HL Deb 13 December 1995 vol 567 cc1328-66

6.28 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank rose to call attention to the Learmont Review of Prison Service Security in England and Wales (Cm. 3020), and to the case for a clear statement of government policy on the administration of Her Majesty's Prison Service; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am sorry that we cannot give the Minister a little peace after the rough ride that she has just had on the future of HMSO, but at the end of the debate on prison escapes and related matters in this House on 25th January last, initiated from these Benches, I said that we should return at a future date to the matters that we then discussed. Today, we are keeping that promise. This debate will also give the Minister, if she chooses, an opportunity to report to the House before Christmas on three linked matters: first, the Learmont Report, which is plainly referred to in our Motion; secondly, the organisation and reorganisation of the Prison Service, discussed briefly last January, and again briefly following the dismissal of Mr. Derek Lewis; thirdly, and more generally, the prisons policy of Her Majesty's Government into which Learmont and the Prison Service clearly fit. I gave the Minister notice of some of the points that I want to raise.

I take as my text the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, to whose 1991 report Members on all sides of the House paid appropriate tribute in our January debate. The noble and learned Lord said that the escapes from Whitemoor and Parkhurst should not have occurred, but that events should be kept in proportion. He advised what he called, a measured response to rectify any lack of balance which has occurred between the requirements of security, care and justice"—[Official Report, 25/1/95; col. 1071.]

He said that reports restricted to prison security alone could upset that balance.

Over a number of years one of the means of maintaining that balance has been the activities and reports of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, Judge Stephen Tumim. All credit to the then Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, who appointed him and regret that the present Home Secretary, Michael Howard, saw fit not to persuade him to continue. I am sure that the Minister will wish to join noble Lords in all parts of the House in paying tribute to all that Judge Tumim did during his years in office. Our Prison Service is more efficient and more humane as a result of his efforts; he deserves to be remembered and recognised for all that he did.

A new inspector has now been appointed. He has apparently been asked to widen his brief to include security, though I am not aware that any new terms of reference have been published. If that is the case, and the new inspector is to be required to give much fuller attention to security than hitherto, he should do so only by downgrading his relative concern for what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, called "care and justice". There is also the danger that some officers within the Prison Service may feel absolved, at least in part, from their proper responsibility for security. I hope that the Minister will tell the House about the terms of reference of the new inspector and where, under his instructions from the Home Secretary, the balance of his responsibilities now lies.

Will the Minister also clarify a point that is puzzling me, though the fault may be mine. The Corporate Plan for the Prison Service 1995–98, published in May, says that the Home Secretary asked Sir John Learmont to report to him by this month on progress in implementing the Woodcock Report on Whitemoor. Is that a separate report that we are still awaiting?

As for the existing Learmont Report, I mainly want to ask the Minister questions that arise directly from the Home Secretary's Statement in another place on 16th October, which the Minister kindly repeated here. First, the Home Secretary said that he would come back to Parliament in due course with what he called "a full response" to Learmont. When is that to be and what form will it take? For example, are we to expect a White Paper?

On the question of dispersal and the alternative of one maximum security prison—"supermax"—the Home Secretary said that he would welcome comments. Has any formal procedure been set up for consultation? I ask that because the Home Secretary said that he expected the results of a feasibility study by the spring, when a decision will be taken.

In relation to the organisation of the Prison Service, Sir John Learmont, in his covering letter to the Home Secretary dated 27th September printed with his report, drew attention to his recommendation that a further study be carried out, to improve the liaison between the Prison Service and the Home Office".

But in paragraph 3.87 of his report he gave a different emphasis—it is more than a gloss—to this important matter by recommending an in-depth study of the "relationship" (his word) between the Home Office and the Prison Service, with a view to giving the Prison Service the greater operational independence that Agency status was meant to confer".

That is a positive view and a lot more than just improving liaison.

I therefore ask the Minister precisely what is her understanding of the purpose of the in-depth study. Is it, as Sir John recommended, to give the Prison Service "greater operational independence"? Or has that part of Sir John's recommendation been dropped? As she will appreciate, if the Home Secretary has adopted the recommendation as a whole, the Government have already committed themselves to the outcome they seek. On the other hand, if the abbreviated form of the recommendation used by the Home Secretary on 16th October is an amendment to Sir John's recommendation, the Home Secretary should have told Parliament and, in turn, with respect to the Minister, she would have done so also on 16th October. As that did not occur, I hope that the Minister will tell us today what are the precise terms of reference of the in-depth study and whether they reflect either what Sir John said in his recommendations or the amended version of the Home Secretary?

In the debate on the humble Address, I expressed my concern about the in-depth study being conducted by Miss Kate Jenkins, the chief author of the report which led to the creation of the agency concept in 1987. I said in the debate that it seemed odd that the person who devised the system in the first place was being asked to consider whether her original advice was correct. I did not doubt her talent and integrity. But that did not seem to be the best way to obtain the right answers and a system that would last.

The Minister's reply was to say that Miss Jenkins' knowledge and experience were to be welcomed rather than criticised. I do welcome them, but that does not affect the issue as to whether she should be asked to sit in judgment on a system she helped to create.

Be that as it may, I have two questions for the Minister. Are her terms of reference precisely those recommended by Sir John Learmont, or the abbreviated form used by the Home Secretary—I am returning to what I asked a moment ago—or, for that matter, the Minister herself on 20th November? Secondly—this is a further point—will Miss Jenkins' report be published? I assume that it will because the organisation of government is of proper concern to us all; it is not the property of the Government of any one time. When it is published, we shall be able to debate more thoroughly than we can today how these difficult matters—I readily concede that they are difficult—of accountability can best be handled. I hope that we will obtain advice from Members on all Benches, including those who are wise in the ways of Whitehall and to whom we all listen with great respect.

A case probably remains for a separate prisons agency and what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, called, in our debate on 25th January a structured stand-off between Ministers and the Prison Service",—(col. 1068.)

I do not like what I understand to be the jargon in the Home Office, that the Prison Service is a "business unit". I hope it is seen to be something more than that.

The idea of "a structured stand-off' will only work if there is a clear line of demarcation between the responsibilities of the Home Secretary and his advisers and the Director General of the Prison Service. The Home Secretary is bound to be concerned in large issues that affect Parliament and the public. But it is intolerable if the Home Secretary regards the Director General as a kind of superior office boy, to be summoned into his master's presence on almost every day of the week to take instructions and to be leaned upon.

Paragraph 3.83 of the Learmont Report is an important one. It says that the Director General needs minimum spending involvement—by which Sir John means interference—in the day-to-day operation of the Prison Service. It describes how Sir John Learmont and his colleagues asked the Prison Service to produce copies of correspondence with Ministers covering a period of four months or 83 working days. They discovered that just over 1,000 documents had been submitted by the Prison Service. Sir John's report continues, This was … an exceptional period, given the number of escapes, riots and other incidents. Nevertheless, it is at just such times that top management attention needs to be firmly fixed on solving the problem, not merely explaining it. Such a level of upwards-focused activity needs to be carefully managed if it is not to interfere with the Headquarter's proper downwards supervision and control of the organisation".

If we want to discover the origin of the events that led to Mr. Derek Lewis's dismissal and the failure so far to find a permanent replacement for him we need only to reflect on that paragraph. It is a powerful condemnation of how the Home Secretary and his immediate officials strangled the prisons agency with paper.

In his Statement in another place on 19th December 1994 about Sir John Woodcock's Whitemoor report the Home Secretary announced the setting up of a new unit, outside the Prison Service"—

i.e. in his department— to strengthen Ministers' ability to supervise the performance of the Prison Service".—[Official Report, Commons, 19/12/94; col. 1400.]

On the face of it, that is just what we do not want. It is a formula for more paperwork, more demands on the Prison Service and more interference. Perhaps the Minister can tell us today whether this unit still exists and, if it does, how many officials and of what seniority now staff it and to whom they report. Where do they fit into the current organisation of the Home Office, as shown in Annex D to Part I of the department's senior management review published in May. I hope she will say categorically that they are not there to counter-brief the Home Secretary in competition with the advice of the director general.

In my January speech I referred critically to four "rather glossy documents" which were intended to set the direction for the Prison Service. I said: There is a framework document, a corporate plan, a business plan and a citizen's charter. That is quite a lot of paper. The first three documents contain a statement on purpose, vision, goals and values. Those are supplemented by further statements on integrity, commitment, care, equality of opportunity, innovation and improvement".—[Official Report, 25/1/95; col. 1066.]

The Minister did not like that because she thought that I was ridiculing the system and casting doubt on its effectiveness. But I ask her to listen to Sir John Learmont in paragraph 6.6 of his report: Any organisation which boasts one Statement of Purpose, one Vision, five Values, six Goals, seven Strategic Priorities, and eight KPIs, without any clear correlation between them, is producing a recipe for total confusion".

So Sir John Learmont says, in his report to the Home Secretary, precisely what we said in January to the Minister's disapproval. As the Home Secretary clearly takes more notice of what is said by Sir John than views expressed in your Lordships' House, I assume that, almost a year later, we shall have no more doublespeak of this kind and, I hope, fewer glossy documents. There are two of Sir John Learmont's recommendations that the Home Secretary did not accept, two issues on which he said he disagreed with Sir John. They were concerned with in-cell television and home leave. Sir John said that television in cells, could provide a calming influence and a powerful incentive to good conduct".

His recommendation, in keeping with the report as a whole, was about security. On home leave, he said that it was a privilege that could be, a positive inducement to good behaviour".

Again, his recommendation was concerned, like his report as a whole, with security. Why did the Home Secretary reject those recommendations—simply because they ran counter to his own declared political agenda. I regret to say that when it suits the Home Secretary he is much less concerned with evidence, ideas and practical solutions to problems than with public perceptions. In this case he prefers the good opinion of the Sun and theDaily Mail to the advice of Sir John Learmont.

There are many questions to do with the growth of the prison population which must concern this House. The figures published by the Home Office and by the Prison Service indicate a much faster growth in the prison population than is provided for, according to published documents, in the building programme. The Home Office has rightly said that there have been some considerable improvements in targets and results. Those are impressive as far as they go. But is the House being asked to believe that, given the growth of the prison population and the fact that overall the Home Office budget will fall by£300 million at 1994–95 prices between this year and 1998–99, this trend of improvement will continue?

