HL Deb 09 June 1997 vol 580 cc808-26

6.4 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are yet in a position to reconsider plans for cutting the prison and probation services in view of the prospective large increase in the number of prisoners.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, like other speakers, I am confined to 11 minutes, but tomorrow is another day, as is the day after that and the day after that, so the House will no doubt wish to consider these matters much more closely on a future occasion.

I am happy that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, is to reply to the debate. I am told by an expert friend of his that the noble Lord's heart is in the right place, whatever that may mean. I only hope that the Minister will allow his tongue to wag freely in the interests of his heart. I am also pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, is to speak. Apart from myself—I am not exactly sure of the competition—no one has visited more prisons than the noble Lord, Lord Graham, who thus speaks with much authority on these matters.

In the short time available I shall speak very crudely and almost in shorthand. The choice is simple now: are we to return to the procedures that led to a steady improvement in the lot of prisoners and to a more humane treatment of them (which progress was presided over in later years by six Conservative Home Secretaries), or are we to continue with what I am afraid I have had to call "Howardism"? I never kick a man when he is down—

Noble Lords

Go on!

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, no. I am too timid and I may get kicked back. I do not want to risk anything. I never kick a man when he is down—although I have called the previous Home Secretary "The Prince of Darkness" and I offer him the consolation that Satan is generally regarded as the real hero of Paradise Lost. I hope that that will be some consolation to him in these difficult times.

As I have said, the choice is simple: are we to return to that more humane, kinder and more constructive treatment, which led to improvements in the living standards of prisoners, or are we to continue with the practices of the past four years and with the philosophy of "prison works" and that it works all the better if prisons are made nastier for prisoners?

What are the facts today? We understand from official figures that the prison population has increased from about 40,000 to about 60,000 in the past few years. If present policies were pursued—I hope, of course, that they will not be—the prison population would reach 74,500 according to official estimates. Other estimates put the figure much higher. At any rate, that is an enormous increase in the number of prisoners. What are the Government doing about it? They are cutting the provision per prisoner. There is to be a total reduction of 25 per cent. in the Probation Service's budget in the next few years. I know that we shall be told that the total amount that is spent on prisons will increase. Well, one would expect that given that vast increase in the number of prisoners, but in terms of the provision for the effective treatment of prisoners, there are to be cuts. Those cuts are bitterly resented in every prison that I have visited—and I visit two a week. That is the situation today.

In the time available I cannot quote all the various organisations that have expressed their horror to me. However, the Prisons Affairs Consortium has expressed its concern about the "cuts", as it calls them. Likewise, the Probation Service and the Prison Officers' Association have expressed similar concerns. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, may well speak for those bodies and will do so with great authority. An unprecedented burden is being placed on prison officers.

As I have said, there is a simple choice. I am not asking the Government to come up with a dramatic announcement today after only a few weeks in office. The most that I can hope for is that the Government will show some sign that they are aware of the problems created by "Howardism" and that they are leaning in the direction of better things.

I hope that I have never suggested in this place that prison reform is a party question. The roll of honour contains names like Sir Winston Churchill, who became the greatest Conservative Prime Minister, but was a Liberal before the First World War, Lord Templewood and the former Home Secretary, Lord Butler, on the Conservative side. On the Labour side one had Baroness Wootton, Lord Gardner and the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, who was a Labour Home Secretary. Since then he has been the leader of at least two other parties. Therefore, credit for so-called prison reform has been widely spread.

Today we face with equanimity—perhaps others face it with alarm—quite a few years of Labour rule. I address myself particularly to the Labour Government that is to preside over us for a few years yet. During the debate on the Address I said that I drew encouragement from the fact that eight—I believe I said six—members of the present Cabinet were members of the Christian Socialist Organisation. That must mean something; it cannot mean nothing. They gain nothing in their own lives from that except spiritual advantage. Therefore, there are eight Cabinet Ministers who are Christian socialists. They include the Prime Minister and, most relevantly, Mr. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary. What are we to expect of him?

A recent article in the Howard League magazine contained the heading "From Longford to Straw". The only relevance of that was that in 1964 I chaired a committee set up by the then Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Harold Wilson, to draw up plans for penal reform, most of which were carried out later. They included the introduction of parole and the abolition of capital punishment. That was the so-called Longford Committee of 1964. I do not believe that the Howard League magazine was trying to be complimentary to Mr. Straw by the use of the words "From Longford to Straw", but I draw a different conclusion. I think of St. John the Baptist who said, I must decrease and He must increase". I must decrease almost to the point of invisibility, and I hope that Mr. Straw will go on from strength to strength, always remembering that he comes before us as a Christian. I hope that he will never forget one of the key passages in the Gospels that the Son of Man has come to seek and to save those who are lost.

