HL Deb 16 July 1987 vol 488 cc1178-89

4.41 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement about the prison population which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"The House has from time to time been warned of the dramatic rise in the prison population. Last Friday that population stood at 51,029, nearly 4,000 more than a year ago and over 9,300 above the certified normal accommodation; that is, the uncrowded capacity of the prison system. Six hundred and forty-eight of those prisoners were being held in wholly unsuitable conditions in police cells, so diverting police officers from operational duties.

"The main reason for the latest growth in the population is the substantial increase in the number of offenders being dealt with by the Crown Court, and an increase in the average length of custodial sentences passed by the Crown Court. Moreover, despite our efforts to reduce court delays, the number of prisoners held on remand has gone up by about a further 1,000 over the last year to over 11,000.

"Those who commit serious offences should receive severe sentences. The Government have legislated to increase the sentencing powers of the courts where necessary, and the courts in their decisions have reflected public concern by passing longer sentences; for example, for rape and armed robbery. At the same time, we have made clear, most recently in our election manifesto, the need to strike a balance between tough sentences for those who pose a threat to society and lesser sentences for those who pose no such threat. Hence the emphasis which we have placed on tough and challenging alternatives to custody, to which the courts have responded with a substantial increase in the proportionate use of community service orders.

"Sentencing decisions are for the courts. The responsibility of government is to make sure that the decisions of the courts are not frustrated by lack of prison accommodation. Prisons have to be places with the right levels of security in which prisoners can live, and prison staff can work, in tolerable conditions. The problem of overcrowding, and what it means in practice, is well known to any Member of the House who has visited one of our local prisons. We have 5,000 prisoners crammed three to a cell designed for one. A further 14,000 are doubled up. Virtually all of these people are in their cells for most of the day, relying on pots and periodic slopping out for sanitation. Such overcrowded prisons are hard to control and, I would argue, more likely to result in reoffending.

"This Government have invested record sums in the prison service. Expenditure on the service has increased 34 per cent. in real terms since 1979 and the capital budget has more than doubled. The building programme already known to the House involves the opening of 20 new prisons as well as refurbishment of existing prisons and this will have delivered a total of 17,500 more prison places by 1995. It has been expanded in each of the last two public expenditure rounds. Immediately, the programme will produce some 3,000 new places in the 12 months from September. We are making every effort to maximise the use of the existing prison estate and I should like to pay tribute to the efforts of the prison service in doing so. They are hard pressed and deserve our thanks. However, in recent months the rise in the population has outstripped the supply of new places and the gap between supply and demand looks set to grow wider still. The report by Sir James Hennessy on last year's prison disturbances, which I am publishing today, reminds us all of the delicate balance between order and disorder in our prisons.

"Further action now is essential. That action must be enough to deal with the immediate problem and prevent it recurring. We must also preserve the momentum of our restructuring of working practices under the fresh start initiative.

"I have therefore taken the following decisions. First, immediate steps are being authorised to secure the opening on a temporary basis of a camp for prisoners—Rollestone in Wiltshire—which will hold 360 inmates. This will be managed and staffed by prison service personnel. I shall keep the need for further camps or other additional temporary accommodation under close review.

"Secondly, we shall also need a substantial expansion and acceleration of our plans to provide more prison places in the longer term. We propose to set this in hand and I will make a further announcement in due course.

"Thirdly, I am sure that the skills and knowledge of the private sector have a bigger part to play in ensuring the speedy delivery of this accelerated programme. It takes too long to build a prison in this country. I am therefore setting up a new prison buildings board within the Home Office but with a strong outsider element to supervise the building programme and to exploit to the full private sector techniques in bringing new prisons on stream. My noble friend Lord Caithness will report immediately to me on further possibilities for using the private sector following his forthcoming visit to the United States.

"Fourthly, I have considered but rejected using the power of executive release to ease the pressure of the prison population. Rather I propose to lay amendments to the rules for prison department establishments increasing the amount of remission dependent upon good behaviour by those serving sentences of up to and including 12 months from one-third to one-half of sentence length. This is an interim measure, applying only to less serious offenders serving short custodial sentences and the period of remission is dependent on good conduct.

"It will remove the anomaly, criticised by the courts, that those on sentences too short to qualify for parole serve a higher proportion of their sentences than more serious offenders who are selected for parole. As it takes effect over the coming weeks it will help the present problem of overcrowding—to the extent of about 3,500 places—by relieving pressure, particularly on local prisons, and enable prisoners to be removed from police cells, thereby returning police officers to their proper duties of dealing with crime and preserving public order on the streets.

