HL Deb 20 December 1990 vol 524 cc952-69

1.40 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their response to the reports by the Chief Inspector of Prisons on HM Prisons Leeds and Brixton.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we are debating this issue on the day of the publication of yet another searching report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, this time on suicides in prisons. I hope that we shall have an early opportunity of debating the issue.

This debate is on a narrower question, although today's report has the clearest and most direct implications for what we are about to discuss. Today's debate, in reality, is a tale of two prisons. The first is Brixton. It was formerly the Surrey House of Correction. It was opened when Lord Liverpool was Prime Minister, in 1821. Thirty years later it was decided to demolish it, but after spells as a women's prison and subsequently as a military prison, it has survived until the present day. Leeds, on the other hand, is a mere 143 years old. It was opened when Lord John Russell was Prime Minister.

The conditions in both prisons are degrading. Judge Tumim's criticisms are harsh but I believe fully justified. At both he draws attention to a great deal of admirable work being performed by both governors and staff. One example is the work of the education department. On occasions such as this it is right to praise the efforts of many devoted members of staff, who operate in such deplorable conditions.

However, consider for a moment the character of Judge Tumim's indictment. He says that at Armley there has been a concentration on packing as many prisoners as possible into the prison with too little concern for the consequences. As a result, prisoners have been denied sufficient personal attention and adequate physical activity. At the time of the inspection there were 1,171 prisoners when there should have been a maximum of 642. The reception building at Armley was described as "appalling". The physical education resources were some of the worst that the inspectorate had ever seen. The workshops were grossly under-used. No priority had been given to the introduction of integral sanitation in the redevelopment plans, and there were no showers on the landings.

At Brixton Judge Tumim found the establishment "corrupting and depressing". He added: The grim reality for many hundreds awaiting trial was an austere, miserable and wholly negative experience. There was hardly any work or education. Visiting and reception facilities were hopelessly inadequate. And the only gymnasium was outside the secure area and was used exclusively by the staff". That is a shocking story.

Now let us turn to some of the specific issues that have been raised in the report. First, as the noble Earl will recall, I drew his attention in a previous debate to the disturbing account in Judge Tumim's report on the state of affairs at Wandsworth Prison concerning what appeared to be the racist attitudes of some members of the staff. We welcome the steps that were taken subsequently to deal with the problem. However, I note that in his report on Leeds, though welcoming what he describes as useful initiatives by the prison's race relations committee, Judge Tumim reports that inmate; had said not only that prejudice existed, but that they could not make their feelings known nor have suitable action taken.

In the case of Brixton, the criticism was far more explicit. In paragraph 4.14 it is said that there had been complaints of racist attitudes by some members of the staff and that not all of those had come from inmates. There were also what were described as "many complaints" that some officers who drank at lunchtime were affected as a consequence during the afternoon. I must add that it is not the first time that I have heard such a suggestion made when visiting some of our prisons. I should be grateful if the noble Earl, whom I warned that I would be raising the issue, will tell us what action the department intends to take to deal with those criticisms.

I also find it disturbing that following the criticisms in the Wandsworth report staff at Leeds are said to wear insignia of various kinds attached to their uniforms and that a number are wearing slashed peaks to their uniform caps. The noble Earl will recall that the matter was debated in this house and that that specific issue was put to him. Indeed, at col. 1299 of Hansard for 14th November 1989 he said: Disciplinary action is probably not the best way of dealing with this kind of problem, which is more a matter of staff attitudes".

I wonder what other disciplined service—and the prison service is a disciplined service—would tolerate a situation in which people wore insignia on their uniforms. I wonder what the noble Earl would have said when he was an orderly officer inspecting one of his guards if he had found Coldstream Guards wearing insignia on their uniforms. I suspect that he might have expressed mild surprise—indeed he might have expressed more than mild surprise. I should like to ask him once again what is going to be done about that. The fact that those insignia are being worn, as he is well aware, has significance of a very special character, to which the chief inspector has drawn attention. I hope that on this occasion we shall have a full explanation of what the Home Office proposes to do about that particular problem.

I turn now to another issue that I intend to raise this afternoon—that of the large number of cases of self harm reported both at Leeds and Brixton, culminating in a number of deaths, and also the general question of the large numbers of mentally ill people being held in our prisons and particularly at Brixton. In his response to the Brixton report, the present Home Secretary said: It is abundantly clear that too many mentally disturbed people are sent to prison". I agree with him. As the noble Earl will recall, that has been a constant theme of our debates for many years.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the conditions in which mentally disturbed inmates are being held at Brixton prison. In F wing, the psychiatric wing, Judge Tumim reports that the most disturbed were housed in single cells which were stripped of all furniture except a mattress. Nearby, for the less disturbed, were rooms with cardboard furniture. Cells were dirty and so were the foam rubber mattresses. There was a smell of urine and some cells had faecal staining in them. Incoming prisoners were assessed in a dirty reception area and the clinical load on medical officers was too great for more than a cursory examination.

