HL Deb 22 March 1983 vol 440 cc1073-96

7.15 p.m.

Lord Kagan rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps are contemplated to improve conditions in Her Majesty's prisons following the resignation of the governor of Wormwood Scrubs Prison.

The noble Lord said: I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. The governor of Wormwood Scrubs lifted the lid of his dustbin and looked out to tell the nation of the unacceptable face of our prison system and the utter impossibility of carrying out successfully the tasks assigned to it. The urgent necessity to improve the system is not in dispute. It is generally accepted. Many well-intentioned people say that the only answer to the problems is to pour more resources, and more and more taxpayers' money, into the service. I disagree with that totally. I suggest to your Lordships that not more but less money should be spent; but that money should be spent more prudently, more effectively and more imaginatively. This would be of benefit to the prison population, to the prison service and to the taxpayers.

To achieve this a fundamental and radical reappraisal is required. The problems of the prison service are not unlike those in major industries and organisations. The people inside are not always in the best position to identify their problems or, indeed, to arrive at solutions. Often outside expertise has to be called in—often with successful results.

The prison directorate and governors are too concerned with the day-to-day management to apply themselves to a reappraisal. Yet to impose on the prison service an independent outside organisation to effect a reappraisal would be extremely difficult, if at all possible. In the absence of this option, this task could and should be undertaken by the Prison Inspectorate. The Prison Inspectorate has an unrestricted statutory right to information as to all that happens in the system. This access is particularly vital in dealing with a service where information is jealously and sometimes over-zealously guarded.,

The Prison Inspectorate could invite outside expert help and advice. They might even wish to co-opt an Ian MacGregor, and should such intervention result in prison closures it would not be lamented on either side of your Lordships' House. Indeed, had Mr. Ian MacGregor been invited not to go underground but to go inside, the nation might well have benefited.

The most intractable problem that the service faces is gross over-crowding. On that there is no disagreement. There are 45,000 prisoners at a total cost of over £450 million. That is an average of £10,000 per prisoner per annum. There are 90 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants in England and Wales. The cost per prisoner, depending on the prison is between £8,000 and £20,000 per head per annum. Yet even by Victorian standards conditions in most prisons are disgraceful. They are degrading to both prisoners and prison staff. A governor referred to it as a human dustbin—and the governor resigned.

Is this state of affairs inevitable? Is it incapable of solution? Is it the same in all countries? Is it the same with our European partners? No, my Lords, it is not. Holland is the country closest to us in character, tradition and culture. It is a constitutional monarchy, a democracy, an industrial and trading nation. Its dense population is diverse in ethnic origin and religion. It is catholic and protestant, black and white; an ex-colonial power with a legacy of immigration, colour, race and drug problems. It even has terrorism,

So what of it? Compared with our 90 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, 94 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants in Scotland and 162 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants in Northern Ireland, Holland has a mere 23 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants. Southern Ireland, too, has only 35 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants. And is its record in law and order worse than ours? It is not. So where is the difference? Are we to assume that there is an inherent hidden delinquency in the British people, or is it more likely that the penal system and judicial sentencing policies are different and better?

The difference, in my opinion, is rooted in its history. Holland—and Norway, for that matter—suffered under Hitler's jackboot. Their best sons were imprisoned. To live in honour meant disobeying the dictator's laws. Prison then was a danger, but never a shame. Dutch and Norwegian judges will not incarcerate people unless they are guilty of gross violence and are a danger to society.

Have they got it right? Should we not study their penal system and observe their approach? If it is deemed right for us to seek guidance from America for industrial problems where they perform better, is it not right for us to seek guidance from our European partners for social problems where they perform better? The problem is soluble. Holland has proved it, Norway has proved it and Southern Ireland has proved it. Surely we can do it, too. I hope that your Lordships will forgive me for being short at this late hour, and I thank you.

7.22 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kagan, has brought this subject of the prisons once more before your Lordships' House. I can assure him that all parts of your Lordships' House are worried about the overcrowding in prisons. Indeed, we have been very worried about that problem for very many years and all parts of your Lordships' House have expressed concern over the last 10 years. It is a problem which has, as all noble Lords will know, been with us for a very long time and it has been a source of deep protestations and deep concern to every Govenment for the last 10 years. Indeed, when Mr. Jenkins was Home Secretary from 1974 to 1976 in the last Labour Government, nothing effective was done to alleviate the worsening situation—worsening, because the level of crime was already escalating. Mr. Rees followed him as Home Secretary and in 1978, although warned then of the total breakdown in the prison service, he established an inquiry under Mr. Justice May, instead of starting the lengthy process of building new prisons.

Overcrowding must be set in the context of increasing crime. A very great deal has been done recently by all those who administer justice to shorten the duration of a prison sentence and to try to find other ways of dealing with offenders. But when it comes to crimes of violence and other serious offences, I must confess that I am not one of those who would advocate lenient sentences.

To show how crime has increased in the last 10 years, these few figures may be of interest to your Lordships this evening. In 1971, 32,553 people were sentenced to immediate imprisonment. In 1981, 10 years later, the figure had risen to 52,000 people who were sentenced to immediate imprisonment. From 1971 to 1981 crime has nearly doubled. From 1,665,000 serious offences recorded by the police in 1971, in 1981 the figure is nearly 3 million. The prison population in 1971 was 39,708 on an average day. In 1981, that prison population had grown to 43,311.

This Government have tackled the difficult problem by providing 1,000 extra staff in the last two years. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has also embarked on the largest prison construction programme for many years. He has initiated a programme of starting two new prisons every two years; in other words, he will build eight new prisons in the next four years. But, already, 1,100 new places should be created in this financial year. However, the basic truth is that the prison population is determined by the number of offenders with which the courts have to deal, and, until those who commit serious crimes realise that their destiny may well be an uncomfortable and overcrowded prison, we are likely to have an escalation of crime.

7.27 p.m.

Lord Soper

My Lords, in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, next on the list of speakers, I presume that I must continue. I remember the opportunities that have come our way in your Lordships' House over many years now of taking part in this kind of discussion. I welcome this further opportunity and am grateful for the introduction that we have already received from both previous speakers regarding the nature of the issue with which we are concerned.

I must begin with a recollection. I first became a chaplain at Pentonville prison practically 50 years ago. The conditions today are worse, not better, than they were then. There have been improvements in the structure; there have been improvements in many of the block prisons in the ways in which prisoners are segregated and desegregated. But, as the noble Baroness who preceded me has said so trenchantly, the over-arching problem is the problem of overcrowding, and nothing produces such a sordid reaction as the kind of overcrowding of which many of your Lordships may only have heard. Those of us who have seen it and tasted it know of the acrid condition which it produces, to say nothing of those more sinister and perhaps not so much advertised problems of sex.