"Fifthly, this measure, is as I have said, an interim one, pending a wide-ranging review of parole and remission arrangements. The operation of the parole scheme in relation to shorter sentences has, as I have said, been criticised not least by members of the judiciary. In our manifesto we undertook to set up a thorough review of the workings of the parole system and of the arrangements for post-custodial supervision. I can announce today the setting up of that review which will also look at remission—under the chairmanship of a distinguished former Member of this House, Mr. Mark Carlisle, QC, with terms of reference which I shall publish in full in the Official Report.

"The Government have consistently shown in deeds over the last eight years their commitment to the prison service and to resolving the long-neglected problems of the prison system, including the lack of capital investment and the reform of working practices. The immediate pressure of the rise in the prison population means that we must amplify and extend our strategy. The measures which I have announced today on prison building, parole and remission, and the opening of Rollestone, are designed to achieve that".

My Lords, that concludes the text of the Statement.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, for repeating the very sombre Statement made in another place by the Home Secretary. It faces up to the crisis that we meet in our prisons today. We debated this matter on Tuesday and I am sure the noble Earl must be regretting that he was not then given the information that he has given the House today. Obviously there have been immediate and recent discussions and decisions on this grave matter.

Before I move on to the content I should like to join in the tribute that the noble Earl paid to the prison service for what its members have had to do and what they have endeavoured to do in the most appalling conditions of service in recent years. The crisis in the prisons was underlined from different parts of the House on Tuesday. We have reached the record figure of 51,029 prisoners in our prisons today, and added to them are the 648 prisoners in police cells about which the police themselves have been complaining. As Mr. James Anderton said, policemen are not gaolers.

What is being proposed to deal with this situation? The Statement points out with frankness that last Friday over 9,300 prisoners above the certified normal accommodation were in prison. That was the measure of the overcrowded state of our prisons. In addition, there were 648 prisoners in police cells. It was essential that action be taken. There were risks of riots and disturbances, apart from the appalling conditions within the prisons which the Statement has frankly admitted and described. It is a shame.

Immediate action is proposed to reduce the size of the prison population to some extent. We shall have to consider whether it goes far enough. The immediate proposal is to provide 360 places in Rollestone Camp. In addition, there is the proposal, which, as far as it goes, we welcome—it may well be that outside the House some will criticise it—for executive release of prisoners. It is hoped that that will reduce the amount of overcrowding by 3,500 prisoners. As the Minister has said, the remission will be dependent upon good behaviour and will relate to those serving sentences of up to 12 months. The remission will be from one-third to one-half of the sentence. That measure, or something similar, was one that the crisis called for.

I wonder why the Government have rejected the proposal made by the noble Viscount the Leader of the House for executive remission of sentence and the release of prisoners, with the threat of sanction of recall in the event of misbehaviour. I do not know whether that element applies in what is proposed. That proposal was made in 1981. It is one which at that time commended itself to many people. I wonder why it has not been followed, instead of the remission of sentence of 3,500 prisoners.

In addition, the Statement says that it is hoped that in the next 12 months 3,000 more prison places will be provided in the rebuilding programme. That takes us to rather fewer than 7,000 prisoners. After that period, there will still be over 2,000 prisoners above the certified accommodation in prisons. This is very much an interim measure. More must be done if our shameful prison record is to be dealt with effectively.

We also note the proposal to review the workings of the parole system and the arrangements for post-custodial supervision. The review may be helpful, but I hope there will not be the pressure of the kind that has been brought to bear in this House and elsewhere to limit the usefulness and value of the parole system in certain cases. There must not be greater remission on the one hand and a reduction in releases on parole on the other.

We are grateful for the proposals, as far as they go. We are grateful to the Government for the frankness of the Statement which they have made. The British people have now been placed face to face with something which was a disgrace to our judicial system and to our society.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble Earl for repeating the Home Secretary's Statement which was full of good and useful news. To someone like myself who has been singing Cassandra for 15 to 20 years, it is an enormous relief at last to feel that the Government are attempting to face up to a difficult situation. It is much more difficult a situation than it would have been had some action been taken earlier. I am not going to stress that, because when people do what we want them to we must praise them, even if they could have done it a long time before to greater advantage.

I was interested to note that the Home Secretary used, almost word for word, the arguments that I used on 25th September in an Unstarred Question. I am glad that he has given a much more satisfactory answer to those arguments than I received from the Minister. I know that the Minister could not say more than he did, so I do not hold that against him. This is a wonderful change. It is better.

