HL Deb 07 July 1992 vol 538 cc1096-111

5.43 p.m.

Earl Ferrers rose to move that the draft order laid before the House on 21st February be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee session 1991–92].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the Criminal Justice Act 1991 enables the Government to sign a contract with the private sector for the management of new remand prisons. One contract has already been signed, and Her Majesty's prison Wolds started taking prisoners in April.

The purpose of the order before your Lordships today is to extend the application of the 1991 Act so that similar contracts can be signed for the management of new prisons—and only new prisons—which will hold sentenced prisoners. The Government have always made it clear that, if we bring in private sector management to the prisons, there must be suitable safeguards, controls and accountability. Those are provided in the 1991 Act so that the well-being of prisoners who are in the hands of the private sector contractors should be assured.

I thought your Lordships would want to know what those safeguards are. First, there is a legally binding contract between the Government and the contractor which specifies tightly the standards of the service which the contractor must provide. It also specifies the cost at which he will do that.

Secondly, there is to be a controller. He is a Crown servant, a governor grade who is a member of the Home Office Prison Service. He—or she—will be based at each privately managed prison and his or her job is to make sure that the contract is being correctly carried out. Any disciplinary proceedings against prisoners which may prove to be necessary will be undertaken by the controller and not by the private sector director who will be responsible for the management of the prison. The controller also has the task of investigating any allegations which may be made against staff of the prison.

Thirdly, the prison has a Board of Visitors in the normal way. Their independence and public-watchdog role is just the same as it is in any other prison. Fourthly, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons can visit the prison at any time, just as he can with any public sector prison. Fifthly, a prison, which is privately run will be run in accordance with the Prison Act 1952 and the Prison Rules.

A year ago, we were speaking of the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act in theoretical terms. We now have behind us the experience of having invited tenders, and of having signed a contract for one prison, and from that we have learnt that the private sector has a great deal to offer. It is in the light of that experience that the Government have decided to make use of the power in the 1991 Act to extend the use of the private sector to a new prison which is holding sentenced prisoners.

Wolds Prison, which will hold an unsentenced population of 300, is unique in the prison service. It is the only prison ever to have been built specifically for remand prisoners. There is no other establishment like it. The Government are, therefore, keen to broaden the test for the private sector by inviting competitive tenders for the management of a local prison.

On 5th December 1991 it was, therefore, announced that competitive tenders would be sought for the management of Blakenhurst Prison. This is at present being constructed near Redditch in Worcestershire, which, in modern parlance, is more usually described as Hereford and Worcester. It will be a local prison with a capacity of 649 prisoners and it will hold, like any other local prison, remand and convicted prisoners and sentenced adults.

With the issue of the invitations to tender for Blakenhurst on 15th June, it was possible also to publish the operational specification for the prison. A copy of that specification has been placed in the Library of the House. It gives a clear indication of the standards which we expect to see achieved by the prison management. I expect that some noble Lords may have taken the opportunity to look at it. If so, your Lordships will see that we are looking for a regime which maintains security for the public. Contractors must produce proposals which will cover a number of points. They will have to provide arrangements for maintaining and monitoring security at all levels. That covers physical means, management systems and procedures and, most important, personal vigilance. They will have to provide high standards of health, safety, food and hygiene. They will have to provide medical care, which will be particularly closely scrutinised by the Government. Suicide prevention is an important aspect of that, and will probably involve voluntary agencies such as the Samaritans.

There will be a carefully monitored initial reception procedure. The process of assessing prisoners, particularly those who will spend some considerable time at the prison, will be important. It is envisaged that the sentenced prisoner's time in prison will be determined by means of an agreement between the prisoner and the management. That will set out for all parties their understanding of the goals and the activities which have been agreed in order to ensure that the sentence is time which is spent constructively.

The contractors will have to prepare for early release. That will be an important part of their duties. They will have to provide at least six hours of education and six hours of physical education each week for each prisoner. They will be asked to provide opportunities for prisoners to engage in productive activity for at least seven hours a day. They will be urged to link up with local industrial and commercial interests and to try to involve those local interests in such a way that prisoners can be paid for their work at something which may approach normal pay rates. That is so that prisoners have an opportunity to provide some support for their family, as well as for victim reparation. It is expected that prisoners will be out of their cell all day. Certainly, a cell-free period of 12 hours a day must be achieved. It is expected that there will be generous provision of telephones, letter-writing facilities and visits, so that family ties can be maintained.

