HL Deb 18 December 1989 vol 514 cc87-100

8.12 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what are their criteria for financial support to visitors' centres in prisons.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this Unstarred Question is raised now as a matter of urgency with regard to some services that are provided on a voluntary basis in this country. Members of your Lordships' House will know that on 7th November the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester asked a Question about the visitors' centre at Strangeways prison in Manchester and referred to the fears for its future through lack of funding. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, replied to the Question. I ask this Unstarred Question to correct some matters stated by the noble Earl.

I was a little surprised at the lack of sympathy by the Minister on that day with regard to the plea made. Some of the noble Earl's briefing was not as factual and accurate as it might have been. In reply to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester the noble Earl stated: I am bound to tell the right reverend Prelate—I am not inviting them; I am simply telling him —that we have not yet received any requests for funding". —[Official Report, 7/11/89; col. 537.] Funds were available, but he implied in that answer that Selcare had not applied. Whoever supplied him with the brief, that information was quite wrong. The department had continually been made aware of the needs of Selcare last year and for many years to come. In addition, letters of request had been sent. It is obvious that the Minister was not advised of the up-to-date position.

I raised a question about Selcare's future. I received this answer from the Minister: I realise that the Selcare Trust takes an interest in the visitors' centre, as do the Save the Children Fund and the local Probation Service. One of the difficulties is that the cost of running Strangeways visitors' centre is a good deal higher than for most visitors' centres".—[Official Report, 7/11/89; col. 538.] That is another erroneous answer because it was not comparing like with like. The Selcare Trust takes the overall responsibility and legal liability for the Selcare Centre. Other agencies share a great commitment, but not the legal liability. The Save the Children Fund has been tremendous but because of other commitments it will not be able to help to fund any part of the work after August 1990. That source will dry up.

On the cost of running the centre, we are advised by all professional advisers and the many agencies, statutory and voluntary, that have visited the centre that Manchester prison visitors' centre has the basic standard that all centres need. We should not be encouraged by anyone, least of all government, to lower our standards below the basic level. Nor should we expect the voluntary sector to pay more than its fair share of the costs for some service that is part of a statutory service. The voluntary sector is willing and able to organise and manage the centre at cost price, but a substantial amount of the cost must surely come from statutory or government funding.

During that exchange, the Minister spent a considerable time referring to the future prison programme. He referred to £230 million for new prisons. The voluntary sector, and in particular Selcare, is saying that the £16,000 allocated to Selcare last year —the total available nationally was, I believe, £60,000 —is totally inadequate. What surprised me and other Members in your Lordships' House was that the whole accent was placed on the new prison programme and new visitors' centres. The debate tonight is to discuss existing visitors' centres which are doing their best to survive.

Only today I received on my desk some correspondence from the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, relating to a Written Question by the noble Lord, Lord Gainford. The Answer is not yet printed in Hansard, but the noble Earl graciously sent me a copy of the reply. The noble Lord, Lord Gainford asked Her Majesty's Government what is their policy on the provision of prison visitors' centres. I shall not refer to the first paragraph. However, the second paragraph states: We already make a regular contribution towards the running costs of five visitors' centres, and emergency grants have also been made to a further four centres in this financial year. From April next year additional funds will be available to offer similar support to new centres". That reply does not refer to the existing centres being able to look forward to more funding. I believe I am right in saying that the visitors' centre at Strangeways, Manchester, received some £16,000 last year. I hope for an increase in the amount.

It will take only a few minutes to indicate to your Lordships' House what takes place at the centre. Manchester prison visitors' centre was opened in December 1986 by the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, and was visited in 1988 by Princess Anne. Its aim is to alleviate stress imposed on the friends and families of remand prisoners visiting Strangeways prison. Prior to December 1986, a visit to Strangeways meant a long wait in a queue on the pavement outside the prison. More often than not, this would be in cold and wet conditions. A not unfamiliar sight was groups of young children, some being fed by their mothers, some being changed, some sheltering under their parents' coats from the snow, hail, sleet, rain and so on.

