HL Deb 25 February 1987 vol 485 cc251-87

6.7 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge rose to call attention to the deterioration in prison conditions as recorded in various recent reports; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My purpose tonight is simply to press for action. I believe that the conditions in our prisons have deteriorated steadily and dangerously over the past three decades and have now reached a critical state which cannot be allowed to continue, not only because they are dangerous but because they are a disgrace. I believe that there is one basic cause for this trouble; namely, prolonged overcrowding. Many other things are wrong and need changing but none, I believe, can be successfully tackled until this basic fault is dealt with.

I believe that there is one quite quick remedy; that is, the immediate use of the Secretary of State's powers of executive release which were given to him in the Criminal Justice Act 1982. I shall therefore use my 15 minutes' introductory time to expand these propositions and to demand action. I hope that other noble Lords will take up and discuss all those other serious things which need to be done. However, I do not want to waste the impact of my demand that something should be done about overcrowding.

My approach is not party political. I have not agreed what I propose with my colleagues, but only with NACRO. However, I am confident that on these Benches, on most of the Labour Benches, and indeed on some of the Tory Benches, my general proposition will be thought sensible though there may be criticism of detail.

We have had half a dozen governments in the past 20 years, alternating between Tory and Labour. Each one has done a number of things which had to be done, but always too late and too little. Not one has made a head-on attack on overcrowding. The British people have for far too long allowed their governments to evade adequate remedies, not exactly through callousness but through failure to spend money where there do not seem to have been many votes. Each government has inherited a very difficult situation and each has left it worse than before. Therefore when I attack the conditions I am not attacking this Government, nor indeed the Minister who has to reply, beyond the fact that nobody else but them for the moment can do anything about the situation.

I shall not spend long demonstrating how bad things are. Last week no fewer than 393 prisoners could not be squeezed into any prison and had to be housed in wholly unsuitable police cells. Report after report and book after hook come out saying that they cannot go on much longer without explosion. NACRO's 1986 report; the Howard League and Prison Reform Trust reports; the report of the AGM of the prison governors a week or two ago; V ivien Stern's excellent book which every noble Lord should read entitled Bricks of Shame; Andrew Rutherford's very thought-provoking Prisons and the Process of Justice, to name the most recent, all say the same.

Perhaps I should refer especially to the Chief Inspector of Prisons' report for 1985, from which I shall quote one or two frightening statements of fact.

He says: We were driven to the inescapable conclusion that parts of the system were wholly preoccupied with survival … There is little new to say about overcrowding, except that it worsened considerably … the surging numbers were so rapid that an already overstretched system came perilously near to breaking point. The Home Secretary's attention was drawn to the inadequate supply of lavatories, baths and showers, the severely curtailed use of workshops, the prolonged periods prisoners spent locked up two or three to a small overcrowded cell, and the enormous pressure on visiting-rooms, even when visits were restricted to the statutory minimum of 15 minutes because of numbers … If the prison population is not reduced by the use of alternatives to custody and if drastic inroads cannot be made into the time defendants spend in custody awaiting trial, then new ways of coping with the prison population will have to be found". Those are strong words and they are difficult to laugh off.

The background to all that sad history is, I repeat, overcrowding. The inmmediate pressure on the administrators and the service has been so great that in all this time they have never caught up with themselves. As a result, useful innovations are eventually ruined and scrapped in favour of basic necessities. I suppose that the worst feature is the pressure on staff which has led to officers being used in a way which is quite unreasonable, but without which harassed governors could not cover their duties at all. At last, as the department's newly published paper A Fresh Start shows, a really serious effort to sort matters out is being made and is, not unexpectedly, meeting the kind of difficulty which is always met with when abuses are allowed to settle into accepted customs.

The whole system depends on overtime in a way which is plainly indefensible. One of the side problems is that those training and dispersal prisons which are not overcrowded have their staff constantly borrowed to meet emergencies in the local prisons which are overcrowded. Therefore the good facilities which some of them have for work, education and recreation cannot be properly used for lack of supervision. I praise the Government's initiative and hope that all parties will strive for agreement.

My noble friend Lord Harris will deal more fully with that issue later, but I must add that a prison officer's job is difficult and may be dangerous even in good conditions. However, it can be really rewarding. In conditions of the kind about which we are talking it is wholly frustrating and the prison officers have coped with remarkable patience.

I shall repeat my three propositions: first, the conditions in many of our prisons are no longer acceptable; secondly, they cannot be made acceptable until overcrowding is tackled; and, thirdly, there is an easily understood and quite simple administrative manoeuvre which could relieve the pressure and give time for longer-term remedies to do their work. I believe that most people will agree with the first two propositions. We must try to convince the Government of the third. However, first I shall elaborate a little more on the realities of overcrowding.

Over 20 years crime reported has risen by 75 per cent.; prison capacity has increased by 9,000 places to 42,000; and the actual prison population has increased from 33,000 to 47,500. I believe that this week the figure is 48,000, but I do not insist on that. The overcrowding factor—and this is what I am talking about—has increased from 5 per cent. to 14 per cent. (in other words by 300 per cent.) and the number of prisoners two or three to a cell has trebled from 5,540 twenty years ago to 17,000 today. That last fact is the worst feature of all.

The slopping-out routine is a blot on our civilisation, but applied to two or three to a cell it is a disgrace which our grandchildren will look back on with incredulity. It derives directly from overcrowding, because even if the money for integral sanitation were available the pressure on space is such that wings cannot easily be closed for renewal. A complete end to it is not even planned. Under the present very major building plans we are told that there will still be from 10,000 to 20.000 prisoners subject to this humiliating routine when the present plans are completed in 1991.

I said that that was the worst feature of all, but perhaps even worse is the deprivation of those diversions which make confinement tolerable; namely, visits, work, physical training, recreation, education, the library service, wing meetings, and "Any Questions" sessions. All those are curtailed or dropped one after the other due to staffing chaos, which is itself due to overcrowding, so that the unfortunate man or woman, boy or girl, is left locked up often for 23 hours a day.

The way forward was first mooted in the May report in 1979 (I have forgotten the paragraph but I can look it up). It was subsequently made possible in the Criminal Justice Act 1982. The debates in Committee on Clause 32 of the Bill made it clear that its use was envisaged in just such a situation as exists today—a situation of severe crisis. When the Home Secretary came to see some of us in July, he said that he thought it would be prudent to regard executive release as a measure of absolute emergency. I wish to tell him this evening that that is exactly what faces him today.

We suggest that a limit should be set to the number of prisoners that may be admitted to prison and that the intake should be regulated by executive release. If the number of people that the courts send to prison exceeds the agreed limit, places must be made for them by releasing some of those already there. The limiting figure would be based on the certified normal accommodation—which we call CNA—which is now 42,000 as against an actual daily population of 47,500, which is what the Minister told us last week.

Obviously, the huge excess cannot be put right in one go. We recommend its gradual reduction down to the CNA level within two or three years. That could be done by knocking, say, one, two or three weeks off the sentences of all prisoners due out in the coming year. That is a figure which, in relation to a sentence of six months or more, is quite irrelevant to the punishment side of the sentence. It would exclude those sentenced for violence and those on very short sentences—say, up to three months.

We calculate that a two weeks' reduction of this kind would reduce the average daily population by some 2,500 places. As these prisoners would have been released anyway by the end of the year, the reduction would be only temporary but would have substantially eased the pressure during the 12 months. The same or more would need to be done for one or two years in succession. However, at the end of that time one could reasonably hope that other methods, to which I shall refer in a moment if I have time, would have begun to work.

There are far more short-term prisoners than long-term prisoners and they are mostly kept in the most overcrowded local prisons, so the relief would come where it is most needed. Like the Garter, there is no damned merit about this proposal. It is an administrative device to deal with an intolerable situation. The point is that the arbitrary and temporary administrative procedure would reduce pressures in a way everyone, particularly staff, could see was a genuine effort to cope with the evils we have been discussing. and would change the widespread feeling of frustration in the prison world to one of hope for a real improvement.

I would hope that if some such scheme were adopted the Lord Chancellor, the Home Secretary and the Lord Chief Justice perhaps would explain it to all judges and magistrates and ask them to give the new temporary arrangements their blessing and not feel it necessary to increase sentences to meet it. I believe courts know very well that present conditions in prison are shamefully bad and could very easily be persuaded to go along with any expedient which looked likely to ease a dangerous situation.

I said I would refer to many other intractable problems. I am not going to; I do not have time. Such questions as remand, bail, hostels, blacks in prison, women in prison, AIDS, new ideas from America such as the offenders' tag and privately-run remand homes, could all be looked at, could be introduced, and some changes would actually be effected. Above all, the important thing is now to send less petty offenders to prison in the first place. Andrew Rutherford is especially interesting on this subject in the book I have already mentioned. He analyses periods of growth and decline in the use of prison in different countries and divides them into expansionist and reductionist periods.

The last reductionist Home Secretary we had was Winston Churchill who in 1910 used executive release freely during his time in office with the result that the prison population remained around 12,000 until the early 'forties. Since then the mood has changed and the population had grown by almost 80 per cent. by 1947 and has been expanding ever since.

I am not here to discuss these fascinating long-term theories today. I am trying to persuade the Government that they are sitting on a volcano, that there is only one way of avoiding further explosions, and to beg them to use it. Before I sit down I want to say how pleased I am that a Law Lord is going to take part in this debate. We have not had that honour in the past six debates on this subject and we are extremely pleased to welcome the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, tonight.

I want to be proud of our prisons, not ashamed of them. What I am suggesting is a necessary first step in that direction.

6.23 p.m.

Lord Rhodes

My Lords, I have one point only to make. It concerns the prison visitors' centre at Strange-ways Gaol. First, may I give some background. We have two sorts of prisoners at Strangeways Gaol: convicted prisoners and prisoners on remand. The prisoners in the gaol total 1,707—many, many more that the place was originally designed for. The important question at the moment, because of the growth in their numbers, is that of remand prisoners. We have 578 remand prisoners and 1,129 convicted prisoners. In the case of prisoners held on remand prior to trial, a percentage will not be found guilty of the crime of which they are accused; and a percentage will not be imprisoned even though they are found guilty.

Remand prisoners have as many visitors as can be crammed into a quarter of an hour every day, morning and afternoon. The convicted prisoner is allowed approximately one hour for visiting every four weeks. The growing number of prisoners held at Manchester has increased the number of visitors. It is our treatment of those visitors about which I want to speak. For 17 years I have led a charitable organisation set up to relieve social deprivation among clients of the Greater Manchester probation service and to assist that service in the rehabilitation of offenders, which we do—so successfully, in fact, that we increase our boundaries every year.