Many of these proposals are in place at Wolds for remand prisoners, and the Blakenhurst specification will extend these high standards to sentenced prisoners. The fact is that these new prisons will be operating to standards at a level to which the existing prisons can only aspire.

The Prison Service carries out a very difficult task in often very difficult circumstances. As a result of the report of Lord Justice Woolf, the service is making considerable efforts to improve the standards to which it operates. Work on a code of standards is in hand at present.

There is room to pursue the Woolf recommendations; and to bring in the spur of competition, and to bring in new ideas and new ways of doing things in order to assist in the process of raising standards all the way round.

The experience of the Wolds tendering exercise showed that the private sector has those new ideas. It has the imagination to look at things afresh, and it has the freedom to consider new procedures and management methods and, at the same time, it has shown that it understands the complexities and the difficulties which are inherent in running a prison.

A new prison provides a perfect opportunity for seeing if we can extend these new ideas further. It is right to explore all the options which are available to provide the most effective prison care system for the future. I believe that contracting-out offers fresh opportunities, and it should offer the opportunity to improve the quality of life for the prisoners who are in our care. It is for these reasons that I commend the order to your Lordships. I hope that it will receive your Lordships' approval.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 21st February be approved. [14th Report from the Joint Committee session 1991–2].—(Earl Ferrers.)

5.52 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl who, in his usual graceful way, has unfolded a lovely picture of privatisation. He has given us the idea that the experience of the Wolds reinforces his own inclination towards privatisation. I do not know how many Members of your Lordships' House sitting here or elsewhere have actually visited that centre. I felt it my duty to make the very arduous journey there. I am now speaking from a first-hand study of the Wolds.

Nothing at the prison would convince any fair-minded person that new lessons had been learnt. The noble Earl has set out the theory, but that is very different from what goes on. I am not saying that theory is denied by the experience and I am certainly not saying that it is confirmed by it. For example, the noble Earl did not mention the fact that there have been three quite serious disturbances at the Wolds. Three disturbances within three months is quite good going. That brings the average up to that of a prison filled with difficulties.

We must not simply say that the Wolds is privatised and therefore it is a better place. I shall come back to this again at the end, but in my view privatising prisons is obscene. It may be said that I went with a closed mind. I retain sufficient academic scepticism to disbelieve even my own theories and certainly those of anyone else. Perhaps I may just convey an impression of the Wolds to the House. When I visited there were about 100 prisoners out of 300 who were due to arrive. I believe that the operational staff will number about 100 when they are all there. In total there will about 170 staff. They do not come from places where they would have had experience. At least half-a-dozen out of 100 have had some experience of running a prison. The others are completely new to it and they are novices. The deputy director was one of the half dozen. I spent the morning with him and I found him to be a most enlightened man. I hesitate to quote the things he said because they might not help his career.

He had had considerable experience of the Prison Service and he was one of the few who had. He had been a deputy governor. He admitted that there were certain advantages at the Wolds. He said that there were more flexible working arrangements. That arises from the fact that there is not a trade union to deal with. Those Members of your Lordships' House who dislike trade unions will say, "What a heaven on earth; a place without any trade unions! That is the kind of prison that we want". I do not know whether many noble Lords will be surprised to hear that there have already been three disturbances in three months and already they may be feeling the breeze a little.

I am not one of those who believe that you can permanently run any state institution without a trade union of any kind. However, there are some advantages. For example, it is possible to employ a full-time staff at the weekend. That is an advantage. Apart from the deputy director and others, I talked to two other members of the staff in quite responsible positions. One had been a physical education teacher at a private school. He had also taught a little French. Another member of the staff was a junior management consultant. They are the people in responsible positions in this prison.

It is far too early to say whether the prison will work out well. It is far too early to say that these people will be able to control prisoners, re-educate them or do anything else. It is all in the melting-pot. It is all in the eye of the noble Earl at the moment. It should be understood that it is extremely early. It is rather absurdly early to say that experience of the Wolds gives any extra reason for privatising prisons.

