HL Deb 17 December 1992 vol 541 cc690-711

2.4 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their response to the report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons on Her Majesty's prisons Wymott and Lewes.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of this debate is to enable the House to discuss two recent reports by the Chief Inspector of Prisons which were published last month. Both reports are critical, one severely so. I must make it clear at the outset of the debate that my intention this afternoon is not to criticise any individual. In my view, those issues are clearly matters for management. My purpose is to identify those areas which cause some of us serious concern and, I hope, to receive a satisfactory response to our anxieties from the noble Earl.

Almost inevitably when we have a debate of this nature we are discussing a situation in which something has gone wrong. Therefore, perhaps I may say at the outset that we all recognise the excellent work that is carried out in many prisons, often in the most difficult circumstances. As Judge Tumim recognises, that applies to much that is done both at Lewes and at Wymott.

I shall deal first with the report on Lewes, a Category B local prison which deals with inmates from Surrey and Sussex. In January of this year Lewes held 385 prisoners although its certified normal accommodation was only 301. Given the fact that there has been a reduction in prison numbers in the past few weeks I hope that that held at the moment is rather lower than that held in January. No doubt the noble Earl will be able to tell us the present complement at Lewes.

The Chief Inspector's report on Lewes can be summarised fairly briefly. He said that the prison was noticeable for the poverty of its regime. There was no evening association and, for the convicted, no sentence planning or pre-release course. Young inmates were not sufficiently separated from older prisoners. There was no personal officer scheme. There was poor accommodation. The convicted and unconvicted were locked up for far too long and there was a total absence of normal recreational facilities for the convicted. In addition, he said that considerable areas of the prison were dirty and ill kept. The visits room was squalid and the timing of meals, to say the least, appeared to be a little unusual. The last meal of the day at weekends is at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Most of us would regard that as most unusual, and I am sure that that is a view that the noble Earl will share.

The Chief Inspector and his team visited the prison in January of this year. Most of us would like to know what has happened since then to deal with this profoundly unsatisfactory situation. In particular, when it is said at Lewes—and sometimes elsewhere —that nothing can be done because of staff shortages, I am sure that the noble Earl will be quick to recognise, as does the chief inspector in his report, that significant improvements have been made in other local prisons, such as Bedford and Shrewsbury, and more positive regimes have been created. If that can he done with those two establishments, which are similar in many respects to Lewes, the question arises: why can it not be done in Lewes as well? So the next question is: what has happened since January to improve the situation?

Let me ask four questions concerning a number of clearly defined criticisms in this report. First, there are two matters raised by the Board of Visitors. Even though the prison was overcrowded at the time of the inspection, it is a little unfortunate that the Board of Visitors—a crucially important group of people, as we shall see in the report both on Lewes and on Wymott —had no room of its own, nor even a telephone for its exclusive use. Moreover, nor did it have a single filing cabinet. It does not seem unreasonable to ask what can be done to improve that particular situation.

It is also regrettable that the Board of Visitors did not consider that either adjudications or the complaints procedure were working satisfactorily. I hope that we shall hear an answer to those particular points from the noble Earl.

Second, the Board of Visitors considered that there were too many mentally ill people in the prison, and they doubted the effectiveness of the medical services department. This was an issue also commented upon by the Chief Inspector of Prisons. The question arises from the report: why are beds in the health centre still unused? Is it simply a question of a shortage of staff? If so, what steps are being taken to rectify the situation?

In the situation described in the report it is, to put it mildly, a little odd to find that the segregation unit had been placed in the health centre—a decision apparently taken when the senior medical officer was absent on leave and without any consultation with the area principal medical officer. Yet at the same time the inspectors found mentally disturbed prisoners in normal locations on the wings. I quote the chief inspector: "They should not be so located".

These are serious matters. The mentally ill should not be in prison in the first instance. Yet in January of this year they were not even provided with the accommodation that does exist because other inmates were being held there, and there appeared to be inadequacies of staff in the health centre. I believe that is unacceptable and we look forward to hearing what the noble Earl has to say about it.

Next, I am very sorry to see that there is no bail unit at Lewes. A number of us had the opportunity of meeting a senior officer from Holloway Prison the other day. We were able to hear from her a very constructive account of what had been done concerning the establishment of the bail unit at Holloway. As a result of the establishment of that bail unit, scores of women who would otherwise have been held in custody were released on bail. Yet at Lewes, an overcrowded local prison, there is no bail unit.

Ministers constantly tell us, and I am quite sure of their sincerity, that they want to reduce the remand population. If that is in fact their desire, I hope that we shall be able to hear that establishments such as Lewes will be pressed to have dedicated bail units of the kind that exist at Holloway and elsewhere.

Lastly, I come to the profoundly unsatisfactory situation of the library service at Lewes. That is a particularly important situation given the character of the impoverished regime there. "Impoverished" is not my description; it is the one applied by the Chief Inspector of Prisons. We are told that the prison library is staffed by a part-time professional librarian from the East Sussex library service and two prison officers; one of them normally acts as a relief. Both the officers were regularly called away on other duties. They had so little time available that not much was left to provide even a basic library service. Neither of the officers was trained. As a result, there were no formal opening hours for the library at Lewes prison. Sometimes it did not open at all. There was even a shortage of staff to take inmates to and from the library when it was open.

The chief inspector comments, and I quote him directly: Inmates were not receiving a satisfactory library service despite the valiant efforts of library staff … Responsible use of the library can play a role in rehabilitation as well as providing a way of passing time". That latter consideration seems to me to be particularly important given the fact that inmates are locked up for such an immensely long period every day.

I hope the noble Earl will be able to tell us what can be done about this. It is, as Judge Tumim says, a waste of expensive resources to have a professionally manned, well-stocked library that is not fully exploited.

With that comment, I leave Lewes and move on to the situation at Wymott, which is a great deal worse. Indeed, to be blunt, the situation there is in a number of respects quite deplorable. Wymott has a number of apparent advantages as compared with Lewes. It is not more than a century old, as is Lewes. It was opened only in 1979 and is a modern establishment. At the time of the unannounced short inspection by one of Judge Tumim's teams it was not overcrowded. Its CNA was 816 and in March it was holding 733 prisoners.

