward in the Criminal Justice Bill have been widely criticised as being more likely to increase than decrease the numbers in prison, but if they do decrease the numbers, it will not be by many. We have not been given—and I cannot think that we are likely to be given—any convincing reasons why the Home Office proposals of May 1981 were abandoned. It is widely surmised that the painful experience that the well-meaning Home Secretary underwent at the Conservative Conference forced him to the conclusion that he could not carry his own party with him—and, it might well be, his own Prime Minister. If that were so, we could feel sympathy for him and continue the respect we feel for him as a man.

But the official reason is different. We are told that the Home Secretary has been convinced by the judges that the proposals were impracticable. Here I shall speak with extreme meekness and mildness. If I manage to annoy anyone, it will not be through any wish of mine. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice recently made a notable maiden speech. I am very glad to see that he is present today. I am afraid that in all debates of this sort the judges have been rather conspicuous by their absence. However, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice has honoured us by his presence today. I did warn him that I might be quoting him. When he spoke in this House the other day he left no doubt in our minds about the part played by the judges in defeating this Home Office proposal. He said: The judges were unanimously opposed to it". The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice then said: I am very glad to say that the proposal was dropped". It is worth quoting the reason that was given us by the noble and learned Lord as to why the judges were so hostile. He said: the actual term served in prison would be precisely one-third of that which the judge imposed … The judge consequently would have been in a hopeless dilemma in many cases; should he obey the dictates of Parliament and pass the sentence that was originally in his mind, knowing that only a third would be served, or should he increase the sentence—contrary to the wishes of Parliament? "—[Official Report, 24/3/82; col. 988.] So faced with that dilemma the judges came to the Home Secretary and persuaded him to abandon this progressive idea. I have been careful to quote exactly the words the noble and learned Lord used; therefore, so far, I hope that no one can accuse me of misinterpreting the Lord Chief Justice.

But now I offer just one or two very unprovocative reflections on which Members of the House must be their own judges. Is this not another way of saying that in many cases, under these proposals, the judge would feel that he was in conflict with the wishes of Parliament?—though I recognise that, as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice explained to us, a judge would at all times consider that it was his duty to carry out the wishes of Parliament if they became the law of the land.

To avoid a misunderstanding which may have arisen on the previous occasion, I am not accusing the judges of any impropriety. I am simply emphasising the point that they are not favourable to the kind of proposals for reducing the prison population which are regarded as a sine qua non by enlightened people outside the judiciary, including, it would seem, the Home Office as recently as last year. I shall not pursue this matter of how the judges could be persuaded to alter their attitude, or what one does if they wish to impose some veto. I shall not pursue that matter for today, as I say, I am a dove of peace. However, I am just raising this question and placing it fairly before the House. How can those of us who believe in the ideas of the Home Office proposals of May 1981 prevail against what appears to be the attitude of the judiciary? That is the problem—what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lane, might call the dilemma.

The options open to us are not, in principle, different from those I indicated last November, though various refinements and combinations can be worked out. I know that the distinguished expert speakers will unfold a number of ideas later on. What I called last November, and still call without disrespect, "Whitelaw Mark 1 "—that is, the Whitelaw Plan, or at any rate the Home Office Plan, of May 1981—is still, in my eyes, the front runner, but there are possible alternatives and amendments.

There is the suggestion of an amnesty, of the kind introduced by Sir Winston Churchill when he was Home Secretary in 1910. According to one newspaper, in France they have introduced an amnesty which has reduced the prison population from 43,000 to 29,000. So it is not regarded as an absurdity in Europe. There is the extension of remission from one-third to one-half of the normal sentence. There is the removal of mentally disordered prisoners from prison as, for example, suggested by the prison officers. There is the case, which grows ever stronger, for legislation which reduces the level of maximum sentences. There are, indeed, all sorts of combinations.

The Howard League, the oldest and most famous of penal reform societies, produced a most impressive booklet, Freedom on Licence. They took the Home Office White Paper as an absolute minimum and went well beyond it. I wish that I could describe their proposals at length, but I hope that my much revered friend, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner—I hope that he is still President of the Howard League; he has been for many years—will perhaps explain their ideas to us more fully. One of the most striking features of their plan would be the establishment of a court of appeal to which appeals would be directed against decisions of the Parole Board. There are many possibilities, even under our existing arrangements. All these plans must be judged by one primary yardstick: do they bring about a substantial reduction in the prison population? Mr. Whitelaw has indicated more than once that if there was no significant reduction in the prison population, he would take legislative action. I call on him as a man of honour to honour that commitment now.

Before I close—and I still have five minutes due to me—I should like to say a few words about long-sentence prisoners, and life sentence prisoners in particular, whose numbers have increased from 133 in 1957 to 1,750, on a somewhat new basis, at the present time; they increased to 1,481 two years ago on the old basis. My views on this subject were set out at some length in the debate which I initiated on 26th March 1980. I shall recapitulate one of my conclusions now. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lane, told us recently, the idea that prison is likely to improve a man is no longer held by serious persons. We must assume that normally the longer a man spends in prison, the more he will deteriorate; that is not always the case, but it is usually the case. Recent Home Office research has also discredited the idea that the longer the sentence, the greater the deterrent effect on others. In the case of life prisoners, there is the special agony of hopelessness, of not knowing whether one will ever be released.

I repeat a proposal that I offered to the House two years ago, with a good deal of support from eminent persons. I urged then, and I urge once more, that a prisoner should have the right to have his case heard by an independent tribunal within 10 years of his arrest, and that after five years he could apply for such a tribunal, which might or might not be immediately granted him. I am not, of course, dogmatic about the 10 years or the five, but I am as convinced as I can be of anything in human affairs that the principle is morally irresistible.

I must give way to other speakers. I am heart and soul with those who denounce the overcrowding of our prisons. But, as a notable ex-prison governor said to me recently, while there is a great degradation in three men in a cell, prolonged imprisonment is an even greater degradation. I hope that the miserable conditions in our local prisons will not blind us to the mental torture which we inflict on long-term prisoners, to whom we hold out no prospect of human happiness as one dreary year passes slowly into another.

Why is it that there continue to be so many elements of cruelty in our treatment of prisoners? Prison is a punishment, inevitable in many cases; and punishment involves pain—mental, one would say, rather than physical. But so much of that cruelty is palpably unnecessary by any Christian standard. The cruelty does not spring from the inhumanity of individuals in the prison service. They are average human beings like ourselves, with a large proportion of dedicated, caring persons among them.

The decisions reached by Ministers, officials and judges are frequently cruel, but they are made by public spirited men acting in what they believe is the national interest. It all comes back to this fear of the attitude, real or alleged, of the general public which, in view of the lamentable increase in crime has become, beyond question, more and more hostile to prisoners. Each of us must do what we can to correct that ignorance. Our debates here play a not insignificant part. I wish the new Minister everything good in all he seeks to achieve in that direction. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.2 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, not for the first time the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has called for an immediate and substantial reduction in the prison population. That plea will find an echo in many quarters, and I believe not least in the Home Office and the present Home Secretary, whose enlightened views on the matter we all applaud. But there are very few options that will enable us to accomplish this end. One of the choices to which the noble Earl referred in passing, and which would be of major significance, would be the idea that remission should be increased from one-third to one-half, bringing it into line with the practice in Northern Ireland.

When we discussed this on a previous occasion the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, said that it was not considered feasible to introduce parole in Northern Ireland and that was the reason for the difference between the two systems. If that was the only reason the Government had for declining to pursue the idea, then they have not been trying very hard. Like many others, I am not happy about the operation of the parole system in England and Wales. If we had to forfeit that system as the price of introducing the 50 per cent. remission in England and Wales, I would be prepared to accept it. But it does not necessarily mean that, because parole could still apply to the balance of one-sixth of a man's sentence. Then at least, if there was any injustice in the award of parole, it would apply to a smaller fraction of the sentence than it does now.

Effectively, parole turns out to be a means of varying the amount of time that a prisoner actually serves overriding the judicial process. Yet two prisoners sentenced on the same occasion for precisely the same offence may nevertheless remain in prison for different lengths of time, depending on their fortune with regard to parole. In particular, a prisoner who is put on category A is denied parole altogether in practice. The process of deciding a man's security classification is even more obscure than the parole machinery.

I asked the previous Minister if Members of your Lordships' House would be entitled to sit in on meetings of the local review committees which decide on parole. I was told that this was not possible. Therefore, it is an aspect of the prison system which is not open to public scrutiny. Now that the Home Office is trying to open up the system more it may be that this is a matter they can reconsider.

I give one example to show how apparently unjust the parole system can be. Two defendants appear on a charge of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. One is charged additionally with theft and the other with armed robbery in which a guard was shot. The armed robber got 15 years, which was reduced to 13 on appeal. The thief was given 10 years, reduced to eight on appeal. The robber was also sentenced to eight years concurrent for seven offences of armed robbery and charges of the use of offensive weapons. The robber actually served four and a half years because he received parole, which was about the minimum possible, while the thief has served six years so far. He is still in prison and his release date is expected to be mid-1983, by which time he will have served seven years. This indicates the sort of disparity one may have in the actual term of imprisonment that a person suffers as a result of the operation of the parole system.

It may be said that if remission was increased as we have advocated the courts would tend to counter the effect by giving longer sentences. That is why, in my opinion, the recommendations of the Advisory Council on the Penal System for a general reduction in the maximum length of sentences ought to be considered by the Government despite the fact that they have been rejected once. If you take them in conjunction with the 50 per cent. remission, I think the two together make a package which ought to be looked at by the Home Office.

