HL Deb 08 November 1990 vol 523 cc19-35

Debate resumed on the Motion moved yesterday by Lord Kimball—namely, That a humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:

"Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament".

3.12 pm
The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, today we are to debate home, health and social affairs in the context of the gracious Speech. The measures which the Government will be putting before Parliament in these areas will touch the lives of many of our fellow citizens. The subjects are therefore wide-ranging and important.

But I am afraid I must start with an apology. I shall listen with interest to as much of the debate as I can but I am afraid that I have a number of engagements this evening which will mean that I shall have to leave, I anticipate, before the end of the debate. I hope your Lordships will be kind enough to excuse me.

It is a pleasure to begin my remarks by endorsing all that has been said about the two distinguished speeches which the House heard yesterday from the movers of the humble Address to Her Majesty.

My noble friend Lord Kimball was resplendent in the uniform of the Leicestershire and Derbyshire Yeomanry, while the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, was equally resplendent in his court dress. I can assure the noble Earl that court dress becomes more comfortable the more often it is worn.

Both my noble friends expressed their interest in, and concern for, the countryside. My own thanks are particularly due to my noble friend Lord Kimball for this as he has in the past employed one of my cousins as a shepherd at Achness on Strathnaver. I am sure that everyone present in the House was very pleased to be addressed by my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury, thus forestalling the emergence of a tradition of silence on the part of his family. The noble Earl referred to his work and that of the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, in the Midlands. I too can testify to the regeneration of our cities there from a recent visit I paid to Wolverhampton to open the new combined court centre, a distinguished building appropriate to the task of dispensing justice in that important part of our country. Together the two speeches provided an admirable opening to our discussions on the gracious Speech.

The legislative programme which Her Majesty's Government intend to put before Parliament will continue to build on the foundations laid in earlier parliamentary Sessions. Two particular themes underlie the measures being introduced; first, the Government's continuing commitment to improving the quality of life of their citizens in all its aspects, and, secondly, the furtherance of policies that confirm the importance of the family.

The first of these themes can be seen in the Government's intention to bring forward a Bill for England and Wales to deal with the sentencing of offenders and to strengthen the parole system. This will be the Criminal Justice Bill. The Bill will implement the proposals in the White Paper Crime, Justice and Protecting the Public, which was published in February this year, and other provisions related to the treatment of offenders. The Home Office received comments on the proposals from a wide range of organisations and individuals, and these have been fully considered in preparing the Criminal Justice Bill. I hope your Lordships will understand that I do not feel able to go into great detail about the Bill's contents in advance of its publication. This afternoon I intend to restrict myself to the issues of sentencing and parole.

I turn first to the sentencing of offenders. The White Paper proposed a coherent statutory framework for sentencing based on the seriousness of the offence, with each offender receiving his or her "just deserts". The sentence meted out to offenders should reflect the seriousness of the particular offence or offences of which they have been convicted whether that sentence is a financial penalty, a community penalty or a custodial sentence. There should be longer prison sentences for serious and violent crimes where this is necessary to protect the public from serious harm from the offender. The Bill will implement this general framework.

At present, the great majority of offenders are fined. We intend to go ahead with the White Paper's proposal for a system of "unit fines" which would relate the fine in any particular case to an offender's ability to pay. There have been successful pilot experiments in four magistrates' courts on the unit fines scheme. The idea behind it is that courts will take into account both the seriousness of the offence and the offender's disposable weekly income in setting the amount of the fine. Poorer offenders will pay less than the ones who are better off under the scheme, but the fine is intended to make similar demands on each. In this way the fairness of different penalties imposed upon different people for the same offence can more easily be tested. The system will help the courts set fines at a realistic level for each offender; this in turn should ensure that more fines are paid and reduce the incidence of imprisonment for fine default.

If the offence requires more than a fine by way of punishment, the courts will be able to impose a sentence of punishment in the community. In line with the White Paper's proposals, the courts will have a wider range of community penalties from which to choose. These will be backed up by national standards for probation supervision, and clear arrangements for enforcement. As the White Paper proposed, the probation order will become a sentence of the court, reflecting its increasing use for rather more serious and persistent offenders. It will be possible to combine the probation order with other disposals, including the fine. The courts will be able to impose a combined probation and community service order in cases where this seems the most suitable punishment. We think this may be particularly suitable for a number of persistent property offenders. Your Lordships will not be surprised to learn that we intend to go ahead with the curfew order to be enforced by electronic monitoring. The pilot projects carried out in three areas demonstrated that electronic monitoring was technically viable.

