HL Deb 21 March 1984 vol 449 cc1336-57

10.37 p.m.

The Earl of Longford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they agree that the time has come for a new look at the future of the prison service.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, if I had any doubts about the wisdom of the Rules of the House, I am confirmed in my view that they are very profound and true. I rise to ask a Question which, in the eyes of quite a number of people—most of them not here, but some are—is of very far-reaching significance, not necessarily today but tomorrow; that is, the whole matter of the role of the prison officers. In case there is any misunderstanding, I should not like to prevent anybody from speaking about prisoners tonight, whom we have often discussed and will discuss again. But I am talking about the prison service in its widest sense. I shall be dealing mainly with the uniformed prison officers who number more than 20,000. But, again, if anybody wishes to say more about the governor grades it will be very much in order under the heading of the Question.

I ought just to say that, going by the journal of the prison officers, there is a good deal of dissatisfaction about the relationship with the governor grades. On some other occasion we ought to debate that relationship and possibly investigate the whole question of whether the service ought to be unified. But that I shall not go into tonight. I am concerned with the question of whether a more constructive role can he offered to members of the prison service, referring, in my own case, primarily to the members of the uniformed branch.

We should remember that their numbers are large, and I am glad to say that they will increase considerably in the near future. They are doing a difficult job, which certainly has to be done, and they are doing it with honest zeal—though there are no doubt weak vessels among them—yet they are curiously isolated and neglected in public discussion.

This idea of giving them a more constructive role has been around for a considerable time. When I opened the first debate on prisons in this House in 1955, nearly 30 years ago—I understand that one of the closest advisers of the Minister was born in 1955, so it was a long time ago—I wound up my peroration with a rather prolonged argument, but my peroration tonight will be brief. The argument was that in future prison officers should become more like social workers—not just turnkeys—and that the old idea that they were there simply to bung them in and lock them up should be abandoned.

I said that 30 years ago and better men than I have said it since. However, I cannot see that any progress in this direction has been made in the last 30 years. In some ways there has been some advance; in others, retrogression. In some ways, the role of prison officers was concentrated more on security in that period than it had been in earlier days. It may have been partly the result of the enormous increase in crime which has so understandably alarmed the public. But there have been other unfortunate happenings.

The Mountbatten Report, which was generally conceded by all who are interested in prisons to be a disaster, was carried out—I was, I am sorry to say, a member of the Cabinet which ordered that inquiry—in a state of considerable alarm and completed within a very few months. Since then Ministers of the various parties must take the responsibility for it. But the result has been a much greater emphasis on security. I shall give only one example of the unfortunate results of putting security first, of saying that at all costs we must make sure that nobody escapes.

Nearly four years ago the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington (who regrets that he cannot be here tonight) initiated a debate in your Lordships' House on the appalling overcrowding in Brixton Prison. Several of us who took part in the debate at that time went to investigate matters there. We had long talks with the governor and we paid tributes, which are on record in Hansard, to that same governor. We regarded him as one of the most enlightened governors in our experience. Soon afterwards there was an escape from Brixton. More than one prisoner escaped. What happened to this one, enlightened governor? He came unstuck. He was moved away from his position. He had committed the unpardonable sin of having allowed a prisoner under his aegis to escape. That is what happens if you place such great emphasis on security.

I do not intend, as I told the noble Lord, to dwell tonight on the condition of prisoners. We have done that often enough, and no doubt we shall do it often enough in the future. However, let me give another small example of where this mania for security leads us. Many years ago in this House the women's wing in Durham Prison was called by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, "a living tomb". It was regarded as too horrible, too claustrophic altogether for male prisoners—even the most dangerous and unattractive male prisoners. So in the end it was turned over to women. In this women's wing at Durham, which has been referred to before and which no doubt will be referred to again, there were, when I last heard, three Category A women prisoners who, it was thought, required very secure conditions, and 33 women prisoners of other categories who did not. Therefore for the sake of making sure that the three Category A women did not escape, these conditions, condemned by every kind of inquiry and investigator, were imposed upon all 36. That is just another example of what I mean when I say that in the 30 years since I first ventilated the idea of prison officers resembling social workers we have, if anything, moved the other way.

In November 1978 the May Committee was set up after what was called a long period of deteriorating industrial relations. Once again, as in the case of the Mountbatten Committee, they were expected to report much too quickly. They took a good deal longer than the Mountbatten Committee, and it would be churlish to deny that the May Committee worked with great dedication and produced a report which contained many valuable items. But as regards the topic of the debate today—the role of the prison officer—they were profoundly disappointing. They were, by common consent, pretty feeble.

There are 11 chapters in the main report. One is devoted to the role of officer and governor grades—their recruitment and training. I will not summarise what it has to say because any noble Lord who is interested can read the report—although he will find very little there. So the May Committee did not really help us in respect of the subject we are discussing tonight.

Those who are in charge of the present training of prison officers at the prison officers' training school at Wakefield, which I visited recently, are certainly keenly concerned in the question of how wide a role can be provided. It would not be true to say that no one is doing anything and that no progress is being made. I am only saying that it is a case of making one step forward and one step back. At any rate, there are some steps forward.

One could take the example of Wakefield Prison (and I am not speaking now of the training school), which I also visited the other day. There, two prison officers are attached to the eight probation officers who undertake welfare work inside the prison. In a case such as that (and I have no doubt there are other examples) an effort is being made to link the prison officers with the probation officers. Still, the task and burden of welfare inside the prison falls on probation officers; in other words, it falls outside the prison service.

I repeat that no one can seriously deny that the role of the prison officer today is no more constructive than it was 25 or 30 years ago. There are, of course, a good many social workers of one sort or another in the prisons, such as probation officers, educationists, and so on. But so far as the prison service itself is concerned, I am sure that the position has not advanced.

The time is right, if I may say so respectfully to the noble Lord the Minister, for a clear pronouncement by him on behalf of the Home Secretary. I hope that it will not merely be a reaffirmation of what has been said by Ministers of different parties—including, of course, my own—at different times, and about which a certain scepticism has developed. If the noble Lord can only say what has been said before, I venture to think that he might shorten his speech. At any rate, I do not believe there would be much point in simply saying what has been said already by Ministers of all parties. The time has come when the prison officers—for whom I know the noble Lord has a great regard—are not going to be satisfied with just that.