I shall do the sum that the noble and learned Lord spoke to. There are 9,300 prisoners in excess; there will be 3,000 new places in September; there will be increased remission for 3,000 prisoners, and a camp for 360, leaving just under 3,000 places still to be found. In every Session over the past 12 years a noble Lord has asked the Home Office why an Army camp could not be used. It is a great relief to find that we can use one. It need not be the only one. It depends upon whether there are sufficient suitable prisoners among the 12-month or other prisoners.,

The second good point is that, although I was urging executive release, achieving the reduction by increasing the remission of sentence ensures that it will continue. Once it is started, it happens year by year, whereas the process of executive release has to be renewed each year. If it is not renewed every year, we return to the position we were in before. Anything of this kind must therefore continue for some period. It is a great relief to observe that that will be so.

This first step should be enough to eliminate the 648 police-held prisoners. I should like the Minister to tell us how quickly he thinks that step can be achieved. Can it be done overnight? Will it take six weeks, or what?

Secondly, I strongly agree with the noble and learned Lord that it is time that the whole question of post-custodial supervision, and parole and all its implications, should be looked at afresh. Mr. Mark Carlisle, who after all has had the requisite training, being on the board of NACRO for many years, will be as good a chairman as we could possibly find.

The noble and learned Lord talked about the 1981-proposal made by the noble Viscount the Leader of the House. I think that it was called supervised release. My impression was that it would divide short sentences into three sections. The first third would be served in prison, the second third under supervision and the third third would be remission. I hope that the noble Earl and the Home Secretary will go more carefully into that remedy. We have another 3,000 prisoners to deal with, and I think that process is probably right.

Most 12-month sentences are served in local prisons, but some are served in open prisons. Most trouble arises in the local prisons. I think everyone will welcome this new step with its conditions of non-violence and good behaviour. We think that the Government are at last doing what should have been done a long time ago. We congratulate them and will give them every assistance.

5 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome to the Statement given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge. I am particularly grateful for the words of the noble and learned Lord about the prison service. In the short time that I have come to know those concerned extremely well, I feel they have done a marvellous job. Their work is very often underrated by the public at large, as indeed is the work of the headquarters of the prison service and of the civil servants who also play such an important part in the overall picture of the prison service.

I would stress at this stage that although I referred to executive release in the Statement, we are not talking about that. We are talking about remission that has to be earned before an inmate can receive the benefit of it.

Both noble Lords mentioned supervised release. I do not think that I can say any more to them than I did on Tuesday, when I replied to the noble and learned Lord in the debate. It will be a matter that will be part of the review of parole. On the review, I agree with the noble and learned Lord that it must not be pressurised. A review is a review and none of us will know what the review will say until the report is published.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, said that what we have done today we should have done earlier. With respect to him, I would say that the situation we face today in the prison service could have been mitigated if the last Labour Government had not cut their prison building programme by 35 per cent. in real terms and had not deferred the eight new building projects. Because it takes so long to build a prison in this country—and that is one of the matters that we intend to speed up—we have not been able to catch up from those days.

Both the noble and learned Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, asked about the numbers of prisoners in police cells. I think that it would be useful to the House if I said that in 1986 about 303,350 manhours were spent on this work, which was equivalent to 172 full-time posts. I am sure that the House would agree that this is a fair police commitment. I have to tell the noble and learned Lord opposite that the number in police cells, alas, has gone up since the figure of last Friday. I understand that last night there were 720 people in police cells.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, it is extremely good news that the prisons are coming on stream—the long lead time has been explained—and that more will come on stream fairly soon. Can my noble friend say what has been done by way of studying the American and Swedish systems, one of confinement to the home, and the other of electronic tagging, where a person, instead of going to prison, has to stay at home and is not able electronically to get out of his house? How much study has there been of that system?

Many people who go to prison have a long record of offences, very often starting with youth custody and so on. Youth custody has a very small record of cure. However, if one looks ahead to the prison population in a few years' time those who receive intermediate treatment have about a 50 per cent. chance of going straight afterwards. Can he assure the House that every possible encouragement is given to the full use of intermediate treatment in order to try to improve the situation in the future?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, my noble friend raised a number of points about non-custodial sentences. I would refer him to what I said on Tuesday in the debate on the Criminal Justice Bill, when I answered in some detail, in particular on the point that he has raised, which was also raised at that time by my noble friend Lord Elton.

We have the widest range of non-custodial sentences in Western Europe. The number of community service orders handed down by the courts has virtually trebled since 1978. Probation and community service orders account now for some 16 per cent. of disposals for indictable offences compared with 9 per cent. in 1979. My noble friend also raised the question of electronic tagging. I can tell him that I shall look at this system in operation in Florida when I go to the United States in September.

