HL Deb 30 June 1997 vol 581 cc4-7

2.46 p.m.

The Earl of Longford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Further to the Answer given by the Baroness Blatch on 13th January 1997 (Official Report, col. 17), whether they are yet in a position to inform visitors to prisons exactly what forms of identification are now required.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, the Prison Service will publish a revised security manual at the turn of the year. A draft is currently being considered by governors. The manual will specify exactly what type of identification is acceptable and this will be given wide publicity. In the case of noble Lords, the House identity card will be sufficient to gain entry.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. If it had come from the heroic noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, I should have regarded it as very satisfying. However, coming from such an esteemed penal reformer as the noble Lord, I must accept it with qualified optimism. It has taken the Government a year to make up their minds about the issue.

Will the noble Lord take it from someone who visits prisons twice a week that some years ago it was much easier for visitors to get into a prison? Is he aware that the situation is no better than it was when I raised the issue in January? In case the noble Lord wonders about my credentials, I received a letter of thanks from no less a person than the former Home Secretary, Mr. Michael Howard. You cannot say more than that, can you?

Is the Minister aware that on a recent visit to a prison I was escorted in by an officer at the invitation of the governor. The gentleman at the desk refused to let me in. The production of a bus card with a photograph of myself—perhaps not very attractive, but I should have thought compelling—was not good enough for him. He had to ring the governor, who gave the all clear. Is the noble Lord aware of the present difficulties?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am aware of the present difficulties, not least because the noble Earl was good enough to tell my office about them this morning. It is true that in some circumstances it may well be more difficult to get into prison than it was some years ago. Our aim is to make it more difficult to get out of prison!

Although I find it difficult to believe, I am sometimes told that noble Lords go to prisons on legitimate visiting occasions but forget their passes. When they do so an alternative means of identification must be provided. I believe that that was what the noble Earl did by providing his bus pass. I know that he is a serial prison visitor and I am amazed to think that there could be any creature in the whole of the known world who was not able to recognise the noble Earl approaching a particular prison.

The noble Earl says that the Government have taken their time. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will know as well as I that discussions have been taking place for some months. We need to consult the governors carefully. There are fine issues of human decency and human rights about visitors and people who are kept imprisoned. There is also the question of maintaining security. We have consulted a large number of groups other than prison governors. Through the Family Ties Consultative Group we have consulted the Prison Reform Trust, the Howard League for Penal Reform and Save the Children. As I said, we intend to have the revised security manual available by the turn of the year which I believe to be not unreasonable.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, perhaps the noble Earl, Lord Longford, had difficulty getting in because the man at the desk thought he was Lord Lucan, as the noble Earl, Lord Longford, said he was.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am not sure what the man at the desk thought. He may have thought that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, had been cloned and was therefore taking extreme care to allow only the real article in, and certainly not to welcome into custody Lord Lucan.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I used my House of Lords' pass recently at a prison and it was useful? Would it not be a good idea if everyone had an identity card?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, membership of your Lordships' House is so infinitely unique and valuable that it ought not to be bestowed upon the common people as well.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, if membership of your Lordships' House is such a unique privilege, perhaps it should not be trifled with. I always knew—all has now become clear—that the noble Earl displayed a touch of prejudice when he dealt with me across the Dispatch Box. Now he admits that had the same answer come from me it would not be acceptable; however, as it came from the noble Lord it is accepted with qualified acclaim. More seriously, while it is important for people who enter our prisons to know about the systems of inspection, identification and search, will the Minister give the House an assurance that there will be no exemption from rigorous procedures as regards anyone who enters our prisons, including staff—I include also probation staff—because of the difficulty of unauthorised articles entering our prisons and indeed illicit substances?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, makes an important point. When the Secretary of State visits prisons he is subjected to exactly the same regime as other visitors. I believe that is right. When, in a previous incarnation, I visited clients in prison I expected to produce identification. I was always happy to do so; I found no difficulty in that at all. I did not regard it as insulting. I considered that prison staff were properly carrying out their procedures in what I always found to be a polite and dignified manner.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that when I had occasion to visit the women's prison in Buenos Aires, Villa Devoto, in 1976 and I was asked to produce proof of identity, the authorities were perfectly satisfied with a British Library reading card? Would it not be sensible if, like their Argentine counterparts, British prisons accepted any document issued by an official body of the United Kingdom?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I suppose that a Buenos Aires library reading card might be a useful substitute. I have never been to a prison in Argentina and therefore I cannot comment helpfully, fruitfully or further on the noble Lord's experience in Buenos Aires.