HL Deb 25 January 1995 vol 560 cc1063-100

3.8 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

rose to call attention, in the light of recent escapes and disturbances, to the arrangements for policy-making, management and accountability as they affect the Prison Service in England and Wales; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, on 19th December last year, the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, made a Statement in another place about Sir John Woodcock's report on the escape of six category A prisoners from Whitemoor Prison the previous September. He said that the report revealed, a dreadful state of affairs".—[Official Report, Commons, 19/12/94; col. 1397.], and he accepted 64 recommendations for change.

On 10th January, a fortnight ago, the Home Secretary made a further Statement to the Commons, this time mainly about the escape of two category A and one category B prisoner from Parkhurst Prison. He said that the preliminary inquiry showed, serious failures at local level … specific lapses on the night in question".—[Official Report, Commons, 10/1/95; col. 32.] The Governor of Parkhurst was removed.

Two other events occurred between 19th December and 10th January. On New Year's Day, Frederick West, awaiting trial at Winson Green Prison, was found hanging in his cell. On the evening of the following day, there were serious disturbances at Everthorpe Prison on Humberside.

Each of those events was bad enough in itself, but taken together they caused a public outcry. There is now genuine apprehension about what may happen next. Some press comment has been mischievous and shown no understanding of the problems of managing prisons, but one question is entirely legitimate and has inevitably been asked: who is to blame and who allowed it to happen? Anyone reading Sir John Woodcock's report must be profoundly shocked, and the manner of the escape from Parkhurst too is shocking.

To the question who is to blame, the Home Secretary's reply has been simple and consistent, "Not me". His justification for that answer has also been consistent, if sometimes convoluted: that he is responsible to Parliament for policy not operations, and that all those appalling events were due to operational failures. But what is so clear to Mr. Howard is not so clear to everyone.

The question of resignation is for the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister. Thirteen years ago the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, resigned as Foreign Secretary because he believed he had made an error of judgment. It was an honourable gesture by a brave, widely respected, and honourable man. It is for Mr. Howard to decide where his duty lies. I say this with regret and reluctance, but no gesture would do more to restore public confidence and raise morale in the Prison Service than his resignation.

As many noble Lords will be aware, the Home Office is one of the great offices of state and it is held by the incumbent in trust for his successors. It is not a property to be used lightly for personal or narrow party political purposes.

I do not intend today to discuss the Parkhurst escape in detail, but the governor's fate is central to the question of the arrangements for policy making, management and accountability in the Prison Service. On the day of the Home Secretary's Statement (10th January) came the news of what had happened to Mr. Marriott. First, it appeared that he had been sacked. Then it was said that he had been suspended. Next we heard that he had been transferred. In his Statement to the other place, the Home Secretary said that Mr. Marriott had been removed from his duties, and, in a circular letter to governors, the director general said that he was not sacked or suspended but was taking on other duties.

Those possibilities are not all mutually exclusive, but they left in the public mind much confusion about what had happened to Mr. Marriott. He seems at least to have been decisively sacked from Parkhurst, unless the Minister can today promise, without qualification, that returning there as governor is one of the options open to him. Failing that, it is fair to say that he has been sacked, and on the basis of an internal inquiry conducted by Mr. Richard Tilt, the prison director of security, who reports to Mr. Derek Lewis, the director general, who reports to the Home Secretary.

A week ago, Mr. Lewis appeared before a Select Committee of the other place. He agreed that he had seen the Home Secretary on the day that Mr. Marriott was removed from his post, but rejected any suggestion that the Home Secretary had interfered with an operational decision. Of course we must accept the director general's carefully chosen words. But what would a transcript of the conversation show? Surely not that the Home Secretary had no views of his own about the matter. Might not he have said, "You have read the papers, and I have a Statement to make in the House. You are appointed to make tough decisions. For God's sake I hope that you have made them".

I do not want to put words into the Home Secretary's mouth, but, given public and parliamentary concern, he could hardly have said anything else. Whether that represents interference, noble Lords are free to judge. I understand that the Minister may herself have been present at that meeting.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way at this time. He is making very, very serious statements. He is impugning the honesty of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. I was present at every meeting between the director general and my right honourable friend the Home Secretary on that day. I therefore ask the noble Lord, in the traditions of this House, to give the basis upon which he is making serious allegations.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, I have made a very serious statement; I have made no allegations. I gave way out of courtesy to the Minister. I said that I understood that she was present at that meeting. She confirms that she was present at that meeting. I look forward to hearing what she says about the words used. I did not claim that those were the actual words used. I said that I did not want to put words into the Home Secretary's mouth. If I do not have the spirit of that conversation, of course I shall apologise to the Home Secretary, but only if the Minister will tell the House today the words which were used and convey to us the spirit of the occasion.

The point I am making—the Minister's impatience prevented her from seeing this—is that the relationship between the Home Secretary and the head of the Prison Service is inevitably a close one. That is the burden of my message today. Although I say it now when I intended to reach it later, my message to the House, and the point to which I hope the Minister will turn her attention, is that it is impossible to separate policy from operations in the Prison Service, and that being so, it is false and a fiction to pretend that there can be an arm's length relationship between the Home Secretary and the head of the Prison Service.

It remains the case, and I challenge the Minister to say otherwise, that throughout that period—from his Statement of 19th December to his Statement of 20th January—the Home Secretary's reply to every suggestion of responsibility was, "I am not to blame. It is an operational matter, and therefore not a matter for the Home Secretary". Again, the Minister shakes her head. I ask her to read all the comments—I heard them on radio and television—and I read what the Home Secretary said in another place. At every stage he said, "This is an operational matter and not a policy one".

If the Minister doubts that there is an issue, perhaps she will look at paragraph 9.28 of Sir John Woodcock's report when he focused on that very question. He said: There exists at all levels within the Service some confusion as to the respective roles of Ministers, the Agency Headquarters and individual Prison Governors. In particular, the Enquiry has identified the difficulty of determining what is an operational matter and what is policy". Sir John Woodcock's report was accepted by the Home Secretary in another place. He accepted that statement which, as I understand it, the Minister now seeks to dispute.

Noble Lords will know well that many of the decisions which are claimed to be policy decisions have serious operational consequences. How could one expect otherwise? The Home Secretary, in a debate on the Address, said a number of things which come into that category. He said: Prison will always part a vital part in the criminal justice system … I want it to be more effective still in the future, and that is why I am proposing far-reaching changes to our prison regime". Announcing new arrangements for temporary prison leave, he went on to say that they will be: likely to lead to a reduction of about 40 per cent. in the amount of leave granted". Those are the operational consequences of a policy decision. He went on to commend austerity in prisons. Referring to reports of lax conditions and privileges handed out as a matter of course, he said: I shall soon announce a new system of privileges and sanctions. Under that new system, privileges will have to be earned by good behaviour and will be removed for bad behaviour".—[Official Report, Commons, 18/11/94; cols. 243–4.] In his further remarks he referred to drug taking in prisons.

At this moment I am not discussing the merits of the proposals. But if the Home Secretary sees them as matters of policy appropriate to himself—I do not for the moment dispute that—he cannot then wash his hands of the consequences as operational matters. I said that I did not wish to discuss the merits of the Home Secretary's policy proposals. That is not our business today. But I should like to ask the Minister one policy question.

The report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Justice Woolf, and Judge Stephen Tumim on the prison disturbances of 1990 was widely welcomed in all quarters for its scope and authority. It was, I believe, welcomed in this House. As a result, in autumn 1991 the Government published a White Paper called Custody, Care and Justice. The opening paragraph of the White Paper reads: This White Paper charts a course for the Prison Service in England and Wales for the rest of this century and beyond". My question to the Minister is: would she confirm that the White Paper still represents the policy of Her Majesty's Government and that the recommendations of the Woolf Report, accepted by the then Home Secretary, continue to be implemented?

I turn to the origins and basis of the present arrangement for the Prison Service. There are four rather glossy documents which two years ago, in the words of the then Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, set a new direction for the Prison Service in the 1990s. 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.

What matters today is the framework document. In effect, it sets out the terms of reference of the Prison Service and contains a description of how it fits into the Home Office. There are short sections on planning, finance and personnel matters which seem to be unexceptionable. But there is also a section on accountability, which explains the role of the main players in the current drama. Again I quote: [The Home Secretary] will not normally become involved in the day to day management of the Prison Service, but will expect to be consulted by the Director General on the handling of operational matters which could give rise to grave public or parliamentary concern … [The permanent secretary] is responsible for advising the Home Secretary on the Prison Service's corporate and business plans, proposed key targets and performance". The director general, in addition to responsibility for day to day management: is also the Home Secretary's principal policy adviser on matters relating to the Prison Service". I referred to the Home Secretary's role; I hope that I referred to the permanent secretary's role; and now I have referred to the director general's role. In terms of the framework document, as the Home Secretary's principal policy adviser, the director general is responsible for preparing the Prison Service's corporate and business plans, upon which the permanent secretary is responsible for advising the Home Secretary. That is not simply opaque language; it appears to be opaque thinking as well.

The document goes on to refer to Members of Parliament. It says that they should be encouraged to write to the director general, who has "delegated responsibility". Nowhere else in the framework document does the phrase "delegated responsibility" occur. There is no list of matters which the Home Secretary has delegated to the director general.

There is also one curious omission from the framework document. The ministerial strength of the Home Office has grown inexorably over the years, despite the loss of Northern Ireland to the Northern Ireland Office a quarter of a century ago. After the war, when Mr Shuter Ede was Home Secretary there was one parliamentary secretary. In 1952 there were two parliamentary secretaries. By 1964 there was one minister of state and two parliamentary secretaries. By 1974 there Were two ministers of state and one parliamentary secretary. Since 1987 there have been three ministers of state and one parliamentary secretary.

Noble Lords may wonder what three ministers of state find to do. But one of them, Mr. Michael Forsyth, according to the Cabinet Office list of ministerial responsibilities, "oversees policies relating to prisons". But there is no mention of a minister of state in the framework document. I do not know where the minister of state fits in. There is the Home Secretary, the permanent secretary and the director general. Where does the minister of state fit in? What are his responsibilities? How does his accountability fit?