Custody will remain the ultimate sanction for serious offences. Crimes of sex and violence will attract longer sentences within the statutory maxi-mum than the seriousness of the offences themselves might suggest if this is necessary to protect the public from serious harm. But the courts should not be sending to prison those relatively minor offenders whose crimes do not justify a prison sentence. In line with the White Paper's proposals the courts will have to be satisfied that the seriousness of the offence justifies a custodial sentence. They will have to consider a pre-sentence report before passing a custodial sentence for all except the most serious offence. These reports, which will be prepared by the probation service, will provide information on a community penalty that could be provided for the offender if the court so decided. If the courts do sentence offenders to custody in these cases we think that they should also give their reasons for doing so. The purpose of these restrictions is not to fetter the courts' sentencing discretion but to provide a clearer focus on the seriousness of the offence and to provide the courts with better information about the best way to deal with the offender.

The Bill will also reform the parole system. It will implement the proposals in Chapter 6 of the White Paper, which itself followed many of the recommenda-tions of the committee under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Carlisle of Bucklow. The changes that we intend to bring forward will give more meaning to the sentence passed by the courts. At present, many prisoners are eligible for release on parole after serving only one-third of their sentence. In future, all prisoners will serve at least half the sentence and some will serve more than half. All prisoners serving a year or more will be supervised on release in accordance with national standards aimed at protecting the public, preventing reoffending and reintegrating the offender into the community. In effect, offenders will be under sentence for the whole of the sentence passed by the courts, although part of the sentence towards the end will be served in the community. Those who do reoffend before the original sentence has expired will be liable to be returned to prison to serve out the rest of their sentence.

The Bill, and the White Paper on which it is based, mark the culmination of a long process of discussion and consultation. It is intended to mark a very significant and constructive development in the way the criminal justice system deals with offenders. I am sure that your Lordships will subject it to close and detailed scrutiny when it reaches this House.

I mentioned earlier that the Government intend to bring forward proposals in furtherance of their support for the family. These proposals will focus on parental responsibilities and in particular on improving the quality of life of children who are separated from either of their natural parents.

Your Lordships will recall that on 29th October I made a Statement, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security made a corresponding Statement in another place, announcing the publication of our White Paper, Children Come First, produced jointly by us and by my noble and learned friend the Lord Advocate, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Your Lordships will know that we are embarked on a wide-ranging review of all aspects of family law. The guiding principles of that review are the rights of the child and the responsibility of the parents. Our proposals on child maintenance are wholly consistent with those priorities. They rest on the principle that every child has the right to care from his or her parents even if the parents' own relationship has broken down. That is why we propose a new system to make the assessing, collecting and enforcing of maintenance payments more consistent, more accessible and more speedy.

The Child Maintenance Bill will make legislative provision for the key features of the new system. It will clearly establish that parents are liable to maintain their children. It will provide for child maintenance to be assessed by a simple and consistent formula. The formula will be based on the income support rates for the children being maintained. It will take account of both parents' circumstances and it will allow both parents a portion of their net income to meet essential expenses.

This formula will lend itself to being operated in a straightforward administrative way. We intend that it should be used in Department of Social Security offices and the courts from the first half of 1992. From the first half of 1993 a new Child Support Agency will be in operation as a Next Steps agency of the Department of Social Security. The agency will be responsible for the assessment, collection and enforcement of maintenance. The Child Maintenance Bill will ensure that it has the required powers. Among these will be the powers to make and estimate assessments; to obtain and verify the information needed to do so; to determine appropriate methods of payment; and to take enforcement action if necessary. It will also he necessary to provide appropriate ways of resolving disputes about any part of the process.

In addition to the Child Maintenance Bill the Government will be taking other action in the short term to strengthen the powers of the courts to ensure that maintenance which is ordered is in fact paid and received. Many maintenance debtors act responsibly but unfortunately there are too many cases in which default occurs or in which payments are made only irregularly so that arrears build up. This can cause serious problems and anxieties for people entitled to maintenance and may require them in some cases to become dependent on benefit support. The present law contains loopholes which irresponsible maintenance debtors can and do exploit. The Maintenance Enforcement Bill to be introduced in your Lordships' House seeks to block these loopholes.

The Bill will improve the existing system of collection and enforcement of maintenance for spouses as well as children by giving the High Court, county courts and the magistrates' courts the power to prescribe the method of payment and to attach earnings when making, varying or enforcing a maintenance order. The strategy is accordingly to enable the courts to anticipate and prevent default rather than as now having to wait for default to occur before having the power to act. The Bill is modest in scope but I hope your Lordships will agree that it will provide practical help to many people for whom difficulty in obtaining the maintenance due to them is an added financial and emotional burden which they should be spared. I commend these proposals to the House, confident that, most important of all, they will serve to advance the welfare of children.

