HL Deb 13 April 1983 vol 441 cc268-300

8.34 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to take to prevent remand and sentenced prisoners being held in police custody because of the current severe overcrowding in the prison system.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In raising the general question of prison overcrowding, I should like to make two observations before coming to the substance of my speech. First, this is the first occasion on which I have had an opportunity to address your Lordships' House since the move of Mr. Dennis Trevelyan, the former Director-General of the Prison Department. Mr. Trevelyan served both Labour and Conservative Governments with the highest distinction. He has now become the First Civil Service Commissioner and, he having been there at the time of the May Committee and during all the discussions which took place, and having been responsible for implementing many of these very important recommendations with the highest degree of competence, it is only right to say that we thank Mr. Trevelyan for the dedicated work he did as Director-General and that we wish him well as First Civil Service Commissioner.

Secondly—and I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for this—my noble friend Lord Hunt, who apologises for not being present this evening, asked me to say that in the last debate on this subject, which was initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Kagan, my noble friend asked a question concerning the codes of standards on which the Home Office were working. An undertaking has been given that it will be published. My noble friend asked when that will be done. He did not secure an answer from the noble Lord on that occasion and would be very grateful to have one tonight, so that it will form part of the record.

I turn now to the substance of what I have to say this evening. In the past few weeks we have seen intensification of public concern about the condition of our prisons. There has been the recently published report of the chief inspector of prisons for 1982, to which I shall be returning in a moment, and there have been renewed expressions of anxiety by the governors' branch of the Society of Civil and Public Servants. There has been also an apparent escalation in the number of industrial disputes in a number of prison department establishments. There has also been a suggestion—a very serious suggestion—by the secretary of the governors' branch that the increased number of hostage-taking incidents in prisons is related to some extent at least to the present serious degree of overcrowding. This is a sombre story.

The issue I am specifically raising tonight—namely, the number of men who are kept in police accommodation—is directly related to the present overcrowding in our prison system. For many months now we have been witnessing the growth of what is in fact a second prison system; one that has come into existence because prisoners can no longer be squeezed into some of our intolerably overcrowded local prisons.

The system is operated by the police backed up by a number of prison department assistant governors. What happens now is simply that when it is impossible for the prisons to take any more inmates, a number of remand and sometimes even sentenced prisoners are held in police custody, either in police stations or in the cells which are attached to magistrates' courts. Together with my noble friend Lord Avebury and a number of Members of both sides in another place, I have had the opportunity of examining the conditions in which these men are being held. Like them, I was extremely grateful to the officials of the prison department who made this visit worthwhile and also to the officers of the Metropolitan Police. However, I was deeply disturbed—as were my parliamentary colleagues—by what we saw.

Despite the admirable efforts of New Scotland Yard and of many decent, humane police officers, the conditions in which men are being kept in these cells are wholly unacceptable in any society that claims to be civilised. Most of these men have been convicted of no criminal offence, but they are being locked up in cells designed in many cases to hold prisoners for, at most, three or four hours. Prisoners are now being held in these conditions four to a cell in some cases, as my noble friend Lord Avebury and I saw for ourselves, for periods of four and five days and sometimes a great deal longer than that.

Sanitary conditions are poor. Exercise space is in grievously short supply. At the police garage at Lambeth we visited, the vehicles have to be driven around nearby streets so that prisoners can obtain a limited period of exercise. The arrangements for family visits are exceptionally unsatisfactory, for police stations and magistrates' courts, quite understandably, were not designed for any such purposes. There is in many cases a lamentable lack of adequate facilities for visits by legal advisers—a point which has been drawn to the attention of the Home Office by the Law Society.

This alternative prison system which has developed over the last 12 months operates, of course, wholly outside the prison rules which have been approved by Parliament. Police officers, at constant risk of being exposed to allegations by prisoners that they have behaved improperly and then as a consequence of those complaints having to meet the full force of police disciplinary inquiries, are being made to run a system with which most in no way wish to be associated. They did not join the police force in order to become prison officers. Nor do they have much enthusiasm for working in conditions worse than exist in many of our local prisons in this country.

I must add this. There is no sense in which this issue is of declining importance: quite the reverse. Last year the numbers held in police custody rose, on 8th September, to a maximum figure of 293. By Christmas and the New Year the numbers had fallen to vanishing point. But as soon as the courts got back to work the situation was transformed, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, disclosed in his Written Answer of 30th March. The numbers in police custody hovered around the 200 mark during the month of February, with a minimum of 136 and a maximum of 286. But in March the numbers in police custody soared. On 15 days in that month the all-time high figure reached last September, which was 293, was exceeded—and that was before one took account of what was happening in Manchester. There, by 28th March, because of a dispute with the local branch of the Prison Officers' Association at Strangeways, a further 200 prisoners were being held in police custody.

Not only are the conditions in which these men are being detained unacceptable; they are, in my view, wholly inconsistent with our obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights. They are also beginning to impose a heavy and a wholly unreasonable burden on the police. Police establishments were not agreed on the basis of such wholly unwelcome additional responsibilities being placed on chief officers. As I indicated during the Third Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill last October, the police were persuaded, with some substantial difficulty, to take on these responsibilities both during the lifetime of the last Labour Government, when there was contingency planning in the event of a dispute with the Prison Officers' Association, and also during the life of the present Government.

Then, of course, we all recall the dispute which took place in the early years of office of this Government. I believe that the Government were wholly right to stand firm against the Prison Officers' Association during that dispute, and I believe they were also right to ask for the co-operation of the police in dealing with that—but for a strictly limited period of time, to deal wholly and exclusively with that emergency situation. But what is involved now has nothing whatsoever to do with a short-term emergency situation. What is now involved is the use of inadequate police resources to deal with the long term crisis of numbers in our prisons, and I believe that cannot possibly be right.

There is also the question of the cost of this exercise, which is not unimportant because on one of the matters we shall be coming to later—namely, the possibility of reducing the parole threshold—one of the arguments is whether the resources are available to deal with the implementation of a lower parole threshold. Cost is part of the case for the defence, as a number of us heard when the Home Secretary addressed the Policy Studies Institute recently. So this is highly relevant. How much is it costing? I warned the noble Lord, Lord Elton, as I pointed out at col. 757, that I intended to raise this question during our debate in October; so I assumed, of course, that he was prepared for it.

On that occasion the noble Lord gave his answer in two parts. First, on the actual charge to public funds, he said at col. 764 that it cost the taxpayer (I quote) "about £70 to £80 per night" for every prisoner who was detained in a police cell. That is the amount of money which is made available by the Home Office to the Receiver of the Metropolitan Police District. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, prides himself, and rightly so, on the precision of the language he uses in this House, so he may be mildly surprised to learn that there is some slight doubt as to whether what he said on that occasion was accurate, for in a Written Answer to me on 17th January the noble Lord told me that the cost to the prison department in the first ten months of last year of keeping prisoners in police custody was £1.7 million in respect of 17,168 prisoner nights. The language is that of the noble Lord, Lord Elton. In other words, it cost not, as the noble Lord said last October, £70 to £80, but over £100 a night to keep a prisoner in these squalid conditions in police cells. In short, the statement made by the noble Lord on that occasion was inaccurate to a factor of somewhere between 25 to 40 per cent.

The noble Lord's statement again at first sight appears to be even more inaccurate, for his second statement on that occasion—this, it may be recalled, was in a debate when the Government secured a majority of precisely three on an important amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill—was that although he would not claim that this was a recommendation at all (I quote) "it was a good deal cheaper"—that is to keep men in police custody—"than keeping them in prison". That comes from col. 764.

Again the noble Lord may be surprised to learn that this statement is not only inaccurate but appears to be the very reverse of the truth. In a Written Answer to my noble friend Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge on 17th January the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said that the cost of maintaining an inmate for a week—not a day, but a week—in a local prison such as Brixton in 1980–81 was £168. The same day in my Written Answer, I would remind the House, the noble Lord admitted that the cost of keeping a prisoner in police custody was over £100 a night or over £700 a week.

Thus, far from it being right, as the noble Lord suggested on that occasion, that it was cheaper to keep a man in police custody rather than in prison, it is in fact more than 400 per cent. more expensive to do so. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Elton, will be eager tonight to explain these apparent inconsistencies between the various statements he has made. I am bound to say that if they are as inaccurate as I have suggested, I am a little surprised that they have not been corrected before this evening's debate. I repeat, this is not an unimportant issue. The cost of this is exorbitant.

The conditions in which these men are being kept, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and I and others have seen, are deplorable, and if it is going to be suggested by the Home Office tonight that they cannot afford the cost of bringing in various alternative ways of dealing with this problem of prison numbers, I think a number of us would like to ask how it can possibly be right to spend money on such an immense scale keeping men in these deplorable conditions and yet not make money available for far more worthwhile methods of dealing with them.