The population at Wymott consists of young men who are serving short sentences. That is where part of the problem at the establishment begins. The staff told the inspectors that since the Strangeways riot that group of prisoners, primarily from the North West, had become markedly more volatile and confrontational. The staff described their own morale as "very low". Numbers in the workshops had dropped well below the effective minimum complement—the EMC —and they were concerned about the amount of bullying which was taking place.

I wish to deal with those issues and to ask the Minister to respond. He will be aware that I have given his private office notice of the questions that I propose to put to him. First the bullying, which takes place apparently in the four large residential blocks housing the inmates at the prison. The Board of Visitors told the inspectors that the night arrangements in the residential blocks were "very worrying". It was said that anything could happen to prisoners without staff knowing or being able to prevent it.

After the inspectors had paid a night visit they said that the inmates appeared to be in complete control behind secure gates. The prisoners appeared amazed that anyone should be trespassing on what they considered to be their own territory. It was suspected that drugs were in open use. After nine-o'clock at night the prisoners were locked together in groups of 24 and night staff rarely ventured through the locked gates. The inspectors reported that some inmates graphically described their understandable fears of being confined in such conditions.

When one reads the report their anxieties appear to be entirely justified. It is recorded that 104 inmates had to be treated in the casualty department of a local hospital within a period of only 11 months. According to the staff, 80 per cent. of them did so as a result of fights or assaults. Drugs were acknowledged to be freely available and inmates said that they were easier to obtain in the prison than outside. Staff said that the gangland culture of Manchester was being replicated on the landings of the prison. There was also a deeply disturbing level of staff sickness, which is in my view a commentary on the morale of the staff. That was 260 per cent. above the notional non-effective allowance. Those are striking figures. I hope that the noble Earl will respond to these issues which, I am sure, cause him and the department as much anxiety as they cause the rest of us. I cannot recall a single report from Judge Tumim on any prison establishment in this country which has disclosed a more serious situation than that at Wymott. The report states that the prison service's mission statement exhorts staff to look after prisoners with humanity and to help them to lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release. It adds: Currently Wymott is not meeting these objectives successfully". I should be most surprised were the noble Earl to take a contrary view.

I wish to put two specific questions to the Minister. What is the department now doing to deal with the intolerable level of bullying and the frequent assaults by inmates on other inmates which are taking place at the prison? We cannot allow a situation to continue in which part of the prison is taken over at night by vicious hooligans and in which drugs appear to be freely available to anyone who wants them. What specific action is the prison department taking to deal with that situation?

What of the inspector's recommendation—and that of the governor—that two of the wings should be established as a vulnerable prisoners' unit? In the Home Secretary's statement which accompanied the publication of the chief inspector's report he said that he accepted that—and that is welcome—but he added the qualification: provided there are sufficient funds in the prison building budget". Can the noble Earl tell us whether that work will be put in hand in the next financial year, for it is quite clear that without that work many vulnerable prisoners will continue to be beaten while they are in a Home Office establishment? That is a profoundly serious situation.

Secondly, what is being done about workshops? There is plenty of available work at Wymott and it is extremely well stocked with workshops. There is no doubt about that. However, many inmates are currently refusing to work. As the inspectors say, with wages averaging between £3 and £4 per week, there is hardly much of an incentive to do so.

It is more than a little depressing to read the judgment of the inspectors on that point. They say: Our tour of the six workshops was revealing. In the laundry we found some ten inmates asleep, certainly not through overwork but possibly because of the influence of drugs and/or watching TV through the night. A similar scene was found in the light textile shop".

Again, what is to be done to deal with that situation? What is the point of spending substantial sums of public money on building workshops and then allowing such a situation to develop? Clearly, something must be done and I hope today that we shall hear what that is to be.

Finally, the two reports confirm the wisdom of the decision of the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, when Home Secretary, to accept the recommendation of Sir John May that there should be an independent inspectorate of prisons. Great benefit has been derived from these reports, particularly when they disclose a situation of the kind which we are debating today. Without an independent inspectorate, those facts would never have been drawn to the attention of Parliament.

In the final analysis, the success or otherwise of an independent inspectorate can be judged only by the speed and resolution shown by Ministers when glaring deficiencies are exposed. Such deficiencies have been exposed in the reports on those two prisons. We now await the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, so that we may know what action the Government propose to take.

2.23 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, not for the first time I rise to support the initiative taken by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. Those of your Lordships who have listened to him before may agree with me that he has never made a more deadly speech. I refer in particular to what he said about Wymott.

I am also very glad that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, is to reply to the debate, again not for the first time. He is accepted by all of us as being a first-class parliamentarian. I hope that that is not regarded by him as a two-edged compliment but rather that it is given in a Christmas spirit; in other words, that he will make the best of this awkward situation.

I am glad too that my noble friend Lord Plant is to speak for the first time from the Front Bench. That is an awe-inspiring moment. I spoke from the Front Bench within five minutes of coming to your Lordships' House and I remember that I put my feet up because I was told that one did that in those days. No one seems to do that now. However, to speak from the Front Bench on behalf of an historic party is a great moment in one's life.

I am glad too that my noble friend Lord Plant is a political philosopher. I gave my noble friend a moment's notice—which is all that is needed if one is a distinguished academic—that I should be raising the question as to whether a political philosopher has ever contributed anything to penal reform. Did Jeremy Bentham do any good in the end? I see that the Minister is seeking assistance from the Box. I do not know what help they are going to give him. Who else? I do not think that Plato and Aristotle helped much, but the Minister will tell us. Karl Marx? No, I do not think so. Although I am glad that we shall be addressed for the first time for many years by a political philosopher from the Front Bench, we are bound to ask what he will say about these penal issues.

