HL Deb 02 February 1994 vol 551 cc1269-306

3.10 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale rose to call attention to the problem of overcrowding in prisons in England and Wales, and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have put down their names to speak today. I fear that the list, perhaps appropriately, suffers from some measure of overcrowding. I hope that no one will waste time in following the convention of thanking the initiator of the debate. If my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf, whom we are all anxious to hear, finds it necessary, just by a little, to exceed his quota, I do not think that anyone will object.

I must begin by quoting a few figures. The Prison Service tells me that at the end of last year the prison population was 45,218, nearly 2,000 less than the certified normal accommodation. However, there are three points to be made on the figures. First, the population—as it normally does—fell substantially during December. Indeed, at the end of November it exceeded the certified accommodation by a comfortable, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say by an uncomfortable, margin.

Secondly, the population of the local prisons—where a good deal of the/problem arises—at rather over 15,000, was, at 31st December, 1,300 in excess of the certified accommodation. Thirdly, the overall total went up sharply —by well over 4,500 during 1993. There is a general assumption that the increase will continue but the Prison Service, for good reason, is chary of making forecasts.

Early in their life the Government announced with some pride an unprecedented programme of new prison building. In 1990 they cut the programme because of falling numbers. Alas, it was not long before the numbers started to go up again and to overflow into police cells. Now we are back to the old position. There are to be six new prisons and, in the meantime, emergency measures, including a power in the new Criminal Justice Bill for "floating structures"—the correct parliamentary term, I suppose, for the hulks in Great Expectations. It is an extremely difficult matter but what has happened is not perhaps the most glorious example of the Government's skill in long-term planning.

Does it matter if there is overcrowding? It does indeed. The Prison Service has been doing heroic things in improving standards. But it is not all that easy, for example, to close down a block in order to install new sanitation if you need every inch of space. How can you develop programmes of education, training or employment if there is no room? It becomes quite a problem encouraging prisoners to keep up family ties if they are whisked away to some distant establishment where family visits become ruled out. I am sure that my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf was right when he said that overcrowding is the most corrosive influence on the prison system and that an overcrowded prison is an unstable prison. There have been two quite serious riots since Strangeways and the Prison Service must sometimes feel that it is sitting on a powder keg.

Why is it, one is bound to ask, that so many people —more than in any other country in Europe, with the possible exception of Luxembourg and Scotland—should be sent to prison? From one point of view, the sharp increase is at first sight a little surprising. There is certainly far too much serious crime, and crime of a nature which warrants imprisonment. But the police have not suddenly become more successful in rounding up offenders. Nor has crime itself been increasing as sharply as all that in recent times. Figures of crimes known to the police are notoriously unreliable, but it is of interest that the Metropolitan Police and some other forces are beginning to record decreases. We hear a great deal too about the number of cases dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service and reports of criminal courts being closed for lack of business.

Against all that there are the consequences of recent criminal justice legislation, and there is the attitude of the courts and of the Government. Much of the increase last year—I find this disturbing—was caused by a rise in the number of short sentences. I say this with some diffidence but I cannot help thinking that some judges below the High Court, and some magistrates, although certainly not all, are reacting, perhaps without realising it, to what has become a popular feeling that offenders should not be allowed to get away with it. The feeling, fear, is fed by the tabloids which, as was shown only this week, do not hesitate to hold up to ridicule a judge whom they regard as having passed an over-lenient sentence. Whether that is true or not, it is an attitude which the Government have done nothing to discourage. It is the courts and not the Government which send people to prison. But their approach can be affected by such moves as tightening up on bail, discouraging too wide a use of cautions, taking over-lenient sentences to the Court of Appeal, discovering new areas of criminal behaviour which have somehow escaped the watchful eye of the Government for the past 14 years, and making pronouncements from on high that imprisonment works. I wonder what that pronouncement means. It is obvious that a criminal cannot pursue his nefarious activities while in prison. However, the proportion of crimes which end with a prison sentence is so tiny that imprisonment of itself can have only a marginal effect on reducing crime, as the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, forcefully pointed out in the debate on the humble Address.

I can understand the case for some element of retribution and vengeance, although it is extremely difficult to quantify that in terms of sentences, but I run into difficulties as regards rehabilitation and deterrence. As regards the ordinary prison, unlike, say, Grendon, I do not believe anyone now rates very high its role of encouraging the prisoner to lead an honest life on release. The trouble is that prisoners come back into the community in their thousands and if they are embittered and resentful, perhaps having learnt new tricks from other criminals, so much the worse. It was after all a recent Home Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who can hardly be written off as a trendy, who said in a White Paper issued in 1990: For most offenders, imprisonment has to be justified in terms of public protection, denunciation and retribution. Otherwise it can be an expensive way of making bad people worse. The prospects of reforming offenders are usually much better if they stay in the community, provided the public is properly protected". I suppose that what the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have primarily in mind when they claim that imprisonment works is its deterrent effect both on the individual and on others. I can only say that there is not a great deal of experience to bear that out. During my lifetime there have been approved schools, penal servitude, two forms of preventive detention, corrective training, corporal punishment, borstal and the short, sharp shock. There is precious little evidence that any of them worked and they have all been abandoned. Some of them made matters worse. Four out of five of the youngsters undergoing the short, sharp shock were caught offending again within two years. When we had the cat it turned out that the subsequent criminal career of those so punished was worse than that of offenders convicted of strictly comparable offences who did not receive that punishment. We may be told that the reconviction rate of those on probation or subject to community service orders is not all that much better than that of those released from prison, but at any rate those punishments are very much cheaper.

As regards the deterrent effects on others, I shall content myself with a short quotation from the White Paper I mentioned a moment ago. It reads: It is unrealistic to construct sentencing arrangements on the assumption that most offenders will weigh up the possibilities in advance and base their conduct on rational calculation". The Home Secretary said, I believe, that imprisonment has been shown to work in the United States. Although the prison population in the United States, taking county gaols, state prisons and federal prisons together, has more than doubled in the past decade to over a million, the President still puts violent crime at the top of the country's woes. However, if one looks to that country, there is a hopeful sign. Starting some 20 years ago, there was investment in high quality nursery education for considerable numbers of under-privileged children. Those children, if they had gone on to a good school, proved more likely than their contemporaries to get jobs and less likely to get involved in crime. Perhaps that points to the value of looking further at the social, economic and educational policies which in the longer term affect the causes of crime rather than trusting over much in the contribution which building new prisons and filling them will make towards solving our ills. If I am told that I am obviously a believer in outworn, liberal, airy-fairy doctrines I shall hear that with complete equanimity.

I conclude by reminding your Lordships that it is still the law of the land that a sentence of imprisonment is not to be imposed unless the court is satisfied that, because of the seriousness of the offence or, in the case of violent or sexual crimes, because of the need to protect the public, there is no other way of dealing with the offender. I beg to move for Papers.

3.23 p.m.

Lord Carr of Hadley

My Lords, I am sure that this is a timely moment for us to discuss the problems of overcrowding in prisons and utter warnings about its dangers. It is timely because the thrust of current government policies undoubtedly appears to be leading deliberately towards the greater use of imprisonment in dealing with the problem of crime.

This is not the proper occasion, even if there were time, to discuss in any depth the merits or otherwise of the Government's current policies. I want to beg the Government to think very carefully about the dangers of overcrowding. Even if I assume that their policies are right in leading to greater dependence on imprisonment, I urge them not to press those policies until they have provided an adequate amount of proper prison accommodation. I believe that, if they press those policies, and overcrowding—which is already serious, as the figures quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Allen, indicate—were to get worse, without doubt we would find the position deteriorating rather than improving. That would be a tragedy and would put back the attack on the crime wave to a serious extent.

The problem is serious. When there is overcrowding a number of things inevitably happen. First, the danger of prison riots increases. Secondly, the morale of prison officers will be increasingly damaged and recruitment of more prison officers of the right kind and with the right training will be damaged. Also, when prisoners are released they will be liable to be a greater menace to society than when they went in to prison. To pursue a policy which allows overcrowding to occur would be a disaster. I do not believe that that is too strong a word to use.

I do not contest the Government's policy. I hope that we shall have another opportunity to debate the merits of that policy. But, even given that the policy is right, they should tread very carefully in implementing it unless and until a proper amount of prison accommodation, properly staffed, is available. That warning is my main purpose in speaking today.

Perhaps I may put that warning in context and say a few words about the policy perspective. I am certainly not one of those criminal penal reformers who believe that punishment is wrong per se. The criminal who commits a serious offence ought to expect imprisonment. The public increasingly demand i do not believe that any elected government can brush that demand on one side. Prison is an indispensable instrument of punishment. It is also an indispensable means of protecting the safety of the public against dangerous criminals. But we must always bear in mind that all the evidence, here and overseas, indicates that prison is not the best means of deterring crime or of reforming criminals. Penal policy has to deal with punishment, but ultimately its objective must be to reduce crime. We must not allow our concentration on punishment, necessary though that is, to blind us to its ultimate purpose. I am afraid that all the evidence points increasingly to the conclusion that prison is the most expensive and least effective means of deterring and reforming.

We must therefore, as a matter of urgency, concentrate on developing alternatives to imprisonment which will be more effective and also—and surely this is important—much more economical and less wasteful of money. I hope that your Lordships will find an opportunity to discuss that matter in depth at an early moment. Before I sit down I urge the Government to do all that they can to prevent an increase in the prison population until they have provided an adequate amount of proper prison accommodation.

3.28 p.m.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, has the gratitude of all of us in this House for initiating the debate at this time. He and other noble Lords who are to speak subsequently in the debate will devote some of what they say to the effects of overcrowding in prisons and the handling of that situation by this Government. I hope that the House will permit me to digress and draw the attention of the House to the effect of overcrowding in prisons on an outside community, one which at the moment is faced with dramatic evidence of the effect of the Government's present policy on its own way of life.

Rural Buckinghamshire, between Marlow and High Wycombe, has, in the midst of an area of outstanding natural beauty, a young offenders' institution. One of the direct effects of this Government's policy over the past year has been such a dramatic rise in the prison population—I believe it to be something of the order of 16 per cent.—that the Home Office has had to cast around for places to put the additional prisoners. In the past few weeks this community has had practical experience of the effects of that policy and of the Government's policy of open government and the application of the Citizen's Charter. I shall illustrate that if I may.