I return to what I said about balancing security, care and justice. We all recognise that the maintenance of law and order means that some men and fewer women will go to prison. We all believe that prisons must be made secure. But in a civilised society we must treat those in prison humanely or we will be corrupted by our own inhumanity. As much to the point, those who go to prison as criminals will come out as criminals. Far from prison working, the public will have been cheated into believing that the world is becoming safer.

Many prisoners are young, have no proper family and are illiterate. Prison must offer them education, experience of work, some sense of belonging and hope. Contained within the Prison Service must be the idea of redemption and of preventing the first-time prisoner becoming hardened into an on-and-off inmate for the rest of his life. The Home Secretary may have been right to endorse the Learmont Report as far as it goes, but that does not absolve him from responsibility for ensuring that care and justice have their place in the prison system too.

6.46 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, in introducing in the wake of the Learmont Report this debate on the security aspect of the Prison Service administration, to which I shall confine my attentions, affords a most welcome opportunity for constructive discussion. The Motion by its terms seeks a clear statement of government policy in place both before and at the time of the report, policy for which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is responsible. And, assuredly, the answers of my noble friend the Minister to the series of questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, are not to be pre-empted by me.

The ambit of the noble Lord's Motion extends beyond the past and the present to include future policy. As to the polices in place, there was no criticism in the Learmont Report; there was no suggestion that such policies warranted clarification. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is in no way to be condemned, as was suggested by the noble Lord. Criticisms in the report stopped dead short at prison board level. The report condemned the Prison Service for muddle, inaction and lax security constituting a recipe for inevitable disaster. It is not understood why in this regard any statement by way of clarification of my right honourable friend's past policies is requisite.

As regards security, no statement of policy of general application to all prisoners could ever afford any viable resolution. In every prison there is, and has to be, an indigenous community ethos, a subculture, which reflects the type of prisoner, the type of prison officer, the type of regime and the character of the governor.

As regards future policy, there are two suggestions which I wish respectfully to make. A maximum security prison should be set up for the most dangerous prisoners, as proposed by the Mountbatten Inquiry some 30 years ago and approved by the then Home Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. Special prisons with a lower level of security should be set up drawing on the experience of Grendon Underwood and akin to the borstal system, to contain this rampant new age menace of teenage gang barbarism, whose members terrorise, murder, rob and rape at knifepoint, defy the police, ram police cars and indulge in inter-tribal mayhem, drug dealing, street robberies and extortion. A modernised secure regime should be instituted in which they may be punished and disciplined, and, in the interests of rehabilitation, educated, trained for a trade and taught some respect for human dignity and some sense of responsibility towards society.

A maximum security prison for the most dangerous prisoners or those dedicated to escape—a very small minority of the prison population—would operate and would have to operate, under a regime which would be wholly inappropriate for the vast majority of prisoners, for whom every attempt must be made to retain the correct balance between punishment and rehabilitation, with only a relatively low level of security.

The effect of such a regime is all too well understood by those of us who served five years of an indeterminate life sentence in a maximum security prison during the war, the only hope of release being by armed intervention. The frustrations of long-term prisoners and those who guard them, and the resort to subcultures to bend and break security by exploiting lax and regular routine as an aid to escape were part and parcel of our existence. However, in my opinion, a maximum security prison and all that that entails, is absolutely requisite. It would serve to protect the public; it would reduce disorder in the other prisons; it would avoid the expense of maintaining a higher level of security than is requisite in all the other prisons in which the most dangerous prisoners are now strewn around. Reducing the level of security in such other prisons would serve the interests of rehabilitation for the rest—the majority—of prisoners.

As regards the lapses in security at Whitemoor and Parkhurst, it is the Prison Service under the leadership of Mr. Derek Lewis, appointed Director-General in 1993, which has to bear the full responsibility. The division of responsibility as between my right honourable friend for his policy and the Prison Service as to implementation, would not appear to have been understood by those who maintained that my right honourable friend is "answerable to Parliament" for all matters concerning the Prison Service and for whom the concept of divided authority has no meaning.

The plain fact of the matter is that matters of implementation of policy cannot and do not lie within the province of the Home Office to administer on any day-to-day basis. Mr. Derek Lewis, who acknowledges that he removed Mr. Marriott, the governor of Parkhurst, was offered the opportunity to make representations on the criticism of his conduct in the report. He made such representations, they were considered by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and he concluded that the position of Mr. Lewis was untenable and decided that the service required a change of leadership.

That was a lawful administrative decision taken in the due exercise of his ministerial duties and in the due discharge of his discretion. As such it is not open to challenge, but it was also a reasonable decision fairly taken with total propriety. It was not a policy decision, but a decision taken on the facts of a matter concerning the Prison Service for which my right honourable friend is accountable to Parliament. He has already accounted in another place.

In conclusion, perhaps it may be mentioned that, according to the report on a totally free remit, the lapses of security were in no way attributable to private sector prisons as compared with public sector prisons. I do not regard this as a party matter. I certainly have no interest to declare save the common interest of all your Lordships and the interests of our own society.

6.57 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I am happy to take part in any debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, and wound up by my noble friend Lady Mallalieu who has had varied experience for someone who, I may say, is quite young. She has had very varied and worthwhile experience and has become highly esteemed here.

I shall reply briefly to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. This is a free country. He justifies Mr. Howard's decision to remove Mr. Lewis. I regard that as a contemptible decision. He was made a scapegoat. I highly respect the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. If he comes with me around the prisons I do not believe that he will find anyone who agrees with him. He will not find any governor who does not regard it as a contemptible decision.

What is the present position? We have read in the papers that a successor to Mr. Lewis cannot be found. A Home Office source was quoted in the newspapers yesterday as saying that no one would touch the job with a barge pole because they know what they might be in for. I tried to obtain confirmation of that from the Home Office but it was unable to help me. Perhaps the noble Baroness will tell the House whether a successor has been found to Mr. Lewis and, if not, is that not very strange?

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, must have been abroad, or doing something else, when the governors came out against the Home Secretary. The whole Prison Service is against him—does not the noble Lord realise that? I go to a prison each week and in the holidays sometimes to more than one. The noble Lord will find it difficult to get one prison officer to say a good word for Mr. Howard. That is the situation and one important aspect of the matter.

We are talking about security. In the end that depends on the intelligent, devoted activity of the prison staff. What is the present attitude of the prison staff to what they are compelled to do? Not so long ago I was in a prison and a senior prison officer said to me, "We are all aware that Mr. Howard would be unhappy if he saw a smile on a prisoner's face. It sounds all right at the Home Office, but think of the people who have to administer the regime? We have had to withdraw privileges from prisoners, and some of them are quite dangerous and violent men serving long sentences. We have to explain to them that 40 per cent. of home leave is to be cut". What effect will that have on their relationship with the prisoners? But we expect them to maintain security.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, particularly on the ideal that he expressed at the end of his speech. However, if I may say so, he was a bit too kind to the Learmont Report. I do not think that that report will stand up well in the light of history. If anyone wonders what right I have to say that, although I have been visiting prisons for half a century, I direct them to the comments of Judge Tumim. Has any noble Lord read what Judge Tumim said about the Learmont Report? He regarded it as disastrous. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, will deal with all of these matters extremely well because no one in this House, and few outside it, have done as much for penal reform as the noble Lord. Anybody who has considered these matters at all carefully knows that the Learmont Report is regarded as disastrous. Judge Tumim said that in a broadcast as well as in an article in The Times. He said that it is wrong to make security an absolute priority. Those were Judge Tumim's words—I hesitate because I was not sure whether the noble Lord was going to attack me. No, he is not moving this way, but I look to my noble friend Lord Graham to provide total security on these Benches. The noble Lord has put me off my stroke, but not for long.

The simple fact is that Judge Tumim said that the Learmont Report, with its emphasis on security at all costs, will undo much of the good work which has been done in prisons in recent years. Frankly, therefore, I do not attach all that much importance to its findings. Of course, Learmont was a great soldier. He had a quick look around the prisons and one must note his contribution, among others.

Let us look at the whole thing more widely. We know by now about Howardism—the idea that prison works. We know that, in the code of Howardism, life is to be made as unpleasant for prisoners as possible. I have visited Whitemoor several times this year. In order to buy a cup of tea for a prisoner you now have to go to a building away from the prison to get a ticket. Leaving all your money behind, you re-enter and are then searched four times, the last search being assisted by a sniffer dog. That is what happens before you can enter the prison. I said to a prison officer, "This is making things a bit difficult for prison visitors", and he replied, "But nothing like as difficult as it is making life for us". That is the relationship that is being established in our prisons now by Howardism.

Let us make no mistake about it. Such attitudes will make good security very difficult to achieve. By and large, I think that prison staff are devoted, but one is asking for heroism beyond the call of duty if one calls on them to carry out a regime which they detest and which they find difficult to recommend to the prisoners.

I need not go on because I have said all this before and I will say it again. Let us make no mistake about it. We will not get security in prisons unless we attract the fullest loyalty and devotion from the staff. At the present time, the Home Secretary is going in the opposite direction.

7.3 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln

My Lords, I speak as Bishop to Prisons, whose sentence has just been extended for a further five years. I want to draw your Lordships' attention to some important points in the Learmont Report. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham will speak on the balance between security and other considerations and our concern as Christian ministers.

I visited one of the prisons in my own diocese only last week. The deputy governor told me that, in his judgment, good progress had been made by the prison service since 1987. He felt that the introduction of mandatory drug testing and the incentive scheme for prisoners were the most important changes on the ground since the Fresh Start initiative some seven years ago. However, he pleaded for a period of stability in the service and for an opportunity to consolidate so that those improvements, as he saw them, in the management of prisoners could work their way through the system. Richard Tilt, the acting director general of the Prison Service, comments in the latest Prison Service News: For the coming months our priorities remain the same: security, and the continued implementation of the policies in relation to drug testing, home leave and incentives. But we must do that in a mood of optimism, stability and continuity". Constant reorganisation is death to that.

My second point is to remind your Lordships that I am constantly struck when visiting prisons by the idealism and commitment of prison staff. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, referred to the importance of that. My concern is that that staff morale should be sustained at the very highest level and that Learmont's comments should be heeded in that regard. It is important that senior appointments within the service are filled by professionals with long experience in that service.

Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that people are always an expensive resource, but, if the prison service is to move to being a people-oriented organisation rather than a paper-oriented organisation, as Learmont recommends, the money has to be found to sustain present staffing levels and even to improve them, rather than being diverted into other projects. Good security, as the noble Earl reminded us, and as Learmont echoes, depends as much on routine tasks being performed well as on sophisticated equipment—not to mention sniffer dogs. A very large part of the day-to-day work of establishments is carried out by non-officer grades such as education staff, workshop supervisors, administrative staff, psychologists and chaplains. Those people are in regular contact with prisoners. Their expertise is critical to successfully managing and running those establishments. I want to make a plea that those significant groups are remembered as important contributors to the Prison Service. If that service is to be a people-oriented organisation, their role deserves to be taken very seriously. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure the House on that point.

7.7 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I am particularly interested to follow the right reverend Prelate because the main thrust of his speech dealt with prison service staff. If I have time, that is what I hope to cover also.

I have been complaining about the state of our prisons for some 35 years now. Some things have improved; others have got worse. The leader in The Times of five years ago, in 1990, opened with the statement: There is no bigger disgrace in Britain than its prisons". One cannot say that today because we have so many other disgraces, but there is still a certain weight in what was said then.

I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to paragraphs 541 to 552 of the Learmont Report which deal with a single prison for uncontrollable prisoners. Everybody has referred to it, but detail is given in those paragraphs. That is something that could be taken up and done in its entirety without another two years' discussion of it. I hope that the Government will think about that.

The root cause of the trouble was, is, and probably always will he, overcrowding. There was 5 per cent. overcrowding in the prisons 35 years ago, and there still is today. That average figure of 5 per cent. for all prisons conceals the fact that there are always more prisoners in local prisons. At the moment eight or 10 local prisons are overcrowded by 50 per cent. which means that the position in those prisons is almost hopeless. Things do not happen as they should and the people who should be classified and looked after are in a mess. It is the most serious problem in the whole prison system. It always has been. No one ever does anything about it without causing a problem elsewhere.

Each time an effort is made to increase staff numbers, prison numbers are allowed to go up and so more staff are needed. The whole thing has been badly managed by everyone for years.

I wish to change the subject a little to try to throw another light on the matter: 21 years ago I was sent by the British Council to Thailand in response to a request it had received for some advice on the aftercare of prisoners. I was chairman of NACRO at the time, and I selfishly appointed myself to go. I returned a real lover of those delightful people. I am pleased to say that I have a granddaughter who this very day is staying with an old friend of mine in Bangkok.

I went for a happy month. I was shown all Thailand's prisons and talked to many of the prisoners through an interpreter. Their hospitality is generous. They are determined to treat everything as a party. One had to be careful not to be carried away and respond too easily.

The second in command of the prison service met me. He told me that they found it difficult to obtain any money from the government to ease conditions on release. "What our people want", he said, "is to catch the criminals and never hear of them again". It might have been our Home Secretary speaking.

Prisons in Thailand are seriously overcrowded. It is partly for that reason that the Department for Correction gave my visit such a warm welcome. It wanted change, but public opinion is apathetic. The public do not want to hear about the problems. We have heard a good deal about them today so if they read what has been said they will know a bit more about what is happening in this country. There were over 15,000 prisoners serving sentences of 10 years or more in a country with a considerably smaller population than ours. At that time we had 1,200 prisoners serving similar sentences. The Home Secretary might say that we want longer sentences. They had them, or at least they did 20 years ago.

There was no probation service in Thailand—again something that the Home Secretary would like—although something was done for juveniles. Prison conditions were harsh, but not dreadful. There was no corporal punishment. There was capital punishment by shooting, with the firer hidden by a sheet. However, the elegant death dance has been dropped for some time. It was a serious and awful occasion. There were 20 to 30 executions a year. I do not know how that has changed, if at all, in the past 20 years.

I saw a score of condemned men, all fettered, and without occupation of any kind. The conditions were accepted apparently with placidity. All the prisoners are kept working. They are not fed until they have done the work, which means that very little supervision is necessary. They are allowed to keep one third of the sale price of the goods they make. There were always a few prisoners in leg irons. The punishment cells were small. They had wooden doors with four half-inch eye holes in them. They were completely empty. I said, "I should not like to spend a day or two in one of those". The governor replied, "The maximum time is three months". So much for Thailand.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, is the noble Lord recommending the introduction here of Thailand's methods?

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, no, but I shall come to something along those lines in a moment. I should like to follow what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, said about Grendon, and the hopeful things in the Prison Service. Grendon is one; Blantyre and Latchmere are others. There may be others, but those three establishments are, in their own ways, very good and they are going very well. I was the first chairman of Grendon about 20 years ago. I served for eight years with Dr. Gray, who was the brilliant doctor who ran it. He took no notice of anyone, including the Home Office. He did exactly what he liked, but he would never accept more prisoners than he thought his staff could cope with properly.

Overcrowding is the primary problem in the Prison Service today. No one attempts to tackle it. Until they do, it will not get any better. Whatever changes had been made under the present regime, as a result of the Home Secretary's change of attitude the prison population has been allowed to rise by 12,000. That requires extra expenditure of something over £200 million. The Prison Service cannot do anything, and it will never be able to do so as long as that sort of thing happens.

We cannot go forward. It is easy to talk. I believe that I have said enough. It is hopeless not to have enough staff to maintain a happy relationship with the difficult men with whom they have to deal. That cannot be done if the prison is overcrowded. If that one message can go from here tonight things might one day be different.

7.17 p.m.

Lord Stewartby

My Lords, I hesitate to enter the debate when most of the other speakers know so much more about prisons than I do. It is a matter that I have been interested in since I had some responsibilities for prisons in Northern Ireland. Perhaps I may apologise to your Lordships, but when I put my name down to speak in the debate I did not realise that there would be a Statement which would change the timing, and so I may not be able to stay until the end.

When I listened to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, I had to pinch myself to remind myself that the fundamental purposes of imprisonment are inevitably rather harsh. They are punishment, deterrence and the protection of the public. When one listens to debates on subjects such as this, especially in your Lordships' House, there sometimes seems to be a tendency to consider the humanitarian and rehabilitation aspects of imprisonment rather than its fundamental purpose. If we lose sight of its fundamental purpose, we shall not have the right sort of Prison Service, and it will not deliver what the public expects of it.

It is in that context that we should welcome the Learmont Report. It is comprehensive, and it makes a large number of practical proposals. In recent years the third of the fundamental purposes that I mentioned—that is, the protection of the public—has been of growing urgency. After all, the Learmont Report was conceived largely in the context of and as a result of the Whitemoor and Parkhurst escapes. They are at the most serious end of the spectrum of security risk.

However, security goes much wider than the physical retention of Category A prisoners. In Judge Stephen Tumim's report on Parkhurst, he noted that the availability of drugs had become something of an inbuilt sub-culture. I believe that that is most worrying because it is most unlikely that it would happen suddenly. These things do not tend to happen suddenly. If proper control and internal management systems had been applied over time, such a problem ought to have been identified, and when identified tackled, at an earlier stage. One cannot run a prison without at least a minimum degree of security and discipline.

The availability of drugs on a scale anything like that suggests not only an occasional breach of security but that it is widespread and has become endemic. That raises broad questions about the lines of accountability and the systems of management within prisons. It also raises doubts about forms of external contact that are available to prisoners. One must assume the golden rule that where there is doubt in matters of security the benefit of that doubt should always be given to protecting the interests of law abiding citizens rather than being in favour of the convenience or comfort of the criminal. I do not wish to sound too harsh in saying that, but any prison system must strike the right balance. I am not suggesting that we should import certain Asian practices, and the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, referred to some of those. However, I believe that if we have a prison regime which errs too much on the side of being soft a large part of the purpose of imprisonment is damaged. It provides less deterrence, it is less of a punishment and, critically in terms of tonight's debate, it provides a greater possibility for the development of indiscipline and a lack of security which can arise as a result.

When the Home Secretary placed restrictions on home leave and temporary release he was entitled to address that issue in the context of the serious number of temporary release failures which had taken place. In October, when my noble friend the Minister made the Statement in your Lordships' House about the Learmont Report, she gave some figures. Perhaps tonight she will be able to update them because I believe that there has been a significant reduction in the number of temporary release failures at the cost of some tightening of prison discipline, but one cannot have it both ways at the same time. If we need a disciplined prison system—and we clearly do—we must accept that there may be some uncomfortable consequences as a result.

The fact is that against a considerable increase in serious and violent crime during recent years one must seriously question whether our legal processes and our penal system have been robust enough to take the strain and to deliver what is necessary. It is a common public perception, and it is likely to be correct, that not only do too many criminals escape prosecution but that of those who come to court too many, for one reason or another, go unconvicted or are sentenced inadequately.

It is very dangerous if such a public perception leads to the feeling that severe or sudden measures need to be taken to correct it because severe and sudden measures are not always the best way of tackling such a problem. I do not believe that it is fair to criticise my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, who has been trying to tackle the issues. I thought that the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, were something of a caricature. To tighten prison procedures and to toughen sentencing is a necessary part of ensuring that the present system operates in a sufficiently disciplined fashion to deliver what the public expect of it. I do not believe that any Home Secretary ought to have to apologise for that.

Perhaps I may conclude by commenting on accountability and morale in the Prison Service, to which the right reverend Prelate and a number of noble Lords referred. Of course it is important that the Prison Service, which has a difficult task, should have a higher morale than is now sometimes found in it. But that can he done only on the basis of clear lines of accountability and responsibility. One of the alarming aspects of the Learmont Report was that in some high profile cases there appeared to have been a failure in that area.

In any other form of human activity lines of accountability and responsibility are absolutely essential for efficiency and the delivery of the objective. In that sense, I do not believe that prisons are any different from any other kind of organisation. Clearly, one of the main issues which will need to be addressed in the aftermath of Learmont and the departure of Mr. Lewis will be the kind of relationship that is necessary between the board and the director general and those who are responsible in the system and within the prisons. Failures of communication, of accountability and of clear lines of responsibility are in most branches of human affairs a recipe for at the best disorganisation and at the worst serious failure. I am afraid that there have been such failures. The fact that we are now able to debate such issues more dispassionately and on the basis of well informed investigation gives us some hope that we can put things right. In that light, we ought to welcome the Learmont Report and express our thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for having given us the opportunity of debating it tonight.

7.27 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I look on this as an important debate and I wish to start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for introducing it. I speak tonight not only as a Member of your Lordships' House but as a member of the public. I am conscious that in taking part in the debate I am speaking to people who are much more expert about the prison system than I am.

Like many members of the public, I am concerned about the Prison Service. I am concerned about the regimes which have been revealed in the report, in particular the escapes of last year. I am concerned, too, about the steps that have been taken and are to he taken to prevent such occurrences happening again.