It is disgraceful that we are prepared to tolerate such conditions for these sad, disturbed men who should not be in prison in the first place. Yet is there the slightest prospect of getting them out of prison? In his Statement on Brixton, the Home Secretary said that the Government wanted them diverted into the care of the National Health Service or the social services departments of local authorities. So far as concerns the health service, the Home Office has been attempting to persuade the Department of Health to accept its responsibilities for at least 15 years to my direct knowledge. The situation appears now to be worse than ever. As for the social services departments of local authorities, I am afraid that the Home Secretary's well-intentioned observations will be regarded as little more than a joke by those who have witnessed the failure of so many of them to cope with the flood of people now pouring out of our mental hospitals.

"Care in the community", as it is described, simply does not exist in many areas because of an acute shortage of resources. Only a few weeks ago the House of Commons Social Services Committee criticised the Department of Health for not even producing detailed calculations of the cost of implementing its plans. It added that there was still no guarantee that money said to be available would in reality be spent on the mentally ill and the mentally handicapped. I am afraid that without a radical change in government policy the prospects for getting the mentally ill out of our prisons are exceptionally poor.

I turn now to the final issue that I want to raise this afternoon, which is the related problem of suicide and self-harm. That has been dealt with in the report by Judge Tumim published today. The number of such incidents at both prisons has been deeply disturbing. In 1989 there were eight suicides at Brixton alone. There the clinical load on doctors is too great. Judge Tumim describes the number of hospital officers in F wing as being grossly insufficient.

In the past I have indicated that I do not consider that the prison service as a whole is under-manned. There has been a striking improvement in staff/inmate ratios in the past 30 years, and in my judgment there is still overmanning in some departments of Prison Department establishments. For instance, Judge Tumim is critical at both Brixton and Leeds of the unnecessarily high level of censorship of inmates' mail. It was a criticism that he also put forward in his report on Wandsworth prison. How can it be right to tolerate such severe under-staffing with hospital officers at Brixton, a major prison hospital with an appalling level of suicides and attempted suicides? How can it be right in this situation to permit so many hospital officers—in Judge Tumim's words—"to spend their time on wholly administrative and clerical tasks"? That seems to me to be quite absurd.

In conclusion, as the House prepares to adjourn to celebrate the festive season, it is perhaps right to remember Judge Tumim's observations on how a number of our young fellow-citizens, all of them unconvicted, have been treated at Leeds Prison: The bulk of the acts [of self-harm were] attributed simply to the effect on unconvicted inmates, many young, immature and unstable, of being locked up in a cell with one or two others, a jug of water, a bed, a chair, a small table and a bucket, for all but a small part of the day … The cell was constricted: two out of the three inmates had to sit on a bed. Their access to the library to get books was limited. They were worried inevitably as to what would happen at their trial. Day and night would start to merge. They would lose their balance and, say other inmates, it was hardly surprising if they cut or tried to hang themselves either out of misery or to attract attention.

That is life for young remand prisoners in a British prison in 1990. I believe it is entirely unacceptable that we should tolerate such conditions any longer.

1.56 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, yesterday I was warned by my much revered Chief Whip that the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, who speaks so effectively on these matters from the Front Bench, might not be able to get here for some time. I was asked to prepare a very long speech—a speech of almost indefinite length—and I did so. It will come as a slight relief to many noble Lords, and even the staff of the House, to hear that the noble Baroness has arrived and therefore my speech will be reduced by 90 per cent. If it is a little incoherent as a result, perhaps allowances will be made. I am very happy to follow up the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Harris. I do so not for the first time but perhaps more faithfully since he ceased to be a Minister and is now a brilliant critic of the Government. I follow him faithfully enough therefore.

The reports of Judge Tumim are extraordinarily damaging to the Government. In an interview today, Judge Tumim says that he does blame Ministers, but he would say that, would he not? He is a civil servant. He could hardly continue in his role if he started to blame Ministers. He therefore blames that rather indefinite entity, the public. We can come back to that point at some other time perhaps.

The fact is that this Government have been in power for some 10 years and the situation in our prisons is very bad. I shall not speak for the two hours for which I have made preparation. I shall simply say that yesterday I took part in the debate on the homeless. There are similarities between the homeless and this present topic. On the whole, the great British public, so far as we can speak for them, ignore such horrible goings on. We do so until something frightful brings them to our attention. Occasionally the sight of people sleeping in cardboard boxes shocks the conscience of even the most hardboiled. In the case of prisons we have had unprecedented riots this year. Now come the reports of suicide. At last we, the public, are facing the situation.

