HL Deb 10 November 1987 vol 489 cc1290-1

3.11 p.m.

Baroness Sharples

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 there are any plans to provide prisoners' wives on supplementary benefit with free travel for their visits to prisons every 14 days instead of every 28 days as at present.

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

No, my Lords.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that not entirely satisfactory reply. Is he aware that five years ago I put a similar question in a debate on prison conditions and I did not receive a very satisfactory reply then? Is he further aware that the vast majority of prison governors now allow visits by wives every 14 days and yet Her Majesty's Government are not generous enough to allow women supplementary benefit visits every 14 days but only every 28 days, and they have to make very long journeys to visit their husbands? Often the prisons are in the North of England and the women are in London.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I read with interest what my noble friend said in the debate on 28th April 1982. I am glad that she made a congratulatory comment about the governors, who have made a great deal of effort in the recent past to facilitate better visiting opportunities for families and friends.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, while I have no sympathy for people in prison, nevertheless there is no reason at all why their wives should be punished in that way. Why should not the Government be generous for once in their life?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we are an extremely generous and benign Government, as the noble Lord knows well. However, I am sure that he will agree that the statutory monthly visit is the one that we are talking about and that is the one where we help wives and close relatives.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what the present arrangements are for prisoners' wives located in Northern Ireland, their dependants and husbands being in mainland prisons? Is it not a fact, as the Minister knows, that they face particular difficulties? I am interested to know the latest position.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, assisted visits may be made to inmates in England and Wales by close relatives in Northern Ireland on the same basis as for England and Wales.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are occasions when wives on supplementary benefit miss out on that one visit to their husbands? Their travel warrant is made out for a specific date but it arrives by second class mail from the DHSS office too late for the day that they have to go. Therefore, does he agree that it would be better if these warrants were made out for an unspecified date? The wives could then visit on any day during the 28-day period for which the warrant was valid.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I shall look into the point made by the noble Baroness.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the situation in our prisons is extremely delicate and dangerous? Anything that can be done to reduce the tension should be done. Is he further aware that extra visits by wives would surely reduce the tension, and the money paid out on supplementary benefit just might be rather less than money paid out for a new prison to replace one which has been burned down by a riot?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, my noble friend raises a much wider issue than the one we are considering in the Question. We believe that the right thing to do is modernise facilities, and the implementation of Fresh Start has gone a long way to reduce some of the problems which the prisons face.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, will the Minister tell us what this concession would in fact cost? I support what the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said about reducing tensions.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the cost depends on the take-up, but at the moment about 12,000 families in England and Wales benefit from the scheme.