It is very important to recognise that today there is a great fear, in particular among older women, of being attacked and mugged. I believe that the statistics do not substantiate those fears but, nevertheless, they persist and are very real. They are not helped at all when dangerous, convicted criminals escape from prison; or when prisoners are let out on parole and commit further offences; or when it is widely reported in the media that a convicted person goes into a prison whose regime appears to be as lax as has been reported.

One of the many changes that has taken place in the course of my lifetime is that when I was young as an undergraduate I would ride my bicycle back to where I lived during the blackout. Neither the college authorities nor my parents were in the least bit afraid of my being mugged, raped or attacked in any way, and nor was I. We cannot say the same today; we are living in a very different world.

I am, of course, well aware that the causes of crime are many and complex and I do not intend to go into that tonight. But what happens when those convicted go to prison must be a part of this important issue. The way in which prisons are run must have some effect on the rates of re-offending and how those currently committing crimes see prisons. For instance, does the prospect of prison act as a deterrent? I agree strongly with the remarks made by my noble friends Lord Stewartby and Lord Campbell of Alloway on that matter.

I was very surprised by the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge. I really cannot believe that he is trying to draw a parallel between what goes on in prisons in Thailand and what goes on in prisons in Britain. That is the kind of comparison that is not at all helpful under the present circumstances.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, it was meant to be something of a joke and I am afraid that I failed to make it laughable.

Baroness Young

My Lords, if I have misinterpreted the noble Lord's remarks, of course I apologise. But this a very serious matter about which a great many people are extremely concerned.

I do not believe that anyone can read the report of Sir John Learmont without being very impressed by its thoroughness. Again, I was extremely surprised by the view expressed about it by the noble Earl, Lord Longford. Of course, I greatly respect his long service and knowledge of prisons. But the report struck me as being extremely impressive as regards the amount of detail into which it goes. But that detail in no way swamps many of the new and important recommendations and proposals that are made.

Like many who read it for the first time, I was astonished by some of its revelations. However, I was interested and pleased to see praise for the private sector prisons. I have read much criticism of them but the decision to establish those prisons has been completely vindicated by the report. I have no doubt that many lessons can and will be learnt from the experience of the private sector. I believe that it is true that escapes from contracted-out court escort services have fallen by 40 per cent. and that there have been considerable savings. That too seems to me to be a lesson which needs to be learnt.

The report makes 127 detailed and wide-ranging recommendations. I understand that about half endorse actions which have already been completed or are under way or are planned by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. Of the remainder, I can see that a number of proposals raise great issues of principle; for example, that with regard to the "supermax" prison. I believe that there is to be a report on that after consultation with the Prison Service. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that. I believe also that there is to be a White Paper in the New Year setting out proposals on a number of other major issues raised by the report. All that is to be greatly welcomed.

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has attracted much criticism in relation to some of his proposals and much criticism in our debate today. But I think that he is responding to public demands for greater security and he deserves our support. It is no use people spending all their time worrying about prisoners when it is victims who feel that they are without support. We need to keep a definite balance between the two in what we are trying to do.

Of course, there are two quite different philosophies in regard to prisons. I can see that there are some who believe that prison is a punishment while others see prison as a means of rehabilitation. Reading the Learmont Report, I regret to say that it appears to me at times that we have managed to achieve the worst of both worlds.

There are one or two points that I should wish to underline. We cannot have arrived at the position which the Learmont Report describes without all these things going on for some considerable time. I ask myself what the prison inspectors have been doing. I read very carefully paragraphs 5.98 and 5.99, which make recommendations about inspections that apparently now include proposals that the inspections should include inspections of security. If that was not the case before, I am astonished. I hope very much that that will be implemented.

The system of inspections in the education sphere, with which I am much more familiar, has benefited enormously from the establishment of Ofsted and the changeover from HMI. If there is one factor which is levering up standards, it is Ofsted's inspections. That whole area seems to me to be a matter of enormous importance.

The report's major proposals as to what the prison service must fulfil were well summarised at paragraph 6.15. The primary purpose of prison is to keep in custody those who have been committed to its care and who have committed crimes. That seems to me to be absolutely essential. The public have a right to be sure that dangerous, convicted prisoners will not escape.

We must get the basics right. My noble friend Lord Stewartby made an extremely important point about management. It seems to me from reading the report that management is unclear. That is of no help or value to anybody in the prison service. It is very important to get that right. Organisations which work well and which produce effective service do so because they are well managed. Judging from the report, I do not believe that that can be said of the Prison Service.

The third point which is made in paragraph 6.15 is that the rules governing what prisoners have to do are in place but they should be adhered to. That seems to me to be of enormous importance. I am sure that I am not alone in thinking that it is quite extraordinary that prisoners are allowed to take drugs which, after all, is a criminal offence, when they are in a prison. I am simply astonished.

Much comes from this report. What we should like to know from the Minister when she replies is how these matters are to be taken forward; how we can see the very constructive suggestions carried through; and how we can be sure that a new inspection service will maintain the kind of proposals which have been made so that we do not slide back into the situation in which we currently find ourselves.

I end by saying something about staff. I am quite sure that it must be a very difficult and quite often unpleasant task to be a prison officer. The morale of and support for prison officers are important. But I do not believe that where people are working in a system, either is ever improved if bad and sloppy habits are allowed to persist. Whatever may be the causes of that, the fact is that very dangerous criminals have managed to escape. I have read how they managed to do that and the fact is that the security arrangements were very lax indeed. That undermines morale and does not help the service at all. It certainly does not help the hundreds of prison officers who I am sure do not allow lax situations to persist.

I should not like it to be thought that, in any of the remarks I am making, I am in any way denigrating people in the service: we must support them. The lines of management must be clear and we must have a recognition of what is being done. In this regard, it is at all times just as important to remember the victims of crime and how they perceive all of this as it is to consider convicted prisoners who have committed a crime.

7.38 p.m.

Lord Vivian

My Lords, I am most grateful for this opportunity to speak briefly in this debate about prison security. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for bringing the debate to the House this evening.

I should like to focus on the criticisms, responsibilities and recommendations brought out in the Learmont Report. Before I do so, perhaps I may welcome General Sir David Ramsbotham to his new appointment as inspector of Her Majesty's Prisons.

As a result of the two escapes from Whitemoor and Parkhurst prisons and the very worrying subsequent reports by Sir John Woodcock and Mr. Tilt, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary asked General Sir John Learmont to conduct a full independent and authoritative review of security throughout the Prison Service. The report of Sir John Woodcock into the escapes from Whitemoor revealed a dreadful state of affairs. It highlighted a catalogue of errors and significant management failures. It also identified a number of occasions when Prison Service headquarters had failed to provide governors with the clarity and strength of support that they had the right to expect.

Sir John Woodcock made 64 recommendations. They covered improved surveillance and observation; the control of prisoners' property and searching of their cells; security procedures for visits and searching of staff; a need to review inmates' privileges; the improvement of staff selection and training; and the effectiveness of management and supervision.

I should now like to turn to the Learmont Report. In a covering letter which is enclosed with the report, it is made perfectly clear that the responsibility for the problems of the Prison Service ultimately reaches the level of the Prison's Board and that the reports criticisms stop there, as was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway. The report does not conclude that any ministerial policy decisions contributed to either the escapes from Parkhurst or the way in which the Prison Service is being run. However, it severely criticises the board of the Prison Service.

Some of those recorded criticisms include, of course, the escape from Parkhurst which was based on the ability of prisoners to follow a well-trodden path through loose and ineffective security. The inquiry found a great deal that needs to be put right within the Prison Service, spanning leadership, structure, management and the ethos of the service. The inquiry discovered a fundamental mismatch between the perception of the board and what was happening on the ground. It is surprising that neither the Director General nor the board members recognised the signs and symptoms of failure and inefficiency that were so obvious and so dramatically illustrated by the Whitemoor and Parkhurst escapes.

The Director General and board members claimed that problems were not drawn to their attention. However, the report emphasises that the value of visits is lessened if inherent problems remain undiscovered. During the inquiry's visits to prisons, the team identified problems simply by talking to governors, staff and prisoners and by observing failure in basic security procedures. A change of ethos at board level is essential. A series of audits has confirmed that Whitemoor and Parkhurst were not aberrations of the norm, but symptomatic of the practices in place in similar establishments throughout the country.

I should now like to touch briefly on the report's recommendations. As has already been said tonight, there are 127 of them and time does not allow me to comment on many. However, it is worthwhile to note that, of the 127 recommendations, only 21 have cost implications, with some of the cost of these offset by other recommendations. As has also been mentioned tonight, it is important to note that around half of the recommendations endorse actions that have already been completed, are under way or are already planned.

I should like to bring some of the recommendations to your Lordships' attention. The first is for a single maximum security prison to house the most dangerous prisoners in the system. That recommendation was made some years ago, was accepted, but subsequently rejected. Since then, the policy has been to disperse the most dangerous prisoners among a small number of high security prisons. The report recommends that a single control prison be established to hold the most unruly and disruptive prisoners. It recommends that there should be a fundamental review of the system under which prisoners are allocated to different security categories according to the threat that they represent to the public and their likelihood of escape. The inquiry also recommended that there should be closed visits for all exceptional risk Category A prisoners, save in exceptional circumstances. Such a policy was introduced this year.

The report explains how physical security is enhanced by activities and incentives. Last year my right honourable friend the Home Secretary announced that the Prison Service would introduce a national framework of privilege and incentives. The report also recommends that early release from prison should be earned and not granted automatically as at present. Some of those proposals were announced at Blackpool last October and have been recorded elsewhere.

If we are to have an efficient, effective, responsible, well-led and properly trained Prison Service which will meet its obligations to society, we need to address the criticisms and recommendations contained in the Learmont Report as a matter of urgency. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has also been personally responsible for a number of initiatives—to cut home leave, to introduce mandatory drug testing in prisons and to establish a system of incentives and sanctions for prisoners.

I strongly support the recommendations within the report on which I have focused and brought to your Lordships' attention this evening. Further, I welcome the recent and new initiatives. I also welcome the Government's intention fully to consult on the proposals and to publish a White Paper early next year. In that context, I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister can confirm in her reply to the debate that that is still the case.