It is true that the great majority of sentences fall well below the permitted maxima, and I also understand that the average length of sentences has begun to decline as a result of the urgings of the Lord Chief Justice and of the Home Office. It would be interesting to know, if the noble Lord has any figures, exactly what is happening now on average length of sentences. If the maxima were reduced I believe it would clearly signal to the courts that Parliament wants them to cut sentences still further than they have already. It is the only way that Parliament has of making its views known formally, since of course the courts do not look at Hansard. In fact, some of the reductions that were proposed by the advisory council were very substantial. If you take theft, for example, the proposal was from 10 years to three years, so that the man to whom I referred earlier would probably have served two or three years instead of the seven he will actually be in prison.

There are many other categories of persons in our prisons who should not be there. I have not time to mention them all. There are the prisoners of overseas origin who complete their sentences but who remain in custody while the Secretary of State is looking at a recommendation for deportation. In this connection I should be grateful if the noble Lord could tell me what has happened to the Government's consideration of the draft treaty on exchanges of prisoners which has been under consideration in the Council of Europe since, I think, last July. That could effect a small reduction in our prison population because there are some 500 persons of overseas origin serving sentences long enough to warrant return, whilst there are 350 British prisoners abroad who might be eligible for repatriation under the provisions of this draft treaty.

Incidentally, I was surprised to learn, in view of our support in principle for the draft treaty, that we do not have any arrangements within the United Kingdom for exchanging prisoners between England and Wales and Scotland. The Scottish Office have agreed to consider this matter in response to a representation I made to them. I should be grateful if the noble Lord would let me know what progress has been made on that front.

The case of the mentally ill and disordered offenders has been mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Longford. It seems to me that because of the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill it may well be that we have an increase in the population of the mentally disordered in our prisons, because one of the provisions in that Bill is that a person cannot be transferred under Section 72, or sent to a special hospital by the courts under Section 60, unless it is believed that he is susceptible to treatment. Therefore, there may now be more persons with severe personality disorders in our prisons than there have been in the past. That is all the more reason why we should make strenuous efforts to increase the accommodation available in hospitals like Broadmoor for transferring the remaining 170 prisoners who, as the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, told us are still awaiting transfer to the special hospitals.

I am afraid that I have already reached the end of my time, and there are so many other suggestions that I should have liked to make. As I have reached the end of the six minutes, I should like to conclude with a reference to the report of the late Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales. It is a forceful critique of the state of affairs in our prisons. The late chief inspector did not mince his words. He said in paragraph 2.15: Our examination brought home with great force the appalling conditions in which the inmates of these prisons are required to live and the inadequacy of even the most basic facilities to cope with so many people". The situation is intolerable and your Lordships and Parliament as a whole must do something about it immediately.

3.11 p.m.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has many times raised in your Lordships' House the question of the position in our prisons, and yet again we debate it today. I feel that the noble Earl wishes to tell the Minister, "The time has come," as the Walrus said, "for something to be done". As a tribute to the late Lord Butler, I wish to take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, about mentally-disordered prisoners. Why, after all this time, when the money has been available, have there not been the secure units set up in all regions? I suggest that the psychiatric profession, the doctors and psychiatrists, with whom I have worked and for whom I have the greatest admiration, have not accepted their responsibilities in this area. Ideology unrelated to reality can be uncreative, and many of the psychiatrists have said, "We cannot treat prisoners unless they wish to be treated. We cannot treat prisoners in secure accommodation". As a result, the psychiatrists do not treat the prisoners and they are left in prison to be looked after by prison officers who are not trained in this sphere. In making that point, I appeal to the psychiatrists of this country to think again.

Secondly, as a trade unionist I belong to a trade union and have always supported the trade union movement. However, I must say that at present in many areas, in the prisons in particular, the trade unions are so anxious to look after their own that they do not think in terms of the community. Therefore, the trade unions have made it difficult for the staff who might work in secure units to work in those units, and the conditions have been such that it has been impossible to set up secure units. I appeal to the trade unions, particularly those involved, to think of the greater community rather than just the small area of their own officers.

Thirdly, I would bring to the notice of the community their responsibilities. The Prison Research Trust under the chairmanship of Sir Monty Finniston has been trying to make it known to the community what goes on in prisons and what is happening, and thereby to bring to the community at large a sense of responsibility. That is of vital importance because wherever a secure unit has been suggested or set up, the community has opposed it, saying, "We do not want it in our area". I therefore commend to the House the work done by that trust.

My fourth point concerns buildings. In this country, because of our prison policies, many buildings are empty; schools, hospitals, churches and wards in mental hospitals are empty and not being used. If I am to speak for only about six minutes, it is not possible for me to give the figures, but I assure the House that many mental hospitals have been reduced by 500 or 600 beds and I should like to know what is happening to them. Is it beyond the wit of man to keep a central register of empty buildings so that they could be used as hostels, secure units and—dare I suggest it—prisons? Let us improvise and have imagination and creativity and use the buildings we have instead of spending money on new ones. It could be done if there was the will to do it.

My fifth point concerns the prison medical services. I wonder if it is realised by the House that prison staff who work in the sick bays have three months' training. They have to administer drugs and look after the mental patients. A state registered nurse is not allowed to administer drugs until she has done three years' training; and a doctor, if he is to do psychiatry, trains for one year after his initial five years. Yet we ask our prison staff to look after the mentally ill and administer drugs after undergoing only three months' training. Many of them are splendid people who I know personally, but I suggest that further thought needs to be given to their training. In view of certain difficulties that have occurred in prisons, while it may be the case that prison officers have not handled a mentally disturbed prisoner well, why should they be blamed, considering that they have had three months' training, as against the training needed by a psychiatrist? It is surely understandable, and therefore I plead with the Minister to do something about medical training.

With half a minute left to me, I suggest that our prisons would be emptier if we adopted more constructive policies towards our children. If the work done with children and juvenile delinquents followed a more positive policy in the community, then perhaps, as they grow up, our prisons would be emptier.

3.17 p.m.

Lord Elystan-Morgan

My Lords, I join with those who have congratulated my noble friend Lord Longford for initiating this debate on a matter of pressing public concern. I also join wholeheartedly in the congratulations and good wishes tendered to the Minister on his translation to a distinguished but nevertheless difficult post.

One factor which gives this debate its significance is that it is exactly a month ago that the first report of Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales was published. It is a report which pays a deserved tribute to the splendid work done by those employed in the prison service. But what makes it an historic document, in my judgment, is the scathing condemnation it has for the conditions of overcrowding and of the poor régime in many local prisons. The question of prison régime is, of course, one of vital importance, a point eloquently made by the May Committee, but I hope I shall be forgiven if, for this debate, I concentrate on the other, even more acute, problem in our prisons; namely, the state of overcrowding that stultifies the prospects of a balanced regime and which all too often suffocates the morale of staff and inmates alike.

It is overcrowding that created a crisis so menacing that it demands our instant and best efforts to combat it. That is the very factor that has caused prison officers to set 1983 as a deadline for a dramatic improvement, otherwise drastic steps will be taken by that body. The prison population at the end of February was 43,764. The Home Secretary has calculated that by the early summer, that figure will rise to some 46,000. The budget proposals in another place for this year were on the basis of 46,000 being reached this year. The report, to which I referred, says that in May 1981 there were 4,900 prisoners who were three to a cell and over 11,000 who were two to a cell, and those were, as we appreciate, cells built in the Victorian era for a single person.

The report stresses the point that in six local prisons that were visited the total accommodation planned was 3,548, but the actual number of inmates on the dates visited was 5,674—an overcrowding factor of over 60 per cent. Referring to overcrowding generally, the inspector's report, at paragraph 3.08 states: By no stretch of imagination can these conditions be regarded as humane or proper. They are unacceptable. They certainly fall short of the standards suggested by Rule 5(3) of the European Standard Minimum Rules". As against the figure of 43,000–44,000 at present, and 46,000 expected within a few months—the figure that the report calculates as the maximum tolerable figure for the total prison population is only 37,000.

I seek to make no party points; the issue is not one of party politics, for everybody shares in this responsibility. The effort to meet the problem of prison overcrowding must not be seen as a dainty hobby, or as a sympathetic sentiment; it must be a crusading campaign, relentlessly pursued to success. In the very short time remaining to me I should like to suggest that the problem should be tackled on at least four fronts. The first is the sentencing policy of the courts. That lies directly outside the scope of Parliament. It is now five years since the Advisory Council on the Legal System—a powerful and distinguished body—in its interim report, urged the case for shorter sentences. Since then the message has been spelt out firmly and clearly by the Lord Chancellor, by the Lord Chief Justice, and by other members of the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal. No doubt judges and magistrates have reacted in a constructive way. There can however be no set tariff. The decision as to a sentence must remain that of the sentencer, who has to exercise a wide discretion dealing with the particular case. There can be no set level, and of course some sentences have to be of substantial length, so as to mark the shock and horror of society in relation to certain offences.

Nevertheless I plead for the closest monitoring by the Lord Chancellor's Department to ensure that the pattern of sentencing is constantly kept under scrutiny and that suitable advice is given to those who sit in judgment. I plead also that the widest publicity be given to an alternative to prison: the community service order. In 1980, 78 per cent. of such orders were successfully concluded, and it is also worth remembering that the average cost of a person who is made the subject of such an order is £420, as opposed to the average of £7,800 per annum which is the cost of keeping such a person in prison.