The next measure that I shall mention reflects both the Government's support for the family in its widest sense and their concern to improve the quality of life for those who are disabled. The Government will tomorrow present in another place the Disability Allowance and Disability Employment Credit Bill. The measures that this Bill contains take forward the final and most important stage of the reforms announced in January this year in the White Paper, The Way Ahead: Benefits for Disabled People. It provides for the introduction of two new benefits for people with disabilities. The first—that is, the disability allowance—will provide help with the extra costs of disability for people of working age and under. It will incorporate in a single benefit the existing benefits attendance allowance and mobility allowance while extending the scope of the new benefit to nearly 300,000 disabled people who previously were unable to qualify. In so doing it will also extend access to the disablement premium in the income-related benefits.

As part of the strategy to create a simpler benefit for which only a single claim needs to be made there will be a three-month qualifying period for receipt of either component. Like attendance allowance, disability allowance will be available immediately to terminally ill claimants without need to serve any qualifying period. For those whose disability starts before the age of 65 there will be no upper limit for receiving the benefit. Attendance allowance will continue to be available to those who become disabled after that age and it will be subject to the same new adjudication process as disability allowance.

At the same time the Bill proposes a new system of assessment and adjudication. There will be a much greater reliance on claimants' assessments of their own incapacity and consequently a move away from a strictly medical viewpoint. The new adjudication system will give the right of appeal to an independent tribunal—the newly constituted Disability Appeal Tribunal—one member of which will ideally be a person with experience of the needs of disabled people.

As a result of disability allowance, spending on disabled people will increase by an estimated £230 million of which nearly one-third will go to the least well off through extended entitlement to the disablement premium in the income-related benefits. The new lowest rates will bring new help to some 140,000 disabled people with care needs and to some 150,000 with mobility problems.

The second new benefit, disability employment credit, will address, for the first time in social security, the needs of disabled people who are able to work but whose disability restricts their earning power. Those people who wish to become self sufficient through work will be given a means of doing so, while ensuring that their income exceeded what they would have received if they were not in work.

It will operate in a broadly similar way to family credit: earnings would be topped up to a level appropriate to the claimant's circumstances. Unlike family credit it will be available to childless claimants as well as to those with families. Again, the emphasis will be on self assessment: claimants will need to satisfy an adjudication officer that their disability handicaps them as regards employment. And there will be protection for those whose experiment with work was unsuccessful: provided they were still sick, they would be able to return to long-term incapacity benefits without need for a qualifying period any time up to two years after ceasing to claim that benefit.

The Bill will provide disability employment credit claimants with the same rights of appeal as disability allowance claimants, including the right of appeal to an independent tribunal. It will target some £80 million on an estimated 50,000 disabled people.

The Government plan to continue their efforts to improve quality in education. A Bill will be introduced: to establish new machinery for negotiating the pay and conditions of school teachers in England and Wales. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science, in a Statement in another place on 23rd July 1990 announced (at cols. 24–37 of Commons Hansard) the Government's decisions about future machinery for determining the pay and conditions of school teachers.

Since 1987, when the old Burnham Committee arrangements broke down, the pay of school teachers has been determined by the Government in response to recommendations by an interim advisory commit-tee. The committee has done an excellent job, but it was always recognised as a temporary arrangement.

The new School Teachers' Pay and Conditions Bill will re-establish free national negotiations between teachers and their employers under an independent chairman. There will be a time limit for the negotiators to reach agreement, failing which the Government would seek recommendations instead from an independent advisory committee broadly similar to the present IAC. This would not be arbitration: the Government will set the advisory committee a clear and specific remit. If the negotiations reached agreement within the time limit, the Government would hope normally to be able to accept their recommendations. But they would have the power to refer aspects of negotiated agreements back to the negotiators and, in the event of continuing disagreement, to substitute their own provisions on matters referred back.

The Bill will also provide for local education authorities and grant-maintained schools to apply to the Secretary of State to opt out of the national provisions governing pay and conditions where they judged they could by so doing respond better to local needs and circumstances. These arrangements will offer full and fair opportunities for negotiations between teachers and their employers, coupled with a means of resolving deadlock. They will acknowledge the interests of teachers, employers and the Government in the determination of teachers' pay.

The gracious Speech reaffirmed the Government's resolve to defeat terrorism in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill, which re-enacts, with amendment, the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Acts 1978 and 1987, has been published today. The existing Acts, which are due to expire in May 1992, were reviewed earlier this year by my noble friend Lord Colville of Culross. On the basis of his report, which provided a valuable analysis of the issues and took account of a wide range of opinion, the Government have now brought forward this amending Bill.