I am sorry to say that certain utterances of the present Home Secretary have given a widespread impression throughout the prison service (and I am speaking of what quite a few prison officers have said to me) that he, the Home Secretary, sees prison officers as little more than gaolers whose sole duty is to protect the general public by stricter control of the prison population. I am not saying that such is the Home Secretary's attitude; I hope it is not. As I once remarked before in your Lordships' House, the Home Secretary is a very intelligent man and I do not believe that such can be the attitude of a very highly intelligent man, However, it would be wrong of me to disguise the views of quite a number of prison officers on this matter.

For example, when the Home Secretary has said—and we have discussed this point before and will discuss it again—that probation should not be extended, except in very rare cases, to those who have been convicted of violence and are serving more than five years' imprisonment, the assumption appears to be that those prisoners will become extemely violent and that relations in the prisons may become very unpleasant; and that it is the job of the prison officers to sit on them and keep them down. This is a very widespread impression and so I hope that the noble Lord the Minister will be able to say something quite forthcoming on behalf of himself and the Home Secretary.

For the first time in my experience the prison officers, collectively speaking, seem anxious to break out of their isolation and make closer contact with the public outside—including politicians like ourselves. Their general secretary, who is known to many of us here, is certainly a live wire—and in that respect, he is by no means alone.

Officials of the Prison Officers' Association, to whom I have spoken recently have expressed themselves as fed up with their public image. They are inclined to blame the media; but whoever is to blame they do recognise that their public image is not one which they wish to possess in any way at all. Two local officials recently said to me: At the best we are presented as men in charge of animals, but quite often as animals in charge of animals. That is not how they see their rôle. They are not saying that the Home Secretary or the Home Office see them in that light. But that is how they say they are made to appear in public. There is much force in that comment.

I am sure they agree that they themselves are not by any means devoid of all responsibility for this unhappy situation. A former governor said to me the other day about prison officers in general—and I do not know whether they would consider this to be fair comment—that they are taught not to speak to strangers. He said that the habit is inculcated early and is hard to eradicate. I will give an illustration of how that strikes me.

Many noble Lords here tonight, or who have been present on other occasions, visit individual prisoners from time to time. They will usually have constructive talks with the governor or assistant governor about the prisoner being visited. But how often will any noble Lord or other visitors find prison officers who will discuss a prisoner? There may be occasions in the case of a senior prison officer when that will happen, but ordinarily a prison officer would think that to be unwise; and unwise not only to discuss a prisoner with me but with any noble Lords or noble Baronesses who I see around me. The prison officers have learnt—or think they have learnt—that it is better to keep their mouths shut when there are strangers about. I think that is unfortunate. It produces a barrier between prison officers and the general public, particularly between them and those who take an interest in penal matters and who could be of use to prison officers in helping them to perform the services they themselves wish to perform.

One of the first steps that I should like to see taken—it may sound a small step but I would be interested to hear the answer, although I do not expect the noble Lord to be prepared to answer tonight—is to encourage prison officers to talk quite freely to visitors instead of closing their lips as soon as they see somebody like ourselves or any visitor entering the prison. That is the way that prison governors, social workers including probation officers, chaplains and educationists behave; but, in my experience, hardly ever prison officers.

Before I close I should like to deal with a wider and more controversial issue. Generally speaking, prison officers would probably like to see the withdrawal, or the substantial withdrawal, of the probation officers from the prisons. On this issue the probation officers are by no means unanimous, but an agreement has been reached between the Prison Officers' Association —an agreement of which I am sure the noble Lord is in any case aware, but which I call to his attention —and the National Association of Probation Officers. The agreement is that prison officers should undertake the welfare work in penal institutions. It is agreed that at the same time there should continue to be a probation officer presence for liaison purposes, but that the main welfare work in the prisons should in future be undertaken by prison officers. It can indeed be urged that an independent presence of some kind—that is, of probation officers who are outside the prison service—is necessary if the prisons are to remain as humane—or, should I say, even as humane—as they are today because they do not suffer from an excess of humanity.

I am told by senior probation officers that the prime loyalty of probation officers is to the individual; the prime loyalty of the prison officers is to the institution. That is putting it simply, and I would think that must be about right as matters stand. But that leads to the conclusion that, if probation officers are to be withdrawn, except for this presence or liaison role, a new humanitarian emphasis must be introduced into the whole training philosophy. I have been told, although I have not had time to check this, that in Norway prison officers are trained for two years, which is roughly the period for which probation officers are trained. That is compared with two months in this country. I just give that as an example of how the whole approach to training can be totally different from and much more thorough than it is here.

The great argument for prison officers taking over the welfare role is that only in this way will welfare be treated as part of the role of the prison officer instead of as a specialised job outside his scope. In other words, until prison officers are made responsible for welfare, they will never be encouraged to take a proper interest in it.

I do not for one moment think that the probation service would suffer if probation officers withdrew from the prisons, except for their welfare role. There are perhaps 500 probation officers in prisons and more than 5,000 altogether. The probation officers serving in prisons form less than 10 per cent. of the whole. Like many other noble Lords—and I have often said this in the House—I should like to see a major expansion of the probation service, which is indispensable if alternatives to prison are to be adequately developed. Therefore, I do not fear the effects of any such change on the probation service.

Is it safe to make this change? I have become convinced that the change could and should be in the interests of prisoners, and in the long run, therefore, in the interests of our national community, but whether it would in practice be in the interests of prisoners is slightly more speculative. I consider that this is a direction in which we ought to move, but the last state would be worse than the first—and I want to emphasise that—unless the Home Secretary of the day and his successors really believed in the vision of a prison service that could honestly be described as a caring service. If they did not, they had better let the thing alone.

I believe that the time has come when the service itself is ready for a new inspiration. I withdraw none of the criticisms that I have made of the policies being pursued by the Home Secretary. If I may say so with respect, I believe that he is a man of much imagination. There is nothing in what I am suggesting which is in any way incompatible with his overriding desire to protect the public.