As I said yesterday, I wish everything good to the new Minister for Housing, Sir George Young, and to the new Home Secretary. That is not to disparage his predecessor, who I venture to think has made a surprisingly good start here. But that is another matter and altogether different. I do not disparage him. The right honourable gentleman Mr. Baker, the Home Secretary, has said today that things will be very much better. That is what the Government said about the homeless. We shall believe it when we see it. Perhaps matters will improve; perhaps they will not. We are told with regard to the homeless that no new money is available. The statements about the homeless do not represent more money. We shall believe that something will be done about the prisons when the Government say that they will provide suitably large sums of money—and they must be large—to put the situation right.

I do not blame the Government for not stating that before Christmas. They are waiting for the report of Lord Justice Woolf. However, I am delighted to think that Judge Tumim will be associated with the report. Clearly it will be a report with radical proposals. We are therefore bound to ask whether the Government are ready to put up money to bring about those large changes. Money is not everything, but anyone who has read Judge Tumim's report will realise that such proposals cannot be undertaken without money.

I shall deal with one other topic about which perhaps I am beginning to speak too often in the House. I believe that it was Hitler who said that no one believes you until you have said the same thing nine times. I do not wish to follow him in all respects, but perhaps he had something there. It may have been Goebbels who said it; it was one or the other. I return to the subject of mentally disturbed offenders.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, in this fascinating connection, by repeating the same subject nine times, is the noble Earl likening himself to Hitler?

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, no. I do not have the "mad genius" to use a phrase that we heard in the House yesterday. No, I am not like Hitler. If the noble Earl considers that I am like him, I suppose that that is a kind of compliment.

I refer to Judge Tumim's report. I deal with only one aspect. In the terms of reference he was asked specifically to pay attention, to the risks posed by mentally disturbed prisoners; and to make recommendations". It is that topic to which I have returned in recent times more than once, as the noble Earl well knows.

What does Judge Tumim say about the subject? He states that a good many people who are in prison should be in mental hospitals. That is widely stated. I shall not go into it in detail. I think that the Home Office believes that that is true up to a point. Various suggestions are made. I should like to dwell on one aspect. It is new in my recollection. Judge Tumim states: Nevertheless, given the facilities at present available within the NHS and the penal system, it seems absolutely inevitable from our observations at Brixton and elsewhere that the Service will find itself looking after very disturbed, non-consenting patients for varying periods of time … without any clear basis for treating them". The crucial sentence is as follows: Until such time as the NHS is able to respond adequately"— That means of course until it has far more money than it now has— the Service"— that means the prison medical service— must provide appropriate and proper care to these people in prison. It would be of considerable assistance"— and he states this also in connection with Brixton— if the prison hospital, wholly or in part … could be upgraded and staffed to a standard so that it could be designated a psychiatric hospital within the meaning of the Mental Health Act". That is a new concept to many of us. It is important for us to dwell on it. We do not expect the noble Earl to say yes or no to it. However, let us consider what it involves.

In referring to psychiatrists, I know a forensic psychiatrist when I see one, and there are only about 60 forensic psychiatrists in the country. They are at the top of the profession in this connection. Leaving aside the doctors, the forensic psychiatrists and persons of that order, what about the nurses?

I gave the noble Earl notice of this point; it may not have reached him. I wished to ask this crucial question: how far does the training of prison staff in a prison hospital compare with the training of nurses in a psychiatric hospital? If the noble Earl did not receive notice of that question I cannot expect him to answer it. On the face of it, there is no comparison. The ordinary prison officer with a little psychiatric training does not compare with a fully fledged nurse.

I do not know whether one can refer to someone sitting on the Woolsack; perhaps they live in a different world from ours. But there is someone sitting on the Woolsack who is a fully trained nurse. I am sure that her training was vastly more prolonged than that which could possibly be offered to a nurse wearing a white coat in a prison hospital.

If we are to make sense of that concept—I believe that it is important—in the foreseeable future a great many people may need psychiatric treatment in prison hospitals who cannot or should not be transferred to other hospitals. How can we make sure that they receive the same treatment as they would receive in psychiatric hospitals? That is the main point that I wish to make. I do not expect too clear an answer because it is a new concept which needs much consideration.

I wish to lay one other proposition before the Minister. Again I do not expect too definite an answer today. I hope that he will not snub me.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it was the use of that word that made me show surprise. I apologise for again interrupting the noble Earl. I was not aware that I had ever snubbed him. I would not wish to do so. It was only the suggestion that surprised me so.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, that is a charming response. It seems to me that the buck passes from one department to another: from the Home Office to the Department of Health. I do not believe that we shall ever have a sensible approach in dealing with these great questions relating to disturbed offenders unless we bring the Home Office and the Department of Health together in some new arrangement. I do not mean that they should be fused, but one must consider ways in which to look at the problems jointly. Unless we do so, neither will change.

2.8 p.m.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, only one of Judge Tumim's reports is enough to shock the public and it should be enough to galvanise the Government into immediate activity. The cumulative effects of the continuing series amounts to an indictment of the administration of the prison system as a whole. The system as it is revealed by the Tumim reports on Leeds and Brixton Prisons can no longer be tolerated.