If anyone should ask me why I call the privatisation of the prisons obscene, I would try to put it briefly. When we take it on ourselves to deprive any human being of liberty we are taking on a very heavy responsibility. The state cannot abdicate and abandon that responsibility to profit makers. The noble Earl may have said at the beginning, because I was a minute or two late, that the Wolds is owned by an international security company. Like other international security companies, it is in it for the profit. I certainly do not believe that it is right, moral or decent to hand over the responsibility which belongs only to the state to such a body. I do not say that it is better or worse than any other international security company. However, they are the kind of people to whom we propose to hand over citizens whom we have taken responsibility for incarcerating. I have said in this House more than once that to hand over prisons and to privatise them is obscene. I repeat that now with more emphasis after the visit which I suggest other noble Lords should imitate.

5.58 p.m.

Lord Windlesham

My Lords, when the Minister of State at the Home Office introduced this order in another place late last night he described it as rather a technical order. Obscure as it may be as a legislative provision, because of the way in which the change has been made, we should make no mistake that it is a turning-point in English penal policy. Moreover, it has been reached with remarkably little public debate. There was no mention of contracting out in the Green or the White Papers which preceded the Criminal Justice Bill in the last Session.

When the Bill was published, the power to contract out was limited to new prisons which would hold remand prisoners only. The extension of that power to new prisons for convicted and sentenced prisoners came at the Report stage in the House of Commons and followed from amendments that had been tabled in Standing Committee by a Government Back-Bencher. The convoluted wording of what is now Section 84 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 is witness of the problems experienced by the draftsman in trying to fit this extension within the ambit of the original clause. The section prescribes that no extension of contracting out beyond remand prisons can be made without the specific approval of both Houses by way of the affirmative resolution procedure. Hence this order in your Lordships' House today.

The Minister of State at the time, Mrs. Rumbold, speaking on the Criminal Justice Bill in the House of Commons last year, was pressed to say what were the Government's intentions on privatisation. She explained that the proposal was to "experiment"—a word used by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, again in our debate this afternoon. The experiment was to be confined to a single remand centre on Humberside which was under construction at the time. During the Commons Report stage of the Criminal Justice Bill on 25th February 1991, Mrs. Rumbold stated: The Government are taking the first step in considering contracting out a remand prison. We believe that this opportunity will not easily arise again… If, and only if, the contracted-out remand centre proves to be a success we might move forward towards the privatisation of other parts of the prison service".—[Official Report, Commons, 25/2/91; col. 720.] I was interested to hear what the noble Earl, Lord Longford, said about Wolds Remand Prison because I, too, have had an opportunity to visit it. It became operational in April of this year, when the first inmates, remanded in custody from two Crown courts—Doncaster and Sheffield—were received. As the noble Earl told us, it is still operating at well below its capacity, which is for approximately 300 inmates. I was impressed by what I saw. I too formed a good impression of the director, who was formerly a governor in the Prison Service. I also had an opportunity to meet the Home Office Controller, who is a Crown servant responsible to the Secretary of State. Earlier in her career she had been an assistant governor in the Prison Service and she now has the responsibility for monitoring the contract on site, and for the disciplinary powers that are normally exercised by a governor in a Prison Service establishment.

I found that standards were high—as they should be in a brand new institution and one which is only little more than one-third full. The standards are written down, contractual obligations that have been agreed between the Home Office and the company which is providing the management service. They cover such matters as visits, integral sanitation in single or double cells, exercise, hygiene, and a number of the other matters that were itemised more fully by the noble Earl in his opening speech.

It is all a far cry from the squalor and humiliation that exist in the local prisons where a large majority of untried persons on remand are held. I have argued before, in this House and elsewhere, that one of the fundamental flaws—perhaps the biggest single flaw—that could be put right in the prison system, and the main cause of overcrowding, is the fact that between 20 and 25 per cent. of the overall prison population is made up of persons who are being held on remand awaiting trial. Some of them will be acquitted. Some will receive non-custodial sentences. They are being held in custody to protect the public. They are detained for reasons of prevention, not to be punished. It is totally wrong that we should have allowed ourselves to drift into a situation in which such people are held in circumstances which are virtually identical to those of convicted prisoners who are serving their sentences as the punishment imposed by the court, and sometimes worse.

There has been a strong case for separate provision being made for remand prisoners so that they are no longer held in local prisons. That would allow Prison Service staff to concentrate on what they are trained to do, which is to hold in secure conditions sentenced prisoners. Remand prisoners should be held in separate remand centres. I shall not repeat that line of argument today. Although it was not the only factor, it was one of the factors that led to the original proposal that there should be an experiment at one remand centre. I should have welcomed it if the experiment had applied to more than one remand centre. We are now going much further down the road of contracting out, and in the process moving away from that degree of separateness of status for remand prisoners. That is a matter of regret.