There is a further development which makes this even more fascinating as an exercise in how government should not be conducted. In his Statement to the House on 19th December, the Home Secretary announced "a new unit"—as he called it —"outside the Prison Service". It was intended: to strengthen Ministers' ability to supervise the performance of the Prison Service".—[Official Report, Commons, 19/12/94; col. 1400.] I hope that the Minister will tell the House how that will fit into the organisational structure of the framework document. Will the new unit be staffed by career civil servants or by personal and political appointees? What will be their level of seniority and to whom will they report? A month has passed since the Home Secretary's announcement. Given the urgency of these matters, all those points should be settled. I hope that the House can count on a very clear statement of the new organisational framework when the Minister replies to the debate today.

If she has time, the Minister might also refer to the role of Sir John Learmont, who is conducting a review, and to the role of Sir David Yardly, who is conducting another review. Perhaps he will explain to the House where they fit in with the continuing role of Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons, Judge Tumim.

Those are very serious matters indeed. They go far beyond the behaviour of the present Home Secretary. They raise questions about the structure of government. They raise questions about whether an executive agency is a suitable way of dealing with such highly sensitive matters. I do not believe that the Home Secretary - any Home Secretary—can divorce himself from matters of such parliamentary and public concern. But if he cannot divorce himself from them, the accountability set in the framework document may not make sense for the future of the Prison Service. Whatever decision the Home Secretary may make, or whatever the Minister may say today, there remain serious problems about policy-making, management and accountability. Those are matters for government and it is critically important that they are addressed by ministers without delay.

My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.29 p.m.

Lord Woolf

My Lords, it was almost exactly four years ago that Judge Tumim and I delivered our report on the prisons, to which reference has been made by the noble Lord. We were more fortunate than others who have the task of writing such reports in that, as noble Lords heard, our recommendations were almost unanimously taken up by the Government in their White Paper, to which the noble Lord also referred.

The White Paper was entitled Custody, Care and Justice, the Way Ahead for the Prison Service in England and Wales. The title was, of course, not chosen at random. It was chosen because it reflected an immensely important theme of my report, which was that if the Prison Service was to emerge from what was then accepted to be a very unsatisfactory state, it was necessary for there to be a programme of change implemented over a period of years which would achieve a proper balance between custody, care and justice —the words which appear in the title of the White Paper. One of our recommendations was that it was essential that there should be what was described as a structured stand-off between Ministers and the Prison Service. There should be a head of the Prison Service who was in a position to give the visible leadership to that service which it craved and which it undoubtedly needed. The requirement for that divide between Ministers and the service remains today. It is because of that that I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, for raising this subject for debate before your Lordships. It goes to the very heart of the proper running of the Prison Service and therefore goes to the effectiveness of the whole criminal justice system.

The relationship between Ministers and the Prison Service is difficult and delicate. My report and the White Paper which followed said with regard to the management of the Prison Service that that was a matter of importance. It was followed by the report of Admiral Sir Raymond Lygo. He commented that the Prison Service was the most complex organisation that he had encountered and its problems some of the most intractable. He reiterated the need for greater managerial independence for the Prison Service from the Home Office. He recommended a clear division between continuing political—that is ministerial—accountability for the major policy and resource issues and managerial authority for day-to-day operations. He also recommended agency status, and that has been achieved.

Although when I finished producing my report my direct involvement with the prison system came to an end, I was fortunate to be able to keep in touch with what was occurring within it because of my position as chairman of the Butler Trust, a charity which is devoted to recognising and spreading excellence in the Prison Service. I was heartened by the progress which over the ensuing years the Prison Service was able to achieve. The three Home Secretaries who have been in office since that time and the three Ministers responsible for prisons who have been in post can rightly claim credit to the extent that their policies have contributed to what has occurred. However, the main credit must go to the two director generals who have been in office during the period of change—first, Mr. Joe Pilling and, secondly, Mr. Derek Lewis, the present Director General—and their staff. The two director generals, neither of whose backgrounds suggested that they were ideal choices to play this role, have provided the visible leadership which was necessary.

The director of the Butler Trust has told me how during the course of his many visits to prisons throughout the country, he has heard universal praise from the most junior staff upwards for what Mr. Lewis has shown to be his deep involvement in what is happening in all prison establishments. Together with his staff, he has achieved a change in ethos in the Prison Service. The Prison Service has also had to absorb a radical programme of change to which it would be difficult for any organisation to adjust. In my view the public has cause to be grateful to the Prison Service for the way in which it has coped with that. As to part of this change, I am, as a matter of principle, not comfortable with the introduction of market testing and the involvement of the private sector within a service which has the responsibility of keeping secure those whom courts sentence to imprisonment. But I have to accept that the involvement of the private sector has had its positive side. It has proved to be a catalyst for change and, incidentally, in relation to the escorting of prisoners by Group 4, has been responsible for some of the best cartoons and jokes about prisons over recent years.

While, therefore, there is much to approve of which has occurred since my report, over the past 12 months there have been events which have caused me real concern for the future of the Prison Service. I believe that what has happened could put at risk all that has been achieved and, what is more important, could be achieved.

My views of the mounting prison population are well known. They provide the background to what I am now going to say because an increasing population puts an insidious stress upon the prison system as a whole. What now causes me concern is that a series of sensational events have resulted in immediate policy statements which could result in interference with the day-to-day management of prisons which would undermine what the Prison Service is seeking to achieve.

In any prison system there will inevitably be worrying events from time to time. After all, in prisons there is a concentration of dangerous, evil prisoners as well as those of whom it is questionable whether they should be there at all. The prisoners, to differing degrees, have been deprived of their liberty and are subject to what is now referred to as austere conditions. Among the prisoners are those who are in Category A, some of whom remain in prison for an exceedingly long time—sometimes for life—because their return to the community could seriously endanger the public.

When in prison, that category of prisoner is subject to intense scrutiny. It is very difficult to achieve a balance between security and justice for such prisoners. But the Prison Service does its best. If those prisoners escape, there is understandable outrage. It could be possible to reduce to a minimum that danger by keeping them locked up 22 hours a day, but that would be intolerable, inhuman and unacceptable. Other prisoners return to the community relatively quickly. It is important that they are returned in circumstances when it is most likely that they will not offend again.

What worries me is that, for example, in recent times we have had a sensational offence committed by children and immediately resources are found and decisions made to provide new prisons especially designed to deal with children. No consideration is given to the alternatives which perhaps deserve resources of that kind to a greater degree. Relate has referred to the distressing repetition of children from broken homes repeating the pattern of conduct of their parents, which results in a life of crime. Again, there are cases of prisoners not returning from home leave which are, quite wrongly, reported in the media. Immediately, changes are made in the temporary release and home leave systems, which are an important part of the proper functioning of any prison system.

Now we have the problems to which the Home Secretary referred in his Statement on 10th January this year. In regard to the disturbances the noble Lord referred to the Statement that the Home Secretary made, they were, in part, attributed to the attempts by the governor to curb the misuse of drugs. That was in accord with the policy. However, the policy was introduced without the necessary back-up. There are a few full-time intensive addiction treatment providers in the English prison system. One is the Addictive Diseases Trust, of which I have the honour to be patron. The trust has considerable experience and success in the area but, as I understand it, no such treatment was available at Everthorpe. If it had been, it might have reduced the risk of the disturbance that occurred there.

The escapes from Whitemoor and Parkhurst should not have occurred. It is, however, essential that those incidents are kept in proportion. There should be a measured response to rectify any lack of balance which has occurred between the requirements of security, care and justice. Problems of that nature must be kept in proportion. I appreciate the difficulties created for Ministers, but I deeply regret the response, the tone of which gave a misleading impression, to which reference has already been made. For example, I am told on good authority about another governor walking around his establishment afterwards who was confronted by prisoner after prisoner asking, "Guv'—is it your turn next?" What does that do for the stability and proper running of a prison?

Having regard to the seriousness of the events which took place, I do not criticise the fact that the Woodcock Inquiry is now to be followed by the Learmont Inquiry. However, I am concerned that, once more, we have a situation where the reports are restricted to prison security. That can produce the unbalanced result which I think would be a danger to the prison system.

What is needed is not more ministerial interference but less. Where the prison service is bringing about a process of change, it and its Director General needs support. It needs stability. I hope that it will be allowed to continue upon its path of progress in the measured way that the service requires.

3.42 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow two speakers who have such an honoured place in my regard. I was a lifelong friend—having shared rooms with him at Oxford—of the late Hugh Gaitskell. When his career faced total destruction, it was the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, who saved him by undertaking a campaign which eventually reinstated him and gave him back control of the Labour Party. The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, has moved since then, but we all move about as time goes on. However, that achievement will never be forgotten, especially not by me.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, paid tribute to the valuable assistance that he received from one of my most esteemed public figures, Judge Tumim. That will probably be the most famous report in the history of penal reform. So, there again, one pays him tribute.

I cannot pretend that I agree with the noble and learned Lord's cheery view of the way that the ethos in prisons is improving. I know that it is about four years since the report was produced and that he is a very busy man. However, I visit a prison every week. I should like to persuade the noble and learned Lord to accompany me on such visits. He would be very lucky to find anyone at the governor, officer or prisoner level who would say a good word for Mr. Michael Howard. He would indeed be very lucky. Therefore, I am afraid that I do not go along with the idea that there is some improvement in the prison ethos.

We must all submit to the iron discipline of the House. Therefore, my contribution may be no more than a sound bite. However, I have asked one of my close friends to warn me when I am in danger of running out of time. I shall just continue until that moment arrives. There are so many topics that one could mention under the heading of today's debate. I am so glad to know that my noble friend Lady Gould is speaking on behalf of prison officers. They need someone to champion them. I know that my noble friend will do so most effectively.

There are two topics to which I should have liked to refer, one of which I have mentioned before—the first is the question of the recall of life prisoners—but, again, time does not permit me to do so. The second is a new topic which has come to me lately from those closest to women's prisons; namely, the need for a new secure unit for long-term women prisoners. Nevertheless, I shall not deal with that aspect either.

I shall come to the point and express, yet again, in the clearest possible way my detestation of the penal philosophy of Mr. Michael Howard. I am bound to say that that detestation is widely shared among those who know most about prisons at any level. The Daily Mail—still, I gather, in some reactionary kind of way—supports Mr. Howard's general principles. However, even that newspaper admits that he has made a mistake in antagonising prison governors, prison officers and prisoners all at the same time. The Daily Mail might have added to that list the judiciary. After all, the judiciary convicted him of gross illegality. Incidentally, there is also the police, the Probation Service and the Civil Service to be considered. A representative of the latter has written to The Times to call Mr. Howard to order. Indeed, he has done about as much as one can do to antagonise everyone who is relevant in that world.