The Bill seeks to re-enact the main extra powers of the police and Army to deal with terrorism in Northern Ireland, the special arrangements for the trial of terrorist-type offences, and the category of offences against public safety and public order. It also seeks to re-enact the statutory rights of terrorist suspects in police custody; creates a new offence of "possession of items intended for terrorist purposes"; a new power to allow the police and armed forces to examine documents and other materials for information likely to be useful for acts of terrorism; new offences relating to the bypassing of closed border crossing points, and an enabling power to create statutory codes of practice relating to the exercise by the police and armed forces of their powers under the emergency legislation. The Bill also retains the provisions relating to the executive detention of terrorists.

With the publication of the Bill the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has issued a statement of the Government's security policy in Northern Ireland. The statement does not signal any change in Government policy, but is intended to set out the general principles within which the Bill is introduced. Copies of the statement have been placed in the Library of the House.

I now turn to two short Bills; first, the Census (Confidentiality) Bill, introduced in this House today. This will close a gap in the protection afforded by the Census Act 1920 to personal information collected in, or in connection with, censuses of population. It is designed both to extend the protection to census information once the census has been taken and to protect the confidentiality of certain census-related information. Previously, this information has had the blanket protection of Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911, now repealed. The census-related information with which we are concerned is information given voluntarily in census tests and in surveys following a census which are associated with census data.

The second of the short Bills to which I wish to refer is a Bill in which I have considerable interest. The Civil Jurisdiction and Judgments Bill to be introduced in your Lordships' House will enable the United Kingdom to ratify the 1988 Lugano Convention on jurisdiction and enforcement of judgments in civil and commercial matters, which we signed last year. The parties to the convention are the member states of the European Community and those of the European Free Trade Association.

The object of the convention is to make it easier to enforce the judgments given by the courts of each contracting state in the other contracting states. It is based very closely on the 1968 Brussels Convention, which was made solely between EC member states, and to which we gave effect by the Civil Jurisdiction and Judgments Act 1982. If ratified, the Lugano Convention will operate with the Brussels Convention to create a virtually uniform system of civil jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of civil and commercial judgments throughout Western Europe.

Finally, the War Crimes Bill will be introduced in identical terms to the Bill which was refused a Second Reading in your Lordships' House last Session. It will give British courts jursidiction over offences of murder, and manslaughter or culpable homicide, committed as war crimes in Germany or German-occupied territory during the period of the Second World War by persons who are now British citizens or resident in the United Kingdom. The Bill will provide also a procedure in England and Wales for the transfer of war crimes trials to the Crown Court without committal proceedings. In re-introducing the Bill, we shall be seeking to secure the support for it of both Houses of Parliament.

Your Lordships will have observed that a considerable amount of legislation will be brought before the House for discussion and comment although, as was noted yesterday, the burden may not be so great as in previous Sessions. I look forward to the usual level of informed debate which characterises this House and my colleagues and I shall be most interested in what your Lordships have to say on the Government's programme. I particularly look forward to the contributions today of our three maiden speakers.

For my part, I believe that we have an exciting programme carrying forward policies which will create very important benefits for our people and I feel it therefore a privilege to have the opportunity of describing it to your Lordships, so far as it relates to the subjects we are today considering.

3.40 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, when I had the pleasure a year or so ago of speaking following the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack, I said to him that he had immediately earned the respect of the whole House. A year later I add—I know I speak also for your Lordships—that he has earned the very deep regard of the House. I ask only one favour of him, and again I do it on behalf of the whole House—that is, please do not resign! It is over the days of the debate on the Address that we in this House consider the state of the nation. We cover wide subjects affecting every part of our national life. In a speech concerning home and social affairs it is difficult to concentrate on more than one or two subjects. Therefore I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I deal only with law and order and our prison system, and my noble friend Lord Carter, apart from other matters of social interest, will deal with education and the measures regarding child maintenance to which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor referred.

I often wonder whether, in order to establish the fundamental principle of the constitutional neutrality of the Sovereign, it would be a good idea at the end or just after one dealt with that all-embracing phrase, "such other matters or measures as may be introduced in the coming Session", if Her Majesty added "and after this Speech my loyal Opposition has the following comments to make". At least it would add pertinent and picturesque language to the gracious Speech. Regarding the aspects of law and order and prisons, I am attempting to make observations that Her Majesty's loyal Opposition wish to make.

