HL Deb 02 July 1991 vol 530 cc958-78

6.50 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time. First, I wish to say on behalf of all in the House how much we look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu.

The Bill is designed to implement an important recommendation of the report of Lord Justice Woolf on the prison disturbances in 1990. The recommendation is that police cells should not be used as an expedient to prevent overcrowding in our prisons. That recommendation is contained in paragraph 11.152 of his report on the disturbances.

I shall deal briefly with the Bill. The first clause has the objective that I have just described. Clause 2 empowers the Secretary of State to direct that the time limit of four days should not apply in the specified area in the event of serious disturbances in the prison system.

Before I come to the substance of the matter, it may be desirable if I deal with the background to the current situation. We learn that over 800 prisoners are still being held in police cells, despite the size of the Government's prison building programme, about which no doubt the noble Viscount will tell us in his reply. It is also despite a reduction in the size of the prison population.

Until 1980, Home Office prisoners—as I shall describe them, since that is what they are—were not put into police cells at all. In the five years that I was at the Home Office I can recall no occasion when Home Office prisoners were held in police accommodation. Indeed, it never occurred to anyone that this should be done unless there was some form of calamitous national industrial dispute in the prisons. However, even then it was considered that this burden should be shared with the armed forces. There was another reason for it not being contemplated: it was by no means certain that the police had any lawful right to detain such prisoners.

That situation changed in October 1980 when the present Government were confronted with widespread industrial action in the prisons. In large numbers of prisons, prison officers refused to receive prisoners remanded or sentenced by the courts. I quote from a Statement of the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, (as he now is) in the House of Commons on 27th October 1980 (at col. 38): [They] also [declined] to undertake certain other duties which are necessary to maintain conditions for prisoners, and to provide the facilities to which they are entitled". As a result of that dispute in October 1980, the military were called in to establish a number of camps in which prisoners were held under the direction of governors and assistant governors. Somewhere in the region of 3,500 prisoners who should have been in prison were held in police cells.

In his Statement of 27th October, the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, announced that he proposed to introduce an Imprisonment (Temporary Provisions) Bill to deal with an emergency situation. It was truly an emergency situation, as recognised by the Opposition in both Houses, who gave the Bill facilities. It was on the statute book within 48 hours.

Many of these powers lapsed after the end of the dispute, but one important provision of the Bill did not lapse. That was a declaratory provision making it clear that the police had the power to hold sentenced and unsentenced prisoners.

As I have indicated, most of us would agree that it was an emergency in October 1980 and in that situation it was right for the police to hold prisoners for a strictly limited time. However, unhappily, the emergency appears to have gone on for more than 10 years and it shows not the slightest indication of coming to an end. The noble Lord, Lord Knights, unfortunately cannot be here today because of an accident involving a member of his family. He has made his position clear in a letter which he sent me and I have his authority to quote it. In October 1980 the noble Lord was Chief Constable of the West Midlands, the largest police force in the country outside the Metropolitan Police. He states in his letter: It still concerns me that what started out in 1980 as a concession on the part of chief constables to help the Home Office in an emergency has now become an accepted way of life". He adds: Police officers [are being] diverted from their proper duties and at a time when everyone is calling for them to be more productive and efficient in stemming the tide of crime. It really has become a farce if it were not so tragic". The concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Knights, were echoed by Mr. David Owen, Chief Constable of North Wales, who is president of the Association of Chief Police Officers. At the ACPO summer conference he warned the Home Secretary of the deep anxiety of the police service about the current situation. He warned not just about the current situation but a situation which has gone on for over 10 years.

The blunt reality is that since October 1980 there have been Home Office prisoners in police cells on every single day, if I except a period of either 24 or 48 hours when there were none, following a remarkable interview given by the then Home Secretary, Mr. Brittan, to The Times. He proudly announced, to the embarrassment, I suspect, of his department, that there were no prisoners in police cells, although there were within 24 hours or so of that statement being made by Mr. Brittan. With the exception of that limited period, ever since the dispute of October 1980 we have had substantial numbers of prisoners in police cells.

Not only has this policy led to a deplorable misuse of police resources, but it has been extraordinarily expensive. As I said on a previous occasion when debating this matter, as we know, in the Metropolitan Police area holding a prisoner in a police cell costs well over £300 per night, which is 50 per cent. more than the cost of a double room at the Ritz Hotel. The number of prisoners in Metropolitan Police cells last week was significant.

According to paragraph 11.154 of the report of Lord Justice Woolf, in the first six months of the last financial year the Home Office had to pay police authorities over £25 million. That was the cost of holding their prisoners in police cells. Given the large number of prisoners who were held in police custody for the rest of the last financial year, it seems obvious that over £50 million will have to be paid to police authorities for carrying out this responsibility on the part of the Home Office. Given the number still held in police custody, it is unlikely that the bill for this year will be any less. I hope that during the course of his speech the noble Viscount who is to reply to this debate will explain to us how this extravagant, wasteful and damaging policy can be related to the Government's repeated statements that they are determined to secure value for money.