What is Mr. Howard's policy? Well, he has made it pretty plain: he wants to make prisons more unpleasant. He has said that prison works. That means that he sends more people to prison. But we do not have time to discuss that aspect of the matter. While people are in prison, Mr. Howard wants them to have a more unpleasant time than they had previously. Let us not be personal about it. I am aware that the noble Viscount the Leader of the House does not like us to mention personalities. However, the grandfather of the present Leader of the House, the former Marquess of Salisbury, on one occasion accused a noble Lord of oleaginous hypocrisy. But he hastened to add with a disarming smile, "I am not saying anything personal about the noble Lord". Well, in the same spirit, I am not saying anything personal about Mr. Michael Howard's private life. That is understood to be beyond reproach. I am merely talking about his policies, which seem to me to be rather evil, or worse, if that is possible.

What does Mr. Howard stand for? He has the idea of making prisons more unpleasant. Previous Home Secretaries have not adopted that tone. Indeed, we have had half a dozen of them since 1979 and, on the whole, with one possible exception—and I shall not dwell on that—they have tried to make life a little more civilised, humane and more in accordance with Christian principles for prisoners. Of course, some of the Ministers of State have been outstanding. I have in mind the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, who has written two classic books on the history of penal reform since the war.

However, Mr. Howard comes along and strikes a new note: indeed, life has to be made worse and more unpleasant for prisoners. Although we must not mince our words, we must try to be fair to Mr. Howard. That is a task which I find peculiarly difficult; but I keep on trying. We must remember that he did not appoint himself. Moreover, he did not retain himself in office during these disastrous years. Indeed, the Prime Minister appointed him.

What did the Prime Minister say at that Conservative Conference which in the eyes of many of us was one of the most appalling events in the history—I was going to say of the world; but that is overdoing it—of penal reform? The Prime Minister said that we must condemn more and understand less. I do not suppose that the noble Baroness, or, indeed, anyone else in the House, will defend the last part; but, as regards "understand less", perhaps it will be said that it was misreported. In regard to condemning more, well, as St. Augustine would have said, we must: Love the sinner but [condemn] the sin". No one can doubt the fact that the policy introduced in the Conservative Party Conference of 1993 was a new policy, but no one can say that it was in accord with the ideas of the Woolf Report, which had been accepted not so long before.

What does that policy amount to? Well, it means many more people in prison and things like saying that some people should go to prison for life—that is quite new—or, for example, that a few people should rot and die in prison. That is also quite new. I hope that that will never come to pass in reality. Mr. Michael Howard cannot ensure that it does. He will not live for ever; indeed, nor will I. Therefore, I do not suppose that it will ever happen. But, nevertheless, that was the iniquitous thing. I would call it obscene, although there may be worse words that some noble Lords with a wider command of vocabulary would use.

I should like to mention one topic referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers; namely, the cutting of home leave by 40 per cent. No one can say that that was the kind of thing that Mr. Lewis would welcome. I have met him once and he is a charming man. I blame him for nothing; I praise him for nothing. I believe that he has been placed in an impossible position and he is doing his best in a position in which he should never have been placed. That is how I view Mr. Lewis. As regards cutting home leave, that is another aspect of making life more unpleasant for prisoners.

I visit prisons every week. Recently I was going to visit one or two prisoners, one of whom had agreed the day before to see me. However, when I arrived he did not wish to see me. Noble Lords may sympathise with him and think that that is understandable. It has happened before now but not all that often. I therefore accepted that. However, the prisoner's friend wrote to me offering his apologies for the incident. I want noble Lords to understand what making life more unpleasant for prisoners in lots of little ways amounts to. The prisoner who refused to see me had been told, just before my visit, that the day out shopping under supervision which he had been promised had been cancelled. He was so depressed that he did not feel like receiving any visitors.

Perhaps that is just a small thing but that sort of thing is happening over the whole front of prison activities. It is happening in all prisons, and I visit all these prisons. What does that mean for the prison officers who have to tell the prisoners—some of whom are there for many years—"Sorry, it has been decided that life will be a bit harder in future"? The prisoners ask, "Who has decided that?" The prison officers will then say, "It is not the fault of Mr. Lewis. It has been decided by Mr. Michael Howard". The prisoners then ask, "What does he know about it?" In fact he knows nothing about it. He visited Brixton once before he became Home Secretary. That is all the prisoners know about the position but, as far as they are concerned, the Howard policy poisons the whole atmosphere in prisons. That is why I cannot agree with the eminent noble and learned Lord who spoke before me that life in prisons is better. I believe it is worse. I do not wish to stir up any trouble as regards talking about the chance of riots but I think it will be an awkward year in that respect. What are we really talking about here? We are talking about life being made more unpleasant for prisoners.

We must regard this as a fundamental issue. Are we going to reverse the policy that has been carried on over past years? One of the top Home Office officials explained that Mr. Howard was introducing a dramatic change. However, today if one is at all interested in these matters one has either to be in favour of the policy of Michael Howard, supported by the Prime Minister and his colleagues, or against it. I am against it.

I have seen great changes in this House. We are told that public opinion is in favour of Mr. Michael Howard. I wonder whether that is the case. It is hard to know what public opinion amounts to. People write nasty letters to me, but they also write nice ones. Curiously enough, I receive more nice letters in old age than I received when I was younger. At any rate one receives many letters from which to adduce the state of public opinion. I believe that a Home Secretary who just tries to pick up the latest news from the street corner is to be despised. I am afraid I have to use that word as regards the policy of Mr. Howard. I think it is a contemptible policy. As someone who has visited prisons for many years, I must make that plain.

However, I hope and pray that all that will pass away. Party politics aside, it is a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, cannot become Home Secretary, but that would be too much to hope for. At any rate some Conservative, or possibly a Labour person, will take up office after Mr. Howard, and Mr. Howard's policy will seem like a bad dream. I hope and pray that the whole age of Howard will seem like a bad dream.

3.54 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, over the past 25 years I have had to follow my noble friend Lord Longford often and I have always found that difficult because he gets the House into a good temper and leaves me to bring it back to normal. Therefore it is with some hesitation that I speak today.

I want to begin by saying that I am proud and pleased to have heard the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. I shall not mention at least half a dozen matters I should have liked to discuss because the noble and learned Lord has already done so. I refer, for example, to Category A prisoners, children, home leave, drugs, and one thing he did not remark on but something that his report remarks on in great detail, and that is remand. These are all important matters. I shall not talk about them and I shall not even talk about my noble friend's opening speech, which is about the past. I shall consider the present and the future, and I hope I shall do so briefly.

I am grateful to my noble friend for opening this debate not in the usual way, which consists of asking what is wrong with the Prison Service, but for asking, if there is something wrong,—as I think he would be the first to admit—whose business is it to put it right? I will give him a short but irritating answer: it is the Treasury's business. We all know many things which ought to be put right, but year after year they are not put right, and that is, simply, because there are no votes in prisons and it is considered better to spend the quite large sums needed on other less uninteresting but more vote-winning projects. That applies, I am afraid, to all governments.

But at least we have the Woolf Report. This was regarded by more or less everybody with any experience as an illuminating and a brilliant report, and we all hoped the Home Secretary would accept its 12 major and 200 minor recommendations and get along with acting on them. At least after this no one could justify inaction. After due consideration, the new Home Secretary said he would accept, in principle, 11 of the 12 major recommendations, and would begin at once to work on some of them, and indeed did so. But, alas, Recommendation No. 7, which he had refused, was the recommendation about limiting overcrowding, and it is hardly an exaggeration to say that without some vigorous action on overcrowding many of the other recommendations could not be made to work effectively.

Overcrowding has a disastrous effect on staff morale, and a disastrous effect on all the improvements which have been gradually introduced to make imprisonment more tolerable and more constructive for those confined. The result is a dissatisfied staff and resentful prisoners, which is not a good background for a happy life. The growing mood of harshness is leading to the imprisonment of increasing numbers of non-violent and minor offenders for whom community sentences would be a better option with a much greater chance of preventing reoffending. The pressure of excessive numbers also prevents the Prison Service from providing full and positive regimes for all prisoners which can equip them to lead law-abiding lives on release.

In 1969, which is quite a long time ago, I opened a debate on the subject of prison reform saying, There is a prerequisite to any prison reform, that is to get rid of overcrowding". Eighteen years later I repeated myself and now, after another six years, that situation is as bad as it ever was and getting worse. The number of prisoners on 31st December 1994 was 48,304—a 19 per cent. rise in two years. It is expected to reach 51,000 this year. This rise, as has already been said by my noble predecessor in the debate, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, is the direct result of penal policy, summarised in the Home Secretary's slogan "prison works". He encouraged the courts to send more people to prison, and he encouraged them to give longer sentences, and they have responded.

One cannot correct overcrowding by increasing the number shut up. In the overcrowded local prisons the pressure is such that the prison officer can hardly do his proper job, which is keeping order. He can hardly touch the more interesting part of his work, which is correcting bullying and helping his prisoners with their home and private problems, which every prison officer regards as a proper part of his duty.

On 20th January last, there were still 111 people held in police cells because no prison had room for them. Overcrowding in local prisons ranged from a high of 81 per cent. in Leicester to 44 per cent. in other prisons. That is an impossible situation. It is not a situation for which anyone has made any effort to find a solution. I made a suggestion some time ago which consisted of letting people out of prison before letting others in, but nobody took any notice of it, so I shall not go into it again, although I believe that it is the right answer.

An overstretched system is also forced into transferring many prisoners to prisons far from their home areas, reducing contact with their families and increasing dissatisfaction and tension among prisoners. On 9th March, Brendan O'Friel, chairman of the Prison Governors' Association, said: We are building up a significant number of prisoners with a justifiable grudge against the Prison Service for moving them so far away from home … Steps must be taken to bring this to an end or it will bring trouble within our prisons". The present difficult state of overcrowding is the direct result of penal policy. There has to be a solution. Only a Home Secretary, by his own actions, can do anything to change the situation for the better. It is clearly his responsibility, and we want to know what he proposes to do to ease the situation, which will soon again become explosive. The situation is very depressing, but at least we can agree where the responsibility lies.