We were alerted by a girl working in the probation service inside the prison about the conditions that had to be endured by visitors. We did not believe her; so we went on several occasions to see for ourselves. She was right. The prisoners' families—men, women and children of all ages—were squatting in the streets for up to two hours in all sorts of weathers. It was a scene of absolute degradation. There were no toilets within half a mile. We wanted to do something about it.

It so happened that the guest speaker at our 1958 annual general meeting was the right honourable Willie Whitelaw, who now sits on the Front Bench opposite. He was able to do something for us later on through first-hand knowledge. When he comes to open a prison visitors' centre in a fortnight's time he will see a fine place where people are able to keep dry and where they can have a cup of tea in peace. He will be pleased with it.

We decided to go ahead with the visitors' centre despite the fact that we had no idea where the money was to come from. We felt it brooked no delay. The bodies that we roped in to comprise the management committee were Save the Children Fund, NACRO, the probation service, the social services, the area health authority, the WRVS, and my own organisation, Selcare, which was given the job of heading the project and being responsible for the management of it. Of course, we needed funds. We were very fortunate in being able to persuade the residuary body of the Greater Manchester Council to fund us up to £185,000 in order to start. That was a good helping hand forward. So was the help that we received Iron the ten metropolitan boroughs which constitute the Grants Committee of the Greater Manchester area. We have now a first-class visitors' centre with a creche for children. There are four employed paid staff, one seconded by the probation service and one by the Save the Children fund. There are four voluntary WRVS helpers on duty at any one time. We are indebted to them, too.

There are funds for a limited period that we have found ourselves. This is a centre where visitors can be treated with dignity while they wait. They do not need to trail their children into the prison; the children can be left in the creche in safe custody. We can fund the place until March 1988. After that, we believe that it should be the responsibility of the prison service.

The place is now well run. It is well worth a visit by any Member who is interested and who wishes to see for himself what can be done with a little effort instead of talking about it so much.

The present management committee is quite prepared to take on the job in the future but has to know, in order to plan for the future, who will be responsible for funding after March 1988. Perhaps the noble Viscount will help us again when he comes along because then he will see what it is possible to do. With his help. I am perfectly certain that it can be managed.

6.30 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Birmingham

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, for introducing this debate, and for his most timely speech upon it. I hope that I may be excused if I do not stay until the end of the debate, but I have some duties over the road to perform in connection with the General Synod.

Christians have plenty of reasons to be concerned with prisons, whether they think of the parable of the sheep and the goats: of a clause in the Litany; or what is written in the Epistle to the Romans, concerning the duty of the state in punishing offenders. Incidentally, there are only two secular priviliges known to me that remain to a bishop. One is to enter your Lordships' House, and the other is to visit at his pleasure a prison establishment in his diocese. There is no need for me to emphasise the escalating rates of crime in the country—they are terrible. Perhaps it should be pointed out that violence against the person accounts only for 3 per cent., and sexual offences for only 6 per cent., whereas offences against property comprise 95 per cent.

It is interesting that in his recent working paper on criminal justice the Home Secretary associates crime with wider problems, such as the weakening of the family and a decline in standards of conduct and respect for authority. But whatever are the causes of crime, I cannot help but recall the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones in his response to the gracious Speech from the Throne. He said on 18th November, 1986 (at col. 144 of Hansard): The United Kingdom now sends more people to prison, both in absolute numbers and relative to its population than any other major West European country. That must give us pause for thought.

The number of prisoners on remand clogs up the whole system. The awful consequence of being a prisoner on remand is that one in three of the prisoners will be pronounced innocent—one in three may have been in prison for nothing. If one is found guilty, one might not be given a custodial sentence, which in some ways is worse. A further injustice is that whereas the time spent on remand may be counted against a custodial sentence, it does not count towards the minimum for parole. Parole is given to some 73 per cent. of prisoners. But if a prisoner is on remand with a short sentence he may well serve longer than he considers to be just.

Prisoners on remand have to be taken to and from the court by prison officers. By 1985 prisoners on remand comprised 21 per cent. of the entire prison population. If the number of remand prisoners. exceeds the number for which provision is made in a local establishment, the whole system is then under strain. Prison officers have to be taken off their normal duties. Then activities for which special policing is needed tend to suffer; namely, education, workshops, physical education and even the use of the library. This is the main reason why inmates have to spend so much time in their cells. Prison officers are drawn off to act as guards for remand prisoners going to and from the courts.

Last week at Winson Green Prison in Birmingham the number of remand and unconvicted inmates was 423. The provision is for 300. Winson Green is 22 officers under establishment and last week the average overtime was 17 hours, 35 tasks had to be dropped every day. The number of inmates on remand is not the only problem. At Winson Green the prison officers consider that 900 is the right figure for inmates. The prison authorities consider that they can cope with 1,100. but that 1,150 and over present real problems in matters such as sewage and kitchen capacity. Yet, the numbers exceeded 1,150 on two occasions last week, and on one night the figure was 1,170. The average number of inmates was 1,131. When police cells are being used in London as the noble Lord mentioned, congestion is caused all the way down the line. Extra inmates are posted to Bedford, and thence to Winson Green and so it continues.

There are two urgent problems. First, how to cope with this explosive short term problem of some five and a half thousand inmates above the certified normal population. Secondly, what should be done in the long term. The policy of building more prisons is already seen to be failing. They are not keeping pace with the increase in the number of people being sent to prison. As the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, said, obviously we need less prisoners.

I do not think that the parole system can be further extended. In any case it is rather objectionable because the judges have ruled that the rules of natural justice do not apply to parole, it is a discretion. There is not much more mileage in remission—one third of the sentence is already remitted unless there is bad conduct. To increase remission would make a nonsense of the length of the original custodial sentence. There remains, as the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, said, the executive release. I shall not repeat what he said, but hope that note will be taken of it in places where decisions are made.

A form of prison-capping already takes place in the state of Minnesota in the United States. Indeed, the French Minister of Justice threatened to use prison-capping in France last year. It is vital that the judiciary should be separate from the Government. It would be appalling if that were not the case. But the Government can and should insist that the prison population does not produce what the Parliamentary All-Party Penal Affairs Group has called conditions that "are intolerable in a civilised society".

The Church of England's Board for Social Responsibility recommended prison-capping in a statement they issued last year and I hope due note can be taken of what has been said in this debate.

I do not wish to criticise the judiciary to whom we owe great respect. But they ought not to pass so many custodial sentences. I know that restraints on custody are written into the law. I know that the Court of Appeal and the Appellate Committee of your Lordships' House should influence the number of non-custodial sentences. But, the fact remains that we have a higher proportion than other comparable countries. Whenever I personally tackle a member of the judiciary on this matter I am told that they have to reflect public opinion. I do not believe that this is public opinion, except in the case of violence and sexual crime which, as I have said, is a very small proportion of the whole.

The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote some wise words in his introduction to Breaking Out, a report of the British Council of Churches Penal Working Group. He said: We treat crime both too seriously and not seriously enough. Too seriously in that we often impose conditions of imprisonment which are. by most people's reckoning, too harsh;…not seriously enough in that the policies to 'deal with' the problems caused by crime are too often piecemeal and provisional". Breaking Out rightly states: Imprisonment is at present a practice without a clear policy". I hope that we can have a clear policy which keeps our numbers within bounds.

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

My Lords, perhaps I may answer one point raised by the right reverend Prelate as he will be leaving, but I hope he will read Hansard. I was informed at the administrative officers' conference last week, that last week they unlocked exactly the same number of people at Birmingham as they did at the end of the war, with one-third less staff at the end of the war, and provided a better regime.

The Lord Bishop of Birmingham

My Lords, I hear what the noble Earl has said but I am merely recalling the figures which I have been given officially by the Prison Authorities.

6.38 p.m.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, the subject of the debate, as your Lordships know, is the deterioration in prison conditions, but it is axiomatic, as my noble friend Lord Donaldson said, that the root of the problem is overcrowding. We are speaking against a background of prolonged and growing crisis due to overcrowding—overcrowding which has been with us for at least two decades and which is growing progressively more acute.

I can speak with some authority and knowledge on this matter. That period of 20 years happens to coincide with the time during which I have been involved in our penal policies and criminal justice system, since I became the first chairman of the Parole Board in 1967.

We have been warned repeatedly of an increasingly "explosive situation"—words which have been used twice in this debate. We have been warned most recently by the Prison Governors and the POA of an impending breakdown in the system of control. We were warned by the Prison Governors' Branch of the Society of Civil and Public Servants as long ago as 1976 of the shape of things to come. Only last month it told us that the riots of 1986 were, "but a rehearsal". In the words of one prison governor, "We may not be able to cope with the next one".

On the other hand—and this is the burden of my few words this evening—over all those years we have repeatedly received constructive recommendations for resolving the crisis. Reports from every committee—committees of inquiry, and others—which has addressed the problem, from the Advisory Council on the Penal System under Sir Kenneth Younger in the 1970s onwards, all show a remarkably consistent accord on what is needed. The All-Party Penal Affairs Group, to which the right reverend Prelate has just referred, adverted to two of the recommendations in a 10-point programme for reducing prison overcrowding which it submitted to the Home Secretary in April last year. We did so in two previous reports—one in 1985 entitled The Rising Prison Population, and a report in 1980 entitled Too Many Prisoners.

The two recommendations were these: to lower the maximum length of sentences right across the board, except of course for the very serious crimes such as those excluded offences in Schedule 1 to the Criminal Justice Act 1982. Those found guilty of crimes of that order account in any case for, at the most, one in five in our prison population. If we subtract those approximately 8,000 remand prisoners referred to by the right reverend Prelate and 10,000 juveniles and young offenders, we are left with some 80 per cent. of the prison population who clutter up our local prisons.

They have been referred to as ordinary prisoners; as non-violent offenders. Many of them—in fact most of them—are petty, persistent and inefficient offenders who number about 10,000. For the most part they are dealt with in the magistrates' courts. For all of them research findings over many years have indicated that much shorter sentences than currently permitted and imposed are no less effective than longer ones. The latest authority for this is that excellent document, Sentence of the Court.