I shall not repeat Judge Tumim's damning sentences on the impoverished regimes which he revealed in those prisons. Instead, by contrast, I shall recite the basic guidelines of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. They were formulated as long ago as 1955 and the European prison rules were formulated in 1987. The 1987 rules state: Every effort shall be made to ensure that the regimes of the institutions are designed and managed so as"— and these words should be borne in mind when reading the reports,

  1. "(a) to ensure that the conditions of life are compatible with human dignity and acceptable standards in the community;
  2. (b) to minimise the detrimental effects of imprisonment and the differences between prison life and life at liberty which tend to diminish the self-respect or sense of personal responsibility of prisoners;
  3. (c) to sustain and strengthen those links with relatives and the outside community that will promote the best interests of prisoners and their families;
  4. (d) to provide opportunities for prisoners to develop skills and aptitudes that will improve their prospects of successful resettlement after release".
Those rules demonstrate the huge gap which exists between the recommended rules of the United Nations and of Europe—they are by no means airy fairy; they are the standard rules recommended for any civilised society—and the squalid regimes as revealed in the reports.

At this late hour of two o'clock I shall be brief and limit myself to two comments. The first is about rule (b) dealing with self respect and sense of personal responsibility. I remember the Minister of State, Mr. John Patten, for whom I have great respect, saying words to the effect that prison conditions produce the ultimate in the dependency culture. What good does that do for the prisoner or for the country as a whole? I cannot refrain from making the grim observation that the expression "dependency culture" has a new and sinister connotation in view of the epidemic of suicide by hanging engendered by impoverished regimes revealed by Judge Tumim.

Secondly, in previous reports, in these reports and, I am sure, in future reports, Judge Tumim finds that overcrowding is the root cause of the impoverished regimes. Accordingly, I welcome the Criminal Justice Bill which should go some way towards reducing the prison population. However, a far more radical attack should be mounted on reducing the number of people in prison. There is a good case for saying that about 75 per cent. of the prison population could be treated outside prison to the great advantage of the country. I should be prepared to substantiate that perhaps in a subsequent debate on the number of people in prison. That would also be of great advantage to the prisoners and the residual 25 per cent. who must be locked up for the protection of society. Then the prison regimes for the residual 25 per cent. could be radically improved.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, spoke about those who are mentally afflicted in one way or another. It is widely recognised that there are many other people who should not be in prison. I am glad that the new Home Secretary appears to be sympathetic to that point of view and has made remarks about sexual offenders with which I agree. At any rate, I believe that we shall not achieve that or anything like it unless there is a kind of mission statement on the reduction of prison numbers by the responsible Minister who is, of course, the Secretary of State, as called for by Judge Tumim in respect of one of the prisons under review. Nothing less than a mission statement and action following it will do.

I conclude that the improvement of those impoverished regimes in prison can only go hand in hand with an all-out attack on the numbers of those sent to prison. Earlier this year, but not in this Session, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, said in this House, in his unique style, that prison, is an expensive method of warehousing people". Prison is expensive in many more respects than mere cash terms, as we learn so vividly from Judge Tumim's stark reports. I commend those reports to the noble and learned Lord and to his brethren on the Bench, both the higher and lower judiciary, for Christmas reading. After all, it is they who send people to those impoverished regimes.

2.15 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, once again the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has asked the House to consider the state of Her Majesty's prisons. Although we have been through this exercise, sadly, on many previous occasions, we feel that this time the need for the reforms that we have continually pressed the Government to undertake is rendered more urgent because of the devastating indictments contained in not one but two reports from Judge Stephen Tumim—one on Leeds and the other on Brixton—and today the overall condemnation conveyed by the inquiry into prison deaths.

The noble Lord, Lord Henderson, made the point that we now have a strong position to present to the Minister who, I know, has always been sympathetic. Previously, he has been unable to agree to any of the suggestions which have been put forward. We hope that he may be able to do so today.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, my noble friend Lord Longford, and the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, have pointed to parts of the reports which they found of greatest significance. I shall not follow them on that. However, I should like to pick out one or two points and ask the Minister one or two questions.

We must ask the Minister to comment on the chief inspector's two main recommendations on Leeds prison: first, that remand prisoners under the age of 21 should no longer be sent to B Wing of Armley Prison; and secondly, that a task force be set up to improve the regime of the whole prison and that his recommendations should be properly financed. My noble friend Lord Longford made the very important point that any recommendations accepted by the Government must include an assurance that the funds will be provided to put into effect such recommendations.

It seems to me surprising that the report carried out by the chief inspector on 4th to 8th December 1989 should not have been published until 6th December 1990. I do not understand the reason for that. Perhaps the Minister can help.