It is impossible to say whether the experiment at The Wolds is successful or not. It has been operational for a few weeks only. How can there be any realistic evaluation of success or failure? To claim, as Ministers now seem to be claiming—I refer both to the noble Earl and to Mr. Lloyd last night in the Commons—that the tendering exercise for The Wolds is a success in showing what the private sector has to offer is quite a different matter. The Home Office has had to allocate broadcast franchises, and a number of your Lordships know what a gap can open up between promise and performance.

What seems to have driven policy forward is simply the fact that another new prison is nearing completion. This time, it is a large establishment with a capacity of 650 at Blakenhurst near Redditch. It is said that it is too large for remand prisoners only; hence the need to fill up the rest of the space with sentenced prisoners. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said just now that the experiment was being widened by adding Blakenhurst, a local prison holding both remand and sentenced prisoners, to The Wolds, and that as a result the experiment could be evaluated on a wider front. The noble Earl's opening speech corresponded closely with what Mr. Lloyd said last night, except for the fact that I did not hear the noble Earl say what I noticed Mr. Lloyd say, to the effect that from now on, as it reaches completion, each new prison will be subject to competitive tenders from the private sector, and possibly to tenders from the Prison Service as well.

This is all a curious way to make a major departure in public policy. I must admit that it leaves me in two minds. If, as a consequence, higher standards resulted across the prison system I should not be alone in welcoming that. It would be a great prize, and one we should work for. The idea of enforceable standards laid down by contract, within the accountability developed in the Criminal Justice Act, is one that holds out promise for the future. Certainly, there is opportunity for further public debate.

6.10 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, not perhaps for the first time, I find myself in almost complete agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham. I have made my views on the matter quite clear. I favoured the idea of an experiment when Mr. Hurd first indicated that that was his position. I was concerned, as was the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, when this rather strange amendment was pushed through the Commons and a major change in the Government's intentions took place while the Bill was being considered, as a result, I believe, of Back Bench pressure. The issue then came before this House. It is instructive to consider what the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, told us was the Government's position on the matter.

We discussed the issue of the privatisation of prisons on 23rd April last year. The noble Earl referred to the new Wolds Remand Centre in Humberside. He went on to say: If a suitable tender is received that prison may be contracted out. No new remand centres are being built or planned. Therefore, in regard to contracted-out remand centres, that will be the only one for the foreseeable future. At present there are no plans to contract out prisons for convicted prisoners or for existing establishments". It should be borne in mind that those words were uttered only in April of last year. The noble Earl added: If we decided to go down that road we should first wish to see how well the contracting out at Wolds had gone, and whether there were any lessons to be learned from that".—[Official Report, 23/4/91; col. 211.] How could any lessons have been learnt in an establishment which was only opened in April and which has had at best one third of its CNA occupied by remand prisoners? The noble Earl has to justify, as I am sure he is anxious to do, the relationship between the speech he made last April and the Government's position which he expressed from the Front Bench today and which, as the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, indicated, was expressed in the House of Commons yesterday. That is the first matter.

I certainly should be grateful for any information that the noble Earl would like to give us on how well the Wolds experiment, as it was described by Mrs. Rumbold, the noble Earl's former colleague, in justifying the Government's position to the House of Commons, has gone. What kind of analysis has taken place in regard to what has developed at Wolds since April this year? Can the noble Earl tell us, from the basis not of the tendering exercise—that is not what the noble Earl said last year—but on the basis of what has actually happened at Wolds, how he can justify widening the procedure to include a new establishment?

When Mr. Hurd indicated his position on the matter I did not find myself in agreement with the noble Earl, Lord Longford, whose position I respect and understand, who said that he was wholly opposed in principle to the project. I could not possibly take that view if remand prisoners were to have far better facilities than would otherwise be the case. Those of us who know the conditions in which remand prisoners are held in gaols in this country would find it difficult to oppose the experiment as a matter of principle. But we are not discussing a single experiment. We are talking about extending it, and substantially extending it. I have to point out that the noble Earl's speech today cannot be related to the speech he made in April of last year.