During our debates in October I said, as many others on both sides of the House said, that the Bill before the House was likely at best to have the most marginal effect upon the numbers in prison, and that indeed it might lead to a larger rather than a smaller prison population. I returned on that occasion to the proposal—I have given the noble Lord, Lord Elton, notice that I proposed to raise this matter—that the parole threshold should be reduced from 12 months to six months and consequently the parole system would operate in respect of offenders who were serving sentences of 10 months or more rather than 20 months or more which is the present position. This could reduce prison numbers by between 2,000 or 3,000 or thereabouts. I immediately concede that in the present situation that is not enough in itself but it certainly would relieve some of the pressure in the current system. Quite apart from that, it would provide an opportunity for shorter-term prisoners to serve a period of their sentence in the community under the supervision of the probation service.

Last July I rather assumed from what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said on that occasion that he was in agreement with us. It is true that there were many references in his speech to the need for full consultation with all the interests involved—the probation service, the police, the prison service, and so on—but he added, in column 381: We would wish to bring about that reduction"— that is, in the parole threshold— and have already put in hand detailed investigatory work on the issues necessary to be resolved."—[Official Report, 1/7/82; col. 381.] He added that the work was being carried out with the greatest expedition possible.

We came back to it in October when we had the Third Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, was still talking about consultation, which appeared to be taking an immense time but I recognise that consultations of this kind have to take place. However, in column 764 he added: We have already made substantial progress in analysing what would need to be done in bringing access to parole to some of the shorter sentence population".—[Official Report, 12/10/82; col. 764.] Well, another six months have passed. I hope that we are not going to hear still more about those consultations tonight. Surely they have now been completed. What are the Government going to do? Is the noble Lord now in a position to tell us that the Government are now proposing to use the power that they have under the Criminal Justice Bill to bring relief to the intolerably stretched resources of the prison service? If he is not, on the basis of the statement which he made to the House last year, why not?

Moreover, the noble Lord will be speaking tonight in the context of the recently published report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons. He emphasised, as the noble Lord and the House will be aware, his own deep concern about the prison situation. The chief inspector dealt pretty brusquely with the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that the accelerated building programme will make a major contribution towards solving the problem of overcrowding in our prisons. As the noble Lord will be aware, I believe that the Home Secretary is right in this matter—although a number of others do not take that view—and that it is highly desirable in itself. But as the chief inspector points out in paragraph 207 of his report, much of it will simply replace existing accommodation and the refurbishment programme will actually remove cells from the system. The chief inspector concludes: The net result is, therefore, likely to be a worsening in overcrowding". So much for the building programme in terms of dealing with the problem we are discussing this evening.

In paragraphs 303, 402 and 403 the chief inspector warns the Home Secretary, in what I would have thought is remarkably dramatic language coming from a public servant, of what is now happening. He says that as a result of staff shortages in the prisons exercise periods are regularly cancelled despite the clear requirement under the prison rules approved by Parliament that all prisoners should be given the opportunity for exercise each day. He says that prisoners who suffer repeated loss of association when confined in overcrowded conditions with nothing to do become aggressive, frustrated and depressed. He adds that civilian instructors and teachers become demoralised when they find themselves without classes to instruct, while uniformed staff grow weary of trying to deal with barely suppressed inmate aggression.

After such a report the House will tonight expect to hear something very positive from the noble Lord, Lord Elton. I hope that we shall not simply be told that the noble Lord shares our anxieties about this matter and the intolerable conditions in which men are being kept in this wholly unsatisfactory police accommodation. I hope that we will not hear just an expression of his concern, of which there is no doubt because I am sure that the noble Lord is deeply concerned about the situation, as is everyone else, but an indication that the noble Lord and his right honourable friend now propose to do something about it.

I have tonight shown, I hope, how action could be taken to reduce the prison population by over 2,000 and that the right honourable Gentleman the Home Secretary does have the statutory powers to do this. Certainly I at once concede that this is by no means enough in itself, but it would at least demonstrate to those working in our painfully overstretched prison system that the Government are now resolved to take action to reduce the number of health hazards.

8.58 p.m.

Lord Elystan-Morgan

My Lords, may I first of all on what I am sure will be a wholly uncontroversial note endorse completely what the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, has said by way of tribute to Mr. Dennis Trevelyan. I had the opportunity of being well acquainted with his skill and distinction many years ago when I was a very junior Minister at the Home Office.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, has once again placed the House very much in his debt by initiating a discussion upon a subject that has occupied the attention of this House on very many occasions over the past few years. This is wholly inevitable, in my view, because the subject of custodial detention is so central to the issue of law and order and the fundamental principles which govern loss of individual liberty as to make it one of the most crucially important topics that this House could possibly debate.

The ironic danger, however, is that so much energy and so much attention is devoted to this subject that that factor could of itself render the whole subject commonplace in our curriculum. Soon every superlative will have been exhausted, every cliché will have been expended and every feature and aspect will have been examined to the point of exhaustion. Nevertheless, the question that has been raised by the noble Lord encompasses two distinct matters, as he has himself accepted. One is the immediate crisis in relation to prisoners on remand and the other is the long-term menace of prison overcrowding. One is, as it were, the symptom and the other is the long-term deadly malady. In my view it would be very difficult for us to exaggerate the significance or seriousness of either of these two matters.

On behalf of my colleagues on these Benches I wholeheartedly accept everything that the noble Lord has said in relation to the scandal which now exists in the context of prisoners held upon remand in police cells and in court cells, and in even less wholesome accommodation, while awaiting trial. The holding of such persons in such conditions is to be totally and universally condemned. As the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, has pointed out, police cells were never ever intended to discharge this role. At paragraph 2.06 of his report, Sir James Hennessy puts it in these terms: The cells in which these prisoners were held were not intended for other than very short-term use. Nor were they designed with an eye for the need for natural light, facilities for exercise, or visits from prisoners' relatives. In short, it was not envisaged that they would ever be required to serve as prison establisments". It appears that in some cases a prisoner will get as little as 10 minutes' exercise in 24 hours. That exercise is little more than jumping up and down, or running back and forth along a corridor. That is a scandalous situation. Indeed, even more graphic than the words of the noble Lord and the report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons is the evidence that has already been published on the part of Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk, the chairman of the all-party Penal Affairs Group. I refer in particular to statements of his that were published in The Times in September of last year. He stated: In all my visits to prisons in the United Kingdom and the United States, I have never witnessed conditions as bad as these. They are as disgusting as anything I have seen in the southern states of the United States". He went on to state that at one court which he visited at Highbury 27 remand prisoners were being held underground, two in each cell, measuring six feet by eight feet, and without daylight or sanitation. He then stated: Remand prisoners who are entitled to one hour's exercise a day in daylight are instead given 10 minutes in the underground corridor". He stated that some had been held below ground for a very long time, in a succession of police and court cells for two weeks, seeing daylight only when entering and leaving a police van. I have no doubt that the noble Lords, Lord Harris and Lord Avebury, can give equally horrifying specific examples arising from their own visits.

It appears that these men are held not only in cells, but on certain occasions in garages and outhouses—and not only for a few days; there are recorded instances of persons being held for as long as five weeks in these wholly intolerable conditions. I totally agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has said: that there is every indication that the figures are on the increase. Indeed I suspect that over the last month or so there has been established a level of at least 500, or thereabouts. Not only are the figures themselves on the increase, but the areas which are affected are also on the increase. Now it is not only a case of London and the home counties being affected. I have no doubt whatsoever that, with selective industrial action in many other parts of the country, by and large the whole scale of this problem will be vastly increased.

The noble Lord has already made the point that it is wholly wrong that the police should be involved in such an exercise as this. Nevertheless, it should be noted, as is the case in the report of Sir James Hennessy, that the police seem to have dealt with this unwelcome burden in a most efficient and compassionate way; but of course not for one moment does that justify the system. These conditions of intense restriction are such that many people would refuse to impose them on an animal under their care. It is all the more ironic that the persons concerned in the vast majority of cases have not even been convicted. In the eyes of the law they are of course innocent. When they appear at their courts of trial they will appear in the dock with all the presumption of innocence in which, in our law, a defendant is clothed. Very many of them will be acquitted; others will be convicted. But the courts will decide that in the circumstances it will not be necessary to impose a custodial sentence upon them.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, has raised a most interesting question of cost. I should like to congratulate him on the great assiduity with which he made the desiccated mathematical calculations that have impressed us all very greatly. I understand that the noble Lords, Lord Harris and Lord Avebury, as well as certain other distinguished Members of the House, together with Members of another place, will be seeing the Home Secretary on Monday. I am sure that we wish them well, and we are quite confident that they will put this most important case to the Home Secretary with very great firmness and clarity.