4.1 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I shall keep well within my time, but I should like to make one or two points in a debate which touches on some of what we shall discuss next week on the Motion about the Civil Service.

As an ordinary newspaper reader, I thought it a little odd that, at a time when the Home Secretary was saying that prison conditions should be made more austere, it turned out that some of those for whom he was responsible were in the habit of sending out prison officers to buy their wines and lobsters. I could not help thinking that in those distant days when I was deputy chairman of the Prison Commission, a body which in its time stood a little aloof from the Home Office, we might have known that we were not carrying out the Minister's wishes. Also, although obviously we were lacking in management skills in those days, I like to think that we would have had the nous not to put into effect a decision to transfer prisoners to Northern Ireland at a time calculated to cause the maximum possible political embarrassment to the Government.

There is a much more serious point. When I joined the Home Office, the chairman of the Prison Commission was Harold Scott, who went on to hold two Permanent Secretary posts and ended a spectacular career by being made commissioner of police for the metropolis. His predecessor, Alexander Maxwell, another career civil servant, went on to become one of the great Permanent Secretaries at the Home Office and masterminded the work leading to the very important Criminal Justice Act 1948.

With their wide experience of other parts of the Home Office and their background knowledge of government, civil servants of that calibre were able, during the time they ran the prisons, to make a special contribution to discussions with Ministers on penal policy in general, whereas someone brought in from outside for his management expertise can hardly be expected to be equipped to make any such contribution. I do not imply any criticism of the highly paid Mr. Lewis, who, as my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf explained, has achieved a good deal, even if rather too many things seem to have gone wrong recently. I am also glad that the noble and learned Lord paid a special tribute to Mr. Pilling, the previous head of the Prison Department.

Of course I recognise that since those days long ago matters have greatly changed and there have been the various developments of which we have heard. The problems have become more complicated, with the increased number of prisoners, problems of drugs, ethnic minorities and so forth. However, I am still concerned about the operation of a more or less independent special agency and its possible impact on the fragmentation of the Civil Service, given that one of the fundamental principles of Northcote Trevelyan was the unity of the service. That is something that we shall give up at our peril.

Looking at the sequence of recent events, I think that Mr. Howard has been unlucky. That tends to happen to Home Secretaries from time to time. However, I cannot accept that there is a sharp distinction between policy and operations and between policy and its implementation, notwithstanding the precedent set by the noble Lord, Lord Prior, in Northern Ireland and by Mr. Kenneth Baker when he was Home Secretary.

My thoughts naturally turned to events in 1966, when there was an abundance of prison escapes, in particular that of George Blake. I have reread the debate on the motion of censure moved against the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, at that time (although he was not then Lord Jenkins). The debate was a little unreal, in that it turned merely on the form of the inquiry that the Home Secretary had set up. But deep passions were aroused and it was a memorable parliamentary occasion. It is of interest that nevertheless there was no demand for the Home Secretary's resignation and also that the Home Secretary unequivocally accepted full responsibility for what had gone wrong.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, in opening the debate, referred to the escapes from Parkhurst and the comments by Sir John Woodcock about confusion in the Prison Service as to where responsibility rests. I do not propose to pursue that issue in any detail. However, we shall all be interested to learn when the Minister winds up the debate whether the decision to move Mr. Marriott was taken solely by Mr. Lewis and simply reported to the Home Secretary as an operational decision. I notice that when the Home Secretary announced that move in the other place he simply referred to it in the passive tense without answering that particular question.

I should like to refer to one other recent incident. On 1st December (col. 699 of Hansard refers), I asked a Question about the regrettable number of assaults on prison officers. In reply the noble Baroness gave a helpful list of what was being done. However, I wondered whether that material was simply supplied direct by the Prison Service or whether it was filtered through the Home Office. The Minister explained that a reduction in the level of violence was a strategic priority. The Prison Service itself put that rather differently in its own statistical return, in what I regard as one of the most delightfully ambiguous sentences I have ever encountered in an official publication. The sentence reads: The number of assaults on staff, prisoners and others, which account for about five per cent of all offences is now one of the key performance indicators of the Prison Service". It sounds exactly like a classic formula for increased productivity.

More seriously, I believe that it is the Minister who settles the key targets for the year. I wonder how that is done. Is it basically an estimate of what the Prison Service thinks that it can achieve? Any enlightenment that the Minister can give us on these matters and the process which is gone through will be received with great interest.

Finally, perhaps the Minister will either later today or by correspondence clear up one small mystery. In the Next Steps review published by the Government last month, the section on the Prison Service states that by March 1994, the target for the year 1993–94—that no prisoners should be held three to a cell designed for one person—had been achieved. I had always thought that targets were hit rather than achieved, but we shall let that pass. The review also states that a key target for 1994–95, the current year, is, to ensure that … the average number of prisoners held 3 to a cell in accommodation which is intended for one prisoner is fewer than in 1993–94". As we are told that the final figure for the previous figure was nought, at first sight it is not clear how that figure could be reduced, but I realise that it is my own lack of management training which makes me unfitted to answer for that conundrum.

4.13 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, before intervening in the debate, I must again declare my interest in that I am acting as an adviser to the Prison Officers' Association. First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for initiating this timely debate. It is made even more timely by the figures produced yesterday which indicated that prison riots had risen in 10 years from 38 to 146 at an estimated cost to the taxpayer of £39 million.

The serious erosion of accountability with regard to prison matters has developed since the Prison Service became an executive agency in May 1993. That has been typical of the pattern of agency status since the Next Steps initiative was announced in 1988. The disaster at Whitemoor, the escape from Parkhurst and the rioting at Everthorpe have resulted in no one accepting the blame or responsibility. Perhaps the phrase, "Success has many fathers but failure an orphan is", is appropriate in this instance. Such a series of major errors, of which there had been warning in advance at Parkhurst and Everthorpe, is no coincidence. Either policy or operation must be at fault. Yet the two people responsible, as has been said, both deny that it had anything to do with them.

The continued devolution of powers and responsibilities within the Prison Service has resulted in less and less parliamentary accountability. Everyone can deny responsibility. Yet the inescapable fact is that it is to be the Secretary of State and his Ministers who have to be ultimately responsible. At the end of the day they have to be responsible for both policy and operation of the agency. The reality is that one cannot divorce policy from operation.

The document, Questions of Procedure for Ministers, published in 1992 on the Prime Minister's authority, well after agencies were established, states: Each Minister is responsible to Parliament for the conduct of his or her department, and for the actions carried out by the department in pursuit of Government policies or in the discharge of responsibilities laid upon him or her as a Minister". That must contradict the Home Secretary's claim on 10th January that, With regard to operational responsibility, there has always been a division between policy matters and operational matters".— [Official Report, Commons, 10/1/95; col. 40.] As a result nobody is accountable for the operation in terms of Parliament. A 90-minute cross-examination of the director general every two years by the Home Affairs Select Committee in another place hardly constitutes accountability.

The issue of blurred responsibility is enhanced, as the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, said, by the Director General of the Prison Service having a key policy role as outlined in the framework document. The removal of information from the public sphere is hardly consistent with the statement of purpose, vision, goals and values in the business plan of 1994–95 which states: Integrity is fundamental to everything we do. We will meet our legal obligations and act with honesty and openness". Those are fine words in a glossy brochure. But openness is hardly the byword, particularly in respect of the private prisons, when information is denied on the ground of commercial confidentiality. That failure to address the problems of accountability and responsibility and the lack of leadership, has had a serious effect on the morale of all those who work in the service.

The policy leadership in the Prison Service is in a complete muddle. New and ill-considered changes are announced with little consultation or thought as to the effects in real terms, not least the effects on staff. A recent survey by the Prison Governors' Association reveals staggeringly high numbers who say that they cannot think, sleep or concentrate. David Roddan, the PGA general secretary said that the main culprit was the burden caused by the month to month policy changes of the Government, and the ultimate consequences for the administration. Those changes have ranged from the Criminal Justice Act 1991, to market testing and the introduction of privatisation and, now, the austere regimes of the current Home Secretary.

When the Woolf Report was published in 1991, prison officers, other penal interest groups and the Government accepted it as the definitive future for the Prison Service. We have seen its virtual abandonment by the Government. That lack of consistency and gradual erosion of the conditions in which officers work on a day to day basis is at the root of the loss of morale. I hesitate to disagree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. But in a Prison Service staff attitude survey, published last year, 60 per cent. of prison officers had worried about their physical safety at some time in the previous six months. A staggering 91 per cent. agreed or strongly agreed that, the people who run the prison service don't care enough about the people who have to deal with prisoners face to face", while only 19 per cent. felt that they worked for a well managed service. That is hardly a vote of confidence for either the Government or the Director General of the Prison Service.

In his report the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, referred to prison overcrowding as the most corrosive influence on the prison system and to the fact that an overcrowded prison is an unstable prison. The prison governors have called on the Home Secretary to introduce a legal limit on gaol overcrowding to avert the risk of riots. But overcrowding is still a problem.

However, even prisons which are undercrowded can experience problems from prisoners who should be in more secure conditions but are placed in lower security conditions. Speaking to the Select Committee in the House of Commons last week, Mr. Lewis believed that the prison population is becoming more violent and more volatile, and that there is a serious problem now in respect of secure accommodation. Combined with longer times out of cell, that can make inmate population difficult to manage; and the staff certainly feel less secure.

That was a contributory factor in the disturbance at Everthorpe when it was estimated that a number of prisoners were disruptive and would have been better placed in more secure conditions. But those conditions were not available. The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Judge Tumim, in his annual report in 1994, said: If regular major disturbances are to be avoided, the Prison Service needs to develop a coherent policy towards the control of Prisoners in Category C prisons, making better use of the secure accommodation". The pressure on space has also meant too many prisoners being accommodated a long way from their homes, creating a sense of isolation and causing more control problems.

Many prison staff feel that the amount of time that prisoners spend out of their cells has become unmanageable, not because they disagree in principle, but unless it is backed up with activities and staff to occupy the prisoners, control problems can quickly build up. With up to 60 prisoners out of their cells and as few as two staff to manage them, gang cultures, bullying, no-go areas and the passing of drugs can happen almost unchecked. What is needed is an understanding of this problem by the policy makers. Only by having more staff on duty and having more educational and constructive activity for the prisoners, coupled with full management support, can this be overcome.