Only a year ago the Government seemed to be committed, albeit in my view far too slowly and with important reservations, to the excellent proposals of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and of the outstanding Chief Inspector of Prisons, Stephen Tumim. All that seems to have changed in just 12 months, and a party which is desperate to regain favour with the electorate has seized on genuine fears about rising crime and thrown itself wholeheartedly into support of the ill-informed prejudice of the "Lock 'em up" brigade within its own ranks in a bid for popularity.

At the end of last year, as the Home Office cast around for places to put the resulting prisoners, someone's eye lighted on Finnamore Wood Camp. In 1968, Buckinghamshire County Council had given planning permission for that camp to be used as an open borstal. Just 18 months ago the parish council at nearby Lane End was told that the institution was to be closed altogether. Great was the local celebration. The institution houses up to 50 young offenders at a time. In 10 months last year there were 70 escapes. The effect on local crime, especially burglary and car theft, was the despair of the local police and residents.

On 14th December last year the Guardian carried a headline, Mothballed jails to ease crowding", which contained the revelation that, Finnamore Wood Young Offenders' Institution in Oxfordshire"— which it is not— is to be converted for use as an open prison for 100 adults". There had been no consultation with any relevant local authority, elected representatives or local residents. Further, to date, as I understand it, no official notification has ever been received by Buckinghamshire County Council, Wycombe District Council, Lane End Parish Council or even the sitting Tory MP—although rumour has it that a Tory MP in an adjoining constituency whom the Home Office appeared to think represented this area was told.

Disbelief, incredulity and fears for the future were the results in that community. Phone calls and letters to the Home Office are as yet unanswered. Last week, on 28th January, a group of local residents went to see the Government in the hope of being reassured. They were told for the first time officially that from 1st April, 106 adult male offenders would be moving in next-door. There would be no physical barriers, no uniforms, no searches and no guarantees would be given to them that violent offenders, drug offenders or sexual offenders would not be housed here, although the governor offered them the sop that convicted murderers would not be for the time being.

They were told that three members of staff would be on duty at night for 106 prisoners but that in the event of trouble a phone call would be made to the police, although there was no hot line and the local police station at Marlow closes at 8 p.m., with calls re-routed to Aylesbury and High Wycombe. They were told that the inmates would be category D offenders, they were therefore low risk, and in the light of that the residents should feel secure. However, in view of the chief inspector's report about the Wymott riot, it is clear that the placing of unsuitable prisoners in establishments with insufficient security for their needs was apparent and manifestly taking place even before the increase in numbers put added pressure on the Home Office.

That is the way in which the Conservative Government, who are the party of the Citizen's Charter, treat the citizens of the jewel in their local government crown, Buckinghamshire. That is the way in which decent people in a decent community are treated. If such behaviour continues, if that is the way in which the Government manage not only overcrowding in prisons but also the communities which are most affected, I am afraid to say that the greatest achievement of this Home Secretary is likely to go down in history as being that he made his predecessor, the right honourable Kenneth Baker, seem like a great liberal reformer.

3.35 p.m.

Lord Woolf

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, for the debate. I am also grateful to him for the indulgence that he offered me. For fear of overcrowding my successors in this debate, I shall try to avoid taking advantage of that indulgence. The speeches that have already been made make it more likely that I shall succeed in doing so.

The first three years following my report witnessed dramatic improvements on the prison scene. The Government and all those who work within the prisons deserve our congratulations in helping to bring that about. However, it has to be accepted that that improvement would not have been possible without the fall in the prison population.

Unfortunately, the reduction in the total population has proved shortlived. Its corrosive influence is once more at work eating away at the improvements which were achieved. To avoid that happening, we made recommendations which included a recommendation designed to provide an early warning system. Your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that whereas the vast majority of our recommendations were accepted, that recommendation was ignored. Fortunately it appears that in the noble Lord, Lord Allen, we have a very efficient early warning system.

The adverse consequences of overcrowding were again demonstrated by the unfortunate events during the Wymott disturbance, to which reference has already been made. Among the causes identified by Judge Tumim in his report on that disturbance were the receipt, in the weeks before the disturbance [of prisoners in] unmanageable numbers". In assessing the extent of overcrowding you cannot simply compare the national capacity with the national population of prisoners. You have to break down the figures. At the present time it is in the north west and in the large local prisons that the problem occurs. Figures provided by the Prison Governors' Association indicate that in 11 large local prisons the prison population is at present 100 per cent. in excess of their respective operational capacities. I am also told, and I quote the words of the chairman of the association. that All the North West local prisons have only coped with the population rise by moving prisoners around the country in a way that it is difficult to defend … We are building up a significant number of prisoners with a justifiable grudge against the prison service for moving them so far away from home. The situation is more acute at Manchester where it has been necessary to move unconvicted and unsentenced prisoners all over the country on 'Operation Shuttle',"— as he describes it— on occasions under restraint". Let me say straight away that I agree with what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Carr, as to the necessity of imprisoning certain offenders. There can be no doubt about that. If the problems to which I have been referring were attributable to prisoners of that nature being incarcerated, then I would not be so concerned as I am. Unfortunately, that is not what has been happening. As a result of a change of climate, the importance of avoiding custody when it is appropriate to do so has been forgotten. A factor which has undoubtedly contributed to this change of climate is that the Government, who give a lead in these matters, have abandoned preaching the need for restraint in the use of prisons. The message which is being received loud and clear by all those involved, in particular magistrates throughout the country, is that it is necessary to get tough with crime. It is that policy which is resulting in the bulk of the increase in the population of our long-suffering local prisons. It is people who previously could expect, for example, to be remanded on bail who are now being remanded in custody. There has been an increase of 44 per cent. in those who are being remanded in custody, albeit that they have not been convicted, and a substantial proportion of them ultimately will not receive a custodial sentence.

Then there are the fine defaulters and I take them as an example only because they illustrate the point I am making. Between November 1992 and the end of 1993 their number increased by more than 100 per cent. to 526. That is a very small figure indeed, but during 1993 20,000 fine defaulters were in custody, in prison. Each of those fine defaulters had to be processed through the system, so the cumulative effect is quite substantial. Then there are the convicted offenders, some of whom would not have gone to prison but who are now doing so. Others who would have gone for a short time now go for a slightly longer time. A few months' extra sentence provides no practical benefit but clogs the system. Its adverse effects have been highlighted by what happened to the fictional character now known as the "Ambridge One".

The consequences are not confined to the effect on the prisoner. There is the stress on the family and the loss of employment. It is indisputable that the cost of the whole exercise is immense—money which could be so well used elsewhere, not least for the victims of crime. It is an ironic consequence of the present policy that the method of assessing compensation for those who suffer criminal injuries is being revised in a way which will mean that the amount of compensation which they receive in a great many cases, will be dramatically reduced.

That is not the only economy which is being made at the same time as this massive extra expenditure is being incurred. Sanitation programmes are being postponed. The decision has been made to close 10 to 11 bail and probation hostels because there was a temporary bleep in their occupancy rates. The cut is being made to save £1.2 million this year and £2.5 million in 1995 and 1996. Yet the hostels are a constructive way of achieving an alternative to imprisonment at much less than half the cost, and the rate of offending of those in the hostels is a commendable 5 per cent. What grieves me about decisions of this nature is the message which is given to the probation service. It is being told: "We are really not interested in the contribution which you make".

While, of course, the need to address serious crime must not be ignored, those responsible for setting the climate in which the majority of minor criminals are sentenced must recognise their responsibility continually to drive home the message that in the case of the majority of offences imprisonment is an immensely expensive process and that it should be reserved for those, and only those, for whom it is appropriate. It needs to be reiterated repeatedly that if prison is used when it is not necessary, then it is frustrating, not furthering, the objectives of the criminal justice system. It is an expensive way of making the criminal justice system less effective.

I hope that when replying to the debate the noble Earl will be able to assure us, with his usual frankness, that the Government are again committed to reducing the prison population. I apologise to noble Lords for taking longer than my allotted time.

3.43 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord certainly made admirable use of his borrowed time and I do not grudge it to him at all. In a debate like this every paragraph one utters has to contain a whole chapter of meaning. I shall be as condensed as I can.

I wish to start by reassuring those of your Lordships who read in a corner of the press that I was a supporter of the short, sharp shock that I believe that that experiment was not successful and that we have not yet found out how to do it. There are two ways in which, nevertheless, your Lordships can tackle the problem.

Roughly put, one is to move the people through the system quicker; the other is to send fewer of them into it to start with. On the first leg, noble Lords should recognise what the noble and learned Lord has just said: the concentration of overcrowding in the remand wings —remembering that a remand prisoner has the most privileges —costs the most to service and requires the most prison officer time. Generally, the prisoner lives in the most squalid conditions of all prisoners, although he has not been convicted of any crime. We should recognise that some of the population results from the number of people waiting for the time of the court to be available for their case to be heard and that there is something we can therefore do about the time of the court which does not impinge on the crimes those people are alleged to have committed. That ties up with a report by the Home Office in 1986 called Distribution of Business between the Crown and Magistrates' Courts. The report pointed out that in the Greater London area in the Crown Courts 10 per cent. of the case load and 8.8 per cent. of court time were taken up by trying cases involving the handling of goods worth less than £50 —in other words, petty shoplifting.

We addressed that question during the passage of the Criminal Justice Bill in 1988, and I ask your Lordships to look at it again and consider that, if that offence were made summary, the whole of that business would be taken from the Crown Court. It would, of course, be added to the business of the magistrates' courts, which would have a heavier load, but they in turn would lose the committal proceedings for those cases, which would save them time. It would also save a great deal of money in legal aid because proceedings in magistrates' courts are cheaper. It is argued that the stigma of imprisonment is such that the penalty should never be given in a court without a jury, yet your Lordships have happily granted the award of a six months' imprisonment sentence for grievous bodily harm to magistrates. In any case, it would help a great deal if the whole of the rule which I suggest were applied only to the first offence. I believe that your Lordships should look at the matter again, and I hope that we shall have an opportunity to do so, when I shall be able to speak more fully and convincingly.

The other thing we can do is not to send so many people to prison. A great array of ways to avoid sending so many people to prison has been mentioned and more will come up. I speak for the voluntary sector. I spend by far the greater part of my productive time working in that sector to prevent people from going into prison, or from committing crimes at all, but, if they do commit them, finding them some form of treatment which is more constructive and less expensive than imprisonment. A week of treatment by the voluntary sector for someone who has committed a crime typically costs £50, whereas putting that person in a custodial institution costs £440. In popular parlance, there are megabucks to be saved in that area.

