HL Deb 17 February 1987 vol 484 cc989-91
Lord Sandys

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 progress has been made in the fresh start proposals for improving the working arrangements and practices of prison officers.

The Minister of State, Home Office (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, discussions with the Prison Officers' Association and the other prison service trade unions have largely been concluded and a reshaped offer is now in preparation. Agreement has been reached in principle about the proposals with the SCPS (Governors' Branch), which has given them its unanimous support.

Lord Sandys

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that encouraging reply. Will he inform the House whether the Prison Governors' Association is in favour of the revised proposals under fresh start?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am happy to confirm to the House that at the annual general meeting last week the governors voted unanimously in support of the proposition.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, is the Minister aware that on these Benches we are perfectly clear that some re-arrangement is absolutely essential in the staff of the prisons? Is he also aware that we very much hope that he will be successful in negotiating an agreement with the prison officers, who have had a difficult time for a long while and with whom I believe it will not be easy to deal?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his support. However, we are negotiating not only with the Prison Officers' Association but also with the other unions involved.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, will the Minister tell us the advantages of fresh start and say why we are introducing the scheme?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the advantages of fresh start are essentially higher basic pay and a guaranteed level of earnings for a much reduced working week. There will also be other benefits, such as the opportunity to work in groups and more job continuity. We are introducing the proposition of fresh start because the present arrangements are iniquitous for the prison officer, for his family and for the service.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, will the noble Earl tell us whether the Government intend to impose this arrangement if they fail to reach agreement with the Prison Officers' Association? If they intend to impose the arrangement, are they prepared to face the chaos which may result in our prisons?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord is being very pessimistic. Negotiations have not concluded with the Prison Officers' Association; there is a further meeting tomorrow. The noble Lord's question is therefore hypothetical.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, whatever the outcome of the negotiations arising out of the document relating to fresh start, for most prison officers, particularly those working in local prisons, the root of the problem is the unrewarding, unsatisfactory and potentially dangerous nature of their work, particularly in view of the explosive overcrowding situation? Does he recall—I am sure that he does—that just the other day in his latest report the Chief Inspector of Prisons said: Substantial parts of the system are wholly pre-occupied with survival"?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the fresh start proposals should be implemented regardless of whether there is overcrowding. As the noble Lord will be the first to admit, the present regimes in prisons are not satisfactory. Overcrowding is a different question, and I should be happy to answer a Question put down on that subject.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that a fresh start is urgently needed for the sake of the prison officers and the inmates of prisons? Will he illustrate the situation by telling us what at present is the average take-home pay of a prison officer and how many hours' overtime are worked to achieve that pay?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I totally agree with my noble friend on his first point. With his experience he will know the importance of getting new regimes into the prison service. At the moment the average prison officer is working about 16 hours overtime per week and taking home some £15,500 per annum.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, does the Minister understand that much of the overcrowding is due to the fact that we have so many people on remand awaiting trial? This story has been told many times, not only in this House but elsewhere. Until the situation is relieved and people on remand are not kept in prison for such a long time, will we ever get rid of the overcrowding?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the prison service has lived with overcrowding for many years. The present percentage of overcrowding is about the same as in the previous two decades. It is entirely up to the judiciary whether a prisoner is held on remand, and it is the duty of the Home Secretary to provide a prison place.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the Minister will understand why it is that I have not intervened on the matter concerning terms and conditions of service. But so that the House knows the position, I should like to ask him to give the present prison population, and also give the limit to that population which has been set by the authorities as being a civilised limit?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, this is a question which is wide of the Question on the Order Paper; but in view of the noble Lord's interest, I shall try to answer him. From memory I think the population is about 47,500 as opposed to a certified normal accommodation of 42,000. Such a proportion of overcrowding has remained fairly constant for the past 20 years.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, would the noble Lord not agree that some of the overcrowding concerning people held on remand is due to inadequate places being available at bail hostels, and that more bail hostels would relieve this situation? Also, does he agree that the courts are not always aware of the availability of places in bail hostels?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I should be very happy to answer that question from the noble Baroness, but it is slightly wide of the Question on the Order Paper.

Lord Sandys

My Lords, would my noble friend confirm that the fresh start proposals apply only to England and Wales?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, yes, indeed.