6.12 p.m.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, some 10 years ago when I was a shy, retiring, self-effacing and recently appointed Lord of Appeal in Ordinary I was seduced by my noble and learned friend Lord Brightman to take part in debates on sentencing. He did so because he told me that judges were constantly being attacked and there was no one to defend them. He was quite right. That was the tone of that particular era. It was exacerbated by misleading reports in the newspapers from time to time as to exactly what judges had done.

I recall a case some years ago that gave rise to extensive headlines which condemned a High Court judge for sentencing to 20 years' "imprisonment" a boy of 16 for "mugging" a middle aged man in Birmingham. Such was the violence of the criticism in the press that there were demands in the Commons for the judge's resignation or dismissal. The boy had not been sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment, or any period of imprisonment; he had been sentenced by reason of his age to detention. The period of 20 years was fixed pursuant to Section 53(2) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 and provided merely for the maximum period of his detention. The place in which and the period for which the sentence had to be served were matters at the discretion of the Home Secretary.

The boy had not been sentenced for mugging but for attempted murder. Indeed, he had pleaded guilty to that crime. He and two or three other youths had at night knocked down a man in a dark passageway, robbed him and left him lying on the ground. The boy thus sentenced had gone back not once but twice and had sought to finish off the man with a brick. He had very nearly succeeded. The victim was unconscious for 10 days and spent seven weeks in hospital. He was discharged with permanent damage to his brain, hearing and one eye. The Court of Appeal upheld and commended the sentence. The boy was a dangerous psychopath who might need years of treatment before he could be safely discharged from detention. Needless to say, the publicity that the Court of Appeal's decision received was in comparison minuscule.

Following on these criticisms, eventually the Government in 1990 issued the White Paper Crime, Justice and Protecting the Public. The Government were anxious to promote punishment in the community. It was said in the White Paper: It was once believed that prison, properly used, could encourage a high proportion of offenders to start an honest life on their release. Nobody now regards imprisonment, in itself, as an effective means of reform for most prisoners …For most offenders, imprisonment has to be justified in terms of public protection, denunciation and retribution. Otherwise, it can be an expensive way of making bad people worse. The prospects of reforming offenders are usually much better if they are in the community provided the public are properly protected". It was on the basis of that White Paper that the Criminal Justice Act 1991 came into being.

It is clear from the terms of that Act, in particular Section 1, that imprisonment was to be the punishment of last resort. The seeds for turning in a contrary direction were sown by the then Home Secretary in a speech to the party faithful in 1993. He said then: More convictions and longer sentences, more people will go to prison. I do not flinch from that. No longer shall we judge our system of justice by a fall in the prison population. Let's be clear: prison works". Those words produced a much harsher climate. As a result, the prison population has increased by 50 per cent., from 40,000 to 60,000. There was an earlier forecast that by the year 2005 the prison population would reach 59,900. We have surpassed that with seven years to spare.

I listened to the secretary-general of the Prison Governors Association address a committee in this House last week. He said that the weekly prison population was increasing by 250 to 300. Your Lordships will recall the publicity that surrounded the prison ship imported from America at vast expense. To my recollection, that was able to house 500 prisoners. Based on the present weekly increase in prisoners, we shall require two prison ships a month. Very soon no doubt a flotilla of prison ships will ring the south coast.

The population has caused the prisons to reach saturation point. According to the secretary-general, obviously it has impacted upon the system's ability to provide the necessary facilities for rehabilitation.

How are we to get back to a saner, more sober and balanced view of our penal policy, which for the moment is in a mess? In the short term we must persuade the public that their protection is far better achieved by a more efficient use of limited resources: first, more effective policing—the risks of detection are accepted to be the best deterrence; and, secondly, more effective rehabilitation means being provided in prison—better education and training so that the prisoner returns with a good prospect of successfully entering the labour market.

The most important input the Government should seek at the moment is the views of the prison governors. They have an intimate knowledge of those who in their view would be better off being treated in the community and those who for reasons of persistency or danger should be locked up. They will have views upon whether the present system has any real deterrent value, which is considerably doubted, and whether the rehabilitative prospects are being cut down by the overcrowding and the reduction in money spent on prisons. They will be able to give the Government a clear view of the ways in which the rehabilitative process can be improved.

In the long term provision must be made for a comprehensive reassessment of a rational penal policy. Some two years ago a letter was sent to The Times with the impressive signatures of Professor Seán McConville. Sir Louis Blom-Cooper, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, Professor Anthony Bottoms, Lord Callaghan, Sir Ralph Gibson, John Harding, Lord Hunt, Professor Terence Morris, Brendan O'Friel and Lord Runcie. The letter was sent on the 100th anniversary of the report of the Gladstone Committee on Prisons. It stated: Tomorrow (10 April) [1995] marks the centenary of the submission to the Home Secretary Herbert Asquith of the Gladstone Committee's Report on Prisons. This Committee propagated the twin philosophies of deterrence and rehabilitation, which greatly influenced penal affairs for much of the twentieth century. In recent years, however, both the question of rehabilitation and the issue of deterrence have become highly problematic, as has their relationship. The use of punishment by society needs careful consideration, as does the value of imprisonment". It went on to say: We think the time is ripe for an overview, on the scale of the Gladstone inquiry, to propound a sound and authoritative penal philosophy for the twenty-first century". The letter's authors went on to suggest that that could be done by a royal commission. That might be looked upon as having a number of advantages. I suggest that the Advisory Council on the Penal System which was set up in 1966 be set up again. For over 10 years it made a significant contribution to the formulation of policy and was a valuable instrument for identifying and suggesting changes in penal policy and practice. I have already said that penal policy is at the moment in a mess. Urgent action should be taken to rectify it.