It is a fact that the White Paper, Crime, Justice and Protecting the Public, to which the noble and learned Lord referred, contains many items with which all of us, certainly on these Benches, agree. In so far as the new Criminal Justice Bill which is to be brought before us follows the lines of that White Paper, we on these Benches will certainly be giving it at the very least qualified support; and I hope we shall be bringing before the House constructive amendments.

There are many useful items in the White Paper. The noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack referred to them. It considers the question of making statutory requirements before a custodial sentence is given; the matter of ensuring that proper social reports are in front of the sentencing judge or are available before a custodial sentence is awarded. They are important and vital measures and we shall support them. Unfortunately, in regard to law and order generally, we must deal with matters of grave concern to the whole of the nation.

In the gracious Speech last year the following words occurred: My Government will vigorously pursue their policies for reducing crime".—[Official Report, 21/11/89; col. 3.] Noble Lords may have noticed that there is a verbal variation in the gracious Speech this year. It reads: My Government will vigorously pursue their policies in fighting crime".—[Official Report, 7/11/90; col. 3.] The reason for the difference is all too apparent. The promise of last year that crime in this nation of ours would be reduced has unfortunately by no means been fulfilled. Crime has not been reduced; it has been increased.

I read to your Lordships from the Home Office Statistical Bulletin, which tells this story: In the second quarter of 1990 the police recorded 1,113,000 offences, 17 per cent. more than in the second quarter of 1989… In view of the considerable variations to which quarterly figures are subject, a more stable basis on which to assess changes is provided by comparisons of figures for the two most recent twelve month periods. In the twelve months to the end of June 1990, 4.2 million offences were recorded; this was 466,000 or 13 per cent. more than in the previous twelve months. The annual average increase between 1980 and 1989 was 5 per cent. There is concern in the nation, and rightly so. I shall try very humbly to point to a few of the issues which the House should be considering most seriously in its wonderment as to the cause for that increase in recorded crime. The figures are the worst in our history.

I wonder whether noble Lords will agree that one cause—I cannot mention all of them; I cannot even analyse all of them although I have tried to do so—is the loss of the sense of community that we once had. I wonder whether noble Lords would also agree that we, as a nation, have lost some of our sense of values.

Much of our youth and many of our ethnic minorities believe that our current social system is not a just one. Many people think that the number of those who have, and immensely have, without having made a commensurate contribution to our national well-being, are too many; and that the number of those who have not, and so substantially have not and are living in poverty, are also too many. That division in our society, which is so stark, builds a belief that our social structure is not a just one.

I turn now to the second issue: crime and criminals —why the increase? I say at once that our prisons create contempt for authority by their inmates. That is a very serious comment to make. I say as well—but here I know I have some support from government sources—that our prisons are a university for crime. Those are the words used by the right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary only a few weeks ago. I agree with him.

The recidivist rate speaks for itself. So many of those who leave prison return all too soon. It is not difficult to see the reason why. As recently as 6th November, this week, The Times newspaper, under the heading, 'Scandalous' jail unfit for under-21s", reported on what Judge Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, found when he and his other inspectors visited Armley gaol in Leeds. In sheer conscience, this House must consider the following words with all the seriousness that they deserve if we wish to regard ourselves, as all of us do, as proud members of a civilised nation. I quote: A team of inspectors visited Armley in December last year after a spate of suicides and self-mutilations in the infamous B wing, which houses prisoners aged under 21. The team was appalled by what it found, though it recognised the dedication staff displayed in attempting to supervise humanely 1,170 prisoners in a jail built to house only 640. There has been no easing of overcrowding since then. The report concludes that conditions are wholly unacceptable for all prisoners at Armley, but says that regimes for young remand inmates, maximum security prisoners and offenders segregated for their own protection are even worse. While all prisoners stayed too long in their cells, category A prisoners were barred completely from the gym and education classes and young remand inmates were allowed 'association', a period to relax out of their cells with fellow inmates, for only two hours every third day. Only one cell at Armley has a toilet. The inspectorate was so alarmed by the regime on B wing, the subject of repeated criticism by penal reformers, that it considered the only long-term solution was for the Home Office to abolish custodial remands to Armley for offenders aged under 21". Behind that miserable, wretched, dishonouring report is the toll of six suicides by teenagers over the past two years in Armley gaol.

If one leaves this purely and simply at Armley gaol one is unfortunately doing an injustice to the rest of our prison service. NACRO—that well worthwhile organisation that looks after offenders—pointed out in a report made only in September last that over 13,000 prisoners in England and Wales are held two or three to a cell built for one; that on present trends 7,000 prisoners will still be slopping out at the end of the century; that a full day's work or education, is available to only a minority of prisoners"; and that in many prisons remand prisoners are not kept separate from convicted prisoners.

