HL Deb 03 April 1995 vol 563 cc74-88

7.6 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to take following the reports of the Chief Inspector of Prisons on HM Prisons Blakenhurst and Leeds.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Chief Inspector of Prisons produces many reports which demonstrate the admirable work which has been carried out by governors and staff in our prisons, often working in the most difficult conditions. The reports seldom arouse a great deal of interest, either in the media or in Parliament. But inevitably when things go wrong the situation is altogether different. In the case of the prisons which we are discussing tonight, a great deal went wrong. Once again, we should all pay tribute to Judge Tumim and his colleagues for having produced the reports which are of high quality, fair-minded and yet rigorous.

One report deals with a brand new Category B local prison for sentenced and remand adult male prisoners which has been handed over to the private sector to manage. The other is an overcrowded local prison in the public sector, constructed nearly 150 years ago, which is in the process of being redeveloped.

I shall deal first with the report on Leeds Prison. It is a deeply disappointing analysis, for although it indicates that there is an impressive strategic plan for the future of the prison—and I recognise that substantial improvements have taken place since the inspection by Judge Tumim and his colleagues last June—the overall impression given is quite dreadful.

Let me ask the noble Baroness a few questions. Why have Ministers tolerated a situation in which little was done to rectify the severe criticisms directed in the Chief Inspector's report on the prisons six years ago? I say "Ministers"; it is not a matter for the director-general of the Prison Service. I hope that we shall not have the business of trying to argue about the distinction between operational questions and policy questions. We are talking about a report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons which goes to Ministers. It is Ministers who must accept responsibility for the unsatisfactory situation.

We all know about the redevelopment of the prison, but how can Ministers justify allowing the lamentable conditions at Leeds to persist over such a long period since the last highly critical report'? Judge Tumim said that many persons were living in grossly unsatisfactory conditions. Precisely the same criticism was made six years ago.

At the time of the recent inspection, working conditions in a number of departments were said to be "appalling". An exercise area was found to be contaminated with human waste and an underground holding and transfer area was said to be, filthy, unhygenic and unsuited for its purpose".

Remand prisoners on one wing were crammed into cells for over 22 hours a day, a position said by Judge Tumim to be, far removed from the model regime for local prisons promoted by the Prison Service". The report said that Leeds staff were trapped in a warehouse with apparently no chance to put things right because of unremitting overcrowding and insufficient activity. That is the price being paid as a result of the philosophy of "prison works". Ministers again must accept direct responsibility for the situation at Leeds and, I fear, a number of other local prisons which could be subject to precisely the same criticism.

I do not doubt that the governor and many members of the staff at Leeds are endeavouring to cope with those conditions to the best of their ability. For instance, catering staff—a critically important group at a local prison—have clearly done well, according to Judge Tumim. So have the PE staff. But many serious questions remain. Why have there been so many changes to the planned redevelopment of the establishment? Why, even before the new wings were fully occupied, were significant structural alterations made which the chief inspector found to be unnecessary. I hope that the noble Baroness will deal directly with that question. Ministers speak continually about achieving value for money. How can value for money be secured when changes of such a character, costing significant sums of money, are made, which the Chief Inspector of Prisons says are unnecessary?

The difficulty is that changes of that sort, as I indicated, made at considerable public expense, have had a clear effect on the quality of life in the establishment. The report on Leeds is a disturbing document. Certainly it discloses some welcome shafts of light in an otherwise gloomy landscape. But, overall, I found it one of the most depressing accounts that I have read of conditions in an overcrowded local prison, where we should remember that a significant proportion of the inmates held have not been convicted of any criminal offence.

I turn to the report on Blakenhurst, the private sector establishment. There, the new managers had every apparent advantage. The prison was not overcrowded and facilities were incomparably superior to anything provided at Leeds. The report pays tribute to some of the successes at Blakenhurst. For instance, the education service was said to he outstanding and the treatment of inmates by staff was described as very good. There were other tributes to the character of the regime at Blakenhurst. All that was clearly deserving of praise.

