HL Deb 21 October 1993 vol 549 cc636-9

3.17 p.m.

The Earl of Longford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they still accept the principles of the Woolf-Tumim Report (Cm. 1456) following the Strangeways prison riot.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the White Paper Custody, Care and Justice, the Way Ahead for the Prison Service in England and Wales sets out the Government's response to the Woolf proposals. We remain fully committed to the policies in the White Paper.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I sympathise with the position of the noble Earl, who is such an acceptable performer here. He realises no doubt that what he has to say today is in total contradiction of the views expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, whom the Minister appears to be praising in another part of the Answer. How does the noble Earl reconcile the statement he has just made with the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, when he said: The Government's proposals were shortsighted and irresponsible"? How can the Minister reconcile that statement with the statement he has just made?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I deeply appreciate receiving the noble Earl's sympathy. It is always welcome, but I am not certain why he was kind enough to express it today. I can assure him that there is no contradiction between the recommendations of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and his recent suggestions, and what the Government are proposing. The noble Earl has plucked out a quotation and in so doing he has fallen into the trap that many newspapers fall into. Perhaps the noble Earl would be good enough to read the treatise of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, as a whole. He will find that what he is saying in his full treatise is rather different from the excerpts which people pluck out of it for their own aims.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, the noble arid learned Lord, Lord Woolf, made it clear that his Strangeways inquiry had persuaded him that overcrowding is the most corrosive influence on the prison system and that an overcrowded prison is an unstable prison. If the prison population continues to rise sharply—as the Government seem to wish—and the new prisons referred to by the Home Secretary are still years and years away, how will the Government cope with serious overcrowding, with all that that involves including, I am afraid, the possibility of further serious disturbances?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I do not believe that anyone would disagree that overcrowding is bad, corrosive and destabilising. That is why we have opened 12 prisons and provided 8,788 extra places since 1991. It is also why we intend to build a further six prisons. The purpose is to try to avoid the very problems to which the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, referred.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, should we not recall that overcrowding in prisons is not simply a function of the length of sentences imposed but of the conviction rate in contested cases? Is it not a fact that since about 1970 the conviction rate in contested cases in England and Wales has fallen from about 70 per cent. to about 40 per cent.?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my noble and learned friend is quite right. These are not matters which are capable of easy solution. Nobody has to go to prison if they do not misbehave. Prison ought to be available to remove people from society when they have done particularly bad things in order to protect the ordinary individual. It is not the Government's job to send people to prison. That is the job of the courts. But to make sure that sufficient prison places are available when the courts decide to do so.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the Prison Governors' Association has already drawn attention to its serious anxieties about overcrowding in the prison system? Is he aware that one consequence of overcrowding is likely to be once again sending prisoners to be housed in police cells? Does he accept that there is no point in Ministers saying that they want to have more policemen on the beat if hundreds of police officers are at risk of once again having to act as gaolers because of overcrowding in the prison system?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord likes to attack the subject from a different viewpoint. He knows perfectly well that if there are too many people in gaols it may be necessary for prisoners to be housed in police cells. That is highly undesirable and it is something that we always try to avoid. That is why we are endeavouring to provide more prison places. That will continue in order to avoid the problems to which the noble Lord referred.

Lord Elton

My Lords, is it not also the case that a major contribution to overcrowding in prisons is the number of cases in which people are remanded in custody and the length of time those remanded in custody have to remain in custody awaiting their turn at the Crown Court? Will my noble friend ask his right honourable and learned friends to look again at the possibility of more offences being tried summarily rather than going to a jury and thus blocking the courts against the trial of more serious crimes for which suspects are remanded in custody?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that the length of time people spend in custody determines and affects the number of people held in the prison system. That is one of the matters to which the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice addressed itself and was requested to address itself, the principle that justice delayed is justice denied. This is one of the reasons for overcrowding. Another is riots such as those which occurred at Strangeways and Wymott, when prisoners themselves deliberately put a number of prison places out of the system.

Lord Kirkhill

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Council of Europe commission on torture reported recently, after some members of the commission had visited a number of United Kingdom prisons, that conditions in prisons generally in the United Kingdom are among the worst in Europe? How does the noble Earl respond to that comment?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, we respond by trying to improve our prisons, which has been the case. One of the ways in which conditions have been improved is by contracting out, whereby the contracted out prisons can set a standard to which others can aspire. Before noble Lords opposite say, "Oh ! Oh ! Oh !", I remind them that in prisons which have been contracted out the amount of time spent out of cells is greater, the food is better and standards have been shown to be better. That provides a great incentive for other prisons to improve.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, given the widely held view that it is the threat of imprisonment rather than its imposition that acts as an effective deterrent, can the Minister assure the House that in the impending or future Criminal Justice Bill the Government will repeal Section 5(2) (b) of the ill-fated Criminal Justice Act 1991 and restore to the judiciary their previous discretion to impose suspended sentences? If not, why cannot that assurance be given?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, in his keenness to know what is to happen after the Queen's Speech the noble and learned Lord has gone slightly outside the Question on the Order Paper. Of course the point which the noble and learned Lord made will be taken into account, but it would be improper of me to say exactly what is to appear in any Bill which might emerge.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether in addition to the consideration given to the building and the problem of overcrowding the regime in the rebuilt Strangeways prison will also be changed? Does my noble friend agree that the regime at Grendon Underwood is such that there is less recidivism than among prisoners from any other prison in Great Britain? Would it not be wise to review the regime as well as the buildings?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am sure that the regime will be considered. I know the interest of my noble friend Lady Faithfull in Grendon Underwood prison. I can assure my noble friend that having spent in the region of £100 million on the bricks and mortar of Strangeways we want to ensure that the prison works as well as possible. I would only say, particularly to the noble Lord who is concerned about the contracting out of prisons, that when Strangeways was market-tested an in-house bid from the prison system won the award to run the prison.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the prison population in the North West—the area which includes Strangeways—is at present increasing by 500 a month? When the Home Secretary says, as he did at the Conservative Party Conference, that the success of our system of justice will no longer be judged by a fall in the prison population, does that not mean that the Home Secretary and the Government now propose to judge the success of their policies by a rise in the prison population?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord always tries to find simple answers to difficult problems. He knows perfectly well that the real criterion as to whether there should be more people in prison is the amount of crime that is committed. When bad crimes are committed more people are likely to be sent to prison. There is nothing the Government can do. However, there is something that every single person can do, and that is to take steps to avoid crime and ensure that their colleagues, their neighbours, their friends, their brothers and their sisters do the same.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, is the Minister aware that even though the prison population in the North West is increasing it is not the population of the North West which is filling the prisons? The inmates come from all over the country and not just from the North West of England.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right in that the prisons of the North West are becoming full. I am afraid that there will be quite a shift towards the southern part of Britain. The prisons there are less full and the only way to deal with the full prisons in the North West is to shove some of the prison population down to the South. It may be that some of those people who the noble Lord says are in the North when they should be in the South will find that they will soon be in the South.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the policy announced by Mr. Michael Howard, and supported (I am sorry to say) by the Prime Minister, who is even more highly esteemed, is in total contradiction of the policies announced by the past half-dozen Home Secretaries? And they were supported with much eloquence by the noble Earl in this Chamber. That policy is in total contradiction to the views of the judiciary which have been expressed publicly.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, if I were to be discourteous to the noble Earl—I would not be—I should say that he was talking rubbish. However, I merely say that there is no change of policy. It is only a strengthening of policy. That policy is being strengthened to ensure that those people who commit bad crimes are dealt with properly.

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