It is an insult to anybody, whatever he has done, that he should be incarcerated for many years, for many hours of every day, among those who may be better or worse than he is, but who are forced upon him in the crowded conditions of cells which were intended to house one person and now in many prisons are required to house three. For obvious reasons, three is a preferable number to two. In my judgment, this is a problem which requires the most urgent attention.

It seems to me that the fine words which on both sides of the House have been in advocation of a better system have fallen very largely on unproductive ground. It is in that context that, far from spending the time of this debate in chiding the Government, I should prefer to try to say something about some of the propositions which to me seem viable. Having had a talk with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, I think I can without impertinence refer to at least two of the problems to which he was going to address himself, had he been here.

One of them is the problem of young people, particularly very young people, who have not as yet been convicted, who are held in prison for long periods and who are subject to contamination in situations in which there is more opportunity for congregation among prisoners than there was when I started as a chaplain. There is no doubt whatsoever, in my judgment, that the overcrowding is at its worst when it introduces young and susceptible potential prisoners and people who later are not going to be convicted at all. It is with regard to this immediate problem that I believe a number of suggestions can profitably be made. Here are some of them.

There is urgent need to keep out of prison many of those who now serve time in prison, whether or not they are guilty. It should not be beyond the wit of any administration to call into contribution a great many voluntary organisations, such as the West London Mission, to which I was attached for many years. A bail system could be established under which a great many of these fellows and, indeed, girls who now languish in prison before they are even brought to trial could have the opportunity at least to keep in contact with the real world and free from the contamination of older "lags" in places like Pentonville. But as the noble Baroness said with equal effectiveness, the overcrowding in prisons could be reduced immediately if there were a reduction in the number of criminals who are expected now to be overcrowded in those particular institutions. I want to refer to two.

As a child, I was educated in what was called the nonconformist ethic. One aspect of it was that it was highly dangerous not to be at work. In fact, work was regarded almost as a virtue in itself. The other side of the coin (I am not so addicted to that doctrine of work as perhaps once I was) was the copybook maxim that Satan finds work for idle hands to do. Your Lordships will allow somebody wearing the collar I do to pause for a moment to indicate how general is that statement. I often wonder how true to principle I should remain if I were compelled to live in a world in which I had nothing to give and nobody wanted me. That is a much more deleterious and dangerous condition than even the condition in which you have nothing to get.

The deterioration in the moral fibre of young people is not something which we should immediately regard as an indication of a deterioration generally in the "sin rate" of the modern world. I am not surprised that so many of them resort to forms of violence, because they have nothing better to do and have acquired a way of life which has nothing to contribute to their own well-being and everything to contribute if they can only get hold of the money which is denied to them as the reward of their proper labour and usefulness. It has been demonstrated beyond doubt that, where this condition of unemployment continues to rise, the rate of delinquency, particularly among young people, tends to rise with it.

I remember the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, many years ago saying in the course of another debate on this particular issue that one of the ways in which one could reduce the incidence of crime was to multiply the number of policemen on the beat. It is almost too simplistic but it is a great truth that many crimes are committed because the opportunity is flaunted in the face of those who might be inclined to commit those crimes. A larger number of policemen, not necessarily in Panda cars but on the beat, would, I am sure, reduce the incidence of crime among those who take the opportunity to get away with it in circumstances in which the chance of being caught is remote.

I refer now to another issue. I hope I do not bang the drum of temperance too loudly, but I am quite convinced that if we could reduce the intake of alcohol we should reduce the incidence of crime. There are far too many outlets for the use of the alcoholic opportunity. It is a vastly greater problem than the many people who prefer to persuade themselves that it is not would acknowledge. If I may, I shall draw for a moment on experience over many years of trying to care for alcoholics. An alcoholic is one who has a drink problem. To endeavour carefully to segregate those who are alcoholics from those who are heavy drinkers is a fruitless task. But what is beyond doubt is that more crimes are committed in the intermediate stage between sobriety and drunkenness than are probably undertaken in almost any other condition. The proliferation of opportunities in stores and so forth to obtain a permanent supply of alcohol, to be taken whenever you like, not only explains the behaviour on terraces at football matches but also explains a great deal of the crime which would not be committed if those who perpetrate it were not partially at least under the influence of alcohol.

But the overall regard which I believe is imperative today is to look far more clearly and definitely at the system itself. I do not believe in the prison system. I know that it will take a very great deal of courage, enterprise and administration to put something better in its place, but, unless we are prepared to regard the present system as something which should be replaced, we shall not, I think, profit even by the most eloquent and practical suggestions which may arise from debates of this nature.

I still am in touch regularly with those who suffer from the effects of a world which is tempting and in which they fail. I am not sentimental enough to think that they should be excused thereby, but I am, I hope, realistic enough to believe that, after the comparative failure of attempts to remediate this present situation, it should in the presence of the fact that we are now in an intolerable situation of overcrowding, be as urgent for us to be prepared to spend the requisite money and expertise as it was when they flowed so freely when the Falklands issue was at stake, and that it ought to be regarded as just as urgent as the issue which sent our ships so far afield. I believe that it is. For that particular reason I am grateful for this added opportunity. I earnestly hope that the Government will be prepared to provide more practical and immediate answers to some of the questions which I have raised.

7.40 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I rise with particular pleasure to support the Question introduced by my noble friend Lord Kagan, who spoke effectively if briefly. His speech was followed with purpose by two established favourites of your Lordships' House—the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, and my noble friend Lord Soper. Of my noble friend Lord Kagan I will say only that which was said by Macaulay of Warren Hastings: He has been tried by both extremes of fortune and never disturbed by either". I am very glad that in this House we should have a debate initiated by someone who has the kind of experience of this system that has so far been denied to most of your Lordships. I think it would also be helpful if we had a representative here, as a Member of your Lordships' House, a person who is or has been a prison officer, and perhaps that also will come about. Also, why should we not have a prison governor or an ex-prison governor as a Member of your Lordships' House?

Prison governors, as I have pointed out before now, are notoriously denied any substantial recognition. Why should we not see ennobled someone like the Reverend Peter Timms; a prison officer himself in the first place, and then a prison governor at Maidstone and other prisons, and now a Methodist minister and director of the Christian Prison Fellowship, which is beginning to make a real impact in most of our prisons? He tells me that Christian influence is steadily working and that Christian interest in prisons is steadily growing. That is certainly as it should be. If anybody asks, "Why a Methodist minister when there are so many other denominations?" I should have thought that the best of all possible precedents had been created by my noble friend Lord Soper.