This also relates to the question of training. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and Judge Tumim have both called for more officer training, yet in the new private sector prisons, which we are told are to be the models of the future, the officers receive only seven weeks' training—half that of officers in other prisons, even though the 13 weeks they receive is grossly inadequate.

A further concern is the new business ethos of the Prison Service. Of course prisons must be run efficiently; but key performance indicators should not represent the absolute judgment of a prison. Often the indicators conflict, or in many situations they may not represent what is best for the management, for that prison at that particular time. We have seen this at Everthorpe, one of the 12 prisons that might be subject to market testing, where the governor—under severe pressure to increase the time out of cell (a key performance indicator) allowed all the prisoners out of their cells the night after the first riot. That was a major factor in the second night of rioting.

Finally, I wish to refer to under-resourcing and under-staffing. Since the 1987 Fresh Start agreement, it is estimated that there has been an equivalent of 4,000 fewer officers on duty arising from hours, including overtime, being reduced from an average of a 57-hour week to a 39-hour week.

We shall no doubt hear from the Minister that there has been an increase in the number of officers employed. That is true, an increase of approximately 4 per cent. in the past two years—mainly in private prisons—to cope with an increase in the prison population of 17 per cent. The resulting increase in pressure on officers' time has meant that many tasks which are important to the security of the prisons are not being done. Cell searching in many institutions is virtually non-existent and constructive regime activities and education programmes have been reduced. Although there are now more officers than 25 years ago, no provision has been made to take account, for instance, of the reduction of home leave, of the increased time out of cell or for visits. As a consequence, understaffing is still a problem.

What is needed is for the basic job of security to be prioritised and the return to a stable regime and also the return to the core policy of the Woolf agenda. That needs money and resources, but the Government have to accept that responsibility. Not to do so will allow the present feelings of concern and anxiety about the prison system in this country to continue.

4.23 p.m.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity of adding to the discussion of the management of prisons and to thank my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank for calling this debate. It is aimed at the seemingly parlous state of the Prison Service in England and Wales. I should say that I speak today as the one-time prison social worker of Scotland's most northerly prison, Porterfield, in Inverness. I speak also as a member of the visiting committee of the Young Offenders Institution at Glenochil in Clackmannanshire.

While I acknowledge that the Scottish Prison Service has its problems, I have the distinct feeling that the English Prison Service is faring even less well. Perhaps the most vital indicator of this has been the poor state of industrial relations within the Prison Service. The effect of all this is that in many a prison we may well have not just the usual "us" and "them" divisions between the staff and prisoners, but we may also have deep divisions between management—that is the governors—and the uniformed staff. My first point is that this three-way division needs to be attended to as a priority because it has such a chronic effect on the life of the prison.

My second point relates to one of the fundamentals of imprisonment. On my first day as a social work student on placement at the former Borstal institution at Polmont in Stirlingshire, the point was made to me by several prison officers that the prison staff had to be in control at every moment of the day and that nothing should be done which jeopardised that control. The British prison services have traditionally rejected the worst of the American model in which the staff secure the perimeter and the prisoners run the prison. This, of course, leads to a complete failure of the responsibility of care for individual prisoners and especially vulnerable prisoners. On a day-to-day basis, this retention of control has to be the central core of the prison officers' work. All the highly desirable medical, recreational, industrial and social work activities of the prison hinge on the retention of control. I am concerned about the design of some recent prisons in which the cells have been arranged in cul-de-sacs. Experience has shown that this can lead to these areas becoming no-go areas for staff. Ironically, the traditional and much maligned galleried prisons—the so-called Victorian prisons—do not suffer this problem as the gallery is continuous and always leads to somewhere else. So my second point is about the need for well thought out plans for new prison wings and halls and the avoidance of staff no-go areas.

My final point is about the regime for longer sentence prisoners. I believe that the state has a duty to keep the longer term prisoner alive and alert to the ever-changing society outside to which she or he will return one day. This means that the conditions and regimes of longer term prisons will appear to have more liberal regimes and better facilities than short-term or local prisons. I accept that this is open to abuse by those prisoners who can never settle to get on with their sentence. For those prisoners, more controlled regimes must be available.

Striking the right balance in the design of the regime will be essential. The tabloid description of Parkhurst as being "Marriott's Hotel" reflects how the Government may have got it right in respect of keeping the prisoners alive and alert, but may have failed to retain control while doing so. It is easy to create a regime, but more difficult to secure the acceptance of its privileged status by some of the prisoners. So my final point is that the development of regimes for longer term prisoners needs further and urgent attention.

4.28 p.m.

Viscount Tenby

My Lords, it often seems to me that debates in this House can be divided between those of a historic and constitutional nature—set occasions of some drama at which this House excels—and those no less important on matters of considerable topical interest. Such a debate is before us today, thanks to the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. He led off with a cogent and powerful speech.

My only regret is the attenuated list of speakers. In fact, I cannot recall when I was last so high in the batting order as a tail-ender. One of the troubles of being a tail-ender is that many of one's best birds have already been shot, notably by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge. But I comfort myself that some tunes bear repetition.

In a debate enriched by authoritative speakers from both the law and the administration of the law, I feel a pygmy indeed. My only excuse for dipping a toe into these swirling and muddied waters is that as a magistrate I have, on occasion and only after the greatest care and with ultimate regret, had to send men and women to prison. As a magistrate, too, I very properly have to visit prisons from time to time. It is clearly undesirable to commit people to detention without any idea of what awaits them there. Accordingly, the way in which prisons are run and their success rate in both protecting the community from those inside them and at the same time ensuring that the lives of the inmates themselves are structured and productive, is a matter of considerable interest and indeed anxiety to me and, I believe, to many of my colleagues as well.

This is not the time to go into the oft-raised and debated claim that we send too many offenders to prison—or, to be more precise, that we send too many to prison who ought not in any circumstances to be going there. We are concerned today with the current running of the Prison Service—or rather with the state of disrepair and uncertainty in which it finds itself.

However, sending more people than we should to prison in one respect creates what is perhaps the most fundamental problem of all confronting the service today—it has been mentioned before—namely, overcrowding. Overcrowding increases tension among prisoners and prison officers alike. It brings with it the dangers of placing high-risk prisoners in inappropriate prisons. It lowers the morale of prison officers. But, most important of all, it prevents proper control in prison and invites the sort of nightmare events that have recently taken place in Whitemoor, Everthorpe and Parkhurst.

Just as we seem unable to make up our minds about what sort of criminal justice system we want—the current state of play being that we have replaced the carrot with the stick —so, inevitably, has that uncertainty paralysed the Prison Service. How do we overcome that paralysis? We do it not by knee-jerk reactions to every incident, nor by cobbling together nostrums to please the matrons at Conservative Party conferences, but by a reasoned approach, such as my noble and learned friend's, or a measured response, making use of all who are engaged in the Prison Service. In the event, there is no shortage of constructive advice—particularly from my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf, who succeeded in his report, quite remarkably, in uniting all participants in the service in its praise, and who has today rightly paid tribute to the progress made in recent years as a result of that report and in particular paid tribute to the immediate past director-general and the current one.

What first needs to be defined unambiguously—and it is at the heart of this debate—is the chain of command. Coming, as I do, from an older and more settled generation, I find it difficult to accept the concept of the separation of policy making from operational control. But even if, for the sake of argument, it may be possible to achieve this—and even a former commander of the 8th Army might have had his problems in coming to grips with this proposition—the one who holds operational responsibility must in the long term bear responsibility for all shortcomings in the service. And in turn, the one holding policy responsibility must surely see that that is the case and that that is done. That seems to me to be elementary.

Some of the relevant factors that contribute to this state of affairs have been or will be mentioned. There is the difficulty for prison staff of performing a complete about-turn. We know all about that in the magistracy: substituting the stick for the carrot while dealing with what is at the best of times an extremely volatile population. There was the lack, which is now being remedied one gathers, of a geophone detector system at Parkhurst, which is a Category A prison and has requested its installation for years, when the immediately adjoining Category B prison, Albany, had one. There was the disquiet of both HM Inspector of Prisons and the chairman of the Board of Visitors over security at Parkhurst weeks before the recent incident. One wonders at times why one has people in these sorts of positions if their reports are pigeon-holed. The handling of that same situation famously succeeded in alienating both the Prison Governors' Association, ineptly described at the time as a trade union, and the Prison Officers' Association. The discoveries at Whitemoor, the rioting at Everthorpe—all these and more are the symptoms of a service that is unsure of itself and of its role.

Some initiatives surely hold out promise for the future: in particular the "points for prizes" system that is being tried at Deerbolt. Instead of privileges being automatically available on arrival, prisoners must earn them by their attitude and achievements during their sentence, thereby increasing their self-respect. On the down side, I confess to having reservations about the plans for drug testing through compulsory urine tests. The distasteful truth is that drugs, particularly soft ones, are freely available in prisons. It may be that in their milder form —for example, marijuana—a blind eye is turned to their use: a relatively contented prison is preferable to one that seethes with discontent. But if prisoners receive a sentence for the use of drugs where cautions or small fines are coming to be the normal disposals in the outside world, a sense of grievance, however irrational, can quickly build up.

Let me make it quite clear that I am extremely worried about the drug culture in our prisons. But until we can devise some effective method of controlling the supplies that are being smuggled in, such testing will do nothing but tell us what we already know, and in doing so stir up a hornets' nest.

Very few Members of this House, and very few people outside it, query the need for strict but fair regimes in our prisons. Let us forget prison officers shopping for luxury foods in local supermarkets, unlimited phone calls, and attempts to make prisons as much like home as possible—they are not, and they never will be. Let us be more careful about the appropriateness and frequency of home visits generally. On the reverse side however, let us give prisoners a full and varied life of education and work. We should not disperse them to prisons where visiting becomes difficult for relatives and friends. Above all, make them feel that they are being treated firmly but fairly.

All this will cost money. That is not because throwing money at problems makes them go away—it does not automatically sort them out—but because creating these kinds of conditions will inevitably require increased staffing levels. I ask the noble Baroness the Minister, with her customary efficiency and courtesy, to provide assurances that the Government will not give way to Treasury pressure by skimping on staffing in our prisons. In the final analysis, it is not a question of who has the best business plan, important thought that may be in increasing efficiency, or indeed even of whether the private sector is tackling the problems more effectively. Whoever the players may be, the facts of prison life remain the same. Two facts, however, stand out above the rest. The first is that cutbacks and under-staffing are creating most of the problems that face us today. The second is that indecisiveness and uncertainty at the top are contributing to, rather than solving, those problems.