The second area of effort is in relation to situations where people are sent to prison not because they have so transgressed as to receive a condign punishment or a punishment that is a deterrent to others or to themselves, but simply because society has no other means of dealing with them. I refer in particular to the habitual drunkard who goes to prison on account of being unable to pay the fines that are imposed upon him. I have not details of the numbers involved, but it is calculated that in Pentonville, for example, at any one time between 10 and 15 per cent. of the prison population is made up of such persons. Time does not allow me to elaborate, but indeed there is an impressive unanimity of experienced opinion that calls out for making this an offence no longer carrying the sanction of imprisonment.

With the habitual drunkards one must also consider those inadequate persons—to whom the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, have already referred—very often on the fringe of mental disturbance, who are in prison not because prison is the proper place for them, but because society has nowhere else to put them. As I think the Court of Appeal put it three years ago, Her Majesty's prisons must not be used as dustbins for social inadequates.

The third front is in relation to parole. An undertaking has been given in another place by the Minister of State at the Home Office that further anxious consideration will be given to the question of reducing the threshold of parole from 12 months to six months. This is a case that has been articulated by many. There would still be the full discretion of the Parole Board. There would still be the qualification that there must be a third of the sentence served, if that be longer than six months. However, it is worth reminding the House that in 1980 over 10,000 persons applied for parole, 5,077 were granted it, and only 455 during the course of the 12 months had their licences revoked. Such a move would have the effect of reducing the prison population by many thousands.

Fourthly, there is the question of a building programme. All that time allows me to say of this is that though the Home Secretary has announced that between 1981 and 1985 the building of a number of new prisons will be commenced, so as to cater for 5,000 new places, it is worth remembering that it takes about eight years from the time that a prison is first planned to the time when the first inmate goes within its walls. As the report clearly shows, the fabric of our prisons is such probably as to make the 5,000 new places necessary merely to keep abreast of the present situation, without being able to improve it. The scale that must be aimed at must be far more imaginative than it is at present. The Home Secretary has a difficult task. It is not his responsibility alone, it is not the responsibility of Government alone—it is the responsibility of the whole community, if we are to avoid what is now a crisis, and what would very soon become a catastrophe.

3.26 p.m.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, we can be grateful that the Motion is on the Order Paper today, especially at a time when our thoughts are so largely focused on events 8,000 miles away. It serves to remind us that certain home-grown problems do not go away because of greater, further, and more distant problems, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, said, the position in some of our prisons here at home continues to be in what he described as a state of crisis. I was slightly surprised that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, did not use that term as the title for the debate, instead of the word "position". It is a crisis which, for want of a solution over so prolonged a period, has become what I should describe as a chronic disorder. I am among those who believe that nothing will alter the situation for the better, not only in regard to the state of our prisons, but also in regard to the incidence of crime, except intervention by Parliament to shift the emphasis effectively from imprisonment towards containment and rehabilitation in the community.

The present Criminal Justice Bill contains very little provision to reduce the adult prison population. Clearly this is not the time to debate the Bill, but I should like, very briefly, to touch on two points. The proposed partially suspended sentence may make a small impact, but I am extremely doubtful whether the hopes entertained in the Home Office that the reduction might be up to 4,000 are realistic. Experience with the fully suspended sentence gives absolutely no grounds for optimism of that order.

There is something to be said for the proposal for executive release, by which the Home Secretary may, as an emergency measure, grant an amnesty to prisoners in the last part of their sentences. I shall not say more about this, because my noble friend Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge has some very interesting and constructive ideas about it.

But I regard those measures, and any others that might come forward, as crisis measures, designed to relieve overcrowding, rather than change the criminal law and bring in penal reform. We should be seeking radical change in that respect, rather than tinkering with the deplorable and predictable results of current policy. What is needed is an attitude—an attitude matched by measures—which seeks to deal more constructively and more humanely with offenders, and which holds out a better prospect of enabling some of them at least not to re-offend. Imprisonment does not do that, and I am merely saying what the great penal reformer Alexander Patterson told us about that many years ago.

Seen from that perspective, the proposal for automatic parole for offenders serving sentences of three years and less could be seen in a new light. It could be seen not as diminishing the intention of the court, not as a crisis measure, but as a composite sentence. There would be a lot to be said for applying such a concept, not only in regard to short determinate sentences but, with exceptions, right across the board.

My suggestion would therefore be that determinate sentences should be served as a "package", in two equal parts. The first half would be served in prison, with loss of liberty as the necessary punishment; the second part would be served in the community, under supervision and on conditions requiring, in appropriate cases, the offender to make some reparation for the harm that he has done. The courts would be empowered to make exceptions to that normal process in cases where, in their view, public safety might be seriously at risk. That would be the sole criterion. They could order such cases to be reviewed by the Home Secretary before the second stage of the sentence was reached. But such cases would be exceptional, for the simple reason that risks of that kind can be deferred only by prolonged imprisonment. In large part the fully determinate, two-stage sentence would replace the parole process and, for the great majority of prisoners who go through that process, would avoid the delays, the anxieties and the sense of unfairness at being refused without reasons being given.

As regards the traditional grant of one-third remission of a determinate sentence for good behaviour, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, I would make one-sixth available to be earned in prison and one-sixth in the community. Just to give an example of a composite sentence of eighteen months imposed by a court on that basis, six months would be served inside (assuming that one-sixth remission has been earned) and six months in the community, on the same assumption that good behaviour has earned another three months' remission.

To sum up, my Lords, composite sentences would have several important advantages They would greatly reduce the prison population, but they should be introduced not primarily for reasons of expediency—the reduction of the prison population—but rather as an enlightened measure of penal reform. It is worth reminding your Lordships that when the parole system was introduced in 1967 it was introduced on that same enlightened note. It was not introduced for the purpose of reducing the prison population. Secondly, a composite sentence would not detract from the authority of the courts, as I have explained, because theirs would be the decision which cases to reserve for executive review before the second stage of the sentence.

Thirdly, it would spare the great majority of prisoners from the undesirable features of the parole system. I have a long and deep commitment, as your Lordships will imagine, to the parole system. It was hailed in 1967 as a great leap forward in penal reform. Now, I believe, is the time to make another advance of comparable magnitude. Finally, the composite sentence would, as I said at the beginning, effectively shift the balance of a sentence from imprisonment towards reform and rehabilitation in the community.

It is an idea which I recognise will not be easy to "sell" politically. Its success would eventually depend to a large extent on its reception by the judiciary and its interpretation in the courts. Not least of the implications would be on the probation service. But against this should be set the enormous savings in the cost of keeping individual prisoners inside, to the tune of £177 a week; the huge savings in the planned prison building programme, and consequential savings in the increased staffing of the prison service; and savings, too, in the cost of much of the administrative machinery of the parole system. It could be done; and I suggest that, given the serious condition of our prisons, it should be seriously considered.

I am not asking the Minister, when he comes to reply —and let me belatedly say how glad I am to see him in his present post—to give me any considered view about this. If he did, I would not believe it to be a considered view; but he might like to make some preliminary comment.

3.35 p.m.

Lord Lane

My Lords, this is a vast subject and six and a half minutes is not enough time in which to deal with it properly. May I confine myself, therefore, to the two criticisms which are made of the judges? One is a general criticism—namely, as I understand it, by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, that judges are passing sentences which are too long; and the other is a more specific criticism—namely, that the judges vetoed a liberal proposal by the Home Secretary for penal reform or else threatened to retaliate if it became law. They are both completely unfounded.

First of all, it is only by the efforts of the judges over the last 18 months to 2 years that sentences for non-violent crimes have come down drastically, and it is no fault of the judges that to some extent their efforts have been overtaken by the increased lawlessness in the country. It is easy to forget how recently it is that the realisation has come upon people that prison does few prisoners any good. If any people still have their copies of the 1969 edition of Sentence of the Court, under the signature of James Callaghan, who was then Home Secretary, they will find that page 40 reads as follows—and this is 1969: The disadvantages of short sentences of imprisonment are especially marked as it is impracticable in the space of a few months to give a prisoner any effective remedial treatment". It is sometimes forgotten that the two harshest penal provisions—namely, corrective training and preventive detention—found their way in by Section 21 of the Criminal Justice Act 1948, which was passed by a Government of which I believe the noble Earl, Lord Longford, was a distinguished member. I am not sure; my parliamentary history is not very strong. So much for the first complaint.

The second complaint—namely, that judges have vetoed the liberal proposals of the Home Secretary—has even less foundation. The proposals upon which the judges were consulted were that every sentence of three years or under should be divided into three: a third should be served in prison, a third should be served on what was called supervised release, and a third should be remitted. That means, of course, that every sentence is automatically divided by three. In many cases, therefore, the judge would be in a dilemma. There are those cases where the judge is bound to pass a longish sentence in order to protect the public. What is he to do in that case? Is he to fail in his duty to the public by passing a sentence which he knows will be divided by three, and therefore be insufficient; or is he to break his duty to Parliament and pass a sentence which would in effect nullify the third-third-third rule? That was the dilemma which the judges put forward, and that was the dilemma which apparently impressed the Home Secretary.

What is not mentioned is something which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, emphasised, and for which I respectfully applaud him; namely, that the judges suggested there should be power to non-apply that rule in specific cases, particularly where the public required protection. That suggestion was turned down flat. But if that suggestion were adopted, I would respectfully agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that there is no possible objection to the scheme. In other words, there must be some form of discretion, be it non-application by the trial judge or some form of parole consideration interposed between the passing of the sentence and the release of the prisoner.

That is all I wish to say about the judges, my Lords. Please do not blame the judges: the fault lies in successive Governments, who have failed to spend any money on prisons year after year after year. It is not the fault of the judges, and I do not see why they should take the blame.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, may I put this point to him? The judges are no more infallible than anybody else. We all take our chance, when we come into public debate, of being criticised, and the judges are being criticised by me and many others. But the noble and learned Lord did not quote me correctly in saying that it was I who suggested that the judges had vetoed anything. I was very careful not to use that word. I quoted him as saying that the judges persuaded the Home Secretary to abandon his proposals.