The voluntary agencies can intercept young people on the way to crime by identifying areas of the country where there are few alternatives for them to discover who they are and assert their maturity other than in criminal activity. Other activities can be provided through the use of volunteers, with a little paid professional supervision and help. That is beginning to be done quite successfully, particularly in the area for which the Home Office is responsible. That is partly because the Home Office has ring-fenced 5 per cent. of the budget of the probation service and said that the money must go to the voluntary sector. We are grateful for that, although it does not compensate for what we lose in other budgetary terms direct from central government.

I use my last seconds to ask noble Lords to impress upon the Department of Health the advisability of doing the same for the social work departments for which it is responsible so that we, the voluntary sector, can obtain the support we need and demonstrate how to exploit the resources of the voluntary sector in support of young people and freedom and avoid overcrowding prisons.

3.47 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, if I had more time, I would pay tribute to the work done by previous speakers, not only today but in many ways over the years. The most useful thing that I have done in preparing for the debate is to visit Leicester prison where there is considerable overcrowding. At 75 per cent., it is not so bad as the 100 per cent. mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, but it is typical of many local prisons.

In case I am cut off before I have expanded sufficiently on the theme, I wish to say clearly that the condition of overcrowding is not an act of God. It is not like the weather. It is due to decisions. For many years I and numerous others have said that we send too many people to prison. It happens to a greater extent than anywhere else in Europe. It happens because the judiciary send them there. But that is not the message that comes out of the prisons. The general view is that people go to prison because Mr. Howard sends them there. 'That is rather unfair. According to the head of the criminal department of the Home Office, Mr. Faulkner, Mr. Howard has reversed previous policies. As was said earlier, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Allen, in his distinguished speech, the prison population was increasing even before Mr. Howard appeared on the scene.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Earl must know that no Home Secretary sends people to prison; that is the judgment of the courts.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I call that a quibbling intervention—I repeat, a quibbling intervention, in case Hansard did not get it down the first time. Everyone knows that judges are much influenced by government policy. To say that judges must take the whole blame and that the Government are not responsible for the increase in the prison population is not worthy of the noble Earl. He is a crafty performer but he will not get away with that one. He has now taken two minutes out of my five minutes, so I must push on.

Leicester prison has 340 prisoners and 194 members of establishment. What is the result? Of the 340 prisoners there is work for only 200. The other 140 have nothing to do but play snooker, in spite of the well-intentioned efforts of the governor and staff. That is one result. Another is that two people share a cell and if matters progress as they are at present it will soon be three. Nobody will be pleased with that

I want to make one final point, of which I did give notice to the noble Earl who, I am sure, is not affected by my incivility. One of the problems is that in local prisons where overcrowding exists, the staff is not increased. At Leicester the staff has not increased from 194. Even if the number of prisoners rose to 400, there would not be an increase in the members of staff. It is not an easy problem to solve. If staff are transferred to the prison they will have to move home. There are difficulties too about moving prisoners. So a solution is not easy.

The governor of Leicester prison is an extremely enlightened man with enlightened colleagues. They have made a great deal of progress. I have visited the prison several times over the past few years. According to the governor—I hope it does not cause him any trouble in his career—the great impediment to progress in prisons is overcrowding. That is accepted throughout the prison service. There is no getting away from it.

What do the prison officers think? I am not sure that the noble Earl and his colleagues pay enough attention to prison officers. The Government seem anxious to bypass them by setting up privatised prisons which, as is well known, I regard as an obscenity. I shall riot dwell on that matter today. The Government do not pay attention to what prison officers say. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, who is the best friend they have in the House—and they have quite a few friends here—will agree that prison officers are dissatisfied. Overcrowding causes disruption, brings with it the danger of riots and prevents a meaningful relationship between staff and inmates.

That is the situation. What can be done about it? If I had another five minutes I would tell the House. As it is I simply pay my tribute to the noble Earl. Although it is painful for individuals, the net result today will be good —large numbers of Peers standing up, all with immeasurable expert knowledge, and announcing their feelings in regard to overcrowding.

3.54 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, the existence of overcrowding in prisons and the mischief caused thereby, which indeed stultifies any reasonable penal policy, needs no further expatiation. I propose only to address your Lordships on one subject; namely, what can be done to mitigate that mischief and obviate the overcrowding. But before I do so I hope that your Lordships will not think it offensive, coming from the Cross Benches, if I deprecate the making of party points in connection with this problem, whether implicitly on the one side or explicitly on the other. That can only darken penal counsel.

Of the proposals that are in sight for doing something to obviate the mischief, there is one put forward practically by the Government; namely, the building of five more prisons. But, inevitably, it will be some way in the future before they will be ready to take prisoners. On the other hand, they were put forward in the same breath as an urging of longer sentences.

The second way is to make use of non-custodial remedies. That is left largely with the judiciary. But the judiciary cannot act altogether independently in these matters. The great American judge, Frankfurter, was asked what were the three most important judicial qualities. He said, "First, detachment; second, detachment; and third, detachment". Although I would put detachment first, recognising that it involves a certain amount of remoteness on the part of the judiciary, in fact the judges cannot be entirely—nor is it desirable that they should be—detached from current opinion. One needs only to read the newspapers, day in and day out, and one finds acutely expressed disquiet at lenient sentences and, indeed, anything less than a prison sentence being regarded as half baked. Although the judges will make full use of the alternate means, and indeed should consider also the practical proposals that were made by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, there is a limit to what can be done without alienating the general population from the system of law itself.

Finally, in the absence of those two as immediate remedies, it seems to me that the only thing that can be done to give immediate relief is the halving of sentences; that is, the release immediately at half sentence. That is extremely difficult to do because there are some who cannot be released without causing grave affront to public opinion. But it is a specific that, in this desperate situation, should not be excluded.

3.58 p.m.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, 20 years ago I had every reason to be grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, because the debate he initiated at that time enabled me to make my maiden speech on exactly the same subject as we are discussing today. The comments I made then are still valid today.

Prisoners' wives have had a raw deal, whether or not the prisons are overcrowded. Through the Assisted Prison Visits Unit, 90 per cent. of those seeking advice have been helped satisfactorily. Twenty years ago many prison governors were allowing two visits per month although only one visit was obtainable free. That same situation still exists. That is grossly unfair. So there still remains the question of financing those twice-monthly visits, for which a scheme should have been available before the end of this financial year. I should be grateful if my noble friend could tell the House whether there is a definite date for this vital scheme to start.

To keep families together outside gaol is difficult enough but inside gaol the contact between prisoners and their families on a more frequent basis is vital. I hope that when the two-monthly visits scheme operates it will be flexible. I understand, for instance, that granny does not count as family unless she is the only relative. I have heard concern expressed that should the assisted prison visits unit be contracted out the confidential nature of its work could be jeopardised. I should like reassurance on that point.

My views expressed today are rather wide of the debate, but I feel that they are relevant within the framework of the Government's plan for the future of prisons.

4.1 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Allen, indicated in his distinguished opening speech, the Home Secretary has told us that prison works and that stiffer sentencing and a more austere prison system are essential elements in the fight against crime. That was not the belief of previous Home Secretaries, who sensibly advocated sentencing policies designed as alternatives to prison, resulting, as has been indicated by a number of noble Lords, in a reduction in the numbers in prison. But now we have the situation where the prison population in the United Kingdom is the highest in Western Europe and is increasing at a rate of 200 a week.

Ostensibly, the accommodation available in the prison service roughly matches the number of prisons in the system but the prison population is not evenly spread across prison establishments. Prisoners have to be, or should be, separated according to status and security requirements, and as a consequence overcrowding is most acute in the old city centre and local prisons. In November last year the prison in Leeds, which is designed to hold 700 prisoners, held 1,106, while Shrewsbury had 303 prisoners in accommodation designed for 168.

Overcrowding causes stifling and often degrading living conditions for prisoners and very bad working conditions for staff. Cell sharing increased by 31 per cent. between 1992 and 1993, with more than 7,000 prisoners having to share a cell—sometimes two or three to a cell. But overcrowding also disrupts training and educational opportunities for prisoners because of too little space and too few resources to go round, thus making prisoners unprepared for their release. It destroys the morale of both staff and prisoners. It also leads to the inappropriate allocation of prisoners, which means that very often high security prisoners are able to disrupt the low security, lowly staffed establishments. That creates the type of problem to which the Inspector of Prisons, Judge Stephen Tumim, referred in the aftermath of last year's riots at Wymott. He said: Many of the inmates sent to Wymott were not suitable for the establishment and were extremely difficult to manage given the particular accommodation available". But even if overcrowding does not lead to full-scale rioting, it does increase tension. In 1993 assaults on staff increased by 20 per cent. on 1992, and according to a recent Howard League report, suicides in prison rose by 12 per cent. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, in his profound analysis of the prison service following the 1990 prison riots, made crystal clear that successful and enduring prison reform is dependent on the eradication of overcrowding. In their White Paper Care, Custody and Justice the Government endorsed that view, but unfortunately they also announced that it would be some years before they would be able to implement the Woolf recommendations. The report also committed the Government to abolishing by the end of 1994 the appalling practice of slopping out. It is ironic that we now hear that, because of overcrowding, that commitment is unlikely to be fulfilled.

The Government will no doubt argue that their plans to build six new prisons to be run by the private sector will alleviate overcrowding, but if these prisons are not ready in time—and there is every possibility that that will be the case—what we shall see is the greater use of prison cells and the new concept of floating prisons, and overcrowding in the prisons will reach unprecedented levels, turning many prisons into tinderboxes. Meanwhile, the staff in the public sector prison service face an uncertain future, being left to deal with the fury and anguish that overcrowding nurtures inside prison.

We need a prison system that is disciplined and challenging but humane and reforming. But to achieve that aim and to alleviate this dire problem of overcrowding the Government will need to abandon their fixation with privatisation; they will need to reaffirm their commitment to the Woolf agenda of reform; they will need to re-examine their policy on sentencing; and, most of all, they must tackle the underlying causes of crime. There must be a two-edged approach. We have to be tough on crime but equally tough on its causes. We cannot divorce policies on jobs and training, education, welfare and housing from the fight against crime. Only by taking that approach can we really tackle the problem of prison overcrowding.