I turn now to the conditions in which many of these prisoners are held. In our debate on this issue during the Committee stage of the Criminal Justice Bill the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and I both reminded the Government of what Lord Justice Woolf said at paragraph 11.152 of his report about conditions in the central police detention centre in Manchester. For the purposes of this debate I shall quote just one or two sentences: While police officers appeared to be doing their best to make the prisoners' conditions tolerable, the conditions were in fact wholly unacceptable. The night before the Inquiry's visit, 101 prisoners had been held in 73 police cells. The cells had no natural light, they were small, they had an objectionable smell, they were over-heated and without sanitation. The amount of exercise which the prisoners could have each day was limited to 20 minutes. The exercise area was a cage of modest size on a flat roof patrolled from above by a dog handler. The prisoners spent the major part of the day locked in their cells. They were not allowed radios". I ask the noble Viscount, quite apart from the dreadful conditions just described, whether prisoners are still being held in those conditions in Manchester. From a reply given to me by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrets, I understand that over 200 prisoners are still being held in police cells in the Greater Manchester area. I have given the noble Viscount advance notice of my question and I hope that he will tell us during the course of his speech what is the current situation.

I have mentioned Manchester only by way of illustration: the situation in Manchester is replicated in many other police stations and magistrates' courts. These cells are intended to hold prisoners for a few hours before a court appearance, but Lord Justice Woolf found that some of the prisoners had been held in these really squalid conditions for over two weeks. I repeat that they have 20 minutes exercise a day, for a period of two weeks, and many of these prisoners have not been convicted of any criminal offence whatever. It is a scandal that we are prepared to tolerate conditions of this sort. However grave an offence a prisoner may have committed, we have a duty to hold him in civilised conditions. As I have indicated, the majority of prisoners held throughout the country in these cells are remand prisoners who have been convicted of no offence whatever.

The noble Viscount will no doubt ask us to await the Government's White Paper on Woolf, as did his noble friend Lord Ferrers when we discussed this matter during the Committee and Report stages of the Criminal Justice Bill. But this House will rise for the Summer Recess in only three weeks' time and it looks as though we may have no opportunity of discussing the Government's response to Woolf until somewhere around November of this year.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, may I interrupt? I am grateful to the noble Lord. I should point out that I have an Unstarred Question down which should give us every opportunity for discussing what I am told will be the Government's response by that time.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I very much hope that that will be so. The noble Earl has information that is not available to me. I did not know about that, but no doubt the noble Viscount will confirm in due course whether the Government's response to Woolf is to be published before the debate in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Longford. No doubt he will clear up that point.

As the Government are fully aware, the real explanation for the conditions in which many prisoners are currently being held is the appalling industrial relations situation in our prisons—a judgment confirmed by Lord Justice Woolf. In his report Sir Harry Woolf reminds the Home Secretary of the recommendations in Sir John May's report—a report commissioned by the Government of which I was a member. In paragraph 13.230 the Woolf Report says: Unhappily the May Committee's exhortations and recommendations did not result in any long-term improvement in industrial relations". Indeed, he says that they have become even worse since the publication of the May report. So I should like to ask the noble Viscount what precisely Ministers are prepared to do about the situation. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, in a Written Answer given to me last night said that 404 prison cells were not in use on 24th June of this year because of industrial disputes and the prison service management was unable to use further cells on that particular day in prisons at Liverpool, Pentonville, Cardiff, Shepton Mallet and Hindley. I should have received a remarkably similar answer had I asked precisely the same question about the industrial relations situation on almost any day in the past 10 years. Sometimes the numbers might have been more modest but on the majority of occasions they might well have been even larger.

It is wholly unacceptable that prisoners should be kept in these deplorable conditions in tiny, cramped police cells, with wholly inadequate opportunities for exercise and to talk to their legal representatives and to their families simply because of these never-ending industrial disputes in the prisons. It is quite wrong that this heavy burden should be placed on the police service simply because Ministers have found themselves incapable of dealing with the situation. Sir Harry Woolf made his position clear in his report on the Strangeways disturbances. He has recommended that no one should be kept in a police cell for more than 10 days. That is the objective of this Bill and I commend it to your Lordships.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Lord Harris of Greenwich.)

7.8 p.m.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I was a little surprised, if I may say so, at the last sentence of the noble Lord, who ringingly told us that Sir Harry Woolf s recommendation was for not more than 10 days. I read it as four.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, the noble Lord is entirely right.

Lord Richard

My Lords, this is in many ways a brisk and simple Bill. It has certain admirable qualities. It is clearly drafted; its language is understandable; its purpose is clear; and if it were to be enacted the results would be obvious within a relatively short time. The only thing that we lack tonight, I suppose, compared to the debates we had on this matter during the course of the Criminal Justice Bill, is the presence of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. No doubt we shall have the opportunity of at least listening to his words later this evening, even if we are to be deprived of his actual presence. I nearly said that it is a little like "Hamlet" without the Prince, but it is not. It is like "Hamlet" without the captain of the guard. However, there it is and we must make the best of it.

I do not believe that anyone who has followed this issue over the months and indeed the years during which it has been going on can really be left in any doubt as to the merits of the argument. They are clear and unarguable. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, quoted a few sentences from Lord Justice Woolf's report describing conditions in police cells in Manchester. Conditions in police cells under Camberwell court in London have also been described. To any of us who have practised in the criminal courts in London and who have been to magistrates' courts and seen clients in cells under the magistrates' courts, the idea that people will be kept locked up there for 23 hours out of 24 is incredible. Those conditions have been described in this way: The conditions in the cells underneath Camberwell Court are by far the worst in which I have ever seen prisoners held in this country. Two prisoners are held in a cell which seemed to me little more than half the size of a Victorian-built prison cell. One sleeps on a mattress placed on a bench along one wall while the other sleeps on a mattress on the floor. They are kept in these tiny cells for over 23 hours out of every 24, being allowed out in groups for half an hour's association in a room along the corridor if police manpower allows. There is no daylight anywhere on this floor, and all the light is artificial". Are those conditions acceptable in this country in 1991? I cannot imagine that any noble Lord in this House would say that that is right. It clearly is not.