The scandal of keeping remand prisoners in police and court cells for substantial periods is, I fear, a circumstance that will continue for a very considerable time. I suspect that it is now a permanent feature of the landscape of the administration of justice in Britain, and that it will cease to be permanent only if and when something substantial, radical, and drastic is done in relation to the whole question of prison overcrowding. The problem that we are discussing tonight of the remand prisoners is only one of the ugly gargoyle faces of the central problem of prison overcrowding.

The ground with which we are dealing tonight has been harrowed over very considerably, and therefore I seek to make only a few points supplementary to those the noble Lord has mentioned, and in one or two cases to endorse matters that he has already covered in a very proper way. The situation of prison overcrowding is totally intolerable. It is referred to in Sir James Hennessy's report as an affront to civilised society. That must be one of the most blunt, firm and spectacular condemnations of a Government ever made by a senior public inspector. The position of local prisons—that is really the core and the kernel of the whole problem—appears to be worsening steadily. The report makes clear that at Wandsworth the number of prisoners is habitually at least 25 per cent. above the certified normal accommodation figure. The report, at paragraph 2.03, says: At such times 200 men might have to share the use of four lavatory cubicles and one hot water tap". In Liverpool, at the date of inspection, there were 1,369 prisoners in cells normally adequate for 900. At Bedford, on the date of inspection, there were 336 prisoners in accommodation adequate for 169. Most Members of the House will have read with great disquiet the report on Brixton prison published by the inspectorate about a month ago. It makes very sorry reading. Brixton is, I suppose, the biggest remand prison in our system. The conclusion of the deputy chief inspector of prisons in relation to that prison was that the volume of remand prisoners per annum—the figure which, I must say, staggered me, was 75,000—would have to be reduced by 25,000 in order to bring the situation within tolerable limits.

The verdict that is given generally has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. It is that prison conditions in England and Wales are as bad with regard to overcrowding as they ever were and are likely to get worse. Indeed, it is the projection of Sir James Hennessy that by the end of this decade—we are speaking of a point in time only seven years' hence—the figure will have risen from the present level of over 45,000 to over 50,000. Some very learned, very responsible and well qualified authors have set the figure as high as 53,000. The mind bulges in contemplating what might happen in that connection.

The short point in relation to the report is this. The Government are, at the moment, investing £40 million a year in the building of new prisons and the extension of existing prisons. In addition, £20 million a year is being spent on refurbishing old prisons. The conclusion of the report is that such expenditure, is likely to make no impact upon overcrowding". The main card played continuously by the Government in debate, and played conscientiously, I have no doubt, if one can play a card conscientiously, in relation to all the submissions made from various points of the House that there was a necessity to take drastic action, was that the building programme, if not of itself adequate to make the problem disappear, was such as to ameliorate the situation and to bring it within acceptable limits. It is clear that the whole scale of capital investment envisaged at present is wholly inadequate.

The perils that we face in this connection are considerable. One of the greatest perils is already upon us; namely, that a kingdom that has taught so much to the world in relation to human liberty and human decency and freedom is now in a position to be condemned by the European Court and, before the whole world, has to acknowledge that it has failed to achieve the minimum standards of decency in this connection. It is sad that Britain should find itself in this miserable situation.

Secondly, the central problem of overcrowding has had its inevitable knock-on effect upon other factors, particularly the break-down of the whole system of work in prisons and, to a large extent, the whole programme of education and vocational training. It stands to reason that if men, and women for that matter, are to be locked up in cells for 23 out of the 24 hours, we cannot have them involved in creative work or work of any sort or, indeed, in any educational course. Thirdly, there are threats which lie in the immediate future and which are very real. We have seen the symptoms of some of them already. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, referred to hostage cases. I should like to give some figures and I think that they speak for themselves. In the whole of the period 1977 to 1980 there was one case of hostage-taking. In 1981 there were two. In 1982 there were six and in the last four months there were six. The pattern is very clear for anyone who looks carefully and responsibly at the situation.

In 1981, which appears to be the last year for which such figures were available, there was experienced the peak of offences against the prison code. In relation to men, the total figure was 62,800; in relation to women it was 4,400. It does not require inspired imagination to foresee a whole range of varied disasters that can, and undoubtedly will, occur. At one end of the spectrum there is the lowering of morale among the 23,000 people who are members of the prison service. At the other end of the spectrum there is the horrifying certainty, in my view, of riots of the most massive proportions, the general breakdown of order and, I am afraid, the inevitable loss of life and widespread destruction.

The question that we on this side of the House ask tonight is: is it necessary for this to happen before the Government will take action? Time does not allow me to deal with the steps which I think should be taken, but I should just like to list them. I wholeheartedly agree with the points already made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris. First, there should be an immediate reappraisal of the building programme, concentrating the resources which are necessary—and they must be on a vastly different scale from the present—upon local prisons. Secondly, there should be a robust and energetic programme in relation to work and educational and vocational training.

Thirdly, there should be constant encouragement to sentencers to give greater thought to shorter sentences, to suspended sentences, to community service orders and to grant bail in all those circumstances where it is proper and just so to do, bearing in mind that on average some 40 per cent. of men and some 70 per cent. of women who are denied bail are eventually acquitted or disposed of by means of a non-custodial sentence. Lastly, the Home Secretary should use those powers already enshrined in statute, to lower the threshold for parole, to advance the period of a prisoner's release in given circumstances, and, more than anything, again to reappraise carefully—and if necessary to carry out an agonising reappraisal—the arguments that have already been tendered on so many occasions in this House for increasing the proportion of a sentence which can be properly remitted.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, has heard nothing tonight that he has not already heard put to him on other occasions or which he is not already aware of in any event. I hope that that will not make him feel justified in repeating, albeit in a freshened form, elegant aphorisms of which he is very capable, plus a philosophic dissertation upon the whole question. The arguments that have been put forward are the same as previously, but the situation is not the same. We are now nearer the brink than we were on the last occasion.

The temptation for a Government, particularly for this Government, of "blandishness" and of blindness in this field must be very great. Expenditure upon prison building is not exactly the alpha-plus priority of any Administration. The siting of new prisons is not one of the easiest tasks which confronts the planner and the administrator. With the frenzies of a general election almost upon us there is a very great temptation for the present Government to seek to portray those who do nothing in relation to this situation as the strong, silent, solid men of the situation, whereas on the other side there are the woolly-minded, soggy-hearted do-gooders. The facts speak eloquently to the contrary. Indeed, all who are concerned in any way with the administration of justice know that there is here a problem that will not go away and one that will inevitably lead to disaster and to catastrophe unless something is done speedily and robustly in relation to it. If disaster occurs, it will give no pleasure to those of us who have fought and argued for a minimum reaction from the Government consistent with the safety of the system and of the public, to be able to say some day, "We are sorry; we told you so".

9.21 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, said that if we were talking about animals there would be a different attitude to this Question, and I must say that I think it is disgraceful that there is nobody at all on the Benches opposite except the Minister and the Whip. Apparently little interest is taken by the party opposite in the important questions which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has raised, and therefore we can hardly expect Ministers of a Tory Government to respond properly to the appeals that have been addressed to them by the noble Lords, Lord Harris and Lord Elystan-Morgan.

One can imagine that if we were talking about animals we would have the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, inveighing at the end of the Bench; we would have noble Lords on both sides joining in an attack on the Government for keeping animals in these intolerable conditions; and then something would happen: whereas, as the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, has pointed out, I am afraid that we are simply repeating what has been said so many times before about the conditions in the prisons, and we shall receive the words of sympathy which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, predicted from the Government, but no signs of action.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, mentioned the visit that was made by members of the All-Party Penal Affairs Group to the prisoners who were detained in police custody just before Christmas last year. I want to say something about that, but before doing so I want to echo the tributes that have been paid to the police officers who have to perform this unpleasant duty, for which they did not ask, and which, as far as we could see, they nevertheless carry out with cheerfulness and efficiency.

However, apart from the immense costs which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, mentioned, let us think about the implications in terms of police manpower. At that time we were told that to look after 176 prisoners required 21 sergeants and 121 police constables. Those officers, of course, were taken away from the duties that they would otherwise have been performing of detecting and preventing crime in the metropolis. One cannot be altogether surprised that the rate of increase in crime has continued to rise and that the detection of crime in the metropolis has gone down when one takes police officers away from the duties that they are supposed to be performing and give them these other tasks, which are not really within their competence even though they do their best under difficult circumstances.

We first visited the Lambeth police garage, where most of the prisoners come in before being transferred to other locations. But we were told that something like 20 or 30 prisoners remained in the cells there, which were on the first floor of the building. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, mentioned that some prisoners remained for several weeks in these conditions; and we met a man there who had been in Lambeth since 15th November and others who had been brought in at varying dates throughout the previous month.