The other measure has been recommended on a number of occasions under one title or another. It was aptly entitled in 1977 by a Conservative Party study group set up by the then shadow Home Secretary (now the noble Viscount who is the Leader of our House) and chaired by Sir Edward Gardiner, Custody and Control. It was favourably commented on when I raised it five years ago in the House in a debate in which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice was taking part. I was glad to see that, until a few moments ago, he had found time to come and sit with us.

The measure would consist of a two-tier sentence served partly in prison and partly in the community under certain prescribed conditions of control and after-care. The whole length of the sentence need not be less than the total general run of current sentencing practice. If it were applied only to ordinary offenders—those who are non-violent, petty and persistent—I understand that it would have the effect of reducing the prison population by some 5,000.

The sentence would, in effect, be equivalent to the application of the parole principle to all such offenders, with two important differences. First, it would be the courts that would apply it. Secondly, the tedious parole assessment procedures would be dispensed with, saving much time and money and also saving much anxiety on the part of prisoners themselves. I say that in the knowledge that the present chairman of the Parole Board is with us, and I have the greatest admiration and support for the system so long as we cannot get it better.

It has the proven benefit of supervision and support in the community. It would meet a popular—and proper—demand for retribution. It would provide the shock effect of imprisonment without the damaging effects of prolonged incarceration. Therefore, I ask how else a policy of shorter sentencing, called for by so many authorities and expert committees over so many years, is to be achieved.

Exhortations, in particular to the magistrates, by the Lord Chief Justice himself, and I think the Lord Chancellor. appear to have had little effect. Drastic action is urgently needed. But either, or both, of the measures to which I have referred would require legislation, and the situation is now so critical that crash action is called for.

It was precisely for such an eventuality that executive release, so called, was placed on the statute book in Section 32 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982. That would provide the necessary breathing space while legislation for shorter prison sentences is enacted. My noble friend Lord Donaldson has already made a powerful case for that step to be taken.

These are radical changes in our whole approach to penal policy. They would get our criminal justice system out of the groove in which it has been grinding on for far too many years. They are not put forward by people who are soft on crime or sentimental towards criminals. There is ample evidence that shortening the periods spent inside our prisons would not—with exceptions which would rightly be made by the courts—weaken the impact of imprisonment on criminal behaviour.

Nothing less will suffice to change course from the unending and growing crisis which can only lead to disaster. Therefore, I beg the Government to look again at all the advice they have had—the constant advice on this subject—to heed the warnings they have also had and to act courageously without delay.

6.47 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I make it a rule to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, almost blindly—except of course up Everest or other dangerous mountains—and I find it easy to follow him this afternoon, and to follow the other eloquent speakers. It seems to me that there are two broad ways of assessing the present situation. One is the way that has been brilliantly explained to us—if I may use that word about an old friend who does not like compliments; (well at any rate he pretends not to like compliments)—by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson. The other is the way summarised, I hope not finally but perhaps provisionally, by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who is much respected already in his office.

I must comment on one thing he wrote recently, which I hope does not represent his final opinion. In reviewing a remarkable book—I gave him short notice of this question, and it was very courageous of him really to set an example to other Ministers—by Vivien Stern referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson (which in my eyes is the best book ever written on prisons; and I have read a great many) the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, wrote this in a review in The Times: much has been done to improve the situation in recent years. One would not think so from hearing the earlier speakers. We want to continue this policy. That would be bad news if it was the last word that the noble Earl had to say on the subject. I hope that at least when today's debate is over he will reconsider that position in conjunction with the Home Secretary.

The last time I spoke on prisons in November, in the debate on the Queen's Speech, I drew attention to what I am afraid one can only call—I do not want to use extreme words—the very unfriendly attitude taken at the present time by the Prison Officers' Association towards the Home Office. I should like to see the Ministers coming forward a little more in these arguments with the prison officers and not so much left to the officials. They should not be left in the firing line to the extent that they are. There is this unfriendly attitude. When I indicated that to certain officials they told me that unfortunately the leaders of the prison officers would not talk to them. I shall leave that to others to sort out.

Leaving out all the diplomacy, the tactics and the improvements that I hope can be effected in the mutual relationship, there is no doubt whatever—and here I speak with knowledge—that the prison officers will remain very critical indeed of the Home Office and the Ministers who preside over it while this overcrowding continues. There is really no doubt at all about that, however much one tinkers with it. You can have a fresh start or do similar things under other names, but until you deal with the particular issue that has been concentrated on this evening there will be no improvement whatever in the very bad relationship which exists today between the Prison Officers' Asociation and the Home Office and its Ministers. The conclusion, after studying the views of the prison officers, must be that from their point of view and the point of view put by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, and other speakers, the two points of view are identical.

The question is: what can be done about it? We have many times here pleaded for alternative remedies and there have been explanations about how these remedies could be applied. That cannot be said too often. But in these few minutes I am going to do nothing more than express my strongest possible support—I have no authority to speak for my party but I should be surprised if I were out of line in this matter—for the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, about executive release. I think the message ought to go out from this House that that is what the House of Lords is standing for today. I cannot expect the noble Earl to announce this evening that a completely new policy has been adopted between 6.15 and 8.45 p.m. but I hope he will say that he recognises the strength of feeling; and it is not just emotional feeling but a feeling that springs from expert knowledge.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, mentioned Winston Churchill. I will quote what he said on 20th July 1910 and then draw to a close. Winston Churchill (then Home Secretary)—he was a Liberal at the time, which ought to appeal to noble Lords on the Liberal Benches; but he became a Conservative later, which ought to appeal to noble Lords opposite—said that the Government had, made a general pro ratareduction of sentences over the whole area of the prison population. The remissions which were granted on this occasion affected 11,000 prisoners, and at a stroke struck 500 years of imprisonment and penal servitude from the prison population. I am glad to be able to tell the House that no evil results of any kind have followed from this". I am certain that no evil result of any kind would follow from the suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, and that much good would come about as a result of them.

6.54 p.m.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, it is about the remand prisoner that I wish to speak, following up what was so eloquently referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham: the 24 male prisoners and Holloway. I initiated a debate in this House on the same subject in 1980 on the May Report. The May Report had described the situation as a scandal and the conditions as degrading. There were then 6,500 remand prisoners, 14 per cent. of the total prison population. Today, seven years later, there are 10,000 remand prisoners, 22 per cent. of the prison population—a situation described by the Home Affairs Committee as completely unacceptable, and later as an affront to human dignity.

At that time prisoners waited 25 days on average for trial. Today they wait for 55 days and in London they wait for 100 days. Half the men will receive no sentence of imprisonment when they come to trial. Two-thirds of the women will be released when they come to trial. The 8,844 untried yesterday are innocent in the eyes of the law, and waiting to hear the case made against them. Every day last year, 60 women—yes, my Lords, women—on average were locked up in police station cells, while over a hundred beds in Holloway were empty. That is a brutal anomaly which for some reason the Home Office is incapable of solving.

In 1980 the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, said that the figure of 6,500 must cause all in this House the greatest concern. What concern should we feel tonight over 10,000? Last week, as has already been said, the Minister wrote an article for the Guardian. The word "remand" appeared nowhere in the article. He spoke, as we have heard, of a strategy to reduce demands on the system; yet the most acute of all demands got no mention at all. The reason, I fear, is that the position today is worse than it was seven years ago and that nothing has been achieved during those seven years. If I am wrong I am sure the noble Earl will tell the House what he failed to tell the readers of the newspaper.

The £360 million programme paraded in that article (and no doubt to be paraded tonight) will not solve the problem. It is the policy towards local prisons which is the mischief: it is the manner in which the money is spent which is the mischief. Local prisons are starved of capital investment and crammed with untried and short-term prisoners—significantly the least articulate and the least likely to rebel—and so we have the creation of what a recent governor of Wormwood Scrubs described as, "the dustbins of the system".

Let me spell out once again, and perhaps for the last time, what could be done with political will and dedication. First, we should re-categorise these prisoners. Half receive no prison sentence and many of those who do go straight to a category C or D prison; yet all on remand are put in categories A or B. The majority of them do not need the high security of local prisons, of hand-cuffs and black marias. They do not need the intensive level of escort, the banging up in cells and so on.

Secondly, we should build, take over or convert less secure buildings and create remand hostels near main court centres. We should get these remand prisoners out of the local prisons and reduce the mad merry-go-round of escort duties. I should like to emphasise the lunacy of women travelling from Holloway over a hundred miles to court and then a hundred miles back around the South of England. The prison officers could then return to their proper job of caring for the prisoners in the prisons.

Thirdly, we should take in hand the whole bail operation in the main magistrates' courts. This could and must be a structured operation, embracing the duty solicitors, the CPS. the probation service and legal aid arrangements concentrated in one bail court. Information units could be set up to provide the justices with the facts on which decisions could be properly made. Outside agencies, particularly those dealing with ethnic minorities, should he brought in. The Nottingham justices' decision should be repealed and bail hostels provided in the right places, and used. Applications for bail could be fixed and repeated if necessary at fixed periods, and the results could be monitored and published.

Fourthly, a code of minimum standards should be established. Mr. Leon Brittan has also burst into print lately in an article in The Times on 17th February. He said: Minimum standards would be a mere symbolic statement of aspirations and would not help to achieve them.". There, if I may say so, are political complacency and despair.

Sir James Hennessy, our admirable Chief Inspector of Prisons, has been asking for a code in report after report and now he has lost patience with Ministers and set up a study to formulate his own code. A code, as Sir James knows well, would be an incentive to force the hands of sleepy bureaucrats and rudderless politicians to give some basic rights to those locked-up men and women, lost behind prison walls.

Finally, there is a passage in Mr. Brittan's article with which I wholeheartedly agree: Increased dialogue with the judiciary is certainly essential and should not be regarded as an attempt to encroach on the independence of the judges". I should like also to welcome the presence here tonight of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, and, if I may say so, it is typical of him that he is the first learned Law Lord to attend such a debate.

Is it not astonishing that, whereas, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is responsible for the appointment of magistrates, for their necessary qualifications, for their conduct in court and for their training, when we discuss their performance on the job, the sentences that they pass and their bail decisions the noble and learned Lord plays no part?

I end by asking the Minister, who is, if I may say so, a man of humanity and good sense, how much longer he is prepared to tolerate the internationally recognised disgrace of the remand situation in this otherwise civilised and caring nation of ours? Can he continue to permit the trauma suffered by the majority of these 8,000 persons who are freed from custody when they come to trial, with the broken homes, lost jobs, debts incurred, families devastated to no purpose and without justification, with the ensuing bitterness and disillusionment with the processes of the law which merely breed contempt and criminality? I hope he will cast aside his official and, no doubt, complacent brief and give the House a fair and direct answer to this the crucial question which underlies my noble friend's Motion before the House.