I am confident that beyond question the change would be in the interests of the prison officers themselves, who are a highly deserving body of men and women and who have been for too long cut off from the general life of the nation, who have for too long been cheated of their true fulfilment as human beings and who would at last be enabled to pursue a profoundly satisfying vocation.

10.58 p.m.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, in view of the late hour I intend to encapsulate my remarks within a very few minutes. The noble Earl is to be congratulated once again on raising this subject in a form different from that in which he normally raises it. I would say immediately that the answer to the Question which he has asked must be in the affirmative. One would have wished that the Government were prepared now to have a new look at the future of the penal system. After all, the prison service is there simply to serve the penal system.

It is right that we should recollect that in 1895, I think it was, the Gladstone committee or commission reported on the prison system and suggested that it should have two objectives—rehabilitation and deterrence. It is right to say that we have tried to run the same system a century later when at least one of those two objectives seems to me to have gone completely out of the window. Therefore the time is really ripe for a new look at the whole of the penal system in this country.

It seems to me that since the War, because of the great changes in and the speed of technological development, and I suppose the great social changes that have taken place, there has been a relentless pressure on the old Victorian prison system, and we have not really thought out what we are going to do because of the enormous social problems which have arisen, giving rise to the enormous increase in recorded crime. It seems to me—and I have always believed this—that when I started at the Bar, the prison service was very much happier than it subsequently became. I personally greatly regret the setting up of the Prison Department of the Home Office and the abolition of the old independent body of the Prison Commission.

With the noble Earl, Lord Longford, I would quite like to see the development of an amalgamation within the Home Office, to start with, of the Probation and After Care Department with the Prison Department. At least that would be a first step. But, quite apart from that, I think there is and has been for years now, a general feeling of unease among the rank and file in the prison service. There is a general feeling of distrust of their general staff. I have felt this many, many times when talking to prison doctors, when talking to prison officers. If one goes into a prison or a remand centre, one is always impressed by the bad conditions that exist. Of course, the prison itself is only the fabric for the penal system, but when you go in, the holes in the linoleum, the shabby uniforms, virtually everything, is directed to an undermining of the morale of the prison system.

In my experience in talking to a number of people in the prison system who have had much more experience inside, as prisoners, prison officers, doctors, prison governors and so on, I have formed the conclusion—after a lifetime of experience at the Bar, at least—that the average prison officer is an ordinary, decent chap doing a very difficult job, very often under impossible conditions. That is the truth of the matter. It is terribly difficult for a prison officer to maintain morale and a constructive attitude to life, given the conditions under which he is asked to work. He has the general feeling that he is underestimated, that he is not appreciated in any way. It is so easy for sophisticated people to condemn him, but none of them would do his job because, very often, quite apart from the ordinary service he renders in prisons, often he has to deal with very difficult, inadequate, and sometimes impossible people, in addition to his normal duties. I think there has been a general failure, as it were, to take steps to uplift the morale of prison officers.

I think it is right that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, should raise this Question at the present time because it seems to me, for example, that the abolition in 1980 of the Advisory Council on the Penal System was a definitely retrograde step. One needs to see that kind of advisory committee restored, and indeed its remit enlarged with independent people from all walks of life drawn on to it. I believe that the time is long overdue for a complete new look, not only at the penal system but at the prison service.

All I need say further at this hour is that I think the noble Earl has rendered a considerable service in raising this subject. This service is in many ways the Cinderella of the social services, and it is high time that the prison service was given an uplift in the kind of direction outlined by the noble Earl, Lord Longford.

11.4 p.m.

Lord Soper

My Lords, I have been engaged this day in two debates in your Lordships' House which have one issue in common: just as I believe that war is unjustifiable, so, finally, do I believe that the prison system is irremediable. Therefore I take an absolute view of the prison system. Though I recognise the difference, that whereas Clausewitz regards war as a continuation of policy, we are confronted with policy as the very essence of the prison system as it now prevails.

I should make one other comment before I endeavour to follow the theme which has been adumbrated by my noble friend Lord Longford: it is that there have been great and important changes since I was a prison chaplain at Pentonville more than 50 years ago—and I must say that at the moment it seems even further off than that. During those years there have been very great changes, most of which have been for the better. They have not, however, in my judgment removed the fundamental objection to the prison system: that it is based on imperfect and, in many cases, fallacious assumptions about human nature or human behaviour.

If I apply myself—as I intend to do very briefly—to the particular matter of prison officers, let me introduce what I have to say with one or two very simple illustrations. The first is that when you remove from any prisoner the element of hope—even at the end of a very long tunnel—you have done something which. I believe, permanently impairs, if not tends to destroy, elements in his personality which are worth keeping, and if lost are impossible to revive.

Secondly, it is an abomination to put prisoners together in cells—sometimes two and sometimes three. And I should ask the Minister: what has been done (since this matter has been raised very often) to provide that strangers who, in most cases, are likely from proximity to contaminate one another rather than help one another, are not encased in premises intended in the 19th century for the occupation of one delinquent, and now quite often during the day-time they are occupied by three—the incarceration of six prisoners in a cell in remand prisons—which means that they are probably within those cells for 23½ hours out of 24?

Thirdly, it has no doubt come to the notice of the Minister that there have been at least four comments by coroners over the last three years that suicides in prisons or in the precincts of police stations have, in fact, been due to what has in every case been described as a lack of care.

That brings me to what my noble friend Lord Longford has been saying. I regard as imperative an opportunity of providing within the prison service a kind of category of fellowship as well as of jurisdiction that belongs to the prison staff if the kind of personal environment in a prison is going to be reformative or even worthwhile. So long as a prison officer is regarded as no more than a turnkey and a guardian, then I believe there is a very grave danger that the prisoner in our gaols—and very often in our remand prisons—is likely to find a personal environment which does nothing to encourage him and everything to deter him from a proper appreciation of the kind of punishment which, under other circumstances, he might be likely to accept as proper and sensible.