But then came the criticisms, some of them of a fairly remarkable character—not, I may say, that they were set out in the press notice sent out by the prison department's press notice. As is always the case, there were two press notices, one summarising the position of the Chief Inspector of Prisons and the other the position of the department.

The press notice from Judge Tumim reads: Inspection finds 'confusion of cultures' at Blakenhurst Prison". That is related to the fact that part of the ownership of the prison is vested in an American company. So far as the Prison Service press notice is concerned, it reads: Blakenhurst staff impress HM Chief Inspector of Prisons". Those two documents make a rather interesting contrast.

Not until we read through the Prison Service press statement do we find, at the foot of the second page, a faint suggestion that there have been some criticisms in the report by Judge Tumim. Until that moment it is difficult to believe that the chief inspector found anything at all to criticise.

I have rarely read a more misleading summary of any government report. Indeed, it reminds me of a headline in the Daily Herald, during the 1947–48 fuel crisis; the Daily Herald at that time being as loyal to the government of the day as the Daily Express is to the present Government. At that time in 1947–48, when factories were being forced to close down all over Britain because of a severe shortage of fuel, the Daily Herald came out with the headline: "Booming Britain outpaces pits". The press notice about Blakenhurst comes well into that category.

Let me present some of Judge Tumim's other findings about Blakenhurst which did not find their way into the Prison Service summary. Judge Tumim said that custody staff were not fully in control of the inmate population. Not fully in control? We are talking about a category B prison; one of the highest categories of security that exist in the Prison Service. It is said that bullying had been a worrying feature in the establishment and conditions for vulnerable prisoners were highly unsuitable. Systems were poor. Inmates were found wandering around the corridors at times when they should have been taking part in purposeful activities. And where were the drug dealing and bullying taking place? It was taking place in the corridors of the prison, where people were wandering around without any adequate form of supervision. That seems to me to be a matter of some concern. I am sure that the noble Baroness will tell us that she shares that concern.

When the staff were interviewed by Judge Tumim and his colleagues, they told the inspectors that the training that they had received before taking up their duties had not been adequate; staffing levels were too low and managers had chosen to ignore the warnings from staff before the major disturbance in the previous year. The managers told the inspectors that they had not received adequate training, communications were poor and there were inadequate constructive activities to keep inmates occupied when out of their cells.

That last point brings me to the question of whether UKDS, the company which runs Blakenhurst, is taking compliance with the contract sufficiently seriously. For instance, in its tender submission UKDS undertook to provide commercial wage rates in one work activity area. Nothing has been done. Why not'? Will the noble Baroness tell us this evening?

But the problem is far wider. Judge Tumim states that the Home Office should have ensured that UKDS was contractually obliged to deliver all that was promised in its tender submission. That sounds unhappily like some of those applications for independent television franchises: much is offered; all too little is delivered. Quite apart from that, UKDS was not even delivering what it was legally contracted to do.

All that being so, what do Ministers propose to do about this matter? If the tendering process is to be taken seriously and not merely as an essay in imaginative journalism, what steps do they propose to take to ensure that UKDS is obliged to fulfil the assurances given at the time of awarding the contract?

I have deliberately avoided discussing the issue as to whether private prisons are acceptable. I have stated my opinions on this matter both in this House and outside on a number of occasions. I have little doubt that if there is a change of government at the next election establishments like Blakenhurst will be returned to the direct control of the state.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Yes, my Lords.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

But in the meantime it is essential that the serious inadequacies disclosed in this report are corrected, and at once. No one reading either of these reports can fail to be disturbed by what has been tolerated for far too long in both of those establishments. I hope that tonight we shall hear that action, albeit belatedly, will now be taken.

7.20 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I find it irresistibly tempting to say a few words —and they will be only a few—in a debate on prisons initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, whose wide and deep knowledge of prisons is familiar to us all. He made one of his most deadly speeches tonight, and I am glad that I do not have to respond to it. It was a formidable indictment.