Young offenders are energetic and in particular need of occupation and exercise. When one reads of the conditions in which they are held and also having heard the noble Lord, Lord Harris, quote the description given, one wonders why there are not more incidents of suicide and self harm in such an establishment. I am sure that one should give credit to the prison officers who spend a lot of time helping young people who are going through very traumatic periods in their lives. We should recognise that. The chief inspector's report also said that the original Fresh Start deployment arrangements were now in need of amendment. As all staff associations reported morale problems—meaning low morale among their members—Judge Tumim suggested that more effort should be made to use the Whitley machinery to consult staff regarding changes in the prison. That again would seem to be important.

I thought it was very worrying to see that, although the workshops were of good quality, they were grossly underused. The report suggested that more financial incentive should be given to encourage inmates to work. I have often spoken on the subject of the remuneration scale in our prisons, which compares ludicrously to the remuneration given in prisons in neighbouring countries in Western Europe. They decided that it was important to provide higher wages so that prisoners could feel not only that there was some point in working, but also could help their families at home. We are light years away from that.

As the noble Lord, Lord Harris mentioned, I too was struck by the recommendation regarding censoring. Arrangements for censoring are about to be centralised. We felt that there was an overwhelming common sense case for a radical reduction in censoring. The present limitations on convicted prisoners' use of letters should be removed. I cannot see the point of prison officers spending a lot of time on that. It must also be an unnecessary aggravation to prisoners to know that every word written has been read.

The Prison Officers Association felt that it had been running a campaign for many years to have young prisoners removed from Armley. Therefore the association endorsed the recommendation of Judge Tumim It felt that overcrowding should be reduced and regime enhancement was necessary. Again, it was in agreement with a great deal of the report on Leeds Prison. It also brought up the point of why the completed report was left to gather dust for so long before being published. That is a point I have already made.

Perhaps I may briefly refer to the report on Brixton. One noticed immediately the very strong headlines to which the report gave rise. There were headlines such as, "A scandal which must be stopped", "Intolerable", and other strong condemnations. Both the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and my noble friend Lord Longford spoke of the F wing. I shall not repeat what they said, but I should like to ask the Minister a question which I believe to be of importance. I hope that he will reply.

I remember in the mid-1980s, when the situation in C1 unit of Holloway was considered to be intolerable, a group was set up to monitor the situation and the conditions there. That improved the conditions of the unit, which I visited recently, out of all comparison. That was not easy. Perhaps the Minister would consider assembling a group of interested experts to provide continuous advice on reforming the conditions in the F wing of Brixton Prison. If it had the same effect there, it would be very encouraging.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Harris, in regard to the tare in the community programme. It was at Holloway that the resident psychiatrist told me how he and his colleagues were beginning to realise that in Holloway they were treating the very same women as in previous years they had treated in a psychiatric institution. Again, one wonders what we are after. Are we moving people who have mental disturbances from one place to another to treat them? I suggest that prison is the last place in which such people should be treated.

Looking quickly through the conclusions and recommendations, it is clear that Brixton as a building is hopelessly inadequate. The report states: The site is cramped, most buildings are old, prisoners are overcrowded and facilities for inmates and staff hardly exist. There is no room, physical or financial, for manoeuvre or discretion. As the inmates observed … slopping out, perverse meal-times, unhygienic accommodation and inadequate kit made a poor life. There was no Education Centre or Gymnasium for them and access to the Library was irregular. Visits were short and the visits area grubby. Even the working group of sentenced inmates received minimal facilities and help. All that points to the fact that as a building and a regime there is very little to be said.

The conclusions on the medical unit have already been referred to, but again I ask the Minister whether he has a view on the proposal which my honourable and right honourable friends in another place have outlined. They are tabling an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill which will put an obligation on the courts to obtain a psychiatric report on all persons suspected of having a mental condition. Again, that is one possible way of preventing so many mentally disordered prisoners in F wing.

I refer now to Recommendation 6.08 which states that the staff complement should be fully met. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that. I also refer to Recommendation 6.09 which states that the proportion of the members of the Board of Visitors drawn from the local community should be increased. I should be grateful if the Minister could perhaps also comment on that recommendation.

I also note the recommendation that the visitors' centre should be replaced and that the addition of an advice centre should be considered. The shelters outside the centre also appear to be inadequate. I have always felt that it is wrong for us to punish the families of prisoners as well as the prisoners themselves. The conditions in which mothers and children have to wait in order to see their relatives can be heartbreaking.

I know that we are not debating Judge Tumim's inquiry into the suicides, but when reading the Independent this morning I noticed a significant quotation. The inquiry report says that Home Office guidance to prisons on how to stop men killing themselves: fails to give weight to the need to sustain people during their time in custody". It is not a matter of removing the means of a prisoner to take his life but removing the reasons why the prisoner feels he must take his life.

There are many more points that could be made but I shall not detain the House any further except to say that after all the years I have spoken in this House about prison reform I feel that at last there is perhaps a slight light at the end of the tunnel. We have been asking for these reforms for a long time and what the new Home Secretary is reported to have said gives one some hope. If the Government make the changes which we so ardently wish to see, I believe a great deal of credit will go to Judge Tumim for his professionalism, honesty and courage. I am sure that all of us who are interested in seeing some change in our penal system and in our prisons are extremely grateful to him.