In conclusion, I do not feel that I can do better than to quote the last paragraph of the report's concluding remarks: It must be appreciated that, unless security measures are in place which can be managed with confidence, then any hope of progress towards humanitarian objectives is pious. The Prison Service must fulfil its primary function of keeping in custody those committed to its care by the Courts. The escapes from Parkhurst and Whitemoor have revealed considerable lapses in security which violate the excellent set of rules provided in the Manual on Security. The Service must now get the basics right, including staff training, for it can ill afford another episode which erodes the very foundation of a long established and respected Service. The rules are in place. What is now needed is the resolve to abide by them. There is an abundance of excellent people within the Prison Service whose most fervent wish is to do a good and worthwhile job. They are yearning to be led to better things. Although much has been done to improve the corporate planning within the Service, this Inquiry has starkly illustrated the need to address urgently shortcomings in leadership, operations and security".

7.47 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, I should like to express my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue. The report of Sir John Learmont is both wide ranging and detailed and, as we have heard, contains 127 recommendations most of which are being considered by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. I shall refer to two of them, but I wish first to make one or two general points.

There is often criticism of the phrase "prison works"; indeed, we have heard it repeated today. There are noble Lords on other Benches who scoff at such statements, but I believe that it is important to listen to what senior practitioners, and not only theorists, have to say. The Chief Constable of Gwent, Tony Burden, in a letter to Mr. David Maclean, dated 14th September 1995, said: Local inspectors continually cite examples of how the imprisonment of particular criminals or groups of criminals has led to a dramatic reduction in crime levels in local areas". I believe we can all accept that when hardened and persistent criminals are sentenced to imprisonment and are in prison they are not causing mayhem or terrifying innocent people by committing further offences during that time. In my experience as a magistrate, whether an offence is so serious or whether no other form of sentencing would be appropriate has to be considered. Magistrates approach that responsibility most seriously. I know the heartache that people experience before a sentence depriving someone of his or her liberty is imposed. The role of government is different. Ministers have to take into account strong feelings as regards the welfare of victims and the demands of the public for a safer society. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is to be congratulated on the actions he has taken to help bring that about.

We should remember that the report of Sir John Learmont was initiated by the Government after a prison outbreak. The report—an important document—stated that the failure was not one of policy but of operation. The inquiry found my right honourable friend without fault but was seriously critical of the operation of prison management which in this case was the responsibility of the Director General of the Prison Service, Mr. Lewis.

I come now to the two recommendations with which I have difficulty. There is a feeling abroad that in prison everyone has an easy time in comparatively luxurious surroundings. Visits to any penal institution can allay such thoughts although I must admit that things have changed dramatically since 1968 when I first visited a prison. Needless to say I am delighted that the Government have built eight new prisons and refurbished others leading to the phasing out of the awful process of slopping out. New prisons were desperately needed. Not enough had been built during the liberal period of trendy thinking. However, I cannot agree that there should be television in each cell. They are prisons, not hotels. Prisons should be decent and dignified but certainly not five-star accommodation. Television may have been suggested to keep prisoners occupied. But what a message to send out! One can already see the tabloid headlines.

My other concern is home leave. On one occasion recently in the retiring room I questioned the clerk as to whether a defendant's previous convictions were in error. He had been sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment and yet three months later had been convicted of another offence. I believed that this could not happen but the clerk informed me that the offender was probably on home leave for the weekend and that this often happened throughout a sentence. I was astounded. I had always thought that home leave was granted either for compassionate reasons or towards the very end of a sentence. I therefore endorse most warmly my right honourable friend's view that home leave should be earned. I believe that the public should know this and that they should know of the criteria used to grant such leave.

I was interested to read of the suggestion that a maximum security prison should be built to house all Category A prisoners. I look forward to hearing the outcome of the research into that issue. However, it seems to me that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is responding to the concerns of the public who want strong action to be taken. Naturally he leaves an independent judiciary to impose sentences but I believe that his policies are right. It is his duty to—and indeed he does—speak up for the welfare of the victims, and, above all, the protection of the public.

7.53 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Birmingham

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for initiating this debate, particularly because of my position as a member of the council of NACRO. I believe that what strikes even the most cursory reader of the Learmont Report is its concentration on the issue of security. In one sense there can be no complaint about that because, after all, that is what Sir John Learmont was asked to inquire into; namely, the issue of security in the Prison Service.

However, there is a question—to be directed not so much to Sir John as to the rest of us—as to whether this concentration on security might lead towards a distorted perspective on the tasks of the Prison Service taken as a whole. There is nothing new about this. Ever since the spectacular escapes which led to the Mountbatten Report of 1966, there has been more and more public and political anxiety about security. I certainly noticed the effects of this in the difficulties which chaplains had in getting inmates to chapel services in the aftermath of Strangeways.

It is true that Learmont talks about the need for a proper balance between Custody, Care and Control, with three capital C's. The question—some of your Lordships have already raised it—is, could there be such an anxiety about custody as to lead to an inadvertent depreciation of care? After all, there is more political embarrassment in breaches of security than in difficulties of access to religious or educational facilities. The paradox, of course, is that in the end the devaluation of care leads inevitably to greater problems of control. Learmont has that trinity of principles: custody, care and control. Woolf, if I remember rightly, had a similar set but it was not quite the same; namely, security, control and justice. That triad is not quite so snappy as a slogan but I think it goes deeper because surely justice is a more fundamental principle than care. We have a duty of care towards prisoners because of the deeper principle of justice and not the other way around.

There is, of course, a prudential point. People with long experience of running prisons say that control is much easier if the regime is acknowledged by staff and inmates alike as fair, just, firm and consistent. However, I am making a point not so much of prudence as of principle. We have a duty of justice to offenders, not so much because they have a right to it as because we owe a duty of justice to all our fellow human beings. Let me put it another way. A system of criminal justice must include justice for criminals; otherwise it will be undermined by self-contradiction. What does this mean in practice? Among other things it means never forgetting that, when a man or a woman is sentenced to imprisonment, the punishment properly consists in custody itself, in loss of liberty and nothing else.

People who are subject to imprisonment have a right to freedom from violence or intimidation. They have a right to due process if charged with further offences. They have a right to clean clothes and decent living conditions. They have a right to practise their religion and to receive appropriate education and training. They have a right to maintain contact with their families. They have a right to be treated with fairness and dignity. They have those rights. However, their rights are grounded in our duty; that is, our duty to accord justice to all who share our flesh and blood. That is the fundamental issue; the recognition of a common humanity. For a Christian this has a particular resonance—I know from observation and experience that this is recognised by many offenders—because Jesus Christ finished his life and won our salvation not as a guard, or a magistrate, or a judge, or a priest, or a member of a government, but as a prisoner convicted and condemned.

I recognise that to talk in this way about the recognition of common humanity and about our obligation of justice towards those who have offended against justice, sometimes in quite appalling ways, runs contrary to much of popular public opinion. Popular opinion on the whole likes to distance itself from offenders as if they are aliens, or somehow "other". They are often described as animals or as somehow otherwise subhuman. Attitudes like these, which are inside all of us somewhere, serve to justify our reluctance to accept the implications of our common humanity.

This leads me to reflect on a disturbing feature of the times in which we live. Politicians and others are far too ready, it seems to me, to appeal uncritically to what passes for public opinion as an arbiter of public policy, as if "what the public will stand for", devoid of any consideration of who the public are and how their minds have been formed can be an adequate standard for judgments which are moral as well as political. I make two observations. First, to appeal to public opinion in this way is an act of total surrender to moral relativism. It is the final corruption of the culture of choice—a surrender to the assumption that objective standards of right and wrong have been finally replaced by the consumerism which says, "I will choose my own values".

Secondly, when political leaders make that kind of appeal to public opinion they are abdicating their own responsibility for helping to shape and educate public opinion. Of course public opinion has to be taken into account, but those of us who exercise influence in society—politicians, journalists, educators, Church leaders and so on—do not stand in a merely passive relationship to public opinion, we help to form it. We are not honest if we pretend otherwise.

So, to state a moral principle which must inform the administration of the Prison Service, a just society has a duty of justice and fairness even to those who themselves have violated justice. Security is important; control is important; but without justice humanity itself is at risk, not only the humanity and dignity of those who are sentenced to imprisonment but the humanity and dignity of us all. I have talked at length about justice as a fundamental human value, but we must never forget that the works of a merely human justice can only ever be provisional.

Perhaps I may end with a story. A few years ago I found myself presiding at a Christmas carol service in the chapel of an over-full local prison. I found myself standing in front of the altar facing the congregation. As I stood facing them I could see that they were divided into two halves with the aisle between them. On the left were the inmates, on the right were the governor, the governor's wife, members of the board of visitors and their spouses, the chief constable, the High Sheriff and their ladies and all the other dignitaries. It was a disturbing enactment of the parable of the last judgment—goats on the left, sheep on the right. But who on earth really knows who belongs on the left and who on the right? That is a judgment which belongs to God alone, whose justice and mercy are inseparable.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, before the right reverend Prelate sits down—and I apologise for not having heard his opening remarks—perhaps I may ask him if he is aware that the basis of this Motion is security in the prison service administration and what practical proposals of a constructive nature he has to improve it.

The Lord Bishop of Birmingham

My Lords, I am well aware that the primary focus of this debate is security, but I am also aware that Sir John Learmont himself mentioned other factors, including the care and control which are necessary in the satisfactory administration of the Prison Service. I was concerned to point out that I think that justice is an even more fundamental category of control and that justice in the running of prisons is essential if control is to be effected.

8.2 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I very much welcome the fact that the right reverend Prelates the Bishops of Lincoln and Birmingham have spoken in the debate. Both have a great deal of direct knowledge of the subject we are discussing, and it is therefore all the more appropriate that they should have spoken.

Today's debate enables us to return to the serious issues which were raised in the Learmont Report and some wider issues involving the general administration of the Prison Service.

As we all know, the debate is taking place at a time when prison numbers are continuing to escalate, with the warm encouragement of the Home Secretary and his junior Ministers. It is instructive to note that at a time when the service's corporate plan for 1995 to 1998, as amended by the Budget Statement, envisages unit costs being driven down by between 4 per cent. and 5 per cent. on the grounds that it is necessary to cut public expenditure, that precise moment is chosen to announce the appointment of yet another junior Minister to the Home Office team, with all the resource implications that are involved in the appointment of additional Ministers. There are now five junior Ministers in the Home Office. Mr. Attlee required precisely one. On value-for-money grounds I wonder whether we are doing very well. One has only to compare the reputation of the Home Office under Mr. Chuter Ede and under Mr. Howard to draw a rather adverse conclusion. The Prime Minister has declared his enthusiasm for "down-sizing" and "de-layering" in the public service, but he shows surprisingly little enthusiasm for cutting the number of his political colleagues who secure employment by those means.