The cells in which they were accommodated were designed in the expectation that the prisoners would be there for about three hours at the most. They were reasonably large, being something like five metres square, and they contained four men—two on mattresses on a bench running along a wall, and two on the floor. They had an integral toilet, but there was no other furniture in the cell at all. There were no windows and there was merely artificial lighting.

Prisoners who were convicted but unsentenced were given an allowance of £1 on reception. They do not normally stay in the police garage very long, and those who were there the longest were the remand prisoners. But when they are there they spend 23 hours out of the 24, as has been mentioned, in the cells. They only go out for exercise into this parking area on the ground floor, which is normally used to accommodate the prison vans which, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, mentioned, had to be moved out every time the prisoners received exercise. They could not have any visits at all from relatives because there was no available room in this particular building in which the police could safely allow visits to take place under supervision.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, mentioned visits from lawyers. I want to particularly ask the Minister to deal with this matter when he replies because I understand that it has been the subject of complaints from the Law Society, so the Minister will have had previous notice that it is a subject which has been causing great concern. In this location the visits from lawyers took place in a room off a busy corridor with the door open and a police officer outside in the corridor within sight, although we were told that in some of the other holding centres they had better provision for legal visits, with glass screens through which the police officers could see prisoners and their lawyers but not hear what was said between them.

If a prisoner wants to contact his lawyer the police ring for him, but they have no control, of course, over whether he comes to visit the prisoner; and we were told that the same system operates in Camberwell. Some people said that they did not believe that the police gave the messages to their solicitors on their behalf, although in one case where this allegation was made I checked the following day and the solicitor had received the message from the police but had not responded to it. I should like to know from the Minister what consideration he has given to representations from the Law Society on this matter, and whether any improvements in the facilities for legal visits are planned or are in contemplation.

Turning to the cells under the Camberwell court, these were really deplorable. We saw two prisoners, normally, being held in a cell which was about half the size of the cells in an average Victorian prison. In this cell one person slept on a mattress placed on a bench along one wall while the other slept on a mattress on the floor. Again, the prisoners spent 23 hours out of the 24 in these conditions, only being allowed out in groups for half an hour's association in a room along the corridor when police manpower allowed this to happen. Again, there was no daylight whatsoever on this floor, and all the lighting was artificial. It is a well-known fact that to be permanently in conditions of artificial illumination can be extremely disorientating, and it is one of the ways in which pressure is brought to bear on prisoners by dictatorial régimes which want to get information out of dissidents.

In this location the agreed maximum number of prisoners was 30, but it was said to go up to 36 exceptionally on some nights. We saw 25 there when we visited between 7 and 8 p.m. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, will confirm that two of the men we spoke to, or at least one we spoke to and another one we heard about, were regarded as potential suicides, although in the case of one of these arrangements were made during the course of our visit for him to be taken to Brixton. I should interpolate here that generally speaking, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, efforts are made to ensure that the psychiatrically ill and potential suicides are not kept in the police accommodation but are transferred to prisons where proper medical care is available. But with the sort of numbers we are considering, that may not always be possible. When the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, mentioned the potential risks we face in this situation, that is one I would by no means disregard.

With the increase in the numbers accommodated in police units, there will be more people who are quite unsuitable for that kind of treatment, and we may find that attempts are made at suicide or even that people lose their lives as a result of the difficulties the police have in carrying out the duties of prison officers and the fact that there is no medical officer on the premises who can examine a patient to see whether he is a potential suicide risk.

At Camberwell they had three sinks at the end of the corridor, two WCs and two urinals. The prisoners could wash and shave in the morning and wash in the evening, and they could be let out to use the toilet at other times, although some of the prisoners to whom we spoke maintained that they were not allowed out to use the toilet between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. They had no proper shower or bathing facilities. There was a plastic hose attached to a tap at one sink which prisoners could hose over themselves to get a sort of makeshift shower. Some prisoners said that if they were among the last to wash in the morning, by that time the water was completely cold. We were told there were plans to install a shower at some time in the future, and I should be obliged if the Minister would say whether the washing arrangements have been impoved since our visit.

At that location relatives could visit daily between 3 and 4 p.m., except on Sundays, for periods which varied between 10 minutes and half an hour, depending on how much traffic there was. The visitors had to stand in the corridor and speak to prisoners through a small square opening in a closed cell door. Children under 14 were not allowed to visit. It was difficult to quarrel with that because it would have been very distressing for young children to see their father being kept under such conditions. Lawyers normally had to interview prisoners in exactly the same way, standing in the corridor and speaking to them through an opening in the closed cell door.

As the Minister will be aware, the prison rules do not apply in police lock-ups, so none of the conditions I have described can be analysed in terms of whether they comply with those rules. The cells do not have to be certified as fit to be occupied and they certainly would not pass the inspection of a medical officer, which they would have to do in prison, because they lack proper ventilation or daylight. As the noble Lord, Lord Harris, mentioned, exercise is not possible at Camberwell, and hardly at Lambeth, so that Rule 27, which prescribes that prisoners should be given at least an hour's exercise a day, weather permitting, cannot be satisfied; and, as we heard, some prisoners are spending as much as five weeks in those conditions.

The growth in the prison population in the last few years, when one comes to analyse it, is accounted for almost entirely by unsentenced persons. In spite of the provisions of the Bail Act, the numbers in custody awaiting trial or sentence continue to increase, and that has led to the position we now face, with the people we are discussing tonight. And in spite of all the warnings that have been given in the past, the same people are recycled through the system, people who in many cases should not be there, and we saw some of them during the visit we paid.

Consider those who are suffering from alcohol problems, who go in and out of prison and occupy an enormous amount of accommodation in short-sentence units. Why not do something about them? This subject has been talked about many times—about the provision of de-toxification units and the need for better facilities for the treatment of alcohol-related offenders—and the noble Lord, Lord Elton, knows that many suggestions have been made about the sort of work that could be done to reduce the number of offenders being continually recycled through the system.

One was made the other day by Dr. Colin Brewer in Westminster Hospital, who talked about a very successful experiment that he has conducted on the use of the drug Antabuse W in conjunction with probation. He showed, in the research that he had conducted on a limited number of patients, that the reconviction rate with former prisoners given this treatment was very much lower than for any other form of non-custodial treatment that had been tried. Why do we do not allocate some money to a larger study to see whether, through the use of this particular drug, combined with probation, we can keep in the community some of the vast numbers of alcoholics who are continually in and out of the prison system? There is a suggestion that has been made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, this evening which would result in an immediate reduction in the prison population of some 2,000 to 3,000.

There is the provision of regional secure units so that we do not have the 170-odd mentally disordered people in our prisons, whether they be awaiting sentence or already convicted. There is the possibility of using Harmondsworth instead of Ashford Remand Centre for persons detained under the Immigration Act pending deportation so that we could free space at Ashford Remand Centre for more of the kinds of people who now have to spend time in police custody. Then there is the possibility of using better than we now use the existing space within the prisons.

I was told the other day by a prisoner in Wandsworth that very few cells in E1 landing were occupied. In Pentonville Prison, which the All-Party Penal Affairs Group visited the other day, we saw that one wing was fully occupied by prisoners on the hostel scheme. I appreciate fully that there are certain advantages, which the governor explained, of having some of these prisoners in the final six months of their sentence accommodated in what was an ordinary prison instead of outside in the community. But we are facing a desperate situation. Should we not free that accommodation in Pentonville, so that we have fewer in police lock-ups, by providing more hostel accommodation outside in the community for the people at present there?

Both the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, referred to the report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons. He expresses the hope that, as a result of the administrative measures taken by the prison department, the use of police cells will soon cease. Then he goes on immediately to add that we cannot be sanguine in the medium term—that is, up to the end of the decade. The new places scheduled to be brought into use roughly match the estimated increase in the prison population. Meanwhile, refurbishment is going to take a considerable number of cells out of the system and the net result, he said, is likely to be a worsening of the overcrowding. That disposes—as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has done so effectively—of the argument that the prison building programme is going to be the solution of this problem.

The deterioration can be seen over a period even as short as a few months. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, has already given the figures. In the Adjournment Debate in another place on 23rd December last, the Minister who replied, Mr. Patrick Mayhew, said that the maximum number of prisoners who would have to be accommodated in police cells was 293—and that was on 8th September last year—while the latest figure given by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, showed a new peak of 340 at the end of March.

I ask the noble Lord, Lord Elton, where he thinks this is going to end. Is there any limit to the number of prisoners that he is prepared to see kept in police custody—from 293 last September to 340 in March? How much higher does the figure go before the Minister will take any action?

The Minister in another place mentioned the improvement at Wandsworth in a number of places there, following the settlement of a dispute. We have already had the benefit of that. He mentioned the completion of High Point in Suffolk, with space for 200 inmates, and said that that would provide some measure of relief in the system as a whole, although there would not be any accommodation there for the remand population. I hope it will and that all these other measures taken to reduce overcrowding will be effective; but it looks to me as though they will not keep pace with the increasing flood of inmates being sent to the prisons by the courts. I think the situation will continue to get worse over the next few months unless the Minister is prepared to take the kind of action which has been advocated this evening.

