HL Deb 26 June 1985 vol 465 cc735-8

2.54 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will introduce a system whereby first offenders under the age of 21 and other prisoners under the age of 18 held on remand in prisons do not share cells with older prisoners.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I understand the noble Baroness's concern, but prison rules and departmental instructions already provide that unconvicted prisoners under 21 should be kept separate from adult prisoners and from convicted prisoners as far as this can reasonably be done. Those who have not previously served a sentence in custody should, so far as is practicable, be separated from others. Governors have regard to those principles in allocating prisoners to cells, as well as, of course, to the availability of accommodation and the circumstances of individual prisoners.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that in theory that is the policy but in practice, so far as Leeds Prison is concerned, this does not happen? Is she also aware that many young people under the age of 21 are locked up with older prisoners for 23 hours a day? This concern was expressed to me by one of the visiting chaplains and by many of the young people themselves.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, as I have already said, it is our intention that people under 21 should not be located in the same cell as older prisoners, whether convicted or unconvicted. If on rare occasions unconvicted under-21-year-olds have temporarily been placed in the same cell as older unconvicted prisoners, this is regrettable and I share the noble Baroness's concern. If she knows of any particular instances, I am sure that my noble friend the Minister would be willing to hear of them.

Turning briefly to the second point with regard to the number of hours in which prisoners may be in their cells, may I draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that, in addition to their exercise period and education classes, prisoners are allowed to leave their cells to collect meals, to shower, to see prison staff or to receive visits. There are many variables; but even in the most overcrowded establishments on days with few opportunities it would be unusual—and I agree that it would be unfortunate—if prisoners under 21 remained in their cells for such long periods.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, will the Minister, having regard to the seriousness of the Question that was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, give a categorical assurance that instructions will be given that in no circumstances are these conditions to be allowed to obtain: namely, that somebody under the age of 21 who is a prisoner, whether on remand or otherwise, shall be in the same cell as an older prisoner? Does the Minister realise that any policy for the reform of young people is completely invalidated by circumstances such as are recited in this Question?

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I share the noble Lord's concern for the seriousness of the Question. As regards the under-21 population, governors do their best to ensure that younger prisoners do not share cells with those who are considerably older or who have serious previous criminal convictions. We cannot make hard and fast rules to suit every case, taking into account all the factors such as age, nature of the offence and state of mind, so some discretion must be left to the governor.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, in view of the anxiety about the serious bottleneck of prisoners on remand, can my noble friend tell us whether the Home Office have any plans to relieve that bottleneck?

Baroness Cox

My Lords, the main source of the problems which are causing such concern to your Lordships is the delay which takes place in the courts, and the Government have taken active steps in this area. Field trials of the statutory time limits provided in the Prosecution of Offences Act will soon take place. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor is providing a substantial increase in resources in terms of both judges and courtrooms for the Crown Courts which have suffered the most rapid recent increase in business. Very briefly, perhaps I may also point out that, as your Lordships will be aware, this Government have embarked upon an extensive prison building and renovation programme which will result in two new establishments being planned as remand centres for those under 21. Five establishments will be local prisons. Much refurbishment work will be aimed at improving conditions in local prisons. Taken together, the current proposals on building projects will provide about 11,700 new places by the early 1990s and should well help to solve these problems.

Baroness Vickers

My Lords, can my noble friend state the average length of time that young people have to stay in prison? Can she also say whether they have any form of education while they are there?

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot give any information on the average length of time because it varies a great deal. But there is certainly a statutory requirement for formal education for juveniles.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that under the conditions described by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, the danger of drug-taking must be increased?

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I would hope that the actual taking of drugs in prison would not be increased, but obviously such contacts with people with other kinds of problems and records is a serious matter. That is one of the reasons the Government are so deeply concerned about the problem and are trying to remedy it.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, is not the undesirability of young people under the age of 18 who are on remand, many of whom are likely to be acquitted, having to share cells with adult prisoners so intolerable that it ought to be prohibited by the regulations of the prison system?

Baroness Cox

My Lords, unconvicted prisoners under 21 are mainly held in remand centres. If under-21s are held within the prison itself, they will wherever possible be located in a separate wing on a separate landing. But they will always be held in separate cells unless there are exceptional circumstances—for example, perhaps where a father and son are both remanded together in custody.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend the Minister whether in the area of which the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, has been speaking there are sufficient bail hostels? From experience I can say that it is possible to send a young person to a bail hostel rather than to remand in custody, if there are sufficient bail hostels.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, we are aware that it is very important to make provision for bail, and we believe therefore that hostels which take people on bail have an important role in reducing the remand bottleneck. New hostels have recently been opened and we are reviewing the arrangements for assessing demand for places to see how this option can be better utilised.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, will your Lordships forgive me if I return to the Dispatch Box? I do so only because of the seriousness of this Question. The noble Baroness has mentioned on more than one occasion "wherever possible" and "if possible". Because of the concern shown on all sides of the House, is she prepared to take up this matter with the Secretary of State with a view to seeing whether there cannot be a prohibition, except in the most urgent circumstances, in regard to the conditions mentioned in the Question asked by the noble Baroness? Will she please speak to her right honourable friend about this and tell him of the great concern shown by this House?

Baroness Cox

My Lords, it is a concern that we all share. I shall certainly draw it to the attention of my noble friend the Minister, and I imagine that he will draw it to the attention of his right honourable friend.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, following the last question of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, perhaps I may ask my noble friend whether we should not consider a policy different from the one that we have at the moment, whereby these boys are accommodated in a place and in a way more suitable to their age and more constructive to helping them so that they can adapt to life when they come out. Furthermore, may I ask my noble friend the Minister whether her right honourable friend the Home Secretary is aware that when I visited Oxford Prison on 31st May, 40 boys aged 17 to 21 were in the prison, of whom 22 were untried? Yesterday there were 38 boys in the prison, of whom 30 were untried. Is my noble friend the Minister aware what excellent staff there are at Oxford Prison? They do not put the boys with men, but this means that there must be three boys to a cell.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, my noble friend has raised a number of questions. Perhaps I may point out that, with regard to the placement of young persons under 21, three-quarters of those on remand are held in remand centres. The reason they are held in remand centres is that they need to be as close as possible to their families and friends, relatives and legal advisers, in order to facilitate visits. Very few juveniles are remanded in custody and those who are almost always go to remand centres.

With regard to the situation in Oxford, it is recognised that there are very real problems with the prison in Oxford, which is a small, overcrowded local prison. It has a limited life and there is an intention for a new local prison to be built at Bicester which should relieve that problem in due course.

Lord Melchett

My Lords, may I ask the noble Viscount the Leader of the House whether, in the light of the exchanges we have had so far today, the new policy which he announced recently of only one supplementary question being asked at Question Time and only one question being answered by Ministers on the Front Bench has been subsequently changed?

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

No, my Lords. I believe it to be my duty to interpret the wishes of the House with some flexibility. It seemed to me that this afternoon there was a genuine concern for this particular subject which the House wished to pursue. I considered that in those circumstances it would be wrong for me to interpret the rules too literally, but I should like to make it clear that it is my duty to interpret the wishes of the House. I hope I was doing so.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!