Owing to my inattention to duty, I did not realise that this debate was coming on so soon and therefore have not done what I should like to have done and what I have done before now; that is, to visit the two prisons in question. I visited Leeds Prison years ago and have visited most of the leading prisons in this country. However. I have not visited Blakenhurst. I might say in passing that I have visited The Wolds, which is a privatised prison, and have a pretty good idea of the issues involved. I shall therefore deal with these matters only briefly tonight.

As regards the issue of privatisation, I was glad to hear my noble leader for the night confirming the statement of the noble Lord, Lord Harris; that if and when a Labour Government come to power they will put all this to right. In other words, Blakenhurst will be returned to the public sector. That is good news. But I am bound to say, as I have said before—and others have said before—that privatisation of the prison establishment is an obscenity; I repeat, an obscenity. The idea of trying to make money, possibly for foreigners, out of helpless people under our control is revolting.

It is no good my pretending that I approach the subject of the privatisations of prisons with an unbiased mind. But one can perhaps stress one point arising out of what the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said. The training is bound to be inadequate. The Government's passion for privatisation is no doubt widespread in other spheres, but in the case of prisons the specific motive is a desire to bypass the Prison Officers' Association. What does that mean in practice? It means recruiting an ignorant staff; throwing away all the knowledge and wisdom acquired over the years by the Prison Officers' Association and prison staff generally, which means we could not expect any result much better than the one indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Harris.

As regards the overcrowding at Leeds, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, we had what can only be called the "Howard revolution" in the autumn of 1993. But it is not fair to say that it is entirely the fault of Mr. Howard. He was appointed by Mr. Major who, at the same Conservative Conference, informed us that we should understand a little less about these matters. The Government have certainly lived up to that promise.

We are faced with the fact that in the Government's view prison works, and works much better in Mr. Howard's view if it is made more austere or unpleasant for prisoners. That is the Government's philosophy and the philosophy which has led to the great increase in the prison population. It is now at record levels and, according to a Home Office projection which I was reading today, it is expected to reach 56,000 some years from now. In other words, it will continue to rise if the present Government have their way.

It is obvious that there will be a lot of overcrowding in the course of the reforms and, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, it is a product of the philosophy of the Government in this last phase. When I say "the Government" I am not referring to Conservatives in general. There have been great Conservative penal reformers—Sir Winston Churchill, though he was a Liberal at the time, and Sir Samuel Hoare when he became president of the Howard League after being Home Secretary. Then there was Rab Butler, later Lord Butler, the noble Lord, Lord Carr, and a Minister of State like the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham. They are all Conservative penal reformers. The last six Home Secretaries, with the exception of the one before Mr. Howard, may be described with a little charity as leaning towards penal reform.

But there has been a revolution. Never let us forget that we are dealing with a revolution produced by the Government as a whole, Mr. Howard being the mouthpiece since the autumn of 1993. We must expect disaster and we are duly getting it.

7.25 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I must confess, and it is greatly to my discredit, that until I found myself preparing for this debate this evening, lying on my bed of pain during the day, I had never read any of Judge Stephen Tumim's reports on prisons. They are an eye opener. I had never quite understood the extent to which Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons actually go into a prison and ferret into every single activity, every corner of the building, every corner of the minds and lives of the inmates and staff in those prisons. I have never read anything more impressive in their perspicacity and perseverance than the two reports by Judge Stephen Tumim and his team that I read today. Having read them, I endorse everything said by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, about the two prisons.

In relation to Leeds Prison, it is truly shocking that, having made a report in 1989 which was so critical of the regime at Armley at that time, the sort of macho spirit which says, "We can receive any numbers at any time: we will take them in and tame them", appears to have been the dominating ethos in the prison. In the result, Leeds took in 250 prisoners out of Wymott. It managed to open a new wing which was prepared to be opened but had never been opened. It was not prepared to spend the money to open the wing when it was really needed for the continuing care of the prisoners already under its care.