6.25 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for initiating this short debate. There is no need to rehearse the facts about the pressure in the prison system from a numbers point of view. Alongside the increase in numbers of those being detained, equally devastating is the need for constant efficiency savings, as required by the Treasury—some 5 to 6 per cent. is looked for over the next three years.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, said, prison governors find themselves under enormous pressure merely in managing the system as it is. My experience as Bishop to Prisons visiting chaplains in various establishments up and down the country indicates that the soft targets for much of that efficiency saving are education and probation—actually working with inmates.

Despite the difficulties, over recent years the Prison Service has worked hard to put money back into the system to reopen and develop workshops, to cover incentive payments for prisoners demonstrating good behaviour and to finance drug and sex offender programmes. The Prison Service in recent years has made its first systematic attempt to introduce programmes concerned with the real reduction of offending.

Most people acknowledge that prisons work best where prisoners get up and know that they are going to work. The work ethic is important in the prison world. If all that comes under threat with the pressures of overcrowding, when prisoners are continually moved between different establishments, it of course demoralises prison staff working with inmates.

The Prison Service desperately needs a period of calm and stability. The issue that comes across to me is whether the Prison Service is to be allowed to work with prisoners. We must not let that go in the name of overcrowding or efficiency savings and concentrate merely upon the business of warehousing inmates. What I hope will come out of the debate is a commitment by the Government to look again at the pressures on the system, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner and the noble Earl, Lord Longford, have mentioned, and at the difficulty of the efficiency cuts.

If we turn out from prisons those who are still embittered, those who have not come to terms with their offences and often with themselves, we serve our society badly. The real hope in the Prison Service is to build upon the dedication and commitment of prison staff, particularly those in education and probation who are working effectively with prisoners to address their problems, so that they go out much better than they went in. I hope that the Government will look again at their own targets and allow the Prison Service to manage its own service and commitment.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I rise to speak in the debate having been in Parliament for 23 years. Twenty years were served in Whips' offices in both Houses. I feel somewhat like a prisoner on release; I feel liberated. The freedom of the Back Benches gives me an opportunity, without deep commitment, to express views that I have held for a long time. The first that I wish to put on record is the indebtedness of this House to the noble Earl, Lord Longford. He has a reputation for and a lifetime of service in not only trying to improve the penal estate to make it more humane and sincere but in seeking to rehabilitate prisoners and to improve their lives, those of their families and society. We owe a great debt to him.

Those who work in the prison service do society's dirty work. They face potentially dangerous men and women every minute of every working day. Even in Northern Ireland and beyond, they deserve far more support and understanding. I have high hopes that we shall receive that from this Government and from my noble friend. I speak from a former close contact with the Prison Officers' Association. That body of men and women is often much maligned, yet it has a proud record of public service which I have often witnessed. For the life of me, I fail to understand how prison officers can do their job when the tools with which to do it—workshops, education, sports facilities and social life—are reduced while prison numbers rise.

I believe that regimes in prisons are being damaged due to the highest prisoner population on record. It is a combination of more prisoners, budget cuts and fewer staff which will exacerbate the fragile nature of the service. In my view, a delicate balance is involved in the exercise of sympathetic control which can easily go out of kilter. No one should underestimate the potential for disruption. More urgently, there is a need for a strategy to reduce the prisoner population. That is an essential requirement. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, referred to that, saying that in his view there is a need not only to rethink but to reassess exactly what we are doing.

This House has debated alternative strategies on a number of occasions. I believe that there are at least four ways in which we can help to make prison life easier not only for prison officers but for prisoners. There is an urgent requirement to examine the remand prisoner population. That would be a useful first step. The Government should consider introducing the 110-day rule, as exists in Scotland. The removal of fine defaulters is a crying urgency, as is an examination of the mentally ill and their transfer out of the penal system and examining the mentally disturbed with a view to their transfer into community care. Briefly, within those four areas alone there is tremendous potential to reduce the prison population significantly. Such an enduring reduction would provide permanent relief to the prison service and its beleaguered staff.