I do not agree—according to my own information—that it would be suitable to remove the probation officers from the prisons and leave the welfare entirely in the hands of the prison staff. What I suggest is that there ought to be a very much deeper and more realistic co-operation between the prison staff and the visitors; not only the visitors who are the probation officers but the prison visitors themselves. I should like to put in a commercial for prison visitors. I regard them as being among the most hopeful elements in the prison system today.

I believe there could be a fellowship set up on very practical lines in which the dignity of the prison service could be regarded as a first condition of employment, and it would be to the immense advantage generally of the whole welfare of prisons—while they still exist—that there should be within the prison those who, in the immediate and regular contacts with the prisoner, are likely to be his friend and co-operate with him in remedial exercise of one kind or another. In that regard, although the prison system itself is unremediable in principle, I believe that in the interim the raising of the status of the prison officer, giving him a sense of the dignity of his job and being prepared to pay a lot more to train him not only in custodial responsibilities but also in administrative, friendly and co-operative ministries, would do a great deal to relieve what many prison officers I know, and many probation officers I have met, regard as a thoroughly unsatisfactory and most disheartening system.

I commend most heartily the intention behind the Question that has been so well proposed by my noble friend. I believe that there is a demand now, as never before, that the dignity and status of the prison officer should be far more that of the probation officer or visitor. In that regard, co-operation between those three faculties would provide something that could at least ennoble a situation that otherwise continues to be degraded.

11.11 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I rise to make a contribution to this important debate and to declare an interest in that I have long had an association with the Prison Officers' Association. A debate on the prison service will of course range far and wide. As my noble friend Lord Longford, says—and I congratulate him on providing this opportunity for a debate—we are here to consider changes in our prisons that could benefit the prisoners, be of value to society and at the same time to highlight the crucial role to be played by the prison service in bringing this about. From my conversations with members of the Prison Officers' Association, I can say that they certainly subscribe to the view that the time has now arrived when a more positive and a wider and more constructive role should be perceived for those who serve society as prison officers.

All of us know that dramatic and significant change will not happen overnight. It is not expected to happen overnight. The Minister is fully entitled to claim steady, even substantial, progress towards fulfilling objectives which at one time seemed far off. The current prison building and major renovation programme is a case very much in point. The acceptance by Government that there should be an increase in numbers in the prison service—I have heard the figure of a further 5,000 by 1988 mentioned—must be a cause of satisfaction not only to the Government and prison officers but also to society within and without the prison walls.

As a Member of another place exercising my duties on behalf of my constituents, I have had cause to visit many prisons. In my time, I have visited every prison in London and some outside. I have never left any prison without feeling that society is indebted to prison officers performing their duties in difficult circumstances and with difficult people. I was glad to hear my noble friend Lord Longford remind us of the hopes of 30 years ago that he and others voiced—the aspiration that prison officers would become less merely turn-keys and more social rehabilitation orientated. If the past 30 years have been years of disillusion for my noble friend—he instanced his reaons for his distress—surely, we are obliged to reflect tonight on what have perhaps been some lost opportunities but to seize other new opportunities.

I have no reason to doubt that the Minister will not subscribe to the desire that prison officers fulfil a wider rôle than has hitherto been their lot. I am mindful of the pressures upon him and his ministerial colleagues. He deals in dreadful situations often with dreadful people. He grapples often with a legacy of need of quite daunting proportions. I believe that substantial progress is being made but that much more remains to be done. Let me put forward some thoughts which I assure the Minister are designed to be constructive.

Crucial to the quality and therefore the effectiveness of any service is the calibre of recruits and the appropriateness of their training. If we are to recognise a changing perception by society of what we hope will be achieved within our prisons, if we recognise that the nature of society has changed, that the nature of crime is changing and that the treatment of prisoners requires review, surely we need to scrutinise most carefully the thoroughness of the training given to prospective prison officers.

I know that the Minister will be familiar with the consultative document, Management Structure in Prison Department Establishments, and with the response to that document by the Prison Officers' Association. In paragraph 19 that document states: The prison officer is a key figure in the effective functioning of establishments. The relationships between prison officer and inmate is central to the prison process. One of the most important tasks of prison management is to support as well as supervise the prison officer in his relationship with inmates". I fully appreciate that the consultative document and the observations of such organisations as the Prison Officers' Association are still being considered. But nowhere in that response does the disquiet of prison officers manifest itself more strongly than in the paragraphs dealing with training. On the Justice May inquiry into the United Kingdom prison services chaired by Mr. Justice May, the prison department document says: The May Report did not envisage any major changes in recruitment or training". I want the Minister to tell the House that he does indeed envisage some changes—they may or may not be major. But he will have read the view of the Prison Officers' Association on page 23 of their observations that: The present training of prison officers is totally inadequate. This has been the view of the Association for a number of years". Whether the Minister would go that far is doubtful; but he will have read with care the references to improvements in training and recruitment which are felt by the Prison Officers' Association to be needed to meet the conditions of the remainder of the 20th century.

If the total prison officer complement is to be increased by 5,000 over the next five years, and allowing for retirements over the same period, there will arise a situation in 1988 when up to one-third of all prison officers will be comparatively new. Therefore, I should like to reinforce the case for a closer look at recruitment and training for the prison service by reminding the Minister of the proposals, with which he will be all too familiar—namely, those put to him by the Prison Officers' Association.

The first is that the period of initial training be doubled from four to eight weeks, and that principal training officers should be better fitted to perform their task. Secondly, that the emphasis at the officer training school should be on management. Thirdly, that recruits should be attached to a parent officer for the probationary period, and not be placed on the authorised staffing figures until completion of the probationary period. Fourthly, that during the probationary period, recruits should have attachment to such bodies and professions as the probation service, mental hospitals, courts, psychology departments, et cetera. Fifthly, that they should return to the training school for two weeks at the end of their probationary period for re-assessment and confirmation of their appointment. Sixthly, that all prison officers should have training periods at the training school every five years. Seventhly, that five O levels should he the minimum educational standard for recruitment.