7.3 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I should like to avail myself of the opportunity which the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, has given us by this debate to raise again the theme of a debate which I introduced here last year about the problems of women in prison and the conditions that they suffer. But this time I do so with the support of a report which the TUC produced earlier this month, and which concentrates on different ways by which conditions for women and their whole position within the penal system could be improved. There is little doubt that much of the anxiety and many of the recommendations which are put forward in this report and in this debate echo my debate in 1985, so I hope very much that this time the Minister will look carefully at what the TUC has said in its discussion paper and take heed of some of the recommendations it has made.

First, as a background to its paper the TUC gave some of the most relevant statistics concerning women in prison and crime. It pointed out the important fact that as women represent such a very small proportion of the prison population—only 3 per cent.—very little research has been carried out about women in the penal system and indeed about their conditions in prison. Very little research has been done on the effect of imprisonment on women; what conditions in prison would be best for them; whether they need a different sentencing policy and what alternatives to prison might be more appropriate for women.

The most recent figure of the number of women and girls in custody was for 31st December 1986, when it stood at 1,573. Over half of those women were there for stealing in some form or other, and the rest were there for offences such as not paying fines, drug offences, offences relating to prostitution—mainly as a result of fine default for soliciting—and the remainder, just under 400, were sentenced for violence against the person. The report went on to say that the proportion of women offenders receiving custodial sentences has risen from 2 per cent. in 1974 to 6 per cent. at the present time. The TUC also made the point that in 1984 as many as 17 per cent. of women imprisoned throughout that year had no previous convictions.

The paramount conclusion that the TUC came to was that women should be sent to prison only as a last resort and when no non-custodial option is available to the courts. It said: The probation order could be used for the overwhelming majority of female offenders, except those whose offences are of such gravity that the public needs to be protected". I do not think there could be any better way of relieving the situation in prisons than to follow that overriding conclusion and recommendation of the TUC.

It came to this conclusion, first, through examining the kind of crimes that women committed and deciding that a custodial sentence was in most cases inappropriate. It also examined how prison affects women in their dual role of offender and mother. It is surely true to say that special regard is paid to the dual role that women play in every other area of their lives, such as when a woman combines being a paid employee and a carer of children or elderly relatives. So it should be logical to pay the same regard to women who unfortunately are fulfilling this dual role of being a mother and a carer of elderly and dependent relatives while in prison.

The report points out that a 1982 survey showed that of the women prison population of that year, which was 1,288, 56 per cent. had a total of 1,649 children. So there were 1,649 children who were deeply affected by the imprisonment of their mother. Here, quite rightly, the report stresses that imprisonment for a woman, besides being a loss of freedom, has an extra dimension, which is the intolerable anxiety and trauma not only through being separated from her children but also through worrying about what is happening to them. So it seems right that the report should stress that insufficient account is taken of the problems that affect women who have family responsibilities.

In this respect the report advocates that, besides women being given bail whenever possible or being released on parole, more experiments should be carried out as they are in other countries about their visiting conditions in prison. It argues that to help a woman keep contact with her family, and to remake contact as a constructive woman and mother, she should have the use of the telephone, unsupervised visits and so on. I do not have time to point out any of the other recommendations, but I should like to touch on areas in which the report particularly concentrates, such as the number of women who are in prison through committing offences because they were mentally disturbed. That aspect has already been touched on. There is no possible doubt that there are more women in prison, and it is a hard problem to deal with women who are in a prison environment which is detrimental to their particular mental state.

The report also touched on the whole question of mothers and babies in prison, and on the numbers of drug offenders and disturbed women in prison. It pointed out the need for therapeutic units to help women to overcome drug or alcohol problems while they are in prison, rather than allowing them to come out into the community in the same state in which they entered prison.

The TUC discussion paper contained many other ideas and recommendations. They all pointed in the same direction, which was the need for change in policy and attitude away from regarding it as essential for women to be punished through the use of custodial sentences rather than having a more humane way of dealing with the problem by taking into account family responsibilities and more appropriate and imaginative methods which are remedial rather than punitive.

I have saved my last half minute to put a question and suggestion to the Minister on another subject which I think is extremely relevant to the Motion on the Order Paper today. I should like to ask the Minister whether he thinks it may be a good idea, which would assist our prison service when formulating policies, to ask prison governors, on their retirement, to write what I should like to call valedictory reports. It seems amazing that all the wisdom and experience which our prison governors have acquired during their careers should not be drawn together and put into a document which could then be channelled into the thinking on how to improve conditions in prisons. I hope that the Minister will look favourably on that suggestion. What made me think of that idea was the much-respected valedictory dispatches which ambassadors write on retirement and which presumably help the Foreign Office to formulate foreign policy.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, I should like to apologise to your Lordships' House for popping in and out of this debate. Unfortunately, the timing clashed with another commitment. I wish in the short time allowed to add a few remarks on the subject of women in prison. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, has already spoken on the subject.

I do not think that there is necessarily a case for dealing differently with men and women who are offenders. However, I suspect that a great many of the points which I wish to make about women will apply equally to men. My personal experience is limited to women, however, and that is why I wish to talk about them.

I had the privilege of doing a short study on the subject, and I was struck forcibly by the fact, which I think that no one denies, that a great many women (and I suspect men as well) are in prison who ought not to be there. I have had discussions with a number of people and with the highest in the land in connection with imprisonment. They all agree that there are a great many people in prison who ought not to be there. Since there is such widespread acceptance of that fact, I find it hard to believe that it is not possible for us to do something about it. When I discuss this matter with people in the Home Office, they say, "Yes, certainly something should be done", and then nothing happens. Perhaps it is unfair to say that nothing happens; very little happens.

I hope that we can be practical and not simply talk in general terms. We all know that over half of the women who are in prison on remand do not ultimately receive custodial sentences. It seems extraordinary that we should hold women in prison who are ultimately either not sentenced or, when they are sentenced, receive non-custodial sentences. That must be wrong. Think of the disruption caused by taking a woman from her home and putting her in prison, only to find, after weeks and sometimes months in prison, that that is not where she ought to be.

Why can we not have more bail hostels? We are spending an enormous amount of money on building new prisons. Why can we not divert some of that money in order to build more bail hostels? I am told that many of those women have to be in prisons because they might escape. Most of the women of whom I was aware when I was doing my study were not the sort of people who were going to take a private plane to the Caribbean; most of them would have got no further than Fulham. In addition, many of them had nowhere to go. If one or two such women escaped, would that really be as serious as continuing the horrible practice of holding people on remand whose offences are afterwards found not to warrant imprisonment?

I ask your Lordships to think for a moment of the disruption this causes in homes and also of the cost. If a woman with children is in prison on remand, something must be done about the children. If they are put into homes or into care, that is an added expense and an added disruption. We should have a drive to get more bail hostels or to get more supervision through the probation service so that tabs can be kept on those women at home to ensure that they do not disappear between the time that they have been arrested and the time that they are sentenced. Surely that is a practical step which could be taken.

At the other end of the process, a very large number of women (although not such a high proportion of women as of men) return to prison after release. As several people, including probation officers have said to me, many of those women return to prison because they cannot cope outside. They have had a prison sentence; many of them are rather inadequate people to begin with. Often they are unskilled, with no training to sell when they leave prison. With the present level of unemployment, it is very difficult indeed for such women to re-establish themselves and live on what they can earn. If the families of such women help them and welcome them back, that is one thing. But a great many such women do not have families to go back to, or their families do not want to know. They then attempt to cope in run-down lodgings on social security benefit, and sooner or later they run into debt or go out on a desperate binge and they are back in prison. In many cases, they simply cannot cope outside prison.

Surely we can have better after-care arrangements than we have at the present time for such women. They need someone who can see, during the early weeks when they first come out of prison, that they are helped to readjust by close contact. That system would not be anything like as expensive. We would need an increase in the probation service. However, it would not cost anything like the money we spend on prisons and on women who return to gaol, as a large number of them do.

Reference has been made to psychiatric cases. The days are past when people think that any woman who has offended must be a psychiatric case. That is of course not true. However, it is true that there are women who are psychiatric cases either because they were psychiatric cases before they offended or, as appears to be the case, because some women react to imprisonment differently from the way in which men react. It is said that men externalise their anger and violence and that women tend to internalise such feelings. That is a generalisation. But it is an opinion which is widely held.

Surely prison is not the place for genuine psychiatric cases. Why have we not developed secure units in hospitals? I have discussed that matter with senior members of the nursing profession who say to me, "We need resources to build secure units and it is taxing on the staff, but it could be done". If hospitals were given resources to build secure units within the hospital and if they had adequate staffing, I suggest that they should not then have the right to refuse to take such women. I know that the medical profession may not like that suggestion. When I made the suggestion to the governor of Holloway Prison concerning one particular case, and remarked that she was surely a medical case, he said, "Of course. I tell the courts that such a woman should not be here, but they say to me that there is nowhere else that she can go because hospitals can refuse to take her but prisons cannot".

Surely that is wrong. If we had secure units in hospitals, why should the medical profession have the right to refuse to take such cases? The National Health Service is a national service, just as the Prison Service is a national service. Given the proper resources that surely is the right way to deal with it.

If we could deal with the people on remand and have much better after-care services, and deal with psychiatric cases through secure units in hospitals rather than retaining them in prisons—and admittedly this will take longer—it would make a sizeable cut in the total female prison population. None of this is too difficult to do. We can all see how it can be done.

Finally, for those who are not violent—and the great majority of women offenders are not violent but just an intolerable nuisance—surely better organised, rigorous and vigorous community service is what is required rather than prison. Here again if we gave our minds to it, it could surely be done.

7.20 p.m.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, I crave your Lordships' indulgence. It was only yesterday evening that someone thought fit to suggest that a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary might take part in this debate. As noble Lords will know, we have been somewhat unusually busy in the Appellate Committee over the past day or two, including today.

I suppose that a speech from a Lord of Appeal is thought to be relevant becaue he at least has probably been one who has contributed in the past to the prison population. I hasten to say that in my appellate capacity in the Court of Appeal I have also removed those who have been sent to prison. It is not a one-way traffic. When addressing sentencing conferences of circuit judges I have urged upon them the appalling difficulties of the present position. I was stimulated into breaking the ice and taking part when I knew that the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, a fellow bencher of mine and granted silk in the same year, would be taking part in the debate. I know his particular affection for the judiciary and I wondered what he might have in store for us.

