§ 2.56 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ Whether they will reconsider their policy of privatisation of the prison service and related services in the light of recent escapes by prisoners under escort by a private security company.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)
No, my Lords. Competition from the private sector is a valuable stimulus to the prison service.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, I am not surprised at the Minister's answer. The Minister will know that we understand that, as the prison population contains a percentage of dangerous, cunning and clever people, escapes will always take place. However, does he not agree that the present spate of escapes from private sector escorts and prisons makes it seem like a growth industry—perhaps the only one which the Government have at present? Can the Minister tell us the real causes of the escapes? Was it poor or inadequate training, bad equipment or lack of direction from the top? It is said that Mr. Derek Lewis, the new director general of the prison service, has had no training whatever in running a service as complicated as this. If that is the case, will the Minister say that the Government will seek to remove him as quickly as possible?
My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's anxieties. He is quite correct in saying that escapes occur. That is a fact of life and we regret every one of them. But it would be quite wrong to suggest that that has anything to do with the new director general who has taken over the responsibilities.
As regards court escort, Group 4 has taken over a very large area which before comprised seven counties, 20 prisons, 72 magistrates' courts, 10 Crown Courts, seven police forces and 71 police stations. The responsibility for dealing with all those court cases was divided among a number of organisations and now it is to be under one authority.
The noble Lord asked about prison escapes. Group 4 has been responsible for the Wolds prison for one year, and two people have escaped. I understand that one returned of his own accord. Apparently he wanted to go out for his birthday. He tried to get back unobserved and nearly did. The other one was taken to Hull Royal Infirmary for a knee operation. The hospital would not treat him while he had his handcuffs on and so they were removed. Although he was in for a knee operation he legged it while he was being put in a wheelchair.
As regards escorts, there have been five escapes. Three of those people returned and two were inadvertently released. Of those who were inadvertently released because of the fault of the court, one was on two charges. The first was dismissed and the court instructed the guards to release the gentleman, not realising that there was a second charge pending. The second prisoner was being bailed with the condition of a surety, but he was released before the 1370 surety was entered into. His bail has now been changed to remove the need for a surety. I am afraid that that is a long answer, but the noble Lord asked for the information.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the record of Group 4 in this matter is somewhat damaging to the concept of privatisation which both he and I support? Can he assure the House that for the future, if Group 4 is to continue in business at all, it will be able to keep the people in?
My Lords, this is a matter which is obviously of considerable concern. The director general of the prison service is seeing Group 4 to try to improve the position. I remind my noble friend that Group 4 has carried well over 1,000 prisoners in each of the two weeks in which it has been involved and that has been a great success. I assure my noble friend that, regrettable though it is, escapes also occurred under escorts conducted by the police service and the prison service.
§ Lord Allen of Abbeydale
My Lords, leaving aside escort duties, may I ask the Minister to say who decides which prisons shall be privatised? I have read various reports in the press suggesting that the decision rests with the director general of the prison service (if I have got his title right). Can the Minister confirm that any such report would be misleading? Can he explain (perhaps in a little more detail) just how the responsibility for the privatisation of prisons is divided between Ministers and the director general?
My Lords, the answer to the noble Lord's last question is a fairly lengthy one which it would be inappropriate to go into at Question Time. The answer to his first question is that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary decides which prisons should be privatised—which he would like to be contracted out—and asks for tenders to be given by a number of different organisations, including the prison service itself.
§ Lord Allen of Abbeydale
My Lords, do I have any prospect of getting an answer to the last part of my question?
§ Lord Allen of Abbeydale
My Lords, it was: How is the responsibility divided between Ministers and the director general?