As is often the case, I may well be told tonight by the Minister that some great progress has been made on some of those matters, and of course I shall he delighted and grateful to be told that. We all know that, despite the current programmes of expenditure, even more financial resources are needed if we are to improve present conditions in our prisons. If we want the prison service to provide the inmate population with more human services, to deal with problems and crises arising from the deprivation of liberty, to help prepare prisoners for release and a return to their families and the community, we need to provide greater job satisfaction for prison officers. I do not underestimate enormity of the task or the resources required. By initiating this debate, the noble Earl has rendered a great service to us all—the Government, the prison service, prisoners, their families and society.

Some of us listened to a debate held last week, on 15th March, on the Hennessy Report relating to the breakout from the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland last September. The Minister who will reply to this debate tonight took part in it.That debate is no part of this one save that when speaking about the Northern Ireland prison service the Minister said (at col. 961 of Hansard): They have an extraordinarily difficult job to do, and we must not ignore the impact of their work on their daily lives. He went on to say in col. 962: In spite of great difficulty, the vast majority of members of the prison service carry out their difficult tasks with thoroughness, determination and no small degree of courage, whether they are governors or prison officers. So I take this opportunity to repeat for the Government the tribute to them, and to assure them and noble Lords that Her Majesty's Government stand ready to give them every support in maintaining the highest standards of performance, which must be in the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland. I can assure the Minister that those words were deeply appreciated by members of the prison service and of the Prison Officers' Association with whom I have spoken since that debate. This debate is designed to be constructive. I hope that my few words will help the Minister to appreciate that a wider rôle for that self-same prison service will serve us all and serve us all well.

11.22 p.m.

Lord Kagan

My Lords, all noble Lords will agree, I think, on all sides of the House on the desirability of enhancing the prison service to enable it to be successful in reformative education. But the question is whether it is possible. I am a little puzzled because the prison service, if it chose to use them, has unrivalled resources. The expense, we all know, is way in excess of what is available to the headmasters of the most expensive schools, but in addition to that there is absolute control over the inmates which the headmaster and the teaching service do not have. I think the reason for it is, as the noble Earl, Lord Longford, said, that the prison officers are not equipped for, and not even allowed to carry out, this function, though they want to.

In the Scandinavian countries the training of a prison officer is largely intended to enable him to be a probation officer. If we did that, it would produce a better officer and a man who would value his job, because it is a human fact that if you believe in the dignity of a job, the man will try to deserve it, and if you believe the man to be below average, he will eventually prove you to be right. Prison officers do not look at themselves as being in a good or honourable profession, and it is not their fault. We cannot have good schools without competent and good teachers, and we cannot have a prison which carries out the function of reform without having good prison officers.

In addition to that, we ought—as I have said before in this House—to look abroad to see what they do. The churches and the chaplains play a much bigger role in other countries. Is there a good reason why that is not so in this country? After all, there is a great deal at stake because most prisoners spend only a small part of their lives in prison and have to return to society for a much longer period, and either they come out improved, or they become a danger. Of course it would have to be a gradual process, and one would have to select for training prison officers who would be suitable for this probationary and reformative role. One would also probably have to select carefully the prisoners who are suitable and of a type who could be reformed. We should not forget that not everybody who breaks the law or commits a crime is necessarily a criminal for ever.

I should like to come to the point that my noble friend Lord Soper made. If one cuts out hope one has destroyed the man at a cost to him and also at a cost to society when he comes out. We have abolished physical capital punishment, but I think that destroying hope is almost capital punishment of the soul. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, will not be surprised if I ask him again, what happened to the study of the Dutch penal system? Perhaps he can tell us now. They do it so much better than we do.

11.26 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the gratitude of what remains of this House at this hour, and the sympathy of the House, should go to my noble friend Lord Longford for two reasons: first, because we should express our gratitude to him for once more raising a matter which is of the utmost importance to us, namely, that of the state of our prisons and the reform of our prisons and the part that prison officers ought to play. Secondly, our sympathy should go to him because this debate is taking place at such a late hour when it deserves a greater attendance and to be reported elsewhere.

At once I disclose an interest to your Lordships. I am the senior partner of a firm of solicitors that has acted for the Prison Officers' Association for many years. Having made the disclosure of that interest, at once I proceed, with your Lordships' permission, to an attempt to sum up some of the main points which I believe your Lordships would want to have considered by the noble Lord the Minister.

The noble Earl has permitted me to go a little wider than his own speech in relation to prison officers. It is a tragedy that we have dealt piecemeal with a very broad subject. We have looked at the question of the overcrowding of prisons and we have looked at the prisons themselves. We have looked at the Crown Courts—Beeching did that. We have not looked at the magistrates' courts, I think I am right in saying, although Beeching recommended that we should, since the Roche Committee reported in 1944. We have looked separately at the police. We have looked separately at the probation service—a service to which I want to pay my deep tribute, and a very sincere tribute, because there is not the slightest doubt that in the whole of the structure of prison work, the reformation of convicts and so on, the service plays a terrifically important part.

We have done all this piecemeal. Just to show your Lordships by a quick example why it is tragic that we have done it piecemeal and why, possibly, there should be some inquiry with a broad review of the whole situation, let me quote again the example of the remand prisoner. We have spoken about it before. At any one time there are about 7,000 remand prisoners who have not as yet been convicted of any crime. There they are in prison. We have talked about that and we have talked in terms of lessening that number.

There has been no inquiry, for example, into why it is that remands take so long. It is not the question of whether prisoners should be sent into custody during a remand period. Some of us who in the past have been practitioners in the criminal courts, or who may be so at present, know perfectly well that the greater percentage of applications for remand come from the police who are prosecuting and not from defendants. Nobody has inquired into whether or not the police are acting properly when they prosecute, whether they are acting promptly when they prosecute—and this is going to be very much a matter of concern when we have got a new prosecuting service, as we understand, coming into existence. No such inquiry has been made to link up the question of police procedure with what happens in the magistrates' courts, which has not been inquired into since 1944, and then what happens in regard to entry into prison. I would urge upon the Government the need for the broadest possible inquiry covering the whole range of those who prosecute, the courts that try and the prisons themselves.

