HL Deb 30 March 1988 vol 495 cc775-85

3.43 p.m.

The Earl of Arran

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

"In July last year I announced a package of measures designed to secure a better balance between the rapidly rising prison population and the prison accommodation available. Those measures eased the position, but only temporarily. The prison population has continued to grow apace. After falling to 47,500 in early September, it rose to 50,600 at the end of last week. This is some 1,200 more than at the same time last year. Taking into account the July measures, there has been an underlying increase over the same period of some 4,200. Projecting recent trends forward, we could be faced with a population of some 52,000 by the summer of this year.

"This sharper rise has not come about because of any acceleration in crime—indeed the figures I announced last week show a much smaller increase than the average rate of increases for the last 30 years. The causes of the growth in the population are four-fold. First, the substantial increase in the number of criminals being brought before the Crown Court, where the rate of custodial sentencing is higher. Secondly, a substantial lengthening in sentences imposed by the Crown Court for offences involving violence, including robbery and rape and for offences of criminal damage and drug offences. Thirdly, as a result of a tighter policy on parole, the numbers are some 2,000 higher. Finally, there has been an unwelcome increase in the remand population, which has almost doubled since 1980; some 700 have been added since the end of November last year alone.

"The uncrowded capacity of the prison system is some 7,000 below last week's population figure. This means that there is severe overcrowding, particularly in remand prisons and, most unacceptably, 1,400 prisoners are being accommodated in police cells all over south-east England and beyond. Those cells are wholly unsuited for the long term accommodation of prisoners. Their use is expensive and can be dangerous. It diverts police officers from their job of preventing and detecting crime and keeping the peace.

"Part—almost one half—of the police cells problem results from industrial action in some London prisons by members of the Prison Officers' Association. Such action is irresponsible and places additional burdens upon the police and the rest of the system. Prison service management are working hard to try to resolve it. I met POA leaders earlier today and appealed to them to use their influence to bring this action to a speedy end.

"It is not my role to decide who and how many convicted offenders should be sentenced to imprisonment: that is for the courts. It is my role to see that the courts have a satisfactory range of sentencing options open to them, and that when they do commit someone to custody there is suitable accommodation available for him or her. This dual responsibility is reflected in the measures I announce today.

"First, work is already in hand to make community service orders more demanding and more strictly administered through, for example, the introduction of national standards. Secondly, I have already announced a substantial expansion of the programme for providing bail hostels, involving an additional nine hostels at a cost of some £3.8 million. Thirdly, I propose to issue next month a circular designed to help the courts in taking decisions on bail. Finally, and in the slightly longer term, I am considering how to build up forms of punishment in the community which are seen by all to present a firm and fair way of dealing with those offenders who do not merit a custodial sentence.

"But the most serious crimes are rightly punished by imprisonment. Our existing prison building programme involves investment of almost £1 billion. I am announcing today a number of measures, additional to those I have already taken, to ensure that there is accommodation available to hold prisoners in conditions of proper security.

"First, army camps will be opened at Rollestone and Camberley to house a total of about 700 prisoners. Because of the existing pressures on the police and prison services these will be manned by military police and other personnel acting under the direction of prison management grades. This will be a strictly temporary measure, to bridge us through the summer until more permanent prison accommodation is available.

"Secondly, through the building programme and other measures, just short of 3,000 additional permanent prison places will be created by this time next year. Of these over 1,300 will come on stream in the South-East from now into this summer because of the particular need to relieve pressure on the remand system in and around London.

"Thirdly, I am planning to reinstate Ashford remand centre in Middlesex, which would otherwise close permanently in April in expectation of rebuilding, as a temporary remand holding centre of some 400 prisoners from the late autumn.

"Fourthly, I have reviewed the existing prison estate for ways of creating additional places by using system-built accommodation and by other means. I plan to add some 800 extra places in this way from the beginning of 1989. I shall be recruiting the prison staff necessary to man these places.

"Fifthly, by readjusting the existing building programme, I shall provide a further 1,000 places from the beginning of 1990. These will be created in purpose built blocks on existing prison sites.

"The combined effect of the measures I have announced and those which I had already put in hand will be to provide just over 4,000 permanent extra places, with the necessary staff, by the end of the financial year 1988–89, with a further 1,000 starting to come on stream from the very end of 1989.