The Chief Inspector called for a statement of objectives and priorities. He said there was an immediate problem which had to be faced today. Nobody who visits the prisons or who saw the conditions in which people are detained in the police cells could possibly claim that we are retaining the recognised minimum standards laid down in the European minimum standards, to which this country is a party. We are keeping people in the police cells in conditions which would cause an outcry among the public here if we saw them in the Soviet Union or in Argentina. These conditions are unacceptable, as the Chief Inspector says, and Parliament ought now to insist on action.

9.43 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I rise to offer some support to the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and to join the noble Lord, Lord Harris, my acting leader, Lord Elystan-Morgan, Lord Avebury and Lord Kagan in pressing the Government for a much more constructive reply than we have received on previous occasions. Like other noble Lords, I have visited more than one of these police cells. I am not sure whether my experience has been as extensive as those of other noble Lords who will have had their own experiences, but I have visited two police cells and I should like to endorse what has been said. I also join in paying tribute to the very gallant way in which the unfortunate police are trying to cope with the situation.

I will turn now to what my noble friend Lord Elystan-Morgan stressed was a long-term malady, and indeed other speakers have dwelt on it. Since our last debate, which was initiated so notably by the noble Lord, Lord Kagan, who is to follow me, there has been published the report which has been referred to several times, made by the Chief Inspector of Prisons. Members of the House will have read this report, and other speakers have already brought out the fact that the Chief Inspector finds that prison conditions are quite unacceptable. That is the background for the discussion this evening. I should like to endorse much of what has been said already. I will not run over the same ground but will try to put the matter in a slightly more long-term perspective.

I was reading over the weekend a very significant report produced at the end of 1977 by a working party of the Church of England. It was debated by the Synod in February, 1979. The Bishop of Truro, as he then was, had this to say in opening the debate at that time: The need for a reawakening of this concern in our country today, not least among Christians, is desperate. The prison service today is in a state of crisis". That was said rather more than four years ago, and if it was true then we all know that it is even more true today. The situation is far more desperate now and the crisis is much more acute now. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, asks what steps Her Majesty's Government propose to take to mitigate the present overcrowding. I am afraid I must say that, on their showing up till now, the answer must be, "No action at all". That, I am afraid, is the only conclusion we can reach. But tomorrow is also a day and it would be wrong to despair. Hope springs eternal!

I hope that I shall not be thought to ignore the central fact, which was taken for granted by other speakers and I suppose that every now and then one ought to mention it. The central fact, which has produced this dreadful overcrowding, is the remorseless increase in crime—that is, of course, behind it all—in the absence of counter-measures. The figures for the increase of crime are vastly disquieting, but that does not exonerate the Government from some attempt to cope with them. If we had more time, I might spell out my ideas about how in the long run one could diminish crime, but we all know that that is a very speculative subject and no immediate reduction can be expected.

I think we must face the fact, which we have never quite faced at any time in the last quarter of a century, that crime is increasing and seems likely to go on increasing. Therefore, the prime responsibility for overcrowding in prisons is that of the criminals. But a secondary responsibility, and a grave one, is that of the judges. There are those who feel that the wisdom of the judges' general sentencing policy should be above criticism. I am not referring to their individual sentences in any case. There are those who feel that their general sentencing policy should be as immune from criticism as the integrity of the Civil Service or the courage of the Brigade of Guards. But the time has gone by when we must disguise the truth, as we see it.

It is obvious from his early utterances that the Home Secretary himself supposes that the sentences passed by our judges are too severe. There were many utterances—rather more frequent two years ago—from the Home Secretary to show that that is his opinion. It is no doubt true that if he could quietly persuade the judges to mitigate their sentences, he would be only too happy. With an election coming up we cannot expect a dramatic pronouncement in that direction tonight. But I think it is quite wrong to speak about these matters at all without coming back, again and again, to the responsibility of the judges, which is secondary only to that of the criminals.

I cannot refrain from quoting words used at the end of a Church of England report five years ago: We believe that pressure needs to be maintained on the courts to restrict their use of imprisonment". If it was necessary to use pressure five years ago, it is a great deal more necessary now. But in case anybody thinks that there is something improper, almost indecent, in talking about pressure on the courts, it should be realised that those are the words used by the Church of England. Just to show that my mood is quite ecumenical, may I say that not very long ago the Roman Catholic Church produced their own report, which contained this sentence: Present sentencing practice in this country cannot command the support of the Christian conscience". No doubt, they would apply those words to the situation in the police stations, but it is a general observation applying to our whole sentencing policy.

I have said things rather like this before and will no doubt say them again, but in the time that remains to me I shall deal with an issue that has not been stressed sufficiently in this House. For me, the most arresting statement in the report of the Inspector-General occurs on page 14, which is: Between 1947 and 1981, the prison population rose by 174 per cent., while the number of staff in the prison officer grades grew six-fold from around 2,400 to just over 17,000". At the same time, we are told that there is a shortage of staff. The Inspector-General is obviously mystified by that, and I understand that he is looking for the results of an investigation by the noble Lord's department into the whole question of the use of manpower. Will the noble Lord, Lord Elton—I gave him an hour or two's notice—tell us a little of what he is trying to do, if not to rectify the situation, at any rate to look into it? I would suggest that this disastrous situation arises from the greatly increased emphasis on security in recent years. It all started with the ill-omened Mountbatten Report for which, as a member of the Cabinet at that time, I must accept my small piece of responsibility, though I was not concerned directly. It is a tragedy that one of our greatest public servants, Lord Mountbatten, should have been made use of in this way, with these unfortunate results.

It has often been said by penal reformers that the Mountbatten Report put back penal reform by 25 years. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not all that much. To quote for the last time the Church of England Report: The recommendations of Lord Mountbatten's inquiry into security in prisons led to a new emphasis on effective containment and the classification of prisoners by reference to their likelihood of escape". Now comes the crucial sentence: The effect has been seriously to inhibit the development of policies designed to rehabilitate the prisoner, including staff training programmes. In effect, the emphasis on security and control in official thinking about the objects of imprisonment has come to the fore". If we are thinking of recent years, do not let us talk as though there has been progress and that there is a more enlightened régime. A few years ago this was the considered opinion of the Church of England Report. Today the situation is even more painful.

If one is investigating the waste of manpower in the prison service, one should concentrate upon the overemphasis on security as the main culprit. I remember that not so very long ago I visited a prisoner who was a gentle young man, labelled category "A" though none of the prison governors who used to supervise our visits thought that he was in any way dangerous. He use to be escorted across the prison by two men and a dog. On one occasion there was a very long delay because the dog was missing. Eventually, after a period of inquiry when I rang up the Home Office, he was allowed to come over, escorted by two prison officers only. If noble Lords want to know how prison staff are wasted, how to work up from 2,400 to 17,000, that is a small example.

Let me take an example from a different kind of prison. A prisoner whom I know has just been transferred from a high security to a medium security prison, not having been a category "A" prisoner for over 10 years. This prisoner was requested to call in at the office of the new prison. This prisoner waited at the door of the cell until somebody asked, "What are you waiting for?" "For somebody to escort me", the prisoner replied. The prisoner was told, "We don't have that sort of nonsense here". In other words, until this moment, and for many years, a great many staff had been wasted in escorting this prisoner and many other prisoners about. If, therefore, we are talking of security, let us ask ourselves how those 2,400 mounted up to 17,000. I submit to the noble Lord that, when he has had time to look into it, security will prove to be much of the answer.

It was, I believe, Madame Roland, speaking in better French than I could command, who said: Oh, Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name". When I think of our prison system today—its human waste, of officers and prisoners alike—I can only adapt the words of Madame Roland: Oh, Security, what crimes are committed in thy name". Of course I am aware—I am not so stupid as not to be aware—that there are many prisoners one can only describe as dangerous—dangerous to the community if they escape and dangerous within the prison unless they are kept under supervision. But I know so many other prisoners who are either labelled dangerous when nobody but an idiot thinks that they are any such thing, or are subjected to conditions which could only be justified where real danger was feared.