If I may, I will turn for a moment to what my noble friend Lord Longford said was the main theme of his own address to your Lordships when so eloquently introducing this debate. I follow my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton and I say this. There is no point in paying tributes, worthy though I am sure they are and eloquently expressed, as I am sure they will be, to the prison service and what they do and how much society should appreciate what they do. They themselves are asking for a more responsible, creative role. My noble friend Lord Graham read out what they have themselves urged upon the Secretary of State, that there should be a restructuring of the whole role of the prison officer.

It is not very often that we get a trade union or an association begging that there should be a standard of recruitment, a pretty high standard requiring five O-levels, before one can become a recruit to a service. That is not the normal run of trade union representation. But there they are, urging it upon the Secretary of State because they want to see a better type of recruit coming into the service, one who is able to take on these greater responsibilities. I hope that in what is a review of management structure in prison department establishments the Secretary of State, aided as he is so ably by the noble Lord the Minister whom we are proud to have with us in this House, will take these recommendations, these pleas, of the prison officers very much to heart.

I end as I began in this winding-up speech on behalf of the Opposition by saying this. It is perfectly true that the Secretary of State has put forward a programme for building new prisons. It is perfectly true that he deserves credit for it. It is perfectly true that he has taken away, to a very large extent, if not completely —or it may be completely so at this moment—this dreadful business of prisoners in cells in police stations. That, at least, has gone. But what my noble friend Lord Longford has said about two and three in prison cells is still going on. I beg of the noble Lord the Minister that when he is looking at the whole of building structure to realise, as I believe he does, that buildings are one thing and human beings are another. There is an opportunity here by re-structuring, looking after the recruitment and training of prison officers and giving them more responsibility, to put new men into the new buildings. That will go a long way, I believe, towards helping to solve some of the problems that we have got with our prisons. I also hope that the noble Lord the Minister will take seriously a plea for some sort of inquiry going through the broad review that I asked for at the very outset of my remarks.

11.36 p.m.

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

My Lords, your Lordships have been patient in waiting for this debate and concise in contributing to it. I shall try to reply in kind, but we are on important matters. In asking this Question, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has made it clear that the concern which he wished to exercise tonight is almost exclusively with the future rôle within the prison service of prison officers. That is a large and crucial subject in itself; and he was kind enough to give me notice yesterday that this would be the focus of his interest tonight. I am always grateful to noble Lords for an indication of their concern ahead of a debate, as it sometimes helps me to give them a fuller answer than I otherwise could, and on other occasions allows me to discard material which I find interesting but by which they would be perhaps a little bored. I have therefore taken the opportunity to curtail somewhat what I had intended to say, and I think your Lordships will be relieved.

In particular, I am able to confirm only briefly and as the context of his concern, rather than as I had earlier supposed, as its main subject, what my right honourable friend the Home Secretary sees as the future of the prison service as a whole. I think it is proper to refer to this, however, particularly in view of the direction of the interest indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, in his short but highly relevant speech.

This is the context within which prison officers work, and it makes a very great deal of difference to them whether their charges are held two or three together in single Victorian cells or in ones and twos in modern cells designed for the purpose. It makes a very great deal of difference to them also whether they themselves are sufficiently numerous to discharge all the proper functions of the service or only some of them. If the demands of court productions and visits soak up almost the whole of available manpower, none is left for escorting prisoners to workshops and education classes—let alone for the humane and important functions in which the noble Earl has so close an interest.

That can account for the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, finds the service a good deal less happy, as he put it, than it used to be. Prison officers, after all, share to a large extent the conditions of their charges. The prisoners' living conditions are the prison officers' working conditions; and therefore it really is relevant that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has taken, and continues to take, not just one new look but a whole series of new looks at an increasing range of activities and functions in which the prison service is involved and at the physical context in which it conducts them. The noble Lord, Lord Soper, is clear that the impact on prisoners of the physical circumstances of their custody is close and important.

The impact on this aspect of affairs of my right honourable friend, added to that of my noble friend Lord Whitelaw, has been dramatic, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, for generously acknowledging this. The programmes which they have between them set rolling are on course to provide additional modern places for 6,600 prisoners in new prisons, and for 4,000 additional places in existing prisons by the end of 1991. Provision on that impressive scale, at a cost of £250 million, for the new prisons alone will enable us both to cope with the projected increase to 49,000 of the prison population—and I break here to say that this is a projection and not a prediction, and projections change—and will enable us to scrap some of the worst and most irremediable accommodation altogether.

The other leg of the programmes—if programmes do have legs, but perhaps they only have pages—will provide an additional 5,500 prison staff by the end of 1988; and 5,000 of these will be uniformed officers.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, has also acknowlegded that. Buildings and staff do not comprise a prison service of their own. Buildings, as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, said, are one thing; human beings are another. My right honourable friend was no more content than the noble Earl would have been to let matters rest at the point—the much more promising point—to which the action I mentioned had brought them. He addressed himself also to another question: security and control. Here there is a constant need for balance. Too much and you have a system that is both repressive and expensive—and I suspect that is how the noble Earl sees the system that we now have. Too little and you save nothing, because your prisoners eventually will not or escape. That is another extreme which we are anxious to avoid. The proper balance changes both for historic reasons and as a result of decisions. My right honourable friend's recent decisions on parole, for instance, have meant both that there will be some 2,000 fewer minor offenders in custody from next July, and that there will be perhaps 250 additional serious and violent offenders.

My right honourable friend therefore decided to take a new look also at arrangements for ensuring and preserving control and to give this a greater priority within the Home Office. The prison department's control review committee has been making a thorough and professional study of these matters and will make recommendations to my right honourable friend shortly. He has also initiated a new look at the whole system for adjudications on alleged breaches of prison discipline. The departmental committee, which is to study this very difficult and sensitive subject, will be chaired by Mr. Peter Prior. My right honourable friend hopes that it will report within 12 months, and I rather expect that the noble Earl will have a Question on it on the Order Paper on the very next day.