There is another consideration. I wonder whether the noble Earl will tell us what is the Government's true position. Those of us who read the Guardian of 2nd July will have seen an extremely interesting interview by John Carver, the home affairs correspondent of that newspaper, with the present Home Secretary, Mr. Clarke. Mr. Clarke said a large number of things with which I found myself in complete agreement. But the article stated: Turning to the Home Office's responsibility for prisons, Mr. Clarke disclosed that he was considering extending privatisation from new jails to existing establishments, presently staffed by the Prison Officers' Association. He recognised the strains this could cause in his relations with the POA". That is one of the most profound understatements I have read for a substantial period of time.

As I have pointed out in the House on a number of occasions, some branches of the POA have behaved with disgraceful irresponsibility in recent years. Their attitude has been wholly indefensible. But having said all that, I do not believe that we should take this massive step in the dark without clear evidence as to the benefits which have been secured as a result of the Wolds experiment. There is now an onus on the noble Earl to explain clearly how he can relate what he said in April of last year to what he said today.

6.17 p.m.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I listened with great sympathy to the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Windlesham and Lord Harris of Greenwich, and of my noble friend Lord Longford. I agreed with almost every word that they said. We are now in a very strange position. Blakenhurst is due to open its gates to prisoners next spring. It is a brand new category B prison. It was built at taxpayers' expense and has cost us £50 million. It is designed to hold more than 649 prisoners. It will operate as a local prison and will therefore hold convicted as well as unconvicted prisoners. The Government are proposing to hand the prison over to a private contractor.

Like the noble Lords, Lord Windlesham and Lord Harris of Greenwich, I should like for a moment to look at the history of this process. It is instructive not only in relation to government penal policy but in relation to the way in which the Government have gradually—almost imperceptibly—moved on this issue from the state that they were in as recently as four or five years ago to the state they are in now. It began in 1988 with a consultation process about prison privatisation. There was the publication of a Green Paper entitled Private Involvement in the Remand Sector—only the remand sector. It argued the case for a limited experiment with privatisation confined to the remand sector. It ruled out privatisation for prisons holding convicted prisoners. That was in 1988—not so long ago. It stated: Because of the different purpose of remand as opposed to the sentence of imprisonment, and the character of the remand regime, the running of the remand centre by a private company would raise fewer difficult issues of principle". The distinction is clearly made between remand prisons and prisons holding convicted prisoners, a point made with some force by the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham.

When the Criminal Justice Bill first entered the House of Commons, the clauses relating to prison privatisation were confined to the area of newly built remand prisons. The experiment was to take place at the Wolds, a remand prison which accepted its first prisoners as recently as last April. Even while the Bill moved through the parliamentary process and the Government accepted some Back-Bench amendments extending the Home Secretary's powers to privatise any category of prison, the then Minister in charge of prisons, Mrs. Rumbold, reassured Parliament on 25th April 1991 (at col. 720 of Hansard) that further prison privatisation would go ahead, if, and only if, the contracted-out experiment at the Wolds proved to be a success—not, if, and only if, the tendering process at the Wolds proved to be a success; but if, and only if, the contracting-out experiment proved to be a success. At the time, senior civil servants said that a proper assessment of success at the Wolds would take no fewer than three years. But prisoners first arrived at the Wolds in April. I assume that the assurance means what it says. When Ministers give assurances as specific in character as that, one assumes that they mean what they say, that they mean to bind the Government and that, if the Government are re-elected, they mean to bind their successors. Therefore, I make that assumption of good faith on the part of the Government at the time that the assurance was given.

How can one conceivably say that one is in a position to judge whether the contracted-out experiment at the Wolds, to use Mrs. Rumbold's phrase, has been a success or a failure? Prisoners only arrived there in April. If that assurance means what it says and if it is still valid—if it is not valid, then it is incumbent upon the Government to tell us why they are withdrawing it—it cannot be squared with government policy as expressed in the order.

It is quite extraordinary to note that last December the Government announced that they planned to privatise Blakenhurst. No formal consultation presaged the Government's change of heart on the principle of handing over convicted prisoners to the private sector. There was no consultation, and everyone is now presented with the order which, I believe, opens the doors extremely wide.

What about the Wolds? Let us look at the Wolds experience and the contracting-out experiment to see whether we can draw any possible lesson from it which will help us in relation to Blakenhurst. The Wolds was built at public expense at a cost of £38 million. I suppose that that is a similarity between the two prisons. It was handed over to Group 4 to run. The contract struck between Group 4 and the Home office guarantees prisoners—that is, at least on paper—the kind of prison conditions and activities that prison reformers have unsuccessfully campaigned for on behalf of the the state prison system for a decade or more.