I was very anxious—and I think the anxiety was unnecessary—that someone should be present to repel any suggestion that the judiciary is not deeply conscious of the present position. If I may go back to the judical career of the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, about 25 years ago, I remember it well because he was the recorder of Devizes and I was the recorder of Swindon.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington


Lord Ackner

My Lords, I always noticed that he fixed his sessions immediately after I had held mine so that there was no work left for him to do and he could return to his highly lucrative practice. Even among the few cases with which he was prepared to deal I am sure he will accept that the sentences that he and I imposed in our capacity as recorders for burglary, theft, dishonesty and fraud were considerably higher than they are today.

The reason for that is simple. Twenty-five years ago we were told by the experts, the penologists, that there was a high reformative content in the prison existence and that people should not go in for short sentences as the opportunity for this reform would be denied to them. I remember the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Parker, addressing a number of recorders and impressing upon them the dangers of undersentencing. That was factor one. Factor two was that the prisons were not then as appallingly overcrowded as they are now. In the past decade the misconceptions of the criminologist have been thrust to one side and we know that the reformative content of prison is minuscule. Secondly, we are aware of the appalling dangers of the present overcrowded system.

Perhaps I may indicate how this has been reflected. The Lord Chief Justice, who has recently left your Lordships' House, said in 1980 in the case of Regina v. Bibi: This case opens up wider horizons because it is no secret that our prisons at the moment are dangerously overcrowded. So much so that sentencing courts must be particularly careful to examine each case to ensure, if an immediate custodial sentence is necessary, that the sentence is as short as possible, consistent only with the duty to protect the interests of the public and to punish and deter the criminal. Many offenders can be dealt with equally justly and effectively by a sentence of six or nine months' imprisonment as by one of 18 months or three years. We have in mind not only the obvious case of the first offender for whom any prison sentence however short may be an adequate punishment and deterrent, but other types of case as well. The less serious types of factory or shopbreaking; the minor cases of sexual indecency; the more petty frauds where small amounts of money are involved; the fringe participants in more serious crime: all these are examples of cases where the shorter sentence would be appropriate". The final excerpt from that judgment to which I would invite attention is this: What the court can and should do is to ask itself whether there is any compelling reason why a short sentence should not be passed. We are not aiming at uniformity of sentence; that would be impossible. We are aiming at uniformity of approach". That case has been constantly referred to and is before every sentencing conference that takes place with new judges.

I referred to the position of those who break trust. Another case in 1985 called Barrick was the subject matter, again, of guidelines from the Court of Appeal on this very subject. The Lord Chief Justice said: It was not long ago that this type of offender"— in relation to an offence involving fraud by an accountant, a solicitor, a bank employee or a postman— might expect to receive a term of imprisonment of three or four years, and indeed a great deal more if the sums involved were substantial. More recently, however, the sentencing climate in this area has changed.". The Lord Chief Justice went on to deal with the various categories of case. He said this: In general a term of immediate imprisonment is inevitable, save in very exceptional circumstances or where the amount of money obtained is small.". The Lord Chief Justice then dealt with various categories. He went on to say: Where the amounts involved cannot be described as small but are less than £10,000 or thereabouts, terms of imprisonment ranging from the very short up to about eighteen months are appropriate.". That is quite startling if one compared the position ten years previously. It has had this effect. It has resulted in sentences for theft between 1979 and 1985 coming down significantly. In 1979 the average sentence was 12.7 months. It was down to 10 months in 1985. For burglary it was 18.2 months; down to 15 months now. All indictable offences: average 18.6 months; down to 16.6 months. So the first point I am anxious to make is that there is no question of the judiciary being other than deeply conscious of the situation which exists now and anxious to try to assist in its alleviation.

One does not need to go far to find the reason for the increase in the prison population. First, it has gone up very significantly so far as concerns the Crown Court. In 1982, 80,700 persons were sentenced. Three years later that number had increased to 89,085. Of those, 50 per cent. do not receive an immediate sentence of imprisonment. That, again, is very significant because it is only the more serious offences that come to the Crown Court.

Secondly, there has been an increase in drug offences. I imagine that all your Lordships approve of the policy of stiff sentences for those particular offences. Thirdly, the parole restrictions on sentences of five years and more in certain categories have had the inevitable result of more people staying for a long time in prison.

The overcrowding is in the local prisons. Dr. Thomas, the penologist at Cambridge on whose works many of us relied when we were sentencing and on which those who are sentencing still rely, having made a study of this subject, concluded that the overcrowding in the local prisons is due in the majority of cases to young offenders; that is, under 29 year-old recidivist burglars. For those who say that there should be fewer sentences of imprisonment I think the judiciary is entitled to ask: in the course of our obligation to protect the public what exactly are we expected to do with them? Sixty per cent. of young male offenders have at least three previous convictions. Sixty per cent. of the adult male prison population has at least six previous convictions. That is the sort of situation which we have to deal with and against which the public are entitled to receive protection.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, referred to executive manoeuvres. They exist. Let me tell your Lordships of one. Of all sentences between nine months and 18 months, and indeed two years, where there has been time spent on remand nearly 80 per cent. of prisoners are let out after six months. That is a disquieting fact to some members of the public. The suggestion that the judiciary must be asked to co-operate with executive manoeuvres is clearly one which can receive an optimistic answer. Judges go on conscientiously and with anxiety asking themselves, "Do I send this person away for nine months, 15 months, 21 months or two years knowing full well that it will not make a half-penny worth of difference because he will be out after six months?" It is suggested that there will be an improvement with a lower maximum. It is rare indeed that the maximum is used. When it is, it is usually with the full support of the public.

I have trespassed on your Lordships' time and I am conscious of that fact, but since you have all said it was high time that a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary spoke I plead that immediately in mitigation. I really arrived here to repel an attack which I am delighted to say was never made.

7.34 p.m.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, for his speech even though he sentenced us to 13 minutes. It was very well worth it. He made a point which is absolutely right. The problem that has arisen in our prisons and the deterioration of them is due to the increase in crime.

Although we find it reprehensible that there are more of our citizenry in prison, on a proportionate basis, than in any other country in Western Europe, to put the matter in its correct perspective, it is right to say that there are as many people in prison in the state of New York this evening as there are in the whole of England and Wales. The Lord Chief Justice said that judges and magistrates should not send people to prison unless it is absolutely necessary. I do not believe that they do send them to prison unless they consider it absolutely necessary.

It so happens that I find myself in agreement with every speech that has been made this evening. That is very difficult. I do not want to follow any of them. I suggest however that we need basically to re-think the general efficacy and the cost-effectiveness of our present prison system. Are we really getting value for money? Are our thoughts about this whole matter conditioned by the stern Victorian prison and the ethic that it served in its way? After all, the Victorians had a penal policy. Are we now conditioned by that inheritance? Is it not time that we thought in different terms?

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, rightly pointed out that the greatest single problem in the prison population at the moment is the 60 per cent. burglary recidivists—youngsters under the age of 29. What is the best way of dealing with them? I suggest that we turn our backs on the old concept of the stern Victorian prison and think in terms of prison camps. We are told these days that land is no longer absolutely essential for agriculture, as it once was. We are told that there is a great need to improve our environment. We believe, I think rightly, that one of the great problems in local prisons, where there are these large populations, is that the prisoners are kept in idleness. Nothing is worse for the hope of eventual reform, or changing a person's attitude and bringing him back to the path of the observance of the law, than is idleness. The real criticism of the British prison system is that it makes it very difficult indeed for a person who has been in prison to return to the life of a law-abiding citizen. That is because of conditions in the prisons and the difficulties of aftercare, and so on.

There is great scope for new thinking. Why should we not have much cheaper edifices built in the countryside, not far from the centres of crime? Why should we not have prison camps for the under-29 recidivists who are not regarded as dangerous and some of whom are in need of training? Why should we not have prison camps for those offenders in need of training? Why should we not have prison camps for those many offenders who need treatment? Why should we not have them for high security prisoners of a certain category. Modern electronic devices would enable such camps to be as secure as many of our top security prisons. They would not perhaps be suitable for all prisoners because we must have regard to the fact that there is internationally organised crime with a great deal of money behind it. All I suggest is that there is scope for a great deal of re-thinking in this matter.

We cannot go on stuffing prisoners into local prisons. They are often recidivists and the judges or magistrates do not know what on earth to do with them. Judges sentence them for as short a sentence as they can, knowing perfectly well that they will probably end up in a local prison. But what else can they do? Is it not time that we rethought this whole matter?

In suggesting prison camps, one of the problems is that people who were involved in the last war immediately think of concentration camps. Others would think of holiday camps. People think of Russian prison camps. In fact we should think of an environment in the open air where prisoners can be kept at work for at least eight hours of the day. They would be in a different kind of environment. Nobody knows better than the Minister all the in-built problems that exist within the prison service today. They will never be resolved within the confines of the old Victorian prisons.

Many of the problems in our prisons could be solved if one took a different kind of approach. I am certain of only one thing; that the prison population of this country will not fall. We have to find different ways of dealing with it. Even if we take every single step that has been advocated here this evening—and I agree with all of them, including executive release—the problem will only be solved temporarily.

We seem to be following the example of the United States in many areas. With the kind of society that we have today, we must look to the United States for an idea of where that society will take us. I think, regrettably, it will take us in the direction of much fuller prisons than we have today.

7.40 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, like other speakers, I should like to begin my contribution by offering the warmest congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, not only for having initiated this debate but also for the comprehensive and excellent way in which he dealt with the subject. The noble Lord tackled the problems in a very fair and humane way.

Anyone who has waited for as long as I have in the queue to speak must find himself bound to echo my sentiments when I say that I have been deeply moved as well as heartened by the depth of knowledge and experience that has come from every single speaker in the debate. Everyone has had a significant contribution to make. I am sure that the Minister will be glad to know that everyone has taken the opportunity offered by this debate very seriously indeed. At the end of the day we want the Minister to indicate that he too takes it seriously.

I want to declare two interests. First, I represent in Parliament the interests of the Prison Officers Association. As part of my credentials may I say that in the past 12 months I have visited prisons at Bexhill, Bristol, Maidstone, Lindholme, Bedford, and Wakefield as well as the Maze and Magilligan in Northern Ireland. I am therefore not unfamiliar with the conditions in prisons although I am not an expert on them. Like everyone else I must rely on reports from a range of people and acquaintances in this House. in the prison service and elsewhere. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, also made that point.

