HL Deb 16 February 1982 vol 427 cc455-7

2.50 p.m.

Lord Brockway

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will declare an amnesty for all prisoners not guilty of violent offences on the occasion of the birth of a child to the Princess of Wales, similar to the amnesties granted by other Governments on historic occasions.

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

My Lords, the Government have no plans for such an amnesty.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, may I ask the Minister: does he not agree that something must be done about the overcrowding in English prisons, which governors have described as dustbins and the prison inspectorate has said are deplorable and degrading? Has the noble Lord noted the report today by the Prison Reform Trust that three men in a cell are so crowded with furniture that they can hardly move? Is there not a serious danger of unrest not only among prisoners but prison officers'? Would not this be an occasion to seek a remedy of that situation?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the noble Lord asks whether something should be done. The difficulty is that an amnesty of the kind envisaged by the noble Lord would set aside the sentence of the court in an arbitrary way. Also it would of course do nothing to reduce the numbers of those receiving custodial sentences thereafter. Therefore, although I agree with a certain amount of what the noble Lord said in his supplementary question, I think that his own plan would be neither desirable nor effective.

The Earl of Cork and Orrery

My Lords, can my noble friend say what Her Majesty's Government expect in the way of violent offences on the occasion of the birth of a child to the Princess of Wales'?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the further difficulty with this particular plan is that it picks out non-violent offenders as qualifying for an amnesty. Over half the prison population today are serving offences against property, such as burglary and theft; hardly appropriate for immediate release.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, can the noble Lord say what would be the effect on the crime rate of announcing an amnesty several months in advance?

Lord Belstead

Not good, my Lords.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, will the Minister accept that I am no less concerned, along with many of your Lordships, about the overcrowding and dilapidation that exists in many of our prisons? But would he not agree that it would be quite inappropriate to involve indirectly or directly members of the Royal Family in ameliorating this deplorable situation, however desirable the result and no matter how joyous the event?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that the commonsense method to do away with overcrowding in prisons would be to build more prisons? It would also provide employment. It seems to me a very simple problem.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, that is what we are doing; but we are just starting to do it, and, although it may be simple, it is going to take some time.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, would the Minister agree that recently published research by the Home Office itself indicates that dangerousness is not a predictable characteristic, and that therefore to single out persons who commit certain classes of offence as being less eligible for consideration for early release is not a satisfactory means of protecting the public against serious harm? In view of that, does not the Minister think that the non-eligibility of category A prisoners for consideration for parole is a serious matter, and that there should be some means whereby these prisoners could get their categorisation reviewed so that they might qualify for earlier release?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, there is of course a provision for early release—Clause 26—in the Criminal Justice Bill which is in Committee in another place, but only as a last resort to be decided by both Houses of Parliament and in order to prevent what, in effect, would be a breakdown in the prison system. That includes obviously—and I say "obviously" because that is the Government's view—consideration of what sort of classes of prisoner might be included in that unhappy event. Clearly the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the Government do not agree on this particular point, and I suggest that we should wait to discuss this further when that Bill arrives in your Lordships' House.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, may I ask the Minister, is it not the case that a number of Governments have on historic occasions granted amnesty to a large number of prisoners? Is there any evidence at all that, when they have done that, crime has increased in their communities?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, of course, this has been done recently in France. I reply in the negative: I am not aware that crime has decreased.