The financial savings would be enormous and would enable the service and the Government to focus more critically on the needs of the prison service. I see sitting on the Front Bench beside my noble friend the Minister the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, who I know worked tirelessly in another place on behalf of the Prison Officers' Association. Therefore, those in the prison service—whether governors, officers, probation officers or educationists—are not alone, without friends in either House. I very much hope that tonight the Minister can give the House some hope.

6.34 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilion

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for bringing to your Lordships' House today this very important and complex question. I have at the moment the privilege of chairing for the Howard League an inquiry about young girls aged 15 to 17 years in prison. The members of the committee have visited the establishments where these girls are. I have recently been to several prisons. The inquiry will report later this year. I hope that the Minister will be able to give some good news this evening. I am sure that what I found in most of the prisons visited can be echoed throughout the country in both male and female establishments.

The prison population is around 65,380, rising all the time. The courts go on sending people to prison without knowing that the prisons are full. The system runs from crisis to crisis, with governors and staff getting bogged down with paper work and not being able to be around and about the prisons keeping a close eye on everything that goes on. Many prisons lock up the prisoners from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. With prison work, one has to have hope; hope that the prisoners will be treated with humanity and become useful, law-abiding citizens. This cannot happen if services are continually being cut.

In prisons there are many violent offenders—about 63 per cent.—and persistent offenders. But about 37 per cent. are not violent. Should not these prisoners perhaps be doing community service? Drugs and drug-related crime have become a scourge and a problem of society. About 65 per cent. of prisoners have some form of drug involvement. There are and have been some very helpful and worthwhile drug rehabilitation projects in some prisons. One prisoner who has been through treatment and is now a counsellor frequently writes to me from prison with progress reports. He is now an expert, having studied and worked hard, and is helping others to help themselves in avoiding addiction.

Those services are very important and should continue and develop. Detoxification services are patchy throughout the country. Last week at the All-party Penal Affairs Group a prison governor told us that when prisoners with a drug problem ask, "Please help me", and all he can say is, "I have no resources", he feels impotent. What hope is there in that kind of situation? Drugs also seem to have increased the bullying in prisons. In busy prisons, with prisoners coming in and going out and with staff morale low, the naïve first-offender prisoner who is not street wise is very much at risk.

The kind of services most likely to be cut are those which are contracted out, such as education and probation. Many of the young offenders are drop-outs from school. They need extra classes, such as good parenting, catering and life skills, as well as the three Rs. Many of these young people have not had such skills given to them by their parents. Many come from problem backgrounds. Many come from care and, sadly, were abused before and while in so-called care. The tragedy is that if there had been more welfare provision in schools picking up vulnerable children before they dropped out and turned to crime there might not be such a problem now.

When visiting prisons, I felt concerned that probation officers were working with reduced person power. In some prisons, relationships with prison officers and probation officers were good but in others there seemed to be little co-operation and communication. There was not a good team approach. Perhaps that is due to the different way in which prisoners are regarded.

The Probation Service is so important with the through-care which it provides. That is vital if prisoners are to be resettled in the community and stay out of trouble. In December 1995, there were 639 probation officers working in prisons. In December 1996, the number had been cut to 543. That seems very unwise in view of the increase in the number of prisoners. I am sure that your Lordships will listen with particular interest when the Minister tells us what are the plans for the Probation Service.

I have two specific questions for the Minister. If he cannot answer them this evening, perhaps he will write to me. At New Hall Prison, near Wakefield, there is a farm attached to the prison where prisoners work. Farm and horticultural work can be extremely therapeutic. Because of their work on that farm, several prisoners have been able to obtain work. It was rumoured that the farm may have to close. That would be a pity because it would do away with a healthy occupation which can help to rehabilitate prisoners and help them to find work.

The other concern I have is in relation to the prison health service. Will the Government look into that? There are many prisoners with serious health conditions; increasing numbers have mental health problems. They are being dumped in prison as no one else wants them. Would the prison health service not be better as part of the National Health Service? This year, I spent my birthday visiting Holloway Prison. It was an interesting day. I found that there are not adequate facilities to cope with prisoners who have personality disorders.

I have been amazed by the number of young children involved in prison life: either babies within the prisons or older children who are visiting their parents. Some prisons are doing the best they can but visiting facilities are extremely crowded. It could be said that some prisons are bursting at the seams. There are very positive and dedicated people giving their time and energy to the prisons, both in statutory and voluntary work. But it would be a very serious and retrograde step if no attempt made to improve services and an insufficient number of probation officers were employed to cope with the ever-increasing through care. Also, we must be able to develop more initiatives in the community.

I hope that the Minister will give your Lordships hope this evening so that morale is raised. That would help with the escalating problems to be found in our prisons. I hope also that he will put crime prevention high on the agenda.

6.44 p.m.

