HL Deb 18 December 1990 vol 524 cc727-9

2.50 p.m.

Lord Hunt asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to revise their programme for building new prisons in view of a continuing fall in the prison population and in the light of the provisions for restricting the use of custody in the Criminal Justice Bill.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, plans for three new prisons have been dropped. The new prison building programme now comprises of 13 prisons, all of which are under construction. Those are expected to be sufficient to meet the likely needs as now forecast.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is he aware that his honourable friend Mr. John Patten, addressing the All-Party Penal Affairs Group on 19th June, said that the prison population had dropped by about 3,000 or 4,000 in the previous year and that he expected that trend to continue over the next four or five years? In view of the succession of highly censorious reports from chief inspectors, culminating in the most recent report by Judge Tumim on the deplorable state of most of our urban local prisons, in anticipation of the report of Lord Justice Woolf, and in view of some of the provisions of the Criminal Justice Bill, is there not a powerful case for freezing, or at least a further scaling down, of present plans to build more prisons outside urban areas and to give the highest priority to improving conditions in our local urban prisons with a view, in particular, to ending by a firm and early date the degrading practice of slopping out?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asks a number of questions. The projected prison population for 1998 has dropped from the expected 62,600 to 56,700. He asked whether it would not be better to stop work on the new prisons. All the new prisons are under construction. The point about new prisons is that they will not just provide better places but will be capable of replacing older prisons. We shall be spending about £162 million in 1991–92 on the existing estate and £300 million on new prisons. A great deal is being done in the prison world to meet the criticisms that have been levelled.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the prospect of falling numbers in the prison population will provide an opportunity to decant prisoners from wings of urban local prisons and to refurbish them? Can he confirm the estimate that I have received, that the expenditure of £30 million over seven years would end the slopping out practice to the great improvement of our prison system?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, we all want to end slopping out as soon as possible. A great deal of work is being done to encourage that result. My noble friend asked whether £30 million over seven years was an accurate figure. Integral sanitation is in many cases installed as part of a major refurbishment of wings, and it is not possible to disentangle the cost of providing integral sanitation from total expenditure. We are steadily increasing the resources available. The amounts spent on installing simple systems of integral sanitation will rise from £4 million this year to £9.5 million in 1991–92.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, can the Minister give me any information about the provision of new open prisons? Are any open prisons included in the building plans, or are there plans to use existing buildings for open prison, which is a possibility?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I shall have to write to the noble Lord on that point. I do not have the figures.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, will my noble friend close some of the old prisons when the new ones are in use?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that may well be possible. The important point it to get the new buildings into use. When they are in like it will be possible to forecast likely requirements for the old prisons.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, is the Minister aware that mental hospitals are being closed at an alarming rate; that, for example, Hellingly Hospital in Sussex, which has 1,000 patients, is being closed, and that it is strongly rumoured that a prison will take its place? Do we not have our priorities all wrong if we close mental hospitals and build prisons?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, we had a discussion on this topic the Other day. I know that the noble Earl is worried about mental hospitals. It would be wrong were mentally disturbed prisoners to end up in prison if a mental hospital is the right place for them. The Government are addressing that matter.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the money saved by ceasing to build the new prisons should be spent on getting remand prisoners out of the prisons, and stopping the scandal, which was pointed out 10 years ago in a debate initiated from these Benches, which has been described by the Chief Inspector of Prisons in precisely the same terms after a whole decade as being unacceptable and intolerable?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the money made available for new prisons was made available on the forecast of the likely requirements for new prisons. The fact that that forecast has been revised means that those new prisons will not now be made available. At the same time, a great deal of work is being done to modernise existing prisons and to update remand prisons.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, in a previous answer today was the Minister giving an undertaking that there would be no diminution in the funds being made available for the upgrading of terrible prisons such as Walton in Liverpool and Armley in Leeds? Any diminution in the resources needed to correct conditions there would be sad, in view of the conditions suffered by prisoners, including remand prisoners who should not be there.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, nothing I said in my replies should have indicated that there would be a diminution of funds to those prisons.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is 20 times cheaper to supervise an offender in the community than to send him to prison? Does he agree that the focus should be on providing non-custodial sentences rather than putting people into prison?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am delighted to say that the noble Baroness is at one with the Government on that point. I shall look forward to seeing her come onto these Benches as a result. She knows well that the whole onus of the Criminal Justice Bill is to encourage the punishment of offenders within the community; but where they cannot be punished within the community, and where the community has a right to see that those people are detained in custody, it is correct that that custody should be acceptable and proper.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, does the Minister accept that part of the purpose of my Question was to draw a distinction between the building of new prisons outside towns and the crying need to improve existing local prisons in urban areas; and that the priority should be to improve those prisons which do not serve the same purpose as those outside the towns?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I accept the noble Lord's distinction. All that I was trying to tell him was that the work on the prison building programme by the Government is designed to try to improve existing prisons and to create new prisons where possible. When it is necessary to draw a distinction between urban prisons and other prisons, we do our best to ensure that both receive a fair crack of the whip.