At the same time the physical conditions in Leeds Prison; the way in which a large number of prisoners are still slopping out; the degree of overcrowding; the physical conditions of the recreation area for vulnerable prisoners which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, described; the inadequacy of the education provision—not its bad quality when it is provided, but the fact that not enough of it is being provided—and many other aspects of the prison are appalling to read about. And, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, the situation in Blakenhurst, which should be such a shining contrast, is no contrast at all.

It is profoundly disappointing that a prison which starts up in May 1993 can be inspected in May 1994 when virtually all the custody officers (as they are called in privatised prisons) have been recruited from outside the Prison Service. I am not referring to the managers; they came from within the Prison Service. The custody officers come from outside and may be thought to be open to persuasion that there are better ways of dealing with prisoners than those which are so often current in the Prison Service. Yet still it is a deeply disappointing report. It is disappointing in the quality of the care provided, but even more, I suggest to the Government, it is deeply disappointing in the way in which the bid document—the document which was the basis of the contract being awarded to UK Detention Services—is being so widely flouted. Indeed, it appears only from a careful reading of the report that schedule 2 to the contract, which is the guts of it, is not a legal requirement on UK Detention Services. The company is required only to act in the spirit of schedule 2. That is stated in paragraph 2.13 of Judge Tumim's report. It is an extraordinary state of affairs that we have a legal contract, on the basis of which people are being paid to do a job, and then we find that the contract which the Government have drawn up with this private sector company does not require it to conform with the conditions laid down in its own tender document. How can the Government explain that? How can they justify that kind of relationship with the private sector?

That does not in any way get round the profound moral repugnance, which I share with the noble Lord. Lord Harris, at the idea of private companies being responsible for the compulsory detention of our fellow citizens. I gladly confirm what he said, and what my noble friend Lord Longford said, that it will be the policy of the next Labour Government that there will be no more privatised prisons and that the existing contracts for privatised prisons will not be renewed when they expire. It is both morally repugnant, and, from the point of view of contractual relationships, the policy seems to me to be profoundly wanting.

Underlying the situation in both Leeds and Blakenhurst and the reason why the Question before your Lordships this evening is more important than what is happening in either is the whole issue of overcrowding in prisons. It is the overcrowding which on the surface has led to the riots and the disturbances that have taken place in prisons; but even where riots have not erupted overcrowding has led to the bad conditions, the ineffectual regimes and the ineffective reformation being provided in our prisons. That must he laid fairly and squarely at the door of government. The Criminal Justice Act 1991 very properly set statutory restrictions on the extent to which custodial sentences should be applied. As a result of that, there was, when the Act came into force in 1992, a quite rapid drop of between 5 and 10 per cent. in a few months in the proportion of those convicted of offences being sent to prison. As a result of that, there was an actual decline in the total numbers in our prisons, to 40,000 or so in December 1992.

Then what happened? We had Mr. Howard, who thinks that prison works and is prepared to pander to the worst instincts of Conservative Party conferences by boasting of his willingness to see the expansion of prisons and to provide for the expansion of prison places, although he knows, as we all know, that one can by acting tough increase the prison population but one cannot increase the provision for the prison population anything like as fast as one can expand the numbers inside. The present plan is for six additional prisons, of which two will open in 1997. That is not much consolation for those in prison now or for those who are suffering the effects of the lack of reformatory influence in our prison system.