It was clear that this treatment of visitors added to any sense of alienation from society and authority already felt by them. It encouraged illness and increased the stress being experienced often by women and children dependent on their menfolk who were then unable to support them in any way. As we know, this amounts to a sentence on dependants at a time when the prisoner probably as yet had not been found guilty of any crime, and may well be found innocent.

Since it was established, the centre in Manchester has become the official entry point to visitors going into the prison. Each year some 125,000 visitors go through the centre. The majority come from Greater Manchester, but 5 per cent. come from all parts of the country.

Manchester prison houses some 500 remand prisoners of whom over 25 per cent. are usually held for periods exceeding three months. All remand prisoners can receive a visit from relatives and/or friends on the six visiting days each week. Managing the centre is a group of voluntary and statutory bodies led by Selcare Trust. Staffing of the centre over the 6-day week opening is done by five full-time persons and a great number of volunteers.

The centre also provides crèche and changing facilities; an advice service (CAB); a health advice service provided by the local health authority; and a snack and coffee bar. In addition, visitors can be quite distressed after such visits and brief counselling help is available.

The projected cost of running this project in 1990–91 will be £79,846 excluding all management time and monies. We may raise between £6,000 and £7,000 locally and this year we received £15,000 towards our costs from the Home Office prison department. Therefore, we could expect, say £22,000 in total being possible towards next year's costs. This of course leaves a £57,000 shortfall. Unless we receive £57,000 more from somewhere our prison visitors centre operation will have to be severely curtailed or closed. Nationally moneys available for the maintenance and setting up of prison visitors' centres throughout the country in 1989–90 amounted to just £60,000.

Are the Government now saying that their major concern is to spend more than £200 million on building new prisons with visitors' centres while turning their back on the centres at Strangeways prison and others? Those centres are carrying a heavy load performing that function and the Government should shoulder more. I believe that at least a case can be made of knock for knock or pound for pound.

I should like the Minister to take back the Question for a serious review. Unless the Government are prepared to do so and give more financial assistance there is no doubt that there will be a winding down of facilities at such prison visitors' centres. That can certainly be said of Strangeways and also of the other centres which I have not mentioned but which were included in the figures that I have quoted.

If the facilities are wound down or disappear they will not return. Do we have a government today who wish to see children standing out in the rain, wind, ice and snow with their mothers? Do they wish to see babies being fed and changed in such conditions? Do the Government wish to return to that? I do not believe so but I must warn them that if they do not alter their outlook and find more money on an increasing scale that will happen. The centres are carrying out the work outlined in the advisory notes recently issued by the Home Office and placed in your Lordships' Library.

This evening Selcare is holding a Christmas carol service in Manchester Cathedral. Its main purpose is to appeal for funds to enable it to carry on its excellent work. Christmas is a happy time when society is known to stretch out its hand in friendship and help those more unfortunate and under-privileged people in society who cannot help themselves. I hope that the carol service and its aim will be received with sympathy by the Government not only in respect of Strangeways but also other visitors' centres. The appeal is made on the red cloak and white beard of Father Christmas. I hope that the Government will find the sorely needed funds which Strangeways and other such establishments require immediately as a matter of urgency.

8.25 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, the attendance in the House tonight relieves noble Lords of the need for eloquence. I shall be concerned only with the facts. The noble Lord, Lord Dean, introduced the subject so well, movingly and correctly. He spoke about running costs but I wish to speak also about capital costs. They must be considered as one item.

I do not have a great deal to add to the noble Lords's clear exposition of the necessity for visitors' centres and how many are seriously lacking in resources. He asked what were the Government's criteria for financial support for such necessities? I looked up "criterion" in the Oxford Dictionary to be sure that we were talking about the same thing. The definition is: a canon or standard by which anything is judged or estimated. Therefore, the question amounts to this: how do the Government judge the adequacy of their present financial expenditure on visitors' centres in prisons? Surely, the answer must be, "Very inadequate".

In spending money on prisons it must always be a motive to maintain and strengthen family ties if possible. I suppose that the Government will say that they have made a start and agree that more money should be spent. It is all a question of priorities. Therefore, I assume that we are together as regards the basic moral principle; that is, the Minister, the Home Secretary and all ranks in the Home Office. It cannot be otherwise. I find it impossible to believe that anyone who has seen a wife and two or three children arriving at a distant prison can quarrel with the noble Lord's demand that every prison should have a visitors' centre. Sometimes there are no family ties to speak of. But that is a separate question. However, there are often close family ties and the experience of prison does much to weaken them. The Government claim to set great store by the family as a factor in modern society and I entirely agree with them. I give them full credit for not wanting to punish the innocent wife and children for the offender's crime, but that is what is now happening.