4.6 p.m.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, surely today the noble Earl owes it to the noble Lord, Lord Allen, and to the House to tell us what is now the Government's policy on sentencing and on managing the prisons. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, grappled brilliantly with the cancer of overcrowding. When on Sunday television Mr. Humphrys suggested politely to the Home Secretary that his words ran directly counter to those of the noble and learned Lord, the evasive and somewhat arrogant reply was made: I came here to discuss my policies, not those of Lord Woolf". Since 1980 a general consensus has built up which includes most of the judges. Three outstanding Home Office reports —in 1988, 1990 and 1991—pointed the way. Perhaps I may give a few further quotes from them: Nobody now regards imprisonment as an effective means of reform". The next has already been quoted: Imprisonment can be an expensive way of making people worse". And, Most crimes are not violent. Punishment in the community is likely to be better for victim, public and offender". On 12th December 1990 (at col. 569 of the Official Report) the noble Earl himself, commenting o the fall in the prison population at that date, said: This reflects a growing consensus that custody is not necessarily the right punishment for most offenders". Then came Mr. Howard, the politician, on the scene —another lawyer with no criminal experience. I shall give a few quotes from him: More convictions and longer sentences. More people will go to prison. I don't flinch from that. No longer shall we judge our system of justice by a fall in the prison population. Let's be clear—prison works. We must take the thugs off the streets and the yobs who break the law". My Lords, the language of the tabloids.

Then came the Lord Chief Justice, backed by the ever-seductive voice of the past, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner—an orchestrated onslaught on the Criminal Justice Act which had sought to remove the mischief of sentencing on offenders' records and using the ladder principle of ever-longer sentences, perpetuating the revolving door of incarceration. The. Government caved in. Out went unit fines that would have removed from prison the hundreds of fine defaulters referred to by the noble and learned Lord. Houdini-like, the noble Earl negotiated his humiliating U-turn.

What is the result of all this? These are the devastating figures given by the noble and learned Lord, the most outrageous of which is that there were 3,600 more untried women and men in custody by November 1993 during that year, which is a 44 per cent. increase. There were 1,500 more young persons under lock and key. There were 16,500 men in conditions certified for 13,000.

The noble Earl must not shirk this issue. Does he believe that prison works? Does he now measure the success of our system of justice by the height of the prison population? Has he ditched Woolf? He must riot treat us in this House to the infantile observation that prison removes people from society—even one of Mr. Howard's 10 year-old prisoners could comprehend that —nor can the noble Earl suggest that serious crime has increased by 44 per cent. The noble Lord, Lord Allen, said in a previous debate, The treatment of offenders is one of the criteria by which to judge a mature and a caring society". I ask the noble Earl this question: does he dispute that the utterances of the Home Secretary are indeed immature and uncaring, but do they now represent the policy of the Government?

4.11 p.m.

Baroness Masham of IIton

My Lords, we have heard today that many prisons exceed the certified normal accommodation levels. I will confine my few remarks to some health issues which may be causing problems and, unless action is taken, might give rise to some very serious problems in the future, especially in overcrowded prisons.

It has been made known, and I repeat it in this debate: We must act now to prevent the health disaster in New York from tuberculosis from being repeated in London". Tuberculosis, like colds and flu, is caught from other people and commonly affects the lungs. It is a. disease traditionally associated with poverty and overcrowded housing. Those worst affected are recent immigrants from Asia, drug addicts, AIDS patients whose immune systems are damaged, and the prison population. Overcrowding in prisons, which house many of the people most at risk, could be the very successful breeding ground for mycobacterium tuberculosis.

The World Health Organisation last April declared TB a global emergency and it is increasing in Europe. What is so worrying is that drug resistant strains are already appearing in British patients following the trend seen in America. The reason for this drug-resistant form is that it now comes in strains diversified enough to outsmart almost the entire range of antibiotics available to fight it. If the patient interrupts treatment the chances are good that resistant strains will be passed along to others.

We so often follow, a few years later on, the trends in America. We should not be complacent. America had this problem in New York prisons. Should we not be doing what America did before we have this problem here? They put in isolated ventilation to stop the spread of this frightening situation. Have we got this system in any of our prisons? Will the Minister say what precautions we are taking and what plans are being made to stop the spread of infection?

When one sees the conveyor belt situation of prisoners coming in and out of busy, crowded prisons, it is easy to imagine what could happen. That includes the communities which the prisoners go out into. Are our at risk prisoners who cough and who have weight loss being screened? Is care being taken that prisoners who might be HIV infected are not given Bcg vaccination?

I hope that the Minister will give us some reassuring answers today. When one sees the flow of humanity coming in and out of prison it is not surprising to see many with severe medical problems. The ones whom I have seen and who give grave concern to many people are the mentally ill, the majority who suffer from schizophrenia, the alcoholic and the drug addict. It was interesting to see last year that a specialised unit for the mentally ill had opened in Brixton Prison. On the one hand, that seems good but, on the other, very worrying that they are coming to a busy prison to get looked after with so many hospital beds having closed. I suppose that that is inevitable.

Alcoholism is a very real problem too. Prison does not seem to be the correct place for those who want to rehabilitate. If they could go to rehabilitation units instead of prison, would not that relieve prison crowding and be better for everyone?

Drug abuse within overcrowded prisons, where morale will be low, must be a very real danger. In fact, some prisoners say that it is easier to get drugs within prison than outside. Useful work and projects within prisons, such as drug rehabilitation courses, should be available. Voluntary work, such as transcribing for the blind, which does take place in some prisons, gives prisoners the chance to help others worse off than themselves. That is good for their humility and their self-esteem.

The most depressing aspect of overcrowding in prison is when prisoners are only seen as a number. They do their time without any form of rehabilitation and go out worse people than when they went in. With the bleak prospect of no employment on discharge and no useful training and work within a prison when it is too crowded, what else can the prisoner think of when he leaves but a life of crime? That is not good for him and even worse for the community he goes into. With so much crime and increasing violence in society, the overcrowding of prisons may get worse unless a lasting solution can be found.

4.17 p.m.

Lord Moyne

My Lords, I believe that my noble friend the Minister's intervention needs underlining. Overcrowding in prisons is not the direct responsibility of the Government and cannot be such. It is the responsibility of the judges. The Government can influence, but they cannot control. The point I wish to underline is that made by the noble Lord, Lord Allen, and by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon; namely, the role of the newspapers, which always call for an increase in any sentence they mention.

Yesterday, the Daily Express splashed across its front page its fury at somebody not being sent to prison. I shall not comment on the case. Very often it may be that the tabloids are right or seem to be right, but they always make that point and in that direction. I believe that their influence on the judges may be just as important as the influence of politicians, even of the Home Secretary himself.

Surely, there is a remedy for overcrowding and it is very simple. Any commodity which is in short supply should be rationed. The point was made that sentences should perhaps be halved. I believe that that would be wrong. Some sentences could possibly be halved; some not. The situation should be dealt with by using the probation system. There is no question but that prisoners would be pleased to be released and that many of them are no danger to the community. There would have to be careful selection.

The noble Lord, Lord Allen, listed obsolete punishments where recidivism became worse. He omitted one obsolete punishment—did he not? -namely, capital punishment.

4.20 p.m.

Lord Plant of Highfield

My Lords, when I became home affairs spokesman for my party in this House, I realised that I had a very great deal to learn, particularly about prisons. I began my learning process with the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and with the Government's subsequent White Paper. I thought both were really excellent documents. The Woolf Report provided a clear diagnosis of the problems of the prison service and pointed a way forward. The White Paper showed a willingness to tackle the issues and also that the Government had the political will to do so. Both documents were impressive because they showed a new vision, particularly arising out of the darkness and ashes of the Strangeways prison riot.

During the same period I also started visiting prisons. I had discussions with governors, staff, representatives of the Prison Officers' Association and probation officers. Also, in The Verne prison and at the Portland young offenders' institution I talked to quite large groups of inmates. I was struck by the extent to which the Woolf proposals and the White Paper had widespread support throughout the prison service, and at all levels. It seems to me a good deal of that is now under threat.

There are two ways in which the reforms are at risk. The first, mentioned by several noble Lords, is that overcrowding must endanger programmes which would help inmates to go out into society and lead more productive lives. Those programmes give them skills they have not acquired prior to conviction. During my visits to prisons I have seen some excellent facilities for giving prisoners quite sophisticated skills, particularly in electronics, for example at The Verne. I find it difficult to believe that those facilities will not be put in jeopardy by overcrowding, and I would be very sorry to see that happen.

There is also a deeper sense in which overcrowding threatens what I take to be the philosophy of the Woolf Report and the White Paper. Not only do prisoners need to acquire skills in prison; they also need to learn or re-learn certain kinds of values. The Woolf philosophy, I thought, was to put at the centre of our concern with imprisonment ideas about justice, fairness and human dignity within the prison regime. I find it difficult to understand how we can expect prisoners, when they come out of prison, to have a strong sense of justice and human dignity and a concern for the rights of others if they have been through a regime that is an explicit denial of those things.

Overcrowding threatens the place of those values within the prison service. It means that prison officers, governors and others have to deal with prisoners in a much more ad hoc way. They have to use discretion far more, or the rules have to be bent to cope with overcrowding. If we are concerned to try to inculcate a sense of justice, of fair play and impartiality in treating like cases in like manner, then overcrowding potentially undermines those values. Those values are as important as the skills that prisoners learn in workshops. I worry that overcrowding may well undermine all that. I reject the idea that concern with those sorts of values means taking a sentimental attitude towards penal policy—a phrase used by Mr. Portillo recently to describe current penal thought.

It seems to me that to try to get people to act from a sense of justice and to require them to pay some attention to human dignity and so on between themselves, as prisoners in an institution, is actually an exacting sort of process and is very far from being lax and permissive. Therefore I hope the Government are still committed to the Woolf reforms. The values as well as the skill side of prison are very important and need to be reinforced. I worry that overcrowding threatens all that and that the vision held out to us by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and by the Government's White Paper is in grave danger of being lost.

4.24 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln

My Lords, no one can be comfortable with the increase in the prison population already noted by the noble Lord, Lord Allen. The two areas of crime which have been attracting most press attention—offending on bail and offending by young people—have produced substantial increases in the number of remands in custody and of young people in prison. The difficulties seem to be occurring in local prisons such as the one I know so well in Lincoln. This can result in prisoners being moved far from their families, with the result that anxiety and tension increase. Overcrowding at critical points may also mean a delay in improving living conditions. Indeed, the Chief Inspector of Prisons was reported in the Guardian on 27th January as warning that overcrowding will force the Government to abandon their commitment to end slopping out by December.