Viscount Mountgarret

My Lords, will my noble friend not agree that the very problems that he has outlined concerning overcrowding in prisons would be much alleviated if the suggestions that I made on what I may perhaps call the first Criminal Justice Bill—which came into your Lordships' House before the general election—were considered rather more seriously? As some noble Lords were not then present I shall briefly state the suggestions I ask the Government very seriously to bear in mind. I believe they reflect the wishes of many people in this country. These are the reintroduction of the death penalty—to the extent that it does not include hanging; castration for second time offenders for rape; flogging for bullies and thugs; and deportation for certain second offenders. This would go a long way towards reducing our prison population. I hear some cries of dissent from noble Lords opposite; but I believe that noble Lords opposite know perfectly well that many of these suggestions have a degree of support from many people in the country, and so should be thought about rather more deeply.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, some of the points that my noble friend has just mentioned were debated at length in another place. Although my noble friend gave me notice that he was going to raise the matter in detail at Committee stage on Criminal Justice Bill (Mark I) we never quite reached that stage. I am sure that my noble friend will raise it on Mark II, the Bill before your Lordships' House, when he will be able more fully to deploy his arguments.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I would beg the noble Lord not to do any such thing. I wonder whether the noble Earl will permit me to say that I do not want to follow him in any criticism of his government or of my government. He must remember on this national issue that one cannot have it both ways. One cannot be proud of being the third Government of the Conservative Party in consecutive terms and then start referring to what other government have or have not done in the past. One cannot have it both ways. It is much more sensible that this House seriously considers this as a national crisis and a national issue, and that we pool our brains to try to do something about it.

The first issue is surely this. Are there sufficient alternatives to imprisonment which are practical and effective at this stage? I would love the noble Earl in his courtesy to deal with this complaint that I hear: that community service orders—although they are very sensible because they have a rehabilitating effect which prisons do not have and are therefore most useful, apart from emptying our prisons—cannot effectively be made in many parts of the country because there is insufficient staff to man them and not sufficient organisation. Can he tell the House whether that criticism is right and, if it is, can he do something about it?

The second issue concerns premises. It is a very good idea to set up a board to inquire into whether we can have more prisons built more quickly and more cheaply. But what about refurbishing the dreadful prisons that we have, which produce the situation the noble Earl recited in the Statement that he repeated to us this afternoon? Therefore can the board also look at quick, economic and sensible methods of refurbishing our dreadful old prisons?

The last point—I make is on terms of reference with regard to the parole board. The noble Earl said perfectly fairly, "Let us wait and see what they do". I am looking—as I always do with some admiration, and at times some sense of opposition—to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, who has many determined views on parole; and they are not usually in the direction of increasing but rather of decreasing parole awards. Would the Minister be good enough to indicate to the House whether one of the terms of reference of this review will be concerned with whether or not recommendations are to be made for increasing the powers of parole in view of the critical situation in our prisons?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the terms of reference for parole will indeed be published in the Official Report. One of the terms will take into account the possibility of prisoners released before expiry of sentence being required to perform work of value to the community, having regard to the relative cost and effectiveness of custodial and non-custodial disposals.

The noble Lord criticised the effectiveness of the financing of the community service order. It is the first time I have heard that criticism and it is one I shall want to look into. With regard to the prison building programme, we must not forget one important point. I refer to the difficulty of getting planning permission on some occasions. One can streamline the building process; but while members of the public may be all for having another prison, they do not want it on their doorstep. This can lead to delays—

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the noble Earl misunderstood me—

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am just coming to refurbishment. I wanted to get that point across first.

It is in the old Victorian prisons, the local prisons, that we need refurbishment. They are the most overcrowded. We have first to decant the inmates from a wing in order that refurbishment can take place. This has just happened in one of the wings of Liverpool prison which I was pleased to reopen the other day. The prison building programme will relieve the pressure on the local prisons, as will the effect of the Statement today. We shall then, I hope, be able to increase the speed with which refurbishment is carried out.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, while I welcome the Statement, I want to express some disappointment that there is no reference in it to the question of prisoners on remand. It was stated in a debate only the other day that some 38 per cent. of the prisoners on remand—I give that figure from memory—do not get custodial sentences. This seems a totally unnecessary loading of the prison population with people who ought not be be there. Surely there are steps that could be taken—an increase in the number of bail hostels is only one—to cut down the number of people on remand who are taking up places in prison.

The Government should give the maximum help to organisations which are doing what they can to see that people coming out of prison do not return. Recidivism puts up the figures in a quite unnecessary way.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we have increased the number of places in a bail hostels, a subject on which the noble Baroness is a far greater expert than me. I agree with her that recidivism is one of the curses of the prison service and that we must do all we can to stop it.