These are only some of the initiatives which my right honourable friend has taken, and a few of the inquisitions he has held. He is constantly, as I have said, looking at different aspects of the service and to all of them he brings a fresh and a perceptive eye. I now turn to the interest, and it is a very proper interest, and a central one, of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, in the involvement of prison staff in the welfare, development and rehabilitation of prisoners. Much of this is, of course, embraced by the probation function within the prison service. So let me start by saying that nearly 500 probation officers are at present seconded to the service at a cost, in 1983–84, of some £7 million. They bring with them specific skills, and specific contacts outside the prison service, which it would be very difficult indeed to match from within it.

Their training is directed in a way, and to an extent, to which the training of prison officers cannot so readily be directed to the problems which face offending individuals when they return to a society which they often see as hostile and threatening. They are familiar both with the formal structures and with the informal arrangements within which they can find assistance and support; and they are familiar with the working of their own service in the field to which the prisoner is to return. Their counsel and support is invaluable therefore—both to the prisoners and to the prison officers who look after them. The noble Earl is concerned that prison officers should take a hand themselves in that sort of work.

If your Lordships will be more patient than I should wish you to be as a matter of course, I shall dilate on that. It seems that inexplicably I have to rely on my memory. We have in recent years expanded a scheme to involve prison officers in this side of the work in a number of prisons. We have done this over several years and the results of it are encouraging. It is not imposed on prison officers. These are voluntary schemes on which I can now be a fraction more forthcoming. The 1977 social work in prison scheme is the one to which I refer; and 1977 was the year of the launch, not the year of the experiment. The scheme's primary purpose was to encourage co-operative effort by both services to enable prison officers to play a fuller part in welfare work and to overcome the mutual suspicion and animosity.

Governors and chief probation officers, in consultation with their staffs, were invited to prepare jointly a plan for the reorganisation of welfare work to suit the needs of the particular prison. Initially, five prisons were involved. As the scheme encouraged local reappraisal of working methods and agreed change and development, it was recognised that progress in developing social work in prisons and in other establishments would be slow. Moreover, resource constraints meant that governors, when planning their schemes, had to rely on existing manpower—a theme to which we shall no doubt constantly return. Continuing manpower constraints have meant that progress has been slower than originally expected. But that is not to say that no progress has been made at all. Three further establishments are participating in official social work in prison schemes, and others have developed their own schemes with staff of both services participating in shared working.

I ought to add as a footnote something about what is now being done in most young offender establishments, following the bringing into force on 24th May 1983 of Part I of the Criminal Justice Act 1982. Here, most seconded probation staff now fulfil a liaison role. It is prison staff who are responsible for the day-to-day case work with trainees and for liaison with probation and other outside agencies. This is a move wholly in the direction which the noble Earl seeks. Many establishments also run flourishing personal officer schemes, some of which I have been able to see and which I find very encouraging. The probation officer gives professional support, advice and training to prison staff, facilitates liaison with outside agencies and is there as a direct social work resource for trainees with especially difficult problems. That means he will help. Our experience is that this system is generally working very well.

From what I have said, I hope it is clear that in the prison service we value very highly indeed the work of seconded probation officers of all grades. It must also be clear that that work does not necessarily have to take from prison officers, or other prison staff, the chance to provide support and counsel to prisoners. That is already an integral part of the work of a wide range of prison staff, including prison officers. Work of this kind gives a fulfilling dimension to their jobs and helps them to establish constructive relationships with prisoners—which will, incidentally, benefit the whole tone of the institution in which they serve. That is a point which will be well taken by the noble Lord, Lord Kagan.

We therefore take very seriously the thrice expressed view of the National Association of Probation Officers, that seconded probation officers should by stages be withdrawn from the prison service. One cannot, and we shall not, dismiss either lightly or out of hand the views of a professional body about the work of its members. I note, however, that contrary views were expressed from within the profession on the three occasions when these resolutions were debated.

We do not develop our policies in this area in isolation. A steering group is at present reviewing the role of probation officers in adult prison establishments. There is a representative of the Association of Chief Officers of Probation on that steering group and the group is keeping in close touch with interested staff associations. As it happens, the group will shortly meet both the National Association of Probation Officers and the Prison Officers' Association to discuss with them the progress of their review.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, will also be interested to know that they have commissioned from Professor Jepson research into ways in which schemes have been developed to engage prison officers more directly in responding to prisoners' social and welfare needs. The results of this research will be available for discussion in November of this year by representatives of the Home Office and both services, together with representatives of the interested staff associations. I hope therefore that noble Lords see that we do not try to railroad the prison service into policies. We consult them on issues of this kind.

On the basis of this very thorough programme of research and consultation, a statement will be prepared for consideration by the Prisons Board on how best the functions and tasks in this area of work should be carried out in the future, and how it should be shared between probation officers working in prisons and other prison staff. I have no doubt that that statement, when it is produced, will deal with all the issues related to defining roles and tasks, including the question of training.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords. I just want to catch up. Who is going to look into the question of training? The noble Lord did tell us, but I was not quite sure what it was he said.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the process I am describing is not the only process, but it leads to training by one of several routes. This is the process by which the department, through a consultative group, including a representative of the Association of Chief Officers of Probation, and in consultation with the Prison Officers' Association and the National Association of Probation Officers, is both studying what is going on in the field and consulting those who work in the field, and has commissioned research into what is going on in the field. When it has digested all that information, it will place it before the Prisons Board, who will also be concerned in the matter of how to train people for any changes which may arise in the treatment of this subject. Training itself is, of course, a subject for review—and that review also will come before the Prisons Board.

This will also mark a further departure from the concept of a prison officer's work which the noble Earl described as the "bung 'em in and lock 'em up approach". I have to add that it will not mark a departure from the Government's view that security is of overriding importance. The prison service is the servant of the courts. The courts place prisoners in custody for the protection of society as well as for the punishment of offenders; and if the service fails in containment, it cannot fulfil any of the other functions which the noble Earl would like to see it perform. That is not to say, I hasten to add, that we do not value very highly the quality of humaneness in prison staff. I will return in a moment to the subject of how the prison staff see themselves and how we see them.