I quoted last time I spoke here—I return to this theme in the last minute of my speech—the words of a Conservative Home Secretary and penal reformer, Lord Templewood. I will end with a quotation from another one, the late Lord Butler. In March 1957, having recently become Home Secretary, he made the most inspiring speech by a Home Secretary on these matters since that of Sir Winston Churchill (then, incidentally, a Liberal—as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, will recall, although he was not born then) half a century earlier. The late Lord Butler, who acknowledged his debt to a friend of many of us here—Mr. Bill Hewitt, also known as "C. H. Rolph" of the New Statesman—used these words; I am now quoting Lord Butler of Saffron Walden when he became Home Secretary and proclaimed a new era of penal reform which started well and then fizzled out. At any rate, Lord Butler used these words: We should recognise that what would contribute most to a reduction of overcrowding is the reduction of long sentences". That is what Lord Butler said in 1957, before overcrowding as we know it today got under way at all. If that was obvious in 1957, then it is a hundred times more obvious in 1983. It can only be described as the pons asinorum of the subject; or the first word and the last. May heaven grant that before long we may be given a Government—and I am not now talking in party terms but about penal reform—which will have the wisdom and the courage to walk in the light of the actual knowledge which is available to us all.

9.56 p.m.

Lord Kagan

My Lords, on 22nd March the noble Lord the Minister stated that the Home Office had commissioned a thorough review of penal administration in Holland. May we ask whether this review has been completed, whether there is a report, who is conducting the review, and if it is not ready, then when will it be ready? We are still looking for a solution to the problem we are now debating in terms of more prisons being built. Twenty years ago Holland decided that it would take a hard look at its prison system. Holland came to the conclusion that prison as a deterrent or as a means of re-education had no effect. It therefore decided to turn to other means of preventing crime and to other deterrents. Within seven years Holland reduced its prison population from the same proportion we have now to one quarter of it. In other words, in proportion to Holland, if we had done the same, we would now have a prison population of 11,500 instead of 45,000. This would represent a saving of £350 million a year, even if we assume that the average cost per prisoner to be £10,000—a total of £1 million a day.

In industry, if we know of such a disparity in achievement, we immediately search for the reasons. So far, all that has been established is that the crime rate in Holland has not risen more than it has in this country; life is just as safe there as it is here. The results achieved are so much better and so much more efficient, and so much cheaper. I am stressing this point because very often public opinion is cited as a cause why the Government or Ministers cannot put into effect improvements which have been recommended. Surely it would appeal to public opinion to know that we can save as much as £300 million of wasted money on a system that does not work. I shall now quote the Home Secretary, who said: There is no reason to believe that higher use of imprisonment is effective as a response to increasing crime". Here is another quote, from the former Director-General of the Prison Department: There is no evidence that prison acts as a deterrent or has a rehabilitative effect". So we are keeping an expensive system going to no useful purpose.

In Sweden in the mid-seventies they decided to reduce the prison population by as much as 80 per cent. They have achieved that in less than five years, and the total prison population in Sweden is 4,000. That is again four times better than our performance. In Sweden they have annually dealt with 12,000 cases through the probation service, and that, of course, has been the most effective means of dealing with crime. On the other hand, America, which has an even higher proportion of prisoners per 100,000 of population—it is 50 per cent. higher—has shown that its crime rate has not reduced but is increasing even faster than ours in this country. So all the evidence is there.

In the report of the Inspector-General of the Prison Service he points out that the prison officers should widen their activity and should share their work with the probation officers. Of course, this would be a very effective way of doing it. I come back again to Holland; that is what happens in Holland. The Dutch prison officers are very highly paid. So are the English, but they have to put in 20 or 30 hours' overtime to justify the higher pay. If the prison officers were allowed to extend their activity, from being purely discipline officers to being counsellors and mentors, as they are in other countries, then we would have a much better result. If I may borrow a quote of Maxim Gorky from The Inspector General: Prison cannot change man, but man can change man". It wants a higher quality prison officer to influence the prisoners, to help them in the primary objective of prison, which was supposed to be to help the released prisoner lead a better life.

At this late hour I shall not detain your Lordships any longer. Perhaps I may again ask the noble Lord the Minister when the report of the result of the study in Holland will be ready, because it may give us the key to a better solution than building new prisons at a cost of £60,000 per place—three times the estimated cost of a place at the Hilton Hotel.

10.4 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has drawn your Lordships' attention tonight to a matter which he rightly describes as being a pressing concern. He prefaced his Question most appositely by tributes to the recently promoted Director-General of the Prison Service Mr. Dennis Trevalyan, and I was glad to hear noble Lords precede my own endorsement of what he said with theirs.

The noble Lord has drawn on the report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, as have a number of your Lordships, and he was kind enough to warn me that he intended to do so. In so far as this relates to his Quesion, I will take the points up as well as I can, though he will understand—and I would like to make this a general preface to any references to that report—that it is relatively recently received and the Government should not give an official response or conclusion until they have had time to reflect maturely on its contents. That does not mean I shall be inhibited from referring to it.

The noble Lord has drawn on information extracted by parliamentary questions and also from his own visit last December to two places in which prisoners are held in police custody—the Lambeth police garage and the Camberwell court house. On that night there were 157 prisoners in police custody. On subsequent occasions there have been a great many more. They are held not only in Lambeth garage and in a number of court houses but also in police cells and when their numbers are at their highest they are held not only by the Metropolitan police force but by other police forces as well.

Noble Lords are right to say that these prisoners are held in accommodation not designed for long-term occupancy. They are right to say that policemen can be employed far more effectively on other duties, and they are right to say that the inconvenience caused to the families and the legal advisers of prisoners held in this way is far greater than it would be if they were held within the normal system. While I have comments on each of those statements, I do not hesitate to accept that each is broadly true.

Nor do I hesitate to say that these are thoroughly regrettable circumstances and that they cause as much concern to myself and to my right honourable friend as they do to the noble Lord. In fact, they probably concern us rather more, because we have to live with the problem from day to day and we have the daily statistics placed regularly before us. We are left in no doubt, either by the police that they do not like acting as gaolers or by the relatives and advisers of the prisoners that the whole thing is highly unsatisfactory. Nor does the noble Lord need to tell me of the conditions in which he has seen prisoners being held, because I have seen them myself. They remain vividly in my memory and I do not find them acceptable either.

Why then, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, and other noble Lords ask, do we not abolish the problem at a stroke? Why do we not do various things, including using our powers under the Criminal Justice Act, and either reduce the minimum qualifying period for parole or simply introduce executive release on a limited basis? I will come to those two questions in a moment, but before I do so I should briefly tell your Lordships something about how we have come to be faced by this fluctuating but recurrent excess of prisoners over prisons in London and the South East and what we are doing about it in ways other than those which noble Lords commend. As to the origins of the problem, your Lordships will be well aware that the majority of our prisoners are held in prisons built in the days of our grandfathers and earlier. I am talking about buildings a century or so old, often seriously under-maintained over a long period and with sanitary arrangements that are primitive at the best of times and often connected to decaying sewers and supplied from defective hot water systems.

There is a lot of this accommodation and a lot of it is in London. Brixton and Wormwood Scrubs both fit that description. At present they house between them about 1,800 prisoners. We could, I suppose, simply have shrugged our shoulders at the backlog of neglect and the stockpile of decay which we inherited from previous Governments and kept them in continuous use for as long as possible. Had it been overnight accommodation we could have done so. But this is not overnight accommodation. It is not accommodation in which prisoners are held for only a day or two or even 10 days at a time. It is permanent accommodation, occupied by prisoners on remand or serving sentences measured in months and years, not in days or even weeks. It would have been wrong to leave it unimproved in order to keep police cells empty. We therefore have modernisation programmes running in both prisons which have meant emptying 350 cells. Had we not started those programmes we should not have had this debate tonight about the use of police cells on a temporary basis. We should have had one about the use of Wormwood Scrubs and Brixton on a permanent basis, and the accusations would have been far more damaging and harder to deal with.

Let us duly note, therefore, that the problem we have tackled in the prisons is bigger and its impact on prisoners in humanitarian terms is even more severe than the one which now exists in the police and court cells as a result of our tackling it. From that it may sound as though the police cell problem is entirely of our own making; but that is very far from the case. It is the prime duty of the prison system to detain those persons who are committed to it by the courts. Neither the Government, nor the Home Secretary, nor I, nor the prison service, determine the number of prisoners who have to be detained. That is determined by the courts.

The sentencing and remand policies of the courts determine how many prisoners have to be detained. Over that number we have no control, and it would require a fundamental change in our judicial system to alter that. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, is right to point that out. But I must ask myself whether he does the courts sufficient credit for the extent that they have reduced the average length of sentences, or whether he adequately assesses the sheer pressures of criminality on the courts. The number and, indeed, the nature of the sentences that they pass must, as the noble Earl rightly stressed, be related to the volume and the seriousness of cases coming before them. Over recent years there has been a steady increase of around 10 per cent. a year in court business; and that is a matter for some concern.