Like other noble Lords, I have visited many prisons over the years. In recent weeks I have visited Durham, Long Lartin, Gartree, Brixton, Pentonville, Wormwood Scrubs and Holloway prisons. In the time available, I must not fail to pay tribute to the devotion of many members of the prison service at all levels. I shall be sharply critical in what I say about the system and, like my noble friend, Lord Soper, I do not believe in the prison system as we know it. But I do not wish to seem to be too lacking in generosity or genuine respect for that which is done by the staff at all levels.

I could use up my ration of time—although I cannot promise to be quite so brief as the first two speakers—in many ways. I could speak at great length, as I have before, about life prisoners. However, I am glad to think that the All Party Penal Affairs Group recently set up a sub-committee to investigate the whole problem of life prisoners and so I shall not say any more about that subject today. I could talk about the treatment—I am afraid that I must call it the maltreatment—of Irish prisoners, which is a point that a number of noble Lords raised in this House recently. On that occasion, I was sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, proved somewhat misinformed about one particular Irish prisoner. I have no doubt that in time to come, because he is the most sensitive of men, the noble Lord will wish to put that right. I will just say to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, in case I do not mention him again and deal only with the issues, that I have the highest possible regard for him and know that he has his heart and soul in the search for a right solution to these painful problems.

I looked up to see when it was that we had the very first debate in this House on prisons, to the best of my knowledge. It was in 1955. Lord Templewood, a former Conservative Home Secretary and at that time president of the Howard League for Penal Reform, used some words which have stayed in my memory and which I have confirmed: We know what ought to be done but we do not do it". He said that when there were 21,000 people in prison. Now there are more than twice as many. We can take it, therefore, that we did not heed the advice of Lord Templewood in 1955, because the situation has grown a great deal worse in the quarter of a century that has followed.

The report of the chief inspector of prisons about conditions in Brixton is typical of much official and unofficial comment. It seems that the chief inspector conducted his survey a little while ago but his report has only just been published. He writes: We do not believe that the conditions under which prisoners at Brixton are detained meet the European standard minimum rules that deprivation of liberty shall be effected in material and moral conditions which show respect for human dignity". That is one of the many sharp comments which have come from official or semi-official quarters.

We are all aware of the utter dissatisfaction of the governor of Wormwood Scrubs, one of our principal prisons, about the whole prison situation. I have laid stress on his remarks more than once in this House, and now he has resigned and my noble friend Lord Kagan has initiated this debate. I do not wish to incriminate any prison officer from governor grade downwards now serving, but one does not need to visit many prisons to be aware that views similar to those of Mr. McCarthy, the former governor of Wormwood Scrubs, are widely held.

How far is it true today, in so far as it was ever true, that, in Lord Templewood's words, we know what ought to be done? In so far as it is true, what is standing in the way of our doing it? I believe we can all agree that there is gross overcrowding, to use the phrase employed by my noble friend Lord Kagan. When we try to decide what steps ought to be taken to remedy that horrifying situation, we find differences of emphasis or even of principle. It is Home Office policy, I assume, to fight for greater resources—and penal reformers, to use a generic term, are behind the Home Office in that. But there is a reluctance in the Home Office, for which Ministers of the day must take ultimate responsibility, to push ahead with alternative remedies—including much more liberal use of parole than the present system allows. The presence of the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, who is chairman of the Parole Board, raises our hopes.

One way of remedying overcrowding is to build more prisons. That appears to be the Home Office's preference and I am not sure that it is not also the preference of the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve. Penal reformers, on the other hand, have pointed out repeatedly in this House that we must reduce the numbers in prisons rather than build more prisons. We urge this on not only social but also economic grounds. A substantial increase in the number of probation officers will be necessary under any policy of alternative remedies, whatever form they take, but there would be an immense saving overall. I will not go into the finances of that, but nobody in his right sense will doubt it.

This was one important issue on which penal reformers and Home Office Ministers seemed two years ago, perhaps, to have come close together for the first time. We gained the impression from various utterances that the Home Secretary and his officials had come to recognise that too many people are sent to prison who need not be sent there. They seem to have come to recognise that prison sentences in this country are too severe compared with those of our neighbours—a point made by my noble friend Lord Kagan.

When one says that sentences are too severe, one does not mean that they have emerged by chance, like a spell of bad weather, with no human beings responsible. One means that sentences which are too severe are being passed by our much respected judges. I hear and have learnt from experience that one must be careful. No one wishes to interfere with that which is called the independence of the judiciary, or called by others judicial discretion. Of course, it would be quite wrong for the Home Secretary to direct a judge regarding the sentence given in a particular case. But the judicial sentencing policy as a whole, which is so severe in this country compared with other comparable countries, is made up of countless individual decisions. How do we set out to influence sentencing policy as a whole, how can we move it in a more enlightened direction without individual interference? In the time available I am not going into that question in detail tonight.

Two years ago it seemed that the Home Secretary regarded himself, on behalf of the Government, as having not only a right but a duty to seek to influence the judiciary in the direction of shorter sentences. But what occurred in the event? To quote the Guardian: We have seen the Home Secretary move towards decisive action to reduce the number of prisoners, only to back away again, away from the bared teeth of his party's prejudices and from the hostility of the judges. Those were the measured words of the Guardian recently and they are more eloquent than any words of mine are likely to be, but I would agree with their gist.

To return once more to the quotation from Lord Templewood: How far is it prudent to say that we —that is to say, the enlightened public for whom Lord Templewood appeared to be speaking— know what ought to be done about our sentencing policy, about the need for shorter sentences. This is crucial, this question of whether we do know, taking anyone who is seriously involved, bringing their opinions together; this question is crucial. Is there a consensus on this question? Personally I am convinced that it will never be dealt with satisfactorily until the judges are ready to leave their pedestal and join in discussions with those who are equally expert but come to these matters from a different angle of experience.

Take one small illustration of what I have in mind. We have had endless debates on penal reform in the last quarter of a century. The contributions from judges here in this House could be numbered on the fingers of one hand. The dichotomy between those who pass the sentences and the rest of the community who devote a large part of their lives to penal matters is responsible for a large part of the mess we are in, for the confusion of mind that distinguishes the discussion of the whole subject. This dichotomy could be remedied, and the fact that it could be remedied points the way to a better future.

Before I close I should like to deal less sharply with what is really a still more fundamental issue. Some of your Lordships may have listened to a programme on Channel 4 recently in which the subject of prisons was discussed under the heading of "The Bankrupt Estate" by many persons of all kinds, including our revered Lord Chancellor. I should say, in passing, that there was an earlier programme on life prisoners, which was quite superb. This other programme, while more controversial, was well worth watching. There was, I think, general agreement among the speakers—though I do not think the Lord Chancellor, who took a short part in the debate, pronounced on this particular point—that there is now total bewilderment about the purpose of imprisonment. That means that there appears to be a situation today that would not have been at all true when we began these debates in this House. That I find as a I go round the prisons is true of the prison services at all levels: the same total bewilderment prevails as to what the object is of the whole thing. I am afraid that the May Committee, which performed in other respects a most valuable service, was not of much help with its ambiguous reference to "humane containment", a phrase which I should hope will be plunged into oblivion.

