HL Deb 21 January 1982 vol 426 cc692-5

3.13 p.m.

Lord Avebury

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 what immediate reduction in the prison population in England and Wales would result from the adoption of 50 per cent. remission as in Northern Ireland.

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

My Lords, the initial effect of adopting 50 per cent. remission on the Northern Ireland model would be to reduce the prison population in England and Wales by about 4,000. Provided that there was no change in sentencing practice, the longer-term reduction would be very much smaller and might be fewer than 1,000.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, am I wrong in my recollection that the noble Lord the Minister gave the figure of 7,000 to my noble friend Lord Wigoder for the immediate reduction in the prison population that would result in applying 50 per cent. remission to all those serving sentences of two years and less? Therefore, is it not curious that the figure which the noble Lord now gives for the reduction for all those serving sentences of whatever length should be smaller than the figure he gave to my noble friend? However, even if it is a figure of 4,000 for the total prison population, would that not represent a very significant reduction of the burden now being felt by the prison service, and is it not, therefore, worth reconsidering the Government's decision to reject that proposal in favour of one which is very doubtful as regards its effect of reducing the prison population at all? Other things being equal, is it not a good idea for the system to he the same in the United Kingdom as a whole, bearing in mind that Northern Ireland is still part of the United Kingdom?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the figure which I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, was 3,000. In the longer term, of course, the case which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is making would not result, as my original Answer said, in a very considerable reduction. Moreover, we would lose the benefit of the parole system which we have in this country, which selects those whom it is calculated ought to have a period of release on licence under supervision, and in exchange we would get a system of release which would not be selective; and I do not believe that that would be to our advantage.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, can the Minister say how many prisoners have been released in Northern Ireland under this arrangement of 50 per cent. remission? Has the experiment been carried out without any damage to law and order in Northern Ireland? If the answer to that is, Yes, then is there not much to be said for the benefit of the immediate advantage of an immediate substantial reduction of the prison population of this country?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot give to the noble and learned Lord the figure for which he asks. But in comparing the two systems one would be making, with respect, a value judgment and I would not, I think, want to depart from the answer which I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. The parole system which we have here, which it was felt in 1976 it was not possible to introduce into Northern Ireland, is a system which I would be loath to desert.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that the introduction of a mandatory remission scheme, such as is envisaged by the noble Lord's Question, would make a mockery of due sentencing in serious cases of crime? Would my noble friend the Minister not agree that, in view of certain recent events, implementation of such a policy could give rise to very serious public concern?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I think that the question which my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway asks should be taken seriously. As regards the solution, the Government believe that the best prospect for a substantial and sustained reduction in the size of the prison population lies in a reduction in average sentence lengths in suitable cases by the courts. It is for that reason that the Government have introduced into the Criminal Justice Bill some changes in the provisions for partially suspended sentences, and we very much hope that partially suspended sentences will be approved by both Houses and can be brought into effect.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the noble Lord not agree that the consensus of opinion in Northern Ireland is that 50 per cent. remission is excessive from the point of view of deterrence? On the other hand, would he perhaps agree that there might be some merit in a compromise along the lines of 40 per cent. or 37½ per cent. remission for good behaviour, to be applied uniformly throughout the United Kingdom, which would virtually maintain the deterrent effect of a prison sentence, but which would go some way towards alleviating prison overcrowding?

Lord Belstead

No, my Lords; the Government believe that the road to go down is to introduce Section 47 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 for partly suspended sentences which can be applied at the discretion of the courts, and that is something to which the Government attach great importance.

Lord Burton

My Lords, has my noble friend the Minister considered that possibly the best way of reducing the prison population would be to increase the penalties, because then the deterrent would be greater, there would be fewer people coming before our courts, and therefore fewer to go to gaol?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the penalties under the law are pretty stiff. I would not advise my noble friend to try it and see.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, perhaps the Minister could advise his noble friend that the prison population in Saudi Arabia is effectively reduced by means of executions and amputations? Will he also ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to take note of the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, that the system operated in those countries is a mockery? Returning to what the Minister said about the parole system, would he not agree that, if the parole system were retained for the balance of one-sixth of the sentence—which would make the total amount of remission allowable under both remission and parole the same as it is now, so that a person could obtain 50 per cent. remission by means of the Northern Ireland system and an additional one-sixth under the parole system—then no one would serve a sentence longer than he would have to do under the English and Welsh system as it is at the moment?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, if we went down that road I believe that the gap between the length of sentence given and the actual sentence served would be too great, and that probably would be reflected in the length of the sentences given by the courts.