But it is the Crown Court which is responsible for dealing with the most serious offences; and here the picture is different, and sharply more serious. In the last quarter of 1982 the number of offenders dealt with in the Crown Court, other than by acquittal, rose by over 16 per cent. as compared with the previous quarter, and a staggering 26 per cent. as compared with the comparable figure for the last quarter of 1981. The implications of this growth in court business for the prison population, as well as for the problem of delays in bringing defendants to trial, are inescapable, and must be acknowledged both in this House and elsewhere. As long as more offences are committed, more offenders arrested and tried and more defendants convicted and sentenced, we shall be faced with formidable problems. What the noble Lords, Lord Harris and Lord Elystan-Morgan, are saying is in fact a commentary on, and a condemnation of, developments in society itself, as well as what they see happening in the prison system.

One result of this has been a steady recent increase in the number of unconvicted prisoners. Because remand prisoners have to be held reasonably near to the court before which they have to appear, our options in placing them are reduced to a minimum. In the metropolitan district alone the prison population as a whole has increased over the last 12 months or so by some 500.

Given those figures, and given the urgent necessity to take some old and unsavoury accommodation out of use for modernisation, it is scarcely surprising that we have had to take exceptional measures to house some of these people. It is not popular with the police. It is not popular with us. Noble Lords have made it clear that it is very unpopular with them, and with the prisoners and their friends. But it is necessary; otherwise, it would be impossible to discharge one or other of our duties at all—either our duty to the courts and to society to detain these people in the short term or our duty to these people themselves to detain them in the very much longer term in conditions acceptable in the twentieth century. Let me make this quite clear: you do not have to be soft on punishment in order to want to do that; one has only to inspect the accommodation itself.

As a consequence, some prisoners have had to be held in police custody. In 1981 and early 1982 the average number so held was only 10 or 15. It was during last summer that the effects that I have spoken of really began to bite. Occupancy peaked at 293 in September, fell to zero over the Christmas holiday, rose steadily to hover between 300 and 350 just before Easter, and diminished again over the recent holiday. Last night it stood at 274, and the upward pressure will soon be reasserted.

So far the problem has remained confined largely to London and the south-east, to which the noble Lord's Question is specifically directed. But I would mention that local prisons and remand centres in other parts of the country are also under great pressure. Industrial action at Manchester Prison at the end of March, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Harris, mentioned, resulted in over 250 prisoners being held for several days in police custody in the Greater Manchester, Lancashire, and Cheshire police areas. I am glad to say that that action has now been suspended, but it accounts for the fact that the national figure for overnight detentions in police cells briefly exceeded 500 at the beginning of April.

So much for the causes of the problem and its magnitude. I have said that we are taking steps to deal with it, and I ought to give your Lordships an idea, at least, of what they are, and an idea also of the complexity of making any adjustments to a system as large and as intricate as that with which we are dealing. When the system is as full as it now is, to fill or empty a cell anywhere sets off a chain reaction through two, three, or even a dozen establishments. We have, however, taken a considerable number of steps which, together, have sharply reduced the demands made on police custody. We have increased the frequency of transfers between prisons, so that any vacancy that arises is taken up at the earliest possible moment. We have stopped the use of Wandsworth as an overnight staging post for prisoners in transfer. We have, in suitable cases, transferred shorter term prisoners than usual to take up vacancies in training prisons. We have brought new accommodation at Warren Hill into use earlier than planned, and we have deployed a carefully selected group of prisoners as a working party from Wormwood Scrubs to Ashford Remand Centre. All this makes considerable demands on all grades of the prison service. Your Lordships will recognise the value of that service, and I endorse it.

Each of these steps has, as an end product, created more usable prison places in the London area, and we are continuing to look at other ways of ensuring that all available accommodation is used to the fullest effect. This includes a recent internal report on procedures for categorising and allocating prisoners with a view to making increased use of our lower security establishments and our open prisons. Those are what I call the current tactical responses to the problem. Other responses will have a longer and more strategic effect. By next month we shall bring into use new accommodation at Highpoint in Suffolk. This is a category "C" prison, where a 200-place extension is almost ready for occupation. It was originally intended as a detention centre, but in the circumstances we shall commission it for adults. This will enable us to move selected sentenced prisoners out of the London prisons and further reduce the use of police cells. Next year we shall commission Wayland, a new category "C" establishment in Norfolk, and complete the refurbishment work at Blundeston and Canterbury. Together these will provide about 600 new places.

In the longer term, Wormwood Scrubs and Brixton will return to full operation. Further relief will be provided as additional places become available elsewhere through our programme of new prison building and refurbishment. This, as your Lordships know, is the largest such programme undertaken by any Government this century. However, there are still likely to be some prisoners for whom we cannot immediately find room within the prison service in the south-east for at least the next few months. During that time, some continuing use of police cells will be inevitable if we are not simply to abandon what I regard as the categorical imperiative of improving the very worst of existing prison accommodation.

We shall seek to ensure that these problems are alleviated in every reasonable way, and that the experience is as brief as possible for each individual. Though some inevitably will repeat it, it will be a matter only of a few days and the police will concentrate on having every prisoner into a prison ahead of his remand production. If the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, was able to give me details of the case involving someone detained for, I think he said, five weeks, I would be obliged, because I should like to look more closely at it.

Lord Elystan-Morgan

My Lords, I was quoting from a second leader that appeared in the Guardian, I think about three weeks ago. I am sorry I have no information of my own beyond that.

Lord Elton

The noble Lord has put me on to what may or may not be a cold scent, my Lords, but I will follow it up.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, there is the instance of the prisoner who, when we went to the cells, had been there since 19th November. The period between 19th November and 20th December is not far short of five weeks.

Lord Elton

I am obliged to the noble Lord. It is our intention to keep this use to the short term, for obvious reasons. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that the police will continue to identify those with medical problems swiftly, and give them priority transfer to prison for treatment or observation. Priority will also be given to girls, to women and to young men under 21. Where exceptional circumstances result in their being in police custody overnight—one can never guard against transport breaking down and other unforeseen events—they will normally be moved to prisons on the following day.

We shall continue, as at present, to see that all locations where prisoners are held overnight in police custody are visited daily by a member of the prison service governor grades. The advice thus made available will supplement the advice given by the Home Office to all police forces engaged in this work. These include several outside London, as I have said, particularly the Essex, Kent and Thames Valley constabularies.

There is no doubt that the police do their best, with limited resources, to provide all reasonable facilities in difficult circumstances. I have been greatly impressed by what I have seen of this work and of the spirit in which it is being done. My right honourable friend and I are grateful for their considerable achievements in difficult circumstances and I am glad to put our appreciation of the work of each of the forces concerned on record. But they cannot ensure that prisoners in their custody receive all the privileges which they might expect in prison. Providing facilities for visits has proved to be particularly difficult. In some cases, where it has simply not been possible to arrange for visits, the police have arranged for prisoners to have access to a telephone to help them to resolve pressing domestic problems.

Provision is always made for visits by legal advisers. The conditions under which they are made are certainly very far from satisfactory on many occasions. They are, I fear, almost entirely due to the unavoidable result of the design of the buildings themselves. I also acknowledge that problems do arise from the frequent and unpredictable moves to which remand prisoners are subject. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, referred specifically to this and to the Law Society who have made us aware of their concern about it, and we have been able to help in a number of individual cases. The principal problem used to be quite simply that of discovering exactly where a particular prisoner was when his family and advisers wanted to get in touch with him. I am glad to say that the introduction by the police of a computerised record of movements of prisoners has enormously reduced that problem.

Noble Lords have been concerned at the use of policemen for this work, and in this connection I might at this stage refer to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who actually quoted the numbers employed on a particular night. I certainly accept that the detention of prisoners in police cells is not a proper use of police manpower. The loss of manpower for normal policing is, however, not as great as might at first appear. That is because much of the guarding of prisoners is done by officers who have volunteered to work on their rest days. This cannot, of course, be regarded as a wholly satisfactory solution, but is does avoid an excessive drain on manpower.

Your Lordships raised one or two other points which I shall turn to briefly before I return to our main theme and the Question. The first was brought forward I think by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, in place of his absent and noble friend Lord Hunt. As my honourable friend Mr. Mayhew said on 17th December in reply to a Question by the honourable Member for Ormskirk, Mr. Kilroy-Silk, we hope to publish a draft of the standards for discussion during the course of 1983. I think that that was the information he wanted.

On the matter of conditions being related to the taking of hostages, I acknowledge that there has, indeed, been an increase in the number of hostage-taking incidents in prisons this year. We do not have firm evidence that this increase results from overcrowding in cell accommodation, but we recognise that overcrowding can produce tensions leading to assaults on staff and other prisoners and to other difficulties. I think that that must be subjectively self-evident.