Lord Acton

My Lords, as there are some minutes to spare, I should like, with the leave of the House, to say a few words in the gap. Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether the Government have any plans to give one person responsibility for women prisoners. That was the case in the 1950s and early 1960s, when an assistant prison commissioner had responsibility for women prisoners and Borstal girls. I suggest that it would be a very good plan to restore such a position.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, perhaps I may associate myself in particular with the tribute paid by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, to the noble Earl, Lord Longford. I tried to think of the word which best described him and I came up with the word "irrepressible". He is irrepressible both in terms of his energy at his age and more particularly in the persistence and commitment which he brings to the issues that we are discussing this evening. He has the added quality that he is right at least nine times out of 10. That is a far better average than most of us can ever hope to achieve. Therefore, I am very grateful, as are other noble Lords, to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for enabling us to debate these matters this evening.

I am pleased also that it has given the opportunity to the noble Lord, Lord Graham, to break his silence. I have heard him (or not heard him) for many of the 23 distinguished years that he has spent in one House or another. I hope that now he is released from some of the obligations of the past, we shall hear from him more frequently.

This is very early in the life of the new Home Secretary and, as the noble Earl, Lord Longford, said, we cannot expect any dramatic announcement by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, on the Home Secretary's behalf. It is too soon to hear from the Home Secretary a considered view of all his duties. But I hope that he will soon be able to put on record—and put on record first in Parliament—at least a statement of the principles which will inform many of the decisions which he will be required to make during his period in office.

This evening, we approach this debate in a spirit of gentle probing and a friendly airing of anxieties. But a period of grace for any Home Secretary does not last long. Towards the end of this year we may return rather more critically to some of the issues which we are discussing this evening.

Many noble Lords have referred already to the extent to which the catchphrase "Prison Works" is proved not to be the case at all. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, was right to add the corollary as regards the previous Home Secretary, who seemed to think that prison worked especially if you made it nastier. All the evidence is that, if prison is made even nastier, it will work even less well. That has been the spirit of much that has been said on all sides of the House, including by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln.

I was struck recently by the remarks of the Penal Affairs Consortium, when it said: Reducing reoffending by the effective rehabilitation of offenders should be seen as a central part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce crime". We return again to that old word "rehabilitation", which was referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner. I believe that that word itself deserves to be rehabilitated. It has been out of fashion but nothing better expresses what our penal system should be about. I hope that when in due course the Home Secretary makes a speech to reflect the spirit of his period in office, he will incorporate the idea of rehabilitation in what he says.

I was delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, made some passing remarks about the Probation Service because I thought it might be neglected in this debate. But as your Lordships will remember, we had a most important debate on 5th April 1995, introduced by the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, about the Government's proposals on education and training of probation officers, and we returned to the matter on 5th December 1995 on a Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale. I remind the Minister that that Motion was carried by 108 votes to 85 and it would have been 107 votes if the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, had not voted for the Motion.

I have no need to remind him of what the Motion said but it made a very important point about the form that the training and education of probation officers should take, despite the Probation (Amendment) Rules 1995, which had not found general favour with the House.

I shall not ask the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, to say "Yes" to the following points that I make this evening but I hope that he will bear them in mind and pass on the message. First, I believe that the Home Secretary should call a halt to the changes which have been introduced following the unsatisfactory Dews report. Secondly, I hope that he will implement the spirit of our debate on 5th December on that Motion, which was nevertheless compatible with the order which was passed by your Lordships' House. Thirdly, will he urgently review the whole question of education and training? I hope he will conclude that it is time for a new and different approach than was embodied in decisions of the Government of that time, or that at least he will institute a review to discover whether that is the case.

On the question of prisons, a number of your Lordships have referred to the acute crisis—that is what it is—that is being caused by the growth in the prison population. In the debate on the Address, I gave the figure for the prison population on the previous Friday as 60,431. We are debating the Prison Service three weeks precisely after that debate on the Address and the figure for last Friday is 60,855; in other words, there has been an increase of 424 in three weeks. The prison population is growing by 140 a week. That is fewer than the figure referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, as the figure given by the director general of the Prison Service. However, I am happy to rest on the figure as we have found it to be in the past three weeks. I know that the noble Earl has in mind the suggestion that the prison population will rise to 74,500 by the year 2005. That is the official estimate. However, on the growth in the prison population in the past three weeks, we shall reach that figure in precisely two years' time. That adds strength to the vivid expression of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, that we shall need a flotilla of prison ships to deal with such growth in the prison population.

That is one of the issues with which the Home Secretary must deal urgently. However, I ask him also to look urgently at the whole question of the relationship of the Home Secretary with the Prison Service. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln referred to the service requiring a period of calm and stability. I do not disagree with that but a period of calm and stability depends on the view the Home Secretary takes of his relationship with the Prison Service. In an interview he gave to the Independent newspaper 10 days after his appointment, the Home Secretary is reported as saying—he has not denied this—that, he would take full responsibility for the prisons—no more Howard-like ducking and weaving about what is policy and what is operational". What does that mean? Does it mean the Home Secretary is now responsible for all operational decisions? Is he prepared to answer to the House of Commons on everything at Question Time? If that is the case, I think it is madness. We shall find ourselves calling for his resignation at least half a dozen times a year. That will be no reflection on the present Home Secretary but on the nature of his relationship with the Prison Service and on the sort of problems that every Home Secretary has to deal with. There is no point in having an executive agency if the Home Secretary is to take full responsibility for the Prison Service—as, apparently, he claims to do—and if there is to be no more confusion about what is policy and what is operational.