Not only are the conditions in which people are kept in cells under the courts frankly appalling. We are also asking the police to do a job for which they are untrained and unfitted. I say that not in any pejorative sense but in a sense of reality. It is quite wrong that society should ask them to carry out such a task. They are not prison officers. They are not meant to be prison officers; they are meant to be police officers.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, quoted the speech of Dr. David Owen—I beg his pardon—Mr. David Owen, the chief constable. It is a natural error for those of us who have been involved in politics for some years. When the name Owen is mentioned there is an inevitable spasm reaction. In a press statement the Association of Chief Police Officers said: The effect on the Police Service is damaging for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the simple fact that even though the costs may be reimbursed by the Home Office, precious police manpower, already too thin on the ground, is tied down in looking after prisoners at the expense of patrolling the streets of our towns and villages where the challenge of hooliganism, violence and disorder is becoming more evident. This situation has been going on for so long now that it is increasingly damaging to efficiency and morale. It is quite unreasonable to expect police officers, who are untrained to carry out the duties of prison warders, to be continually involved in this sort of work and in conditions which are totally unsuitable for the job in hand. Even the best of our police cells were never intended for more than short term accommodation and the design of the majority of police stations makes administration and supervision a nightmare". On grounds of both the effect of the conditions on prisoners and the effect of the conditions on those who look after prisoners in police cells, the arguments in favour of the Bill are irresistible and unanswerable. One then has to ask the question: why are the Government resisting it and attempting to answer it? I fear that, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, indicated, this has now become built into the fabric of the system. Whatever the problems in regard to industrial relations and whatever the problems of overcrowding in our prisons, conditions, which were totally unacceptable and unthought of before 1980 when the emergency provisions were introduced, have become not only acceptable but part of the normal way in which we treat prisoners on remand. That is wrong. It is an appalling state of affairs and has to be rectified.

I do not believe that the situation will be rectified unless and until there is some compulsion on the Government to rectify it. I do not believe that, if nothing is done now, within a year or so all will be well and the practice will stop. I suspect that it will not. If nothing is done, and if perchance this unhappy country were to be governed again by the same party which is at present in power, I suspect that I shall be standing at this Dispatch Box in a few years' time and, along with the noble Lord Harris, making the same speech on the same issue and encountering the same blandness from the Government by way of response.

There is a sense of urgency about the issue. If the Bill does anything it will at least tell the Government that the present practice is totally unacceptable and that people should not be lawfully detained for a period exceeding four days. If the Secretary of State needs some time to organise affairs in Clause 2 a period not exceeding six months is given to him whereby he can contract out an area from the operation of the Bill.

The compulsion for legislation in this area is proven by the fact that although emergencies have come and emergencies have gone nothing has been done to rectify the position since 1980. We on these Benches wholly support the Bill.

7.16 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, as I have very little to add to the two powerful speeches which have been made it will be good for everyone if I am brief so that we can arrive more quickly at the occasion to which we are all looking forward—the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu. All of us want to hear that.

When I put my name down to support the Bill I had no illusions that I could add anything to the case which has been so powerfully presented. However, I could not remain silent in the face of the crying scandal which my noble friend has portrayed in which untried prisoners on first arrest are treated in the disgraceful way which has just been described. It is as shameful as any of the shames for which we have had to attack the Government in the melancholy history of their treatment of people in their custody—not this Government alone in the case of local prisons but this Government exclusively as regards the particular case of police cells.

To hold newly arrested prisoners in police cells for more than a night, or at most two, on the way to prison is unacceptable, for the reasons which have been given: the almost complete lack of facilities for prisoners, the difficult and taxing diversion of police time and the cost, which is double the cost of prison. The Bill embodies one of the recommendations set out in Lord Justice Woolf's invaluable report. I believe that he has been uncharacteristically mild in suggesting a maximum of four days. The practice should be eliminated altogether, and in my opinion two days' licence would be quite enough. However, as so often, we have to settle for the best that we think we can achieve, so I support the Bill without reservation.

However, I cannot refrain from telling the noble Viscount what the Government ought to do to stop these harmful practices, even though I know that even if he takes notice the Government will not do so. What happens is this. An individual is arrested and taken to the police station for custody until he can appear before the magistrates' court. There either the charge is dismissed, he is given bail, he is remanded in custody to await trial or, if sentenced on the spot, he is remanded in custody to await allocation to the prison where the sentence is to be served.

We are concerned here only with the last two cases and most frequently with the prisoner remanded awaiting trial and, therefore, presumed innocent until proved guilty. He should be sent directly to the local prison and held there until trial. However, as the average level of overcrowding in local prisons is 32 percent. and in nine of them is over 50 per cent., prison governors sometimes very reasonably say that they cannot cope with any more. Sometimes, and more frequently recently, it is the staff rather than the governor who stand out against receptions and refuse admission. Without approving of such action, one cannot help but have some sympathy with the members of the Prison Officers' Association who have been complaining about overcrowding for years and have seen very little movement towards a solution. In any case, the wretched prisoner is simply stuck back in his police cell and remains there until the prison department can find a prison to accept him. As the noble Lord, Lord Richard, pointed out, sometimes a prisoner is not even left in the police station but in the cell in the magistrates' court, which was never meant to provide overnight prisoner accommodation. At least police cells were meant to fulfil that function.