The former Director-General of the Prison Service, Mr. Joe Pilling, said to the Woolf Inquiry after Strangeways in 1991 that overcrowding dominated the prison system. It was correct then and it was put right to a modest extent by the 1991 Act. All of that has gone by the board. We now have an increase in the prison population from just over 40,000 to more than 50,000 in February 1995. We have 8,500 prisoners two to a cell where the cells were designed for not more than one person. We have very large numbers of prisoners in the wrong category of prison—a direct cause of the Everthorpe riots in January this year. We have many prisons—the Whitemoor prison visitors' report of last year gives evidence of this—being stretched to breaking point by capricious and excessive transfer and entry policies. We have riots such as that at Wymott which can only be explained by the wrong category of prisoner being in the wrong prison at the wrong time and brought from the wrong place.

One recommendation out of the 12 which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, made to the Government which was not accepted was to my mind the most important. The noble and learned Lord said that there should be a legal ceiling on the number of prisoners in individual prisons. I ask the Government to recognise that their rejection of that recommendation can be held directly responsible for so much of the trouble that has taken place in the prisons in the past two years. I can do no better than quote the noble and learned Lord in the debate on prison overcrowding on 2nd February last year. He said: 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…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". Later in his speech he said: 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".—[Official Report, 2/2/94; cols. 1276–1277]

I suggest that that is a truer reflection of what our penal policy should be than the facile comment that prison works. I suggest that that is the lesson of the reports we have been reading about Leeds and Blakenhurst prisons and the justification for the noble Lord's Question.

7.38 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for providing this opportunity to debate the reports of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons on Blakenhurst and Leeds prisons and to describe the action which the Prison Service is taking in response to both.

Blakenhurst is a new local prison. It is the second prison to be managed by the private sector and was the first to hold sentenced prisoners. The prison was inspected in May last year when it had been open for just one year. It would be wrong for your Lordships to go away from this debate with the impression that the inspectorate's view of Blakenhurst was a damning one. And in no sense can it be taken as a basis for an argument against private sector involvement in the Prison Service. Indeed, the report—and subsequent developments—provide evidence of the benefits of privately managed prisons which have led to better value for money and higher standards both in those prisons and in the public sector.

The inspectorate's overall impression of Blakenhurst was that prisoners were being held securely in good modern conditions with staff treating them in a humane manner. The report also acknowledged the positive developments in the regime and the achievements of a committed staff who were growing in confidence during a difficult first year of operation. It also praised the quality of -activities provided for vulnerable prisoners and the "outstanding" education service, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Harris. Also highlighted were a number of other significant achievements, such as the provision of an out-of-cell regime for 13 to 14 hours a day for three-quarters of prisoners; the provision of employment for more than 400 prisoners for 35 hours a week; and the availability of prison visits from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. All these achievements indicate solid work on the part of staff at Blakenhurst in its first year to build good quality regimes for prisoners with the right focus on purposeful activity.

There were, as has been said, weaknesses identified by the inspectorate. Many of these flow primarily from the newness of the prison and are being addressed as the operation of the prison beds down. The inspection team identified a need for better systems to ensure that the level of service outlined in the operational specification and tender submission for the prison are actually being provided.

The contract for Blakenhurst preceded the establishment of the Prison Service as an agency, and the subsequent introduction of performance indicators for the work of the service generally. If I may answer one of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, it is for this reason that performance measurement criteria were not included in the contract for Blakenhurst. This shortcoming has, however, now been addressed. All subsequent contracts for private sector prisons have included performance measurement criteria and they will be built into the Blakenhurst contract from May 1995, which is the beginning of the next contract year. These performance measures will enable the Prison Service to ensure that Blakenhurst continues to provide secure and humane conditions for prisoners at a competitive price to the taxpayer.

The inspection team also commented on what they considered to be inadequate systems for controlling inmates and the lack of challenge to prisoners' offending behaviour, both of which the team thought were caused by the inexperience of staff. It is common in new institutions for prisoners to test the staff. That it happened at Blakenhurst is perhaps not surprising, but it did highlight the lack of experience of some staff. The weaknesses in control early in 1994 underline the inherent difficulties in opening any new prison, whether in the public or private sector, and much has been done to rectify them.