NACRO goes on to point out, to our national shame, that many countries such as Austria, Belgium, Spain, Denmark, France, West Germany, Greece, Ireland and the Netherlands have incorporated the European Prison Rules in their domestic law. Prisoners can therefore rely on them in support of a complaint. However, and I quote: this country has neither incorporated the European Prison Rules in its legislation nor enacted its own minimum standards". I go on to say this. Remand prisoners, most of whom are not in fact given custodial sentences and many of whom are acquitted, form about one-in-five of the present inmates in our prisons and are suffering these conditions. In quoting the Home Secretary I referred to a "university for crime". What else can one expect but contempt for the establishment and contempt for our society that allows such conditions to exist? Is it a wonder that the recidivist rate is as high as it is? What is done in order to try to rehabilitate? Your Lordships will be shattered to learn, as I am telling your Lordships now on authority, that very little training and education are taking place in our prisons; that very little rehabilitation work is done when the inmates leave prison; and that there is very, very little chance of employment being obtained.

One aspect of legislation that we must consider is to bring up to date the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act and also to ensure that our probationary service is enlarged and strengthened so that it can do a really good job of rehabilitation and guidance.

I wonder whether we cannot, all of us, regardless of party, decide that in our national honour further legislation must be passed as soon as possible. There is nothing in the gracious Speech. If the present Government cannot do it, I promise that a Labour government will do so. We must have a statutory code of minimum standards for our prisons. We must have an end to the absurdity of Crown immunity in regard to our prisons and the conditions that exist in them. We must have a prison ombudsman to see that complaints are dealt with by an independent authority. We must endeavour to deal with all these matters not in order to satisfy ourselves that we have been just—that is obviously a principle that guides every one of us—but to ensure that our social fabric is not undermined.

We must do that because of our national honour. We on these Benches say this to the Government: we would be anxious to co-operate if the present Government will do what I have sought humbly to suggest they should do in order to rid ourselves of this blot on our name and reputation. I repeat, if the Government do not do that, we will.

4 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I agree with the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor when he says how much we are looking forward to hearing the maiden speakers this afternoon. I propose to deal primarily with questions involving the administration of justice. My noble friend Lord Russell will deal with the other matters which are the subject of today's debate.

Both the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, have referred to the forthcoming Criminal Justice Bill. On many of the issues covered in that Bill, and here I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, we are at one with the Government in their central objective of finding sensible and meaningful alternatives to custody. We share their approach entirely. No doubt there will be some matters on which differences will emerge. I hope however that there will be a reasonable degree of bipartisanship. If so I welcome it. Nothing is more foolish than to attempt to create bogus differences between government and opposition parties on criminal justice issues. To suggest, as is unfortunately sometimes the case, that one party rather than another can be trusted to protect the public from the ravages of criminals is absurd. No one can even agree as to what causes people to turn to crime or why crime rises in one particular year, as is happening at the moment, and falls in another.

The influence of politicians in these matters is clearly negligible. Even though this may be the last gracious Speech before a general election, I hope that we shall do our best—I am sure that this House will —to limit rather than to widen our differences. But that imposes on the Government an obligation to listen seriously to constructive criticism of their proposals when the Bill reaches this House and to amend them when a reasonable case is made out. Unhappily, that has not always been the approach in the past: I hope very much that it will be on this occasion.

I propose to deal with three matters, all involving the administration of justice: first, the quality of the service that we are providing in our criminal justice system; secondly, the question of industrial relations in the prisons; and, thirdly, the Colin Wallace affair. As to the quality of the service provided in our criminal justice system, the Government will tell us that they have carried through a major prison building programme and that they have substantially increased the size of the police force. Both claims are entirely justified although the rise in police numbers has hardly kept pace with the increase in the level of serious crime. There is serious public concern about the level of sophisticated crime in the City of London. The Guinness case is but one example. Despite warnings by the commissioner, the size of the Metropolitan Police fraud squad is almost precisely the same as it was 10 years ago. If we do not make adequate resources available to investigate disreputable beha-viour in the City and elsewhere and bring to justice those responsible, serious damage will be done both to the reputation of our country and to the City as a major international centre of financial operations.

In many other parts of the criminal justice system there is also a serious lack of resources. I take as one example the last annual report of the Crown Prosecution Service. It referred yet again to its acute problem of securing an adequate number of lawyers. It acknowledges that, the difficulties we have experienced in recruitment have inevitably led to a far more extensive use of agents than we would wish". The CPS admitted that some had not provided an adequate service. I do not believe that this is good enough. The Government set up the service with all-party support. From its inception it has not been given an adequate budget to carry through its responsibilities. In turn that has led to severe criticism from the police who in many parts of the country have found the efficiency of the CPS far from satisfactory.