The noble Baroness mentioned a figure of 38 per cent. I understand that of the total 100 per cent. that come into that category, 8 per cent. are acquitted and the remaining 30 per cent. either get non-custodial sentences, such as community services orders, or suspended sentences.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that national officers of the Prison Officers Association, who were in this building earlier today and heard his parliamentary colleague make the Statement, give a general welcome to the measures contained in it? Any relief of the intolerable conditions not only of prisoners but also of prison officers is to be warmly welcomed. They particularly welcome the figure of 50 per cent. on remission but they are anxious that a counter-balance of increased sentences will not nullify the benefit of remission. Will the Minister comment on that possibility?

Can the Minister say why the figure of 12 months was put forward? It is acknowledged that this is an interim measure, that it has to start somewhere and that it will be kept under review. Could the Government not have been more bold and, instead of 12 months, made the period one of two years or even more? Will the Minister accept that the use of Rollestone camp is looked upon by prison officers as a move in the right direction but that they are somewhat concerned about the impact this will have on the number of officers that will be required to man this new eastablishment from the already depleted complement of prison officers in the service? The Minister referred to a "fresh start". Is there not a great shortfall in the number of prison officers required to get it off the ground? Will the Minister comment on that?

Does the Minister accept that the speeding up of the prison building programme and the injection into the prison service of additional funds will be warmly welcomed by the prison officers.?

Finally, is he aware that they will certainly listen with great care to a man for whom they have the highest respect—Mr. Mark Carlisle—when he brings forward his report on and review of the parole system?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his remarks. I am particularly pleased about the general welcome that the Prison Officers Association has given to the Statement today. I agree with the noble Lord that it will give relief to prison officers. They sometimes work in not terribly good conditions. It has been one of the failings of the building programme in the past that it has not sufficiently taken into account the requirements of staff.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

Appalling conditions.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord referred to the possibility of the judiciary increasing sentences. It is the judiciary who pass sentences. We limited the effect of the 50 per cent. remission to 12 months because that is where the effect of the flattening out under Section 33 of the 1982 Act is most felt. That has been the subject of some criticism from the judiciary. I hope that the judiciary will see this as a positive step in that regard.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, said that there was a depleted complement of prison officers. I find it difficult to agree with him. Since 1979 the prison population has risen by some 11 per cent. while the number of prison officers has risen by 20 per cent. There has been a considerable increase in prison staff. With regard to shortages of staff, this is very difficult to determine at the present time until each establishment is assessed on its individual basis. As soon as each establishment has been assessed we will know the full staff position.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, will the Minister agree that those of us who have urged upon him and the Government, year after year, month after month, the use of camps and the building of camps to prevent the Government being overrun by events, have done so for two reasons? The first is that the camps can be built and used in an emergency; and it takes so long to build prisons. The second is that they can be used for the purpose of housing remand prisoners who do not require a high degree of security. Those suggestions have been made, certainly by me, for the past eight years. Can the Minister now give the House an undertaking that in this emergency, which many of us have prophesied over and over again, these camps will be used for the purpose of housing remand prisoners so that remand prisoners can be taken out of the local prisons and out of the police cells, and the local prisons can be used for the purpose of convicted prisoners? This is the centre of solving the problem. These camps should not be used simply to provide further places for convicted prisoners.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, said that remand prisoners do not require such high security.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, with great respect, I said those of the remand prisoners who do not require so high a degree of security.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I shall qualify what I said and I am grateful to the noble Lord—that those are the remand prisoners. We must not forget that these are people who have not been allowed bail and therefore in the eyes of the court are considered to need some sort of security in order to protect the public.

I fundamentally disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, about using camps for remand prisoners in the case of Rollestone. One of the great disadvantages of Rollestone is its inaccessibility for remand prisoners. As the noble Lord knows better than I do, remand prisoners are entitled to visits every day, and they are entitled at the moment to receive their own food brought in from outside. On my visits to local prisons, those on remand have said that they would much rather be in the "local" than in a camp on Salisbury Plain. That is why we intend to use Rollestone for sentenced prisoners.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, with regard to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, is it not clear that the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) has said again and again that judges do not take into account, and are not permitted to take into account, questions of remission in imposing a custodial sentence or in coming to a conclusion as to whether a non-custodial sentence should be imposed?

In regard to the point just made by the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, I wonder whether the noble Lord would like to go to Rollestone in order to visit a man he is going to defend at the Old Bailey, because I fancy that he would be too busy to do so.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble and learned friend for his remarks. Of course he is absolutely right on both counts.