However, I wish to urge upon your Lordships two words of caution. First, in the "oldspeak" of the prison department, a number of places were designated at all prisons as "the certified normal accommodation". That was based on the old Victorian ideal of one person per cell. Today we speak of "operational capacity", which acknowledges that it is sometimes desirable, for good reasons, to put two men in a cell—for company or for the prevention of suicide. So we always need to be wary in interpreting individual statistics, even though it is difficult to dispute the picture and the statistics which have been given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf.

My second word of caution is to remind your Lordships that overcrowding is always a politically useful term for both government and reforrners. It may sound strange, but in conversation with prisoners in the course of my work as Bishop to prisons I am often led to think that, on the whole, many prisoners are much more interested in such issues as getting units of freedom, more telephone calls, better visits, more home leave and custody nearer home than in integral sanitation, particularly when certain basic matters have been improved such as better sewers or more lavatories and showers on landings.

The main issue, I would suggest to your Lordships, is that overcrowding avoids in some ways the real problems. These are to do with the way that the Government have rapidly increased the public impression that punishment will in the short term ease long-term social problems. The problem is compounded by disillusion among prison staff about the usefulness of their work and its security, as they see more and more violent and dangerous people sent to prison to be held in more relaxed circumstances. We ought not to let our understandable and proper concern for numbers deflect attention from the real issue, which is still the fashioning of a long-term enlightened strategy for all those committed to custody.

4.29 p.m.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, many years ago it was widely believed that prison, properly used, could encourage a high proportion of offenders to start an honest life on their release. I distinctly remember being addressed some 30 years ago, as a young recorder with a body of other recorders, by the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Parker. He sought to persuade us to give longer rather than shorter sentences, on the basis that short sentences had little or no reforming quality.

Nearly 30 years on the White Paper issued by the Government in 1990 entitled Crime, Justice and Protecting the Public stated: Nobody now regards imprisonment, in itself. as an effective means of reform for most prisoners … However much prison staff try to inject a positive purpose into the regime, as they do, prison is a society which requires virtually no sense of responsibility from prisoners. Normal social or working habits do not fit. The opportunity to learn from other criminals is pervasive". A year later in the White Paper entitled Custody, Care and Justice, which was the Government's response to the Woolf Report, somewhat stronger terms were used: the effects of imprisonment can be severe. It breaks up families. It is harder for prisoners to retain or subsequently to secure law-abiding jobs. Imprisonment can lessen people's sense of responsibility for their actions and reduce their self-respect, both of which are fundamental to law-abiding citizenship. Some, often the young and less experienced, acquire in prisons a wider knowledge of criminal activity. Imprisonment is costly for the individual, for the prisoner's family and for the community". I turn to the issue of prison overcrowding. In a statement to the Woolf Inquiry in 1990, the then Director General of the Prison Service said: the life and work of the Prison Service has, for the last 20 years, been distorted by the problems of overcrowding. That single factor has dominated prisoners' lives, it has produced often intolerable pressure on the staff, and as a consequence it has soured industrial relations. It has skewed managerial effort and it has diverted management away from positive developments. The removal of overcrowding is, in my view, an indispensable precondition of sustained and universal improvement in prison conditions". The danger of overcrowding was recognised by the judiciary many years ago. In one of the early guideline cases, R v. Bibi, the then Lord Chief Justice, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lane, giving the judgment of the Court of Appeal Criminal Division, made this observation: This case opens up wider horizons, because it is no secret that our prisons at the moment are dangerously overcrowded. So much so that sentencing courts must be particularly careful to examine each case to ensure, if an immediate custodial sentence is necessary, the sentence is as short as possible, consistent only with the duty to protect the interests of the public and to punish and deter the criminal". The Court of Appeal has made it clear on many occasions since then that imprisonment should be regarded as a sanction of the last resort, reserved for the more serious and violent offenders.

In considering the validity of the Home Secretary's proposition, enunciated by him on 6th October 1993 at the Conservative Party conference, Let us be clear—prison works", I should like to invite your Lordships' attention to the work of Roger Tarling, the head of the Home Office Research and Planning Unit entitled Analysing Offending which was published as recently as last year. He observed, among other things: A general increase in the use of imprisonment, either by increasing the proportion sentenced to custody, increasing the sentences imposed, or increasing the proportion of the sentence that offenders spend in custody, would not affect crime levels by any substantial amount. This would, however, have a significant effect on an already overburdened prison system". That is so because so few offenders are caught and sentenced to custody that any impact on the crime rate by the increased resort to imprisonment is extremely limited.

Mr. Tarling's analysis and his conclusion that a reduction in the crime rate of 1 per cent. would require an increase in the prison population of some 25 per cent. was referred to in some detail in a report dated December 1993, produced by the Prison Reform Trust. The cost of capital construction of new prisons to hold that number of prisoners would exceed £1 billion.

Any excessive use of imprisonment may indeed add to the rise in crime. Given the high cost of running prisons, the use of imprisonment is bound to divert resources for more effective methods of reducing crime. I refer in particular to better régimes in existing prisons, with more opportunities for education and work and a greater chance of directing the lives of some inmates in a more positive direction. As the Prison Reform Trust report observed in its final sentence: in that sense at least, prison is part of the crime problem, rather than part of the solution".

4.35 p.m.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, I shall speak about the rehabilitation of prisoners and one avenue by which the overcrowding of prisons could be reduced in the long term as recidivism would in many cases be cut. First, and again I have done this previously, I mention a daily programme of educational work and counselling carried out at Grendon Underwood Prison where I have worked. Such a programme, costly as it is, would diminish the number of recidivists and go some way towards reducing the prison population.

Secondly, I speak on the distressing subject of child sexual abuse, not an easy subject on which to speak. Men convicted of sexually abusing children receive prison sentences. They are often segregated in prison because the prison population does not tolerate, and is often cruel to, men who offend against children, be it cruelty or child sexual abuse. Such men often leave prison in a worse state than when they first entered it. They move to another part of the country. They set up a new family and again indulge in child sexual abuse. Ultimately, they return again to prison. They are often reconvicted several times over, and the cycle continues.

I am chairman of a newly set up trust and I must therefore declare an interest. The five trustees and the staff seek to rehabilitate, treat and help those men in the community or in a residential setting. Help, support and counselling are offered to the wives and children. The trust provides an educational service in the form of lectures, seminars and conferences for social workers, teachers and youth leaders. We have an outstanding staff, all of whom are trained in that work.

I am grateful to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, who generously saw me a fortnight ago and, without commitment, has advised me to apply to him for much needed resources. Pray heaven they may be forthcoming.

The Department of Health supports the scheme. We are grateful to prison governors, the probation service and social services for their co-operation in our desire and our hope to help such men outside prison so that they may not reoffend. We give them support and help when they return to the community. Child sexual abuse is responsible for crime and lasting unhappiness. We must surely deal consistently with that offence against children, thus creating an awareness of the damage done by child sexual abuse, and by tackling the problem, along with probation, we may go a long way towards reducing the prison population.

4.38 p.m.

Viscount Tenby

My Lords, overcrowding in prisons is pernicious and self-defeating for a number of reasons, both practical and ethical. The most obvious practical drawback is that it makes prisons difficult to run. It probably necessitates the transfer of prisoners from overcrowded to less crowded prisons, often a considerable distance from family contacts and legal advisers. It almost certainly interferes with any vital refurbishment programme. It puts major obstacles in the way of producing a structured regime for individual prisoners. It increases the threat of disorder and it makes it more difficult to control certain facts of prison life which are never far below the surface, such as drug abuse, sexual abuse and bullying.

Prison overcrowding also puts a strain on the relationship between prisoner and prisoner and between prisoner and warder. With that in mind, should we be sending fewer offenders to prison? The answer is almost certainly yes, but noble Lords must bear in mind that, whatever various siren voices say, some people will have to go to prison, whatever the political climate. It is surely right that people who persistently commit grave offences should be taken out of circulation for the protection of the community. Let us not, however, muddy the waters by declaring that it is being done because prison works, for in terms of recidivism it almost certainly does not.

There are undoubtedly some offences where a custodial sentence might be better directed into, say, a community service order. Perhaps I may supply an example to which my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf has referred. In the case of someone who wilfully and persistently refuses to pay a fine, in the final event a suspended custodial sentence is often imposed. I have to say that in such cases the money usually miraculously appears before implementation of the sentence and the court has therefore won what is in effect a game of bluff. But in some instances, and they are few—in my experience only 1 to 2 per cent. of the total—the custodial part of the sentence will be activated and someone will end up in prison for debt, with all its Dickensian overtones. How much better it would be for such offenders to help to dig out a canal or to beautify the garden of an old people's home. And, when one considers that the average prisoner costs £22,000 a year to keep, one can see that a major injection of funds into community sentencing would make considerable sense in these straitened times.

But my purpose this afternoon is not to discuss who should or should not go to jail. I am more concerned with what happens to those who are sent there. The Prison Service Report for 1992–93 stated that there were on average 23½ hours of structured work per week per prisoner, with a further 22 hours in association. That is not nearly enough, as I am sure your Lordships will agree. But how does one increase that total under overcrowded conditions?

There are two other important aspects of life inside which must be endangered by overcrowding; namely, education and the various behavioural courses aimed at correcting personality problems. In my view, mistakenly, education is not compulsory for those over school-leaving age. But in any case, with the system under strain, this seems to me to be almost academic —if your Lordships will forgive the use of the word in this context. Likewise, the successful running of anger management and drug, alcohol and sexual abuse courses must be in jeopardy when resources are stretched to breaking point.

Some two-and-a-half years ago the Government produced a thoughtful and far-reaching publication about the prison service entitled Custody, Care and Justice. Perhaps I may give your Lordships a brief quotation from that. It stated: A decent service depends on the end of overcrowding. The Government accepts therefore that the objective should be that no prisoner should have to be accommodated in overcrowded conditions". Surely it could not be put better. But can that be anything other than a pious aspiration in present circumstances?

Despite spending a commendable £310 million on new estate and £207 million on existing estate in 1992–93, on which the Government are to be congratulated, the fact is that the inexorable rise in the prison population which we saw for most of last year will be accentuated in the months to come by new sentencing policies and even new laws. Of course there are still new prisons to come on stream but the whole process of creating new establishments is inevitably slow and careful.

In the meantime, how likely is it that we shall have to use army camps? As my noble friend Lord Allen asked, are prison hulks to be resurrected? Is it to be back to the police cells again? I hope that the Minister, with his usual courtesy, will be able to answer some of the more pressing questions today, for surely the issue is not whether by manipulation the prison service can somehow manage to accommodate all that the courts send to them but rather whether the service will be a worthy example of a civilised society in action in the years to come.

