HL Deb 24 March 1987 vol 486 cc109-12

2.50 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in the light of the remarks of the Earl of Caithness on 25th February [HL debates, col. 285) they accept the data given in the latest available table, for 1984, produced by the Council of Europe (Prison Information Bulletin No. 6, December 1985), which shows that per hundred thousand of population, Britain imprisoned more of its citizens than almost any other member of the EC.

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

My Lords, the information about prisoners in different countries published by the Council of Europe is not strictly comparable because it reflects different legal and administrative systems. These difficulties apply particularly to the figures of committals to prison per 100,000 inhabitants to which the noble Lord refers, which are often quoted to support the statement that the United Kingdom sends more of its population to prison. My remarks during the debate on 25th February related not to committals to prison but to the figures on the prison population for 1st February 1986 in England and Wales.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Has he seen the most up to date comparisons published today by NACRO which show conclusively that Britain continues to head the European league for imprisoning its citizens? Bearing in mind that the prison department has publicly stated that the certified normal accommodation of 41,000 is expected to reach 50,000 very soon, does the Minister not accept from me that he will receive support from all around the House if he takes positive steps to reduce the prison population by, for instance, ending prison for non-serious offenders, for those convicted of non-payment of fines and for minor theft?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I can confirm to the noble Lord that I have seen the latest NACRO news release which is based on figures provided by the Council of Europe. If one takes those at face value, it looks as though the United Kingdom is the worst offender in this instance. But for England and Wales, of course, we are still below West Germany and France. We look at every alternative for reducing the prison population, but, as I am sure the noble Lord will be the first to appreciate, with an independent judiciary in this country it is perhaps not as easy to reduce the prison population as it is in some countries which have political justice.

Lord Elton

My Lords, are not the prison population figures in some sense the product of a snowball process? Is it not the case that the factor most likely to ensure that a person goes to prison is that he has been to prison before? Does not this make it of paramount importance to reinforce the only range of sentences which some courts regard as suitable for those who would otherwise go to prison; namely, intermediate treatment? Will my noble friend tell the House what his right honourable friend is doing to support this valuable initiative?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, with his very considerable experience in this matter, my noble friend will, I know, support me when I say that the Government believe that the range of penalties available to courts should be wide and flexible. Indeed, I believe we have among the best in Europe, if not the best. The Government have strengthened the range of non-custodial measures—for example, in the Criminal Justice Act 1982—and we have strengthened the courts' powers to attach conditions to probation orders and enable a compensation order to be used as a penalty in its own right.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, is not one of the more deplorable aspects of the situation the fact that the number of young offenders aged 14 to 21 sentenced to youth custody has doubled between 1983 and 1986, contrary to the intentions of Section 4(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 1982? Given the negative and often harmful results of imprisonment, should not further steps be taken, or more encouragement given, to persuade magistrates' courts to make less use of custody and more use of the non-custodial alternatives such as intermediate treatment, as referred to by the noble Lord?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we are keen to encourage magistrates to use the wide range of options that we have made available to them. I am sure the House will agree that it is up to them, the only ones to see the whole case, to determine exactly what the sentence, if any, should be.

With regard to the first part of the noble Lord's question, I will be producing further and more up to date statistics for last year, but I believe we can divide young offenders into those between 14 and 17 years of age and between 17 and 21 years of age. There are considerable differences between the two.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that with the number of people breaking the law, there are few who think that this is the time to remove from the courts their discretion to decide what sort of punishment that is required and that this certainly ought not to be the responsibility of the government of the day?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we totally agree with my noble friend on that point. It is up to the courts, within the parameters set down by the Government.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, was the noble Earl the Minister being as frank as he normally is in his reply to the Question asked by my noble friend Lord Graham? Did he not, on 25th February, utter these word in this House: 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".—[Official Report. 25/2/87; col. 285.] Is it not a fact that the statistics to which the noble Earl referred include committals and imprisonment after remand or committal? But that is the case with every country including our own. Is it not an unfortunate fact that on those figures, taking 10 million as the status of a country and its population, we top the European list?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the quotation from my speech of 25th February read out by the noble Lord, was, in fact, absolutely correct for the United Kingdom and in particular for England and Wales. I was referring to the Council of Europe booklet of June 1986 which was the up to date information at the time. I would not have wanted to mislead the House in any way. Since then, further information has become available, as I said to the House. The booklet to which I referred did not contain anything about committals. As far as I am aware, the last information on committals to which the noble Lord's noble friend referred was in 1984, but that has been up-dated since the debate.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the noble Earl will forgive me if I return for one moment to this point. I find his reply now extremely refreshing and much more typical of him. Does this not mean that he would not make the statement now that he made on 25th February?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, in the middle of a debate, when one is limited, I did not perhaps explain from where I had taken my figures. I would make the same remark now about England and Wales rather than this country.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, does not the noble Earl agree that one-fifth of all those in prison in this country are on remand? They are people who, in the eyes of the law, are innocent and have not been convicted of any offence. Does not the noble Earl agree that this number—one fifth of 40,000—is far in excess of any other European country? Does he not further agree that the situation is an absolute disgrace?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, without checking the figures I cannot answer the noble Lord. As he knows full well, remands are of great concern and I spent much of my speech on 25th February on that point. We take this matter very seriously, but it is up to the judiciary who hear the cases as to whether or not bail is granted.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, considering the performance recently of people on bail, is not the complaint more that the prisons are insufficiently occupied? As to the observation of the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, that sentencing policy is a matter for the judiciary, do not the figures indicate that the judiciary is making a very bad job of it?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the judiciary in this country does an extremely valuable and useful job and all of us have much to be grateful for.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, is it not the case that overcrowding in our prisons has now reached not only scandalous but dangerous proportions and is liable to cause grave troubles inside the prisons? Are not prisons still being used for fine-defaulters, mentally disordered persons and others who should not be in prison at all?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, as the noble and learned Lord is aware, over half our prisons are not overcrowded. We appreciate that there is a very serious problem in our local prisons and remand centres, and that is where a great deal of government attention is being focused at the moment.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, am I to gather from the Minister's remarks about England and Wales that it is the position in Scotland that is the worst in Europe? The situation inside the prisons there is one of extreme danger at present.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, without looking up all the figures I am not sure. It would therefore be wrong of me to give an off-the-cuff answer to the noble Lord.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, will the Minister now accept that there are many Members of this House and of the other place who wish him well in seeking to reduce and not merely to contain the prison population? Will he advise his right honourable friend that it is a question not only of numbers but also of the conditions inside the prisons, and that it is a very dangerous situation indeed? Unless it is tackled energetically and imaginatively in the next few months there could be an explosion which will dismay the whole nation.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his Question. As he knows more than most perhaps, we are doing considerable work, and indeed A Fresh Start is but one of the initiatives that we have in hand at the moment.

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