The noble Baroness must accept that the Prison Service draws the most obvious conclusion when it sees that rise in ministerial appointments at a time when it is facing a real cut in the resources available to it; and at a time when it is also experiencing a rapid rise in inmate numbers, more violence on the wings, a dangerous epidemic of drug abuse—to which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred—and an indignant and often resentful staff.

I recognise that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has no direct responsibility for the Prison Service. I also have no doubt that she will persuade herself, as she did on the last occasion when we discussed these matters, that criticisms from these and other Benches are entirely unjustified. I wonder whether she recalls the observation made by a governor—which was widely reported at the time in the press—at a crisis meeting of prison governors called immediately after the dismissal of Mr. Derek Lewis as director general. He asked the noble Baroness's colleague Miss Widdecombe, as Minister of State who attended that meeting, whether she was aware of the low esteem in which she and the Home Secretary were held by the Prison Service. That was an extraordinary statement by a prison governor who was a member of a class of public servants who are the most loyal and dedicated servants of the state. Can one imagine a statement on those lines being made when the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, or Mr. Douglas Hurd was Home Secretary? It is inconceivable.

Ministers should ask themselves how they have got themselves into their present mess. Perhaps I may set out the reasons for the present groundswell of bitterness and anger in the Prison Service, for the House must recognise that that is exactly what we are currently experiencing.

Take the example of Mr. Lewis, the sacked director general. I should make it absolutely clear that I thought that his appointment was a lamentable mistake. The decision was taken, of course, not by Mr. Howard but by Mr. Kenneth Clarke. As we all know, he ignored the views and recommendations of the appointments board which interviewed the candidates. Mr. Clarke chose the candidate the board rated as number three out of three on the final short list. An experienced and able candidate from the public service was rejected by Mr. Clarke on ideological grounds. So a television executive from the private sector got the job.

I hardly know Mr. Lewis, and I am sure that he did his best to make a success of his job. However, the post of Director General of the Prison Service is one of the most demanding in the public service. He began, as he confessed, with no direct knowledge of the Prison Service, having only had the opportunity of watching one or two episodes of "Porridge". He was then permitted to retain a non-executive directorship, which limited the amount of time he had available for carrying out his job as director general. It was also made clear to him that one of his central responsibilities was to privatise as much as possible of the prison estate, thus inevitably worsening his relations with the staff associations. Loyal members of the Prison Service—and they are the vast majority of people working in the Prison Service—cannot be expected to look with a great deal of enthusiasm at a man who has been given the task of driving many of them out of their jobs. So Mr. Lewis experienced a host of entirely foreseeable difficulties. Then, when the going got rough after the publication of the Learmont Report, Mr. Howard sacked him. Mr. Lewis is now apparently pursuing a civil claim against Mr. Howard in the courts; and we all look forward with interest to finding out what will happen.

I fear that the trouble about the present Home Secretary, and the reason that there is so much discontent in the service, is that when faced with any sort of political difficulty, his immediate response is to identify a scapegoat and then to throw him to the wolves of the tabloid press. He did precisely the same with the former governor of Parkhurst, Mr. Marriott. I remember watching the BBC television "Nine O'Clock News" filming the car carrying Mr. Marriott away from Parkhurst Prison after his removal. There was no question of due process, or anything of that sort. He was just removed with a snap of the fingers. It was a humiliating episode. If Ministers want to understand why they are distrusted by so many members of the Prison Service, they have only to examine the record of that specific incident.

Following the Learmont Report, Parkhurst is to be downgraded from being a dispersal prison to one holding at most Category B prisoners. Some other establishment, possibly Belmarsh, may become a dispersal prison. Perhaps the noble Baroness will be in a position to tell us later whether that has been decided. After the treatment accorded to Mr. Marriott, I would find it a little surprising if there were a desperate struggle among governors for the honour of succeeding Parkhurst as a dispersal prison.

I turn to another reason for low morale in the service. I refer to the extraordinary proposition that we have debated before: that it is possible to separate what are described as policy issues from operational issues. Neither Sir. John Woodcock, the author of the penultimate report on the service, nor Sir. John Learmont were able to make any sense out of it. Nor, of course, can anyone else. It seems merely to be a device for attempting to shield Ministers from criticism when things go wrong. Even that no longer works. Indeed, it simply causes derisive laughter.

Quite apart from that, what does the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, have to say about the recent revelations in the Observer that the current acting head of the Prison Service, Mr. Tilt, was instructed by Miss Widdecombe, the Prisons Minister, to alter a parliamentary Written Answer in order to avoid giving details of expenditure cuts which could have been a significant factor in permitting the escape of the three high security prisoners from Parkhurst? The alteration to the Written Answer also avoided disclosing that the dismissed governor of Parkhurst, Mr. Marriott, had—and I quote from Mr. Tilt's original draft— made a number of requests for security measures to be installed. These were made in writing, in telephone calls, at meetings and in Public Expenditure Survey bids". This is the man they sacked for what was described as negligence. Because of Miss Widdecombe's intervention, those sentences were censored out of the Written Answer given in the name of a Home Office official. A number of us have always had doubts about the practice of chief officials of executive agencies replying in their own names to Questions for Written Answer. Indeed we discussed it in the Procedure Committee, but we were led to believe that they were at least their own answers. Now we have learnt that they are being edited by Ministers, in this case with the clear objective of preventing Parliament from being told the full truth. I think that this is quite deplorable. It once again throws an ugly light on the lengths to which Ministers will go in order to protect themselves from public criticism.

An immense number of public servants of high quality work in the Prison Service. They do a fine job on behalf of us all, sometimes working in fairly dreadful conditions, often having to put themselves at some personal risk—risk on some occasions of physical attack, and risk on others of being used as scapegoats by fearful Ministers. I have worked in the Home Office at times of high crisis following the escape of notorious prisoners and I can well understand the pressure on Ministers. But these crisis situations provide a stern test of character. I find it disappointing that in recent months that test has been failed so signally.

8.15 p.m.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, has introduced a debate tonight on a subject which has repercussions for virtually every one of us. I congratulate and thank him for doing so.

Our penal system is in a state of acute crisis. I cannot remember a time when morale within the Prison Service, and public confidence in it, has been so low. In essence, we ask for two things from our penal system: first, that those who have forfeited the right to remain in the community should be kept secure for the length of their term of imprisonment; and, just as important, that when they are released those who have been to prison will be less likely to reoffend, not more likely. Only if those two requirements are met can any Home Secretary properly say that prison works; and the public perception at the present time is that they are not being met.

I sometimes wonder how the Home Secretary manages now to see across his desk. Report after report has landed on it. Some of them are still there gathering dust, like that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Justice Woolf, and His Honour Judge Stephen Tumim. Perhaps I may associate those of us on these Benches with the tributes paid by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers. Other reports are rather more recent: that of Sir John Woodcock in particular and the Learmont report which we debate tonight. Does the Home Secretary do anything about those reports? I found the answer in General Sir John Learmont's work. Indeed, reference has already been made to it by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers. In a period of just 83 working days up to January of this year, over a thousand documents were sent by the Home Office to the prison headquarters, including 137 full submissions containing substantive advice about policy or operational matters. Much of that seems to have passed on in what the report describes as unworkable initiatives issued without consultation to a hard pressed work force. Noble Lords will remember that after the dismissal of the Director General of the Prison Service in October, the Home Secretary told us that he was responsible only for his policy towards prisons and not for operational matters.

A little earlier this evening, in dealing with an earlier Statement in relation to Her Majesty's Stationery Office, my noble friend Lord Peston complained about the cost of matters produced by it. I see that the Learmont report cost£24.50. During the course of the debate, I wondered whether the noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Alloway, and Lord Vivian, had obtained a shorter, cheaper, expurgated version which excluded criticism of the Home Secretary. I am bound to say from what both of them said that it appeared to me that we had not been reading the same document. I am quite sure that the passage read by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, at paragraph 3.83 must have been omitted from their copies.

It is abundantly clear from what is set out there that the view of those who prepared that report was that proper supervision and control of the Prison Service has been hampered by an avalanche of material coming from the Home Office which the headquarters has been required to deal with. Time which should have been spent on solving problems which the service undoubtedly face was instead spent trying to explain matters to the Home Office.

When the noble Baroness replies I very much hope that she will feel able to tell us what Her Majesty's Government propose to do about Recommendation 71 of the Learmont inquiry. The recommendation states: The Home Office should undertake an in-depth study of the relationship between itself and the Prison Service". What has been going on simply cannot continue. No director general could operate effectively and efficiently in these circumstances.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, made mention of a variety of different initiatives, all of them triggered no doubt by material from the Home Office and then passed down to the workforce to try to implement. The noble Lord set out the catalogue, and I am afraid I am tempted to repeat it: one statement of purpose; one vision; five values; six goals; seven strategic priorities; and eight key performance indicators. Only the partridge and the pear tree seem to be missing.

No business could operate as the Home Office has tried to make the Prison Service operate in recent years. If all that intervention had eased the crisis, then it could perhaps be justified. But I come to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, that the prison population has hit a record level of 52,731. The last figures I have available show that, at the end of September, 13 prisons were overcrowded by more than 30 per cent., and one of them, Exeter, by 61 per cent. Prison suicides are at a disturbing level. I add that because of a close experience of a suicide in Exeter within the past four weeks—not, I think, coincidentally with the 61 per cent. figure. Eight-and-a-half thousand prisoners are still two to a cell designed for one. That is the legacy of a period when the penal system has found itself caught up in a series of about-turns, when each new embarrassment in the Government's prison policy has been met with a new and more extreme change of direction.

From the White Paper, which effectively accepted the Woolf Inquiry recommendations only a relatively short time ago, prison governors are now expected to produce a wholly different and unquestionably more austere regime. They are expected to do that with less and less money. Together with the overcrowding, prisons are finding it increasingly difficult to develop or even sustain existing constructive regimes, which provide the only effective hope of preventing further criminality. That is our second requirement as members of the public.

We have reached a stage when meddling and tinkering with the problems of our penal system will no longer be adequate. The problems are in many ways too many and too fundamental. What is desperately needed is some leadership with real vision and a long-term, as opposed to short-term, strategy. I hope—and I suspect it is more a matter of hope than expectation—that the noble Baroness will be able to give us some encouragement.

