HL Deb 13 January 1997 vol 577 cc17-9

3.36 p.m.

The Earl of Longford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the present requirements for visitors to prisons to prove their identity when an appointment with a prisoner has been arranged.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, all visitors to prisons are liable to be asked to prove their identity. All visitors to Category A prisons whether official or social must show proof of identity. For Category B or C prisons all official visitors must show proof of identity, and for family and friends visiting prisoners that is also increasingly required.

In order to improve consistency the security manual is being revised and will make it clear that all visitors to all closed prisons must provide adequate identification.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, does the Minister realise that those who visit prisons will think that hers is the most astounding Answer given during the course of these past few years? I have visited prisons for over half a century. I have visited twice a week. I visited three times last week. Is the Minister aware that one is not always asked to prove one's identity? I can speak from personal experience only. Is she aware that one is sometimes asked to do so? One may be asked to produce a bus pass with a picture of oneself—beautiful or otherwise—on it. That may or may not be sufficient. In some cases, yes; in some cases no. In one case the governor of a prison that I had visited for many years had to be called in before I was allowed into the prison. Perhaps I may suggest to the Minister, with the greatest possible respect, that were she to make a few inquiries she would find that she has been talking absolute nonsense this afternoon.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it will not be the first time that the noble Earl has accused me of talking nonsense across the Dispatch Box. This is a serious point. Identifying people entering prisons is a serious matter. From time to time not everyone will recognise the noble Earl, although he has an impressive and long record of visiting prisons. Not all prison officers will know him by sight, and therefore they will ask for identification. One of the issues is that each governor is allowed local discretion as to how that is to be done in practice. Therefore sometimes people will be asked for identification. Sometimes it will be a bus pass that will be looked at, and sometimes they will need corroborative evidence; in other words, another form of identification will have to be provided as well. Perhaps I may refer the noble Earl to my first reply. I said that it is a requirement at Category A prisons. It is also carried out, although not in every case, at other closed prisons. The intention is that it should be a requirement at all closed prisons.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, as far as I can understand it, the Minister has advised the House that it will be up to the local governor's discretion as to what is required to prove identity. It is surely likely to cause problems for people visiting prisons if they do not know beforehand what is likely to be required. Surely it would make much more sense were there to be a centralised national list of the type of things that could be used to prove one's identity when visiting prisons.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point about consistency. We believe that there is a case for consistency and that is why the manual is being revised. We believe that there is probably too much discretion at governor level. It is not always the case that an individual visiting a prison understands precisely what is required of him. We believe, first, that people should be made aware of what is required of them when they visit a prison in order that they can be better prepared and, secondly, that there is a case for more consistency.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Minister's indication that the manual is to be revised is good news. However, would it not be sensible during that revision to ensure that, for example, probation officers and members of boards of prisoners are provided with identification which will be instantly acceptable and recognised? Furthermore, although my noble friend's Question is about proof of identity, does the Minister accept the concern in particular of probation officers about the extraordinary degree of searching of official visitors such as probation officers and prison visitors?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the case for probation officers is not that they should have some form of identification—they are expected to have that when they visit prisons—but that they should be exempt from the normal searches of people entering prisons. There are two particular reasons for such searches. The first is to prevent illicit substances and perhaps weapons from entering prisons. It is no good us wringing our hands and saying that drugs and even weapons get into our prisons without ensuring that all visitors, whether professional or not, are subject to searches. The second is that we need to offer protection to such people, particularly probation officers, who might be intimidated and have pressure put upon them to take in illicit substances. If there were a known category of people who are exempt from such searches it is possible that prisoners will exploit that situation. It is as much for their protection as anything else that they should be subject to searches, which is the subject of their complaints to the Prison Service.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, would the Minister think that I was mischievous if I were to suggest that the noble Earl might sometimes find difficulty in obtaining admission to prisons not because they have not recognised him but because they have?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I believe that it would be diplomatic of me not to comment on that.

Lord Annan

My Lords, when will it be necessary to shackle the noble Earl when he visits prisons, since it has been reported that a prisoner died in shackles?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I shall ignore the first part of that question. The second part relates to a serious issue which is being investigated. It is the subject of an inquiry and it is, of course, the subject of another Question.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords—

Noble Lords: Order! Time!

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