I do not deny that this is a difficult question. However, we need a full and early statement from the Home Secretary about the precise relationship he envisages with the Prison Service. I suggest that he makes that statement to Parliament so that Parliament can give its implicit approval to the new relationship and there will be less argument in the future about what that relationship is.

If the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, has not yet looked at the annual report of the Home Office for 1997 that was published in March—I would not blame him if he has not—I suggest that he looks at it and the figures that it contains. I believe that in this and many other matters the Chancellor of the Exchequer was foolish to endorse the previous Government's expenditure plans. How do the Government intend to fund the growth in the prison population when the report that was published only in March indicates that £80 million more will be needed in the current financial year to meet the growth in the prison population now envisaged on present trends? I also ask the Minister to reflect on the fact that, given the growth in the prison population, we shall need 5,000 more places in certified accommodation to meet the growth in the population which is now anticipated. The figures do not add up. Therefore, either we shall have to spend more despite what the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said, or there will have to be shifts in the spending under the Home Office heading.

A catastrophe is in the making. The growth in the prison population will have grave consequences for security in prisons. We shall see an explosion of Strangeways proportions. It will have a severe effect on prison staff, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln and the noble Lord, Lord Graham, have said. We shall see a minimum of education and training. We shall have a more dangerous and crime ridden country, not one that is less so. I hope that the Home Secretary will look immediately at these issues, because the noble Earl, Lord Longford, is right; we are facing the most critical situation in penal history. Something must be done.

6.56 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, referred to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, as irrepressible. I certainly go along with that description. However, I say affectionately to the noble Earl that I would use the word "incorrigible". I have been at the receiving end of such Questions as these for some years now. The noble Earl is greatly committed to this cause. I warn the Minister that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, will not go away on this matter.

This is, of course, a Question for the Government and not for me. It is an interesting Question in view of the reference I made to the present Home Secretary when responding to the Queen's Speech. I referred to him as someone who throughout the election campaign—which was successful for him—was running for the prize of "out-toughing" the Tories. That is all very well, as are warm words about what needs to be done, and putting some meat on the bones as regards the criticism of the previous Government. However, the Chancellor has said there is no more money over and above the expenditure plans of the previous Government. Already we have heard promises of more money for education, social services, regional government, devolution, added bureaucracies, the environment, and, only today at Question Time, housing. Something will have to give. The Minister will no doubt talk about things that need to be done but how will they be paid for?

I must refer briefly to the Probation Service. I was proud to hold the portfolio for that service as a member of the previous Government. I note the question that was raised in that regard by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. I had a personal commitment to the training of probation officers. Much progress has been made. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, shared that concern and he has told me that he was pleased with the progress that was being made. Is that work to be undone, stopped, curtailed in some

way or not proceeded with? I hope that it will be proceeded with. I was also proud to belong to a government who put in place national standards for the Probation Service which were welcomed. Progress is being made on meeting those standards.

No doubt in the course of the winding-up speech by the Minister we shall be told that crime doubled under the previous Government. Therefore perhaps noble Lords will allow me to give the history of recorded crime since the 1950s. I use Home Office figures. For the purposes of the statistics, I exclude crime damage below £20. Recorded crime in the 1950s rose by 57 per cent., an average in each year of the 1950s of 4.62 per cent. In the 1960s it rose by 107 per cent., an average in each year of that decade of 7.57 per cent. In the 1970s, it rose by 59 per cent., an average in each year of that decade of 4.72 per cent. In the 1980s it rose by 56 per cent., an average in that decade of 4.54 per cent.; and in the 1990s, there was the lowest increase of all, 31 per cent., an average in each of the years in that decade of 3.97 per cent. The previous Government presided over a reduction in crime in the past four years of 10 per cent.; and that was due to the effective work of the police, community partnerships, and the introduction of technology.

No doubt we shall also be told that what really matters is detection. It is argued that the criminal is deterred by the fear of being caught. I wish that that were true. Too many people who walk into court and are found guilty walk out not terribly afeared by what has happened to them in court. I am afraid that too many people regard the punishment as not really worth worrying about when committing the next crime. The reconviction rates are testament to that.

There is another aspect to the story. If getting caught acts as a deterrent, it is true, and again thanks to the police, that the detection rates for violent crime—although such crime is on the increase even in that overall reduction—are very high. The detection rates for violent crime are some of the best. They are in the seventies and eighties, and in some forces even higher. But that crime is on the increase. Therefore it does not follow that somehow detection is the only answer. What is needed is to catch, convict and punish criminals.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, what about rehabilitating them?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, if I may, I shall come to rehabilitation.