I have to say with some regret that there appears to be little evidence that those who are in charge of the Prison Service today, whoever they may be, have a coherent and workable strategy for its future. Without such a strategy, we shall run many risks in the months to come. I fear that we may now be sowing the seeds of what will be a bitter harvest.

4.39 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I think it will be generally agreed by all who have listened to the discussions we have had today that this has been a valuable debate. Not least, we have had the opportunity of listening to notable speeches from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and from my noble friend Lord Rodgers.

The matters before us today have been of high public importance. They relate to the management and the current state of morale of the Prison Service at a time when the number of inmates is rising remorselessly—a process which, of course, is being actively encouraged by Ministers. We were reminded today of the conference speech of Mr. Howard, in which he announced that prison worked. That was exactly the opposite of what Mr. Douglas Hurd said when he was Home Secretary. Mr. Howard also indicated that prison conditions were to be made more austere. He made that statement on the basis of a single visit to a prison; namely, Brixton. I do not know how one could make conditions at Brixton more austere than they are at the moment.

Over the years I suppose I have had the opportunity of visiting between 70 and 80 prison department establishments. The idea that offenders are living in conditions of opulent splendour may be believed by a handful of tabloid journalists; but it is hard to believe that any serious-minded person accepts such nonsense for a moment. Quite apart from that, the purpose of custody—we must remember that our prisons are full of thousands of people who have not been convicted of any criminal offence; they are remand prisoners—is not to create thoroughly unpleasant conditions for inmates; it is to deprive them for the time being of their liberty. That is punishment enough. One only needs to read the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, to be reminded once again of the squalor of much of our prison estate and the grievous effects on a prisoner's spouse and children of their imprisonment, often in an establishment hundreds of miles away from home. That is why the report and its recommendations were so warmly welcomed by many people, both inside and outside the Prison Service.

I am sure that the noble Baroness will tell us in a few moments that the recommendations of the noble and learned Lord will still be implemented. However, there are many in the Prison Service who doubt the Government's resolve. There are many, including some of the most senior governors in the service, who believe that policy is increasingly being made not by the prison department, but by the editors of the Sun and the Daily Mail newspapers. Of course, politicians must have a decent regard for the concerns of a public which has become increasingly alarmed by the rising level of serious crime. But that does not mean that one surrenders in the face of every gust from tabloid newspapers. Sometimes it is necessary to be resolute and explain one's case firmly and calmly. That is what the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, did when he was Home Secretary, and so did Mr. Douglas Hurd.

My noble friend Lord Rodgers referred to the case of Mr. John Marriott, the governor of Parkhurst. In a letter to governors published in the press, Mr. Lewis, the Director General of the Prison Service, said that he was, rightly noted and appreciated for his dedication, humanity, courage and innovation". I am sure we all agree that that was a warm endorsement. However, it was delivered just after Mr. Marriott had been removed from his position as governor of Parkhurst. The television cameras focused lovingly on this man of courage and dedication as the car carrying him left Parkhurst. It must have been a moment of intense grief for Mr. Marriott and his family. And, of course, it was done without any form of due process. Mr. Marriott was given no opportunity of putting his case at a disciplinary inquiry. In contrast, that opportunity was given by the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, when he was Home Secretary, to the then governor of Brixton, after the escape of Mr. Tuite, an alleged IRA offender. It was denied to Mr. Marriott.

Is there any wonder therefore that there is now such bitterness in the Prison Service? Indeed, there is now the possibility that the Prison Governors' Association will take the department to court on this issue. It is a sad day when the leaders of the Prison Service are compelled to consider such action in order to secure justice for one of their number. And this is taking place at a time when there is an almost unprecedented escalation in the number of inmates. As my noble friend Lord Donaldson said a few moments ago, their number has risen by nearly 20 per cent. in the past 24 months. It is extraordinary that at such a time the Government are prepared to continue with the follies of their market-testing policy in the prisons.

I indicated at the time that I had no objection to the original proposal of a carefully monitored experiment at a new private sector remand establishment at The Wolds in Humberside. Instead, the Government have indulged their more doctrinaire supporters by producing a list of existing establishments which may be privatised. Many men and women in the Prison Service therefore, confronting this explosion of inmate numbers, are also facing the prospect that their establishments may be handed over to the private sector. The consequences have been inevitable. The report produced by the Home Office inquiry into the serious disturbances at Everthorpe which occurred on 2nd and 3rd January this year, said, A substantial proportion of management time had, in the months prior to the incidents, been directed towards a response to the establishment's inclusion in the market testing bid procedure. This caused uncertainty amongst staff and prisoners about the future of the establishment and adversely affected staff morale. This process remains unresolved". That is the position not of the Government's critics, but it is contained within a Home Office inquiry report. It is not only the problems of Everthorpe which concern us. The prison department has disclosed one of the consequences of overcrowding and the deteriorating atmosphere in many prisons. As the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, said a few moments ago, it was admitted that the number of disturbances in prisons had risen from 38 in 1985–86 to 146 last year—an increase of nearly 400 per cent. In the past five years the number of assaults on staff increased from 1,750 to 3,204—a rise of around 80 per cent. I accept at once that there are other reasons for those increases as well as overcrowding. Drugs is certainly one of the factors. But one cannot possibly ignore the relevance of gross overcrowding.

As many of us recognise, the prison population is volatile and the majority of prisoners are young. Many inmates are inadequates and others are mentally ill. Many of them should not be in prison in the first place; they should be out in the community or, in the case of the mentally ill, in mental hospitals. Others have been convicted of offences of violence and can be potentially dangerous. They require significant security arrangements both to keep them in custody and to ensure, as far as possible, that they do not disrupt life in the prisons which hold them.

We must accept that, given the situation I described, it is possible that there may be more disturbances in our prisons in the future. The people who will have to deal with those disturbances are members of the Prison Service. The overwhelming majority are decent and responsible public servants doing a difficult job on behalf of the whole community. Yet the Government have chosen to exhibit total indifference to rising prison numbers, a disposition to scapegoat members of the service when things go wrong, and to continue with their doctrinaire programme of privatisation thus making staff working in an increasingly violent environment believe that their jobs are now at risk.

The House should recognise that there is now real anger in the Prison Service about the way in which it is being treated. The standing ovation accorded to Mr. Marriott by the Parkhurst staff on his departure is just one indication of that. I hope that Ministers will realise the perilous situation which has now arisen. If they do not, the consequences could be extremely serious.

4.50 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for initiating this important and timely debate. The Motion which he moved so ably is worded largely as a topical debate, but I am sure that he will be as glad as I am that the debate we have actually heard, although it has covered topical issues, has also covered many of the more fundamental problems which underly the crisis in the Prison Service. When I say "crisis in the Prison Service" I am not speaking for myself. Judge Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, on 4th January last, described the Prison Service as having "a crisis of confidence". From the debate that has taken place—incidentally, without any intervention from the massed ranks of the Conservative Benches—we can all confirm that the House has been unanimously of the view that we have a crisis and that there are major problems which have to be resolved.

I wish to refer first to the topical issues. The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, rightly drew attention in the first instance to the extraordinary position in which we find the Home Secretary. He answers, as do all Ministers, to Parliament for his actions. Ultimately, he answers to Parliament for the actions not only of his own department but of the agencies which are set up under his department. He certainly has had some answering to do in the past few months. The noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, described him as having bad luck. I think he did so in the knowledge of having worked with and seen the actions of very many Home Secretaries over recent years. Certainly, the present Home Secretary in the past few months has seen an unprecedented increase in the breakdown of communications, in the breakdown of security and in the breakdown of morale within the Prison Service.

I am not suggesting—indeed, no one is suggesting—that the Home Secretary is responsible for operational matters. No one has been heard from the Opposition Benches, either here or in the House of Commons, demanding the resignation of the Home Secretary. However, it has to be said that the Home Secretary has been consistently denying the ultimate responsibility which must be his not only for operational matters but even for the policies which underlie the operational problems.

It cannot be said that he has not been warned. He was warned of the problems four years ago by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, after the riots in Strangeways. We have had a most welcome reminder of that during our debate. More recently, he was warned by Mrs. Seligman, then the chair of the prison visitors of Whitemoor, about the problems which would arise there. He was warned by Judge Tumim about almost all of the problems which have since become evident. As far as I can understand—perhaps the Minister will tell me if I am wrong—many of those warnings were marked for his personal attention and the personal attention of the Director General of the Prison Service. If indeed they were marked for his personal attention, someone must have made the decision either to show them to the Home Secretary or not. If they were shown to the Home Secretary, surely it is incumbent on him to say to Parliament that he saw the warnings and that he chose, for whatever reasons he may give to the House, not to take action on them; or if he was not shown them, we ought to know why he was not shown them, because Judge Tumim in particular has, as part of his terms of reference, direct access to the Home Secretary, and that ought not to be denied under any circumstances. Most recently we had the report of Sir John Woodcock on Whitemoor Prison. The report, confirming the warnings which had been given before, calls directly on the Home Secretary for action. We have no indication that that action is being taken.

Indeed, when we look at the reactions of the Home Secretary to some of the crises that have arisen in recent months, it can only be said that his policy reactions have been ill-considered and probably even dangerous. A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Longford, referred to the problem of home leave and the almost instinctive knee-jerk reaction of the Home Secretary to a very few cases of serious over-staying by those on home leave by an overall reduction in home leave of 40 per cent. In any tolerable and constructive prison regime, if I may use the words of the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, home leave is surely an essential. It is essential for prisoners who are going to be released to be prepared for that release in a civilised way. For home leave to be denied as a reaction to a very few offences committed on home leave is not rational and is not worthy of anyone who holds the position of Secretary of State in Her Majesty's Government.

A number of noble Lords referred to the distinction between operations and policy and to the desirable relationship between the Home Secretary, the Prison Service and the Home Office. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, called it a structural stand-off, which I thought was very nicely put. But what has the Home Secretary's reaction been? In the three words of Jack Straw, his reaction to particular complaints has been "Not me, guv"; in other words, it has nothing to do with him. But in terms of an objective examination of the relationship—it is the relationship between the Prison Service, the Home Office and the Home Secretary which has been the subject of explicit criticism by, among others, Sir John Woodcock—all the Home Secretary does is to muddy the waters even more.