However, despite the excellent facilities that were handed over to the private contractor running the Wolds, prison privatisation has not exactly got off to a very auspicious start. As the Minister mentioned in the other place last night, since it opened in April, there have been three serious disturbances. They have occurred despite the prison holding just one-third of the prisoners that it will hold if, and whenever, it reaches full capacity. But it does not stop there. We are asked to judge whether the contracting-out experiment is or is not a success.

A shroud of secrecy surrounds the whole operation at the Wolds. For example, we have been denied information about the cost that Group 4 is charging the taxpayer to run the Wolds. I should have thought that that was rather a basic piece of information upon which we could judge whether the contracting-out experiment will or will not be a success. But we cannot get it. Parliamentary Questions relating to costs and related profit margins have been rebuffed on the spurious grounds of commercial confidentiality. I hope that tonight the Minister will be able to lift the veil of commercial confidentiality just a little and tell us just how much Group 4 is actually making out of the contracting-out experiment at the Wolds.

The Crown controller installed in the Wolds to monitor performance and report back to the Home Office has yet to publish a public report. Indeed, the first disclosure that there was anything wrong at the Wolds was made by the Yorkshire Post on 4th June and related to a disturbance which took place on 28th May. Therefore, information which might enable us to come to a conclusion as to whether the contracting-out experiment is or is not a success is not exactly flowing out of the prison.

The Government have said that any extension of privatisation of prisons would be conditional upon a full assessment of the Wolds experiment. With the greatest respect, it seems to me that the noble Earl has come here tonight in an attempt to persuade us that really what they were talking about was the success of the tendering experiment—presumably, the way in which the tenders are put in, the way in which the Government consider them and the way in which they are then accepted. However, we do not know the details because of the doctrine of commercial confidentiality. If the Government are really telling us that that is what Mrs. Rumbold and indeed the noble Earl had in mind last year when they talked about a contracting-out experiment in relation to the Wolds, it is a bit like Alice: words mean really what they want them to mean. The prison at the Wolds is, as yet, only one-third full; and, indeed, will not reach capacity until the autumn.

I am afraid that the Government have clearly reneged upon their promise to be cautious. Instead, they have chosen to pursue their dogma with, I think, unseemly and potentially disastrous haste. Perhaps I may echo the words of my noble friend Lord Longford. In my view, prison privatisation is wrong in principle. I believe that the state should retain direct responsibility for imprisonment which is an eminently sensitive and often dangerous task. The cost of crime and the dispensation of justice ought to be a social cost borne by all members of society.

However, privatisation will create a vested interest in high crime rates and full prisons. I am bound to say that I think the word "obscene" is not too strong in this respect —in fact, it was used by my noble friend—if one imagines that, as the crime rates go up, the directors of Group 4 rub their hands and say, "Jolly good, the Wolds will be fuller and Blakenhurst will have more prisoners. We shall make more money out of it". I am bound to say that I find that unethical. In my view, it is unethical that the shareholders of private security firms should profit from punishment handed down by the state.

As I see it, the other problem is where the policy is designed to lead. I believe that the Minister in another place last night let the cat somewhat out of the bag when he said: As I said, the order empowers the Government to contract out the management of new prisons. Naturally, the occasion is Blakenhurst and I have concentrated on our plans for that establishment. However, I want to make it clear that we expect to invite private sector tenders for each new prison that opens after Blakenhurst". [Official Report, Commons, 6/7/92; col. 122.] Therefore, if the policy is carried through and if the Government mean apparently what they say they mean, we shall find ourselves at the end of the day with a two-tier prison system. If what the Government tell us about how marvellous the private prisons will be comes to pass, we shall have one set of prisons: the private ones in which prisoners are treated well, humanely and in ways which prison reformers have for many years been urging the Government to treat all prisoners; and we shall then have the mass of prisoners housed in old Victorian prisons which were totally condemned by the Woolf Report.

I must tell the Government that that seems to me to be a recipe for potential danger. They are playing with fire. I say that because the man who is in the old Victorian prison and locked up for 22 hours a day will not take it kindly if someone convicted of a comparable crime and sentenced to a comparable term of imprisonment is sent to one of the new privately run show-pieces that the Government propose to establish. Moreover, who will decide which convicted prisoner goes to which prison? Who will decide the way in which prisoners are moved from the good prisons—that is, the privatised ones about which the Government are so proud —into the Dartmoors, the Wandsworths and the Pentonvilles? If ever there was a situation in which the Government were playing with potential fire, it seems to me that this is it.