3.40 p.m.

Lord Gardiner

My Lords, no doubt there are long-term implications in this subject which very much deserve to be considered—questions of cause and effect and so on. The main point that I wish to make is that we are now in a state of crisis in the prisons in which anything may happen at almost any time. At Wormwood Scrubs, 60 prisoners were injured and 14 prison officers; and this sort of thing may happen at any time where you have some 17,000 prisoners in cells built for one, occupying them with two or three others, with merely a bucket at night. Too many of them are there for 23 hours out of every 24, and many are not even getting their hour's exercise. Only last week the Home Office published a list of 14 prisons in which prisoners do not get even their hour's exercise. Some get only three-quarters of an hour, and still more only 30 minutes. This is just the sort of explosive situation which we have had facing us for some time.

The only immediate step to be taken to meet the situation, I submit, is to take out a substantial number from the existing prison population. We are not short of alternatives in that field. First, there is what my noble friend Lord Longford has called "Whitelaw, Mark I". This was Mr. Whitelaw's original proposal under which he was going to take 4,000 out of the prisons. I rose in my place here, I warmly congratulated him and said, "At last we have a Home Secretary, the first Home Secretary, who is really going to take action to reduce the size of the prison population ". Then Mr. Whitelaw withdrew that. That was his decision, which The Times in a leading article on 1st December described as a weak decision. It said it was a weak decision on Mr. Whitelaw's part and one which could have a profoundly negative effect on dealing with the crisis in our prisons. It pointed out that his substituted proposal was more likely to increase the prison population than to reduce it.

Then, secondly, on Mr. Whitelaw's original proposals—and I have been asked by my noble friend Lord Longford to mention this—the Howard League got to work on a detailed scheme, which is much too long to refer to in detail but which is to be found in one of their booklets called, Freedom on Licence. Summarised in a sentence, it would provide that prisoners sentenced to three years or less would automatically be eligible for release on licence after one-third of their sentence, so would prisoners of three years to seven years, subject to certain qualifications. Prisoners sentenced to periods in excess of seven years would be subject to parole reviews after one-third of the sentence, as now. Life sentence prisoners would be entitled to a first review of their cases after three years, with a right of appeal. One of the most attractive features of the plan would be the establishment of a court of appeal to which appeals could be directed against decisions of the Parole Board. That is the second suggestion.

The third suggestion is the simple one of increasing remission to one-half instead of one-third. I do not know what is the objection to this. In the last few months there have been three strikes at three different prisons, with prisoners barricading themselves in, all for the same thing. They were all saying, "Why should we be treated worse than you treat your IRA prisoners in Northern Ireland?" Why, indeed? In Northern Ireland this has been tried out and is now in force. There is remission of one-half. It has been found to have no ill effects at all. It is something which could be done at any time and it would take 4,000 out of the prisons. The Howard League proposals would take out something over 7,000, which is about the required amount to bring the prison population down to the certified accommodation.

The fourth suggestion was made by that very experienced judge, Lord Justice Waller, who suggested parole for those sentenced to 18 months or less. Then it has been suggested that there should be an amnesty for those who ought never to be there at all, such as drunks, prostitutes, fine defaulters and the offence of sleeping rough. One might put in a plea, perhaps, for the release of those who have been wrongfully convicted. I do not know how many of your Lordships saw any or all of the three recent "Rough Justice" films. I have yet to find anybody who saw them who does not agree that the three prisoners concerned, all of whom have served for years and are serving sentences still in prison, were obviously innocent.

There is one more not very conventional suggestion. Some years ago I attended the first conference on detention of the British Institute of Human Rights. The chairman of the conference was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Kilbrandon, whom we all hold in high regard. In his introductory remarks, commenting on the state of the prisons he said: There may be in this country a remedy in the hands of the judges. The judges might say, 'We are authorised by law to impose the punishment of deprivation of liberty but we are not authorised by law to impose the punishment of mental, physical and moral degradation. Unless there are places where we can order persons to be confined, deprivation of liberty being the only penalty imposed, we shall cease to send people to prison because when we do so, we are doing something which is beyond the power which has been given to us'."— a judicial strike in the opposite direction. That is a possibility.

Here are all these possible alternatives. The only person who can do anything is Mr. Whitelaw. I have the greatest sympathy with everybody, certainly with the prisoners, in conditions which, if we kept an animal in them, my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby would have complained a long time ago. I have great sympathy with prison officers who have a difficult task to do and who are by the pressures of prison life pretty well reduced to being turnkeys. I have sympathy with prison governors, who having to choose between denying prisoners their rights under the prison rules and having difficulties with their staff, prefer, not unnaturally, not to have difficulties with the staff.

And I have sympathy with the Home Office. I recently attended a Howard League conference at Bristol at which there were probation officers, magistrates, prison officers, and so on. We said that we were making proposals to the Home Office in this field. The chairman of the Prison Officers' Association said: "There is no use in your making proposals to the Home Office. The Home Office do not run the prisons. We run the prisons. I can tell you that no material change will be made in the running of the prisons unless I agree with it. If you have proposals to make, you had better make them to us and I will let you know whether I agree with them or not". This made me, perhaps for the first time, sympathetic with the Home Office.

Only Mr. Whitelaw, the Home Secretary, can act on any of these proposals. Some require no legislation; they could be done overnight. He is a man who is, quite rightly, very popular in all quarters; he is a very experienced man, a politician of great charm. He makes very fine speeches: the only thing he is short on is action. That is the one thing we need now. He alone can do it. The time for talking has gone. We must act.

3.50 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I do not for a moment underrate the problems we are discussing, but I have been trying hard to discern some chinks of light in the gloom. I suppose that is a natural reaction from somebody who has served for some years in Her Majesty's Treasury. To begin with, I detect an increasing awareness of the problems of overcrowding, of outworn buildings and of prisoners being kept in unacceptable conditions, and a wider appreciation than ever in the past of why something needs to be done. The basic problems are not really new. I recall 1960. There were then 7,000 prisoners sleeping three in a cell; but it was very difficult to persuade anyone to listen. I must say that, thanks largely to the policy of openness in recent years pursued by the much maligned Home Office, there has been quite a change, which is all to the good.

Then there is the fact that the prison department itself is better equipped and is accorded a higher status than ever the old Prison Commission was, notwithstanding the myths which still surround that body. The professionals are more closely integrated into the policy-making machine and there are now non-executive members of the Prisons Board appointed from outside. The whole set-up is much better than it used to be.

Another plus is the appointment of an independent chief inspector. It is indeed sad that the first incumbent died so soon; and it is a great tribute to him that his first report, to which reference has been made, and the reports on individual inspections which are available to all, have a cutting edge not always found in inspectors' reports. For one and a half centuries the Home Office has had a great tradition of inspectorates, and perhaps the Home Secretary might think a bit more about this new prisons inspectorate when he is next brooding about the future of the Metropolitan Police. My only comment on the prisons inspectorate is that it might be as well if at any rate one member of the chief inspector's staff came from somewhere outside the prison service.

I should like to put very briefly just one or two questions. First, as regards prison officers, the present climate must be good for recruiting, but is the Home Office allowed to take in enough? Is it still held to a ceiling below the authorised staffing level, which itself is a pretty conservative estimate of the minimum numbers needed to run the prisons? What about facilities for the staff? Both the May Committee and the chief inspector comment on the poor provision in some establishments for messes and clubs, lavatories, recreational facilities, and so on. Have steps been taken to reallocate some of the resources so that the staff get a rather greater share? Has anything been done to meet the criticism of the chief inspector that some of the non-uniformed staff have been left feeling that negotiations have concentrated too much on the POA, and that they have been left out in the cold?

What about the problem of occupying the prisoners' time, and especially providing work? The difficulties are enormous and speak for themselves. It is a very important topic. I wonder whether there has not in recent times been rather too great a tendency to favour industry in prison, what I might perhaps describe as the Tory virtues of profitability and productivity? Would it not be right to shift the emphasis a little towards the need to go for labour-intensive industries which provide occupation, even if at no great profit?

In these very few minutes I have touched on about one-tenth of the points that I should have liked to raise. But may I end by saying that I am sure that the Minister and the prison department carry the good wishes of this House and of a great many people outside it in the very formidable tasks which lie before them.

3.54 p.m.

Lord Wells-Pestell

My Lords, there are few subjects which give people an opportunity to discharge a lot of pent-up emotion. One is the subject that we are discussing here today. This is of supreme importance. I acknowledge that because the conditions in prisons at the present time are perfectly scandalous. Having said that, I think we have to ask ourselves whether we are providing, or are in a position to provide, an alternative which will ultimately reduce the prison population. We have a piecemeal thinking in this matter. We need to take an absolutely new look at what we are trying to do. It is no good blaming the magistrates; it is no good blaming the judges. They work according to Acts of Parliament in which the penalties are laid down. It is their responsibility to see that the appropriate sentence is imposed having regard to the nature of the offence.

For 34 years I sat as a lay magistrate in a number of London courts, in quarter sessions when they were in being, and, in recent years, in Crown Courts. I know something of the care that is exercised by magistrates—lay and stipendiary—and by judges before they impose a sentence. Very few people realise the enormous number of social and other reports that are before the court before finally sentence is imposed.