However, let us come to the question before us. This chief inspector is certainly one of my contemporary heroes. My contemporary heroine, apart from the ladies present, is the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. However, she is not here today. Among my contemporary heroes is Judge Tumim. He rates highly. He is a penetrating critic. Heaven forbid that he should ever investigate the affairs of your Lordships. Think of Judge Tumim coming here and looking into our arrangements, and asking why we have such an all-important debate as this at a moment when all the House has gone on Christmas leave. He would make about 50 recommendations here. However, so far he has confined himself to prisons.

I knew nothing about Wymott until I read this report. It would be of no interest to anybody except myself, but I suppose that I have to go to see this awful place. It is one of the duties that befall penal reformers to make their way to these spots to see. I am too old to visit them by night. I gather that the real time to go to Wymott is at night, because then the most appalling outrages occur, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Harris. I shall have to go in the day when perhaps things look a hit better. In all my 50 years of visiting prisons off and on I have never heard of a story like this. I shall not try to add to the eloquence of the noble Lord, Lord Harris. He spelt it all out.

At night there is a no-go area. The prisoners think it is appalling if some investigator or any member of the staff pokes his nose into their affairs. I agree with the strong line of questioning of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, asking what the Government are doing about it; and we shall he told that they have done something since last year. But how could this have happened? Are we to understand that, unless Judge Tumim actually goes to one of these places nobody other than the governor ever has a look? I have not given the noble Earl notice of that question, but how can this have come about without anybody from higher up discovering what was going on? Is it the first time that this has been brought to the notice of the Home Secretary? That is a different question from, what they propose to do about it, but it strikes me as being very significant. However, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, dealt with it so well that I shall not try to gild the lily.

I have visited Lewes many times over the years. It is within 20 miles of where I live in the country. From many points of view, if one was going to be in prison, one might as well go to Lewes because one can at least see out. One is not shut in, so there are some advantages to being in Lewes. But, as the noble Lord told us, this is a damaging report, although nothing like Wymott. It is not an iniquitous picture, but it is bad.

I made my way there and saw the governor last Friday. He is an excellent man. I am becoming a bit of a sucker for governors. They only have to tell me they are doing the most wonderful things and I am inclined now to believe them. I must not go too far that way, but I am bound to say that this particular governor made a good impression on me. I will just tell you a little bit about the conversation.

There is mostly an expert attendance in the House today, and the House will be aware of the general tenor of the criticisms of Lewes. The governor pointed out that all this took place almost a year ago; so a good deal has been done since then. To mention only one point now, the report says that on average prisoners are only 30 hours a week out of cells. In the report they are described as being only four hours a day out of cells. That is an appalling situation. I do not want to make a present to the cause of privatisation, because, as I have said before, I regard that as an obscenity. But in the private prison I went to they were out of cell for 21 hours a day. I hardly like to mention that, but it can happen. Four hours a day is an appalling thought, but by now it is more like six hours a day out of the cells. There has been a considerable improvement. I am sure the Minister will tell us that but it ought to be said clearly by someone who, like myself, in a small way has investigated the situation on the spot. There has been a considerable improvement and we must give credit to everybody: to the governor of course, to the chief inspector whose job it is to call attention to these things and to the Home Office. However, there is still a long way to go, if you just take that simple index of possibly six hours a day out of the cells.

The governor wants to see 12 hours a day out of the cells. I asked him whether there was any hope of that. He is a sensible man and he is not going to make extravagant claims but they are working towards 12 hours a day. I asked how they were going to do it. Obviously there will have to be some important physical changes and perhaps the Minister will tell us about those. They have a five-year development plan and so perhaps in five years that side of it will be easier. But without any more staff, will anything happen in fact? I asked the governor whether he was aware of the views of the much-admired governor of Feltham: he has said that he cannot do the job without another 40 members of staff. Is one going to say that this cannot be done without more staff and, if so, will other staff be provided? The governor was too discreet to commit himself on that point. He said that all governors want more staff, and I am sure that that is true. In my opinion, he will need a lot more staff and fewer people must be sent to prison, whether to Lewes or elsewhere; otherwise, his aspiration of 12 hours a day out of cells is just a fancy.

Where do we find ourselves? I see a great penal reformer on the Benches opposite me ready to shoot the Minister in the back from the third row; I refer of course to the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull. For some reason she has been silenced on this occasion, although I do not know by what undue influence. As penal reformers of all kinds have said, far-reaching reforms are necessary. However, I do not think that anybody could say at this moment whether the Criminal Justice Act will lead to fewer people going to prison. Let us hope that it will. There are no signs of that so far because it has only just come into force so we cannot say whether or not it will. We can only have our opinions.

Many penal reformers on all Benches have said that we need a sentencing council. As is recognised, we send too many people to prison. That has been said many times in this House. Judges send them there, and unless we have something like an effective sentencing council the judges will go on sending too many people to prison, including Lewes Prison, and the hope of having them out of the cells for 12 hours a day will remain a fancy.

I will add one further point, which interested me for a special reason. As the House knows, not only I but many others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and others have thought a good deal about mentally disordered offenders. A very important report has just come out and we shall be discussing that in the New Year. At a prison like Lewes, one of the problems —perhaps not the governor's biggest problem but a considerable one —is that there are a number of people in that prison described as mentally ill. What are they doing there at all? So far as the governor is concerned, whatever the reason, he is stuck with them and that is one of the reasons that we must go on thinking very hard about sending these mentally disordered people to prison.

In summing up I would put the matter this way: the situation as regard Wymott Prison is so appalling that one can hardly believe it. Occasionally one comes across a cesspool and one assumes that high-minded Ministers will clean it up. However, obviously there are very unsatisfactory features in the situation at Lewes Prison. It has not been put right within a year, although efforts have been made to do so. I believe that the aspirations of the governor, his colleagues and the Home Office are all good. One is bound to ask: when is all this change going to happen? In a sense there are two questions. I touched on one of them and the noble Lord, Lord Harris, touched on the other. How can this situation have come about without the Home Office even knowing about it? What will it do about it now?