As a first step, it is clearly necessary to look at and clearly define the separate roles of the Home Office and the Prison Service. After that it is necessary to examine some very fundamental areas, most of which were touched on in one way or another by this report and its immediate predecessors.

First, who are we actually sending to prison? Among those 52,731 are too many people who should not be there in the first place. I give just two examples: mentally disordered prisoners, of which there are a significant number according to the Prison Governors' Association, and those who have failed to pay fines. A less cost-effective and more socially destructive punishment would be hard to devise for them. Radical steps are needed to ensure that only those who should be in prison actually go there.

In relation to security, the picture that emerges from Learmont is, frankly, a scandal. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Young, I was astonished by some of the revelations. For all the Home Secretary's posturing at successive party conferences, we have reached a stage where prisoners in some prisons are apparently able to dictate to prison staff that security cameras should not be used. They are able to make telephone calls, apparently virtually unlimited and unmonitored, some even to victims. The real problem is surely that there is no considered strategy for how the system shall deal with long-term prisoners, the sort of strategy that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, requires. Are they just to be put all together; are they to be dispersed? How are their sentences to be managed? This surely is an area of the Home Secretary's responsibility. I hope the noble Baroness will be able to tell the House what has he actually done about it, as opposed to said about it?

Learmont recommends a major overhaul of the Prison Service. Within the service, as I know personally and others paid tribute to, there are dedicated men and women who, despite the events of the past few years, are managing to make major improvements. They have done a great deal so far in regard to restricting the number of those escaping. I believe I am right in saying that there has been a reduction of 49 per cent. since 1992. I pay tribute to that. But Learmont suggests major radical changes in structure and management. I entirely agree with the report's proposal, as I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stewartby, that what is needed is a disciplined Prison Service.

Perhaps I, too, may turn for a moment to an Asian example, as did the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson. Three years ago in Hong Kong I visited most of the major prisons. Every officer of whatever rank wore uniform. The prisons were clean, free of peeling paint and graffiti. Officers were disciplined and so were the prisoners. Privileges were earned. All prisoners had proper jobs and there was an impressive educational facility. Those prisons showed that it is possible to have real pride in a prison and to take real pride in the job of being a prison officer. That can be found here; but sadly, it is not universal. When morale is low and public criticism is rife it is difficult to be proud of the job you do. Every prison officer needs to know what is expected of him. He must know the clear objectives of his service, and he must have a clear line of command and responsibility, as the noble Lord, Lord Stewartby, said. There can be few more worthwhile or necessary jobs if the staff are allowed to do them properly.

I hope the noble Baroness will outline the Government's strategy to restore those parts of the Prison Service to a standard of which all of us can be proud. What are the Government proposing to do in the long term, not just today or in the next 18 months until the next general election, to seek to provide proper work in every prison for every prisoner and proper long-term plans for educational facilities? Without such a clear policy, we simply return offenders to the community with no work skills or prospects, often with severed family and community ties and an increased likelihood of further criminal offending.

Unless those matters are tackled, unless we stop treating the prison system and those who work in it like corks floating on the tide and at the mercy of political expediency, we do no justice, not merely to those within the system, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham said, but to victims and potential victims of crime. I ask the noble Baroness, and indeed if I may term them in this way, the hard-liners who have spoken—the noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Seccombe—to consider long and hard whether concern for victims does not also involve being concerned for prisoners and their future after release.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, as she was good enough to mention my name in the context of paragraph 3.83 and was also good enough not to stigmatise me as a hard-liner (whatever that may be) I ask her this in total amity. If she looks at the report again, surely she realises that there is no criticism of government policy in the documents referred to. I can see none, and I am sure my noble friend Lord Vivian sees none. I just thought that we ought to try to defend ourselves publicly against the charge of not having read the report.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, I would certainly not stigmatise the noble Lord as a hard-liner. His line is always an unpredictable one, as I think those on his side of the House would be the first to agree. The noble Lord clearly refers to some parts of the same volume as I have seen. However, if having heard the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, read that passage to the House, he takes the view that it involves no implicit criticism of the Home Office or the Home Secretary, I can only say that criticism is in the eye of the beholder and the House itself must judge. I read that passage as a damning criticism of the Home Office for, in effect, showering the Prison Service with material at a time when it was trying to deal practically with the problems, and hampering it rather than assisting in those difficulties.

Baroness Young

My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, referred to me, perhaps she will forgive me for intervening. I have a great regard for her ability to debate and am surprised that she should sink to name-calling, which I take that description of me to be. I take this as a serious subject but am immensely consoled to think that it will not be long before the Labour Party shares all the views I expressed; after all, it has picked up all the other Conservative ideas!

8.30 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, we have had what has turned out to be an interesting and thought-provoking debate about what is, without question, an extremely important and wide-ranging report with significant implications for the administration of Her Majesty's Prison Service.

Noble Lords will need no reminding that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary commissioned this report from General Sir John Learmont after two of the most serious operational failures in the history of the Prison Service. The report was devastating in its criticism of the service and identified grave weaknesses which required attention.

Having received Sir John's report, the Home Secretary wasted no time in making a start to put matters right. He announced, with some sadness, the termination of the then director general's contract so that public confidence in the security of our prisons could be increased. He announced that Parkhurst would be removed from the dispersal system. And he announced that he had accepted the broad thrust of Sir John's analysis of what needed to be put right in the Prison Service.

The Home Secretary is determined to address all the issues raised by the report, ranging from the structure of the service, its management and security matters, to prisoners' cash and the use of phonecards. Perhaps I may say in passing to the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, that the use and abuse of phonecards in prisons is a matter for the prison officers and the regime within the prison, not my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. He too was shocked and concerned by that laxity in the prison. This debate is about my right honourable friend doing what he can to see that those abuses are curtailed. He will report the results of his deliberations to Parliament during the course of next year.

Included in those deliberations will be the review of the relationship between the Prison Service and the Home Office—a matter which has exercised a number of noble Lords today. Work on that is under way. Assistance was provided during the initial stage, which is now complete, by Miss Kate Jenkins, who, as I have previously explained to the House, was one of the three authors of the report to the then Prime Minister which led to the establishment of executive agencies. She is now an independent consultant and has been able to contribute objectively, independently and constructively to the initial work. The precise methodology for the main stage of the work has yet to be determined; but I can assure noble Lords that it will be taken forward in close consultation with the Prison Service. The Home Secretary will report to the House when that work is complete.

One of the matters which is central to concerns is the question of the Home Secretary's accountability for the Prison Service, and several noble Lords have expressed their doubts about the ability of my right honourable friend clearly to distinguish between policy matters and operations. I should like to respond to that matter in some detail.

The distinction between policy and operations is nothing new. The Home Secretary has made his responsibilities in this area, and those of his predecessors, perfectly clear. As I explained during the debate about the Prison Service on 25th January this year, the Home Secretary is personally accountable to Parliament for all matters concerning the Prison Service. He is accountable and responsible for all policy decisions relating to the service.

The distinction between operations and policy is reflected in the framework document which established the Prison Service as an executive agency. It makes clear that the director general is responsible for the day-to-day management of the service. He is accountable to the Home Secretary for performance and operations, and he is the Home Secretary's principal policy adviser.

Although the Home Secretary does not normally become involved in day-to-day management matters, he does expect to be consulted on the handling of operational matters which could give rise to grave public or parliamentary concern. Furthermore, the Home Secretary expects to receive reports from the director general on any incident or matter which is likely to arouse concern. That must surely be right because, in order to be properly accountable, the Home Secretary must be properly informed.

As for the question of who should resign when things go wrong, it is long accepted that Ministers cannot be held personally responsible for all the actions and decisions taken in their departments. There is a relevant precedent to illustrate this. Noble Lords may recall the escape of terrorist prisoners from the Maze prison in 1983. My noble friend Lord Prior, who was then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said that he would have resigned had the inquiry into the escapes shown that they had resulted from an act of policy which was his responsibility, or from a failure on his part to implement something which he should have done. There were no calls for the noble Lord's resignation then. When the Home Secretary received the Learmont report, he examined it very carefully. As he made clear, had the criticisms in the report been made of him, he would have resigned. They were not.

Reference was made to the new Chief Inspector of Prisons. General Sir David Ramsbotham, who succeeded Judge Tumim on 1st December, was selected following open competition. He was judged to be the best man for the job from a very strong field of candidates and I am sure that this House will join with me in wishing him well.

The duties of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons are set out in Section 57 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982 and, in general terms, they are to inspect and report to the Secretary of State on prison service establishments in England and Wales and, in particular, on the treatment of prisoners, conditions in prisons and such other matters as the Secretary of State may direct.

Sir John Learmont's recommendation that the Chief Inspector should take on security issues will be considered and the Home Secretary will report the results to Parliament in due course.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, is the noble Baroness able to tell us whether they have been able to secure a new director general for the Prison Service?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, there is no lack of interest in the post. The appointment has not yet been made. I am absolutely confident that someone will be appointed, so there is no truth in the fact that an appointment cannot be made.

Reference was made to Kate Jenkins' involvement in the work in the Home Office. No decision has been made on whether the report on the review of the relationship between the Prison Service and the Home Office is to be published, because the work in which she was involved has been part of the whole study. The whole study will be reported to Parliament. Kate Jenkins was involved in the initial phases of that and her piece of work is complete. The performance indicators were also referred to and Sir John Learmont's recommendations on those issues will be reviewed.

Reference was also made to the "supermax" prison. As I told this House on 16th October, the Home Secretary has already asked the Prison Service to consider the feasibility, the costs and the benefits of building an establishment of the kind Sir John Learmont recommends. We expect to have that report next spring. The Home Secretary said that he would welcome comments on the proposals for one maximum security prison and a single control prison for the most unruly and disruptive prisoners. I am sure that my right honourable friend will be interested in your Lordships' views. As to consultation, the Prison Service is examining how this can best be undertaken. I welcome the comments made by my noble friends Lord Campbell of Alloway and Lord Vivian.

Ministerial demands on the director general's time were also referred to. Sir John Learmont says that there needs to be minimum political involvement in the day-to-day operation of the Prison Service. But he recognises too that the Prison Service is a politically sensitive area. Many day-to-day issues are serious enough to command the attention of Ministers, who are entitled to be fully briefed by the director general on matters thought likely to cause concern to the public and/or Parliament. As Sir John says, it is for the director general to find a way to balance the need to keep Ministers informed with the requirement to provide leadership and management.