I do not take very kindly to the idea that the Excutive should make the decisions in this matter. It is the job of the Executive, including Parliament, to say what the appropriate penalty should be for a particular offence. If we say that we must reduce the number of people in our prisons, we have to ask ourselves how we can do this and at the same time provide safeguards for the community, because the community has a right to safeguards. It is no good shutting our eyes to the fact that prison today houses a large number of basically anti-social people. We have to acknowledge that many of those people have to be kept in prison for a considerable time.

I am sure this sounds to my noble friend Lord Longford quite negative and a little reactionary. I am neither reactionary, nor am I against change. Prisons are limited in the sense that no training takes place in them. Today, a person sent to borstal is in and out in something like seven months. There is no training at all. Prison and borstal have become places of nothing more nor less than punishment. We ought to ask ourselves whether we should be doing something for the individuals so that while they are in detention they are getting some training to equip them to face the responsibilities outside.

It is important that we should look at what we already have. I do not despair quite so much as some of my noble friends about the future. If only we could look at what we have. I do not think we need to spend a tremendous amount of time thinking of alternatives to what we have at the present moment. One of the first things we should do is to take a very close look at the probation service. It can provide not just one or two but many alternatives to prison.

What is involved is not just a probation order with supervision, where the probation officer gives help and guidance, and case work. This is provided as a matter of course. One of my noble friends referred to the value, importance and success of community orders. Nobody has said anything about the number of day training courses and centres that exist at the moment—or for that matter the probation hostels. Then there is the deferred sentence, which many of us feel should be followed by a period of supervision. It is no good discharging people from prison at an early date, whether they are on parole or whether they are discharged for some other reason, unless we have a system whereby they can be supervised and helped to find their way back to living in the community. The probation service is able to direct offenders from custody and fit them for normal everyday living.

We have been told that it costs about £400 to keep a person on probation and something like £6,500 to keep a person in prison. This means that for every person in prison we could have 16 people in the community under supervision. That can be said of borstal and of young persons in young persons' centres. We need to see what can be done to expand the probation service. Last year we spent £344 million on the prison service. If we spent one-tenth of that sum in other ways we could do so much more in keeping people out of prison, but under supervision and control.

4.2 p.m.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, five years ago the noble Earl, Lord Longford, initiated a debate on the penal system, and on that occasion I raised two points to highlight the difficulties facing prisoners' families. Today, I feel I must express considerable disquiet that so little has been done to help those families since 1977. Prisoners are being sent to prisons further and further away from home. Many prison governors, as your Lordships know, are allowing more visits than hitherto; but that is not always of great help to families because the Home Office pays for only one visit every 28 days, so that out of the very limited income these people enjoy, if that is the word, they cannot make more than the one journey to which they may be entitled within a period of 28 days.

The continued contact between a man and his home is vital if there is a hope of his rehabilitation on release. When my noble friend replies—and incidentally I should like to congratulate him on his new job, which I dare say will present many difficulties—will he say that, when more funds become available, at least one extra visit per month could be paid for by the Home Office? This might prevent homes breaking up, as I am sure they do otherwise. I have visited many prisoners' wives during the last 15 years and have seen what can happen. I do not think such a scheme would be extremely expensive for the Government, and in fact it might ultimately cost less than the actual break-up of the families.

For families visiting prisoners, the visit itself is extremely traumatic, and especially so where old prisons are concerned. The conditions are deplorable and space is at a premium. I have seen them. Many of them are terrible. Could my noble friend reassure me that the new prisons planned for the future will have better facilities? I think that then visits would become tolerable, that the stresses and strains which families suffer—and which must be especially hard on young children—could be alleviated to some extent, and it would assist the family to remain as one unit. I hope that my noble friend will be able to help me on this matter.

4.4 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I must congratulate the noble Baroness on being the shortest yet, followed closely by the Lord Chief Justice and the noble Lord, Lord Allen. There is no time for courtesies. I want to thank my old and valued colleague, Lord Longford, for raising this Question with unexpected moderation. I should also like to say in particular how pleased I am that the Lord Chief Justice has honoured us, and I wish some of his colleagues would do the same when we have these very important discussions on this appalling problem two or three times a year. I should like to congratulate him on being the second shortest speaker; and I should like also to tell him that I am not in any sense a critic of the judges.

I am concerned with one thing only, and that is that there has to be something put up which can be acted upon and which makes sense. We have had a very constructive suggestion from my noble friend Lord Hunt, but it does of course mean a large expansion of the probation service and a certain amount of money on facilities. We have been asking for this for 20 years, and I do not think we are any more likely to get it this year than we were last. I do not think that that is going to produce an immediate solution. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, has put up four suggestions, any of which, modified this way or the other, would do what is necessary as an immediate thing.

I am going to put up a fifth. The advantage of mine is that first of all it comes out of the May Report. which to the most critical will be a commendation, In addition, it does not curtail judicial independence. It does not depend on human judgment at all; it works quite automatically and it would not cost a penny. The suggestion is that Parliament each year should put a ceiling on the prison population and instruct the Home Office to make an automatic reduction of all sentences which are due to end in the current year, to bring the prison population down to the authorised figure by the end of the year. The power to do this, as has been pointed out, is contained in Clause 26 of the Criminal Justice Bill, which will come to us shortly.

Each year the Home Office would make a statistical examination of what reductions were necessary and they need not be the same for all lengths of sentences. It could be decided, for example, to reduce short-term sentences of under six months by a week; from six to 18 months by a fortnight; from 18 months to four years by a month; and over four years by two months. These figures are purely arbitrary and others would do as well, but I have chosen these because they are small enough to make no real difference to the sentences passed by the courts. A week off a sentence of four or six months is negligible, as is a fortnight off a sentence of 12 or 18 months, and so on. One of my statistically minded colleagues in NACRO has done a rough calculation which shows that remission at this level would reduce the daily population by something from 1,500 to 2,000. This is hardly enough. It is not a crisis measure; it is a self-regulating measure which could be used permanently. I personally would favour doing something more extreme to begin with: perhaps three times as much—say, three weeks on a sentence of under six months, and so on—which of course is not entirely negligible in relation to the sentence of the court and therefore there is an objection there. But that would give a reduction of something between 4,500 and 6,000, which would bring us within reach of the Chief Inspector's figure of 37,000. This will cost one thing only: a few hours' statistical calculation. It will not cost anything else at all—no money—and there will be no interference with the decisions of the courts, in my opinion. It will give no power to the executive to vary anything, and prisoners at each length of sentence will be treated exactly the same. You could, of course, exclude anything you wanted: you would have to remove lifers and you could remove certain types of offence, and anything else. I personally am in favour of doing it overall because I believe the difference would be negligible and the effect would be electric.

This is a scheme which I mentioned quietly in our debate a couple of years ago on the May Report, and the noble Lord, Lord Belstead—we miss him but we welcome his successor very warmly—said he would look at it and write to me if there was anything to say. He did not, so I suppose that there was not. That was a complicated debate on a complicated report, and I made no complaint. But I ask in this debate, which is specifically concerned with this subject—and my recommendations arc specifically relevant—for a longish and careful letter from the noble Lord, which I know I can get, and I wish it to be considered really carefully. It works and we must find something which does work. Unless something of this kind is done, we shall get into very serious trouble. Not to accept a rope of this kind seems to me, for a drowning man, to be an act of ultimate depression.

4.11 p.m.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, I suspect that I am the only Member of this House who has been sentenced to prison in this country by the courts. I was a conscientious objector in the first World War and was imprisoned for three years. I therefore speak today with some sensitivity. There is no need for me to describe the degradation and brutalisation that is in our prisons today, because many speeches have referred to them and they are described in moving detail in the Report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons. There is the overcrowding with three in a cell, hardly able to move; conditions of sanitation which I refrain from describing to this House; the absence of occupation, so that thousands of them have nothing to do and are locked in their cells for 22 or 23 hours a day. Those conditions have been described. I want to turn to the remedy.

The Home Secretary says that a change cannot be a priority, because of the cost and our present economic situation. I suggest that the test of a civilisation should be how it treats the lowest in its society. We are committing a crime against fellow human beings which is greater than the crime that many of them have committed against us and that led to their imprisonment. We are not guilty of willed, physical torture, but the conditions, the degradation and the brutalisation, are mental and spiritual torture for which we are responsible; destroying personality, deteriorating character, bringing despair and causing enmity against the society which treats people in this manner. They are coming out of prison worse people than when they went in.

There are two options as described in the report of the Chief Inspector. The first is increasing space and the second is decreasing population. The Government say that they will be building new prisons in 1985. The Chief Inspector says that that will utterly fail to meet the problem. Even if, in three years' time, conditions could be changed, I suggest to this House that it is intolerable that the inhuman conditions in prison should remain for three years.

I welcome the pressure which is being put upon judges and magistrates for shorter sentences. It is not proving very effective. I renew today the appeal for a selective amnesty of the surplus 7,000 prisoners. For many of them, prison is not a proper treatment and they should not be there at all. Such a step is the only effective remedy—many others have been discussed —of reducing the prison population to allow prisoners to live in human conditions, instead of the inhuman conditions of which all of us should be ashamed. I hope very much that the Government will consider that proposal.

4.16 p.m.

The Countess of Loudoun

My Lords, the prison population is too high. That is a definite fact which has been confirmed by all speakers today. Many of those prisoners are social rather than criminal cases; for instance, prostitutes and alcoholics. They can, and should, be dealt with outside the penal system. These people are socially inadequate and ill, and their treatment in other institutions and by other means would be more beneficial to them and less costly to us.

