HL Deb 12 March 1996 vol 570 cc736-9

2.54 p.m.

Baroness David asked Her Majesty's Government:

On what basis cells at Eastwood Park prison were certified under Section 14 of the Prison Act 1952 as adequate for prisoners' physical and mental health.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, Section 14 of the Prison Act 1952 requires that "an inspector" should be satisfied that the size, lighting, heating, ventilation and fittings of a cell are adequate for health. The area manager responsible for Eastwood Park certified the cells, having considered that they met the requirements of Section 14 of the 1952 Prison Act.

Baroness David

My Lords, I am rather surprised at the Answer. However, can the Minister confirm that those battery hen cells are not only smaller than the 5½sq. m. specified in the Prison Service's operating standards but are also very badly designed, so that not only is the bookcase over the lavatory but you have to stand on the lavatory to get a book out of the case; to see into the mirror you have to kneel on the bed; the wash basin is largely inaccessible because of the grating over the pipes beside it; and there was no hot water when the prisoners moved in? Are there plans to improve those cells? Indeed, are they really going to continue to use them?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Baroness reads the newspapers and is more inclined to believe what they say than to check with the department, which could have put her right. Most of what the noble Baroness has just said is not true. The cells are exceptionally well laid out. The noble Baroness may have read that the bookshelf is inaccessible, but it is not a bookshelf, it is a shelf for the radio. It is where it is because that is where the electric plug is located. It is very accessible. There is, of course, a screen for the toilet and a screen for the sink. It is not true that the bed does not allow for the door to open. The door can open to a full 90 degree angle. Most of what the noble Baroness read from the Observer article—this is true of many other articles—was inaccurate. It was stated that the cells are 6 ft. square. They are not; they are 8 ft. 9 ins. by 6 ft. 2½ ins. Perhaps I should add that the third bedroom of many homes in this country is the same dimension as those cells.

Lord Finsberg

My Lords, is there not a very simple answer to the Question: if people do not commit crimes, they will not go to such places?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I absolutely agree. Furthermore, the courts do not lightly send women to gaol. If women are sent to gaol, there is usually a very good case for them being there.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that most people do not spend 23 hours a day in the third bedroom of their homes? Do the Government believe in complying with the European prison rules and with the UN's standard minimum conditions for detention? Do those cells comply with those two sets of criteria?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, these cells do not hold people for 22 hours a day. Again, that information from the newspapers is quite wrong. The cells at Eastwood Park are bedroom cells. Prisoners will be out of their cells from 8.30 a.m. and will return at 7.45 p.m., with just two 15-minute periods a day when there is a roll-call. The dimensions which the noble Lord mentioned are guidelines. The smallest of the cells in the prison are below the recommended standard by just 4 ins. on one side and 4 ins. on the other. That is what we are talking about. Furthermore, 37 cells in the prison are well above the average and there are segregation facilities and good hospital care facilities. Prisoners at Eastwood Park have moved from a prison where they spent more time in their cells; where there was a smaller dining area; no toilets in the cells; only a very basic and limited education provision; a split site gym which was closed for about half of the time; fewer visits per session; and two poorly converted rooms to provide health service facilities. The facilities at Eastwood Park are much much better than that.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is game, set and match?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, if the noble Lord means to me, I agree.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

My Lords, the Minister said that these are convicted prisoners, but surely many of them are on remand or are there for non-payment of fines and did not commit crimes. Is not that so? Is it not a fact that something like one-third of the prisoners contained in those tiny cells have not been convicted?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is not true that many are there because of non-payment of fines. We have done some checks and in any single day in the country between 11 and 18 prisoners in the whole of the prison estate are women non-payers of fines, with about three of them being non-payers of their television licences. The courts do not lightly remand people to custody—and certainly not women. The type of offence and whether the person is a persistent offender who has attracted the attention of the courts previously is taken into account. The women on remand at Eastwood Park are not held in cramped conditions. The cells are perceived as being bedrooms only. At the moment, no prisoner is at Eastwood Park for non-payment of fines.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, if the problem of unpaid fines is as negligible as the Minister suggests, why has the Home Secretary announced that he proposes to review that problem as a matter of urgency? Secondly, does the Chief Inspector of Prisons intend to produce a report on this establishment?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the inspector has been in. He has done an unplanned spot check. We shall see his report in a short time. As for non-payment of fines, we were talking about women prisoners. My answer was made in the context of women prisoners. Nevertheless it is an issue. The Home Secretary has considered that it may not be the most appropriate use of an expensive prison cell. He has asked for that to be looked into in conjunction with the Lord Chancellor's Department.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, does the Minister accept that after her helpful and expansive reply to my Question last night, her present answers are somewhat disappointing? Does she agree that it is not satisfactory to defend the cells at Eastwood Park by comparing them with the unsatisfactory accommodation at Pucklechurch from which the prisoners came? Will she confirm that, since it is now admitted that these prisoners are not necessarily convicted—many of them are on remand—a high proportion of prisoners on remand are not in the end given a custodial sentence?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, of course that is true. Perhaps I should be positive rather than negative and say what is available at Eastwood Park. I might preface my remarks by saying that the prison was opened only on 1st March and it is the 12th now. Inevitably some problems have arisen from the fact that the prison officers, who had agreed up to the point of the opening of the prison to a shift system, at the 11th hour withdrew that agreement. That caused initial problems. As I said, the prisoners will be out of the cells from 8.30 in the morning until 7.45 p.m. at night. They have much better dining facilities. They have toilets in their cells, and that is much more hygienic than chamber pots. The education facilities include a range of national vocational qualifications, courses in industrial cleaning, hairdressing, beauty salon work, pottery, literacy classes, basic skills classes, market gardening, polytunnels and landscaping. They have two gymnasiums, purpose-built visitors' accommodation and good healthcare facilities. I rest my case.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the Minister tell us whether the prison from which these prisoners came, which she has described in such graphic terms, is still in use?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, no it is not. In that prison the cells were 8 ft. by 8 ft. for two prisoners. This prison has cells which are 8ft. 9 ins. by 6ft. 2½ ins. for one prisoner.

Baroness David

My Lords, did not the previous Chief Inspector of Prisons, Judge Tumim, condemn the plans for the prison before the conversion was made?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, that was the case, but that judgment was made long before the prison was ready and long before it was opened. It was also made in the absence of knowing what would be the regime. It is important, and I believe it to be right, to say that these are bedroom cells. They are slightly below average, and they will be acceptable only if they go with a good, purposeful activity regime. That is in place, and that is what will be the case.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does my noble friend realise that the most encouraging and reassuring thing that she has said is the length of time out of cell? If those standards can be extended throughout the Prison Service, and the time out of cell used constructively, that will be an enormous advance.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, yes.

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