I have to tell the Government that I believe they have reneged upon the assurances that were given to Parliament during the passage of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. I also have to say to them that the privatisation of the prison service in relation to convicted prisoners is of a totally different character to the possible privatisation of a purpose-built establishment and facility for remand prisoners.

Finally, if the Government are going down that road, then to create a two-tier system in our prison service is fundamentally dangerous and foolhardy. They would do far better to concentrate their efforts and energy upon implementing the provisions of the Woolf Report, which relates to the mass of prisoners, and not put them into the provision of one or two show-piece prisons which, in the end, will prove to be more trouble than they are worth.

6.30 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I always view following the noble Lord, Lord Richard, with a certain amount of apprehension, because his powers of advocacy are such that he can make a nonsense out of anyone's argument. He has done his best this evening to make a nonsense of the argument for the order which the Government put forward.

Lord Richard

My Lords, it is a bit of a nonsense.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord is good enough to agree with me on that point. I wonder whether I can encourage him to agree with me on a few of the other points. I find the debate a little trying in some ways as, over the years, when I have had the privilege of standing at this Dispatch Box, and before, one has heard nothing but the castigation of all governments over the standards of our prisons. Everyone has said that the conditions are awful; that the prisoners should be treated better and given better conditions.

Along we come with a proposal which gives, and will give, prisoners better conditions, standards, education, time out of their cells, opportunities to earn money, and yet noble Lords say that that is a retrograde step in so far as it was handing prisoners over to the private sector. I do not accept that. We are trying to accept that we have prisoners who have to be kept in prisons and that the standards in those prisons must be high. Whether that is to be done by a private firm or the prison service is relatively immaterial. The important point is that the standards should be high.

I do not see any reason, in principle, for saying that it is only the prison service that can produce those high standards. It is that service which has been criticised by noble Lords in the past. We are trying to ensure that the standards will be even higher than they have been, and that has proved to be the case. In so far as the system that we are encouraging and have seen at the Wolds is producing higher standards, I should have thought that that would have met with the accord of your Lordships and would not—in the words of the noble Earl, Lord Longford—be considered obscene.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I am surprised that the Minister believes in the Wolds experiment, which he has no doubt studied at first hand. Has he been there?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, no.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, he has not been there. I suggest that the Minister has a good look. That is enough.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I realise that the noble Earl is delighted at having been to the Wolds and seen what is happening. I am glad that he has. That only makes me more surprised to know that he considers it obscene, because that is not the impression that we have gained. The noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said that there had been incidents at the Wolds. There have been two passive sit-downs.

Lord Richard

My Lords, three.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, there have been three incidents.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, there have been two passive sit-downs and one sit-down. There is a difference between a sit-down and a passive sit-down. The noble Earl seems to think that is funny. A passive sit-down is when someone sits down and does not do anything. A sit-down is when one sits down and—

The Earl of Longford

And what, my Lords?

Earl Ferrers

—and causes some trouble, my Lords. As the matter is causing such enormous jocularity, I cannot see what the noble Earl is fussing about. Obviously the incidents are not causing too much anxiety.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, perhaps I may explain what I am laughing at. I did not know one could do many thousands of pounds worth of damage while sitting down.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I was not there—no doubt the noble Earl was—to see how that peculiarity came about. However that may be, there were those three incidents: two of a less substantial nature and one of a small nature. That averages three such incidents in three months which is the average for Prison Service establishments. Of course, the noble Earl is well aware that the start of a prison is always a difficult time.

My noble friend Lord Windlesham said that this was a change in the penal system. Of course it is. I do not deny that. But for ages noble Lords have been asking for a change in the penal system. They have been asking the Government to try to find ways of encouraging, improving and uplifting standards in prisons. We are now doing so. I return to the point that I do not believe that there is anything intrinsically sacrosanct about the Prison Service being the only body which can run a prison. That has been shown to be the case.

The noble Lord, Lord Richard, said something which I found to be curious: that it is bad that Group 4 should have a vested interest in crime rates and the profits to be made from crime. That is an extreme view. He is well aware that there is a job to be done. If prisoners are to be looked after by a security firm or other company that does not mean that such companies profit from crime or become excited because the crime rate is going up. That was an extreme exposition by the noble Lord, and one that is unusual for him.