But it is on the mentally disordered offender that I wish to say a few words. Surely it is wrong in principle that mentally disordered offenders should knowingly be sent to prison. It happens because the law provides that they may be compulsorily sent to a hospital only if one will accept them, and often no hospital will do so. On my last visit to Rampton special hospital, with the Parliamentary Mental Health Group, I met prisoners who were there only because there was nowhere else for them to go, and some of them had been waiting tip to two years for transfer. The Butler Committee on Mentally Abnormal Offenders brought out an interim report in 1974, which recommended the provision of secure psychiatric units in each of the 14 regional health authorities in England and Wales. Money from central Government funds was allocated for the financing of these. As I understand it, some interim units have been established. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm the number of these that are now operational and the number of places available in them.

In the booklet Too Many Prisoners, which was brought out in June 1980, by the Parliamentary All-Party Penal Affairs Group, of which I am a member, it was stated that three regional health authorities had not even submitted proposals for regional secure units for departmental approval, and that nearly 90 per cent. of the money allocated by central Government had not been used for the establishment of these units, some of it having been used for purposes other than mental health services. I should be grateful to the Minister if he could give us some idea of the present position. We need these secure hospitals, ones that are obliged to take the disturbed offenders in our society, not only so as to relieve in some small way the overcrowding in our prisons, but so as to show a measure of justice and mercy to those who should be sent there and nowhere else.

4.19 p.m.

Lord Soper

My Lords, I shall not rehearse in this short debate the observations on the general question to which I have given some attention in previous debates. But I am grateful to my noble friend for his pertinacity in continuing to raise this very important issue. I shall confine myself to the vexed question of overcrowding, but I should like to make a preliminary observation about my own experience—not as immediate as that of my noble friend who has been speaking of his own experience within prison life, but as a chaplain for many years in Pentonville Prison—of the fatal flaw in the whole prison system and about the necessity—as I see it, the peremptory necessity—to provide alternative custodial or semi-custodial opportunities for those who now languish in our old-fashioned and inadequate prisons.

I would make one comment on the viciousness of the prison system in what it does to the personality of the long-term prisoner. The longer he endures the artificiality of prison life, the less able is the prisoner—even if he is not repentant but is prepared to have a go at a better life—to accommodate himself to the real world which he has been very largely prevented from understanding and with which he has lost contact.

One of the most lamentable aspects is the overcrowded situation in which prisoners from time to time see their families. It is almost impossible, in my experience, in the crowded conditions of the block prison for any kind of reasonable conversation to take place between prisoners and the wives and children whom they love and for them to have some kind of privacy. It increases the artificiality.

I also believe that the impact of prison life is much more likely to be effective in the first few weeks than it is in the prolonged sequence of prison. My own experience, such as it is, is that the hardening process increases by leaps and bounds from about the fourth week of imprisonment. Therefore, I welcome the schemes which have been advertised this afternoon for taking more and more people out of prison life sooner and giving them some kind of semi-custodial opportunity to recover their sense of the reality of the world in which they ought to live and the necessary moral attitude which they ought to take to it.

I would specifically say a word about that after-care about which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has so felicitously spoken to us this afternoon and in particular about the treatment of the drunk and the alcoholic. I am more than glad that we no longer send the ordinary drunk to prison; it was ridiculous. But the idea of the fine is by no means a corrective, and in many cases, in my experience and in the experience of others who have knowledge of these matters, is totally ineffective. What the drunk needs is some kind of rehabilitation, some kind of opportunity to recover the real world from which he has become estranged because of his drinking. This is particularly true of the drunk's poor relation, the alcoholic.

I notice that the Department of Health and Social Security, in conjunction with the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, has been criticising—and very properly so—the fourfold voluntary associations and is threatening them with the withdrawal of subventions in order to set up a unified organisation in place of the four: the National Council on Alcoholism, the Alcoholic Education Centre, the Federation of Alcoholic Rehabilitation Establishments and the Medical Council on Alcoholism. I hope your Lordships will allow me, as a social worker, to say that I believe there has been a great deal of inefficiency in the multiplication of these efforts.

What we would recognise is that the detoxification centre is the beginning and not the end of the process and that there should be a uniform attempt to deal with it. If you begin with detoxification you are beginning a process. You are not ending a particular complaint. From the evidence which has been provided by the Northern Counties of two of the detoxification centres—take some little umbrage that they did not mention the one with which I was associated, and still am, in Kennington—there is no doubt that if you are properly to deal with that extra-custodial opportunity you must provide something beyond the mere medical detoxification of the alcoholic. You must give him a chance to recapitulate some of the things he has lost and to enter once again into that real world of responsibility from which he has been estranged.

On the abomination of overcrowding, which is more eloquently set forth on page 18 of the Home Office Report than even on page 307, anybody who has any imagination whatsoever, let alone those who have experience of these matters, will believe that you cannot expect people to wait. If personal considerations are paramount, it is no good telling a hungry man that there is the prospect of a good harvest next autumn. People need to be cared for immediately.

Here are one or two practical suggestions which could be undertaken almost immediately. They are suggestions which have been made before in your Lordships' House. How heartily I welcome them, though I do not fully understand them. How heartily also I welcome the fact that, were there a unified voluntary association, particularly for alcoholics, we could do far more than is being done now to provide that second stage, which is I believe the beginning of the reformation of the prison system and the annihilation of that prison system into something infinitely better later on.

4.26 p.m.

Viscount Ingleby

My Lords, I have only one question to ask the Minister. Will he take a fresh look at the request by IRA prisoners who are in prisons in this country to be transferred to prisons in Northern Ireland so that their families can visit them without long and expensive journeys? Family visits to those who are in prison must be an essential lifeline. I feel that this is something which should not be made difficult without very careful study. It is not only the prisoners themselves but their families also who are being penalised. I understand that for this reason British soldiers convicted of offences in Northern Ireland serve their sentences in this country. May I ask the Minister to ask his right honourable friend the Home Secretary to have a second look at this matter.

Lord St. Just

My Lords, I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, is on to a winner in suggesting the possibility of turning the wards of mental hospitals into accommodation where prostitutes and alcoholics can be sent. It is no good putting them in prison. I am convinced that, probably with a little thought, it would be possible to have such people transferred to these wards, which at the moment are closed down.

I have only one other point to make. I have spoken about it. over many hours, to one or two leading people in the Home Office but they have never been able to give me a satisfactory reply. Why is it not possible, from the point of view of stopping overcrowding in prisons, to build camps (as happened not too long ago during one of the crises which occurred) in areas of the country where is would be possible for their families to visit the prisoners? With a little initiative, it would probably be possible for housing to be made available there for prison officers. These sort of camps do not take long to build. They could be surrounded by barbed wire. It is not the perfect answer but it is perfectly practicable. We certainly could not have, as happened a short while ago, the army guarding them. Prison officers would have to do it.

I suspect that the reason why this suggestion is always turned down is objections from the Prison Officers' Association. They are not prepared to go to some area in the countryside which is a long way away from a big conurbation. I believe that this might be a practical way of overcoming such appalling overcrowding. The idea of three prisoners in a cell fills me with horror. At any rate, it might provide a temporary solution.

4.29 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I do not know whether this is a miraculous occasion; I do not believe that the House has ever imposed upon itself such a collective self-denying ordinance to reach this point so far ahead of the predetermined length of a short debate. I must congratulate your Lordships and consider whether I shall do more to inspire jealousy by exploiting the extra time, by going to a greater length myself, or risk hostility by not replying to every point made in the debate. In fact, it will not be possible for me to reply to every point raised in the debate, for a number of reasons. One is that I cannot consider all the points and give a considered judgment on them in the light of advice taken. Another is that I have been expecting throughout the debate to compress what I had already prepared to say to the point of its vanishing while keeping a framework within which to slot my replies. Your Lordships must therefore bear with me if I stumble rather over a patchwork of pieces of material. As a result, your Lordships will between you be receiving a great number of the longish and carefully considered letters of the kind which the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, solicited from me.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, has done a service to the House this day in drawing its attention to the condition of our prisons system. It is a service which I might also say he is accustomed to doing since he has initiated debates on aspects of the prison service some 13 times in the last 8 years. I am none the less grateful to him since I think it is not only right but important that the public should be kept aware of the massive problems with which Her Majesty's Government are struggling in this field.

These problems are not of our own making, or even of recent origin, as the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, was good enough to acknowledge from the Front Bench opposite. They were described graphically in the first annual report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons under the new arrangements for independent inspection established by my right honourable friend: those arrangements themselves are a quite significant move in bringing the public more into confidence in the running of the prison system. The report shows a chronically overcrowded system in which the population to be housed exceeds the available accomodation; a prison estate which largely comprises sturdy but over-used Victorian establishments and unsuitable accomodation converted from other uses and nearing the end of its life. The problems, my Lords, are inherited.

It is an odd reflection, is it not, that the 40 years from 1918 to 1958 were among the most eventful and, in some respects, the most productive and fruitful of our history. Leaving aside external events such as a world war and the end of our Empire, in our domestic history we experienced—and survived—an economic slump. We founded a new, universal system of education in schools. We started on a large increase in the provision of university places. We had introduced national health insurance, and insurance for pensions in old age; we had, in a word, laid the foundations of the welfare state—and who should know it better than the noble Earl, Long Longford? One of my more agreeable and earliest educational memories, when I was still in short trousers, is of being assembled in a long upper room at my prep school with many others to listen as the noble Earl preached the message of the Beveridge plan with an enthusiasm that I have never forgotten. It was a noble undertaking he told us about and the world is better for it.