At this stage I believe that the Secretary of State should say that enough is enough and should use his power of executive release—I believe that was given to him two Criminal Justice Acts ago—to release a prisoner in the prison concerned to make room for the new arrival. The prison governor would choose the man or woman who was nearest to his or her release date. That release date would normally only need to be anticipated by a day or two. No damage would be done to the effect of the sentence by knocking a couple of days off the end of it and the present scandalous state of affairs would be ended.

I do not flatter myself that the noble Viscount will jump at this proposal, even though it is based on a paragraph in the May Report to which my noble friend referred. We all considered that most of the report's recommendations were sensible. I fear that my proposal may be too obvious and too inexpensive to convince the Government of its value. However, I venture to prophesy that within 10 years—the average gestation period for any proposal that is made to the Home Office—something of the kind will become the practice. I hope that the Government will accept this very modest anticipation of the Woolf Report. The present situation in which nearly 800 prisoners are kept in police cells is entirely unacceptable. I am sure the noble Viscount is as fully aware of that fact as we are. Having said that, I fully support the Bill and I join with others in wishing the best of luck to the noble Baroness who is to speak next.

7.22 p.m.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, I am most grateful to those noble Lords who have offered such kind words of encouragement to me. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, both for providing me with this opportunity to make my maiden speech and also for introducing this Bill which Lord Justice Woolf considered to be a matter of considerable urgency. There can be no one in this House who is not aware, whether from first-hand knowledge or from the report drawn up by Lord Justice Woolf and His Honour Judge Stephen Tumim, that the conditions in which many remand and serving prisoners are currently being kept deserve to be called atrocious. They are atrocious substantially because of serious overcrowding. We all deplore those conditions.

I have spent the past 21 years practising at the Criminal Bar. I have visited cell areas in the courts and elsewhere and prisons almost daily. I believe that to use police cells or court cells for such prisoners—except in the real emergencies for which this Bill provides—is counter-productive and is in effect a cure which worsens the original ill. I say that for two reasons, which I ask noble Lords to bear in mind when considering this Bill. First, it may be a truism but the ultimate object of sentencing anybody must be to reduce crime. In the past 30 years we have come almost full circle in our assessment of the effect of prison sentences on the crime rate. Back in the 1960s it was rule one of the prison rules that rehabilitation was the primary underlying objective of a prison term. By the late 1970s the May Report—to which reference has already been made—effectively conceded that prisons could not achieve that object. Despite the work of many committed and dedicated members of the prison service, understaffing, poor conditions and, above all, overcrowding made that object of rehabilitation almost impossible.

Throughout the 1980s the primary object of a prison sentence was seen as one of deterrence. There was public pressure for more and longer sentences to counter rising crime. The courts responded to that demand with a consequential increase in overcrowding in prisons and a further deterioration in prison conditions. In the early 1990s both the recent Government discussion documents preceding the Criminal Justice Bill appeared to accept that imprisonment reduces offending only by restricting the opportunity to commit crime for a limited period. The documents also accepted that imprisonment is likely to add to the difficulties which offenders encounter in living a normal law-abiding life after they are released. The worse the conditions are in custody, the greater the difficulties of adjustment later and the greater the likelihood of reoffending.

Cells in police stations, and even more so in courts, were never designed to be used for more than a few hours. I understand from what has been said today that those cells house about 800 prisoners. Many of those cells—as many noble Lords know—have wholly inadequate facilities for sleeping, exercise, washing, bathing and changing clothes. Many have no natural light or proper sanitation. Despite the best efforts of the police officers concerned, remand prisoners kept in those conditions are often denied some of the facilities which are granted to those on remand in prison. In effect, bad conditions in overcrowded prisons are being replaced by even worse conditions elsewhere.

The greatest deterrent of all to committing crime is the certainty of being caught. It cannot make sense to require police officers who are already overstrained in their work of crime prevention and the apprehension of offenders to leave the job for which they have been trained and assume a role for which they have not been trained. They are often asked to undertake such roles in near impossible conditions. That is a waste of police time and training and of public money. At the end of the day it is likely to result in increased rather than decreased crime.

I am well aware that I must not stray into the area of controversy which I might well do if I were to embark on the causes and the solutions to the underlying problem of prison overcrowding. Today I must leave that discussion to others. I hope that this Bill is only the first of many designed to improve our penal system which will come before this House in the coming years. During that time I hope, with a little luck, to be an active Member of this House.

7.28 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I am sure I express the convictions of the whole House when I express our far more than conventional admiration for the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu. The speech was a wonderful example of conciseness from which many of us would no doubt benefit.

I cannot express myself in the terms that a gifted friend of the noble Baroness did in the current edition of the Spectator. I should like to quote from that article in the Spectator by John Mortimer, the famous writer and QC. He writes: It seems only yesterday that I was leading Annie Mallalieu"— I suppose that that is the intimate way of addressing her and perhaps in time some of us will be allowed to use that form— in defence of those publications which were fortunate to come to the attention of Mrs. Mary Whitehouse"— whom I greatly admire, but that does not seem to be true of John Mortimer. Our first acquittal, if I recall, was a little spanking magazine". I hope that I am not being unfair in suggesting that a lot of the noble Baroness's work was in defence of spanking magazines. At any rate, that is what John Mortimer writes. He goes on: She's a beautiful"— we all confirm that— compelling advocate with an excellent voice and juries thought that if a nice girl like that couldn't see anything wrong with it, it must be all right"— that is, the spanking magazine. I am quoting a great friend and admirer of hers. No doubt she will perform the same admirable service for the Labour Party in the House of Lords". I am sure that if a Labour Government ever brought forward —which God forbid!—a spanking magazine, it would be eloquently defended by the noble Baroness. At any rate, we all much admired her speech tonight, which, incidentally, was full of profound wisdom.