Twenty years ago I published a small book called The Idea of Punishment. Following fairly conventional lines, I distinguished in a just punishment the elements of deterrence, prevention, retribution and reform. I also mentioned reparation. If I were rewriting that book today I would say more about reparation, but I would still say that the elements mentioned must be the primary constituents of a just punishment. But how far today should I be entitled to say that reform of the prisoner in prison is still a recognised element in our penal system? The prison rule No. 1 still runs: The purpose of the treatment and training of convicted prisoners shall be to help them to lead a good and useful life. But how far is that now being pronounced tongue in cheek? How far has it all become one vast humbug? I would be sorry to think that this is so; if it is so, it is not through the turpitude of any one individual or the failure of any one Government. We seem to have slipped into this situation, this moral vacuum, through not knowing what aim we are supposed to be pursuing.

The idea that prison could be used for the reforming of prisoners has its own dangers. On balance, as most of us have always known, from the point of view of the individual prisoner prison is more likely to do more harm than good, though that is not a necessary outcome. That should not preclude the unceasing duty of all concerned to try to make sure that it will do as little harm as possible to these fellow humans whom we hold at our mercy as a result of their wrongdoing. Once we abandon a moral purpose in prisons we finally discredit the prisons and ourselves.

No regeneration will be effected without the cordial support of the prison officers, about whom I believe Lord Mishcon may be saying some pertinent words. That opens up the whole question of how prison officers can be offered a more constructive role. When a quarter of a century ago, I began the debate, in which Lord Templewood spoke, I ended by expressing a passionate hope that prison officers would become much more like social workers and less like turnkeys. Well, one cannot say that that has happened. We are all aware that the subject is fraught with many complexities, but I am sure that that way of looking at it still contains the root of the matter.

7.57 p.m.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, I rise to ask to speak by leave of your Lordships, and in the same breath to offer profound apologies. I heard various forecasts of the time that this Unstarred Question debate would begin; nine o'clock was the first forecast, and some time after eight o'clock was the best forecast I could obtain. I therefore dallied over the coffee, and I am most apologetic, particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Kagan, to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Soper, whose addresses I have not heard. I have read the speech of the opener of the debate with great interest, and I have listened with no less interest to Lord Longford.

Lord Kagan is aware that I had told him that I thought it was premature to discuss this question so soon after the Government had told us so much about their intentions during the passage of the Criminal Justice Bill. I should have liked to await the Second Report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons, which Sir James Hennesy told me last week would be published very shortly. But, having said that, the actions by prison officers in something like six or seven establishments in recent weeks, the reported subject for debate at the POA conference in May, whatever one may think of those actions and that resolution, are all aimed at expressing the concern of prison officers about the conditions in prisons and at bringing pressure on the Government. It gives point to our discussion this evening.

What is more, I firmly believe that it is vitally important to create more public awareness and concern about our penal policy in general, its costs and its consequences. Here I should like to put in a very good word for the Prison Reform Trust and for the bulletin Keep Out for doing exactly that. I feel that the Home Office deserves a pat on the back for the extent to which it has enabled members of the public and Members of both Houses to know more than we used to do about what goes on within prison walls. Yesterday I was in Pentonville and was reminded once again, whatever has been said this evening about the prison officers and prison service, how much we, as a nation, owe to the prison service. If it was not for its skill, its caring and dedication to the job it is doing—a frightfully difficult job—the problems in our prisons, the crisis in our prisons, would have assumed far greater proportions than it has so far.

As regards the social and financial costs, some colleagues of mine on the penal affairs group and I visited Holland and Belgium two weeks ago and we gained the impression there that those countries give far more serious consideration to those factors than we do over here. The penal affairs group will be making some suggestions to the Home Secretary quite shortly.

Lord Kagan's Question relates, as we all know, to conditions in local prisons. I recently visited Reading prison. It has not been highlighted to the same extent as Oxford, the "Scrubs", Strangeways and Winson Green, yet I found the conditions there just about as serious. On the day of my visit there were 326 prisoners for a prison whose certified normal accommodation is 177; 108 of those, a third, were being accommodated three to a cell, and rather more than a third, 145—this makes my point—were not yet sentenced prisoners. Most of them were unconvicted, awaiting trial, and some of them were waiting up to 14 months to come to trial. As happens elsewhere, this situation creates, as it did at Reading, the usual knock-on effect, escort and court duties by prison staff providing an insufficient staff in the prison to man the workshops and to supervise recreational activities. Most prisoners, as your Lordships know only too well, are spending 23 hours of the day in their cells or on their landings.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, mentioned Brixton and the chief inspectors' report on Brixton dated September 1981. It is two years since I visited Brixton and I should be very interested to know the situation today. At that time all but 100 of the 900 inmates were unsentenced, most of them unconvicted prisoners on remand. Over 40 per cent. of those, we were told, subsequently did not, in the event, receive prison sentences. The average waiting time in London prisons at that time was nearly five months and visiting conditions were what I should call Dickensian, while the staff quarters for the prison staff and the officers' mess left a great deal to be desired.

I have given notice to the noble Lord the Minister of the questions that I should like to put to the Government in this area. They are these: What reductions have taken place in Brixton in regard to the numbers held at three to a cell, and what prospects are there at Reading of a reduction in the numbers held at three to a cell there? What improvements have taken place at Brixton and what prospects are there at Reading prison in regard to more work and recreation for more prisoners? I imagine that this is tied to the planned increase in the establishment of prison staff. My third question is: Has the visiting block, the staff quarters and officers' mess been reconstructed, and are they in use? What improvement has there been in the waiting time for remand prisoners in London and nationally? My final question in this area, as we all know that the number of remands in custody has risen steeply since 1979, is whether the Minister could give us some figures of the present situation.

I hope Lord Kagan will deem it as lying within the ambit of his Question if I refer to the detention of juveniles in adult prisons. He will remember, no doubt, that this was the subject of very concerned discussion during the Criminal Justice Bill. My information is that during 1982 there was a daily average of about 100 juveniles and young offenders who were being held in adult prisons. Most of them were so detained on certificates of unruliness. The use of those certificates for that purpose was condemned by the House of Commons Expenditure Committee as long ago as 1975 and the Government of that day stated their intention to phase them out. Here we are, seven or eight years on, and I gather they are still being used. I may be wrong and I should like to be corrected.