But the odd reflection is this, that during the whole of that dynamic time which followed the date of the release of the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, whose enthusiasm has carried him from the Chamber, when so much was done to modernise our society, so much was done to look after the poor and the people at the bottom of the heap, not one new single prison was built and not one single borstal was built either. In passing, it is significant—is it not?—that this is probably the only Chamber in which one could have both an ex-convict and a Lord Chief Justice addressing themselves amicably to the same problem.

I reproach nobody for the situation I have described; far from it, I am merely pointing out the enormous backlog that had by then accumulated. It was—as the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, has said—the responsibility of everyone. During that time, such resources as were provided new in those years were often of the wrong kind—wrong, unsuitable buildings such as country houses, schools, and service camps converted to prison use to meet a short-term need.

To two of my noble friends, Lady Faithfull and Lord St. Just, I will say that a very high proportion of the expense of running the prison system goes in staff pay. In 1982–83 it is in the order of £340 million, or about 70 per cent. of the budget. The most expensive places to run are those which were not designed to he prisons. Of those, I suppose the most expensive in terms of manpower are camps. So there is an inherent drawback to the sort of solution that both my noble friends proposed, although my noble friend Lady Faithfull is right in drawing our attention to the Government's determination to reduce increasingly the number of people held in large mental institutions—and certainly those buildings built in the Victorian era for that purpose more closely resemble prisons than do most other institutions which are not prisons—and I will bear in mind what she said.

While the prison population remained relatively stable, the ill-effects of that policy of non-building were masked. But since then there has been a doubling of the prison population, as the result of the rapid rise in crime over the last 25 years. And for that the prison service was seriously under-resourced. The increases in the service's manpower over the last decade or so have been largely absorbed by the growing requirements of security and control. The danger is that in trying to keep within the bounds of time I shall discard positive points as well responses to direct criticism. I would like to say, therefore, that as the published reports of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector on Featherstone and Cookham Wood Prisons make clear, there are several new establishments which provide a decent and humane environment for both staff and prisoners; as his report on Leyhill Prison will show, much constructive and valuable work is done wherever conditions make it possible. Indeed, I have seen it at work elsewhere myself. That does not mean that there is not a blight elsewhere and that it is serious. I was at Pentonville last week and it is serious there, as it is at Manchester, which was the subject of an award-winning television series, and at Leeds and Birmingham.

The capacity of the prison system had to increase and has increased: for example, from 1959 to 1981 over 13,000 places were added and total accommodation rose from 25,000 places to 38,860. The effect was, however, that of running very fast in order to stand still because, in the same period, the population rose from 26,000 to 44,000. The net result, therefore, was an increase in the shortfall of accommodation from 1,500 to 5,600. Moreover, prisons have continued to occupy a relatively low place in public expenditure priorities. Even between 1974 and 1976 the Government of the day cancelled or deferred projects which would have produced some 5,000 places by the early 1980s. We are, as the noble Lord said, all responsible.

The problems have been decades in the making; they cannot and will not be solved overnight. In solving them, we need to look at the system as a whole; to achieve a balance between the different components of the system which has been lacking in the past. The Government's strategy is aimed at such a balance and in particular the need to achieve a greater degree of alignment between the resources of the prison system and the demands made on it.

That strategy has three major elements; first, to increase wherever possible, and subject to general Government policy, the resources available to the prison system; secondly, to make the most effective use of those resources which are already available; and thirdly, to limit the demands made on the system to those necessary for the safety of the public.

The most important of those demands is clearly the size of the prison population. Many of your Lordships have urged that what we want is not more prisons but fewer prisoners, and how heartily we agree. The Government believe that there is scope for a reduction in the prison population while continuing to protect the public. What is more, that belief is shared by the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chief Justice who, in a notable speech to this House only a few weeks ago, pointed out that the courts are aware of the growing recognition of the limitations of imprisonment as a sanction; and that they are conscious of the far-reaching implications of the present level of overcrowding in our prison system and of the dangers inherent in the breakdown of the system. If I may quote from his remarks, he asked first: Is it possible to keep a man out of prison altogether? If so, well and good". That is a sentiment warmly endorsed by the Government and indeed by many of your Lordships, including the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, to whose proposals I shall return. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice went on to say: If he has to go to prison, then how short can the sentence be? The days when King James regarded the judges as lions under the throne were brought to an end by the departure of that king. To put it in a less dramatic and historical sense, to ignore the advice of the judiciary who provide sentencing policy is rather like planting pansies in December against the advice of the gardener.

We have already seen evidence of a movement towards shorter prison sentences. Its impact on the prison population has indeed been mitigated by the increasing numbers of offenders coming before the courts. But it has happened; and the situation in our prisons today would be even worse if it had not. The report on the work of the prison department for 1981 will see the light of day tomorrow. Your Lordships will see that in the last six months of 1980 the average length of sentences passed on males aged 17 and over by magistrates courts was between one and two weeks shorter than over the same period a year earlier and that average sentences passed by Crown courts fell by two months over the equivalent period. But, of course, as always, there are countervailing pressures. As a result, we still have people living two or three to a cell who otherwise would not have done so.

How, then, can this movement be sustained and reinforced? Not, the Government believe, by permanent blanket increases in the executive reduction of prison sentences. Shorter prison sentences may be appropriate in some cases, but not necessarily in all. A number of suggestions have been brought forward by your Lordships in the course of debate as to how the prison population might be reduced. Your Lordships will forgive me if I do not tie to each proposal the name of the noble Lord who brought it forward; with 18 to 20 speakers one minute each takes up 18 to 20 minutes.

The Government's decision not to introduce a scheme of supervised release first canvassed in the review of parole last year was taken only after careful consideration of a scheme, the effect of which would have been to widen the gap between the nominal and effective period of imprisonment in every case over the main sentencing range. The response that the Government received, quite properly, from sentencers indicated clearly that this rigidity would mean that they would be bound to increase the overall length of sentences, at least in cases where protection of the public was their objective. This would have run counter both to the Government's wider policy of increasing the flexibility of the courts in dealing with such cases and to the spirit of the movement towards shorter sentences in appropriate cases. It would, of course, have undermined the effectiveness of the scheme. An automatic reduction in sentence lengths, we believe, in whatever form, would impose a rigidity which the Government believe is both misguided in principle and in the end likely to prove counter-productive in practice.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, if I may intervene, that was not the opinion of the Home Office and appeared not to be the opinion of the Home Secretary when the matter was first put forward last May.

Lord Elton

My Lords, when a matter is put forward for discussion there is little point in doing that unless attention is paid to the criticisms or endorsements of the policy which arise as a result of the discussion. What I have said is that the Government have considered the response and, in the light of the response, have changed their mind, and that is what a prudent person should do, in my view. It is by increasing the flexibility of the courts in the application of the sentencing principles outlined by the Lord Chief Justice that the Government believe they can most effectively support the movement towards shorter sentences in appropriate cases. That is why they have implemented Section 47 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, which provides for the partial suspension of prison sentences. The great advantage which we see in this provision is that it allows the courts greater flexibility to fix, at their own discretion, the period of custody within the overall sentence length. It is my belief that this provision will prove effective in bringing about a reduction in the prison population. The Criminal Justice Bill will shortly come before your Lordships' House. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, asked for legislation—he will then have an opportunity to discuss it, as indeed will the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who will join in with considerable weight in the light of what he has said.

The Government have been anxious, too, to promote the expansion and development of alternatives to custody. Many noble Lords have spoken in support of this. May I come to the other broad proposals. With regard to the proposal for amnesty, the Government have no proposal for amnesty. A prison amnesty would be a new departure in this country in modern times. It might have some attraction as a way of marking a great national event, but we would hesitate long and hard before introducing it. It would be chance whether particular offenders benefited from it; carefully considered judicial decisions would be set aside; and one amnesty would encourage the expectation of others. The deterrent effect of sentence would be damaged.

As to increasing the rate of remission and conditional release, as a means of reducing prison population, increasing remission from one-third to a half is a blunt instrument. It is open to the same objection as a supervised release scheme, in that it imposes a mandatory cut in sentence lengths and therefore has a similar risk of leading to longer sentences in certain cases. It is estimated that the initial effect of the introduction of half remission would be to reduce the prison population by about 4,000, but this assumes that sentencing practice would remain unchanged. In practice, therefore, the savings that would be achieved by the introduction of half remission are uncertain and of course the general underlying trend towards shorter prison sentences would be jeopardised. That is an important consideration.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, sentencing practice did remain unchanged when 50 per cent. remission was introduced in Northern Ireland.

Lord Elton

My Lords, as to Northern Ireland, it is generally agreed that the half remission scheme combined with conditional release, which operates in Northern Ireland, has been a success. But that scheme is a substitute for parole, which does not operate in Northern Ireland.

Lord Avebury

I know that.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I dare say the noble Lord knows it, but that would not be the impression gathered by those reading this debate, if we do not state it. I doubt if we could rely on the same public acceptance of the scheme, at least as an alternative to the consideration given to cases prior to release, and the subsequent supervision arrangements under the parole scheme, in the wider context of our criminal justice system. Moreover, the liability to recall under the scheme lasts for longer than does parole. Consequently, the longer-term reduction in the prison population would be very much smaller than a straightforward increase in remission, and might be less than 1,000, and even such an estimate is subject to the same degree of uncertainty as those for increased remission, because of doubts about the likely reaction of the courts to any scheme which made a mandatory cut in effective sentence lengths.