2.35 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, once again it is my role today to follow two noble Lords who have made prominent names for themselves as regards prison reform. I believe that noble Lords owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for having tabled this Question and having dealt with it so thoroughly himself. His exposé of the two reports was so thorough that it does not leave a great deal for other people to say. However, from the general summing-up of the people involved one can say that the staff at both prisons were under-resourced, which obviously exacerbates the situation.

I shall deal briefly with Lewes Prison. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, dealt quite extensively with some parts of it. Some of the key points which were made in detail—and the noble Lord, Lord Harris, made the points himself—include the fact that meal times for prisoners were compressed within a seven-hour period, the prison visiting accommodation was very poor and the staff are described in the report as hard pressed yet willing. Young offenders were insufficiently segregated from adults and remand prisoners were insufficiently segregated from convicted prisoners. Both the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, and my noble friend Lord Longford have referred to the fact that there are far too many mentally ill offenders in prison who should not be there.

Governors and staff firmly believe the prison to be under-resourced. The staff facilities are poor, but the staff are described as "patient, concerned and caring". The prison held a number of very difficult prisoners. On behalf of the Prison Officers' Association I must say that it warmly welcomes the report on Lewes. It acknowledges the problem of compressed meal times and the association is prepared to enter into serious discussion with the Prison Department in an attempt to resolve the problem. The POA branch at Lewes firmly opposed the compression of meal times last April which was a consequence of a shortened working week for prison officers. The association says that the Prison Department failed to provide extra staff to compensate for the reduced number of prison officer hours worked at Lewes. As a result the prison management saw no alternative but further to condense the prison day. The Prison Officers' Association urge the Government to act on the Chief Inspector's Report and to liberate prisoners and staff from a plainly unacceptable environment.

That is all I care to say about Lewes Prison, other than that I picked up a figure at page 96 of the report although I do not know its relevance. It is stated that the cost of keeping an inmate in Lewes Prison, according to the latest available information, is £315 a week compared with a national average of £385. Whatever criteria one uses, £70 per prisoner less than the national average in a prison such as Lewes can only indicate underfunding to a large degree. If the noble Earl—for whom I have the highest regard—cannot reply to this matter today, I hope that he will take the figure back to the department to see what can be done about the situation and whether the sum has relevance as regards the conditions at Lewes.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, said that he hoped that the Government would not regard some of these adverse reports as an excuse to propagate their philosophy of prison privatisation. I, too, hope that they will not do that because when it comes to the prison service and keeping people in custody, in my opinion, introducing the profit motive would result only in the further deterioration of services in those places.

The report refers also to Strangeways and to what happened there. Only two weeks ago I referred in your Lordships' House to what took place at Strangeways. Coming from Manchester, I know a little bit about it, and I know that if the Home Office had taken the advice of the prison officers working there and of those who were brought into Strangeways the riot could have been capped within two days. But the matter was taken completely out of the hands of the prison staff at Strangeways, and somebody from the Home Office—some gentleman, I assume, in a black coat and stripped trousers—took over. I understand that the final cost of rectifying the carnage at Strangeways was between £60 million and £80 million. That makes one wonder whether what happened at Wymott was a spin-off of what happened at Strangeways. I understood from people who briefed me on the evening of that debate in your Lordships' House two or three weeks ago that some of the ringleaders from Strangeways were later incarcerated in the mental hospital on Merseyside in which violent prisoners are kept. So perhaps what happened at Wymott was to some extent a carbon copy of what happened at Strangeways.

When one recalls that Wymott was built only in the late 1970s, it is extremely depressing to think of the deterioration that has taken place there since. It is beyond belief. Areas of the prison are literally battened down at night and nobody ventures in. We know what will happen in any situation like that—there will be mob rule and the toughest men in the prison will take control. I support the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, in his view that that situation cannot be tolerated any longer. A society that is supposed to provide a humane prison system cannot allow the physically weaker prisoners to serve their sentences by being locked behind bars every night at the mercy of a group of thugs and bully boys, but that is the situation there.

I repeat that the prison officers and staff at Wymott are commended for what they have tried to do in very difficult circumstances. They are saying that they will enter into negotiations and discussions with the Prison Department of the Home Office in order to eradicate this problem. However, if what I have described is the situation now, what ratio of prison officers to inmates will be required to put it right? I do not know what the average ratio of prison officer to inmate is—it will vary between establishments —but I should have thought that if we are to reverse and rectify the trend at Wymott we will need an extremely high ratio of prison officer to inmate, and possibly even a special type of prison officer.

As I have said before, the Prison Officers' Association at both national and local level welcomes and supports what is reflected in the report. It is most concerned about the lack of supervisory control that the staff can exert over inmates. The POA has pointed out that the nature of the prisoners held at Wymott has changed and, as the Inspectorate points out, many prisoners have become more aggressive, reckless and volatile since the Strangeways riot. Yet there has been no corresponding increase in staffing levels to reflect the more demanding prison population. Low staffing levels and inappropriate accommodation have been exploited by prisoners, with the consequential drug and bullying problems. The noble Earl will have heard enough from the noble Lord, Lord Harris, in greater detail than I have been able to give and from my noble friend Lord Longford to warrant a most serious consideration of these issues.

I was pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Harris, refer to the number of remand prisoners. This has always been a problem. We ought to try to bring down the number as quickly as possible. People should not be held on remand for weeks and even months in conditions where they are deemed to be guilty almost before they have been before a magistrates' court. Perhaps I take a contrary view to some noble Lords when I say that I am not overenthusiastic about reducing the prison population for the sake of it. I have heard the argument that burglars should not be sent to prison.

I happen to have been lucky so far in that I have never had my home burgled but it has happened to a member of my family. I can tell the House that the scars that it left with my sister are far more enduring than those left by any physical assault she may have had. Let it not be thought for one moment that we should go down the road of saying that certain categories of crime are all right and do not warrant a prison sentence. I can tell the House that that will not be too popular with those who find the burglar living among them, able to roam free and to do it again. That is just a sidepoint but I nevertheless think it should be made.

Once again I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for giving us the chance to debate this issue. I hope that the Minister can give a positive response to the reasonable points and requests that have been made.

2.47 p.m.

