HL Deb 30 January 1996 vol 568 cc1304-7

2.46 p.m.

The Earl of Longford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will now cancel any instructions issued in 1995 regarding the handcuffing of prisoners.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, in his Statement of 18th January, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary set out new arrangements for the use of restraints on prisoners attending hospital. The Prison Service Director of Security, Mr. Tony Pearson, wrote to governors with details of those new arrangements the following day.

The message to governors said that the changes should be implemented immediately. An instruction to governors formally cancelling the 1995 amendments to the security manual affected by those changes will be issued as soon as possible and a copy will be placed in the Library.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I welcome the news that that restriction on pregnant women will be removed. Do I gather that men, and women who are not pregnant, will still be subjected to that brutal and obscene practice? I have frequently visited prisons and prisoners in hospital, but I have never been told that handcuffing was necessary. I visited Holloway last week. Can the Minister, who we all know is so humane, possibly justify that drivel?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, moving prisoners from one place to another involves risk. It involves the risk of prisoners escaping and risk to the public. It sometimes involves risk to the prisoners themselves. Following assessment of risk, it will be necessary into the mists of time for some prisoners to be restrained. Governors have the flexibility not to restrain prisoners. We have already accepted that when medical advice is such, it may override the need for security.

Lord Boardman

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that restraining prisoners to prevent them from escaping and damaging innocent victims is right and proper, and that police and warders should be given the appropriate powers to do that?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I absolutely agree. It is worth recording that 150 prisoners have escaped since 1988. In the course of escaping, they have used guns, sharp instruments and blunt instruments. They have physically overpowered staff. They have even engaged their friends from outside to help them escape. There will always be a need to restrain prisoners in those conditions.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, I am not quite clear about what the Minister was telling the House. Will she explain who takes the decision about the handcuffing of pregnant women prisoners who might want to escape? I find it difficult to believe that a pregnant woman about to give birth will get very far. Is it a Home Office Minister, the Home Secretary or the decision of the Prison Service? Is it a policy decision or an operational decision?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, there will be a professional assessment of risk by the prison officers themselves. We have made it clear that the security manual will be adjusted so that no pregnant prisoner admitted to hospital to give birth will be physically restrained from arriving at the entrance to the hospital, right the way through all the treatment, including post-natal treatment, to leaving the hospital entrance. However, there will be exceptional circumstances. One of those exceptional circumstances will be where a prisoner is at risk of self harm, of harming the baby, or of harming members of the medical staff.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, many noble Lords welcome the Minister's concession with regard to women in labour and immediately after the birth. However, can she assure the House about two matters: first, is it correct that in recent years there has been a considerable extension of the handcuffing of non-violent prisoners? Secondly, in the light of her reply to a question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, is the issue of whether a prisoner has a record of violence taken into account in the operational decision of whether to use handcuffs? In the past the handcuffing of non-violent prisoners did not appear to be necessary.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the issue was not always about non-violence. The assessment of risk includes the likelihood of a prisoner to escape using violence or not. This House takes the issue seriously. I know that I and my noble friend who held the post before me have had to face this House when prisoners have escaped. This House has been very critical of the Prison Service and in particular the Home Office after prisoners have escaped. There is a responsibility to ensure that prisoners do not escape, and therefore a violent record is not the only issue to be taken into account.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Minister said in an earlier answer that some prisoners must be restrained. Will she accept that we are bound to agree with that? However, is it not a presumption that female prisoners leaving prison for any purpose will be restrained—in other words, handcuffed—and is there not a conflict between that presumption and the need for a small minority to be restrained?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, no. In the consideration of the prison officer when leaving the prison with any prisoner, whether a woman or a man—that is, with the exception of pregnant women—the rules are applied equally between men and women. The concern must lie with the likelihood of the prisoner escaping, the likelihood of the prisoner using violence, the likelihood of risk to the public and the responsibilities of the prison officer who must escort a prisoner between one place and another. Those are the considerations that are taken into account.

It is true that governors have the flexibility to allow prisoners not only to be released for hospital visits but, under licence, to keep a hospital appointment without any escort and without any restraint whatever. It is also possible for prisoners to go escorted but not restrained. The risk assessment is a judgment of members of the Prison Service and the prison staff concerned. If the risk assessment is such then that prisoner will be restrained. I have to ask myself, as this Question has been pressed so many times, on whose side are noble Lords opposite?

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister accept that her explanation of policy is wholly satisfactory at least to some of us on this side of the House? Is she aware that when she draws the distinction between violence and the dedication to escape she is wholly right in believing that the most effective and dedicated escapers are usually non-violent?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend and I am grateful to him for his comments. They are pertinent to this Question.

Lord Howell

My Lords, may one ask a question on behalf of other hospital patients? As a result of these exchanges, will the Minister tell the House whether the Prison Service is now in charge of arrangements in our hospitals? I understand what the Minister has said and I appreciate the need to take action in appropriate cases. However, is she aware that it can be extremely depressing for other hospital patients, in particular for their visitors and children, to see people chained up in their ward? Will the Minister assure the House that the needs and rights of hospital patients are equally considered when these issues are determined?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I can think of hospital patients who would be very relieved to know that some people who go into hospital are restrained in some way. The particular point that the noble Lord raised is important. We and the Prison Service have accepted that it must defer to medical advice and therefore the Prison Service is not in charge of hospitals. If the medical advice is such the restraints are removed. We want to see a better working relationship between the Prison Service and the hospitals.