My questions to the Government regarding the custody of young offenders and juveniles in custody of any kind are these: How many young persons under 17 are now detained in adult establishments? What reduction in the figure can the Government forecast for the end of 1983, by which time the courts will have had ample time to make use of the new youth custody order? As regards the present detention centre regimes, when can we expect the findings of the Home Office research into the so-called short, sharp, shock treatment which was initiated some time ago at four establishments? In reminding your Lordships that during the Committee stage of the Criminal Justice Bill there was much concern about the number of boys who were undergoing that treatment and who were manifestly unsuited for it and had to be transferred elsewhere, my fourth question to the Government is: Has the Home Office rectified that very unsatisfactory state of affairs?

My final question, of which I did not give the Minister notice, though I am sure he is prepared for it, is: Could he tell us when we may expect the code of standards for prisons which he referred to during the Committee stage of the Bill on 22nd June last year? I have used Lord Kagan's Question as an omnibus for a number of more particular questions. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to give us the answers this evening.

I should like to conclude with four points which bear on the reduction of the pressures which are directly the cause of the appalling conditions in our local prisons. The first and most obvious is that the commission of crime is related to unemployment. This may well have been said and I apologise if it has been said before. There is ample documentation to indicate this. It does not excuse lawlessness—I stress that—but the public needs to be aware that this is just one more side effect of the Government's policy not to give a higher priority in the shorter term to reducing unemployment. My second point is that evidence has emerged to explode the myth that the British public are more punitive-minded than their fellow Europeans. The Dutch, for example have been mentioned this evening by the noble Lord, Lord Kagan. Holland has a population of one-third of ours but only one-twelfth of the numbers of people in any form of custody.

It is claimed that our penal laws and their interpretation by the judges reflect public opinion. It has even been suggested that the courts should lead public opinion, which I find quite preposterous. But however that may be, the indication that public opinion is not reflected and certainly not being led by the courts is welcome and should surely form the basis for a more enlightened penal policy. It is very much to be hoped that the courts will respond accordingly, especially in regard to young offenders. I can assure your Lordships from personal witness that there is no lack of public-spirited ordinary citizens who are prepared to play their part.

My third point is that increasing resort to non-custodial alternatives, community-based alternatives, postulates an increase in the probation service. The Government's planned increase in that service by 150 officers, or 3 per cent., between now and 1984–85, compared with an increase of over 1,000 prison officers or a 5 per cent. increase in the same period, hardly squares with the Home Secretary's wish to shift the balance from custodial to non-custodial measures. I am not suggesting for a moment that the prison service does not require that increase; I know that it does. I am merely comparing the relative ratios.

My fourth and last point is that I understand that the Home Secretary is contemplating lowering the threshold for parole from 12 months to nine months. My information is that this would bring a further 4,500 prisoners into consideration, of whom perhaps as many as 3,000 might expect to be released to continue their sentence in the community. I am sure that those figures are correct because I have them from the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, himself, and my guess from those figures is that on any one day the reduction in the prison population might be as many as 1,000. I should like to be corrected on that, but, if that is so, it hardly makes a significant impact on the excess of 6,000 places by which prisons are overcrowded.

I reserved that point until the last because I have long been persuaded since my days on the Parole Board of the principle of a two-stage determinate sentence whenever prison is inevitable, subject to judicial discretion. I believe that the correct answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Kagan, must lie primarily in fewer and shorter sentences with more, and more varied, alternatives in the community with the co-operation of the community. I should like to predict, and I certainly hope, that this will be the shape of things to come.

8.10 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I am sure that we need not apologise to ourselves, even if the hour be rather late, that once again we are debating conditions in our prisons. I say that because without any doubt at all this is a matter of great concern to Parliament and to the country as a whole.

My noble friend, Lord Longford, in the course of his address quoted Prison Rule No. 1. He quoted it as follows: The purpose of the treatment and training of convicted persons shall be to encourage and assist them to lead a good and useful life". We are entitled to look at what is happening, quite apart from the question of the conditions in prisons and possibly, in some measure, because of them. Of those under 21 who are imprisoned, over two-thirds are convicted of another offence within two years. Of those over 21, about half are reconvicted within two years. That is hardly a method of reform, But having said that—and we have said it in our debates before—the terrible quandary is still there. Measures have been suggested by which the prison population can be reduced, and every single one of them ought to be looked at with the greatest of care because of the shocking overcrowding and inhuman conditions that subsist.

The terrible thing is that if one is faced with the question of what to do with those who are a danger to the community, who have been convicted of crimes of violence and from whom the public are entitled to be protected, one continues with the debate, but one does not reach an answer. For so many, of course, community service and the expansion of it is an answer. For so many, the expansion of the probation service, to which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt referred, is an answer.

May I say, in parenthesis, how sorry I was to read in The Times this morning, that the Probation Officers' Association intend to have some measure of protest at the way in which the Government have, at this stage of all stages, decided to reduce the salary that is paid to trainees in the probation service and have done so on the rather extraordinary ground that there are so many young people who are prepared to enter the service as trainees that one can presumably pay a lower salary and still get people into the service. That is not a great inducement, one would have thought, to the best of our young people and the properly ambitious young people who are instilled with the right ideas and who might enter the probation service.

Having said that, there is not the slightest political point in what I am saying, and I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, will forgive me if I say that it does no good in these debates to refer to the inactivity of one Government and the too slow—but, nevertheless, it is activity—actions of another Government, There is not a single Government, Labour or Conservative, that has been able to grapple with this terrible problem in a really constructive way. All of us stand before the country in not quite the whitest of white sheets.

Therefore, I shall not deal with a repetition of the debates we have had before and the measures that we have previously tried to put before the Government, in all honesty. I want to deal with another aspect which I must introduce by saying that I am a partner in a firm of lawyers who have advised the Prison Officers' Association for many years. I make it clear at once that I do not speak, and I am not authorised to speak, on their behalf on these matters but my experience as their legal adviser has given me certain matters of fact which I think it would be useful for your Lordships to know about because in this debate we are dealing with conditions in prisons.

There are those who, day-to-day, not for the period of a sentence, work in those prisons in the very conditions that we have been hearing about. I quote from the report on the prison at Wormwood Scrubs, which is the very prison mentioned in the Motion we are debating. I refer to Paragraph 1.16, which reads: Wormwood Scrubs is a prey to the same ills as beset most of our large Victorian prisons. It contains too many prisoners in a manner which would have been unacceptable to the Victorians, and the facilities at its disposal are quite inadequate. The régime is constricted because, for various reasons, staff are not available at the right times in sufficient quantities". It is a question of staff in pretty wretched conditions.