I could list other serious inadequacies of the criminal justice system; for instance, the problems in the forensic science service and the serious fraud office. Another problem is the shortage of justices' clerks. That body is still 107 members below its establishment. There is the scandal of the mentally ill being sucked in to the prison system. The House will recall debates in which I believe the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, joined, as did many other noble Lords, on the cases of half-a-dozen sad, confused and sick men who found themselves in prison and in police cells because of the failure to secure treatment for them in mental hospitals. They were the victims of what is described by Ministers as care in the community. If ever there was a cruel hoax it is this. Care in the community, as we know it at the moment, is little more than a clever phrase devised by a public relations officer. Only a few days ago the House of Commons Social Services Committee criticised the Government for not even producing detailed calculations of the cost of implementing their own plans. The committee stated that there was still no guarantee that money said to be available will be spent on the mentally ill and mentally handicapped. Without that, and a commitment by the Department of Health to accept its responsibilities, the prisons will remain filled with hundreds of the mentally ill. That is a deplorable situation.

I turn now to the question of industrial relations in a number of our prisons. This is a matter of the highest importance. Eleven years ago Mr. Justice May, as he then was, said in his report which was published just after the election of the present Government: In the last few years"— He is referring to the period of office of the previous Labour government— industrial action has occurred of a type, and on a scale, never previously witnessed". Sir John May outlined the reasons. In particular he drew attention to the decision of the national executive committee of the Prison Officers' Association that "forms of action to be pursued on local issues (including sympathetic action) are matters within the discretion of the local branches concerned." Armed with this new power a number of branches of the POA, but by no means all, began to engage in forms of industrial action not previously experienced. Since the publication of the May Report the situation has become even more difficult.

We have now reached a situation in which industrial relations in our prisons are worse than those in any other part of the public or the private sector. We have a situation where some—I repeat, some—prison officers regularly turn away police vans bringing in inmates. So far this year 43 prison department establishments from Aylesbury and Bedford to Wormwood Scrubs and Wymott have either threatened to refuse or refused to admit prisoners. In other words, that has happened in this year alone in one out of every three prison establishments in this country. I draw this information from a reply given to me by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, last week. However, what has happened as a result?

Since the publication of the May Report we have seen the establishment of an alternative prison system run by the police in which remand prisoners, who by definition have not been convicted of any criminal offence, are kept for weeks on end in tiny cramped cells designed to keep a prisoner for a few hours before an appearance in court. On 30th October this year 1,060 prisoners were being kept in such conditions by 24 separate police forces in England and Wales. The result has been shameful conditions experienced by many of these prisoners, including, as I have indicated, some of the mentally ill, with hundreds of police officers taken off the streets to act as gaolers.

The cost of this exercise is quite extraordinary. The cost of keeping one remand prisoner in a cell in the Metropolitan Police district is £305 a night; that is, precisely 50 per cent. more than a double room at the Ritz Hotel. When Ministers talk about obtaining value for money, no doubt they will be eager to explain to us how they reconcile that objective with that result.

Following the Strangeways disturbances, we have witnessed the surprising spectacle of some branches —again I stress, some—of the POA refusing to take named prisoners into their prisons. It is a blackballing system which I believe is known in some London clubs but so far as I am aware it has not previously been seen in the public service. We have also seen the refusal of some branches of the POA to allow some inmates to be produced in court. I could continue with other examples.

In my view we deserve an answer to the following question: what do the Government propose to do about the situation? I find it hard to believe that they want to be seen as almost passive spectators. It is right to say that last year Mr. Hurd decided to meet the problem head on. It was an act of considerable courage on his part. Many of us will recall that as a result the Metropolitan Police had to take over the running of Wandsworth Prison. In my view that action was entirely right. The militants were seen to be defeated and for a few months, as governors have told me, industrial relations improved significantly.

However, unhappily, since the events at Strangeways, it is said that the situation has deteriorated once again. Of course every reasonable effort must be made to settle disputes between management and the POA. I would not for a moment want to suggest that error was exclusively the responsibility of the POA; of course that is not so. Nevertheless, so far this year—again, I draw this information from a reply given to me by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, last week—we have had industrial disputes in 70 of our prisons.

All I have to say to the Government about the situation is that I believe it is essential for management in the prisons to be supported. If there are regular incidents of the kind I have described where people are refusing to carry out instructions given to them by their governors, they should be sent home. It is clear that anarchic behaviour—and that is what it is—must be stopped. If we do not put a stop to such conduct, the only people who will suffer are the remand prisoners who, as I have already pointed out, have not been convicted of a criminal offence.