2.30 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the House will again be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for raising this subject today even though it is the last business before your Lordships get on your proverbial sledges. He is quite right to bring these matters to our attention. He does so with a degree of forthrightness which is characteristic of him. He is right to raise these issues because they are very important matters about which we are all concerned. The Government are concerned, and they struggle hard to deal with them.

A great many improvements have been made to the prison system and many more need to be made. I am the first to recognise that. The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, said that requests had been made for things to be done for so long that she hoped that something would now happen. I am sure that she would not wish to insinuate in any way that not a great deal has happened, because it has. A great deal is happening. The Criminal Justice Bill that is coming forward is concerned with the possibility of sentencing people within the community in order to keep them out of prison. A very great deal of money has been spent on prison buildings: more needs to be spent. A great deal is being done.

We are presented with a situation which is not necessarily to the liking of the Government of the day but is one to which they have a responsibility to react and do their best to put right. In the delightful manner which he always produces, the noble Earl, Long Longford, said that he had prepared a long speech which I believe he said would take two hours. However, he said that it was unnecessary for him to divest himself of the whole speech because his noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs was going to make a speech which relieved him of the necessity. I congratulate her on the fact that she did not take two hours to divest herself of the speech. I am in a difficult position. Like the noble Earl, I prepared a speech. But there was no means by which anyone else could remove the obligation from me to make that speech. However, I can assure your Lordships that I shall not speak for two hours.

At the outset I wish to say that we attach importance to the reports which we receive. His Honour Judge Tumim has presented two or three forthright reports recently, all of which raise matters of concern. The Government are most concerned to try to deal with them. We take the criticisms very seriously. Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons is characteristically forthright in his views. The reports are critical of serious shortcomings in both the prisons. Nobody likes criticism, and the Government are in the same position. We intend to deal with that criticism as best we can. We have identified a range of matters where improvements are required.

I can assure your Lordships that strenuous efforts have been, and will continue to be, made in order to improve the quality of life for the inmates of these prisons. A formal response to each of the reports has been published and laid in the Library. The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, asked why the Government have taken so long to respond to the report on Leeds Prison. The report on that prison was submitted at the end of March. The response made by my right honourable friend took longer than usual. That was mainly due to the wide-ranging nature of the report which included 165 recommendations—a tremendous number. A number of those envisaged major changes in the physical conditions at Leeds Prison and its regime which required extensive consultation between the prison service headquarters, the then regional director and the prison governor.

In publishing their responses my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and his predecessor accepted frankly and openly how much needs to be done at both establishments. That does not mean that we underestimate for one moment the work already taking place at the prisons. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, was generous enough to recognise the work already done by a very dedicated staff who work in difficult and overcrowded conditions which all of us would prefer not to see. The work that they do is remarkable, and together with the noble Lord, Lord Harris, I pay tribute to them.

The publication of the responses is only one step in a continuing process. That process entails the implementation of prison service plans to reduce overcrowding; increasing the proportion of cells with integral sanitation or with access to night sanitation; extending the regime opportunities and completing and consolidating improvements in management and staff performance.

Responding to an inspectorate report provides an occasion for reviewing and reassessing the plans which are in hand. Perhaps I may refer to the buildings first, because it is a major item which always crops up. A major development of Leeds Prison is under way. It will cost more than £60 million. Work is starting very shortly on installing showers in each wing of the prison which should be completed by next March. The reception area has been redecorated and ventilation is being improved. The overriding priority, however, has been to press ahead with new buildings which will provide accommodation for more than 500 prisoners. These buildings will be ready late in 1992. When they are ready, inmates will be transferred to them and work can start on improving the existing wings.

Brixton is a very busy prison on a cramped and congested site. The installation of integral sanitation work is now well in hand. By next April, work will be completed on A wing. Drainage work is already under way in preparation for work on other wings. Ways of accelerating the programme will be reviewed when new accommodation becomes available elsewhere in London. As the chief inspector recognised, reductions in the prison population at these two prisons will open the way to further improvements. He recommended in particular that young men under 21 years of age should not be held at Leeds Prison.

No prison should be viewed on its own. In July my right honourable friend announced proposals for changes to the prison estate. These were intended to take account of changes to the prison population and especially the fall in the number of young offenders in custody. Where custody cannot be avoided, maximum use is made of the Mental Health Act to transfer to hospital those mentally disturbed inmates who require hospital treatment.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, asked how the prison service is responding to the taskforce recommendation. In the period since the inspection the amount of structured regime activity for convicted inmates at Leeds has been increased significantly. The head of inmate activities post has been upgraded. At prison service headquarters the relevant area manager has been charged with raising the number of hours of structured activity at Leeds, taking forward the concerted approach to these matters which was recommended by the inspectors, with the authority and under the direct supervision of the relevant operational director of the new organisation. In that way the objective of the recommendation that there should be a task force for improving the regime will be met.

