HL Deb 05 February 1987 vol 484 cc328-32

3.15 p.m.

Lord Gainford

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 what action they are taking to reduce overcrowding in prisons.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, our major prison building programme will yield a further 17,200 places in new and expanded prisons by the mid-1990's. We are making better use of the existing prison estate, where necessary by changing the functions of establishments, to match changes which have occurred and are projected to occur in the nature of the prison population.

We are continuing to encourage the use of non-custodial sentences for persons convicted of less serious offences. We are also working to improve the flow of cases through the courts so as to stem the increase in the proportion of prisoners on remand.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that considerable Answer. May I ask him for further information about the existing plans for alternative to custody and how they are being utilised?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we are fortunate in this country to have open to the judiciary perhaps the greatest range of non—custodial sentences available anywhere. These have been taken up in a number of ways. For instance, community service orders have gone up from 10,277 to 33,800. Over the same time-scale, probation orders have gone up from 23,000 to 37,200. So full use is being made of those alternatives.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, the noble Earl the Minister will know that one of the most serious aspects of overcrowding in prisons today is the large number of people in prison who are on remand in custody. The Minister did mention that matter. However, I should like to know what he intends to do to try and reduce the appalling proportion of those who have not yet been tried but who are in prison.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we are trying to improve the situation as regards speed of trials. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has made the position considerably better by the creation of further courts and additional members of the judiciary. Whether or not a person is remanded in custody of course depends upon the case.

The Lord Bishop of Birmingham

My Lords, since the prison building programme seems likely to be insufficient, will the noble Earl consider the possibility of prison-capping, so that when the number of inmates reaches a certain figure his right honourable friend can use his executive privilege to release inmates in appropriate categories in order to keep numbers down to an acceptable maximum? Is the noble Earl aware that this practice is carried out in at least one state in the United States of America and that its use was recently threatened by the French Minister of Justice?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the difficulty with the proposal of the right reverand Prelate is to get any agreement as to what the right level for a prison population is, and whether it is right for my right honourable friend the Home Secretary or for any Home Secretary to turn to a judge and say, "There is no room for these people in prison", or, "I cannot release that number of people". It has been tried, as the right reverend Prelate says, in various countries. For that reason, two-thirds of the convicted prisoners in Holland are still awaiting their time in prison.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, is it not a fact that many reports over the past decade bearing on the growing crisis in prisons have advocated shorter maxima for prison sentences for non-violent offences? Is the noble Earl aware that I can think of no report which has not been constant in advocating that course? Is he further aware that two fairly recent surveys of public opinion, one commissioned by the Home Office and the other commissioned by the Prison Reform Trust, have shown clearly that the public would favour shorter maximum sentences for non-violent offenders? Given the fact that the great majority of prisoners now in our prisons are serving sentences for non-violent offences, is there not a case for early legislation to deal with the problem in that way?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I believe it is absolutely right, and in fact it is the duty of Parliament, to provide a variety of non-custodial sentences, as well as the option of a prison sentence. It is up to the independent judiciary to determine what sentence is appropriate.

Lord Wells-Pestell

My Lords, is the noble Earl able to give the percentage of persons remanded in custody who are subsequently found not guilty?

The Earl of Caithness

Not without notice, my Lords.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the most cost-effective and humane sentence is that which bears the least likelihood of causing the person to re-offend and to be recommited to prison? In that context, will he tell us what priority is given by his department to the treatment known as intermediate treatment, which has the lowest re-offending record of any of the treatments of which I am aware? Will he give priority to it and in particular look at the work being done by Mountbatten training at Gyde House?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right in stating that the Government's policy is to reduce the level of crime and the number of those who re-offend once they have been convicted.