As to the conditions, I may have misunderstood an almost aside comment by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, on garages and outhouses. I should explain the situation to him although perhaps I am telling him something that he knows full well already. The Lambeth Support Headquarters is in fact a holding centre. It is known colloquially as the "Lambeth garage" because it houses the metropolitan police transport fleet which, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has said, has to give place for the prisoners when it is time for them to exercise. It contains six to eight holding cells, each capable of holding 20 prisoners by day and a smaller number by night, together with a similar number of individual cells. Although it is poor by prison standards, in that there is no natural light, they are similar to cells in many other police stations. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, did not actually think that ordinary garages were used for this purpose.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, and other noble Lords referred to the number of prison officers, which, of course, itself has a bearing on prison conditions. At a time of restrictions on the size of the Civil Service generally the Government have indeed arranged for a 15 per cent. increase in the number of prison officers between 1979 and 1984, from about 15,700 to about 18,100. Anything I say, of course, which is of solace to the concern of the noble Lords, Lord Harris and Lord Elystan-Morgan, will add to the anxiety of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who considers that the numbers are vastly inflated in relation to the work which they do. I shall give an explanation of that, to some extent at least, in a moment. I would just add to what I have already said that there is a net addition of 800 officers in the course of the current year, 1983–84.

Her Majesty's chief inspector's report refers to the question of productivity in the prison service. The growth in the number of uniformed grades rests in a combination of the additional tasks undertaken by the prison service and the effect of changes in conditions of service. The main impact arose as the noble Earl, Lord Longford, suggested it did, from implementing the Mountbatten Report. This led to higher manning levels at dispersal prisons, improved security measures, increased supervision and improved classification and allocation procedures, all of which required more staff. Although the noble Earl, Lord Longford, may feel that this was a retrograde step, I notice that there are more voices than his raised in horror whenever there is a breakdown of security and an escape of a dangerous prisoner, and I would ask him to bear that in mind.

However, there are also other ingredients. Changes in conditions of service included introduction of a five-day, 40-hour week for staff previously working a 12-day fortnight of 84 hours, and new standards of annual leave and training allowances were introduced. Fresh demands have also been placed on the service by, for example, the opening of new establishments and the reporting requirements of the parole scheme. But, as I said towards the beginning of this, I fear, rather overlengthy address, the contents of the chief inspector's report are something on which I would like to dwell with care before giving a definitive reply. I can only reply to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, on, as it were, an interim basis as to what would appear to be the principal ingredients of this change at this stage.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether he confirms that there is a wide ranging review of the staffing position now taking place?

Lord Elton

My Lords, we are looking at the whole range of questions, and the question of how we deploy the staff most effectively is central to this.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked about the showering facilities in police and court accommodation. Perhaps I could give a synopsis of what I have before me. There are three alternatives where there are no proper showering facilities in this sort of accommodation. One is the ordinary portable manufactured shower unit which has two disadvantages. It tends to break up when it is heavily used and, if it is broken up deliberately, it can produce sharp slivers of metal or plastic which can be used as weapons. The heavy duty version of this is unfortunately designed to arrive and remain bolted to the back of a lorry. The third alternative is a permanent and conventional builder's job, and, as a result of our experience and indeed his comments, we are looking at the possibility of doing this in appropriate places, but we cannot do it while the accommodation in question is in use. The noble Lord will understand that this is a difficult question and it is one of the many reasons why we are anxious to keep, and I believe successful in keeping, the use of this accommodation down to very short periods.

The noble Lord, Lord Kagan, asked me about the progress of the Dutch report, which I first announced to him on 22nd March. I regret to tell him that in the intervening space it has not been possible to arrive at a final report. We expect to have it in hand and under study before the end of the year. I personally look forward to it with the greatest of interest. He also referred to the probation aspects of prison officer work. I think I can do no better, though it is perhaps not a very good best, than refer him to the comments on this which I made in answer to his Question in the debate on 22nd March, to which he has already referred.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, made some representations about statements I made to the House which I shall read tomorrow with even more care than I have read my transcript of them now. If I have got him right, he is referring to a Written Answer in col 1269 and a remark I made in col 764 on 12th October in proceedings on the Criminal Justice Bill. I ought to point out to him that in the Written Answer I implied that there were dangers in using an average since this was not the way we did it. In fact, we have to base what we say on historic cost.

The Answer I gave on the Written Question was that the cost of holding prisoners overnight in police custody is not assessed on the per capita basis but represents actual expenditure on staff, accommodation, and other items determined by various factors. I shall not go on, but it fluctuates. I trust I have not misled your Lordships to the degree of magnitude which the noble Lord suggests. I shall look with care at the record.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I hope the noble Lord is going to look at it with more than care. The statements I have quoted are direct quotations from the noble Lord. He was the person who put the cost at £70 to £80 per night. After he has looked at this tomorrow carefully, as I am sure he will, I hope he will come to the conclusion that if there is any doubt at all about these figures, particularly given the scale of error which it is at least possible to interpret from these different answers he has given, he should use the normal procedures of the House and make a personal statement.

Lord Elton

My Lords, of course if a personal statement is appropriate, I shall make it. But the arithmetic that I have applied to the two pieces of print that I have before me does not suggest that it is great. I may have misinterpreted what the noble Lord said. I may have taken the wrong reference. I shall certainly do whatever is proper under the circumstances.

May I now return to the main burthen of the noble Lord's Question. We are discussing the need to keep prisoners briefly in police custody as a result of overcrowding in the prisons in London and the South East. I have sketched out the origins of this need, which are inescapable. I have explained the various steps we have taken to limit its extent at the present time. I have outlined the medium and long-term action we are taking to bring it to an early conclusion. I have said that that conclusion is still some way off. I have also listed the action that we are taking, together with the police, to mitigate its impact while it lasts upon those prisoners on whom it bears directly, and on their families and their legal advisers. Together, these add up to a not inconsiderable response to a not inconsiderable problem, but they will not, I know, satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Harris, or other speakers in this debate, because he, and they, believe that we should implement a reduced qualifying period for parole and that we ought to be ready so to do now.

The noble Lord was not, I think, present for the debate last month on an Unstarred Question by the noble Lord, Lord Kagan, though I do not doubt that he read it. I ought therefore to repeat in the briefest of paraphrases the response I then made to the same proposition which was made to me on that occasion by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. This was that to reduce the parole threshold is a far more intricate question than a simple expression of the idea suggests, and it has considerable resource and operational implications. The extent of these defy immediate, or even modestly swift, resolution, as the noble Lord clearly expects and as I would have hoped. Nonetheless, my right honourable friend and I are pursuing it with determination, care and urgency to see whether it may prove possible to take at least a step in this direction, though when, if at all, that might be I cannot, I regret, yet tell your Lordships.

The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, referred to executive release. During the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill last summer I outlined the role which the Government saw for the power of early release provided by what is now Section 32 of the Act. I made it clear—and I must repeat it—that it is for use only in extremis because, among other things, it represents a very serious interference by the Executive with the judiciary. I will not go on at greater length because I see that I have already taken half an hour, and that is something I deplore in others and regret in myself.

Lord Avebury

No, not on this subject.

Lord Elton

Your Lordships will recall the legislative steps we have taken to enable the courts to reduce the pressure on the prisons. The House will recall the range of administrative and other steps we have taken to ease the impact of the pressure on police cells in London and the South East, and your Lordships will, I trust, also remember the succesive programme of refurbishment and building that provides a backdrop to this whole issue. Above all, noble Lords will realise that this issue is just one aspect of the vastly intractable problem posed by the decaying and largely archaic set of prison buildings that all of us have inherited. The steps we have taken to resolve it—and which I have described—are, similarly, just one aspect of the massive programme of building and refurbishment with which we are tackling it.

For the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, to imply, with the support of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, that we in Government are doing nothing and therefore think ourselves as strong, silent men is, in the light of that, absurd. And for the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, to suggest that a fuller Chamber would cause us to take more vigorous action is equally misplaced. It might cause me to speak more briefly—because my noble friends would be at me more viciously than the noble Lord, who was kind enough to say "No" when, a short while ago, I said I should have spoken more brietly—but Government have undertaken so much in that respect this century, and that must be my answer to the Question the noble Lord has asked me tonight.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, the Minister has answered, albeit rather briefly, the point on the parole threshold, and he rightly said he had gone into much detail and had taken a lot of trouble to answer the various points that have been made. Will he not give any indication of when the Government will make up their mind on the parole threshold? Is it really impossible to give any guidance at all about when that will be done? I hope the noble Lord intends to look into the question of the inaccuracy of the statements he made last year. I do not want to make a major issue of it, but, bluntly, if Ministers make inaccurate statements, they should correct them.

Lord Elton

On the first of those two points, my Lords, I should very much regret making a statement about the probable date of a decision on the reduced threshold of the qualifying period for parole and then have to make another statement apologising for misleading the noble Lord, so I am not going to do it. As for the question whether I have in fact made an inaccurate statement, of course I am prepared to do whatever is correct and honourable. The noble Lord says he does not want to make an issue of it. He has raised it three times in this debate, and I think that is sufficient.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

Because the noble Lord had not corrected it in the past, I was giving him an opportunity to consider doing so.