We have been listening to what the Governor of the Wormwood Scrubs prison said before he resigned his office. It may be a little relevant to listen to what his successor, who has not been there very long, has also said in his new capacity as the governor of Wormwood Scrubs prison. Quite recently, he stated: Wormwood Scrubs is understaffed. Its 321 discipline officers are 75 short as against establishment. What is really needed is an extra 25, indeed, over establishment to run the prison properly". I quote him from the Daily Telegraph of 23rd February 1983. I do not believe the public understands the nature of this work, nor the unremitting pressures which bear down on those who have to spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year working and living in a prison". Brixton Prison has been quoted in this debate. I wonder if your Lordships will allow me to read a very short extract from the Chief Inspector of Prisons' report on Brixton, at page 5, paragraph 1.08: We have said above that prisoners are having to live in unacceptable conditions. It follows that staff are having to work in unacceptable conditions. It is intolerable that 80 men should have to share one lavatory, and it is also intolerable that a landing officer should have to get 80 men through the morning routine in such circumstances. In fact, it is the staff attitude and the staff/inmate relationship, which makes these conditions bearable". Then if I may quote a tribute: We found great good humour, a relaxed approach and a complete lack of tension throughout the establishment". Quite apart from the question of the conditions and the fact that vacancies exist in every grade, and quite apart from the increase to which the noble Baroness referred of just over 1,000 in the number of prison officers at the present moment, the view is taken that the service is still short of 2,500 prison officers, without taking into account specialist staff shortages. What about the working conditions in the prisons that we ought to be thinking about? Authorised staffing levels are set on the basis of prison officers working an average of 10 hours' overtime per week. To ensure even then that establishments function, other institutions are called upon to provide a high level of detached duty. Those establishments in turn of course have to close shops and work Sunday overtime.

I want, if I may, to turn just for a moment to another aspect which has not been dealt with at all tonight and that is the dignity of work even inside a prison. It was absolutely right that two of the speakers drew our attention to the matter; first of all it was the noble Lord, Lord Soper, and then Lord Hunt, who had not had the benefit of listening to Lord Soper's speech. We have heard about the effect of unemployment outside the prisons which may lead people to be inmates of prisons. What of the conditions in regard to work and the dignity of it and some sort of preparation for the world outside within prisons?

Here may I be allowed to quote from page 30 of the report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales of 1981? It is a very important matter that we are dealing with and this is something that could be remedied. I am reading from paragraph 4.21 to start with. This is what it says: We have already recorded the very limited extent to which the time of inmates was occupied in the local prisons we inspected. The element in the régime which was most substantially lacking was, without a doubt, work. The industrial provision was extremely poor, and those workshops that existed operated for very few hours, and as a result the remaining activities were very thinly spread". Higher up on the same page this is what the Chief Inspector had to say. I am reading it because it is a constructive matter on which something can and should be done. The report says: in general, it is better to use limited funds to establish several low capital cost, relatively labour-intensive industries capable of adapting to meet a varied market, rather than one or two prestigious and capital-intensive industries which may have the potential to generate substantial revenue but which are susceptible to fluctuations in the market and employ few inmates. This difference of approach may well arise from a view of industrial provision on the part of the Prison Department as a means primarily to recoup money using inmate labour, rather than as a means of providing employment for inmates with the generation of revenue as an important but secondary aim. We appreciate the financial pressures which would lead to such a view but we do not think that the establishment of capital-intensive industries is necessarily consistent with the pursuit of a full working day". In order to deal with work and in order to supervise work it is obviously necessary to have the right type of officer in the prisons. In view of the conditions that we have heard of, quite apart from their being dreadful for the prisoners—and I emphasise, if I may be allowed to do so, everything that has been said tonight and on previous occasions in that regard—what sort of future recruitment of prison officers shall we get since these are the conditions in which they are expected to work? Without the right type of prison officer there will be no proper reform of our prisons, which are at the moment in a pretty dreadful and shocking state.

8.27 p.m.

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

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kagan, has provided an occasion for a debate that has prompted in me, at least, an interesting reflection. Almost the first duty I undertook on being appointed as a Minister in the Home Office was to come to this House and reply to a debate on a Motion of, I think, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, drawing attention to the conditions of the prison service in England and Wales. I then embarked upon a triple process which I have never since abandoned and on the three aspects of which I seem to have made very unequal progress. The three functions were to reveal the full extent of the shortcomings of the provision for prisoners which we as a Government had inherited in 1979, to illustrate the difficulties which we encountered in running that system, and to make clear the full and considerable extent of the endeavours we are taking to remedy its deficiency.

It now seems to me that I have succeeded pretty well in revealing the shortcomings and illustrating the difficulties, but that I have been remarkably unsuccessful in drawing your Lordships' attention to what we have undertaken, are undertaking and are committed to undertake in dealing with them. That process—the process of remedy—is a continuous one. We had embarked upon it long before the resignation of the former governor of Wormwood Scrubs and we shall still be engaged upon it long after he and I and the noble Lord, Lord Kagan, and everybody else in this House, are forgotten. That is the extent of both the defects and the remedy.

A first requirement for providing any remedy is, of course, that the defects shall be publicly known and publicly understood. Far from attempting to disguise them, we have taken action to increase public awareness. We have improved the opportunities for the press and broadcasters to go into Prison Department establishments and we have encouraged a more open attitude generally on the part of staff in all parts of the prison system. The fruits of that policy have been evident in this debate.

We have concentrated on providing hard, quantified, factual information wherever possible, so that the public may form its own opinion of the conditions we are faced by. Emotive phrases may be more easily convertible into instant headlines, but facts are what serve the public interest best.

At a time of financial restraint, we have significantly increased expenditure on the prison system. The Government's plans for spending on prisons in the period up to 1985–86 were given in the Public Expenditure White Paper (Cmnd. 8789). Capital expenditure in cash terms will have more than doubled between 1979–80 and the coming financial year, 1983–84. Current expenditure will have increased by almost the same proportion. The Government's plans for 1984–85 and 1985–86 contain provision for yet further substantial increases, and capital and current expenditure combined are planned to increase by over £100 million, from £500 million in 1982–83 to £610 million in 1985–86.

The planning figures for the years beyond 1983–84 are, of course, open to revision, as all such figures must be. But they are a clear indication of the Government's commitment to a sustained programme of increased resources for the prison service, and whatever solution we arrive at, in whatever philosophic context, those resources are going to be necessary. We are doing this at time when the Government's most concentrated efforts are reserved for the reduction of public expenditure. The programme is a large one in any terms. In comparative terms it gives the absolute lie to any one who claims that we either do not care about prison conditions or that we are prepared to do nothing about them.

A major part of this very considerable effort is going into the prison building programme. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Soper, that it would be nice if there were fewer prisoners and if fewer prisons were therefore needed. But we actually have to have a means of achieving that result before we say that what we already have, cramped, crowded and antiquated as it is, is enough and that the resources ought to be diverted elsewhere.