As to the lowering of the parole threshold, at present a prisoner serving a determinate sentence may on the recommendation of the Parole Board be released on licence after having completed not less than one-third of his sentence, (time spent in custody before sentence counted) or 12 months (time spent in custody before sentence not counted), whichever is the later. This Government are not opposed to the idea of extending the benefits of parole to shorter sentence prisoners by reducing the minimum qualifying period, but parole is essentially a selection process. If well-informed judgments about a prisoner's suitability for release on licence are to be made, a minimum period of time is required after sentencing and reception into a prison for him to be observed and reported upon. The Home Secretary has, therefore, decided on a further detailed study to see whether some way cannot be found, without endangering the principle of selectivity, which must be retained intact if the parole scheme is to retain the confidence it has so painstakingly built up over the years, and without making unacceptable demands on the available resources, of achieving the desired end.

In view of the opportunity presented by the Criminal Justice Bill, the Government have decided to seek a power to reduce the minimum qualifying period for parole by statutory instrument subject to parliamentary approval, though I must make it clear that we are not entering into any commitment at present to exercise that proposed power; we shall keep the question under review, and, if on further consideration we decided that some reduction in the minimum qualifying period was justifiable and practical,the existence of the new power would enable us to work it without having to wait for another opportunity before Parliament.

There is a great deal more that I could say. We have a certain amount of time in hand but I think that it would be unfair on your Lordships if I were to extend my speech unduly. Therefore, I should like to extemporise by saying that the Government are very much seized of the adage that prevention is better than cure. A great deal of work is being done in looking at alternatives to custodial treatment both in the adult and the juvenile field—and in the latter of course it is the Department of Health and Social Security as well as the Home Office that is involved. In that respect I should like to say how greatly impressed I was by a number of schemes of intermediate treatment that I saw before I moved to this department. Moreover, it was in that manifestation of my career that I also recognised the worrying problems of mentally disordered prisoners in prison.

The Government are seized of this problem. Those of your Lordships who took part in the debates on the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill will also realise the very great difficulty of trying to impose upon hospitals a duty to contain people whom they cannot treat. They do not want to be prison officers—that is a job for the staff of the prisons. One partial recourse—and this was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, my noble friend Lady Faithfull and more particularly the noble Countess, Lady Loudon—is to the secure hospital places. The Government wish to see better provision made for mentally disordered offenders. The programme for the establishment of regional secure units is now well under way. Local persuasion is necessary, of course, to accelerate it, but that is taking place. One unit is already open and, on the basis of present planning submissions, 170 permanent places will be available by the end of 1982, and by 1985 there are expected to be over 500 places available.

As regards the number of plans submitted, my advice is more recent than that of the noble Baroness. When I left the department there was only one authority outstanding, and I believe that the submission in that case was imminent. But there will continue to be a need for ordinary psychiatric hospitals to admit some mentally disordered offenders. As regards their treatment in hospital, I would say that I have also seen the effective working of the secondment arrangements between the National Health Service and the prison service whereby prison officers who work in the hospital wings get experience in special hospitals and elsewhere of dealing with violent mental patients.

I hope that the most valuable result of this debate, or one of them, will be its effect as a piece of salutary education for a new Minister looking at a complex and important field. I should not like to close without reference to the, I think, estimable work being done by the staff of our prisons at all levels under conditions which are not good, but my goodness! they would be a great deal worse were it not for the dedication of those people, which affects the physical environment, and also their personal dedication to the task, which means that around the country more and more of them effect a personal and constructive relationship with those people in their charge. In spite of the great pressure of numbers which militates against humanity in the system, I believe that they bring a humanity which is to be applauded in many places.

I have not elaborated on the building plans or the budgetary plans. They are available to your Lordships in print. I could have used this occasion simply to put forward the Government's programme in the best light and show that we are—as we are—making a manful assault upon a problem of staggering proportions for which we were not responsible originally, as none of us was. However, I thought it better to try, in a halting manner, to reply to your Lordships' principal cares as they became evident in the debate. I shall find in reading what I have said that it was entirely inadequate, and that will provoke a shoal of long and careful letters.

Lord Wells-Pestell

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I wonder whether he would deal with one matter. Bearing in mind that one of the cheapest and quickest ways of doing something about the size of the prison population is to extend the use of the probation service, will he say that the Government are, in fact, in favour of encouraging the courts to use the probation service and the Probation Act more in the future than they have done in the past? Will he say whether the Government would consider providing the very small sum of money necessary to do that?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I tried to make it clear that the courts appeared to me to he at one with the Government in seeking not to send people to prison if it is possible not to do so. One way of keeping people out of prison is to make use of the probation service. In looking at that service, which I shall do with great care, I shall bear the noble Lord's remarks very closely in mind. If it is necessary for me to make any revelation of policy to the noble Lord, which I am not aware that I can, I shall write to him.

4.55 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, many years ago, I was placed on more than one occasion in the situation in which the noble Lord has found himself. I was asked to represent a department at very short notice and to take a measure of responsibility for everything that was being done, or not done. So far as I am concerned, I acquit the noble Lord for the manifold failures of the Home Office. No one will blame him. He comes down here and it is his task to defend them. However, I am afraid that I regard his reply as profoundly disappointing not through any fault of his, but because I consider the policy and the attitude of this Government profoundly disappointing. But before I deal with that matter, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord on the delightful way in which he has handled this task.

Several noble Lords

Hear, hear!

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I think that a new Minister who starts as well as that is going on to greatness and may even finish by sublimating the ideals of the Home Office. However, that is maybe a little further on.

As the noble Lord has said, I have quite a few minutes in hand. I do not intend to use them to the full because I do not think that that is the intention of a short debate. Even if the mover is lucky enough, owing to the extraordinary self-abnegation of other speakers, to have something like 15 minutes in hand, I do not think that it is the intention of those who arrange these debates that he should have the chance to make another speech. Therefore, I do not intend to speak for more than a very few minutes. I should like to congratulate all those who have spoken on the almost masochistic restriction of their oratory today. I hope that when we have the next debate, somehow or another they will speak at still greater length because the points that were made were so important that it seems a pity that in some cases they were made in two or three minutes. However, that is very much to the credit of all concerned.

I shall not attempt to comment on most of the speeches, but I should like to comment on just one or two which raised topics which are not raised often enough perhaps in these discussions. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharples, went back to the question of prisoners' wives. That subject tends to be neglected and I hope that it will not be neglected quite so much in the future. Also the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, in his modest way, did not reveal that he has been at very great pains and at much inconvenience to visit at least one, and perhaps more than one, IRA prisoner in some rather remote prison. So when he talks about IRA prisoners, he knows what he is talking about. Again I hope that his remarks, which I heartily endorse, will be carefully attended to.

I realise that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, for example, have put forward very carefully worked-out proposals which I certainly do not intend to do more about today than express general sympathy. As the Minister said, there will be an opportunity for most of us to talk at some length on all these matters when the Criminal Justice Bill comes here, and I hope that that will provide an opportunity for those expert noble Lords.

There have been other speeches. The noble Lord, Lord Soper, as always, spoke on the spiritual side, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, from the Liberal angle. The mentally disordered cannot be referred to too often, because, when all is said and done, our treatment of them is shameful. We cannot bring ourselves to face the problem posed by the fact that such people exist. We cannot bring ourselves to face the problem that some people, quite a lot of people, are in prison. They are, admittedly, mental cases, but the National Health Service will not accept them because it does not think that they can be treated; so they are left to rot in prison.

Many other important points have been raised today. The noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, will always be listened to with special attention. I should like to say a few words in reply to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lane. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, that we are making progress in persuading the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice to come and address us, because over the last quarter of a century in debates of this kind we have had very few contributions from learned judges on matters of penal reform. We have had contributions from them during debates on matters such as capital punishment, but on penal reform you could number on the fingers of a truncated hand the contributions from judges in this House in the last quarter of a century. So now is a new beginning.

I would only venture to say to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice that he may have slightly misunderstood me. When he reads what I said in that short intervention he will see that I was not saying quite what he said I said. I was so careful, I was really too careful; I felt more strongly about this than I ventured to say because the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor was on the Woolsack. Now, in his absence, perhaps I can speak more bluntly. I was afraid that I might provoke the noble and learned Lords the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice into rising to their feet at the same moment, which would have given rise to a sort of chaos. There was a time when I provoked the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York to rise to their feet, and there was a great question as to who should give way to the other. So while the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor was on the Woolsack, I did not want to speak too positively.

What I was trying to say, and what I must repeat to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice, is, in a sense, an extension or clarification of something said by my noble friend on the Front Bench Lord Elystan-Morgan. It is that we are all to blame. I wish that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice and the judges would accept that. Up to now the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lane, has not accepted it; he has said that the judges are not to blame but that the politicians are. Let us agree that the politicians are all to blame—not just this lot, but all politicians—and I have been in and out of Government for quite a few years. However, the judges are to blame.

If I were asked how they are to blame, I should say that they have been passing sentences which, by the standards of other countries, are too severe—I want to put that as plainly as possible—are known to be too severe and are recognised to be too severe. It is recognised that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lane, has been trying to persuade them to impose shorter sentences, and to his credit he is regarded as a most enlightened Lord Chief Justice. He is setting out to try to alter the habits of the other judges. That is all to his credit. But if there was no need to alter their habits, why should he set out on his task? Why should there be this dramatic change in the attitudes of the judges, which we were told about, if they were doing the job perfectly well before? That is my point. I hope that a word to the wise is enough.

I do not need to make another speech. I think that this debate could do some good. I am very glad that we shall have a chance to go into all these matters more thoroughly when we deal with the Criminal Justice Bill. I think that the situation is quite shocking. The Government of the day must accept immediate responsibility. The noble Lord said something about this being not of their making. The making may be the responsibility of others, but I am afraid that its continuance is the responsibility of the present rulers.

I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for the genial, delightful and witty way in which, as always, he has replied to us. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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