I am very happy that for the first time my speech will be followed by that of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor. His father was a great friend of mine. I remember his father selecting me as the most promising Conservative whom he knew as a suitable journalist on the Observer, which his grandfather owned. I was chosen to meet his grandfather, Lord Astor, who ran the Observer. It was a dinner invitation. Unfortunately I had acquired concussion of the brain that afternoon in a race which was won, incidentally, by the noble Viscount's father. When the Peer who owned the Observer questioned me closely about the future of the House of Lords, all I could do was splutter and, as a change, giggle. So the grandfather of the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, felt that the young Oxford was not what it had been in his time. At any rate I am sure that the noble Lord will not splutter or giggle but will answer coherently.

I support strongly the measure introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Harris. I follow him fairly slavishly on most issues of this kind. Certainly I do so tonight. I agree also with my acting leader, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson. I should add that I am not quite such an enthusiast for the Bill as possibly are some other noble Lords. It is all right so far as it goes; but it does not go very far.

When one talks with the police one finds that they do not want any of these prisoners in their cells. Holding them there for four days is far from welcome. I hope that we shall not be excited by the thought that we are bringing forward some great change. The genuine improvement would be to ban altogether such prisoners from police cells.

I have one small suggestion to make. I should like to propose what might be considered an amendment at a later stage. I put it forward following some very relevant discussion with police officers. I suggest that no prisoner who has been detained in a police cell for four days should then be brought back again; in other words, prisoners should only be detained once in a police cell. That is a modest suggestion as a modest amendment to a modest Bill. I hope that it will be considered. So far as concerns the police, it is an infernal nuisance to hold prisoners for four days and then bring them back again for four days. I hope that the noble Viscount will consider that point at the next stage of the Bill. We must all agree that it is a small improvement, but it is worth doing.

To pursue the thoughts of other speakers, particularly those of the noble Baroness who has just spoken, a tremendous revolutionary change has to be brought about in the prison system in this country before we can be proud of it instead of, as now, somewhat ashamed. When we read what she said about the history of this legislation, it will help us to realise that this is a parting of the ways. The Government have a tremendous opportunity. I said the other day, and I shall say it again when we have a debate on the Woolf Report, that I am far from being optimistic about the effect of the new Bill. It could all work out very well. Let us hope and pray that it does. Mean while, let us back the Bill and congratulate once again the noble Baroness.

7.35 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I apologise for intervening without having put my name on the list of speakers. I do so first to say that I support the Bill and, secondly, to invite the noble Viscount who is to reply for the Government to give us whatever good news there may be on three specific points.

The first point relates to the question of bringing into England and Wales the time limits that have applied since time immemorial in Scotland on the number of days during which a person may be detained on remand. Secondly, I should like to ask the noble Viscount whether he has any good news about bail hostels, a topic on which both the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, who was here earlier this evening, and I have spoken on numerous occasions. Thirdly, I ask him whether there is something to be said tonight about the extension to the whole of England and Wales of recent bail and remand experiments which, to my knowledge, have been going on in certain counties of England and Wales. I believe that they have teen making good progress. We hope that they will eventually come to cover the whole country.

7.37 p m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, first, perhaps I may also offer my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, on her maiden speech. We all look forward to her Future participation in this House—spanking or no spanking. As the noble Lord, Lord Harris, explained, this Bill seeks to give effect to proposal 109 in the Woolf Report. This was that there should be a new prison rule placing a limit on the amount of time in which prisoners could be kept in police cells before being admitted to the prison service establishment to which they had been committed by the court.

Lord Justice Woolf suggested that four days might be the appropriate limit and this is reflected in Clause 1 of the Bill The Bill does not propose to use the prison rules as the mechanism by which to give effect to the proposal. Instead, it seeks to limit the power to hold prisoners in police cells or court accommodation by direct application of the statute. If I may say so, I think that this would be the most appropriate method of giving effect to Lord Justice Woolf's proposal. But I am bound to explain to your Lordships that the Government could not support this approach to the police cells problem.

We are all in agreement that keeping prisoners in police cells is fundamentally wrong. That is not what police cells are for. Not only, as the Woolf Report brings out, is it a very expensive way of providing accommodation; it also means that policemen, who should be out on the streets protecting the public, are stuck in police stations acting as gaolers for people who should be in prison and not in police cells. That cannot be right. I agree with the noble Lord that the police do not like it; they do not see it as their job.

There is also the human cost. There have been cases in which prisoners have been held in police accommodation which is totally unsuitable to the purpose. Conditions vary. Indeed—and this has much to do with the ingenuity of the police officers concerned—many prisoners who are in police cells are held in decent accommodation and are given what amounts to a reasonable regime.

But none of this detracts from the central issue. It is the duty of the prison service to care for people who are committed by the courts. It is not the duty of the police.