Reference has been made to the article by the Minister. I want only to say that I believe that it was truthful but, just like another gentleman we know, I think that he was being somewhat economical with the truth. He did not complete the picture that he was drawing. I want the Minister to be open and frank with the public. Conditions in prisons are not related simply to one side of an argument which rests upon the description of prison staff as the greedy, grasping, overtime-happy prison officers that they have often been called.

We have heard tonight some very relevant remarks about the other side of our prisons. It must be understood that the living conditions of prisoners are the working conditions of prison officers. There have been appalling, disgraceful, and I think the House will agree, shameful episodes. No one attaches blame to any one particular cause. We hope to get out of this situation. The Minister ought to tell it as it is. He ought to remind the public of the conditions that exist in our prisons.

A document has been sent to me by the Howard League for Penal Reform and I should like some of its observations to be put on the record. Perhaps they can also be given publicity in other ways. Recently the Chief Inspector of Prisons is reported as saying: When the time for slopping out comes the prisoners queue up with their pots for the few toilets on the landing. The stench of urine and excrement pervades the prison. So awful is this procedure that many prisoners become constipated—others prefer to use their pants, hurling them and their contents out of the window when morning comes". In its report last year the Social Services Committee remarked: We are astonished that there are not regular outbreaks of disease in prisons". We know that such conditions exist. I think that it is time for the Minister to be prepared not merely to acknowledge them but to tell the public that such are the conditions under which prisoners are serving their sentences.

Much has been said about the harm that is done to men and women by living two and three in a cell rather than in three cells. What I meant to say was rather than each living in one cell. That was a cell out! The point needs to be made that, in general, prison officers take the view that many of the problems are being marginalised. It is not that they are not taken seriously but that they are not given the highest priority. A high degree of priority is given to such schemes as Fresh Start, but I shall not discuss that tonight. Too little attention is paid to tackling the underlying problems. I have heard more than one noble Lord say that until problems such as those that have been paraded before the House tonight are tackled vigorously, other problems will remain even more difficult to deal with.

I should like to tell the House some of the solutions that have been put forward by the prison officers. I quote from evidence that has recently been given to the Select Committee: The first and perhaps the most important initiative we would suggest is that steps should now be taken to substantially reduce the prison population. There are without doubt many people within our prisons for whom such sentences are unnecessary—minor offenders who, at worst, are only of nuisance value to our society. Fine defaulters, civil prisoners, prostitutes, shoplifters, etcetera, could effectively be dealt with by the imposition of non-custodial sentences. That measure alone would provide enormous relief to the system… There are a number of other aspects of our prison system which give us cause for serious concern. Our experience illustrates clearly that young offenders must, where at all humanely possible, he isolated from the undesirable influences of' mature adult offenders. In order to achieve this situation we would recommend the immediate cessation of the detention centre system. Detention centres have now become an ineffective and under-used (by the courts) part of the prison system. The 'short, sharp shock' regime has been proven to be a dismal failure; it has little or no effect". Time is pressing and there is a lot that I wanted to say.

May I just refer to the recent report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons. I was struck by the amazing number of problems that he came across in eight prisons owing to the wrong use of staff; that is, staff who should be used for certain duties having to undertake other duties.

Paragraph 2.02 states: Local factors also affected the quality of life of prisoners. For instance, in a number of the establishments we inspected the arrangements made for the supervision of workshops and education classes were such that a diversion of discipline officers from the classrooms or workshops to other duties inevitably resulted in prisoners being locked away in their cells". In paragraph 2.08, he adds: At Lincoln, a modern and well-equipped three-storey workshop, capable of employing over 200 prisoners, was operating on average for a mere eight hours a week, primarily because of a shortage of disciplinary officers to supervise inmates". Paragraph 2.11 goes on: Overall, however, work opportunities for prisoners were poor … partly because the workshops themselves were not kept open, or were only kept open for reduced periods, when discipline officers were called away to other duties". At paragraph 2.15—

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord. I have to reply to the debate at 17 minutes past eight at the very latest, and there are four more speakers.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I was under the impression that I had taken less time than others but in deference to the Minister I shall sit down now.

7.50 p.m.

Lord Wilson of Langside

My Lords, there have been two references to Winston Churchill during the debate. I venture to quote him again. When he was Home Secretary and was addressing those responsible for law and order, he urged them to remember that there was treasure, if only they could find it, at the heart of every man. I refer to that for no reason other than that it focuses on the different climate in which we work in this context today.

I have been asked to speak, and I shall do so briefly, upon the Scottish dimension of the problem. The Scottish dimension is in almost all respects about twice as bad as that of England and Wales. I am disappointed that the Minister's colleague from the Scottish Office has left the Chamber, but no doubt what is said in this context will be passed to him.

We are grateful to my noble friend Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge for giving us the opportunity to discuss this matter. But it is past time for talking, is it not? We know that the situation is explosive. We know that it is scandalous. All that has been said this afternoon. No one has denied it. There are too many people in prison who should not be there. No one denies that. The situation is about twice as bad in Scotland as it is elsewhere. It is explosive. We have had some little local explosions in Scottish prisons of late. We had the unrest in Peterhead among the prisoners who took hostages. They set fire to part of the prison. Shortly afterwards, that behaviour was emulated in Barlinnie, Glasgow's enormous old barracks of a prison.

The timing of the debate is a great tribute to my noble friend Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge. This week, prison vans taking prisoners to Barlinnie have been turned back. The prison officers are refusing to accept them. There is no room at the gaol, to the immense hilarity of course of the prisoners, who apparently cheered until it echoed. Let us think of the disruption that causes the unfortunate police who have to take Barlinnie's wretched rejects into the local police cells.

The time for talking is over. It reflects no credit on successive governments that, after all these years, it should be urgently necessary to direct attention to the problem. It has all been said so often over the years. There is no simple solution. There is no perfect solution. The problems are so intractable because for some 30 odd years governments have neglected them. For too much of that time I was involved, not in prison administration but as a lawyer in various guises, in the criminal courts. At one stage, I was a civil servant trying to reform the courts through which most of the criminals in Scotland had to pass on their way to prison, in the hope, which I am afraid was rather a vain one, that a little more speed and efficiency there might help to brighten the scene.

I said that the problem was about twice as bad in Scotland as elsewhere; that is true. I was always aware of that. That was confirmed by the careful and detailed information I received today from the Scottish Association for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders. Because time is so short, I shall not detain your Lordships longer.

I hope that the Minister will accept the urgings of my noble friend Lord Hutchinson, throw away his brief and tell us what the Government propose in order to prevent in the short term a recurrence of the little local explosions in my neck of the woods and in the mid-term their re-emergence in the years to come.

7.55 p.m.

Lord Young of Dartington

My Lords, I should like to join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, for initiating this debate and giving me a chance to say a few words about a problem that has been only touched on so far—the new disease of AIDS in prisons. I do not want to level criticism at prison officers, governors or anyone in prisons, but rather, if any criticism is justified, and I think that it is, at the Home Office and the Government behind it for not making enough resources available to deal with that dreadful new problem.

The epidemic highlights how difficult it is to take on board a new problem such as this when the prisons are already so overcrowded and overstretched. The case for doing something about it, perhaps along the lines that have already been suggested by several noble Lords, will become that much stronger if it is recognised that the fate of the rest of us depends upon what happens in prisons and, above all, what happens to drug misusers who are perhaps the most important group at risk from the disease. That is because one of the chief routes along which the virus can travel into the general population is via drug injectors who share needles.

The most crucial group is comprised of men and women who obtain the money to support their drug habit by prostitution. If they are infected they are liable to pass on the virus in that way. No one knows the exact number of drug misusers, but it is clear that it is large. The report recently published by the Parole Release Scheme, which is supported by the Home Office, points out that 3,500 people were sentenced to imprisonment in 1984 for offences involving controlled drugs. The Parole Release Scheme interviewed a number of drug dependents and found that about half were in prison for offences other than drug offences. That may suggest that the total number could easily be approaching 7,000 or going above that figure. The number of drug misusers in prison is on the increase.

That is not altogether surprising, because many of those people are addicts and without help they cannot kick the habit. Unfortunately, as things are, the prisons cannot give them much help. If society cannot do better than it has been doing, not just those people will be punished; we shall all be punished for our neglect. It will not do to go on putting thousands of drug addicts into prison every year and then to toss them out again without any decent after-care. To them, prison gates are revolving gates and that constitutes a grave danger to the rest of the population.

That same report estimated that the reconviction rate among drug dependents may be over 70 per cent. The prison authorities have already done a great deal of commendable work training their staff to deal with the epidemic. There is still a gap—it is a grievous one—in what is being done for the education, re-education, treatment and rehabilitation of drug abusers.

I suggest that the need is very great, a need for a determined effort to make sure that all prisoners know the facts about AIDS and can get counselling if necessary. More important, an effort is needed to set prisoners, including remand prisoners, on the road to rehabilitation in a period when they are withdrawn from drugs.

Any good work done in prisons will be nullified unless more attention is given to after-care, which means more resources, including more voluntary agencies like Narcotics Anonymous working both in and out of prisons. Unless an energetic attempt is made to rehabilitate drug users from a starting base given by the prison, I dread the consequences for the whole populaton of these islands. If we do not act, on our own heads be it—and that is certainly not meant to be a metaphor alone.

8 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, the House will be gratified to learn that this will be one of the briefest speeches that I have made in the Chamber, given that we have over-run our time in a fairly spectacular manner.

I put on one side the issue of Crown immunity in prisons, which I told the Minister I intended to raise, and come to the second point with which I want to deal, the question of remands in police custody, which was referred to by my noble friend Lord Hutchinson of Lullington and my noble and learned friend Lord Wilson of Langside.

The problem began in 1981 in the course of a dispute with the Prison Officers' Association. It was then a short-term crisis. It was dealt with efficiently both by the prison department and by the chief constables of the forces concerned. It was then unavoidable. Since then, as a result of the acute overcrowding in prisons, we have witnessed the creation of what is a second prison system in this country.

We have all complained about conditions in remand prisons, and that has happened again tonight. The conditions are deplorable, but in police cells conditions are abominable. It should be remembered —my noble friend Lord Hutchinson made the point, and it is self-evident—that these men have not been convicted of any criminal offence and a significant proportion of them, even if convicted, will not be sentenced to terms of imprisonment.