At present, certified normal accommodation is about 38,000, and the prison population is in excess of 44,000. In consequence, thousands of prisoners are held two or three to a cell. Our response to that has been to arrange a programme of two building starts for new prisons each year, as my noble friend was kind enough to point out. Expenditure on that programme is planned to rise from about £20 million in 1983–84 to £40 million in 1986–87. As a result of new building and refurbishment, and better use of accommodation, some 2,000 additional prison places have become available over the last two years. Over the next four years, the building programme should produce a further 3,000 new places.

Buildings are important, but the fundamental quality of any prison system, as many noble Lords have pointed out this evening, lies not in its buildings but in the men and, indeed, the women who staff it. Here, too, we have been vigorous in tackling the problems. At the beginning of 1979 there were 15,714 prison officers in post. By April 1984 we are providing for 18,064. That is a total increase of 2,351, or 15 per cent., in five years. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, will recall that as he points out the shortfall from what is ideal that still persists. Once more, that would be a substantial programme in any terms, In comparative terms it is impressive, for it is taking place at a time of substantial reductions in the Civil Service as a whole. Our prison staff are our most vital resource. That is why we are concentrating not only on making good the staff shortages which exist, but also on searching for ways of using the staff we have as efficiently as possible.

I am glad to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the men and women who staff our prisons. The task is usually a thankless one, yet it makes great demands on the character of those who perform it and is not always without its danger. Last year 23 prison officers were personally commended by the Home Secretary for exceptional conduct. A further 58 received official recognition for meritorious conduct beyond the call of duty. For the first time the entire staff of a prison—Wakefield—were commended following the fighting of a serious fire and the evacuation of the prison.

The stress on the prison staff is not always as dramatic as that. It can be more long-drawn and harder to bear. I should like to put a word in also for all the individual members of the prison staff of our country's prison system who, day in and day out, retain a patient and understanding relationship with a shifting and often shiftless population which is very difficult to get on with. Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether in these debates we pay adequate attention to the professionalism of prison officers and to the effort that goes into providing them with relevant training. Prison conditions are vitally affected by the relationships between inmates and prison officers. Certainly the May Report expressed sympathy with the aspiration of many prison officers to involve themselves in a wider range of duties related to the care of inmates. Equally, however, the committee pointed out that an extension of the prison officer's role is dependent on prison officers themselves being prepared to consider realistically the best ways in which their existing manpower can be used.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, was anxious for the social work aspects of prison officer's work (if I can so express it) to be extended. I can reassure him that it has been the policy of the Prison Department, under successive Governments, indeed, and for many years, that prison officers should be more actively involved in work which is concerned with the social and welfare needs of prisoners. I presume that that also is something which the noble Lord, Lord Kagan, would endorse. It enables probation staff in penal establishments to concentrate more on work for which they have special skills and training.

The Social Work in Prisons scheme was launched in 1977. It had the agreement of the trade unions of both the prison service and the probation service. It enabled governors and chief probation officers to reappraise, in consultation with their staffs, their working methods (within existing manpower resources), and to plan together the reorganisation of welfare work, so that prison officers could play a fuller part in social work with prisoners. Initially, five establishments were involved. They were Coldingley, Exeter, Featherstone, Kirkham and Wakefield. But the continuing constraints on manpower resources have meant that progress has been slower than originally hoped. However, that is not to say that no progress has been made. Three further establishments are now participating in the formal scheme. These are Maidstone, Nottingham and Swinfen Hall; and other establishments have developed their own schemes, to suit the needs of their own particular establishment, with prison officers and probation officers participating in shared working.

I must here refer to the use of volunteers by the probation service. Volunteers play a most important role in the assistance they are able to give to probation officers in their work with prisoners. We do not record in the Home Office the number of volunteers who assist the probation service, but a survey was made two years ago, and from that we estimated that 7,000 volunteers assist the probation service and that as many as half of these are doing work connected with prisoners or their families. Perhaps the most valuable work a volunteer does is to befriend the prisoner by regular visiting; to help him or her with specific problems, especially those to do with his family; and generally to keep him in touch with the outside community.

I cannot recite all the ways in which volunteers are engaged with offenders, but your Lordships should know that they cover a great variety of activities. Within many prisons volunteers run groups with a range of purposes such as alcohol education, job finding and developing social and life skills. Many families of prisoners appreciate the help volunteers give in providing and managing overnight accommodation near prisons for them, in organising transport to prisons for visiting relatives, and in running a creche. Other volunteers run groups for prisoners' wives. We are, indeed, grateful to these volunteers who do such valuable work and give so freely of their time without payment.

I should not like to leave the subject of voluntary effort without taking this opportunity also to pay tribute to the very great public service given both by prison visitors generally and by those who serve as chairmen or members of boards of visitors. Their continuing and close concern with the problems of individual establishments are an invaluable contribution to the well-being of the service as a whole.

I have spoken of the way in which we have increased the resources available to the prison service and of how we are seeking to deploy them more efficiently. I have spoken of the use to which both staff and volunteers are putting those resources and I now turn to what we are doing about the sheer size of the prison population, which hangs over the whole issue like a black cloud. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has said, one of the most serious features of the problem of overcrowding is the level of the remand population. The problem here is most acute in relation to the Crown Court. Because of the high priority given to this question by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, average waiting times for trial in the Crown Court fell between 1979 and 1982. Thus, in the last quarter of 1982 the average waiting time for trial in the Crown Court for offenders in custody at the time of coming to trial was around 10 weeks nationally and 15 weeks in London, as compared with figures of around 12 weeks and 21 weeks respectively for the comparable quarter in 1979.

It has to be said, however, that in 1982 there was an increase of no less than 12 per cent. in the work coming to the Crown Court. Despite the fact that the court dealt with 4,000 more cases than in the previous year, this has meant that the gradual reduction in backlogs and waiting times has, for the present, ceased. This is, of course, a matter for concern and my noble and learned friend will continue to do all he can to seek further improvements in the situation.

As noble Lord after noble Lord has pointed out, the size of the prison population is determined by the courts. Fundamental to the Government's approach to penal policy is the principle of an independent judiciary with sole responsibility for sentencing decisions in individual cases. I do not know whether that sole responsibility amounts to being on what the noble Earl, Lord Longford, calls a pedestal, but I must say that it is our responsibility, as the executive, to provide prison accommodation for those offenders whom the courts deprive of their liberty. But that does not mean that prison overcrowding and the often appalling conditions which result are factors which the courts should not take into account in exercising their responsibility.

It is reassuring therefore, that the courts are aware of the problem of prison overcrowding. The avowed policy of the courts, under the guidance of the Lord Chief Justice, is that custodial sentences should be imposed only where there is no alternative and that they should be as short as possible. Since the Court of Appeal gave a lead in this direction, the average length of Crown Court sentence has been reduced by two months. That alone would have reduced our prison population by 2,000 to 3,000, were it not more than balanced by the continuing increase in the number of offenders coming before the courts for sentence. Over that number they have no control. For our part, we have sought to reduce the strain of sheer numbers on the system by the provisions of last Session's Criminal Justice Act.