That duty of the prison service is spelt out in the prison service's statement of purpose. It states: Her Majesty's Prison Service serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts. Our duty is to look after them with humanity and help them lead law abiding and useful lives in custody and after release. If that is the prison service's mission statement, the noble Lord is perfectly entitled to ask—as, in effect, he does —"How is it that so many prisoners have been held in police cells for so long? And why is it that the Government remain opposed to the idea of placing a time limit on the length of time in which this type of accommodation may be used?"

I can assure noble Lords that neither the Government nor the prison service management regard the present position as in any way acceptable. There is no question of relying on police cells as a routine source of extra accommodation, although I accept that the extent of their use has led some people to take that view.

It is a fact that police cells in various parts of the country have been used for this purpose for many years. But the present position is somewhat different from that which has applied in the past. Against the background of the Bill, perhaps I may explain the legal position and the reason why we need to have this source of emergency accommodation. I shall then explain what we are doing about it.

The Imprisonment (Temporary Provisions) Act 1980 was passed by Parliament in order to cope with the lengthy Prison Officers' Association dispute in 1980, as was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Harris. The Act allows the police to hold prisoners where, for any reason, it is not practicable to secure their admission to a prison service establishment.

Prisoners have frequently had to be held in police cells in recent years. This has sometimes been caused by periods of industrial action by prison officers. At other times it has been caused because there have been insufficient prison spaces available in the system. This was especially so in London and the South East, where the prison estate was simply unable to cope with the numbers which were committed to them by the courts.

Pressure was particularly great in local prisons and remand centres. But, as new accommodation has begun to come on stream as part of the Government's prisons building programme, there has been a welcome overall fall in the numbers of people who are held in police custody.

As a result, by the beginning of 1990 police cells were used only in very exceptional circumstances. Indeed, in March 1990—the month before the Strangeways riot—there were no prisoners in police cells.

I should inform the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that prisoners have not been held in police cells every day since 1980. For example, in the first three months of 1990 prisoners were in police cells on only two occasions—16 and 10 prisoners respectively.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I had not wished to intervene. However, given what the noble Viscount now tells us, and accepting the number of days involved since October 1980, it would be interesting to know how many days there have not been prisoners in police cells.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I cannot tell the noble Lord at this moment but I shall certainly try to answer the question before the end of the debate.

The April 1990 disturbances have radically changed that situation, and I very much regret to tell your Lordships that the situation has been made considerably worse by the actions of the Prison Officers' Association.

Following the disturbance at Manchester Prison alone last April, over 1,600 places were lost to the system. Those people had to be housed elsewhere and, inevitably, many had to be housed in police cells. It simply was not possible to accommodate the inmates, who were displaced by this loss of accommodation, in other prison service establishments.

The situation was made more difficult through further action by prison officers in other establishments. What they said, in effect, was that they were unwilling to take Manchester inmates into their prisons because that would have led to further overcrowding of their own prisons.

When this kind of thing happens it makes it look as if the long-term use of police cells is endemic, but that is not so. The Government's investment in new prison accommodation had begun to pay off and, had it not been for the Strangeways incident and the loss of accommodation in the North West, we would not be in anything like the situation in which we found ourselves now. Without the industrial action and the inflexibility which that has generated, there would be no need whatsoever for prisoners to be in police cells on a regular basis.

During most of the time, during which we have had so many prisoners in police cells, there have been spaces elsewhere in the prison estate. But the vacancies have not coincided with where the requirement is.

The difficulty was that the loss of accommodation at Manchester was a total loss of local prison accommodation. A local prison such as Manchester is one which serves the courts. Local prisons hold a proportion of sentenced inmates, but their primary function is to service the courts —by holding prisoners who are remanded in custody and those who are awaiting trial. In order for local prisons to do so, they must clearly be close to the courts which they serve. We cannot therefore use the spaces which may be elsewhere in the prison estate, such as training prisons or other local prisons which may be some way away.

This has not been a question which can be resolved by commandeering military camps. That option is available to us in an emergency when we may have to deal with severe population pressure, but the need now is to use accommodation which is near the courts.

Other local prisons in the North of England, for example, Liverpool and Leeds, are overcrowded; but there have been spaces within the operational capacity —in other words, "overcrowded capacity"—of these establishments which we have wanted to use. But the unwillingness of prison officers to accept Manchester prisoners from outside their local prisons' court catchment areas has been a major obstacle to the resolution of this problem.

I would not wish to underestimate in any way the anxiousness to which the April disturbances gave rise, in those establishments. Both Risley and Manchester have seen major disturbances and acts of gross violence and vandalism. One is of course sympathetic to the anxiousness of staff in those establishments. But the plain fact of the matter is that their unwillingness to accept Manchester prisoners from outside their court catchment areas has led directly to a large number of remand prisoners being held in entirely unsatisfactory conditions in police cells, and to the police being diverted from more productive work.

When a riot, such as occurred at Strangeways, takes place, it is inevitable that a considerable burden is placed upon the police and their resources—and especially on manpower. I can assure your Lordships that we are determined that the police should not have to shoulder such a burden for any longer than is necessary, and I should like to place on record my sincere appreciation, and that of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, for the work which is being undertaken by the police and, in particular, for the professional manner in which it is being carried out.

In no way do we underestimate the burden which such work has placed upon them. Nor do we underestimate the unwelcome effect of diverting so many police officers from other duties. The task now is to take all possible steps to reduce the scale of this problem and to eradicate it.