What on earth did he mean on 19th December when he said in the House of Commons that he was going to, set up a new unit outside the Prison Service to strengthen Ministers' ability to supervise the performance of the Prison Service"?— [Official Report, Commons, 19/12/94; col. 1400.] What can that mean? We have operations carried out by the Prison Service, we have policy carried out by the Home Office under the Home Secretary, and now we have a new unit to mediate between the two. If the Minister can enlighten us on what that means, we shall be very much better off than was the House of Commons when it received that extraordinary statement.

However important—and they are important—the present crises have been, behind them lie failures of policy. It is failures of policy for which we must blame the Government and the Home Secretary. First, there is the failure of policy which is inherent in the ideas of privatisation and market testing. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, has very properly referred to that. We may, as the noble Lord, Lord Allen, said, have fun with Group 4, but we must also look at the amount of disruption which has been caused in the Prison Service not just by the privatisation of new prisons but by the proposal that 12 existing prisons are to be privatised. All this is happening without any real evidence that privatisation works. Where, after all, is the report on Blakenhurst?

Judge Tumim's reports are usually published within four months of the completion of the inspection. This particular report should have been published in September last year. We understand—but only from leaks, of course—that there are serious criticisms of the regime in Blakenhurst in that report. Judge Tumim's report should now be published as urgently as possible and we should know whether there is any evidence about the privatised prisons—we must remember that this is a real prison and not a remand prison —a reasonable time after their establishment.

The second problem referred to so well by my noble friend Lady Gould is morale in the Prison Service. The Home Secretary appears to have forfeited the respect and confidence not just of the prison officers, who may be expected on occasion to disagree with what he does, but of the prison governors themselves.

Thirdly, and most important of all, there is the issue of this Home Secretary's view of penal policy which has resulted in the extraordinary level of overcrowding which we now have. Its effects are well known and have been referred to by a number of noble Lords during the course of the afternoon. We know about Strangeways, Whitemoor, Everthorpe and Parkhurst. Do not let me be told that that is not relevant to Whitemoor and Everthorpe because they are themselves not overcrowded. The reports on the incidents have made it clear that what has been wrong with Whitemoor and Everthorpe, although they are not overcrowded themselves, is that the wrong category prisoners have been in those prisons because of overcrowding elsewhere. I suspect that the same will be true of Parkhurst when the report appears where the accommodation and security procedures for one category of prisoner are appropriate only for a lower category.

On the surface we have many damaging effects of overcrowding. But below the surface we have what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, calls "insidious stress" and what my noble friend Lady Gould referred to as the pressure on prison officers. The one recommendation which the noble and learned Lord made in his report which was not accepted by the Home Secretary was that on overcrowding. I suggest to your Lordships that it is the deliberate policy of this Government, expressed most clearly in the Home Secretary's speech to the Conservative Party conference in 1993, to make prison more austere and to encourage the magistrates and higher courts to award longer sentences. That has given rise to an increase of nearly 20 per cent. in the prison population in a period of only two years.

At this rate overcrowding can never be resolved. It will not be resolved by building more prisons, which is a long-term policy and which is in doubt in itself. What is required is a more enlightened penal policy which takes account of the need for a tolerable and constructive regime in prison itself. Instead of saying, "Prison works", it should acknowledge what all progressive prison regimes throughout Western Europe—but not in the United Kingdom —acknowledge that prison is the last resort. We have too many people in prison and they continue to be treated badly. While that happens, boils will erupt on the surface as they have in the past few months. But it is the underlying failures of the penal policy of this Government which are ultimately responsible for it.

5.4 p.m.

Baroness Match

My Lords, this has been and is indeed a very important debate. I understand the many concerns expressed in the debate this afternoon in the light of recent incidents in the Prison Service.

In opening the debate the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, dealt substantially in innuendo and speculation as to what was said at meetings which he did not attend and speculation about who did what in situations where he was not present. Posing questions is one thing, and that is entirely understandable and proper in the circumstances following these events. However, to make statements such as "It is fair to say that Mr. Marriott was sacked", as the noble Lord did, was irresponsible.

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary reported to another place: The present governor is today being removed from his duties at Parkhurst. Pending the outcome of the disciplinary investigation and any subsequent proceedings, he will not be running any other prison in the Prison Service. When he has completed any assistance that he needs to give to the various inquiries now in hand, he will take up non-operational duties elsewhere. Six members of staff, including one of governor grade, will also be temporarily transferred to duties at other prisons. Both these actions are without prejudice to the outcome of the disciplinary investigation".—[Official Report, Commons, 10/1/95; col. 33.] When the media, in the form of press, sound and television, reported that Mr. Marriott had been sacked, the director general and my right honourable friend the Home Secretary made it absolutely clear that that was not correct. The director general made it clear again before the Select Committee in another place. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister accounted publicly before the House. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has answered for his part in this matter before Parliament. The director general has accounted for his performance and his responsibilities to the Select Committee. As I stand here before the House, my right honourable friend is appearing before a Select Committee, too.

I find it distasteful in the extreme that the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, who is aware of the numerous public assurances, including the assurance that there is to be the Sir John Learmont review and disciplinary reviews, should insist that it will only be after assurances from me that he will accept these explanations.

So I am left with no alternative understanding of what the noble Lord is implying other than that the words of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, the words of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and the words of the Director General of the Prison Service are to be treated with great suspicion with the consequent slur on their characters and that I, a mere Minister of State at the Home Office, should be the only person whose word is to be accepted by the noble Lord. I believe that that is not in the honourable traditions of this House.

The noble Lord finds it amusing. He also made light, in the course of his speech, of the under-employment of Ministers in the Home Office. I want very quickly—and it will be very quickly, and will not be inclusive—to give a list of my own duties at the Home Office: the fire service, the probation service, race relations, charities, the Charity Commission, animals, dangerous dogs, pornography, obscenity, identity cards, data protection, animal research, constitutional matters including Euro-matters, race discrimination policy, religious discrimination policy, women's issues, coroners, by-laws, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, boundaries and electoral matters, civil defence and emergency planning. If that is being under-employed, I would invite the noble Lord not just to come and inspect my portfolio, but to inspect those of all the Ministers in the Home Office. I hope that we too will get the apology which he promised he would give if he were proved wrong.

In direct response to the Motion, perhaps I may make it clear—

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness will forgive me for a moment. Why was it possible a few decades ago to run the Home Office, on the whole so much more efficiently, with fewer junior Ministers?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am dealing with what the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, said. He implied that because there are five of us —the Home Secretary plus four at the Home Office—somehow or other we did not have enough work to keep us employed.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, I am very sorry indeed if I have misled the House in any way. That is certainly not what I said. I said very plainly that there has been a very substantial growth in the number of Ministers despite there being fewer responsibilities for the department. I juxtaposed that with the existence of the agency. With respect to the noble Baroness, she is getting unreasonably upset about perfectly legitimate criticisms of the Government of this country, just as it is unreasonable for her to say that I should ask her to answer all these questions when the Prime Minister appears in another place and cannot be asked questions here by noble Lords.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I think that I am doing my duty in defending the honour of my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. I base my information on facts, not press reports.

In direct response to the Motion, let me make it clear that the arrangements for policy-making, management and accountability in the Prison Service are clear. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is accountable for the Prison Service. The director general is responsible for the day-to-day management of the Prison Service. The director general is directly accountable to my right honourable friend for the Prison Service's performance and operations and is also his principal adviser on prisons policy matters. Governors are accountable to the director general through area managers who report to him through two operational directors.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, asked about the position of Ministers of State. I have already referred to them, but perhaps I should add specifically that the Minister of State who is responsible for prisons assists the Home Secretary with his responsibilities for the Prison Service under the framework document in the same way as he assists the Home Secretary with other responsibilities.

The distinction that I have set out between accountability and responsibility is fully consistent with the general position on ministerial accountability most recently expressed in the evidence by Sir Robin Butler to the Scott Inquiry. Ministers are accountable to Parliament for all the activities of their department, but that does not mean that a Minister is directly responsible for all the actions and decisions taken in his department. It has been accepted for many years that, while a Minister is accountable for all the actions of his department, he cannot be held personally responsible for all those actions.

The noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, was concerned about the acceptance of responsibility. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made it clear that if his policies were found to be responsible for an event like the attempted escapes from Whitemoor or if he failed to implement anything that he should have implemented, he would resign. That is entirely consistent with the line taken by previous Ministers, such as my noble friend Lord Prior.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, I am afraid that I am deeply confused by the noble Baroness. She said that the Minister is responsible but that he is not personally responsible. What does that distinction mean?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am saying that Ministers are responsible for the activities of any subject under their command, but they cannot be responsible for the individual actions of a prison officer, a prison governor or even—dare I say?—the director general. It would be for the Home Secretary or a Minister to be accountable. The chain is that I am accountable to the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary accounts to Parliament for the whole department and for all subjects within his remit. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, will know that no Home Secretary can be held personally responsible for the activities of a single individual who may be working in any one area of policy.

In the light of recent events, my right honourable friend has considered whether any change was necessary in the arrangements for the supervision of the Prison Service. A new unit has been set up in the Home Office to support Ministers in carrying out their duties in respect of the Prison Service in accordance with the agency's framework document. It is not intended as a substitute for the policy advice which is provided by the Prison Service to Ministers. It is a further step in the development of work which has been done since the Prison Service became an agency. The unit will be staffed by civil servants. The numbers will be entirely in line with the programme of work that is now being developed. The unit will report to Ministers and, of course, to the Permanent Secretary.

Let me turn now to the points which have been raised in the debate on the Prison Service generally. This debate clearly comes at a time when the Prison Service is under great pressure. There is no question but that recent events at Whitemoor and Parkhurst involved very serious breaches of security. They have damaged the credibility of the Prison Service in performing its basic task, that of serving the public by keeping in secure custody those committed by the courts. The Government and Prison Service are determined to learn from what went wrong and to put it right quickly and effectively.

Noble Lords have made it clear they are concerned about the Prison Service, and I understand their concern. Having said that, I believe that it is wrong and unhelpful to talk ourselves into thinking the Prison Service is in crisis. We should not ignore the progress the service has made in recent years. I should like to put recent events in perspective by saying something about the achievements of the Prison Service since 1979.

