HL Deb 07 November 1989 vol 512 cc537-40

The Lord Bishop of Manchester asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the adequacy of arrangements for the comfort of wives and other relatives waiting to visit prisoners.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, a number of establishments now have visitors' reception centres. Funds will be available from next year to help with the running costs of new centres. We are also looking to the voluntary sector to make a major contribution. All new establishments in the prison building programme will include a purpose-built visitors' reception area.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that slightly encouraging reply, but I am sure that he is aware that the list of prisons produced by the Prison Reform Trust shows very few prison visitors' centres with adequate facilities. Will he confirm that only £60,000 is available for the support of such centres in the current year? Will he give an indication as to how much that figure will be improved in the sum that he mentioned? Is he further aware that Strangeways Prison has a visitors' centre which has been used by 325,000 visitors and families in the last couple of years or since it was opened in 1986, that its future is in jeopardy because of underfunding and that an estimated £50,000 is needed to secure its future?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for saying that the Answer was at least slightly encouraging. I thought that it was rather more than that. I can tell him that up to £15,000 for each of five new centres in each of the next four years has been allocated, which allows a total of £464,000 earmarked for visitors' centres over the next three years.

I understand the difficulties which the visitors' centre at Strangeways Prison is experiencing. I understand too that the Selcare Trust, which manages the centre and whose president is the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, is looking for new sources of funding. 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.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that unless the £57,000 is forthcoming the centre will be in jeopardy? The sad fact is that if such a centre were to close we should be unable to predict with any certainty whether anything would be able to take its place. Surely we do not want to go back to the appalling situation that existed before where wives and girlfriends of inmates of Strangeways on remand were asked to queue outside in the rain and had to change their babies there. I ask the Minister to look at the immediate funding of the Strangeways centre as a matter of urgency and to give it sympathetic consideration.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I appreciate the difficulties which surround the visitors' centre in Strangeways, but the noble Lord will realise that an emergency grant of £15,000 was made this year out of a total of £37,000 which was given in emergency grants to centres which were seriously short of funds. 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.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that visiting conditions at Brixton Prison have been greatly improved in the last two years? Is he aware that at about that time, when I last made a visit there, the conditions for visitors to Brixton were quite disgraceful? There was no shelter for visitors, let alone a visitors' centre. They waited outside in all weathers and when they went inside it was bedlam. There was no privacy. All the visitors were together with all the prisoners. Have things greatly improved since then? It is all the more disgraceful because Brixton is a remand prison.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I must confess that there is a great deal of ground to make up until we reach a position in which we can all take pride and with which we can be satisfied. About 20 prisons now have visitors' reception centres and all new prisons have reception centres designed in them. As funds and time permit, we try to update the existing buildings when refurbishment is carried out.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, will my noble friend tell me how many railway vouchers prisoners' wives or other relatives are now entitled to per month?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot give my noble friend the answer to that question, but I shall see whether I can find it out and let her know.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the time available for wives and relatives to visit remand prisoners is restricted in nearly all prisons to only 15 minutes? Does he agree that it is highly desirable that contact between prisoners, especially those on remand, and their families should be maintained? Does he also agree that 15 minutes is an absurdly short time for any wife or relative who has any distance to travel? Will he look into the matter?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I quite agree with the noble Baroness. It is very important that prisoners should be able to keep contact with their relatives and families. I shall look into the point which she raised about the length of time that they are allowed to talk to each other.

Lord Morris

My Lords, does my noble friend care to comment on the view held by many people that the very depressing sight of wives, children and other relatives waiting in the rain outside prisons in order to visit prisoners is a critically important sanction to those with felonious intent?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I quite agree that it is highly undesirable. That is the reason why in all new prisons we are making arrangements for visitors' centres to be incorporated in the buildings. It is why we are trying to refurbish those existing prisons which are due for renovation and include within them visitors' centres. We are spending a lot of money on prisons. About £230 million is for new prisons, and it is a question of whether one spends that money on visitors' centres or on the care of the prisoners themselves.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is not just a question of it being desirable that families should be able to visit prisoners and prisoners see their families? When trying to keep the family together that is about the one hope of some rehabilitation. In those circumstances is it not quite disgraceful that the Government are relying on voluntary contributions for a matter of this kind? Does the Minister further agree that it is not just a question which concerns the prisons that happen to have been mentioned today; namely, Manchester and Brixton? Leeds Prison is also in a dreadful position. One of the officers described to me the situation when relatives turned up to visit prisoners as something like a zoo.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I quite agree with the noble Lord that rehabilitation is very important. But he will be the first to realise that visitors' centres are outside the prison buildings. They are centres used by the families of the prisoners. While it is highly desirable to make them better—we are doing all that we can to do so—I think it is more important that government funds should be spent on improving the state of the prisons themselves, for which the noble Lord and many others have frequently criticised all governments. We are spending our money on that and we are doing our best to incorporate the visitors' centres as well.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, that is a most distressing answer. We have said for years that the expenditure on new prisons, while desirable, can only be accepted in terms of bad prisons being closed down and existing prisons being made better. Does the Minister not agree that after all these years it is quite incredible to answer the very serious questions of this House about a number of different prisons by saying that the money will be spent elsewhere because it is more important?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I know that the noble Lord feels very concerned about this matter because he has frequently spoken about it. However, I ask him to recall that this year we are spending £70 million on refurbishing our existing prisons. That is a point on which the noble Lord and many of his friends have constantly pressed the Government. We are spending £230 million on new prisons. The noble Lord would like to have all the cake and the icing on top but it is not always possible to have it.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I should like, if necessary, £30 million of the £230 million to be spent putting right the visiting arrangements in all our three or four hundred prisons.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, if I understood the noble Lord correctly he suggests that we should spend more money on visitors' centres and less on refurbishing the prisons and getting rid of slopping out. However, that is what we have put our attention to.

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)

My Lords, is the Minister aware of my concern about the existing patchy provision in relation to access and facilities for disabled visitors? The Prison Reform Trust tells me that there is little improvement in the situation in newly built prisons.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I recognise that there are difficulties for those who are disabled, particularly at the older prisons. We take the needs of the disabled into account both when refurbishing the old prisons and when designing new ones. Facilities are improved as and when the opportunity arises.

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