The question is: how can we help the Minister to persuade his colleagues—and above all, as usual, the Treasury —that a great deal more must be done and that such facilities should be given high priority? Does the Minister know of the position prison by prison? I doubt that he does. The first thing to do is to find out. I suggest that every governor be instructed to report on the condition of his prison's visiting arrangements and ask to get an estimate for bringing them up to the standard of some of the best. For example, I did not realise, as the noble Lord said, that the Strangeways centre is in danger of ceasing to function. I suppose the chief inspector's reports go some way in effecting improvements —certainly that apples to the last two prisons I have looked at, Durham and Wandsworth —but without financial estimates. As regards Wandsworth the chief inspector said that the prison badly needs a visitors' centre.

If I put down a Written Question on these lines will the noble Viscount find it helpful to him to move towards changing priorities a little? Someone has to help somebody if we are to have these changes made. It would be with the idea of being helpful if I asked a Question. I do not believe that the final figure for putting the matter right would be very great, certainly not in terms of the cost of new prison building, as the noble Lord, Lord Dean, has so eloquently explained. Given some determination, I believe that two or three years could bring 0about this fundamental improvement.

Of one point I am pretty sure: the £100,000 proposed as a start implies no solution before the millenium. The problem is so much less expensive in essence than sanitation that we must ask not to have to wait, like sanitation, until the millenium for visitors' centres.

I have one more point to make. My view is that if a man is forcibly deprived of his liberty it is the duty of the power which deprives him of it —in this case the Government —to make sure that his family ties are spoiled as little as possible. So I believe that the Government have a moral duty to deal with this question themselves as a priority. However, public compassion, as the noble Lord has told us, has already made a good start in helping along such facilities as family centres, crèches, changing rooms and snack bars in various prisons.

Therefore, I think it should be a strict government duty to see to these matters. Yet I know that this Government would always prefer anything in the world rather than government help and presumably would welcome charitable intervention. I suggest the following programme, but under protest because I do not believe that it is a job for charity but for the people who shut up the men. First, we should know the facts so that we can see how much money is involved. Secondly, there should be a promise by the Government to put up half the cost, prison by prison, of putting matters right and maintaining the new provisions. Thirdly, there should be an appeal to the public for the other half of the money, strengthened by a pound-for-pound promise to double anything raised.

That is an absolutely specific proposal which it would be quite easy to carry out. There may be difficulties in raising the money, but I do not believe that there will be. This proposal is serious enough for it to be taken seriously. I am sure that all the visitors would be keen to help with local support. If a workable programme of this kind were available, a number of the larger charitable trusts would, I am sure, lend a hand. It has to be a programme, and that is the trouble. With the Home Office's valiant efforts for so long to put matters right, it has never given the public a programme. Exactly the same situation applies to sanitation and that is a much more difficult problem. This problem is not difficult and neither is it fearfully expensive.

We all agree that something needs to be done, but it will not be done without a vigorous government initiative. I beg the noble Viscount to persuade his friends that this programme is worth while and feasible and deserves the necessary priority.

8.34 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for bringing this very important question before us. It is a very great pity that there are not more noble Lords here either to listen or to take part in a debate on a subject which is fundamental in terms of humanity and in practical good sense.

My noble friend described the situation concerning Strangeways visitors' centre. He explained clearly the dangerous position in which this extremely good centre finds itself. I have visited it myself and I very much admired the work that it has been doing. My noble friend explained the problems facing it. He has also put some penetrating questions to the Minister and I look forward very much to hearing his answers. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, has also put some very hard facts before us about the finances of these all-important services. He has described how vital is their existence. He has been good enough to suggest a programme that I hope the noble Viscount who is to reply will find attractive.