"This is an energetic response to the massive growth in the prison population. I shall not hesitate to take further measures should these seem desirable. We must be ready to think imaginatively to ensure that the prison service can meet its obligations. In this context, I believe that the possibility of involving the private sector more closely in aspects of the prison system should be urgently considered. I have already moved in this direction by establishing the Prison Building Board which includes substantial private sector representation. The board is inviting the private sector to make proposals for building remand or open facilities faster than has been done in the past. I propose in addition to publish a Green Paper on private sector involvement in all aspects of the remand system, and at the same time to engage consultants to help in working out the practical implications. I also propose to explore whether there might be room for developing privately-managed bail hostels, providing more secure conditions than the current range of hostels provide.

"This Government's record of commitment to the prison service is unparalleled. The further measures which I have announced today underline that commitment and the Government's determination to ensure that public safety and security, as well as decent conditions for prison service staff and prison inmates, are attained.".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.51 p.m.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Arran, for repeating the Statement made by the Home Secretary in another place. It must be one of the most sombre statements ever made to Parliament. It discloses that, in spite of certain measures introduced in July last year (and throughout the House there were indications that they were wholly inadequate): The prison population has continued to grow apace. After falling to 47,500 in early September it rose to 50,600 at the end of last week". I believe that to be a record for this country and it is far higher than that of any equivalent country in Europe. The Statement continues: This is some 1,200 more than at the same time last year". I should like to know whether the 50,600 includes 1,400 prisoners held in police cells at the relevant time.

The Statement then says: Projecting recent trends forward, we could be faced with a population of some 52,000 by the summer of this year". Those figures must be considered against the fact that the prison system was designed to hold only 42,800 people. The prisons were never intended to hold more than that which is about 8,000 less than they hold today. Even after the measures now proposed take effect, as we hear from the Statement made by the Home Secretary, the combined effect of the measures announced today will provide just over 4,000 extra permanent places. Noble Lords will note that it is only 4,000 with a further 1,000 starting to come on stream from the end of 1989. Therefore, after the changes have been made there will still be thousands more people in custody than the prison system was ever intended to hold. I fail to follow how that can be described as an: energetic response to the massive growth in the prison population". This may be a criticism more of the detail than of the substance, but the Statement does not indicate the fact that in some prisons conditions are far worse than in others. The NACRO study on the subject pointed out that, for example, Leeds Prison has 1,357 prisoners but only 642 certified places —that was the intended maximum. Leicester Prison has 400 prisoners but only 200 certified places and Birmingham Prison has 1,115 prisoners against 592 certified places.

What is depressing about the Statement is the fact that it gives no real indication of an attack on such vast numbers. We welcome the expansion of bail hostels, as has always been urged from various parts of the House, and we also welcome the building of new prisons. However, they will take years to complete. As Vivien Stern, the director of NACRO, pointed out, catering properly for a prison population rising at the present rate would mean opening a new prison the size of Wormwood Scrubs every three weeks.

What is lacking is a real indication of doing more than tackling the symptoms; namely, providing more accommodation. I do not know whether there will be any great confidence in the use of army camps manned by military police on grounds of security or on other grounds. What consideration has been given to the need for remedies to reduce the size of the prison population? Has the option of early release for prisoners serving less than 12 months been abandoned for political reasons because of the fear of a hostile political response? That suggestion was made at one stage and surely something along those lines is required.

Are there proposals to reduce the large number of prisoners serving sentences for debt, sometimes for comparatively minor offences? Is there not time for a review of the time taken to bring cases to trial and to diminish the number of prisoners on remand? As has been said in different parts of the House, one of the most deplorable features of the present system is that there are still over 1,200 prisoners on remand. We heard in a recent debate on the Adjournment that some are kept in appalling conditions in police cells which were never intended to house prisoners, thus imposing dreadful burdens on the police. In the Statement there is no indication of that problem being tackled. The Criminal Justice Bill proposes to increase to 28 the number of days being spent on remand and if that is agreed the number of prisoners on remand will increase.