Lord Plant of Highfield

My Lords, first, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for providing us with the opportunity for the discussion of these important points. As my two noble friends who have spoken have shown, we share the same concerns and support the noble Lord in his request for reassurance on the point that he has made to the Minister. My noble friend Lord Longford suggested in a slightly sceptical way that political theorists such as I am have probably little to contribute to this kind of debate. He may well be right about that, but all I can do is to say that I shall think about these things and try to learn about prison reform and prison circumstances from people like himself and from the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, who have obviously made a great study and a life's work of these issues.

Since this is the first time I have spoken on Home Office matters from this Bench, perhaps I may preface my remarks on the two reports by some general points which bear directly on the issues raised by them. I should like to say how much I look foward to debating home affairs with the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. My only worry is that his mastery of the subject and his unfailing courtesy may well make it difficult for me to disagree with him vigorously without appearing to be totally unreasonable. I shall nevertheless try.

I should also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Judge Stephen Tumim and his colleagues for the thoroughness and indeed the fearlessness of their reports. In a period in which the role of inspectors in the public sector has come under attack—for example, in the context of Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools —because they are thought to have fallen victim to vested professional interest groups and so forth, the reports of Judge Tumim and the inspectorate generally show the great value of independent and fearless inspectorates in the public sector and are a vindication of this approach.

It is right that punishment and prison regimes should always be kept under review and before our eyes. Punishment is the clearest peacetime example of the coercive power of the state which is exercised in our name. We owe it to those who are subject to that power to ensure that it is exercised justly and that regimes of punishment are exercised and implemented in a just and fair manner.

I start with that point because it seems to me that punishment regimes should as far as possible embody the rule of law. They should embody it procedurally; that is to say, in terms of ideas such as fairness, equity and treating like cases in like manner. They should also embody it substantively; that is to say, in terms of the values which the rule of law is supposed to serve: human dignity, humanity and individual rights. It would be morally paradoxical if punishment to uphold the rule of law were to be implemented in a way that undermined that. More than that, it would be penally ineffective, because how can we induce respect for the rule of law in those whose lives are not governed by it in their environment—in prison?

I am pleased that the Government have made a commitment to those ideas in that section of their White Paper Custody, Care and Justice which deals with the idea of what they call the just prison. That is a point made forcefully in a recent article by Joe Pilling, the director general of the prison service, in a government publication in which he says: Justice has to be seen to be done at every stage of the criminal process, including the period of imprisonment". As a concept, that goes beyond having fair disciplinary procedures and proper channels for the redress of grievance; it goes to the heart of the prisoner's experience of how he or she is to be treated.

We believe that a just prison can best be attained by the standard-setting approach to which the Government have set their hand: setting out what are the basic standards of a prison regime and monitoring those standards via Her Majesty's inspectorate. That is the approach broadly adopted by the Government. It involves bringing into the prison service the Citizen's Charter approach which has been adopted in other areas of the public sector, as indeed Mr Pilling makes clear in a further part of his recent article.

Following the publication of the Woolf Report, there seems to be a wide degree of consensus about that matter. The POA has also given it its full support. It is because there is such a consensus about the standard-setting approach, combined with the monitoring of Judge Tumim and his colleagues in the inspectorate, that my noble friends and I believe that the whole idea of the privatisation of prisons is a way of becoming sidetracked from the main concern, which should be an urgent attempt to set those standards and to bring prisons up to them both in terms of their physical structure and the regimes within them. I do not know how a just prison—the Government's own term—embodying the values of the rule of law can be served by private, competitive market relations when those naturally serve entirely other purposes.

The reports before us show how far away from the ideal of a just prison, secured by basic, monitored standards, we are. I acknowledge that that is the fault of governments of all parties, but there is now a consensus about the way forward. The reports should not be used to urge greater privatisation but to increase the urgency of producing a statement of standards, emphasising the subsequent needs to meet those standards and the action required to do so.

I hope the Minister will be able to say something about when we can expect standards to be promulgated and the subsequent steps which will be necessary to secure those standards. It is clear that Wymott Prison, for example, is a long way from meeting even the basic standards of a just prison. As the Government themselves have made clear in their White Paper, and as Mr Pilling makes clear in the article that I have just mentioned, when inmates go to prison they do not lose all their rights as citizens. Surely one of the rights they should not lose is that of physical security. Yet in Wymott it seems to be primarily that right which is most at risk, with, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, 104 inmates having been taken to casualty departments in a period of 11 months, with about 80 per cent. of those cases being as a result of injuries sustained from other prisoners.

When the inspectors visited the prison, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said and my noble friend Lord Longford pointed out, they had the impression that the spurs of the prison were not thoroughly visited at night. The Home Secretary's response to the report of Judge Tumim said that, night patrols have been increased from 3 to 4 per night as the Chief Inspector recommends". It is not clear to me that that meets the need specified by the report. Patrols were already taking place and still the injuries occurred. The question the report seems to be asking is how thorough and detailed the patrols were and how far they penetrated into the spurs and exercised the authority that belongs to the staff. Can the Minister give an assurance that the increase in the number of patrols from three to four, which is to be welcomed, is to be combined with a more thorough exercise of authority by those patrols, if indeed I have understood the point made in the report correctly, as I believe I have.

The inspectors' report also found substantial evidence of drug abuse in prison. Apparently 16 cannabis pipes, £2,000-worth of heroin, and evidence of prisoners being under the influence of narcotics during the day was found. In Judge Tumim's report there is a specific recommendation regarding the frequency of searches in prison. The silence of the Home Secretary in the press release on his reaction to the report is slightly worrying in that regard. He said, I entirely accept the Chief Inspector's view that distribution of any illicit drugs within prison is a very serious matter. To put Wymott's problems in context, as a general rule finds of drugs within the prison are of minute amounts of cannabis. The prison's success in discovering drugs is testimony to the Governor's pro-active policy in this area and the skill of his searching teams". I wonder whether that response is not a little on the bland side, given the fact that £2,000-worth of heroin and 16 cannabis pipes were discovered, and whether there has been any change, as suggested by Judge Tumim, in the degree and extent of searches. Judge Tumim made a specific requirement of a full search of the prison every eight weeks. Given the response of noble Lords to the deplorable state of the prison as revealed in the report, it is important that the recommendations should be clearly accepted.