As I have explained, 1,600 prison places were lost at Manchester. An extensive refurbishment programme has been undertaken, and 200 refurbished places came back into use in December. These places are being used to hold remand prisoners.

The prison estate in the North West was reorganised. Preston prison became a local prison receiving prisoners from all courts in Lancashire. Changes were made at Liverpool so that the prison could take inmates from all courts in Cheshire. As a result the only prisoners in police cells in the North West are those who have appeared in court in Manchester itself.

At the beginning of November the number in police cells in the North West was over 1,000. By the end of December it had fallen to below 500. At times it went down to 400. We have recently run into difficulty, as the result of a short-term surge in the prison population. But the plans which the prison service has have been unable to be put into effect because of the inability to use accommodation which actually stands empty. At Full Sutton there are 192 new places lying empty, and at Acklington there are 152 empty places.

Last year there was an agreement with the Prison Officers' Association to reduce the population of Leeds to 970. That figure still represented overcrowding, but it represented a substantial reduction. But that reduction was made on the assumption that Full Sutton prison in York would be available to take sentenced prisoners. That cannot now be done because of disagreements over staffing levels.

The Prison Officers' Association agreed to use the Full Sutton accommodation in order to hold Iraqi detainees temporarily, but it refused to use it for the purpose for which it was intended—holding prisoners. I am glad to be able to tell your Lordships that agreement has now been reached for the occupation of at least one of those wings, and that should give us the opportunity of taking at least Leeds inmates out of police cells.

The second wing is also critically important because it will enable us to reorganise the dispersal prison estate and it will also give crucial additional training places which will provide further relief to prisoners in police cells in the north. But I regret to tell your Lordships that there is as yet no agreement with the Prison Officers' Association for the opening of the second wing.

The new accommodation at Acklington offers 152 spaces. After protracted negotiations with the Prison Officers' Association, it now appears that we shall be able to use that accommodation. That will have an important effect on the police cells problem.

The next 150 refurbished places at Manchester Prison are in the process of being commissioned. This should give us, in a few weeks' time, sufficient places to take all the remand prisoners out of police cells.

The Government have been especially concerned about the plight of young offenders in police cells. The loss of Manchester has meant that we have had to rely almost entirely on Hindley remand centre for taking young men on remand. This again has not been without industrial relations difficulties. However, by careful management of the young offender estate it has been possible to clear more space in Hindley and therefore we hope to see the last young offender in Manchester police cells in the next few weeks.

Until recently this problem was being confined to the North West. Its spread to Leeds has been most unwelcome. The next important development will be the opening of Moorland young offender institution and remand centre later this month. This will enable us to clear all young men from Leeds and Hull and it will create space for prisoners who are being held in police cells.

The opening of Belmarsh provides us with the opportunity of rationalising the London prison system. Belmarsh Prison in Woolwich was the first local prison in the Government's prison building programme. It began operating in April and so far two of its wings are in use. The third unit will come into use shortly.

Wormwood Scrubs has provided remand accommodation and Brixton has provided accommodation for prisoners who are awaiting trial. It has now been decided to turn each of the major London prisons into a local establishment with its own court catchment area. The first phase of this involves extending the local role of Pentonville and for Pentonville to take over some further courts. Unfortunately, the local branch of the Prison Officers' Association at Pentonville has been unwilling to agree to this change because of disagreements over a range of issues including the time at which the reception at the prison should close. This can hardly be described as a grave issue but although it is inconvenient to the police management has agreed to change the opening time. Unfortunately, the Prison Officers' Association has refused to agree to the change of catchment area. As a result there are now more than 100 spaces at Pentonville which could be put to better use. As a result London prisons are having to use police cells.

There has been a further worrying development. Although it is well known that the plight of remand prisoners will be transformed as 10 new local prisons and remand centres come on stream between April this year and 1994, the Prison Officers' Association has been pressing to have the operational capacities of existing local prisons and remand centres reduced. It is quite appalling that the Prison Officers' Association at Cardiff has decided that it will not accept prisoners above the uncrowded capacity of that establishment. It took industrial action without involving the disputes procedure. And it has refused to accept management's offer to reduce the population and to work to produce a resolution of the issues by the end of August. As a result more than 100 inmates will have to be housed in police cells in South Wales and Gwent.

I have described in some detail the extent of this problem. Put simply, the question is: can we legislate against it? Can the imposition of a time limit in the way which is envisaged by the noble Lord's Bill remove this problem? It is with the greatest respect that the Government do not consider that merely by taking away the power to hold prisoners in police cells beyond four days the problem will be resolved.

We are dealing with a situation which has two regrettable facts. The first is the loss of a large local prison. The second is industrial action by the Prison Officers' Association. These two factors have led to this most regrettable situation. It is not lack of action or initiative on the part of Prison Service management which has brought this about. It is a fact of life that Manchester prison was lost. It is also a very regrettable fact of life that the Prison Officers' Association has chosen to use the combined strength of its members with total disregard to the consequences for the inmates concerned, for their families, for the police or indeed for their duty as prison officers.

If the noble Lord's Bill were passed into legislation what would happen to the prisoners who are at present held in police cells? They would still have to be held somewhere. The army would not be the right body to turn to. The fact is that, whatever the merits—and they are few—the deliberate action of the Prison Officers' Association has exacerbated the very practice which the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, so correctly points out.

The Government are completely in agreement with the intentions of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. The holding of prisoners in police cells is an intolerable situation and must be ended. However, I regret to tell the noble Lord that a change in the law of itself will not resolve the problem.