With regard to young prisoners, my right honourable friend announced proposals for changes to the prison estate. They provided an opportunity to improve conditions in which young offenders are held, especially those who are on remand in local prisons. The Home Secretary has concluded that from the second half of next year these young prisoners will be held at a new establishment—Moorland, near Doncaster—which will have modern accommodation and the opportunity for much better regime provision than before.

In London the opening of two new prisons in the London area —at Belmarsh in Woolwich in April 1991 and at Highdown in Surrey in 1992—will go a long way to alleviate the problem of overcrowding at Brixton, together with the redesignation of the Mount at Hemel Hempstead as a Category C prison for adult males. These measures will greatly reduce overcrowding in all the London prisons. In fact the population of Brixton will be fixed at a maximum of 900, as opposed to the 1,080 it is now. We hope that that will take place from about April onwards.

Of course the work of the prison service cannot be judged in isolation from the Government's criminal justice strategy. Last week we had a debate on the Motion of my noble friend Lord Elton in connection with sentencing policy which touched on questions of overcrowding, the development of community penalties and the diversion of mentally disordered offenders from prison custody. That too is one of the ways in which the Government are addressing these very serious matters.

It is in part a response to the critical reports from Her Majesty's Inspectorate. There are a very large number of mentally disturbed people held in the hospital at Brixton. I readily recognise that the prison service is obliged to help people who are remanded in custody by the courts and it is the function of Brixton to deal with those who are awaiting trial. Mentally disordered offenders should not be put into prison, and when I say that I know that I shall take with me the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs. Mentally disordered persons should not be put into prison and they ought to be diverted from the criminal justice system—

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, the noble Earl has been kind about me and I feel I ought not to interrupt him, but there is one point which occurs to me. I understood him to say that it was intended that Brixton should hold 900 in future. In the report in front of me it says that the prison has certified normal accommodation for 729 inmates.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that is perfectly true. The certified normal accommodation would be that, but the fact is that it is necessary at the moment for the population to be above that simply because we do not have facilities to hold all these people. That is why the population of the prison will come down from its considerable overcrowding at the moment to the lower figure; but I agree that it will still be above the CNA.

Obviously mentally disordered offenders should be diverted from the criminal justice system into the care of the health and social services, except of course when custody is necessary in the public interest. Obviously while custody cannot be avoided, maximum use has to be made of the Mental Health Act to transfer to hospital those mentally disturbed inmates who require treatment.

There is effective co-operation, which I think was the noble Earl's point, between the Department of Health and the Home Office over the diversion of mentally disturbed people. We are concerned to see that the co-operation should be continued and built upon because the requirements of mentally disordered people are different from those who are basically criminals.

The United Nations standard minimum rules and the European rules set standards, and the Government are committed to working towards them. In fact we are nearer to achieving them, I think, than most other countries. Brixton is certainly heavily used by the courts for the purpose of assessing the mental health of defendants. Some 2,500 psychiatric reports are prepared for the courts annually by Brixton's medical officers. That is a tremendous amount: over one-third of the national total.

One immediate difficulty with the chief inspector's recommendation that part of the Brixton Hospital should be approved under the Mental Health Act 1983 is that it could risk encouraging courts to send more mentally disturbed offenders to prison, which I think none of your Lordships would want. It would run directly counter to the clearly enunciated government policy on the diversion of those prisoners to the care of the health or social services.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, asked about the training provided for nurses in prison hospitals compared with that in psychiatric hospitals. I am grateful to him for the courtesy he showed in letting me know that he would raise that matter. NHS registered psychiatric nurses receive three years' training. Prison hospital officers receive six months' basic training, but the prison service is seeking to increase the opportunities for staff to take additional English Nursing Board courses and is aiming to recruit extra qualified civilian nurses. That is in line with the recommendation of the recent efficiency scrutiny of the prison medical service which recommended that more nurse-qualified personnel should be involved. Ministers will shortly be looking at how best to implement that recommendation.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, was worried about the censorship of the correspondence from potentially suicidal people. A pilot scheme was run earlier this year to reduce the routine censorship of category B dispersal prisoners. That included Leeds, and the Government are studying the result to see whether the arrangements can be extended to similar prisons. He also referred to the fact that people spend hours in cells furnished with nothing other than a bed and a basin. Where people are suicidal, it is sometimes necessary that they should sometimes be in unfurnished cells. Our clear policy is that that is justified as a last resort only where there is an immediate risk of serious self injury. Even then, it is vital to provide as much stimulation and human contact as possible. I agree with the noble Lord that if people are confined to their cells for a long time with nothing to do and nothing to look at, that can have a deleterious effect on their general disposition.

A working group has been established to consider the recommendation, a point about which the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, was concerned. It will bring in outside advice. The Department of Health is represented on the group, which will be assisted by an independent consultant and chaired by the Director of Prison Medical Services. It has its first meeting today.