The inspectors' report recommends the drawing up of a compact between the prison authorities and the inmates—something that has figured in various publications by Her Majesty's Government. That seems a potentially useful tool until adequate standards are promulgated so that proper monitoring of those standards can take place. When the noble Earl winds up or in a letter to me, perhaps he can say whether the compact idea has been taken up within the prison since the issuing of the report. And perhaps he can say something generally regarding how the Government see the role of compacts between staff and inmates.

I want to say a word in regard to the report on Lewes Prison, which is disturbing in its own way. The prison falls a long way short of adequate standards, particularly in terms of the physical structure and the regime. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, explained the position and I do not believe that there is any need for me to reiterate the main points of concern. However, I want to stress my agreement with what other noble Lords have said regarding meal-times. To have breakfast at 8, dinner at 11, and tea at 4 on weekdays, and on Sundays to have the same times but with tea at 3, seems a rather arbitrary kind of scheme. It does not seem to me that it should be beyond the wit of the authorities to be able to provide a more civilised range of meal times. I confirm what my noble friend Lord Dean of Beswick said. The Prison Officers' Association has committed itself to entering into negotiations to see how the regime could be changed in the interests of prisoners as the association regards that as important.

Perhaps, finally, I can pick up what may seem to be a small point from the Lewes Report. However, it illustrates my general theme about the just prison and the role of fairness within prison. That ideal seems very remote from the reality painted in Judge Tumim's reports on the two institutions we are discussing. My point concerns the judge's own proposal that the visiting area in Lewes Prison should be turned into a no smoking area. The White Paper published by Her Majesty's Government states on page 14 that the necessary loss of many rights of citizenship need not normally prevent prisoners from knowing clearly what is expected of them, from having some choice over and being consulted about changes to their lives in prison.

The report from Judge Tumim suggests that the visiting area of the prison at Lewes should be turned into a no smoking area. I may be quite wrong but it seems to me that people who are experiencing a good deal of stress and strain in their lives, most of which may, no doubt be self-induced—this may apply to prisoners and their families—probably turn to smoking as some kind of relief. Visiting may well be a stressful time for many people. I hope that when a proposal such as this is made some regard is paid to the Government's own commitment to consultation with prisoners about changes in the regime which they have to endure. I hope that measures will not be taken as a matter of fiat. It is a small point. But it illustrates the point about a just and fair prison having some degree of consultation within it.

Overall, we are extremely disturbed by the two reports we have seen. We believe they should be linked and understood in the context of the Government's own philosophy of standard setting and monitoring. Far from these reports giving a strong impetus towards greater demands for privatisation—as some people have suggested—they should give greater urgency to the proper approach, which is that of standard setting and clear monitoring in relation to those standards. That is where the urgent action is needed. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for allowing this debate to take place today.

3.4 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I follow the noble Lord, Lord Plant of Highfield, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for having given us the opportunity of discussing this matter of these prisons this afternoon, even if that has prevented Santa from filling his stockings quite as quickly as he might otherwise have done.

The previous occasion on which I followed the noble Lord, Lord Plant of Highfield, was when I congratulated him on his maiden speech. I now have the pleasure of congratulating him on making a speech from the Opposition Front Bench. I have no doubt that the next time I follow him I shall congratulate him on being the Leader of the Opposition. However, we shall take one of those steps at a time. The noble Lord is adequately qualified for that meteoric rise. I am delighted to see him on the Front Bench.

The noble Lord is, of course, an academic. The subject we are discussing is intensely practical. I have always had a great fear of and respect for academics and I have always therefore had a great fear of and respect for the noble Earl, Lord Longford. It always seems to me that academics start three rungs up the ladder and therefore everyone else has to swim like mad to try to catch up. I have spent most of my life with that scenario and I am quite content to continue in that vein with the noble Lord, Lord Plant of Highfield.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, has made a devastating speech. We are used to him making that kind of speech. I shall try to answer some of the points he has made. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, was kind enough to make some nice remarks. I think that he said that I was a good parliamentarian. I am quite sure that he is wrong.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I said that the noble Earl is a great parliamentarian.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that is better still! Then the noble Earl completely ruined it by saying that he was making those felicitous remarks just because it was Christmas. I shall have to take that in whatever spirit I think best. I am grateful for whatever crumb of comfort the noble Earl was able to offer.

These reports are helpful to the Government. Of course no one likes nasty reports, and I shall try to show your Lordships what we intend to do and what we have done. The reports are helpful to the management of the prison service and they often help to stimulate change.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, asked why the Government did not know that such things were taking place. All prisons undergo a constant process to monitor the régime which is provided. Wymott is not perfect, but the governor is aware of all the ways in which it could be improved. He had clearly begun to implement some of the changes before the inspector appeared and before the report was published. The management at Wymott is by no means complacent about the situation and constantly seeks to make improvements.

The noble Lord, Lord Plant, was quite rightly concerned about standards. Work on the setting of a code of standards is being actively pursued. It is expected that a draft code will be ready for publication towards the end of 1993. An enormous amount of work is required to set just and fair yet achievable standards covering all the varied aspects of prisons. During 1993 consultations with interested groups will continue.

The noble Lord was concerned about Woolf's suggestion of a compact. That is only at the discussion stage. It has not yet been put into operation, but we are committed to putting it into operation in due course.

The report on Wymott Prison, which was published on 17th November, was the result of an unannounced visit by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector. Unannounced visits are exactly that—they are unannounced. No one in the prison service has any notion when the inspection team will arrive. That therefore gives the inspectorate the opportunity to see a prison in what one might call its natural state as opposed to in a state of anticipation.