Perhaps I may very briefly touch on three different aspects of the Question before us. I wish to say a further word about the vital need for visitors' centres from a humane point of view for the families. I sometimes feel that the general public has no idea of the difficulties that face mothers —they are practically always young mothers because so often the prisoners are young —who come with their young children on very long journeys. They often find it very difficult to co-ordinate their arrival with the time of the visit. These young mothers with their extremely small children have to wait outside the prison. Many of us who have seen that sight find it very hard to forget.

Those of us who have seen these lines of young mothers realise what they need. They need a cup of tea and to change the baby's nappy; they need some kind of support before they face what for them is a stressful moment —a visit to their husband or their partner. The centre at Strangeways takes these factors into account. There is someone there to talk to the mother before the visit, or afterwards if it has been a difficult one and things have gone wrong. Even if the visit has been very successful the mother needs to talk about it before she returns to the solitary life at home, trying to bring up the children and to cope with all the problems alone.

I remember visiting Grendon once and I asked a group of young prisoners about their backgrounds. I believe about three-quarters of them had had their fathers in prison. What a terrible inheritance that is.

Visiting time is an opportunity for them to be given some help. For example, they can be given toys to play with. There are also childcare workers who can help them with the great problems at home. They have a feeling of guilt that a parent has disappeared and obviously they are very much affected by the economies that have been imposed on the home while the father is away. They miss a parent and feel stigmatised at school and in the community if it is known that the father is away. The children need every kind of support, and the visitors' centres are places where they can be given that support so that they do not follow in the tragic paths of the fathers.

I wondered why the Save the Children Fund had taken such an interest in visitors' centres. I discovered that the interest began in Northern Ireland where I am happy to say that every prison has a visitors' centre. The Maze Prison applied many years ago for one officer from Save the Children Fund to help with its visitors' centre. Later the Save the Children Fund opened a model centre at the Crumlin Road Prison in Belfast, which is the best equipped centre.

To give noble Lords some idea of the staff involved, there is one manager-co-ordinator, four childcare workers, a full-time canteen organiser, a part-time canteen worker and an advice and information worker. That is a model visitors' centre, which is in Northern Ireland where there is enormous voluntary support for work that goes on in the community, and it has achieved very great success. That is how the Save the Children Fund became involved in an area which one may not have thought it would go towards.

My second point is the importance of centres for the rehabilitation of prisoners. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, has touched on that enormously important aspect. The volunteers from New Bridge, with which I am associated, realise how vital is contact with the family. It is extremely important for the final, successful rehabilitation of prisoners. They know that without the support of families in visiting, successful rehabilitation is often jeopardised. We talk gloomily about the high rate of reconvictions, but I believe that we are fortunate that it is not even higher when one considers how little is put into the rehabilitation and after-care of prisoners. However, New Bridge realises that contact with the family is a major factor in resettlement, which will happen only if the marriage has stayed firm, and that is where a visitors' centre is of such importance.

I should like to say how best in my view a visitors' centre should be structured, because we all agree there should be one for every prison in this country. It would seem very primitive of us if we were not looking towards that. First —and this is the major subject of this debate —are the resources. Here we wonder whether the prison department has its priorities right. For 1990–91 the prison department is allocating from its expenditure only £103,000 for the whole of the country. That is the amount of money which will go into visitors' centres. What an amazing idea of priorities that is; 103,000 is in no way high enough.

One wonders how best to build such a service; how best to structure it. One can perhaps look at how victim support groups have grown out of local voluntary groups. The Government have supported them, quite rightly, with central funding. I am happy to say that victims are now thought of with much greater consideration and with much more constructive thinking. I take that as an example of how we can help prisoners' families in building up these visitors' centres. There is no doubt that the families look at voluntary agencies as something they can understand, whereas the criminal justice system is something they do not understand —the prison is something concerning their husband or partner. I am sure it would be right for the voluntary agencies to have a partnership and work out a way of dealing with different prisons because the needs might be quite different.

The Save the Children Fund is worried about the plans being made by the Government for building visitors' centres in all new prisons. It is right that they should be built, but there is concern about their design. They are to be called reception centres, which has a rather institutional tone about it. There will be benches which will be nailed to the ground for the visitors to sit down on. It does not sound as though they are of absolutely the right design; but this again is something which could be discussed with an organisation like the Save the Children Fund, which has had so much experience in running these centres.