The noble Lord then said that there was a two-tier system: the better system and the less good system. He thought that it was bad to have a two-tier system and that it would be better not to have the better system so that all prisoners could be in the worse system. I find that a hard view to follow. Obviously we must try to raise standards. In so far as this policy helps to raise standards, then it is a good thing.

My noble friend Lord Windlesham and the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, asked why we had to go ahead so quickly with Blakenhurst. There is encouraging evidence from the Wolds tendering experience and from what is being done at the Wolds. Those who have tendered have undertaken to deliver high standards, and that must be better for the prisoners.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, asked what analysis there had been of what was happening at the Wolds. He castigated me for saying something in April last year which he believed to be directly opposed to what is happening now. That is not so. I admit that there has been a movement in thought and approach but there is nothing contradictory in what I said way back in April with what is happening now. Of course we had to have the experience of the Wolds, of tendering and of contractors wanting to take on the job and of doing it.

A Home Office controller is based full-time at the Wolds. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked what analysis there had been. She monitors performance against the contract. She is there daily. She establishes that the contractor is delivering the standards required by the contract. She has found that to be successful. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, castigated the Government once more—he has been doing well in castigating the Government this evening—over being secretive about the price of the tender. He was not born yesterday. He knows that the Government do not say what the tender prices are.

Lord Richard

My Lords, why not?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, because future tenderers will know what others tendered.

Lord Richard

My Lords—

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I shall give way but the noble Lord is well aware that the Government do not say what prices have been tendered.

Lord Richard

My Lords, perhaps I may make two points for the Minister to consider. First, we are not asking people to reveal their tender prices at the time that the contract is being negotiated. We are asking merely how much the taxpayer will have to pay Group 4 for running the prison. That is an entirely different thing. Secondly, if the Minister cannot disclose that on the grounds of commercial confidentiality, does he not realise that that, in itself, is a damning indictment of the policy that the Government are pursuing? We should know those facts.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, says he does not want to know how much they tendered for but that he simply wants to know how much it cost the Government. I cannot see any difference between the two. What I can tell the noble Lord, and I know this will satisfy his deep curiosity, is that the price given by the contractors for the Wolds is less than it would have cost if operated by the Prison Service. The noble Lord asks, "How do we know that?" I can tell the noble Lord that, although I am not going to divulge to him the price, it is a great deal lower than it would have been. Perhaps we can move on after that completely unnecessary intervention.

My noble friend Lord Windlesham said that he felt it was not possible to say that the Wolds has been a success. I accept that it is early days, but the fact is that it has been running and that to date it has been shown to be a success. We believe that where a new prison is being built it is right to give the private sector the opportunity of tendering for it—tendering not to make money but to ensure that the facilities which the prison is offering to prisoners are better and cheaper than they could have been. If that is so, it must be to the benefit not only of the Government and the taxpayer but ultimately to the prisoner as well.

I believe it was the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich—I may be mistaken but I think it was he—who quoted the speech of my right honourable friend the Minister of State in another place. He said that we are proposing to invite private sector tenders for any new prison which will open after Blakenhurst. That does not mean to say that a private contractor will necessarily always get the contract. It may well be that the Prison Service will tender and get the contract. We are trying to provide the best service and one which will give the prisoner the best form of life in his surroundings in the most cost-effective way. I hope that will prove to be the case. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, looks agitated and so I will sit down to allow the noble Lord an opportunity to speak.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I am never agitated when the noble Earl is speaking. I merely wanted to draw his attention to a rather significant fact. He has omitted to give any reply to this remarkable interview given by the Home Secretary in the Guardian newspaper on 2nd July. That indicated he was considering extending privatisation from new gaols to existing establishments. Is that the position and, if so, could we be given a little detail about this?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, if that were to happen it would be necessary to produce a new order because at the moment the Act does not permit that. If my right honourable friend feels that such action would be correct for the future an order will be produced, but no order is being produced at the moment so he cannot extend privatisation.

I am grateful to your Lordships for taking part in this debate although I am bound to say that I would have wished for a little more encouragement, particularly from those who have for so long wanted to try to increase the standards of the Prison Service. Nevertheless, I hope that your Lordships will give this order your approval.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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