Considerable staff resources at Blakenhurst have been concentrated on improving control and, as staff have naturally gained experience and confidence, the situation has improved greatly, as is evidenced by the dramatic drop in the number of assaults at Blakenhurst since the inspection. Prisoners' movements are carefully monitored and no prisoner is allowed to change his cell without the permission of staff. The management at Blakenhurst has also been strengthened by the appointment of an experienced prison middle manager.

Technology has also been deployed at Blakenhurst to improve control and security. Closed circuit television is used extensively to monitor prisoner movements, and bar-coded wrist bands are used to identify them. Hand recognition equipment and an ultraviolet light scanner are also used to improve security during visits. A number of additional programmes to address prisoners' offending behaviour have also been introduced since the inspection report. These include sex offender assessment, drugs and alcohol awareness, and stress management.

The inspection team also commented that Blakenhurst was required by the Prison Service to absorb too many prisoners too quickly which did not allow a culture to develop in the prison and contributed to control problems.

Even with the provision of other new accommodation, the alternative to making full use of Blakenhurst would have been to house prisoners in police cells. That option is costly and places prisoners in accommodation with unsatisfactory conditions and facilities. It is not therefore one which ought readily to commend itself either to your Lordships or to the Prison Service.

Blakenhurst Prison has made a good start. It has overcome the problems identified in the inspection report and its performance compares favourably with the public sector. An average of 28 hours a week per prisoner are spent in constructive activity, compared to an average of 20 hours for publicly managed prisons. Prisoners are held in secure, good quality accommodation. Blakenhurst is an active, positive, well controlled prison which, at a cost of about 15 per cent. less than comparable prisons in the public sector, represents good value for money. We have had a spending pledge today of what it will cost to revert to publicly-owned prisons. No doubt that is a promise which the noble Lord is happy to make.

In terms of accommodation, Leeds Prison is in marked contrast with Blakenhurst. Leeds is an early Victorian local prison to which additional accommodation has been added over the years. There is no ducking the fact that the report on Leeds Prison is a critical one. The inspectors were concerned that conditions for both prisoners and staff were unsatisfactory. They pointed to the poor standard of the accommodation and facilities; to overcrowding; and to the failure to provide enough activity for the number of prisoners being detained. But the prison is currently undergoing the largest redevelopment programme in its history.

There have been major improvements at Leeds over the intervening years. The most important of these has been the opening in the autumn of last year of two new wings together with a new hospital. The new wings have provided an extra 427 places complete with integral sanitation, association and facility rooms, and a new kitchen, library and gymnasium.

In addition to the two new wings, slopping out has been ended for 600 prisoners; no prisoners are held three to a cell; and new suicide awareness routines have been introduced, which have led to a significant fall in the number of suicides.

In addition to these improvements, a major redevelopment programme, on which the substantial improvements to both the conditions and the regime at Leeds largely depend, is currently under way. The main elements of the redevelopment are the refurbishment of the four Victorian wings; the provision of a new inmate activity building; and the construction of a new entry complex, which will include new reception and visiting areas, and a new communications centre and administration unit. As I said, this work has already started. The prison's A wing was taken out of commission for full refurbishment, including the provision of integral sanitation, in January this year and is due to become operational again in February 1996.

Plans are also advanced for the refurbishment of C and D wings. Work on these wings will start in February 1996 and will be completed around the end of 1997. Again the refurbished cells will all have integral sanitation.

Schemes are also being prepared for the work on the inmate activity building and entry complex which will begin as soon as funding allows.

This programme of work is a clear signal of the Prison Service's commitment to complete the refurbishment of Leeds, and to bring its accommodation up to a fully acceptable standard, and to do so as quickly as possible. The work which has already been completed has cost over £33 million, and the remaining work is likely to cost a further £20 million. This level of investment is evidence of the priority that the Prison Service attaches to Leeds.