I hope that the Government will accept that these centres should be seen as part of the rehabilitation process. For example, the Home Office give grants to after-care hostels, accepting that these are part of the rehabilitation process. Why should they not see visitors' centres in the same light, as being of assistance to prisoners in not returning to crime after release? They could fund them out of resources allocated for rehabilitation, but obviously the amount needs to be very much greater. It is extraordinary that we are putting all our concentration and the vast majority of our resources into custody. But look at the result! It is not working. Why do we not try to redistribute those resources and put more into the process of rehabilitation? A very important part of that is visitors' centres.

8.45 p.m.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, for raising this important subject today. We have heard a great deal tonight about the value of visitors' reception centres. The Government share those views. None of us can possibly take any comfort from seeing the conditions in which the relatives and friends of prisoners must wait for visits at those prisons which do not yet have a visitors' centre. I am glad to say however that around 20 establishments do now have visitors' centres. The range of facilities that they are able to provide varies greatly; but all at least offer shelter and refreshment; the opportunity to rest after the journey, and prepare for the visit in a friendly and supportive atmosphere.

This can only be beneficial to all concerned. It is good for the inmates, because the visit is more likely to go well if his wife or partner has been able to relax beforehand and perhaps talk things through with a sympathetic volunteer. We know that a good visit can make a real difference to an inmate's morale, whether by easing frustration which might otherwise have boiled over, or by lifting a cloud of depression which could have led to suicidal behaviour. The benefits of this will be felt by the establishment itself. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, has rightly drawn our attention to this.

Above all, visitors' centres are for families. I believe that for far too long the hardships and anxieties faced by wives and children of prisoners, and sometimes by other relatives and friends, have received too little attention. They have been aptly described as forgotten victims. In some ways their position is like that of the victim of the crime because they must carry on living with the emotional and material consequences of somebody else's actions. Many wives of inmates speak of serving their own sentence.

The House will know that the Government have sought in recent years to recognise afresh the needs of victims of crime. We must also look seriously at what more can and should be done to support the relatives of prisoners. The improvements of the conditions in which relatives prepare for visits, and in which visits actually take place, is only one aspect of this but it is the area in which the Prison Service is best placed to help.

I want to look first at capital spending on visitors' centres and other facilities for those visiting prisons. I should like to say to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, that prisons are being asked to give full details of facilities currently provided in visitors' centres and plans to develop new centres. Our policy is that all new establishments for the prison building programme should have a purpose-built visitors' centre. At present 14 prisons are being built or will start construction shortly, and we plan to provide visitors' centres at all of these. This is no small commitment. Purpose-built visitors' centres at new establishments can cost between £400,000 and £500,000 each. We estimate that the total cost of providing visitors' centres at the new establishments now being built is likely to be between £4 million and £5 million. This is impressive evidence of our commitment to help those who are visiting prisoners. We hope to offer wherever possible a full range of facilities. A standard design has been developed which provides for a refreshment area, baby-changing facilities, toilets, lockers, an interview room, an advice centre and a payphone. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, that all of those facilities are required.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, the noble Lord spoke of the sum of £4 million. Is that sum for equipping the 125 prisons which exist, quite apart from the 14 new prisons? That is the point that we are mainly concerned about.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the figure that I quoted of between £4 million and £5 million is for the provision of new visitors' centres at the new prisons.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, does that mean that there is no immediate plan to do anything about the 80 or 90 prisons? That is the point that I am chasing.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I have not yet come to that point.

At existing establishments the Government are making a considerable investment in improving conditions generally. Major capital expenditure on existing establishments has increased sharply in recent years, from approximately £30 million in 1987/88 to £55 million in 1988/89 to over £70 million in the current financial year. Next year we aim to spend £120 million on major capital work at existing prisons and a further £20 million on major maintenance. Over the next three years a total of £400 million will be spent on refurbishing existing prisons.