4.44 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, carries such conviction and authority in everything that she says. In supporting her words about the importance of the underlying principles of her new trust, the Faithfull Foundation, I can be brief.

A year or so ago I took part in a BBC radio programme called "The Moral Maze". It was about sexual offences and offenders. As your Lordships will know, when such people are put in prison they are regarded as the scum of the earth. Rehabilitating them has been an almost impossible task for a prison governor. One of the contributors to the programme was able to demonstrate conclusively that, with the collaboration of the offender, treatment is possible and that by a long and arduous process of facing the offender with the consequences of his actions it is possible to reform and rehabilitate him so that eventually, after he has completed his sentence, he can be safely released into society. The odds are some 300: 1 that he will not re-offend.

This most difficult, unpopular, unsavoury work will be developed by the highly-qualified and experienced staff of the Faithfull Foundation, founded and guided by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull. She has been tireless is raising funds for the foundation. She has overcome every one of the many and varied obstacles which have been put in its way both by sceptical bureaucrats and by ill-intentioned persons who are not going to have any of that kind of thing in their back yard. The noble Baroness has earned, and her trust deserves—and I hope that it will receive—every possible support from Her Majesty's Government both in financial and in administrative terms. It is sharply relevant to the problem of overcrowding in prisons.

4.46 p.m.

Lord Brain

My Lords, I wish to begin by supporting two points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. The first is the problem of prisoners being far away from home. I recently visited Exeter prison, which contained prisoners from Preston. They were certainly not as happy as the more local inmates. They had a slightly unsettling influence, which is a problem of overcrowding. I also strongly support the second point made by my noble and learned friend. I have been approached by the chairman of the local board of prison visitors, a senior probation officer and some magistrates. It relates to the closure of bail hostels. A hostel at Newton Abbot, which I know slightly, is on the list. Last year it had a throughput of 200 offenders. If the hostel is closed they will probably join the 3,000 remand prisoners in Exeter prison, of whom only 1,000 finally received custodial sentences. Both the remand in prison and the loss of the bail hostel will lead to overcrowding.

My main point relates to my support of a comment made by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham. It is the issue of drug offenders and their treatment in prison. A recent study carried out by the Plymouth probation service showed that people who are on drug harm reduction courses have a significantly reduced chance of re-offending. Fine, they can be dealt with on probation. The group in Plymouth runs a harm course in Dartmoor prison. It appeared from the study that before treatment those undergoing the course had an average income of less than £70 per week but were spending more than £300 per week on drugs. If one multiplies the difference by four, one realises that they were obtaining £1,000 per month illegally by burglary and the like. After treatment, nearly 60 per cent. were not offending or obtaining money illegally. The average expenditure for the whole group was only £35; that is, half their average income. If the prisons were to establish a uniform and efficient drug harm reduction programme they would be sending out prisoners who were much less likely to re-offend and to come through the revolving-door system.

Drugs are readily available in prison but the problem is that often they are not those that the addicts or offenders are used to. They then get used to a strange cocktail and they come out in a worse condition than when they went in. I strongly urge the Minister and the Home Office to give due consideration to the drug harm reduction programmes. I believe that they should try to establish such a system throughout all the prisons because in the longer term—and prison building is also in the longer term—that will reduce the overcrowding in prisons.

4.50 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, said at the beginning of his speech this afternoon, we should thank him for initiating this debate and for giving us the opportunity to listen not only to his own admirable speech but also to that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, whose outstanding report on prisons published three years ago has rightly formed the basis of this afternoon's debate.

I propose to raise four issues: first, overcrowding in local prisons; secondly, slopping-out; thirdly, the prison ombudsman; and, lastly, the position of drug smugglers held in prisons in this country.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, devoted a substantial amount of his all too brief speech to the problem of overcrowding in our local prisons. As the House will recognise, that is the central issue as regards overcrowding. Because of security factors, it is not a problem in dispersal prisons, nor yet in most closed and open category C training prisons, but in the locals it is once again extremely severe.

In a Written Answer given to me by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, on 13th December of last year it was admitted that Bedford was 39 per cent. overcrowded; Cardiff, 38 per cent.; Canterbury, 50 per cent.; Chelmsford, 65 per cent.; Leicester, to which the noble Earl, Lord Longford, referred, was 72 per cent. overcrowded; and Shrewsbury was top of the league at 81 per cent. overcrowded. The conditions in which many of the inmates are being held are, as we are all well aware, lamentable; and yet there is little, if any, prospect of improvement in the situation.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, recommended in his report that there should be a new prison rule that no establishment should hold more prisoners than is provided for in its CNA, with a provision that Parliament should be informed if exceptionally there was to be a material departure from that rule. It is regrettable that the Government have not accepted that recommendation.

I turn now to slopping-out. I ask the noble Earl what is happening about that. As we know, the problem is often at its most acute in some of the older, overcrowded, local Victorian prisons. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, referred specifically to it.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, recommended that slopping-out should be ended by February 1996. When the then Home Secretary made his Statement in Parliament, he indicated that the Government did not believe that February 1996 was satisfactory. He made it clear that the Government thought that they should go a great deal further. He announced that they would end slopping-out by the end of this year. Perhaps the noble Earl will tell us whether that is still the target. The Chief Inspector of Prisons has said that he does not believe that the target will be achieved. I am told by a number of prison governors that they too disbelieve that target. Perhaps the noble Earl will tell us specifically when slopping-out is to end.

The noble Earl will recall, because he was here when the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, repeated Mr. Baker's Statement, the words at paragraph 11.102 of the noble and learned Lord's report: During our visits outside the United Kingdom, with the exception of a segregation unit, we came across no prison in which slopping out was practised. The evidence which we received from staff and inmates of prisons in this country makes it clear that this is an aspect of our prison life which they find intolerable". Most of us—probably all of us—accept that judgment unreservedly. But, as I have indicated, there now appears to be a serious doubt as to whether the Government's target will be achieved. We would be grateful if we could be told whether that is so.

I return to the overcrowding situation. Every one of the present Home Secretary's predecessors indicated his deep anxiety about prison overcrowding, all the more so as many of the inmates are unconvicted and in the remand wings. But, unhappily, Mr. Howard is not likely to share those anxieties because we remember the words that he addressed to the Conservative Party Conference, which were repeated this evening by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner. Mr. Howard said: Let us be clear—prison works". In party political terms, his speech was probably a great success. He received his standing ovation. But I find it rather difficult to believe that some of his more fastidious predecessors—for example, the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, and Mr. Hurd—would have found it possible to express their views in such terms.

His words at Blackpool and his attitude since have provoked the gravest concern in the prison service. The current director-general, Mr. Lewis, appointed by Mr. Clarke from the private sector, has said that as a result of the sharp increase in numbers, the atmosphere in the prisons is more volatile than it has been at any time since the Strangeways riots in 1990. His words have been echoed by many members of the Prison Governors' Association. I believe that Mr. Howard is playing an extremely dangerous game. He may believe that he is handling public fears about crime with a considerable degree of political skill, but the price that he is paying is the forfeiture of the trust and confidence of many of the most able governors in the prison service.

I turn now to the appointment of a prison ombudsman. That is something of a mystery. There was a public advertisement. A number of people applied for the job. Apparently there was a shortlist of three, of whom the Home Secretary saw one. It was then indicated that neither that gentleman nor either of the other two was acceptable. Why were they all rejected? Did they not pass some form of test with regard to their political correctness? Moreover, I ask the noble Earl what position he believes the man ultimately selected for the job will have, given the way in which the three shortlisted people were treated. How will anyone believe that the person selected is genuinely independent? I hope that the noble Earl will answer that specific question because it is causing many people serious anxiety.

Finally, I turn to the last point that I wish to raise; namely, the position of third world drug smugglers. Many women from Nigeria are held in Holloway and elsewhere as a result of being convicted in British courts. I have made it clear on many occasions that people involved in smuggling narcotics must expect to be deaft with severely by our courts. I am sure that the noble Earl will tell us that that is the Government's position.

However, the Government's conduct demonstrates a rather different position. We recall the Prime Minister' s appeal to the King of Thailand to release two convicted British women drug smugglers on humanitarian grounds. He succeeded. As we all remember, they returned to this country and promptly set about trying to enrich themselves by selling their stories to the media.

To put it mildly, Mr. Major's gesture seemed rather odd in view of the fact that the Government, like their predecessors, had been telling the Thais and other governments in South-East Asia that they must take drug smuggling more seriously. But, in any event, how can it be right to appeal to foreign governments to release British women convicted of drug smuggling and ignore the plight of pretty near 200 women from the third world who are held in women's prisons in this country? If we are to have humanitarian gestures regarding British nationals in Thailand, what about some humanitarian gestures so far as concerns those women?

I very much hope that the Government will now proceed with the same degree of urgency that they demonstrated in relation to Thailand to effect some bilateral agreement with the Government of Nigeria and some of the other governments involved so that such women can be repatriated to prisons in their own countries. I have indicated this evening just a few of our concerns. I hope that we shall receive clear and unambiguous answers from the noble Earl.

5 p.m.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

My Lords, I should like to deal, first, with the intervention of the noble Earl who suggested that there was no connection between the Home Secretary and overcrowding in prisons, as it was judges and magistrates who sent people to prison. There are specific ways in which the Home Secretary has interfered with the penal system over the past 12 months. The closure of bail hostels, the denigration of the probation service, the introduction of private prisons, the changes to the Criminal Justice Act (which allow the whole of the prisoner's previous convictions to be taken into account) and the foreshadowing of 12 year-olds going to prison in the Criminal Justice Bill currently going through the other place are clearly specific ways in which the Home Secretary has contributed to overcrowding. I also believe that the Home Secretary has contributed to the context in which judges and magistrates send people to prison. The increase in the past 12 months of some 7,000 in the prison population has a clear relationship with the speeches that have been made by the Home Secretary and the context which he has established.

As many other speakers have done, I specifically wish to deal with the statement that "prison works" made by the Home Secretary at the Blackpool Conference last year and repeated in another place on 23rd November in the home affairs debate. It was also repeated in this House by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, in the debate on the Queen's Speech on the same day. Both the Home Secretary and the noble and learned Lord adduced in evidence that prison works as regards the situation in the United States.