Physical conditions in our prisons have been transformed as a result of the most ambitious prison building and refurbishment programme since Victorian times. Twenty-one new prisons have been built since 1980, providing 11,285 new places at a cost of £1.2 billion; 13 of them have opened since 1991. Redevelopment of the existing estate has provided a further 7,500 places, mostly in new houseblocks. Another six new prisons are to be built with private sector finance. The first two, at Fazakerley on Merseyside and Bridgend in South Wales, are expected to open in 1997–98.

As a result of this sustained commitment to our prisons, over 95 per cent. of prisoners now have access to sanitation in their cell, compared to 46 per cent. in 1981. The service is on course to provide all prisoners with access to sanitation at all times by February 1996, the target recommended by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. That will mean an end to the much criticised practice of slopping out.

As recently as 1987, over 5,000 prisoners were sharing three to a cell designed for one prisoner. The practice of "trebling" was eliminated in 1994, and no prisoners have been held three to a cell since then. Furthermore, on 31st December 1994, 7,754 prisoners—that is, 16 per cent.—were held two to a cell designed for one. That is a far lower proportion than only a few years ago. All that has been achieved despite the very substantial rise in the prison population in the past two years, to which noble Lords have referred, and is due to the major building programme which has been, and is being, carried out.

The noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, queried the point about trebling—where three prisoners share a cell designed for one. The noble Lord was absolutely right to say that no prisoners have been held three to a cell designed for one since March 1994. The service's target for the current financial year, 1994–95, is to ensure that the average number of prisoners held three to a cell is fewer than the previous year. I have referred to three prisoners having to share a cell designed for one. There is no trebling at all now. In 1993–94, an average of 81 prisoners were held three to a cell. The service's target for 1994–95 was to do better than that. It has done so. No prisoners have been held three to a cell since then.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I do not want to interrupt the noble Baroness, but I do not understand what she has said. I shall, however, be content to read it in Hansard.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the point that the noble Lord ought to remember is that no prisoners are being held three to a cell. We hope that that will remain the case.

The pace of change and improvement has continued since the service became an executive agency in April 1993. Since then, there has actually been a 40 per cent. reduction in escapes; a 43 per cent. reduction in temporary release failures, and a 23 per cent. reduction in prisoners absconding. Prisoners are spending more time in purposeful activity founded on work, education and training. Until recently, it was not unknown for prisoners to spend 23 hours a day locked in their cells. Now, about half our prisons are unlocking prisoners for 12 hours or more on weekdays, and on average prisoners are spending over 26 hours a week engaged in purposeful activity. Furthermore, the average cost per prisoner place was actually reduced by 3 per cent. in real terms last year.

From what I have said, it will be clear that the Government are not backtracking, as some, including the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, have suggested, on the seminal report on prisons prepared by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the subsequent White Paper, Custody, Care and Justice. I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for the way in which he has recognised the Prison Service's achievements since his report was published. The White Paper, published in 1991, welcomed the Woolf Report and accepted almost all of its recommendations. Most of them have since been implemented. Progress has been made in all of the 12 areas identified by that White Paper as priorities.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the Government both recognised that a balance has to be struck between security and control on the one hand, and just and humane treatment of prisoners on the other. That philosophy is at the heart of the service's work, and is reflected in its statement of purpose. However, in the light of recent events—I stress those words—it is clear that the service's priority for the present must be to focus on basic security and security procedures. I make no apology for that.

To that end, the first task is to implement the recommendations of the report of Sir John Woodcock's inquiry into recent events at Whitemoor. The Home Secretary announced on 19th December that he had accepted all 64 recommendations in that report. A timetable for implementation will be published very shortly. In addition, the Home Secretary has appointed General Sir John Learmont to conduct a comprehensive review of security. The terms of reference for this review are: in the light of the report of the inquiry into the attempted escape from HM Prison Whitemoor on 9 September 1994, to review physical security and security procedures in the Prison Service in England and Wales, and to make recommendations". The Home Secretary has asked Sir John Learmont to report by December 1995 on progress made on the implementation of Sir John Woodcock's report. He has also asked Sir John Learmont to carry out an independent assessment of events at Parkhurst, and the findings of his reports will be published. Other immediate measures include security audits at all closed establishments, which are being carried out now.

The Learmont inquiry will not cut across the work of the inspectorate. The Learmont inquiry is to focus on one major aspect of the Prison Service's activities; that is, security. The inspectorate looks at the regime and conditions, including security, at specific establishments.

The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, was concerned about geophones. Parkhurst is undergoing a major programme of building work, including essential security work. The installation of a perimeter alarm system, including geophones, had to wait—that was on advice—until building work was complete. The Home Secretary was advised that the system would not have functioned effectively while that building work was under way. Work on installing a perimeter alarm system began on 5th December—as your Lordships know that was before the escape—and will be completed by March.

An independent disciplinary inquiry led by Sir David Yardley into events at Whitemoor is under way, and a separate disciplinary inquiry into the events at Parkhurst, led by the Deputy Chief Executive of the Scottish Prison Service, will start shortly.

Noble Lords have mentioned the circumstances surrounding the removal of the governor of Parkhurst. As a disciplinary inquiry will be taking place, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on that in any detail. I can confirm, however, that the decision to move the governor was taken by the Director General of the Prison Service, not the Home Secretary. I should also emphasise that that decision was taken for operational reasons, to ensure effective, undistracted management of one of our high security prisons. It does not in any way pre-judge the outcome of the forthcoming disciplinary inquiry.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, it is generally understood that the director general took that step at the firm suggestion of the Home Secretary. Is that incorrect? It is only understood.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am not sure what the noble Lord means by "firmly understood".

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, what the noble Earl, Lord Longford, put to the Minister was that it was generally understood that the Home Secretary had indicated firmly that it was his suggestion that the governor of Parkhurst should be removed. The noble Earl asked for the Minster's response to that suggestion.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Earl said that it was firmly understood. He did not say what the noble Lord has just said. The noble Earl said that something was firmly understood. Will the noble Earl repeat what he believed was firmly understood?

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, to the best of my recollection I said that the director general took that step at the suggestion of the Home Secretary. Is that correct or incorrect? That puts it in a simple form. The Minister has a lot on her mind. She could not understand the simple way in which I put it previously. That should be simple enough. Was that step taken at the suggestion of the Home Secretary?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it was not that I did not understand, it was that I did not hear. But I have heard now. I find it deeply depressing. I repeat that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, and the Director General of the Prison Service have all put the matter firmly on record in the formal annals of this House and in another place. Noble Lords have been persuaded by the press and the media. There is a readiness to understand the press and the media and not my right honourable friends.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, it is no good the Minister getting in a great state and telling us what does or does not depress her. Perhaps she will answer the perfectly simple question asked by the noble Earl, Lord Longford.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, noble Lords will have to forgive me for sounding a little irritated on this. I have said—and I have repeated what my right honourable friends have said—that the decision was taken by the director general. It was not interfered with, pre-empted, or predetermined by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. I do not know how many times I have to repeat that. It has been made clear on so many occasions that I can only believe that if any doubt arises, it arises from the popular press.

Mr Marriott's future will depend upon the outcome of the disciplinary investigation. Pending the outcome of that investigation, he will be carrying out other non-operational duties at Prison Service HQ. Any question of Mr Marriott's return to Parkhurst or any other prison is a matter for the director general at the appropriate time. No option is ruled out.

Let me now turn to other aspects of the Prison Service's work. In the coming year, in addition to security, the Prison Service will be implementing three key changes which have the common theme of meeting legitimate public expectations of what imprisonment should be like and improving protection of the public.

First, more rigorous criteria for the temporary release of prisoners were announced by the Home Secretary on 18th November. That will protect the public by setting tighter criteria for temporary release and ensuring that there is a fuller assessment of the risk to the public. I can give the House a categoric assurance that public safety will always be the paramount consideration in determining whether a prisoner should be granted temporary release.

In response to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, there is of course a place for temporary release in appropriate cases, but a balance needs to be struck, and the paramount consideration must at all times be the protection of the public.

Secondly, a system of incentives and sanctions for prisoners will be implemented across the service, to encourage prisoners to behave well and use their time in prison constructively. Prisoners will be required to earn facilities over and above the minimum through good behaviour and hard work. The facilities will be withdrawn if behaviour deteriorates. There is no confusion here. The policy is that of the Home Secretary, and the management of that policy will be the responsibility of the Prison Service.

Thirdly, a major new strategy is tackling drug abuse in prisons by reducing supply through better control and detection, including random urine testing, while reducing demand through support, education and counselling. I take all that has been said about improving all the counselling and other therapeutic methods that can be employed in the vexed area of treating prisoners.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, referred to performance indicators. The Prison Service's key performance indicators do not tell the whole story about the service's performance. A small number of key indicators cannot, by definition, cover all the service's activities. They cover, among other things, escapes, assaults, overcrowding, sanitation, regime activities, time unlocked, and cost per place. It is entirely right and proper that the service's performance in those areas should be monitored and that targets for improvements should be set by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

In terms of prison numbers, since 1989 the number of prison officers has increased by 4,000, while the prison population has increased by only 1,000.

After recent events, it is bound to take time to restore public confidence in the service. But the programme to improve security, and the other measures I have outlined, form a coherent and challenging programme of work which the Prison Service is determined to deliver.

In the words of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is proving to be resolute, firm and calm. I believe that he deserves the support of us all, particularly in this House, in this most difficult of policy areas.

5.28 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who felt it right to join in our short debate, although I am disappointed that there were no speakers from the Conservative Benches. I am sorry if questions got under the Minister's skin at any time, but in the last analysis it was up to her—because she said she was present at every meeting between the Home Secretary and the director general—to give a reply of her own to the question: did the Home Secretary make any suggestion at any time to the director general about Mr Marriott's future? It was a simple question, and it deserved a simple reply.

We are grateful to the Minister for being here. We took a great deal of interest in what she said. I hope that on some future occasion we will focus on what was the central question. It was put by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, when he said that the relationship of the Home Secretary to the Prison Service is difficult and delicate. We know that that is so. No speaker has suggested otherwise. We have all been trying to find a way out and a way ahead. If we have failed to do so, these are matters to which we shall return at a future time.

The Prison Service is passing through a critical and difficult time. Morale is low. The country is deeply disturbed by recent events. Perhaps today's debate has opened up the issues a little wider, even if it has not resolved them. In that light, I ask leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.