There is not time to discuss all the issues at this stage. The Statement is seriously disappointing and falls short of what is required by a failure to tackle more fundamentally the continuing and appalling rise in our prison population. It is a disgrace to our society.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I should like to join the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, in thanking the noble Earl for repeating the Statement. I also join with him in saying that it must be one of the most remarkable Statements made by a Home Secretary. It is approximately nine months since the last series of emergency measures announced in the remission Statement last July. We are now faced with this series of proposals which have been introduced in order to deal with a situation in which the prison population is spiralling out of control. That is the reality of the situation which we face.

Perhaps I may say to the noble Earl that many of us will accept the need for the use of army camps in the situation that he described. If army camps are not used, the situation inevitably will deteriorate still more sharply for the many thousands of prisoners who are being kept in grossly overcrowded conditions. However, when the noble Earl said that this was a strictly temporary measure, how temporary is "strictly temporary"? Is he able to give a guarantee that within 12 months these army camps will not be used? I should be surprised if he would go as far as that in the light of what he said in the Statement.

Perhaps I may ask the noble Earl whether he is aware of the grave consequences for the police of the continuing responsibility placed on them by the Government to hold something between 1,400 and 1,600 people in cells which are intended to be used for a period of five or six hours preceding and following a court appearance and which are now being used sometimes to hold three men, sometimes mentally disturbed men, for a period of up to three weeks? Is he aware that this is a truly disgraceful situation? Can he say whether, as a result of the measures he has announced this afternoon, he will be able to give some guarantee that there will now be a substantial limitation on the use of police cells?

Can he also say whether the issues which we debated on 4th March; namely, the remand of mentally ill people in police custody, will be brought to an end as a result of the measures he has announced? Perhaps I may ask him to give a specific undertaking that, as a result of the use of these army camps, which presumably will have full-time medical officers—and no doubt he will confirm whether that is true—when a court remands a man or woman in custody for psychiatric reports, it will not find out weeks later than during the intervening period that person has spent his time in a police station, perhaps 200 miles from London in conditions which make it impossible for the court to be given a psychiatric report? Can he say whether or not that will now be possible?

Can I also ask the noble Earl whether he is aware that we join the Home Secretary in deploring the industrial action which has been taken by some branches of the Prison Officers' Association in London? That is a long-standing problem. No doubt, as always, there are faults on both sides but the fact is that there has been far too much of this year after year after year. Can the noble Earl give us an assurance that, as a result of the meeting which the Home Secretary has had today with members of the Prison Officers' Association, there is any likelihood of these problems being resolved?

Perhaps I may ask him two different questions. First, is he aware that we welcome the fact that the Home Secretary is to issue a circular to magistrates concerning bail? One of the principal problems in the crisis that we are now facing is the massive increase in the remand population. Is he aware that when many of us visit prisons we are constantly told by senior members of prison management that a substantial number of the remand population could quite easily be accommodated in bail hostels and outside the prison system as a whole? I ask the Minister what progress is being made concerning recommendations made by the Vera Institute of Criminal Justice on the bail situation? I understand that if the report has not been submitted to the Home Secretary, its arrival is now imminent. What action is likely to be taken on its recommendations of which I am sure the Home Office is well aware?

Finally, is the Minister aware that many of us welcome the fact that there is to be a Green Paper although inevitably we shall want to look carefully at its contents? When will it be published? Can the Minister indicate that he will agree to have talks with his noble friend the Leader of the House to see whether we can have an early debate on the Green Paper proposals and also the wider issues which are involved in this extremely sombre Statement today?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, no one would pretend that this is other than a sombre and serious situation. That is precisely the reason for my right honourable friend the Home Secretary announcing this package of measures which he intends to bring about as a result of the serious overcrowding and lack of prison availability. Quite a few questions have been asked this afternoon and I shall attempt to answer as many as I can. I hope that noble Lords opposite will forgive me if I cannot answer them all but they have my assurance that I shall write to them as soon as I possibly can on this important matter.

Perhaps I may take the questions raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones. As we have indicated, one of the causes of the increase in the prison population which has happened over the last few years is the longer sentences being given by the courts for the most serious offences. The noble and learned Lord also asked about the number of 50,600. It includes those held in police cells.