The noble and learned Lord said that, the United States is a country where, during the past decade, the prison population has increased while recorded crime has remained fairly constant and crime as measured by victim surveys appears to have declined subtantially".—[Official Report, 23/11/93; col. 249.] Of course, prison works in the sense that in earlier ages exile or transportation to the colonies worked. Prison is a sort of internal exile. However, nowadays it is also a revolving door: those who go to prison come out again. But what is sometimes forgotten is that other crimes are committed in prison. Prison officers and other prisoners are assaulted, other prisoners are raped and bullied and even blackmailed. Prisoners also take drugs in prison. They make criminal friends, learn more sophisticated techniques and family relationships are destroyed during a prison sentence. They emerge tougher, more streetwise and less able to find employment.

As previous speakers have said, there is no evidence to show that prison acts as a deterrent. Only one in 50 cases ends up with an offender going to prison. Criminals always assume that they will not be caught. Indeed, people still stole silk handkerchiefs when it was a hanging offence, which is a clear demonstration that the penalty does not affect what people do.

Perhaps I may turn to the American experience of crime, which of course is horrifying. There 1% million of the population are in prison. That is proportionately five times our prison population, which as we have heard is already the highest in Europe, apart from Luxembourg. The equivalent prison population in this country would be 250,000 of our citizens in prison. Is that the Home Secretary's intention? At the present rate of 7,000 per year, it would not take many years. However, it would be an enormous cost to this country to follow the American example. It already costs £1 billion a year to run our prisons and if we built prisons to that extent they would cost something like £21 billion to build, with a further revenue cost of £5 billion a year to run them.

Of course, some people are too dangerous to be at large and should be locked up. But the majority of people in prison are car thieves, petty burglars and fine defaulters. Moreover, 20 per cent. of prisoners are on remand, which costs £20,000 per annum for each prisoner. It would be much cheaper to build more bail hostels rather than closing them or to have more probation and community service orders, which are one-twentieth the cost of imprisonment—and, incidentally, rather more successful in preventing reoffending. Therefore, there are practical and financial grounds for not increasing the prison population. The money could be diverted to nursery education, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Allen, said, has been shown in the United States to be more effective in preventing crime in the long term. It could also be diverted to increasing the number of jobs; and there is a clear negative correlation between jobs and crime.

As for the Home Secretary's evidence of a fall in America's crime rate, American statistics are notoriously difficult to handle because they are collected from 16,000 separate agencies. In the 10 years between 1981 and 1991 there was a 50 per cent. increase in the crime rate. Although in 1992 property crime fell by 6 per cent., violent crime increased by 1 per cent. and is at a level which is five times that of this country. In 1992, there were 22,000 violent deaths in the United States, which represented an increase of 43 per cent. On the previous 10 years, and there were 100,000 forcible rapes. Is that really a good example to follow of a penal system?

I cannot understand why we turn to America for an example of a penal system that works. There are much better and more fruitful examples in the rest of Europe. For example, Denmark, which has extensive family support systems and a much lower prison population than ours, has declining crime rates. Germany, which has pursued a specific policy of "decarceration" as they call it—a terrible word—has a declining prison population, fewer remand prisoners, shorter custodial sentences and a lower crime rate. Finally, Holland, which has proportionately the lowest prison population in Europe, is not exactly a crime-ridden society. We not only incarcerate more people than the rest of Europe, but we also have double the number of young people under 21 in prison compared to Germany, Holland and France. Our current plans to put 13 and 14 year-olds in prison is viewed with derision elsewhere in Europe.

In 1910, Churchill said: The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country". By that standard, we are a barbaric country. I believe at present that our Home Secretary is effectively governing by tabloid press. In my view, it is the duty of government to educate the public. It is irresponsible, if not immoral, to follow the dictates of the media, the public desire for revenge and cheap populism in pursuit of votes.

5.8 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I believe that the majority of your Lordships will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, for having introduced the Motion this afternoon. I am bound to say that it has been a most interesting debate. It is a matter in which noble Lords are always most interested. However, it seems to me that the trend of the debate has been more about penal policy than about prison overcrowding.

I know that there are some noble Lords who doubt the value of dealing with offenders by sending them to prison. Some speakers complained about my right honourable friend saying that prison works. Indeed, I think I can say, without unfairness, that the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, lampooned the suggestion. He said that when prisoners come back into society they will be bitter, they will have learned new tricks and they will be worse. Of course, that is always the danger.

If I may say so, I am bound to say that I found the noble Lord's speech to be a most depressing one. He said, with all his experience as a former Permanent Under-Secretary of State to the Home Office and Chairman of the Prison Commission, that he had seen the lot—prison, Borstal, capital punishment, corporal punishment, short, sharp shocks and the cat—and that none of them had worked. I wondered what the noble Lord's conclusion was. I imagine he concluded that if none of the methods of punishment that he mentioned worked, prisoners should not be subjected to those methods of punishment.

However, it is important to discuss these matters. It is important to have an intellectual discussion on what to do with prisons and prisoners. We should discuss whether the prison system is at fault. However, out in the countryside people are terrified about increasing crime. There is real concern about that and the Government are continually being asked what they are doing to tackle crime. People are concerned about crime. They are worried about having their homes broken into or being abducted while they are in their cars. They are worried about incidents of stabbing and mugging.

It is my right honourable friend's duty to take account of law and order. He is responsible for that, as your Lordships only too hastily remind me and him. It is therefore right that my right honourable friend should take these matters into account and should try to establish a policy which does at least in some shape or form attempt to protect people. Of course, one can never guarantee full protection. No system that has ever been used to date has proved to be successful in that regard. All that Home Secretaries can do is endeavour to balance all the problems that are put before them.

I am sorry that I interrupted the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Longford. He said I took up two minutes but I believe I took up only half a minute of his time. However, I realise that I upset his train of thought and that may have caused his speech to last a further minute and a half. The noble Earl blamed my right honourable friend for sending people to prison. But my right honourable friend does not do that. Parliament sets the conditions and, as my noble friend Lord Moyne said, it is for the courts to decide who should or should not go to prison.

The noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, ridiculed my right honourable friend for saying that he wanted to take yobs off the street, as if that were a bad thing to do. However, I do not think it is a bad thing to do. I believe my right honourable friend is quite correct to address himself to that matter because that is what people want him to do. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, said the Government started off well—I thought that was tremendous —as regards the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, but that some 12 months later everything changed. She said scathingly that my right honourable friend was listening to the "lock 'em up" brigade. It is easy to castigate people in that way, but there are people who feel that there are certain people who ought to be locked up. Despite what the noble Baroness said,—and despite (dare I say it?) the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf—I have no hesitation in saying I believe that there are some people who ought to be locked up.

A number of noble Lords have castigated my right honourable friend for saying that prison works. The noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, all castigated my right honourable friend for saying that prison works. Oddly enough, my noble friend Lord Carr agreed that people have to be sent to prison, as did the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, and my noble friend Lord Moyne. Even the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, agreed that some people have to be sent to prison. However, the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, said he hoped I would not make the infantile observation that prison works if one puts people into prison and takes them out of the light. I do not regard that as an infantile observation. It is a fact that if people are sent to prison they are removed from society and the potential victims who would have been wronged by those prisoners had they been in the community are protected while the offenders are in prison. From the point of view of those in society who have been violated, prison works in so far as the offenders are removed from society. Once an offender is in prison, society is protected from the attentions of that particular prisoner.

When he is in prison an offender may be improved physically, psychologically, emotionally and through technical skills. That is a good thing and in that respect prison can work. My noble friend Lord Carr said that such a procedure is expensive. It is, and one accepts that. One has to accept that prison must be available for offenders. There are people who complain about a breakdown of law and order and about rising crime, but as soon as the Government do anything about it, other people complain about what the Government are doing. My right honourable friend is trying to tilt the balance away from the criminal and towards the victim. Of course endless money can be spent on educating and helping offenders and that should be done, but there is no substitute in appropriate cases for sending people to prison, regrettable though that is, as society needs to be protected. I would defend that until the proverbial cows come home.

No one has to be a criminal and no one has to offend. Some people think that offenders cannot help offending, but they can help themselves and they must be responsible for their actions. No one need offend and consequently need find himself in front of a court being sentenced to imprisonment. If someone is so sentenced, of course he must be dealt with properly. The noble Lord, Lord Plant, the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, said we were moving away from Woolf—I am talking about the Woolf Report of course and not about the noble and learned Lord—but I can assure your Lordships that the Government remain committed to the 1991 White Paper, Custody, Care and Justice, the Way Ahead for the Prison Service in England and Wales. That encapsulates the principal recommendations of the report of the noble and learned Lord and the Government's commitment can be seen in the huge investment they continue to make in the prison system. This will result in better quality prisons and better located prisons.

A number of noble Lords have asked whether there is a change of policy. As regards the matter of sentencing in individual cases, it is—as has been acknowledged by many people and by myself—for the courts to determine, in the light of all the circumstances, whether a custodial sentence is the most appropriate response to a particular offence. The Government set the framework for sentencing conditions in the Criminal Justice Act 1991 and following the implementation of that framework in October 1992 there was a fall in the prison population; and the Government were severely criticised—including by some of your Lordships —for having restricted the ability of the courts to sentence appropriately in all cases.

The changes that were made to the sentencing framework did not sit it on its head but refined it. Some who could not be sent to prison before now can be, but that does not mean to say that they must be sent to prison. This makes it clear that sentencers should not feel inhibited from sending offenders to prison, but that does not constitute a change of policy. That is a far cry from seeking to exercise undue and improper influence on judicial discretion. Of course the Government remain committed to non-custodial penalties as they play an essential role in responding to less serious crime. Community penalties, and tough community penalties, are a key part of the armoury of sentences which are available to sentencers.

Of course it would be much better if people were not sent to prison in the first place, but life is not like that. People offend and they must be punished. What the Government have to do is to provide the means by which society can be protected from the criminal by providing prisons and then to ensure that those in the prisons are looked after in a reasonable fashion. The Government must ensure that the conditions in prisons are decent but austere and that there is scope for education and rehabilitation as well as for retribution. I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln that there must be a long-term enlightened strategy for dealing with those who are in prison. I believe there is such a strategy. However, I do not agree with the right reverend Prelate that the Government have given out the message that punishment will cure long-term ills. The Government have never given out that message. If anyone knows the way to cure long-term ills we would be delighted to hear from them.

The noble Lord, Lord Brain, is worried about drugs. I can inform the noble Lord that the prison service is proposing a detailed strategy to tackle the drugs problem in prisons. The policy will address the task of reducing the supply of drugs and will aim to offer appropriate treatment and support of the kind which the noble Lord described. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, referred to people from overseas who are caught smuggling drugs. Reducing or eliminating the possibility of those caught bringing drugs into the country receiving a prison sentence would create a serious risk of increasing the amount of drugs targeted at the United Kingdom. There would undoubtedly be an increase in the number of couriers if we were to do that.