It is really very unfortunate that neither of the two Front Bench noble Lords opposite thought fit to make any reference whatever to this substantial programme of work.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, will the noble Baroness give way? What she has just said is nonsense. I specifically referred to the programme at the prison. I very much wish that in future she actually listens to speakers in this House rather than make a comment of that sort which indicates that she did not pay the slightest attention to what was being said.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I take exception to what the noble Lord has just said. I listened extremely carefully to what he said. I can say that the overall tone of the noble Lord's speech is that almost nothing has happened. In fact, he said, "How have Ministers stood by for six years and seen nothing done?" I have just given a substantial catalogue of what has been done. Ministers have not stood back in those six years and done nothing.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I did not say that Ministers had done nothing. When I receive—as I am sure I will—a letter of apology from the noble Baroness at the end of this week, in that letter she will be able to confirm that I did not say that Ministers had done nothing. I said that six years ago a highly critical report was produced by the Chief Inspector of Prisons. In that situation the record of Ministers was lamentable because some of the criticisms in the most recent report were precisely the same criticisms made in the report six years before.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I shall be just as robust in my answer. Ministers have presided over a programme of work costing £33 million and they have in train expenditure of a further £20 million. A great deal is being done and a great deal has been achieved. I have also put on record that a great deal more needs to be done. I believe that the overall tone of the noble Lord's speech hardly recognised any of that work.

The inspection report observes that progress at Leeds has been hampered by overcrowding at the prison. The population pressures have been increased by the need to maintain the major refurbishment programme of Victorian prisons in order to bring them up to modern standards and, in particular, to fulfil our commitment to provide all prisoners with 24-hour access to sanitation within the next year.

Any reduction in the capacity at Leeds would almost certainly have the effect of placing prisoners in police cells, where the conditions and facilities would be substantially worse than would be available at Leeds.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, and the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that the answer to this particular conundrum is easy: we should simply imprison fewer people. The Government's position in this respect is, however, quite clear: it is for the courts to determine the appropriate sentence in any particular case. Our job, which we are undertaking with vigour, is to ensure that prisoners are held securely and humanely, and that appropriate programmes are provided to tackle prisoners' offending behaviour and to prepare them for release. I must defend my right honourable friend who has said that prison works. He has said that prison works for some people, but he is also robust and vigorous in making sure that non-custodial sentences also work.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, is there not a contradiction in this in that, on the one hand, the Government are boasting, as at the Conservative Central Council this weekend, about the fall in the crime rate while, on the other hand, the Minister is recognising that the prison population has increased from around 40,000 to around 50,000? Are magistrates and courts being perverse and ignoring the wisdom of the Government or is there some truth in what we are saying: that the Government have been encouraging more custodial sentences and that that is the major cause of the increase in the prison population?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, all that I can say is that the Government hope and wish to see appropriate sentencing. However, the Government have no locus in court when sentences are passed by judges and magistrates.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, what is the explanation? Why is the prison population increasing while the crime rate is falling?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is because people are being sentenced to custody by the courts. The fall in crime has happened over the past two years. All that I can say is that my right honourable friend believes that prison works—perhaps I should add that many members of the public believe the same. It is important that some people are put into custody to protect the general public. It is also the case that my right honourable friend supports robust non-custodial sentences where appropriate.

Despite the ongoing redevelopment work at Leeds, and the population pressures, credit should be given to the staff there for their achievements. They have been able to double the number of prisoners who have access to daytime education, and to offer prisoners group work schemes covering areas such as substance abuse, anger control and personal development, and provide access to the job club.

There remains much to be done at Leeds. But the Prison Service, both nationally and locally, is investing considerable money and energy in addressing the shortcomings. The inspections were carried out in May and June last year. Much has happened at both establishments since then to address the shortcomings identified by the inspection and to build on the prisons' strengths.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, was concerned about contracting out. All contracts for privately managed prisons include penalty clauses for failure to deliver contracted services. Those are being enforced. The noble Lord also asked why nothing was being done in response to the 1989 report. Much was done between 1989 and 1994 and I have reported already that slopping out ended for 600 prisoners. Two new wings have been opened, with increased ancillary services. It is not right to say that either Ministers or the director general of the Prison Service have taken no action.