The noble and learned Lord went on to ask what is being done to reduce the remand population. While we cannot advise magistrates on individual decisions on bail which they take under the Bail Act 1976, we have called attention to the desirability of reducing the remand population and of providing proper support to magistrates so that they are able to make the best possible decisions on bail. Work has been done to provide better information on defendants through bail information schemes. We are also providing resources for about nine new bail hostels. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor is preparing improved training on bail decisions for magistrates. We have decided to bring together the threads of these developments in a circular to magistrates' courts which will be issued in the next few weeks.

As regards the time limits, on 1st April last year we introduced, on an experimental basis, limits on the length of time a person can be kept on remand. We have monitored the effect of these time limits and the initial results have been encouraging. We are extending the time limits to a total of 14 police areas as from 1st April. We hope to have time limits operating throughout the whole of England and Wales which could lead to a fall of up to 600 in the remand population.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked for how long the army camps will be required. If the prison population continues to rise at its recent rate, we estimate that we shall need to retain the camps until towards Christmas, by which time the other steps we are taking will provide both accommodation and prison service staff to enable the camps to be replaced.

In reply to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Harris about whether or not the opening of camps will clear police cells, the answer is that by itself, it will not. We also need to see an end to the damaging industrial action which is losing us some 600 places in London. When that happens the opening of camps will make dramatic inroads into the numbers in police cells. The prison and police services should be able to cope with the increase expected in the numbers committed to prison during the summer, until the other steps we have announced to increase prison places takes effect.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, was rightly concerned about prisoners remanded for medical and psychiatric reasons. The prison service management will do its utmost to use the facility of the camps to create space in local prisons, which will thereby reduce reliance on police cells. The requirements of prisoners remanded for medical and psychiatric reports will be given top priority.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, referred to industrial action. Industrial action by the POA in two London prisons seriously aggravates the position. It accounts for 500 to 600 prisoners being denied admission to prison and enforces custody in wholly unsatisfactory police cells, with the diversion of police manpower to look after them. As I said, those questions from the Opposition Benches which I have not answered I shall gladly deal with in writing.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that your Lordships' House is very grateful to him for repeating this—as it was rightly described—sombre and difficult Statement, and that many in your Lordships' House echo the hope that, in view of its very great importance, it may be the subject matter of debate in here before long.

Is my noble friend further aware that although the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, from his great experience, suggested that one of the expedients for dealing with the situation might be early release, there are many of us in this House who have the gravest doubt as to whether the undermining of the deterrent effect of sentences by the courts in this way might not have very serious counter-productive effects? Many of us hope that my noble friend's right honourable friend will be very cautious in taking that way out.

May I also ask whether my noble friend is aware that many of us in all quarters of the House are deeply concerned at the delay in bringing cases to trial, which is the cause of the build-up of the large number of prisoners on remand? Is he aware that our court system seems to work unduly slowly? Although it is not a matter for my noble friend, but perhaps for the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to deal with, it is necessary that a degree of urgency in bringing cases to trial should be injected into the somewhat leisurely procedures of many of our courts. I ask my noble friend to take that suggestion on board.

Finally, while saying how glad I am that his right honourable friend has accepted the suggestion of using army camps as a temporary expedient for dealing with the matter, is my noble friend also considering the other suggestion made, for the use of spare passenger ships? These could perhaps give a higher degree of security and accommodate, to reasonable standards of comfort, a considerable number of prisoners. There are very many unused ferries which could well be used for that purpose if the Government so wish.

4.15 p.m.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for the points that he makes and I shall deal with them briefly. First, my noble friend asked about a debate but I think he will understand that that is for the normal channels.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

They are here, my Lords.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I understand that they are here, but perhaps this is not the appropriate time to raise the matter.

Secondly, I take the point that my noble friend makes concerning his worries about early release. Thirdly, as my noble friend rightly says, there is a problem in regard to bringing cases to trial. I shall pass on that concern to my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor.