Let me quote from the Police Review of 15th August last describing the situation in one set of police buildings in London: The Metropolitan Police opened up their doors to the press. It wasn't their fault that they couldn't match the facilities of remand centres. At Arbour Squre, prisoners were cooped up in twos in cells smaller than the standard prison cell. The prisoners' main complaints were that they had to defecate in the same room as their cell mate and were handcuffed together in groups of three or four, sometimes watched by police dogs, for as little as 20 minutes exercise a day". That is wholly deplorable. What we want to know tonight is what the Government propose to do to deal with the situation.

We have in the House constantly complained to the Government about what has been going on. The present Home Secretary, I am sure wholly sincerely, has told us how concerned he is about it. That is of course exactly what his predecessor said.

Let me quote what Mr. Brittan said on 4th January 1984 when he wrote an article in The Times: I have repeatedly said that the practice is highly undesirable. Police cells were not built to hold such prisoners. Their use causes hardship both to the prisoners and to their visitors, especially lawyers. Valuable police resources are tied down. That is why I decided last July that the practice should cease and set the end of 1983 as a target for bringing it to an end". He went on to say: by last Friday, all police cells were cleared of remand prisoners committed to prison custody by the courts. How was this achieved? He then made some self-congratulatory noises about the prison building programme. Mr. Brittan's promise lasted for precisely three days. Three days later the prison cells were once again being occupied by prisoners.

That was bad enough. But the situation is now getting a great deal worse. In January last year an average of 11 prisoners a night were in police custody. This January it was not 11 prisoners a night but a minimum of 67 prisoners a night. The figures ranged from 67 on 2nd January to 348 by the night of 30th January. By 10th February it was up to 362. Not only are these prisoners being held in shameful conditions but they are being deprived of proper opportunities to consult their legal advisers—a point made consistently, as the Minister will be aware, by the Law Society.

The Metropolitan Police can hold only around 260 a night; otherwise they would not be able to hold the ordinary prisoners whom they arrest in the course of an evening. As a result prisoners are being dispatched to police stations in Kent, Hertfordshire, Essex, Hampshire and Sussex. Think of the problems, not just for the prisoners and the prisoners' families, but also for the prisoners' legal advisers when they are attempting to discuss with their clients a proper criminal defence.

Many chief officers of police have expressed to the Government, in the clearest terms, their concern about the situation. I repeat that what we want from the Minister tonight is not a further expression of concern, which I am sure will be sincerely meant, but some indication that the Government will take action.

The situation as regards remand prisoners is wholly outrageous, and action must be taken at once to deal with it.

8.6 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I express my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, for introducing this vital matter and a word of apology to the House if I have to leave—I hope that I will be forgiven—immediately after concluding my speech as a result of a long-standing engagement, for which I am already late.

We have heard, and heard eloquently time and again over the years, those of us who have participated in debates on prisons, the complaints renewed tonight about prisoners on remand, a point eloquently repeated by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. We have heard about psychiatric patients in prisons who ought to be removed to hospitals in every single debate that I can remember. We have heard about the executive action under Section 32 in nearly every debate that I can remember. We have heard in nearly every debate that I can remember about the need for bail hostels to be increased.

Thus we come to a very definite crisis point. The Motion introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, referred to recent reports. I could not find a more recent report than that of the Prison Reform Trust dated 24th February. It gives the figures up to last Friday. They are as follows. On Friday, 20th February there were 48,181 people in prison in England and Wales plus a further 393 untried prisoners held in police cells. The report states: This is the highest number on record, exceeding the previous all-time high of 48,200 which was reached in August 1985. It goes on to say that, because all these are seasonal figures—in regard to the winter months, for some reason the figures are usually lower—we can anticipate that it will soon exceed the 50,000 barrier. The report continues: The population has increased by over 1,000 in the last three weeks. This is equivalent to three new prisons the size of Albany. If we are not in a crisis now, I do not know when we expect to be.

That having been said, there is one thing that I tried to do. Another report that reached me only this afternoon is most interesting. It is an extract from a book written by Dr. David Downes, a Reader on Social Administration at the London School of Economics. He has been kind enough to send it to me, with permission to quote, provided that I say from where the quote comes, as is proper. There is a chapter in the book entitled "The Depth of Imprisonment: an Exploratory Study in England and the Netherlands."

Let me say at once that if my time is cut short I cannot think of a nicer person than the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, to be responsible for doing so. We were all delighted to hear what he had to say.

The article deals with a comparison with which he dealt in a most detailed way between the prisons in the Netherlands and British subjects who were prisoners over there, and prisoners who were Dutch prisoners in our prisons over here. In the couple of minutes that I have at my disposal I shall deal with a matter which I regard as very pertinent. If other people have overcome problems one can see how one can do so and one can always learn. I quote from this study: The contrast between the British and Dutch penal systems is usually drawn in terms of the length of sentences of imprisonment. The average Dutch sentence of three months or so is far shorter than the average British sentence of roughly 10 months, a difference which principally accounts for the much smaller proportionate size of the Dutch prison population relative to that of Britain. He says furthermore in his book (at page 19 of this interesting extract): Another prisoner sentenced to four and a half years in prison for armed robbery"— that is in Holland— thought he would have received a 15 year sentence in Britain. Estimates of the difference were roughly in the range of English prison sentences being three times as long. This is a current analysis. In spite of all the lectures which take place, all the wishes that are expressed to the judiciary, and with the judiciary acting with the best of good faith, the fact seems to remain that our sentences in this country for comparative offences are much longer and more severe than elsewhere. We have talked about prison conditions and everything has been said about overcrowding that ought to be said. However, perhaps I may draw attention to a few other factors.

On accommodation, obviously in Holland, as one would have expected, they have a very much better system than ours from the point of view of accommodation per cell. The commitment to one-to-a-cell rule was sharply expressed in resignation terms by a senior member of staff in an Amsterdam prison. "If two go to a cell", he said, "I go." That is the attitude in Holland. Look at the accommodation we have here, my Lords. Consider what we could do to encourage prisoners not to become recidivists—and it is the recidivists again who are filling our prisons. What do they do in Holland? I learned from this book that apart from anything else they pay four times as much a week to a prisoner as we do, with the result that that prisoner is able, as a result of his work, to get necessities, including postage for his letters and tobacco. The amount that a prisoner receives in our country makes it absolutely essential that he choose between tobacco, essential toiletries or letters to his family. That is literally the case and it is brought out in this book.

What do we do to encourage our people when they are in prison to find work afterwards, and to be rehabilitated? I have been reading what they do in Holland. By way of comparison, we are far behind them. It is summed up in one sentence with which I shall conclude my remarks. In other countries—not in all other countries, but in those that we ought to be imitating—they have the maxim of prisons as punishment. We appear to have the maxim of prisons for punishment. That cannot be right.

8.15 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity which the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, has provided for this interesting debate on prisons. Because prisons are a closed community, with which the vast majority of the public have no contact, there is all too little public knowledge or debate about them. I am therefore grateful to the noble Lord for the chance to set out for the record how the Government see the future of our prisons and the conditions of those who live and work in them.

The noble Lord's personal commitment to prisons and the welfare of prisoners is of course well known to me. As president of NACRO he is closely associated with an organisation which carries out much good and practical work in this field, and I should like to pay my tribute to that organisation.

Noble Lords have had much to say about adverse conditions, overcrowding and impoverished regimes. I accept of course that these problems exist and I shall have a good deal to say about how they are being tackled. But I want today to correct the impression that the House may have that all prisons present problems of the kind described in this debate. It depresses me that so much of the criticism that is being voiced about the prison service is solely negative, often emotional, often ill-informed and in very general terms. I am sorry that some of your Lordships have followed that path today. That criticism ignores the many positive initiatives that our prisons are involved in and denigrates the good commitment of the staff, both in headquarters and in the establishments.

"Prisons are overcrowded" is an oft-repeated criticism. That is not universally true. I readily accept that some are, but well over half of our establishments are not overcrowded. Overcrowding has been with us for years. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, and the Labour Party, with Liberal support, had a very good opportunity to do something about it before we came to power but they blew their chance. I shall have more to say about that later on.

The training prisons and young offender establishments provide good conditions for both staff and prisoners, and positive regimes. In the short time since I have taken on this responsibility for prisons I have visited a wide range of establishments across the prison system. I can therefore speak from my own experience of some of the excellent work that is being done.

On a recent visit to Featherstone, for instance, a training prison in the Midlands which opened in 1976, I found good conditions and no overcrowding. The regime provides a full daytime and evening education programme, physical education and excellent workshop facilities, and the majority of prisoners are fully occupied. During my visit I was told that 23 per cent. of inmates on a recent light engineering vocational training course had obtained employment in this line immediately on discharge. Turning to the education side, it is to their credit that that department had one inmate who was recently awarded an Open University degree.

Noble Lords may say that this is the exception rather than the rule, but that is not so. Many other establishments have similar regimes with equally positive features, including work for the community, often for the disabled. May I cite just two further examples. At Cookham Wood, a female prison, prisoners attend a local swimming pool each week to help with swimming lessons for the disabled. And at Long Lartin, a top security prison, a group of prisoners, under the guidance of the education officer, undertake a project each year in support of a charity. Last year they produced an illustrated diary for 1987 and donated the proceeds of £2,500 from sales to a local hospice for children—all good work, my Lords.

There are also positive developments to report on the workshop front. It has been suggested that the rationalisation of prison workshops has led to a deterioration in regime provision. That was not the intention and it has not turned out to be so in practice. A good example of progress is at Lincoln, where three shops which were recommended for closure have been reinstated as a result of local initiative and agreement to reduce discipline cover to one workshop patrol. At Liverpool, workshop hours have been doubled in a number of shops by, among other things, the use of shift systems, and at Bristol workshop performance has improved to such an extent that better quality products and quality control to British standards are being considered.

Having tried to lighten somewhat the unrelieved gloom of the picture painted by some of your Lordships, let me return to the very real problems confronting our older prisons. Those particularly affected are the Victorian local prisons which, because most of our London prisons come into this category, are the ones which will be most familiar to the House. The problems of overcrowding, outdated facilities and limited regimes which your Lordships have so graphically described have their roots in the years of neglect by successive governments. No new prisons were built in England and Wales between 1918 and 1958, and the level of investment in refurbishment and maintenance was entirely inadequate until this Government took office.

The other major cause of the problem is the rise in the prison population. The 1985 summer surge in the population to over 48,100 which put heavy demands on the capacity of the system to cope was not repeated during the early part of 1986. Unhappily it has now climbed again and last Friday the number detained in prison establishments was again over 48,100.