Sources of advice to Ministers were also referred to. The director general is the Home Secretary's principal adviser on matters relating to the Prison Service. The Permanent Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office is the principal adviser to the Home Secretary on matters affecting the Home Office as a whole. Advice is also provided by the Prison Service monitoring unit. That was established because my right honourable friend the Home Secretary was keen to develop the independent advice on the Prison Service available to him at the centre of the department.

The unit monitors the Prison Service and supports Ministers and the permanent secretary in carrying out their responsibilities in respect of the Prison Service under the framework document. The unit reports to the permanent secretary. I was asked who serves on it. At present the unit has four staff: one Grade 5 head, one Grade 7, one HEO and one personal secretary. The size of the unit could be expanded should that prove to be necessary.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, mentioned home leave. The Home Secretary's new arrangements for release on temporary licence, implemented on 25th April, recognise the need to maintain public safety and public confidence in the administration of justice. The results have been very encouraging. The number of temporary release failures has fallen by 80 per cent. since April. My right honourable friend does not feel that the protection of the public would be well served by accepting Sir John Learmont's proposals for more widely available home leave and we have no plans whatever to relax the restrictions. I welcome the comments of my noble friend Lady Seccombe and I was equally shocked by her observation. I, too, was shocked when I first came across it. The Home Secretary and I believe that more widely available in-cell television would be inconsistent with our policy that conditions in our prisons should be decent but, as my noble friend Lady Seccombe said, austere.

The size of the prison population was a vexed issue during the debate. The Prison Service is working hard to prevent overcrowding. A great deal has been achieved. Its first priority is to ensure that existing accommodation is fully utilised. In addition, the Home Secretary has in hand a substantial programme of prison building. Two new prisons are to come into use by 1997–98, providing 1,400 new places. A further 1,600 places are due to be provided to the same timetable through building at existing prisons and the reopening of Lowdham Grange. The measures should keep prison places in step with population forecasts. In spite of recent increases in the population, conditions in our prisons have radically improved. No prisoners have been held three to a cell designed for one since March 1994 and none has been held in a police cell since June 1995. Ninety-six per cent. of prisoners now have access to sanitation and it will very soon be 100 per cent.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, asked about the PES settlement and what that would mean for the Prison Service. The settlement allows the service to complete its present new house block programme and provide for four privately financed new prisons. In addition, it will provide for the Woodcock security improvement to the dispersal system and for continuation of the drugs strategy.

My noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway referred to tougher regimes for young offenders. A tougher new regime is to be introduced next year for selected young offenders at Thorn Cross young offenders institute in Cheshire. Inmates will have a 16-hour day full of demanding activity and will be subject to strict discipline. They will be expected to conform to high standards of dress and behaviour at all times and will have to earn privileges. The effort demanded of them will include taking responsibility for their criminal actions and the effects these have had, especially on their victims. The regime will help them to learn the skills required for employment on release, including basic education where that is lacking. The regime at Thorn Cross will be based partly on what we have learnt from the American bootcamp experience and also on successful features of regimes here. It will not simply be a copy of one particular American bootcamp but will include features from several which impressed Prison Service officials who visited them.

My noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway referred to other forms of improving "supermax" as well as to persistent young offenders. The secure training centres are also part of our planning. There are to be five of these centres covering England and Wales. Invitations to tender for the first two sites with planning consent were issued in March 1995.

The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 provides the secure training order for the hard core of 12 to 14-year old criminals who commit disproportionately numerous crimes which are not in themselves serious enough to attract the powers to detain which already exist for serious crimes such as murder or manslaughter. Courts will be empowered to impose a secure training order of up to two years when the offender has been convicted of three or more imprisonable offences, when the offender has previously proved unable or unwilling to comply with the requirements of supervision in the community, and when the nature or seriousness of the offending requires custody in line with the criteria contained in Section 1 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. Offenders will be sent to new secure training centres which will provide positive regimes offering high standards of education and training. High standards of care and discipline in secure conditions will also be a feature of the regime.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, referred to the post of director general. My right honourable friend will make an announcement on the substantive appointment of director general when he is ready to do so. I can assure the noble Earl that there is no truth in the suggestion floated in the press that the post of director general is to be abolished or that there is no interest in the post and that it cannot be filled.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, devoted a large part of his speech to conditions in Thailand. To say that conditions in prisons in Thailand many years ago are in any way comparable to those pertaining in British prisons bears no resemblance to reality. I found the attempt to draw the parallel offensive. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, later said that it was a joke. If it was a joke, it was in extremely bad taste. I was therefore heartened by the words of my noble friend Lord Stewartby and welcomed his comments and those of my noble friends Lord Campbell of Alloway, Lady Young, Lady Seccombe and Lord Vivian, which introduced necessary balance into the debate and gave voice to the concerns of the victims of crime and the protection of the public. That balance has certainly been missing in those who have spoken on other Benches.

My noble friend Lord Stewartby referred to mandatory drug testing. The first phase of mandatory drug testing for prisoners was completed satisfactorily in eight prisons at the end of June 1995 with no significant problems being encountered. A training and implementation programme to introduce testing in all prison establishments is now well advanced. Some 80 establishments will have begun testing by the end of December 1995 and the programme is on schedule for implementation in all establishments by the end of March 1996. In addition, to answer a point made by my noble friend Lady Young, staff are alert to the need to ensure that visitors do not bring drugs into prison or pass them during visits. As resources allow, cameras are to be installed in the visiting areas of all closed prisons to assist with that.

My noble friend was concerned about inspections for security and made a very important point. In April 1994 the Prison Service announced the formation of a standards audit unit to conduct thorough and independent investigations of prisons' performance. It has so far audited 70 prisons, completed 77 full inspections and made recommendations to ensure that the highest security standards are met. Each of the dispersal prisons has been audited and all except Full Sutton more than once.

On sentencing proposals, there has been some confusion about White Papers. The particular White Paper that has been mentioned refers to a sentencing White Paper. Progress on all the work that is taking place on Learmont will be the subject of report to Parliament.

Sir John Learmont and Sir John Woodcock have completed their review of the implementation of the recommendations of Sir John Woodcock's report on the escape from Whitemoor Prison. They have submitted that report to the Home Secretary, who will publish it before this House adjourns for Christmas.

Rehabilitation within prisons was mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham. As the Home Secretary has consistently made clear, the top priority of the Prison Service must be to keep prisoners in secure custody. Within prisons, prisoners should be fairly treated. Conditions should be decent and should also be austere.

We also firmly believe—and this is enshrined in the Prison Service's current statement of purpose—in the importance of helping prisoners to lead law-abiding and useful lives in custody and after release. I welcome Sir John Learmont's support for the many excellent prisoner programmes which exist and which can play an important rehabilitative role.

As an aside, I have to say, as regards the point made by the right reverend Prelate about the Government listening and taking into account public opinion, and accusing them of being guilty of accepting public opinion as some sort of orthodoxy, and holding the Government guilty of moral relativism, if the Government and Parliament stood guilty on that particular count, we would have hanging today as a punishment, for it is a well known fact that all surveys tell us that public opinion is in favour of capital punishment. But it has been sensibly debated in Parliament and Parliament has taken that view into account but decided not to adopt it. As a Christian, I am disenchanted with the present state of my Church, the Church of England, which has adopted moral and spiritual relativism and turned it almost into an art form. It seems that first principles were abandoned a long time ago.

Moving to a very different point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, no decision has yet been made about the replacement of Parkhurst as a dispersal prison. I shall keep him informed on that matter. I was asked what steps the Prison Service is taking to extend the range and quality of the work available. The range of work being undertaken is expanding all the time. New projects at over 60 establishments range from desk-top publishing to mushroom growing and recycling. A number of these projects involve the private sector. Over 30 workshops are accredited to British Standards 5750, 150 and 9002, being the international standards for quality assurance. I can say to the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, that I have personally witnessed some of those programmes and they are very impressive.

Seeking for a better balance between concern for the victim, protection of the public, punishment with rehabilitation programmes for the prisoner, if that is being hardline, then I, along with my noble friends Lady Young and Lady Seccombe and those others who were mentioned by the noble Baroness, stand guilty. I stand guilty along with them because that is the balance we are seeking.

I welcome the debate because it has provided an opportunity to focus on some of the difficult problems being experienced by the Prison Service and on Sir John Learmont's prescription for putting these matters right. As I have reminded the House, the Government have accepted the broad thrust of Sir John's recommendations, and the task of implementing them is now well under way.

In the spring the Home Secretary will be tabling a report detailing actions which have been taken, or which are planned, to implement most of the recommendations. Later in the year he will announce his decisions on those major recommendations which require detailed study and consultation; for example, the high security and control prisons. The Government are determined to see that this country has a prison service which is properly and effectively run. We shall ensure that those who are deprived of their liberty by the courts are held in decent but austere conditions, with the appropriate level of security to safeguard public safety. Sir John Learmont's recommendations will help us to ensure that those objectives are met.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, will she be good enough to explain the circumstances in which Miss Widdecombe changed a Written Answer given in the name of a Home Office official to the House of Commons?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, what I do know is that all replies come to Ministers within the Home Office and they will come to the lead Minister who has responsibility for such matters. Where an answer has been answered from the Prison Service-only point of view, and not necessarily taking into account other information, there is discussion between the Prison Service and the lead Minister. That is the proper way to conduct and interact between the responsibilities of the Home Office and those of the Prison Service. In fact, the final answer that was given in the letter accompanying the reply of my honourable friend Ann Widdecombe referred back to the relevant appendix of the Learmont Report that listed in detail all the requests made in relation to security at Parkhurst. It was felt that that was a full and proper account of that particular advice and information.

8.53 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for her remarks this evening in attempting to conclude our debate. I know that, following her usual practice, she will write to all noble Lords if there are any points that she failed to deal with in her remarks. I thank all noble Lords for participating in the debate and also the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Lincoln and the Bishop of Birmingham.

For me it was a unique experience because I was ticked off by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, in this case for being too tolerant towards Learmont. I believe it was the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham who came to my rescue, although he did not know it, by saying that Sir John Learmont's duty was to review physical security and security problems. That is what he was asked to do and whether we like his report or not, I believe that Sir John kept within his terms of reference.

What I hope that the Minister will take away from our discussions today is that, although we all wholly accept that our prisons must be secure, we also believe—even those noble Lords who spoke from behind the noble Baroness in support of her broad position—that they must be humane. I believe that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham said that the duty of justice requires us to make sure that humanity is also part of the policy of Her Majesty's Government and of the Prison Service. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.