Fourthly, in referring to army camps my noble friend suggested the use of passenger ships. My noble friend has floored me with what is obviously a serious suggestion. I cannot comment now but I should like to take advice and will certainly write to my noble friend on that very valid point.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that what most worries many of us who have read this depressing report is that it states clearly that the terrifying prison population figure of 50,600, which is shortly expected to rise to 52,000, is not the result of an increase in the annual rate of crime but of a number of factors listed in the report. First, there is the increased use of custodial sentences by the Crown courts. Secondly, longer sentences are imposed by the Crown courts. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, will think that to be right, but he knows that I think it is wrong. Thirdly, there is less tight parole. Finally, and a point not affected by what I am saying, there is the doubling of remand.

I should like to ask one further question. The report describes one of the solutions as, changes in systems built accommodation", and by other means. I do not know what that means and I do not suppose that the noble Earl does, but I should like to have some information, perhaps by letter. I should also like an assurance that this does not mean shifting extra prisoners to such places as Grendon where the regime, which is just beginning to recover from having been treated in that way, will again be seriously affected.

My final question is to ask the noble Earl to inform me—again, in writing if necessary—when it was first suggested from this side (I think it was five years ago) that camps should be used for such emergencies, and why it has taken so long to get them ready?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, perhaps I may first reply to the penultimate question of the noble Lord concerning Grendon. While we keep the whole prison estate under review we currently have no plans to change the role of Grendon.

As regards parole, the noble Lord probably is aware that my noble friend Lord Carlisle has a committee which is reviewing that situation at the moment. I understand that the committee is to report in the latter half of this year.

The noble Lord referred to system built accommodation. I think that in modern day terminology it is called Portakabin. It is intended for accessories in the camps such as storage and other facilities which are needed on hand.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, does the noble Earl recollect that the Statement is predicated on announcing a remarkable increase of 10 per cent. in the prison population over the past year? The Statement then points out that this is in no way related to any increase in the rate of crime.

Clearly such a change in the ratio stems partly from individual decisions—and no one can suggest a great Executive interference in that—but also from government policies and attitudes. In so far as it stems from government policies and attitudes, can the noble Earl tell the House whether the Government regard this as an achievement or a misfortune? If the Government take the former view, that it is an achievement, what evidence is there from the dreary history of an ever-mounting prison population and failing to cope with crime, or from comparisons with other countries with far lower prison populations, that this is the sensible direction in which to go?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, when I first spoke in response to the Statement I said that this was a sombre and serious occasion. I repeat that. This Statement has come about because all forms of crime are on the increase. Something has to be done in order to accommodate the people who commit those crimes. It happens in the society in which we live and it is very unfortunate. Regrettably, it is a fact of life. It is the responsibility of the government of the day to see that in these circumstances something is done to alleviate the situation. That is precisely what my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is endeavouring to do.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, does the—

Lord Denham

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will forgive me for just half a minute. I know that he has been trying to speak for a long time. We have now taken 29 minutes. The recommendation of the Procedure Committee, accepted by your Lordships' House, was that we should take no longer than 20 minutes on these Statements. I suggest that perhaps the House might feel it right that after the noble Lord, Lord Graham, has asked his question we should move back to the other business.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, the Minister concluded his repeat of the Statement by saying that the Government's record of commitment to the prison service is unparalleled. Is it not also a fact that the crime record under this Government is also unparalleled? When the Minister told us in the Statement that there was an underlying increase in the prison population of more than 4,000, with the projection for this year being 52,000, does that mean that next year the prison population could be 56,000?

When the Minister seeks to put some of the blame for the intolerable conditions in prison cells on the industrial action in London, perhaps he would reflect that many Members of your Lordships' House have visited those prisons and found the conditions absolutely disgraceful. Does the projection mean that the statistics given by my noble friend from the Front Bench will be made worse and conditions that much more intolerable? How can we expect prison officers at Wormwood Scrubs, Brixton and Wandsworth to aid and abet the worsening of conditions not only for themselves but also for the prisoners at those places? Is this not another example of the Government simply looking at the symptoms and not getting down to the causes of the problem?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I cannot wear the accusation from the noble Lord that the crime record under this Government is worse than it would have been under any other government. It does not matter which government are in power. It is the responsibility of that government to do what they consider best. That is precisely what my right honourable friend is doing at this moment.

As regards the prison officers, I know that the noble Lord appreciates that that matter is being kept fully under review as each day goes by. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is constantly attempting to bring this question to a final solution.

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