Wymott is a modern, purpose-built Category C prison for men. Category C implies a relatively low security status. It means that within a secure perimeter prisoners are relatively free to move about and that they are given some degree of trust—to control their actions and to manage their own lives. That is the whole philosophy behind it. At Wymott prisoners have keys to their own cells. That gives them a flavour of the kind of daily choices and responsibilities which they will face in the community when they are released. Oddly enough, many prisoners find those choices and responsibilities difficult to accept when they are in prison. Many prefer not to have the responsibility of choice. It is therefore all the more important a part of a prisoner's preparation for release that he should be obliged to feel responsibility and use it.

Wymott is a testing prison, both for inmates and for staff alike. The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, referred to staffing levels. I can tell him that the number of staff at Wymott is at the required level.

As Her Majesty's Chief Inspector pointed out in his report, many of those who are in custody at Wymott are young men who are the products of inner city gangland culture. In the words of the report, these people can be: volatile, aggressive and reckless in their behaviour". As such, they constantly test the system by confronting staff. That is the product of the system from which they come; it is not necessarily a reflection on the place in which they find themselves.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, said that gangland culture has been replicated on the landings. If that is so —and there may be a modicum of that—I would suggest that that reflects the places from where they have come. That is a difficulty with which any prison governor has to contend.

We treat very seriously the comments of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector on the bullying and violent behaviour of some of Wymott's inmates. That has obviously been a cause of great concern to your Lordships today.

Her Majesty's Chief Inspector's report on Wymott had extensive press coverage. Much of the press coverage suggested that the prison was some kind of hell-hole, which was out of the control of its staff and its governor. That does pretty rough justice both to the prison and to the report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector.

In fact, Wymott's staff have shown great resolve and firmness—as well as loyalty—to the prison. That is demonstrated by the report, which praised staff relationships with the men who are in their charge, and that is the keystone of all effective security in our prisons. There has to be a relationship between the staff and those whom they look after. Prisoners do not win their confrontations with staff at Wymott. Staff remain in control. That is clearly demonstrated by Wymott's record.

There has been no serious incident of concerted indiscipline at Wymott since 1986. Given the volatile nature of Wymott's population, the level of violence among inmates is not that high. It may be higher than it should, but it is not that high.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, referred to the level of violence among inmates. The figures I give are based upon empirical evidence about the number of assaults. They are not just an impression of members of the Board of Visitors or the staff.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich referred also to staff sickness. The level of sick absence at Wymott is higher than the governor would wish. The position has improved in the current year and a new system for the better management of sick absence will be introduced at Wymott and other prisons in the north west area with effect from 1st January.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, said that over an 11-month period prisoners from Wymott attended hospital for treatment on 104 occasions. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, also referred to that matter. That may be so, but it is important to realise that that bold statistic includes some who attended hospital on more than one occasion and it includes treatment for injuries which had been incurred while playing sport or while at work, or which had been self-inflicted. So the figure does not give an accurate indicator of inmate-on-inmate violence.

The number of inmate-on-inmate assaults over a similar 12-month period was 28. We would prefer these to be nought. But when one considers that Wymott has a population of 800, and that it has a fairly rapid turnover of prisoners, the figures are not unduly high, though they are higher than any of us would wish.

It is true to say that most of Wymott's inmates do not live in fear of their fellow inmates, and inmate-on-inmate assault is the exception rather than the rule.

I say that only because there has been a lot of criticism today, and it is understandable criticism. I say it in order to put the problem into perspective, and not to give the impression that there is no need to tackle the problem of bullying in prisons. It must be and will be dealt with wherever it occurs. The noble Lords, Lord Harris of Greenwich and Lord Dean of Beswick, were concerned about bullying and about prisoners at night. The governor of Wymott had put in hand measures to increase the personal security of prisoners before the inspection took place and further action has since been taken. The governor has launched a programme to protect prisoners from bullying and vandalism by strengthening their cell doors and door jambs. That means that inmates can stay in their rooms at night confident that they will be safe.

There are some who might say that it would be better if such prisoners were put in cells with iron bars. The whole philosophy of the prison—your Lordships may say that it is wrong—is that they should be encouraged to realise what life is like in normal society. That is the reason they are given cells with their own keys. If that privilege is abused, action must be taken, and action has been taken.

The work has so far been carried out in one-and-a-half wings of the prison and the whole prison is scheduled to be completed by the end of April 1993. It is also proposed to adopt two of Wymott's houseblocks in 1993–94 for the use of vulnerable prisoners. The governor also responded immediately to the recommendations of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector by increasing the frequency of night patrols through the cell units from three to four each night. That was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, who I am glad to see has reappeared. An additional governor grade has been posted to the prison in order to allow increased governor presence in the units. The noble Lord, Lord Dean, asked whether those measures will be sufficient. All I can say is that that is what has been done and we shall monitor the situation. If it appears that they are insufficient, action will have to be taken.

Most inmates at Wymott go to work. The governor has, therefore, introduced a scheme to reward inmates who work hard by giving them additional home leave. Early indications show that that is working. Since June of this year Wymott has been running a scheme in which groups of eight to 10 prisoners share a personal officer; that is, a nominated officer in their unit who will take particular responsibility for them and to whom they can go for advice. Men who are serving life sentences have individual personal officers. Together with probation officers, Wymott's staff have introduced courses in anger control. Individual drug counselling is already available and there are plans to introduce group therapy in the new year. A great deal is happening in that respect.

A great deal of attention has been given to the comments of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector about the prevalence of drugs at Wymott, about which your Lordships expressed anxiety. It is clear that the circulation of any illicit drugs in any prison is a serious matter indeed. But, again, it is important to keep the situation at Wymott in proper proportion. Apart from one isolated incident, which was mentioned in Her Majesty's Chief Inspector's report, when a tennis ball containing heroin was lobbed over a prison fence —of all the extraordinary things to do—I understand that drug finds at Wymott have involved only very small amounts of cannabis resin or smoking implements. Those amounts would not normally excite the interest of the courts but that does not mean that their prevalence is justifiable or excusable. It is not. I say merely that had the incidents occurred outside the prison, they would not have excited the interest of the courts too greatly.