The noble Lord was concerned about the chief inspector's criticism of design features. If the noble Lord will allow me, I shall write to him on the detailed criticisms that he made. I shall give him a comprehensive reply and make a copy available to all who have spoken in the debate, as well as placing a copy in the Library.

I have been asked whether contracted-out prisons have to reach the Prison Service's performance targets. The answer is that they do. Performance targets are being introduced across the Prison Service, but at contracted-out prisons there are financial penalties for not achieving the targets.

To answer a point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, the aim of privately managed prisons is to raise standards and improve value for money throughout the Prison Service. Every pound saved by efficiency is another pound that can be spent in the public sector. There are encouraging signs that competition is proving to be a spur to higher standards and greater cost efficiency throughout the Prison Service. Traditional attitudes and work practices are having to change to improve competitiveness. The private sector will provide sustained competition and a source for comparison with the directly managed sector. Private sector prisons are under more scrutiny than those operated by the public sector. Apart from the usual oversight by HMCIP and the board of visitors, a Prison Service controller is based at each prison to ensure that the contract is being delivered.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I used to be considered the fastest speaker in the House, but the noble Baroness has outdistanced me by a mile. However, I should like to ask her whether she feels any moral objection to putting people (perhaps rightly) into custody and then allowing other people to make a profit out of it. I know that the Minister is a moral woman, so does she have any moral qualms at all about that?

Baroness Blotch

My Lords, the most important thing is that the prisons should be properly run. If they can be run more cost-effectively, that will benefit the Prison Service, the public sector and those who have to pay, the taxpayers. Staffing levels are a matter for UKDS, the company, to determine. The Prison Service monitors the service which UKDS provides. If it fell below the standard required because of a shortage of staff, the company would need to employ more staff to bring the level of service up to what is required.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, mentioned staff training. Initial training for uniformed staff is based on the required Prison Service model, with strong emphasis from UKDS on maintaining good relationships with prisoners. However, experience has shown a need for more assertiveness training, and that has been incorporated.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, referred to the criticisms about conditions for vulnerable prisoners. The unit for vulnerable prisoners which was seen by the inspectorate was closed in November, and a new one was opened in B-Wing, ending slopping out for that group of prisoners. The noble Lord also referred to schedule 2 of the company's contract and suggested that it was not enforceable. That is precisely the problem that we shall be overcoming from May by introducing performance measures into the contracts. The companies will then be held fully accountable.

Much has been said about overcrowding. Overcrowding has been virtually eliminated. The number of prisoners sharing a cell has been cut dramatically, and trebling has been eliminated altogether. The largest prison building programme since Victorian times is taking place, and 21 new prisons have been opened since 1985. That programme has created over 11,000 new prison places at a cost of £1,200 million. Furthermore, 8,000 new places have been built at existing establishments since 1979. Those new places have allowed poor quality accommodation to be closed, and have ensured that the growth in the prison population has not been reflected in overcrowding. In 1987–88, an average of over 5,000 prisoners shared three to a cell designed for one. That has now been totally eliminated. In 1987–88, an average of nearly 13,400 prisoners shared two to a cell designed for one. By 27th February this year, that had been reduced to 7,900 and is improving all the time.

Prisoners are now spending more time in regime activities. Average hours spent by prisoners in constructive activity increased from 23.7 hours per week in 1992–93 to 26.2 hours in the period April 1994 to January 1995. That is an 11 per cent. increase. The proportion of prisoners who remain "unlocked" for 12 hours or more on weekdays has increased from 24 per cent. in March 1993 to 36 per cent. in January 1995.

I have agreed that much needs to be done, but I appreciate this opportunity to place on the record what is being achieved and how the issues are being addressed.

House adjourned at two minutes before eight o'clock.