I now turn to some of the issues raised by noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked about the figures since 1980. I do not have them available but shall write to the noble Lord. He also asked me about Manchester central detention centre. Clearly the conditions in the centre are not suitable for holding remand prisoners. The prisoners are being held two or three to a cell and exercise arrangements are severely restricted. To reduce the pressure on the prisoners, the police are moving them out to be held temporarily in other police stations where conditions are better and are returning them where necessary when they appear in court again. This morning 227 Home Office prisoners were held at Manchester.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, also asked about lockouts. The present level of industrial action is preventing the full use of available prison accommodation. It dates from the Strangeways incident and has not been a permanent feature of the past 10 years. Much of it stems from the anxiety of staff about holding large numbers of prisoners displaced as a result of the loss of Strangeways.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, and the noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked about the White Paper. It is being prepared and will be published in due course. It is not possible to give noble Lords a specific date for publication. The Woolf Report has necessitated considerable work and a premature response would not be useful. I believe that at present approximately 400 cells are empty. Noble Lords also asked about the suitability of police cells for holding prisoners. Given the constraints of holding prisoners in accommodation for which it was not designed, I am generally satisfied with the treatment that prisoners receive.

The noble Lord, Lord Richard, likened the absence of my noble friend Lord Ferrers to Hamlet without the Prince. I do not wish to make Shakespearian analogies; but I am tempted to say to the noble Lord that perhaps the debate could be Henry V without Falstaff—but perhaps I should not.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, raised various issues. We do not accept that executive release is the right solution to the problem. We should have access to places which already exist in prisons.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, mentioned that he was a great friend of my father. I was told with great authority by my father that when the noble Earl met my grandfather not only was he suffering from concussion as a result of a fall while riding in a point-to-point race but that when he remounted on a right-handed course he went the wrong way. My father always said that the noble Earl has been going left ever since.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked about time limits. It is a crucial aspect; 17 per cent. of prisoners are on remand and custody time limits are being introduced throughout England and Wales. The noble Lord also asked about bail hostels. More than £36 million has been allocated by the Government to increase the number of bail places by 1,000 from April 1988 to April 1993.

I am a mere novice compared with noble Lords who have spoken this evening and who have wide experience of the subject. However, I hope that at the very least the noble Lord, Lord Harris, will consider releasing me on bail. I repeat that we are in agreement with his intention but believe that this is not the Bill for it.

Lord Richard

My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Harris, rises to his feet, perhaps I may congratulate my noble friend Lady Mallalieu on her maiden speech. It was skilful and fluent; it came from experience and it held the House. Would that more speeches to which we listen in this House were similar.

8 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I too share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Richard. It is always a pleasure to hear him make his second speech on the Second Reading of a Bill. However, it was rightly directed at the quality of his noble friend's speech. I agree entirely with what she said.

I was not surprised by the noble Viscount's speech. I believe that speeches on police cells come off a word processor because they are all so similar when the arguments are put before us. First, there is the statement that there is total support for the principle of what one is saying when one is complaining about the use of police cells. I am sure that the noble Viscount was wholly sincere, but that has been said on about 12, 13 or 14 previous occasions by people sitting where he now sits.

The noble Viscount then went on to say, first, that it is not the duty of the police to perform that function; secondly, that the police do not wish to do it; and, thirdly, that it is not right that that function should be carried out by the police on a routine basis, as of course it is. At the end of all that he said that all that being so, the Government are not in favour of the Bill.

The Bill contains a recommendation of Lord Justice Woolf. The debate is notable for one particular reason—this is the first recommendation of Lord Justice Woolf which has been rejected by the Government. Last weekend or perhaps the weekend before we heard that the Government were contemplating rejecting further recommendations of Lord Justice Woolf dealing with the overcrowding of prisons. If a report such as the one for which Lord Justice Woolf was responsible is to be faced with such constant rejections, there will be serious public disquiet. In my view there is overwhelming support for the recommendations he has made in the report, and this evening's explicit rejection of what Lord Justice Woolf recommended is deeply depressing.

The noble Viscount then went on to tell us about previous industrial relations difficulties in prisons. He talked about the problems at Leeds, Full Sutton and Pentonville. I am sure that that is all true, but what are Ministers doing about it? How many trade union Bills have there been in this House from the present Government? I am not a statistician. I am not sure whether there have been more trade union Bills than local government Bills, but there has been a substantial number.

At the end of it we are told by Ministers that they have transformed the industrial relations climate in this country; and yet in that area for which Ministers are directly responsible the only defence which the noble Viscount can find is to give a list of prisons where the industrial relations situation is nearly out of control.

Many of us wish to know, as do the police in particular, why they should be given the responsibility for dealing with the situation simply because of the incapacity of Ministers to run the prison service efficiently. That is quite disgraceful. I suspect that the noble Viscount is aware that the police service has become increasingly annoyed about the way in which it has been treated. In particular it believes that in 1980, when it was asked to co-operate as it did, it was never given a wholly accurate account of the Government's intentions. It was implied that it would be a temporary affair. It has now become permanent.

I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said. One matter about which we can be quite certain is that if by chance the present Government are re-elected next year, we shall be having the same debate that we have had this evening. Ministers will be reading out lists of prisons where there is a dispute with the POA and there will be no indication whatever that they are capable of dealing with that crisis situation—a crisis situation which has now lasted for well over 10 years. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.