The tone of a profession is much influenced by the career it offers new entrants. The career offered by the prison service is a challenging one for which the entrant is initially prepared by a course lasting three months. The first month is spent in observation and acclimatisation in a prison service establishment. This is followed by a two-month residential course at an officer training school. The course is designed to give the new officer instruction in his basic duties and make him familiar with the demands of his post. It is currently being evaluated, and we intend to introduce a new programme in the autumn. The views your Lordships have expressed on this subject tonight will be taken into account during that review.

Further training occurs as the officer advances through his career, and specific courses are taken if he pursues a particular specialism, such as that of dog handler or hospital officer. It is important to ensure that training meets the operational objectives of the service. The time devoted to training has of course to be set alongside other demands—particularly operational demands—and we are always looking at the ways in which training may be made more effective. One constraint is the availability of staff for essential tasks other than training.

One of the strengths of the prison service is provided by the opportunity it gives to those who start out as prison officers to go on to become prison governors. Prison officers are encouraged to enter the governor grades. They can do so by way of the Civil Service Open Competition in which they compete with other, outside candidates—or through the Civil Service Limited Competition, which is confined to the prison officer grades. Candidates for this competition are required to undertake a series of tests and interviews lasting three days. Final selection is made after considering reports on the candidates.

At the last count we had 152 in the service who had been promoted from prison officer to governor grades. Nor need an ambitious or gifted individual stop there. On promotion from Governor Ito assistant controller, members of the service enter the unified grading system introduced in the Civil Service on 1st January this year. They then have the promotion opportunities of an assistant secretary. Those entering the service as prison officers therefore have the opportunity to rise to its highest levels. On reaching assistant controller level, moreover, they are in the open structure of the Civil Service with a considerable increase in the career options open to them.

May I now pause to pick up one or two points. The noble and reverend Lord, Lord Soper, made an exceedingly interesting contribution, the whole of which was of value to those who wish to reflect on the prison service in this country and I shall read it with great interest. He touched on one subject which gives me a great deal of distress; and that is the subject of suicides in prison. I make it a rule that the news of a suicide in prison is brought to my desk at the earliest possible moment after it is discovered. I always follow up these inquiries whenever there is any shadow of doubt as to whether the event was avoidable. All I can say is that I share the noble Lord's concern and he will, I think, know that Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons has been asked to carry out a study of suicides in prison. The results will be published and his report is expected soon. That arose from the concern which my now noble friend and I, and others, felt about this some time ago and it is shared also by my right honourable friend the present Home Secretary.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, made a notable speech which had a special appeal to me since it started with a generous recognition of the difficulties which the Government have been facing, the steady progress they have been making in the face of them, and concluded in a similar vein. It is rare for me to hear that sort of sound in the Chamber and it is almost unique that I should hear it coming from that direction, so it is a moment that I savoured and shall long remember. He also made it clear to your Lordships that prison officers are very much alert to what is going on in the service and are thoroughly committed to their work. I shall return to them in a moment.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, began by restricting his comments to the social work aspects of the prison service, if I can so describe them. The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, briefly broadened this to the prison service as a whole and the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, extended the consideration, again very briefly, to the whole penal system and corners of the criminal justice system as well. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary does in fact have a strategy which covers the whole field and if he was here I dare say he would be tempted to reply in kind because it is a powerful strategy. I hope perhaps on another occasion I may be more forthcoming on it, but in view of the late hour and the length of my speech I ought to remain within the confines of what we are principally discussing. That brings me back to the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, and the picture he gave of the alert, responsible and dedicated prison officer service as I recognise it.

I must say I was a little shocked by what the noble Earl, Lord Longford, said about the way in which prison officers of his acquaintance believe they are seen by the public and by the statement of the noble Lord, Lord Kagan—I am sure he does not share the view he described—that prison officers felt that they were not in a good and honourable job. I think we must recognise that they are engaged in a profession that is essential to the continuation of an ordered society; a profession without which the rest of us simply could not manage. It is always difficult, often frustrating and sometimes very dangerous. They deserve our respect and from me and from Her Majesty's Government they certainly have it in full measure. We are not silent in our appreciation and my noble friend Lady Trumpington has a speech, made in your Lordships' House expressing her own high regard for them, printed in their own magazine so they must be aware that we do have a high regard for them and that it is not limited to Ministers with direct responsibility.

They do not all live isolated lives shunned by society. We meet them in our churches and they are involved in many forms of good work outside the prison walls. It is to me one of the saving delights of an otherwise somewhat remorseless responsibility that I have that I find in it people of a humanity and charity which burns undaunted in the face of the great difficulties of the material with which they are working in the form of disturbed people in difficult conditions, shortage of resources, lack of sanitation, over-work, excessive reliance on overtime, and the rest of it. All these are aspects of a job upon which the initiatives by my right honourable friend and his noble predecessor will bear very strongly indeed over the next few years. I think that we shall look back on these years with more satisfaction than we can now feel, as the foundations are laid for a better future.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, invited me implicitly to repeat what I said in an earlier debate on another prison service. This I willingly do. The Government recognise the valuable and indispensable services of the prison service. In that I have to include all ranks, not only prison officers but governors and also the civil servants who stand behind them. They are in a constant state of tension with the conditions for which they are responsible. The vast majority of them bring to that a patience and a humanity which I personally should find it hard to equal. There are others; but we are careful in recruitment, and we are able to be more careful in recruitment now with a very high level of applications indeed for every job. It is much higher than it has been in the past. I am aware, as are those who advise me and those who run the service, of the danger of those who may go in for the wrong motives.

I have now come to the stage of the evening when I am in danger of mounting a hobby-horse, but your Lordships would not wish me to do that, except to ride away. I have tried to give the noble Earl a satisfactory Answer to his Question and to address myself principally to his view of the prison service. Much of it I find attractive. I believe that when our prison officers have more time to spend on prisoners and to treat them not as a commodity to be stored but as individuals to be brought out of themselves and restored to society—when we have more time from the increased resources—the noble Earl will be no less persistent in his questioning, but in this area at least he will have a little less concern than he now does.