There are many ways of ensuring that we do not have so many people going to prison or on to community sentences. I pose the question to the Minister. The Narey Report—it is an important report which was welcomed—said a great deal about ways of reducing delays and the number of people who end up on remand in the system. The Narey Report made 33 recommendations to speed up the criminal justice system and reduce delay. By reducing delay in the criminal justice system, time spent on remand would also be reduced. The recommendations in the report would mean that almost all defendants appeared in court the next working day after they were charged; and that about 50 per cent. of those defendants, possibly more, would be convicted the day after they were charged, compared with 3 per cent. at present. That kind of recommendation can only be a good thing.

At one time the previous Government had a trial issues group, again doing important work. The trial issues group sought to identify reasons why cases do not meet time guidelines, particular attention being paid to the impact of the time guidelines on custody cases; to look at opportunities for further categorisation of cases for fast-tracking and/or special treatment some of which would include custody cases; to spearhead a drive to enable prosecution files to be prepared more swiftly by simplifying the requirements for their preparation; and to improve the efficiency of the prosecution process by improving the co-operation between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. The Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 also contained provisions which would assist in that regard.

The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, referred to rehabilitation. It is an important point. I refer to unemployment courses, job clubs, and recreational classes. In 1995–96 17,309 NVQs were gained by prisoners, which was a 25 per cent. increase over the previous year. I refer to rehabilitation courses on drugs, alcohol, household management, child care, debt counselling and basic education and skills. As the Minister visits prisons and prison establishments, I hope that he will be as impressed as I am with much of the very good work that is being done in our prisons. Perhaps I may say this to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln. I saw some of that impressive work. Young people are working. About 8,000 prisoners are working in prison industries producing goods and services worth about £345 million. Lincoln Prison is one such prison.

Perhaps I may refer again to the achievements of the previous Government which will help towards detection and keeping people out of prison. They are better technology, fingerprint schemes, the Phoenix computerised database of criminal records, rapid search facilities, the QUEST system, and the DNA database which will be enormously important. I refer to closed-circuit television, and faster justice. I referred to the Narey Report and delays in the system, and proposals to cut the time in bringing young people to court. There is closer liaison between police and the CPS. As regards Action on Juveniles, local child crime teams identify vulnerable young people. There are parental control orders and secure training centres to deal with persistent young offenders. What does the Minister intend to do about that? Questions have been posed about curfew orders for 10 to 15 year-olds; minimum sentences and new prison places.

Crime prevention schemes include Neighbourhood Watch; special constables; civilian posts, many in order to release operational policemen; victim support schemes; the National Crime Squad; the National Criminal Intelligence Service, and so on. There are many ways of improving the system.

Just how tough and how effective will the new Home Secretary be? As regards repeat violent or sexual offenders, we had a celebrated case this weekend. The police pleaded for something to do with prisoners who have to be released from prison when everyone in the system—prison officers, the Probation Service and the police—know that the person is dangerous. But the Minister will know that the Government have turned their face against our proposals to deal with repeat violent offenders. If our policy was not good enough, what will the Government do about persistent burglars? What will happen about persistent traffickers in hard drugs?

Much has been said about overcrowding. A great deal was achieved by the previous Government. I hope that that will be recognised. Three prisoners to a cell has been eliminated; slopping-out is a thing of the past; two to a cell built for one has been very substantially reduced. There is an almost infinitesimal number of fine defaulters in prison now. A huge reduction in fine defaulters in prison was achieved by the previous Government. But alternatives to prison were not supported by noble Lords opposite. I refer to electronic tagging, curfew orders, tougher community sentences, more effective and tougher community sentences and parental control orders. Do the present Government support the previous Government's prison building programme, the refurbishment programme and the programme of extension to provide extra places? What is the future of the ship that is moored off Portland?

Much has been said about the care and resettlement of criminals. That is important. However, I pay tribute to the previous Government for putting the concerns of the victims of crime and their shattered families at the centre of policy-making. Not a word has been said in the debate so far about victims of crime.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, perhaps I may finish. My time is very tight. This is my last sentence. Letting criminals off and letting them out is not a policy that I and my noble friends on this side will support.

7.10 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Earl began this debate, for which we are all indebted to him, with a critique of "Howardism". He did not define it. Perhaps he thought it had certain aspects of being unthinking, uncooperative, mulish, uninquiring, willing to parrot formulae rather than to listen to informed argument and—almost the worst in this new brutalism—totally ignoring of other people's views, such as those of the judges, prison governors, prison staff and probation officers. If that is what the noble Earl had in mind by "Howardism", I join him in rejecting and condemning it. It was not just Howardism I heard on one occasion, but perhaps Bourbonism—"I have learned nothing and I have forgotten nothing". The history of the Bourbons after Waterloo was not entirely impressive.