We are focusing mainly on the upgrading of visiting rooms within prisons. In the past two years, new facilities for visits have opened, for example, at Parkhurst, Cardiff, Bristol and Gloucester. New facilities are now being completed at Stafford. In the past year work has begun on new facilities at Leicester and Lincoln. In the next few months work is due to start on a much-needed new visitor complex at Bedford, and in the next two years, we hope that a start will be made on new facilities at Nottingham and Long Lartin. In addition, there are a large number of smaller schemes to improve conditions for visitors. These will include in the next few years improvements at Manchester, Wandsworth, Shrewsbury and Full Sutton.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. The main thrust of my debate concerned Manchester; but the Question I asked was directed solely to the survival of Strangeways with which I am concerned; the carrying out, almost, of a statutory duty on a voluntary basis. I note what the Minister stated about heavy spending but I and the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, are asking whether the Government should be looking at greater funding for the voluntary bodies that are at present in existence. They are doing a job on behalf of the community which is threatened by lack of finance.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I am trying to answer the Question on the Order Paper and explain the funding of visitors' centres whether at Manchester of elsewhere. I hope to develop my argument a little further and then discuss Manchester.

We recognise that despite all this work, there will still be room for improvement. However, as noble Lords will appreciate, there are very many demands on the extra resources which have been provided to improve conditions in existing prisons. I need only mention integral sanitation to make the point.

It is against this background that we consider capital for visitor's centres at existing establishments. Visitors' centres will be provided in the redevelopments which are underway at Risley and Leeds. A visitors' centre was completed last year at Stafford and we are at present considering what assistance can be given to projects at Liverpool and Hindley. But there are many other competing demands and we believe that it is right at present to give a higher priority to improving conditions for inmates generally, including arrangements for visits within establishments, than to providing purpose-built premises for visitors' centres.

It is nevertheless possible that establishments will be able to obtain some limited funds from regional budgets so that, for example, portakabin accommodation can be provided. That is not an ideal situation; but it would give establishments a breathing space in which to explore whether more suitable accommodation might be found in the long term. We hope that local firms or trusts might be able to help in some cases.

While I am unable to promise a major programme of building new visitors' centres, I can point to a major increase in the level of our assistance with their running costs. The Home Office contribution in the past has been limited to grants totalling £12,000 which have been split between five centres with probation service involvement. This year however the prison department has for the first time taken on some financial responsibility for the running costs of visitors' centres. It proved possible to agree one-off emergency grants to four centres which were experiencing difficulties, including that at Manchester. Those grants totalled £37,000.

My noble friend Lord Ferrers announced last week that from next year further substantial sums will be available. In 1990–91, the prison department will be able to make grants totalling around £103,000, which is the figure that the noble Baroness mentioned. That figure will be increased by £75,000 in real terms in each of the following two years.

My noble friend Lord Ferrers told the House on 7th November that the total sum earmarked over the next three years was £464,000. That figure should have been £564,000.

My noble friend also announced that a set of guidelines were being issued by the department to prison governors. They will also be circulated to other organisations working to promote visitors' centres. A copy has been placed in the Library of the House. The guidelines have been drawn up in consultation with bodies such as the Save the Children Fund and the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO). They contain what might be called a statement of good practice. The aim is both to stimulate interest in the possibility of setting up new centres at prisons which need them and to give practical advice, though without laying down a rigid pattern of operation. In particular, we have stressed the importance of the centre being located outside the main gate so that it is not felt by visitors to be simply an extension of the prison's own arrangements for supervising visits. At the same time it is essential that the centre is linked by 'phone with the visits area in the prison so that visitors can be allowed into their visits in the order in which they arrive. Otherwise they will effectively have lost their place in the queue. The guidelines go on to give practical suggestions on facilities which centres can offer, drawing on the experience of some of the excellent initiatives already underway.

I wish to turn now to questions of management and funding. Visitors' centres are normally managed on a day-to-day basis by a co-ordinator, who in some cases may need to be a paid employee. Many centres make splendid use of volunteers to help supervise children's play areas, serve refreshments and generally to be on hand when visitors need to talk. The volunteers come from a variety of sources. Some are probation volunteers. Others belong to the Women's Royal Voluntary Service. Churches and student groups are frequently involved. The evidence is that there is a great deal of enthusiasm within the local community which can be tapped. My Lords, the Government very much welcome this broad base of support. We believe that the development of visitors' centres can and should be seen in terms of a partnership, involving not just the Prison Service but also a range of other statutory and non-statutory bodies which take an interest in the welfare of prisoners' families. This idea of partnership is central to our approach to the allocation of grants because it is important that the resources of the Prison Service, which are inevitably limited, are spread as widely as possible. Our aim must be to see an essential level of service being provided for as many visitors as possible.

