HL Deb 17 May 1993 vol 545 cc1529-31

2.44 p.m.

Lord Erroll of Hale asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in keeping with the Citizen's Charter, persons serving sentences in prison are now to be treated as customers, as indicated by the Sunday Telegraph (2nd May).

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the Prison Service intends to act on Citizen's Charter principles in its dealings with both the public and prisoners. But it has no intention of treating prisoners as "customers".

Lord Erroll of Hale

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Answer. May I say that perhaps there is a need to ascertain the likes and dislikes of those in prison? Possibly one good way of doing it—not the Sunday Telegraph way—would be to take a random sample of perhaps one prisoner in 10 for a private interview with outside investigators who could ascertain the views of the prisoners themselves.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am glad that my noble friend thinks that it is a good idea to find out what prisoners feel. I would point out to him that it was not the suggestion of the Sunday Telegraph. The proposal was put forward by the Director General of the Prison Service. That is one way of finding out people's views. My noble friend has put forward another way. I shall certainly pass that suggestion on to the Director General of the Prison Service to see what he thinks about it.

Lord Plant of Highfield

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that commercial and market-based language and commercial relationships are totally out of place in the context of judicial punishment? Surely our concern with justice does not stop with sentencing but should also cover the implementation of the sentence and should shape the prisoner's experience of punishment. In that context does the Minister not agree that standard setting and the definition of rights, duties and expectations of those in prison is the way forward, as suggested in the Woolf Report, to help to secure a just and fair prison regime? Does the Minister not agree that those kinds of standards and those kinds of rights and duties cannot, as experience in the past few weeks has shown, be secured by contracts with private firms?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, if I may answer the last part of the question first, I do not agree. It is perfectly possible for standards to be adequately maintained by the private sector, as indeed by the public sector. There is nothing peculiar about prisoners that requires them to be looked after by civil servants. The important thing is to ensure that the contracts which are placed are correct and are kept. With regard to the main onus of the noble Lord's question, of course it is important that standards should be high. It is the business of government or the country not just to lock people up but to work with them. That is why the Prison Service has set forward its own proposals not only in its corporate plan but also in the Prison Service Citizen's Charter Standards of Service, in which it says exactly what it is going to do in order to raise the standards in the prisons and to make sure that the service is accountable properly to the prisoners, to the public and to families, friends, legal representatives and the visitors to the prisons.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that the motivation for any private firm is to make money? I understand that that is part of the Conservative belief but it may not be the best way to try to reform people while they are in prison.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I do not agree with that. The whole point of privatisation is to see whether the private sector can produce the same standards as, and possibly even better standards than, the public sector is at present producing, at a cheaper price.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the question of the treatment of prisoners, the subject matter of this Question, lies within the remit of Judge Tumim, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons? He is doing a pretty good job and this matter is for the moment best left to him.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. Judge Tumim does a very good job of work as Chief Inspector of Prisons. But how the prisons are actually run and the way in which the prisoners are dealt with are specifically and principally matters for the Director General of the Prison Service. That is one of the reasons why it is important that he should know, and governors should know, the feelings of people in prison at any one time about any number of matters —apart from anything else, to stop trouble from brewing.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, if the questionnaire which is in the process of being sent to prisoners is such a good idea, why is the document headed "Confidential", as described in the Sunday Telegraph?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord has a peculiar fascination for believing every single thing that he sees in the Sunday Telegraph. It is perfectly true that it is headed "In Confidence", which is not perhaps quite the same as "Confidential". Even my own diary for the week is described as "Confidential". In confidence, I cannot think why.

This is at the moment being used as a pilot scheme in eight prisons. The idea is to see whether it works and whether the format is right. If it is right, then the matter might be pursued later. The questionnaire came into the public domain because the Prison Officers' Association said that it did not want to have anything to do with it. What is more, in a letter the general secretary, Mr. Evans, said: I have to tell you that in the event of this survey being promulgated the association will not only make it public but will ensure that the general public are made fully aware". I dare say that that is the reason why the words "In Confidence" have a wider canopy.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, in view of the press reports over the weekend that one of the private security firms ferrying prisoners to and from court is considering the use of leg restraints, can the Minister say, first, whether the Government are aware of that proposal; secondly, whether they approve of it; and, thirdly, what safeguards there are, if any, that private security firms, or indeed those running privatised prisons, do not reintroduce regimes and methods which were rightly consigned to the dustbin of penal history many years ago?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Baroness is ingenious. She must know that that question has nothing whatever to do with the Question on the Order Paper which is to do with the questionnaire that has been sent out. I am aware that the proposal referred to by the noble Baroness has been made. I believe that the Government will consider all manner of methods of preventing people from escaping, but I do not believe that they have yet come up with an official reply to that particular suggestion, and now is certainly not the appropriate time to give it.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, although aiming to please the customer is a praiseworthy principle, can the Government restrain Group 4 from taking that principle too far?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, there have been one or two unfortunate incidents recently. Your Lordships should be fully aware that, regrettably, they are not peculiar to the privatised sector. Of course, steps are being taken to ensure that they do not happen in the future.