The governor pursues a vigorous searching policy. He can draw on skilled staff and specialist dogs which are trained to detect drugs. The level of success in finding drugs reflects in part the governor's determination to root drugs out of his prison.

I turn now to Lewes Prison. That is a typical mid-Victorian local prison. It is a clear example of the conflicting pressures which can be placed on a prison when it is trying to meet its commitments to the courts at the same time as providing a stimulating daily regime and a decent standard of care for its prisoners.

Maintaining a programme of activities which will keep prisoners constructively occupied and out of their cells for a good part of the day needs careful planning as well as an element of constancy. Both those factors are frequently threatened by the need to respond at short notice to the needs of the courts and sometimes to the unpredictable fluctuations in the numbers of those who are committed to custody. Her Majesty's Chief Inspector put that conflict at the heart of the problems at Lewes.

The noble Lords, Lord Harris and Lord Plant, referred to meal times. The governor is aware that the present evening tea time is not as it should be. That is caused by the limited availability of staff because of the need to service the courts. However, the governor plans to move the main meal of the day to early evening which should enable prisoners to be in a better position throughout the night.

I was slightly amused—and I know that I should not be because there is nothing funny about these matters—because the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich said that it is not good to have one's last meal of the day at three o'clock. I thought that because of the generosity of the noble Lord in tabling his Unstarred Question today some of us had not had a first meal of the day at three o'clock. However, that is merely a passing reflection and does not have much to do with the debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, referred also to the numbers at Lewes. There are now considerably fewer inmates than there were at the time of the inspection. Today that number stands at 328. It is greatly to the credit of local prisons, which must cope with the difficulties of court requirements and so on, that almost invariably Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, in his report, speaks highly of the level of care and concern which is shown by all the staff towards the prisoners who are in their charge. I am glad that Lewes is no exception.

However, that is not enough. It is the Government's policy to bring down unacceptable levels of overcrowding which have beset our prisons. That will open up opportunities for men and women who are in custody to use their time constructively in preparation for their release and will ensure that they experience decent living conditions and treatment while they are in prison.

Over the years there has been constant and justified criticism of our prisons and the condition of them. We now have a substantial building programme, which sometimes, curiously, seems to escape the notice of the critics. There are 21 new prisons in the Government's building programme, of which 15 have already been opened. The programme will provide over 11,000 new places by 1994 at a cost of some £1,200 million. That is substantial by any standards.

In our existing prisons nearly 900 new places and over 1,000 refurbished places are also being brought into use during the current financial year. That is also a staggering figure by any standards. Lewes has benefited from that programme. One of our new prisons—Highdown—which opened this year has taken over responsibility since November for Croydon and Guildford Crown Courts as well as the Surrey magistrates' courts. Those were previously served by Lewes. As a result, staff will now be free to supervise more prison activities for prisoners out of their cells. The hours that prisoners spend out of cells at Lewes has increased since the inspection from 30 hours to 40 hours per week.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, referred to the segregation unit. That closed for refurbishment. The decision to take over eight hospital cells was taken by the senior management team of which a senior medical officer is a member. Thirty-one cells were left for hospital patients and during that time the hospital did not run out of cells.

The Governor at Lewes also has plans to convert an old reception and kitchen building into an activities centre. He wants, too, to expand the regime activities which young prisoners undertake out of their cells. He wants to involve them more in the life of the community outside the prison. A community and social skills instructional officer has just been appointed, and he is at present working with many small groups of prisoners. On top of that, much physical renovation is being done in Lewes. It is in the middle of a £14½ million redevelopment programme. I hesitate to say it again, but that is a considerable figure by any standards.

A new reception area was opened on 30th November. The previous reception area was old, badly designed and far too cramped for the staff to treat the prisoners as they would have wished. Work on the new kitchen is also almost complete. This will give Lewes one of the most modern and hygienic kitchens in the prison service. It is expected to be in use within the next two or three months.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, was concerned about evening association, library services and the bail unit. All prisoners get between 20 and 30 minutes of informal association, while unlocked, to attend to their evening requirements. Convicted prisoners also have the opportunity to attend evening classes on four days of the week. It is planned to increase the number of out-of-cell hours, eventually, to 12 hours a day. This increase will start when the refurbishment accommodation for convicted inmates comes into use in April or May next year, and it will expand to include remand prisoners as the refurbishment programme continues.

The library—another item to which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, referred—is being moved this week to temporary accommodation in the education area prior to a permanent move alongside education later next year. Even the temporary accommodation is larger than was available previously, and it will allow all prisoners access at least twice a week. We expect a bail unit to open early in the new year. The health care centre is presently being upgraded and it will soon be ready for reoccupation. Work will begin on refurbishing the wings in April 1993. Contrary to the report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, this work will include the provision of space for association.

Her Majesty's Chief Inspector rightly criticised the makeshift visits area in Lewes prison, and I am glad to say that work on its refurbishment is now well advanced. It has been redecorated and new floor covering and furnishings will be provided. A child's play area and a drinks vending machine will also be in place before Christmas. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, also referred to mentally ill prisoners. I think that the noble Lord knows that we do not consider prison to be a proper place for the mentally ill, and we have made strenuous efforts to increase transfers of the mentally ill from prison to mental hospitals.

I think that it is true to say that, never before in its history, has the prison service faced a period of such rapid and fundamental change. Nor has it faced such penetrating, public scrutiny on the scale which it does at present. It is a considerable achievement of the service that so many prison establishments emerge from this dual challenge with considerable credit. Inevitably, though, inspection findings which reflect that aspect seldom reach the headlines. I hope that I have been able to show to your Lordships that, despite the considerable criticism of Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons and those of your Lordships, too, which none of us like, substantial improvements have already been made since the inspection took place, and more are planned to be introduced in the near future.

Perhaps I may be permitted on that somewhat more cheerful note than might have been prevalent during the earlier parts of the debate to wish those of your Lordships who have remained for this debate, and even those who have found it more convenient not to do so, as well as to the staff and the inmates of Wymott and Lewes prisons, a very happy Christmas.