My Lords, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is entirely responsible for setting the conditions for the prison service when the service is contracted out, for setting the standards by which contracted-out prisons will operate, for receiving tenders and for deciding which organisations to accept. He is also responsible for monitoring. The actual carrying out of work within the prison service when that work is contracted out is performed by the contractor.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl, first, whether he saw the report in the 1371 Independent on Sunday which attributed a statement to Mr. Lewis, the chief executive of the prison service agency, that almost every type of prison would now be put out to contract to private firms? Is that true? Secondly, it was said that plans are now based on 20 existing prisons being handed over to the private sector. If that is true, why has Parliament not been told?
My Lords, I did not see the report in the Independent on Sunday to which the noble Lord refers, but it is perfectly possible in theory for prisons to be contracted out. I can assure the noble Lord, however, that at the moment the Wolds is the only private prison in operation; Blakenhurst will open later this month; the bids are being evaluated for Manchester Strangeways; and Doncaster is the only new prison which is not yet complete. That is the position at the moment.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, is it not the case that the prison service business plan published this month states an objective of no more than last year's figure of 155 escapes from custody over the course of a whole year? Since Group 4 is responsible for only one-tenth of prisoner movements, is not Group 4 in grave danger of running out of its scope for escapes for the whole year in the course of less than one month? Does that not in turn raise the question of whether the specification for the privatisation of the prison escort service in the Group 4 area was correctly drawn up?
My Lords, I do not think so. There were 150 escapes from prison service court escorts over the past year, and 46 escapes in two years from police custody escorts in the area concerned. Group 4 has had five escapes from escorts during the past two weeks. With regard to prisons, there were about 300 escapes during the year from closed prisons. Group 4 has had two escapes from one prison in one year.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, I fear that we have a conflict of evidence. My understanding is that the business plan of the prison service applies to the national total and that it was a national total of 155 escapes last year, not a total in the area for which Group 4 is now responsible.
My Lords, I think that there may be some misunderstanding. There were 300 escapes from closed prisons in the course of the year. There have been two escapes from the prison for which Group 4 is responsible. There were 150 escapes per year from prison service court escorts—
My Lords, nationally. There were also 46 escapes in two years from police custody in the particular area with which we are concerned. In that area, five escapes have taken place from Group 4 custody.
§ Lord Harmar-Nicholls
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, while the practice of taking questions from either side of the House alternately is correct and works well, on this occasion the noble 1372 Lord, Lord Allen, who wanted to pursue his point because of his special experience in this field but was not allowed to do so, should have been allowed at Question Time to pursue his point?
My Lords, I am delighted that my noble friend has asked a question of that nature which does not really require a reply from me.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, is the Minister not aware that the Sunday Times also carried a report similar to that to which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, referred, indicating clearly that a decision has been made that a further 20 prisons will be privatised? Bearing in mind the performance so far of Group 4 within its present area of responsibility, would it not at least make common sense for the Government to postpone any such decision on those further 20 prisons until they are totally satisfied that Group 4 and the other organisations that are putting in tenders can carry out those functions to the satisfaction of the community, which is what this is supposed to be about?
My Lords, I recognise the noble Lord's anxiety but I assure him that the prisons concerned are not being privatised. It is merely the running of them which is being contracted out. It is quite limited. The noble Lord might just as well be correct as incorrect. Of course, we are concerned to see that any operation that is contracted out is performed successfully. It is not only Group 4 which has responsibilities. There are also other contractors. It will be up to the director general of the prison service to ensure that anyone with a contract carries it out correctly —albeit that periodically, however good the system, there will sometimes be failures.
§ Lord Mishcon
My Lords, will the noble Earl inform the House what notice has to be given to Group 4 to terminate its contract should it prove inefficient? Is he aware of the trouble being caused to the police—already overtaxed and possibly undermanned—by these escapes?
My Lords, in the final analysis, the contract can, of course, be rescinded, but it would be a pity to talk about that because what we are trying to do is to get over a teething problem. I cannot tell the noble Lord what the length of notice is. I quite accept that it is inconvenient for the police and everyone else. Nobody wants prisoners to escape, and that is the reason why we are doing our best to ensure that they do not, but mistakes will be made, even by the police.