In drawing up our criteria we have worked on the basis that centres need above all to have an assured income to meet essential expenditure such as heating and lighting and where this is necessary to pay a co-ordinator. We are therefore prepared to make grants up to a maximum of £15,000. Many centres are able to operate successfully on this basis.

A number of requests for funding, all within the limit of £15,000, have already been received and are being carefully examined. Our priorities will be to help put new and recently established centres on a solid footing. Our support will be channelled primarily towards those centres which can demonstrate substantial community involvement. We believe public money is most effectively used where it unlocks other sources of support. By means of partnership with other interests we hope that at least five new centres can be established each year over the next three years. The increases in our budget over that period will allow us to maintain our funding of centres set up in earlier years where necessary, while also leaving additional money available for new projects. I hope noble Lords will agree that this is an ambitious and far-reaching programme.

I should also like to respond to the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, about the Manchester visitors' centre, which I recognise provides an outstanding welfare service. As I have said, the bulk of the money will be directed to new initiatives. But we do not intend to neglect the needs of existing centres which run into financial difficulties. A sum of £16,000 has been specifically set aside in each year to help centres which might otherwise be threatened with closure. It is also possible that some of the money earmarked for new centres will be left over for allocation elsewhere.

I am aware of the position at Manchester and I know that considerable efforts are being made by the Selcare Trust to find new sources of funding. I very much hope that sponsorship can be found from within the local private and voluntary sectors, or indeed from other statutory agencies which have a particular interest in the specialised type of care which the centre provides. I know that officials from the Prison Department will be meeting with the secretary of the trust to review the options available, such as the scope for making greater use of volunteers. The department will also consider very carefully whether it is possible to give some direct assistance. But I have to say to the noble Lord that any help which we are able to give —and I cannot promise anything at this stage —is bound to be limited. We must consider the needs of other centres as well and it is too early to judge what the overall demand on our budget is likely to be.

In a supplementary question to a Question asked by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester on 7th November, the noble Lord asked about the provision of funds. At that stage, we had received only a general request for support for Selcare but no firm or precise bid. That is what my noble friend Lord Ferrers had as his brief. We have still not been sent a budget for 1991 and have no precise idea what other funds may be available or what sum is needed from us, although I agree that the noble Lord has given us some figures tonight which we shall study. Until this is available it is difficult for us to weigh Manchester's needs against those of other centres.

I should like to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, who suggested that family ties are important to inmates of prisons. A number of measures to improve inmates' contacts with their families were announced on 17th March of this year in a Written Answer in another place. These are set out at col. 363 of theOfficial Report. They included, for example, the installation of payphones and increased opportunities for home leave as well as increased support for visitors' centres.

This has been a most encouraging debate. The Government recognise that at many prisons much remains to be done to improve facilities for visitors. But we have heard good news about what is already going on in many corners of the prison estate. Our clear aim is to see visitors' centres securely established at all establishments which need them. We are committed actively to assisting that process. At the same time we shall be looking to others with an interest in the general welfare of prisoners' families to make their contribution too. I believe that through partnership we can look forward to significant developments in the years ahead.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down perhaps I may say that we have had a most encouraging reply for which I am very grateful. I am not clear about one point. He told us, if I remember correctly, that 20 prisons have visitors' centres. He also told us that there are plans to add five a year for three years. If my figures are right, it means that 90 out of the 125 prisons will still have nothing after three years. Is that too gloomy a view?

Viscount Ullswater

. My Lords, the programme being undertaken at the moment for the provision of five new centres a year for three years is a start. It is the start of a new programme which has not been undertaken before. In that case I think it should be welcomed.

Buckinghamshire County Council Bill [H.L.]

London Local Authorities Bill [H.L.]

Nottinghamshire Park Estate Bill [H.L.]

Presented, read a first time, passed through all their remaining stages pro forma and sent to the Commons.