What I can say in the presence of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, and in the regretted absence of the former Lord Chief Justice, is that this is a Government and a Home Secretary who will restore and publicly underline and reaffirm a decent regard for the judiciary. That alone would be worth a long journey.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, invited us to pay careful attention to the views of those who administer the system, whether it be the criminal justice system and service or the prison system and service. We shall do that. We now have a Home Secretary who believes in listening to other people's views. He wishes to see the informed, organic development and improvement of the Prison Service and the criminal justice system. It will not be done over night. We have inherited what we have inherited.

I entirely endorse the thrust of the remarks of the right reverend Prelate, added to one or two remarks—to move ahead in time—of the noble Baroness when she spoke of "chronicles of lost youth and wasted life". My noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton, who has had to be silent now for a very long time, made some extremely important and valuable points. Not least, he raised the question of remand delays, many of which come about as a result of abuse of the system. They clog up prison accommodation, distort the proper operation of the courts and, not least, wound additionally those who are victims. I do not need any lessons about proper regard for victims; nor do I believe that previous speakers need them either.

The noble Baroness asked me specific questions. With her invariable courtesy, she invited me to write to her, which is prudent since I wish to be as precise and helpful as I can. Perhaps I may adopt the same course with the noble Lord, Lord Acton. At least two of the issues mentioned by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord are very much in our minds. I discussed them, as one is expected, and rightly ought, to do with Mr. Tilt only this morning. However, I need to write definitively to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord.

I very much welcome on behalf of the Government the constructive approach taken by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. As he and I are agreed—although in the past we have had shades of difference as to nuance—this is not a matter to be kicked about the gutters of party political warfare. The noble Lord has never adopted that approach, as I hope I have not in my dealings with him. Many of his questions are of extreme importance: education and training; a halt to changes with the weathercock wind for short-term advantage; and questions about the quality of the educational system in prison. Quite a number of us in this Chamber have experience of the prison system in one way or another. A large component of people in prison have to be there for reasons of public security. A significant component are being let out worse than they went in. They are unskilled, untrained and uneducated, and therefore can be properly described as a danger to the public and a menace to themselves.

The situation is not good in terms of projected figures. Since December 1992 the prison population has risen by 19,974—that is, 49 per cent. The projections are extremely gloomy. My information is that the long-term projections suggested are: a rise in 1999 of 2,000 to an annual prison population of 65,800. If present trends continue, that is likely to be a substantial underestimate. The population could rise to 62,000 in October this year; 63,700 in March next year; and 68,400 in March 1999. I believe that that simply confirms the pattern to which the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, referred.

Funding is not being cut. That is a misapprehension. Current expenditure is set to increase this year and the following two years by an average of 7 per cent. a year compared to the forecast out-turn for last year. There will not be any more money available. We must therefore look for increasing efficiency. We have to look to the proper, scrupulous, considered allocation of resources. Even if there were unlimited resources available—and there are not—we could not reverse overnight the historic trends to which I referred.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, said that he will return to this matter at the end of the year. I dare say that he will chide me (generously, I hope) that I still do not have perfect answers to all the questions that he will put. However, I repeat that I recognise the fact that the noble Lord has recognised publicly that the present Home Secretary has substantial mountains to climb and that it will take a long time. We believe in co-operation. We believe in the full involvement of staff and hope to demonstrate that that will be a characteristic of the new Home Office under the present Home Secretary.

I do not seek to enter into any bandying about of figures. As was pointed out in a debate on the Queen's Speech, the election is over and we need to administer the Home Office, its duties and priorities in a constructive way. It is true, as the noble Baroness said, that "slopping-out" has gone, as has "trebling"—the holding of three prisoners in a cell designed for one. How are we to deal with those problems? Partly by an attack on delay; partly by an attack on remand; partly by a necessary use of the new prison ship, which will come into commission on a partial basis on Wednesday this week; and partly as a result of the present provision made, so that over the next 12 months or so 5,000 additional places will become available for use—1,600 new places at existing prisons; 1,900 places at the new prisons, Bridgend, Fazerkley and Lowdham Grange. Refurbished wings will come back into use at Leeds, Brixton and Pentonville, which will provide a further 1,500 places. I have already mentioned the prison vessel, HM Prison-Weare.

It may well be said by the noble Earl that simply providing more accommodation is not a conclusive answer to the problem. I agree. There are serious questions that should be seriously addressed as to what we want prison to do, what we expect the Prison Service to provide and how it is to liaise appropriately with the criminal justice system. When people leave prison, what do we hope to have achieved for them? In other words, what do we hope they will do better and differently? Those are the philosophical and moral questions that the new Home Secretary must address. He has made a good start. However, he knows perfectly well—at least, on reading Hansard tomorrow he will—that he is on probation and that this House will carry out its proper duties of scrutiny, which I welcome.

House adjourned at twenty minutes past seven o'clock.