I come now to the point which has worried most noble Lords because of the most recent report on suicides by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons. There is great anxiety about suicides. It is an anxiety which has been expressed by noble Lords on all sides of the House today, and it is one which the Government share. Any suicide is a desperately sad event for the inmate's family, the prison staff and the other inmates. It is all the more tragic when the victim is still a young person.

One must recognise that however much we try and try we must—we cannot hope to eliminate suicide in prison, any more than we can in the world outside where unfortunately suicide by young people has become more common. The person who is determined to kill himself will somehow find a way to do so. We must try to create a climate in our prisons which counters suicidal feeling. We must back that up by effective prevention measures. Considerable efforts have been made at Leeds Prison to achieve that, and those efforts continue under the present governor. A number of specific measures were taken following an investigation by the then Deputy Director General of the Prison Service into conditions in the young offender wing.

First, as at Brixton, a suicide prevention management group has been established with representatives from all key departments in the prison. The group meets regularly and plays an increasingly active role. It has recently started to review every incident of self-injury in the prison. The aim is to see what lessons can be learnt and to ensure that the necessary support is given to the inmate concerned.

The second initiative is the training of staff. Relationships between inmates and staff are absolutely crucial. We hope to identify those who may be at risk and then to support them through their suicidal crisis. Prison staff themselves need extra training in order to develop the skills required. An excellent course has been developed for both the new entrant and serving prison officers. I am glad to say that over the past year or so the majority of the staff at Leeds have been able to attend the course. At Brixton priority is given to those staff who are in daily contact with inmates.

Since the distressing deaths of five young men at Leeds nearly two years ago, there have been two further deaths at Leeds. There have been five this year at Brixton Prison. That is far too many, as everyone would accept.

At Brixton, where the chief inspector criticised the design of cells, work has been put in hand to change the construction of windows in cells which may hold potentially suicidal inmates. So far 50 have been altered and the work will be completed by July 1991. At the same time arrangements are being made to provide easier access to the Samaritans and to facilitate contact with families.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, referred to race relations. He said that he had heard about racist attitudes not just from the staff but from people outside. Racism in all its forms is totally unacceptable, whether in the prison service, the police service or any other branch of government. We have made determined efforts and efforts are being made to implement the service's race relations policy. Every governor has to appoint a race relations officer and to establish a race relations management team. This has been done at Brixton where the team has developed contacts not just within the prison but, more important, outside with embassies and community groups. It has arranged further training for staff.

The noble Lord was also worried about lunchtime drinking by staff. I know that there is pretty persuasive anecdotal evidence of the adverse effects of drinking by staff. They need to be alert at all times and much can be achieved by encouragement and persuasion. The service's occupational health programme offers counselling and support where that proves necessary. However, if necessary, disciplinary action has been and can be taken. It was taken recently against two members of staff.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, was also concerned about the wearing of insignia. He asked what I would have done in the Coldstream Guards, in which I had the privilege of serving for a short while, and whether I put insignia on my arms. No doubt I should have found my way into the guardroom at a pretty good rate of knots. However, I also remember the fashion for having a slash in one's cap, which was considered to be smart. That also was much frowned upon by the authorities—for different reasons, no doubt, than that for which the slashing of caps by prison officers is frowned upon by the authorities.

The slashing of peaks is unacceptable. A code of discipline for prison officers includes a specific disciplinary offence of wilful or negligent damage to clothing which is entrusted to officers. Earlier in the year an instruction was issued prohibiting the wearing of unofficial insignia, with one or two exceptions. They were for such things as professional nursing badges and Butler Trust badges. Slashing has been entirely eliminated at Leeds.

Governors are encouraged to take disciplinary action for disobedience of orders against any officer who persistently continues to slash his cap or to wear unofficial insignia, whether obviously or in some discreet way. Staff at Brixton and Leeds have been specifically reminded of the terms of the headquarters guidance. The inspection reports which have been the matter of discussion by your Lordships this afternoon have identified how much still needs to be done to improve conditions at Leeds and Brixton. We are aware of the situation. However, the reports rightly pay tribute, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and I did earlier, to the staff at both prisons. The area managers and the operational directors who will be closely involved in following up the recommendations of the reports, are determined to ensure that the shortcomings found by the chief inspector will be overcome. The responses received from the Home Secretary, which were published with the reports, indicated what is already being done and what is planned. The changes of role for other establishments and the achievements of the building and refurbishment programme will all help to improve conditions.

Together with the changes in the criminal justice strategy, to which I referred in my opening remarks, and the sentencing policy which the Government are pursuing, prisons ought to become less oppressive places and ones which are less given to the furtherance of crime. That is what we all want and that is the aim towards which we work. Such opportunities are opening up the possibility for the plans of the prison service to become more of a reality. It is to be hoped that these will be realised. However, this is a constant path along which we must walk and it will take a little time. Nevertheless, those are our intentions.

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