HL Deb 20 October 1987 vol 489 cc6-9

3.15 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the implementation of the Fresh Start proposals is proceeding satisfactorily, especially in the London area.

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

My Lords, we are satisfied with progress on implementation of Fresh Start. It is now in place at 72 establishments, including Brixton, the first in the London area.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, does the Minister accept that prison officers are fully committed to the principles and the implementation of the Fresh Start proposals? Will he now acknowledge that his original estimates of the number of prison officers required for Fresh Start, which were based on a consultant's report, were a very bad underestimate? Does he further agree that if an additional 240 prison officers were produced that would greatly relieve the conditions in prisons and in police cells?

Is it not a fact that the present troubles stem directly from the Government's failure to honour the agreements made to produce enough prison officers to man prisons to the Fresh Start levels? Can the Minister tell the House why, in addition, he also intends—

Noble Lords

Order! One question!

Lord Graham of Edmonton

—to impose a further 10 per cent. reduction on costs over the next few months?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, Fresh Start is a complicated area arising from considerable negotiations among the Home Office, the Prison Officers' Association and the governors. Earlier this year governors and prison officers overwhelmingly decided, by huge majorities, to accept the terms of Fresh Start. In no way has the Home Office deviated from any of the commitments in Fresh Start.

As regards the extra staff, I can assure the House that this year we are recruiting 750 officers especially for Fresh Start. Over the past seven years, from 1979 to 1986, prison officer staffs increased by 20 per cent. while the number of inmates increased by 11 per cent. This year we are recruiting over and above wastage about 1,400 extra staff.

Lord Elton

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House in the context of what he just said what exactly is going on at Wandsworth and whether the industrial action which I understand is taking place there is claimed to be justified by an increase in the number of inmates or by a reduction in the number of prison officers?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, it is with regret that I must tell the House that industrial action at Wandsworth began at the end of July. On the specific point raised by my noble friend, the prison officers have claimed that they are short of staff compared with previous years. But from figures it is found that, although the population shifts throughout the year, if one takes particular days of the year, for example, on 1st July in 1985, 1986 and 1987, the population was virtually the same, as was the number of discipline officers. There is no reason for Wandsworth to take industrial action.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, does the noble Earl remember that when Fresh Start was put before the House it was given a warm welcome from all Opposition Benches? However, we warned the Government that as far as we could see the scheme depended entirely on providing enough staff to reduce overtime to nine hours a week, which I believe is the present scheme. Is he aware that certainly in one prison of which I know, and I think in a number of others, Fresh Start has commenced without the provision of the necessary staff? That seems to be a very dangerous procedure.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we had hoped to introduce Fresh Start throughout the prison service on 1st July. That did not prove to be possible because we did not receive the results of the ballots early enough. Therefore it was agreed to phase in the scheme. Half-way through the phasing in the Home Secretary, the Prison Officers' Association and the governors agreed that 1st November would be the cut-off date on which we wanted all establishments on Fresh Start. Those staffs with a differential between the 1st November figure and the figure that had been agreed between us would be in place by 28th February. That was agreed and that is why we are recruiting extra staff this year and why our training schools are full. In addition, we are recruiting 160 in hired accommodation.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that the basic evil behind all this and all the questions and answers is the terrible, critical overcrowding of our prisons? Will he bear that in mind when we consider the provisions of the Criminal Justice Bill this afternoon and hereafter?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, as the noble Lord will be well aware, only about half our prisons are overcrowded. The other half are at capacity or less than capacity. We were seriously concerned about the huge number of people in our prisons, which is why the Home Secretary took the action that he did in the middle of July which resulted in the release of some 3,000 short-term prisoners. Given that, which was something that the Prison Officers' Association wanted, it is sad that the association has not responded better and has subsequently gone on to take industrial action.

Lord Rodney

My Lords, will my noble friend say how many prisoners are at present in police cells who should rightly be in prisons?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we were well on our way to reducing the number of prisoners in police cells to zero, as the Home Secretary wished to do when he made his Statement in April. But as a result of industrial action in a limited number of prisons I have, with regret, to inform the House that at 1 p.m. yesterday we had 1,370 people in police cells. That is taking up manpower in 30 out of 43 forces and is entirely due to industrial action.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that we shall obviously want to go into the question of police cells during our debate on the Criminal Justice Bill? There are a number of amendments down on that point. Is he further aware that many of us welcome the progress that has undoubtedly been made in the implementation of Fresh Start? A great deal of progress has been made and that reflects well on the local branches of the POA and the Home Office officials who have been responsible for that. Is the noble Earl also aware that it is deeply depressing once again to hear about these wearisome disputes going on in a limited number of London prisons, caused by the intolerable behaviour of a few POA branches? Is he aware that the only result of that is an attack on the civil rights of inmates, because they do not receive the privileges to which they are entitled?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful for the support that the noble Lord has given us on Fresh Start. It is deeply depressing that we are back into industrial action. That is why the Home Secretary summoned the NEC of the POA to his office on Monday last week and gave it a firm warning that unless it managed to put its house in order and went back to normal working we should have to take other measures.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, the Minister has drawn attention to the situation in London prisons. May I draw his attention to the situation at Grendon? I visited Grendon two or three weeks ago and I have had the position confirmed in writing. The POA is being invited to operate the Fresh Start propoals with 50 fewer prison officers than the number agreed to be the proper complement by the governor, the assessment team and the POA. Does the Minister accept that some disputes need to be resolved around the table? If there are intolerable conditions inside prisons due to overcrowding they are detrimental not only to the prisoners but to the prison officers.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, one of the great things about Fresh Start is that it allows for local negotiation. Where that has not been completed, I hope that it will be completed as soon as possible so that we can get many of the establishments onto Fresh Start, which is surely to the benefit of prison officers. That has been proven in the 70-odd prisons that have already gone onto Fresh Start and it will result in a better regime for the inmates.