We are giving the area of intermediate treatment substantial sums of money and we wish to encourage it.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, may I ask my noble kinsman whether he will encourage more treatment centres such as Phoenix House for drug abusers and for alcoholics, and also whether he will encourage more meaningful deterrents in cases of rape so that people do not do this?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we are seeking various methods of funding to encourage treatments for alcoholism and drug abuse both outside and within prison. With regard to the second question of my noble kinswoman, the matter of sentences is of course up to the judiciary.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, on the question of remands in custody, is the noble Earl aware that while in office the predecessor of the present Home Secretary, Mr. Brittan, announced in an article in The Times that as a result of the steps he had taken there would be no further need to remand prisoners in police custody? Is he further aware that in a Written Answer which he gave me at the end of last year he indicated that more than 200 prisoners a week on average were being kept in police custody? What steps are the Government taking to honour Mr. Brittan's promise?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, at the time that the then Home Secretary made that statement he was absolutely right to say what he did. Unfortunately, the prediction of future trends in the prison population has proved a very difficult task to carry out with any accuracy, and the prison population has increased far more dramatically than he predicted. The way to overcome this problem is, first, to improve the regimes within prison so that there is a greater flexibility for accepting prisoners who are sentenced or remanded in custody late on in the afternoon; and, secondly, to improve the prison building programme, which should have been started before the Government came to office.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that he has a crisis on his hands just as serious as that which has exploded in Scotland over recent weeks? Does he agree that the centre of this crisis, as has already been suggested, is the enormous increase in the percentage of men and women being remanded to local prisons by the courts? Is he aware that there are today more than 7,000 such people banged up in cells without sanitation for 23 hours a day? What emergency measures does he have to prevent the prison officers and the prisoners deciding to say, as they will soon, enough is enough?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a number of points which would take a great deal of time to answer. It is wise to point out to the House that as a percentage the level of overcrowding is the same today as it was in 1970. It is a problem that has remained with us. Where we have failed in the past is in providing adequate resources to build new prisons. This is what the Government are doing.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that there is great public apprehension about the diversity of policies throughout the various courts in the land on the whole question of sentencing? Will he bear in mind the point that was made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, about non-violent crimes and the points that have been made about remand? In view of the serious situation, does he think that there is room for an inquiry to be held jointly between his department and, if appropriate, the Lord Chancellor's department to see whether there can be some adequate recommendations?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, with the Bail Act and bail hostels, a number of options are available to the judiciary. It is part of our programme to continue to bring them to the attention of the judiciary but at the end of the day it is up to the judiciary and not the executive to decide on each case.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, with further reference to the question of the noble Lord on the Liberal Banches who referred to remand prisoners being put into local prisons, is the noble Earl aware that in the greater London area where I live prisoners on remand are being placed in local police stations in completely unsatisfactory circumstances?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we deplore the fact that some people on remand are kept in police cells overnight. As I explained in an earlier answer, this is what we want to get rid of by building more prisons.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, can the noble Earl say whether the change in the rules of bail has increased or reduced the number of prisoners on remand?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, there was a substantial reduction in the number of prisoners as a result of the Bail Act but unfortunately the number of those on remand has increased. It is the increase in the numbers on remand rather than the number of sentenced prisoners that has posed the problems of overcrowding that we have today.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, I am sorry to come back to the noble Earl once again but, with respect, he did not answer my question. Following the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, I should like to put it to him again. Does he agree that in the long-standing and growing crisis in our prisons there is an urgent case for bringing in further legislation to lower the maxima for prison sentences for most categories of non-violent offenders?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I think it is wise on each case for the judiciary to have an option of sentences. It is up to the judge, having heard the full details of the case, to make up his mind what the appropriate sentence should be. But we do not hesitate to draw to the attention of the judiciary the range of non-custodial options, should they be appropriate.

The Lord Bishop of Derby

My Lords, as part of the process which the noble Earl described, can he tell the House whether the Government have yet given consideration to the recent working party report of NACRO which recommended fewer prison sentences for social security offences?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we have given consideration and are continuing to give consideration to that report. I believe that a Motion for a debate is down on the Order Paper but the date has not yet been fixed.