The noble Lord referred to the Smith and Cahill case. Those were young and naive people when they committed the offence. Their prosecution was entirely correct, but by United Kingdom standards their sentences were disproportionate. I think the sentence was 25 years for Smith and 18 years for Cahill, who was under 18 at the time of her arrest. On humanitarian grounds we agreed to help them use the opportunity which Thai law allowed in order to achieve an early release.

Of course minor offenders should not generally be sent to prison. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, that few people do go to prison. In 1992 only 4 per cent. of those who were sentenced by the courts were given immediate custodial sentences. By contrast, 78 per cent. were fined, 7 per cent. were given a community penalty and 9 per cent. were given discharges. Therefore, in percentage terms very few went to prison.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, referred to prisoners. I can tell her that over half of male prisoners sentenced in September 1993 were violent or sex offenders. The work of my noble friend Lady Faithfull is well known and highly respected. I agree that it is appropriate to treat some sex offenders in the community in certain circumstances. The probation service is now running its own programmes for treating sex offenders. The Faithfull Foundation's request for financial assistance will be given careful consideration. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, will be content to hear that.

The Criminal Justice Act 1991 reserves custody only for those offences which are so serious that custody can be the only appropriate response or for those violent or sexual offenders who pose a risk of serious harm to the public. Most people would take the view that it is entirely proper for those offenders to be held in custody. But, of course, the prophets of doom say, "If you do that you will fill up the prisons and you do not have enough of them as it is. They will then all become overcrowded". Well, of course we can never be satisfied. But the position is markedly different from what it was just seven years ago.

In January 1987 the prison population stood at 46,500. More than 4,600 prisoners shared three to a cell. More than 13,200 prisoners shared two to a cell in a cell which was intended for one. Some 38 per cent. of the prison population then experienced overcrowded conditions. The position now is totally different. Anyone would think from what your Lordships have said this afternoon that the Government had done nothing at all and that noble Lords blamed us for having done nothing. However, by September 1993 sharing three to a cell had been virtually eliminated. The number now stands not at 4,600 but at 57. The number of prisoners sharing two to a cell has been halved. It now stands not at 13,200 but 7,300. The prison service's business plan for 1993–94 set the target for ending three to a cell by the end of this financial year. I am glad to say that that unsatisfactory practice has now almost been put behind us.

Although that is a colossal achievement, as I am sure even the most critical of your Lordships would agree, there is a continuing need to eliminate overcrowding completely. To that end we have invested substantial sums of money to bring the existing prison service establishments up to standard. That has meant installing integral sanitation in cells, which was a point that worried the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. Since 1990–91, in addition to sanitation facilities being installed during any major refurbishment or in the construction of new prisons, over 12,000 places have been provided with access to sanitation. That includes 4,700 places during 1993–94 alone. By the end of 1994 more than 95 per cent. of prisoners should have access to sanitation at all times. That is also a considerable achievement.

Progress in converting the last few per cent. of cells to integral sanitation will obviously depend on the level of the prison population. But, as my right honourable friend the Home Secretary announced today, the prison service aims to complete the sanitation programme certainly no later than February 1996, the date which was recommended by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, in his report.

The prison service has an overriding objective, which is to contain the prison population within the prison estate. We must avoid, if at all possible, placing prisoners in police cells who have been committed to prison. The prison service's corporate plan emphasises its undertaking to avoid the use of police cells. It makes a very clear statement that no such use will be made while places are available within the operational capacity of the local prison concerned. It is better to have overcrowding than to use police cells. But whenever possible prisoners will be transferred to other establishments in order to avoid "locking out" in police cells.

The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, was worried about the use of army camps and prison ships. That will only be considered in the event of population levels well above those which are expected. It would be wrong for the prison service not to have workable contingency plans to cope with high population levels or the loss of accommodation should that ever come about. The alternative would be the expensive use of police cells.

The avoidance of the use of police cells is not the only objective of prison service estate planning. The availability of adequate numbers of secure prison places, especially where prisons are located in centres of population, is also important. But then, of course, the existing prison service estate is unfortunately not ideally adapted to the role which is now expected of it. There are 128 prison service establishments. The quality and location of that accommodation is varied. For example, it is not possible to hold category B male prisoners in ex-service huts. Nor is it possible to hold remand prisoners in remote rural locations. The noble Lord, Lord Plant of Highfield, referred to the excellent facilities at the Verne Prison. Undesirable though overcrowding is, it is confined to local prisons and the Verne is a training prison and is not overcrowded.

Your Lordships will be aware of the importance of the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, on the prison disturbances. I have already referred to the provision of integral sanitation. Another important recommendation of that report was for a system of community prisons. The prison service's approach is to increase the size of the estate and to locate more of its accommodation in or near urban areas. That will mean that more prisoners can be held closer to their families and in uncrowded conditions. In general, poorly located accommodation—especially low security accommodation—will not normally be refurbished if there are opportunities to divert the investment which is available to urban sites.

There are prisons which are not situated where they are most needed. The result is that there is a difference between where the prisoners' homes are located and where the prison service has accommodation available.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, was concerned about Leeds. That establishment is overcrowded. New accommodation has been built and is being brought on stream. Its certified normal accommodation is now 826; its population yesterday was 1,129. Later this year a new prison at Doncaster will open which will have 749 places. That will provide relief for a number of prisons in the North, including Leeds.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, was concerned about Leicester. Leicester can hold 194 prisoners when it is not crowded. On 31st January 339 prisoners were being held there. That is a high level of overcrowding, I agree. The fact that those numbers were accommodated without any requirement for three prisoners to share a cell meant only for one prisoner is at least something for which we can be thankful. Convicted prisoners are normally held at Leicester only for a very short period before being allocated to uncrowded training prisons. In order to provide relief for Leicester the East Midlands is one of the areas being considered as a site for a new prison.

My noble friend Lady Sharpies referred to assisted prison visits. The prison service is giving careful consideration to the question of extending the current scheme to provide financial assistance to close relatives of prisoners on low income to allow a visit every 14 days. No final decision has yet been taken on that matter. Assisted prison visits units have been identified as suitable for market testing. A study is taking place. We shall consider a whole range of issues, including that of confidentiality of information. Unless we can satisfy ourselves about confidentiality of information the proposals to market test the unit will not proceed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, referred to Finnamore Wood Camp in what I might call a jocular tone, although I realise that it was a serious point. The prison service indeed wishes to change the role of this establishment to have an open prison for adult men. I am afraid that if the role cannot be changed in that way the establishment would have to close. It would not be right to do that when other parts of the prison service estate are overcrowded. The constituency Member of Parliament has now been kept fully in touch with the planning for the change, and effective emergency contingency plans will be in place.

In order to pursue the idea of community prisons, it has been necessary for the prison service to decide how the estate should in future be developed. That is not only to make progress towards a community based system, but also to cope with the population pressure.

A massive prison building programme has, in fact, been under way. It is the largest prison building programme since Victorian times. Already 20 new prisons have been opened since 1985. The programme will conclude with the opening of Doncaster prison in June of this year. This will give a total of 21 new prisons in the last nine years. It will have created 11,285 new places at a cost of £1,200 million. In addition to this, some 8,000 new places have been built at the existing prison service establishments since 1979. This year alone, over 1,000 new places will be created at a cost of £70 million.

The current prison population projections point to a population of 56,600 by the year 2001. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has therefore recently announced plans to build six more prisons to cater for this. We expect the design, construction, management and financing of those prisons to be undertaken by the private sector.

In order to address the more immediate difficulties, which occur in those parts of the country where population pressures are greatest, my right honourable friend has announced his intention to create some 2,000 new places at existing establishments by 1996–97. The cost of this work is estimated to be £137 million. That includes the money which is needed to enlarge the support facilities, such as kitchens, and also to provide the additional space which is required at some prisons for increasing the facilities to provide work and education for prisoners. In addition, some 1,400 places will be modernised at a cost of £68.5 million.

Substantial progress has been made. There is still overcrowding, but it is not nearly so acute as it used to be. The prison service could not return to those days. The pace of investment continues. New establishments, which are better located, will be built. The objective is to provide a prison service estate which can cope with the prison population without overcrowding, and one which is both secure and humane.

The noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton, raised a number of issues about prisoners with serious illnesses. I can only tell her that the prison service's directorate of health care is committed to the continuing improvement of the health of prisoners. However, perhaps I may write to the noble Baroness on the individual points that she raised.

5.33 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, the noble Earl has left me a minute or two. I shall not detain your Lordships for long. I have the highest regard for the noble Earl and I always enjoy his speeches. Today is no exception. However, he has had rather an uphill task in the light of the comments and suggestions made from all parts of the House.

The noble Earl wisely devoted several minutes of an eloquent speech telling us that some people have to be sent to prison. As we all agree that there are a number of offences for which imprisonment is essential, perhaps those few minutes could have been devoted to explaining the penal policy in a little more detail. He said that the debate had to some extent turned on penal policy rather than on overcrowding. I need not recapitulate the points made in the debate about aspects of government penal policy which have led directly to overcrowding. I am still not clear—I listened carefully —as to the government policy. However, I shall read the speech with great care. I ask in response that those concerned in the Home Office read with some care the contributions made today. Although speeches necessarily have been quite short, some extremely valid and interesting points have been made and a remarkable array of expertise has been displayed.

I make only one comment on individual points made. I agree very much with what the noble Lord, Lord Moyne, said about the press. He remarked that in listing the various punishments that have been discontinued, I did not include capital punishment. I had it originally on my list but thought that I had better strike it out in case the discussion strayed into different territory. However, since the point has been raised, I simply say that what I said about the other punishments applies equally to capital punishment. Anecdotal evidence apart, one would find it extraordinarily difficult to produce any hard evidence that capital punishment works as a deterrent.

Lord Moyne

My Lords, I was talking about recidivism.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, a person who has been executed can hardly function as a recidivist.

I happen to believe that, for various reasons, including demographic considerations, if the rate of the increase of crime has not already reached its peak it is likely to slow down considerably. However, if any such happening takes place, I should hesitate to ascribe it to the result of increased numbers going to prison.

I conclude by applying the Churchillian criterion, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, referred. It reflects credit on this House that so many people are prepared to discuss in detail, and with considerable understanding and compassion, the problem of overcrowding in prisons in England and Wales. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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