The Act strengthens and reinforces the powers of the courts in imposing non-custodial disposals, such as the probation order and the supervision order. Under its provisions, community service orders will soon be available for 16-year-olds. The status of another important non-custodial sentence—the compensation order—is increased, and courts will now be able to make such an order as a sentence in its own right. I shall not spend too long on that because your Lordships went over the whole ground of the Act so very recently, and most noble Lords in this Chamber actually took part in the debates on it.

Your Lordships will recall that it was almost exactly a year ago that the Government implemented Section 47 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, which empowers the courts to suspend part of a prison sentence. We took this step in the firm belief that the partly suspended sentence represents a means of enabling the courts to reduce effective sentence lengths in appropriate cases at their own discretion. That is the intention behind the provision, and I ought to emphasise that it should not be used to offer a "taste of imprisonment"—a point stressed in the helpful guidelines on the use of the power set out by the Lord Chief Justice in Regina v. Clarke soon after the implementation of the provision.

Our latest figures show that by the end of 1982 the number of offenders being received into prison who could have received a partly suspended sentence and had done so was about 10 per cent. Since then (on 31st January) we have also implemented Section 30 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982. That further enhances the effectiveness of the partly suspended sentence by amending Section 47 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 to widen the sentence range to which it applies and to increase the flexibility with which the courts are able to make use of it.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, is the noble Lord leaving the matter of the judges?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I was thinking of coming back to them. Perhaps when the noble Earl hears my return, he will decide whether, in fact, it will satisfy what he has in mind. I was going to leave a good deal else, because the evening draws on.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, referred to conditions in local prisons and especially to Reading and Brixton. On 13th February—which is the latest available date—206 inmates at Brixton were held two in a cell, and 282 were held three in a cell. At Reading, 198 were two in a cell and 81 were three in a cell. The pressure on such prisons continues to be very great and I am afraid that I cannot hold out hope of early relief either on the degree of overcrowding or on the amount of time prisoners have to spend in their cells.

However, I am able to inform your Lordships that improved visiting facilities are included in alterations to the gate complex, which will be completed shortly. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, also asked whether new staff quarters at Brixton had been completed, but I am informed that none is under construction at Brixton.

I now turn to the subject of young prisoners under the age of 17—to whom both the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and the noble and reverend Lord, Lord Soper, referred—who, because of the difficulties they present, sometimes have to be detained in adult establishments. On 30th November 1982—again the latest available date—71 young offenders, sentenced and unsentenced, were held in this way. Under the youth custody provisions those subject to sentence of youth custody will go initially to the establishments which serve the courts—that is to say, local prisons and remand centres—for assessment and allocation. But we will make this process as quick as is consistent with taking the proper decisions, and we currently expect that there will probably be about 30 juveniles undergoing allocation at any one time. That is fairly similar to the current numbers of sentenced juveniles who are at present held in this way.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, once more raised the question—and it was referred to elsewhere—of whether, and if so by how much, we could reduce the level of the prison population by allowing prisoners to qualify earlier than at present for release on parole. I have already told your Lordships that we are closely interested in this question. It is being carefully examined, and if your Lordships think that that examination is taking longer than your Lordships might expect, I have to say that the issues raised are also larger and more complex than you might expect. The administrative implications are considerable and very far from cheap, and we have to take a very careful view before we decide to what, if anything, we can commit ourselves. However, this matter does have my close interest and—which matters a great deal more—the close interest also of my right honourable friend; and we shall come to a conclusion as soon as possible.

We recognise the importance of prison industries. I can assure your Lordships that the industries I have seen are not capital-intensive, and the occupation of prisoners is a very important concern, and where I have seen it, labour has been used lavishly. But I will take note of the reference which the noble Lord made to the last report to come out.

The noble Lord, Lord Kagan, urged on the Government an outside consultancy on the grounds that an outside view would be the more objective than any other. He will know, of course, that, following my right honourable friend's initiative, the Prison Inspectorate is independent of the Prison Department and that Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons is appointed under Royal Warrant. He will observe that the reports of the inspectorate, which are now published, are very far from flattering and complimentary. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, and others have given quotations which made that abundantly clear. I shall certainly consider the international comparisons made by the noble Lord, Lord Kagan, with interest, though it is the attention of the courts, rather than that of the Government, that no doubt he will wish to draw to it because of their critical influence on the number of prisoners. But I should tell him that the Home Office has sponsored a research project which will provide a thorough review of the penal system in Holland, which has also attracted our interest, and we shall study that with great care.

The noble and reverend Lord, Lord Soper, recognised the necessary imperfections of an imperfect world and he commended one step at least that we have taken—an increase in the number of constables on the beat. He will doubtless know that the strength of the police in England and Wales has been increased by more than 9,000 policemen, and he may draw comfort from the fact that a thousand officers have been redeployed to street duties, which is something I think he would applaud.

We are faced with what the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, called a terrible quandary, and what I regard as, at the best, a poignant conundrum. We have to deal with the world as it is: a fallen world; a world redeemable but not anxious to be redeemed; a world that has drifted away from the nonconformist and, indeed, the conformist ethic so notably illustrated by the noble Lord, Lord Soper, and the right reverend Prelate earlier. It is a world in which the great majority pay their taxes, stay out of trouble, and expect to be protected.

My noble friend Lady Macleod was absolutely right to point out that society demands to be protected. If the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, feels that we are wrong in this and that the judiciary, removed from their pedestal by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, should be persuaded that we are wrong, then the machinery of Parliament and democracy are there for him to use to that end. The noble Lord, Lord Kagan, is in fact using them for that purpose tonight, and the judges can hear from their pedestal. However, until the day that the flow of crime and of convictions diminishes we are going to go on being faced by this same poignant conundrum, eloquently illustrated in this debate by quotations from serving prison officers.

I am glad that your Lordships recognise the problem. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, recognises the joint responsibility of many preceding Governments. It is a problem of daunting complexity and size. Your Lordships want a solution. It will not be available overnight. Most of what is available can necessarily amount to little more than a palliative in the short and, indeed, in the medium term.

This evening's debate has served to remind us all of the enormous difficulty of running a prison service for the size of population with which the courts have presented us in prison buildings of the antiquity and decrepitude of those we have inherited, and without making demands on the public purse far in excess of what those who stay out of prison and pay for them would regard as in any way acceptable. Caught up in that problem are not only junior Ministers at the Home Office, not only the civil service and prisoners, but also the staff of our prisons who, under great strain, do a quite remarkably commendable job, and that is what I should like to leave in your Lordships' minds tonight.