Overlaying these problems, and constraining measures to tackle them, are the inefficient management systems and inflexible working practices which have for too long placed a straitjacket on progress in the prison service. I know that when the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, had this job he did so much to try to improve the situation. I am grateful for his support for the actions which the Government are now taking.

So, what are the Government doing about the problems we have been debating this evening? We have a strategy which is now well established for bringing about the improvement all of us with a concern for the prison service want to see in prison conditions and the way the service is run. This will be familiar ground to some of your Lordships. Nevertheless, it needs covering again because too often people speak as though the Government were taking no action at all to bring about improvements.

Before I outline in more detail the measures that are being taken I want to say a word about minimum standards. It is sometimes argued—as it has been today by the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson—that a code of standards would help to identify areas of need. But as I have indicated, the areas of need are well know; the problem lies in finding and implementing the solutions. The Government are not persuaded that the development of a code of minimum standards would contribute to the search for improvements. It would certainly not be helpful to those establishments which, because of physical constraints on the rate at which progress can be made, would not be able to comply with some of them. It is action, not words, that is needed, and that is what we are providing.

There are, I know, many people who would put the emphasis in improving conditions entirely on reducing the number of people in prison. This is not a practicable way forward. The size of the prison population is directly determined by the remand and sentencing decisions of the criminal courts. The courts in turn have to deal with the cases which come before them; their decisions must reflect the seriousness of the offences and have regard to public feeling especially about some particularly unpleasent types of crime. The courts are rightly independent of the Government.

The noble and learned Lord, in what I thought was a brilliant speech, explained the current thinking of the judiciary and answered many of the points raised by others of your Lordships. It is entirely right for the executive to set the parameters, including non-custodial sentences, but it is up to the judiciary to decide what the right sentence is, taking into account each individual case. It is the duty of the Home Secretary to house someone who is remanded or convicted to custody when sentenced by the judiciary.

However, what the Government can do and have done so successfully is to provide the courts with a range of alternatives to custody which are suitable for all but the most serious offender so that prison places can be reserved for those from whom the public needs to be protected. The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, will be pleased to hear that we have given the courts the best range and flexibility of non-custodial sentences in any country' in Western Europe. The Government have given high priority to expanding and strengthening alternatives for more serious offenders, particularly community service and the probation order.

Some 13 per cent. of those convicted of indictable offences now do community service or probation. We have enlarged the attendance centre system for the under-21s. We ensure that fines are pitched at a realistic level and fine enforcement is swift and effective. We have established compensation as a sentence in its own right. We are experimenting with reparation schemes. Nevertheless, we are still examining new non-custodial options, tough and demanding ones in which the courts and the public can have confidence, because we wish to increase the range further and encourage the further use of our existing ones.

It is also the Government's job to ensure that the courts are kept fully informed of the aims and availability of alternatives to custody, and their relative costs. It is vital that those who take the decisions should base them on a full appreciation of the resources involved.

A large part of the recent rise in the prison population is attributable to those awaiting trial or sentence. This group has increased by more than a third over the past five years—faster than any other. The Government are taking vigorous action to tackle this aspect of the problem by encouraging the courts to grant bail wherever appropriate; increasing the resources of the Crown Court and improving the management of court business; and providing additional courtrooms and circuit judges. Also, following field trials permitted by the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 we shall shortly introduce regulations applying statutory time-limits in some areas of the country governing the periods during which people awaiting trial may be held in custody. It is our intention to extend the scheme across the country.

Turning to the prison building programme, this Government have reversed the decline of the earlier part of this century by establishing a programme for building 20 new prisons. Three of these opened in 1985 along with RAF Lindholme, which was converted and brought into use to cope with the 1985 population surge. These new prisons, together with 17 more which are being built or planned, should provide a further 10,600 places by 1995. These will be places with integral sanitation in prisons offering a full range of facilities. A major refurbishment programme is under way to provide another 6,600 extra places—a total of 17,200 new places in all. Priority is being given in the refurbishment schemes to improving access to sanitation. By the end of 1990 some 28,000 prison places will have access to sanitation.

This Government have made a similar investment of other resources in the prison service. Between 1979 and 1986 the annual average number of prison officers has risen by nearly 20 per cent. while the annual average inmate population has risen by less than 11 per cent. Over the same period expenditure on the service rose by a third in real terms and is set to carry on rising. This compares with an increase of only 12 per cent. in real terms under the previous administration, and a cut under that administration of 35 per cent. in real terms in expenditure on prison building. That is where the Labour Government, with Liberal support, blew it.

No one can doubt the Government's determination to devote the resources and manpower necessary to improve the prison service. Another essential ingredient in our programme, without which the looked-for improvements will not materialise as expected, is the package of proposals known as A Fresh Start. They are the latest, most far-reaching and significant measures for improving efficiency and securing the best value for the greatest ever amount of money being spent on the service.

Some of your Lordships are already aware of the details of the proposals. I do not have time to go into them today except to say that they involve changes in pay, complementing and working arrangements for prison officers. The aim is to allow staff to be deployed more flexibly and to better effect, thus freeing valuable manpower to pursue improvements in regime standards for prisoners.

Before leaving the subject of A Fresh Start I should like to welcome the POA's national executive committee's decision to allow its members to participate in the development stages of A Fresh Start. As a result they can fully appreciate the benefits of the proposals we are offering.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, mentioned the number of people who were being held two or three to a cell. The number being held three to a cell is at the moment less than it was in 1976. Naturally, some of them have been moved and are being held two to a cell, which we believe is a better option than having them three to a cell. However, that does not solve the problem of overcrowding, which we are tackling by other means.

The noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, asked about the percentage of those remanded in custody who receive non-custodial disposals, and he gave some figures. About 70 per cent. of those remanded in custody and whose cases are disposed of by the Crown Courts receive custodial sentences. That proves—although they are not held for some of the time in conditions which we would like—what difficult decisions the judiciary must make when remanding someone to custody.

The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, said that it is all the fault of an increase in crime. If the noble Lord has looked at the facts, he must know that the annual increase in crime has not changed much since 1950. He cannot suddenly blame it on an upsurge in crime now. The figures in this country are comparable to the rest of Europe. Let us just pause a moment to consider Europe. There has been that often quoted and very misleading statement that we sentence more of our population to prison than any other country in Western Europe. That is utter rubbish, whether it be the total prison population or the detention rate per 100,000. We do not sentence more than any other country in Western Europe, let alone the EC.

Let us also compare our growth in prison population with that of Europe. There are only three countries in the EC whose population from 1st February 1983 to 1st February 1986 actually grew at a slower rate than ours. That of Holland—a well quoted example—grew by 24 per cent., whereas in England and Wales it grew by only 5 per cent. in that period. The building programme in Holland proportionately is much greater than the vast building programme that we have in this country.

The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, also asked about prisons in the countryside: why do we not turn agricultural land into prisons? A great number of complaints 1 have received from penal organisations around the country say, "Do not build any more prisons in the countryside because of the difficulties in visiting, particularly for the remand people. You must build prisons in town centres which are close to courts, and that will save all the problems with escort duties". I am afraid we have a conflict of opinion on that front.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, asked whether governors should not have a chance to write a valedictory report when they left. We would welcome that. It is an excellent idea. Some already do that and they are not slow to let us know their views. Some have joined voluntary organisations to very good effect. We would encourage that, because when we have a difficult situation in certain areas of the service we welcome constructive comments.

As for the TUC Women's Conference, it would be premature for me to comment on a comprehensive document containing some 52 recommendations, if I remember rightly, before there has been a chance to debate it over the next couple of weeks. I am sure that it will be brought to my attention, and I shall give it the utmost consideration.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, mentioned bail hostels. The department has no evidence of serious difficulties in finding places for existing bailees. We do this a lot of the time in co-operation with the Association of Chief Officers of Probation where necessary, and we are extending a number of hostels. I should like to consider the point further, because if it can help to relieve the situation so much the better. The probation services in various parts of the country is currently experimenting with court-based schemes which it is hoped will reduce the remand population. The effect of the scheme is to raise the courts' awareness of bail accommodation. That just illustrates how important it is to keep the judiciary informed of all the various alternatives. The noble Baroness mentioned, as did several of your Lordships, after-care, but I do not think I have time within the remit of this debate to go into that.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, mentioned detention centres. The few that I have managed to go to so far I have found very impressive. They have very good regimes and particularly good training and educational programmes. I remember going to one at Usk where a class was being taught and those present did not have a clue how to speak English when they came in. The prison service is providing a great educational service, and it is sad to see a lot of the detention centres not being fully utilised. The noble Lord will know that we are taking certain steps within the Criminal Justice Bill to try to get detention centres used more.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, raised what has unfortunately become the annual problem of prisoners in police cells. I share his concern. A lot of the problem is because we were short of prisons when we came to power. The rising trend was there to be seen and he must regret, as much as we regret, that more money was not spent on prison building in his day, which would have helped to solve the problem.

What are we doing about it? One of the important things we can do is to optimise the use of the existing prisoner state, where necessary, by changing the functions of establishments to match functions which have occurred and which are projected to occur in the nature of the prison population. I found the rigidity of our prisons one of the difficulties; I should like to see them much more flexible. This is one area in our new and refurbishment schemes where we are concentrating on trying to make sure that they are implemented as soon as possible to be of maximum benefit to the remand population.

The noble Lord, Lord Young of Dartington, went fairly wide on pure prisons when talking about AIDS and drug misusers. From what I have heard all round the service, a great compliment must be paid to Dr. Kilgour, who is head of the Prison Medical Service, for the enormous improvements and the enormous trouble it has gone to to inform prisoners and staff alike of the consequences of AIDS and drug misuse. We realise that there are problems in some areas of the prison service, but by no means all.

I hope that it is clear from what I have said so far that the Government see the strategy I have outlined as a means to an end. That end is the provision of an improved regime for prisoners, a more satisfying role for prison officers and better conditions for both.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, it is lucky that I have no more than a minute and a half to reply becaue I feel almost speechless at the reply that the noble Earl has given. He knows that I respect and like him, but, quite honestly, nobody in the prison service hearing his speech would recognise what he was talking about.

Of course there are good prisons. We all know that. We are not talking about them. I acknowledged them to start with. I said that above all things I am not attacking the Government. Other governments have done just as badly. The noble Earl has simply defended himself in a way which is almost unnecessary—

The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe)

My Lords, I must now ask the noble Lord whether he wishes to withdraw his Motion.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

The answer is that I do. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.