In addition, if we have incidents where members of the POA are refusing to produce prisoners in court —that was one of the findings of the May Report and there have been episodes since that time along the same lines—the Government should now accept the recommendation in Sir John May's report (as they should have done 10 years ago) and state that governors should cease to be exclusively responsible for a prisoner's production in court and that warrants should be addressed to each and every member of the staff. That would require legislation. In that way it would be clear that the refusal of members of staff to allow inmates to be produced in court would constitute a contempt of court. I am especially glad to see that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, with his responsibilities for the judiciary, is present in the Chamber. I very much hope that he will take an interest in the matter.

I understand, as I believe we all do, why Ministers in different governments have in the past declined to tackle the problem vigorously. It is because of their anxiety—and this is the reality of the matter—about the political consequences of firm action. No one in ministerial office wants to read the headline, "Prisons in Chaos". Nevertheless, continued timidity will further damage the service and some of the most vulnerable prisoners within the system.

I turn now to deal with the third and final issue that I wish to raise. I refer to the case of Mr. Colin Wallace. When he first made his allegations relating to an exercise known as Clockwork Orange, and the Kincora boys' home affair, and suggested that he had been removed from the public service because he had insisted on raising issues which his superiors would have preferred him not to raise, I was extremely sceptical. I did not, and still do not, believe in conspiracy theories. The fact that Mr. Wallace was supported in his claims by some of the leading conspiracy theorists made me even more doubtful about his allegations. However, I fear that I was probably mistaken.

Ever since the publication by the Ministry of Defence of its report entitled, Into how papers were overlooked in the case of Mr. Colin Wallace—a document published to explain the inaccurate answers given in the House of Commons by Ministers, including the Prime Minister, about the affair—I have become, as I am sure have others, increasingly uneasy about the matter. We now know from what we have been told that there was indeed a Clockwork Orange project, although it is said that it was not approved, and that—although previously denied—Mr. Wallace was involved in disinformation activities, as they are described, which required him to make on the spot decisions on matters of national security.

We also know from the report of Mr. David Calcutt, QC into the circumstances of Mr. Wallace's dismissal that shortly before he appeared before the Civil Service Appeal Board ministry officials were, as described by Mr. Calcutt, in private communication with its chairman. Mr. Calcutt said that this approach affected the outcome of the appeal. He added that the secret tasks allocated to Mr. Wallace were not disclosed to the board.

All that I should like to ask the Minister about this shabby affair is: first, who were the officials who made that secret and grossly improper approach to the chairman of the Civil Service Appeal Board? Who gave them their instructions? They were, in reality, involved in jury nobbling, a practice indulged in by a number of professional criminals at the Old Bailey but, hitherto, I am glad to say, unknown in the public service. Let us have no further nonsense about so-called national security on this matter. We are entitled to know whether any Ministers were aware of that approach and when they were informed of the whole circumstances of the case.

In view of the level of deceit practised by some of those involved, Ministers should recognise that some of us now entertain considerable suspicion about what went on at the Kincora boys' home. I am of course aware of Sir George Terry's report in 1983. I have a high regard for Sir George, but one is now bound to ask whether those concerned disclosed the truth to him.

I find it deeply distasteful to imagine that any servants of the British state were aware that small boys were being sexually abused at Kincora boys' home and took no action. No one can be satisfied to leave the Wallace affair where it is. It is clear that a further inquiry is now required by a member of the judiciary assisted by a team of police officers. Without such an inquiry, our country's reputation and that of the public service will be seriously jeopardised.

The three issues that I have raised this afternoon all involve, in one form or another, the administration of justice. All deserve urgent attention. There is the case of Mr. Wallace to which I have just referred; the lamentable industrial relations situation in the prisons, which has significant implications for our courts; and, finally, the serious shortage of resources in parts of our criminal justice system. Yet the gracious Speech tells us that its central purpose is to keep the public expenditure share of national income on a downward trend, using, in fact, precisely the same language as was in the gracious Speech of 1988, although not on this occasion, and perhaps significantly, adding the words: thus providing scope for further reductions in taxation". The Government say that despite the evidence of the consequences of that policy: the serious damage, to which I have referred, to parts of the criminal justice system; the closure of wards in many NHS hospitals, including a further 4,500 beds which are to be lost, according to a report published only this week; the deterioration of our public transport system and the disgraceful conditions in many of our schools. If that process continues, we shall have by far the worst public services of any major member state in the European Community. It is time that this country made a change of direction.