HL Deb 14 March 1997 vol 579 cc585-91

1.46 p.m.

Baroness Berners

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

It is a very simple Bill which gives the Prison Service the power to test prisoners for alcohol. It is nonetheless an important measure, and I briefly wish to highlight the reasons for its introduction. First, the power to test prisoners for alcohol consumption will supplement existing powers relating to drug testing and adjudication.

Since drug testing of prisoners was introduced under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the Prison Service has been far better placed to identify the scale of drug abuse by prisoners and so develop preventive measures to combat this. In a similar way, alcohol testing is intended to inform the Prison Service of the level of alcohol abuse.

Until recently the Prison Service has been handicapped in bringing sanctions to bear against prisoners who offend in this way. Prior to changes in the prison rules and young offenders institution rules made in September 1996, prisoners could be adjudicated on only if they were found in possession of alcohol or offended against prison discipline after drinking alcohol. The 1996 amendments introduced two new offences: for a prisoner to be intoxicated wholly or partly as a consequence of consuming alcohol and for a prisoner knowingly to consume alcohol.

These measures have strengthened the controls available to governors to deal with alcohol abuse. But for the offences to be proved currently requires an adjudicator to apply subjective tests as to whether alcohol has been consumed and, if so, whether that has been to the point of intoxication. Formal testing, as provided for in the Bill, will enable a reliable and objective test of consumption and so strengthen the effectiveness of disciplinary procedures.

Secondly, but equally as important, the ability to test prisoners for alcohol consumption will play a role in ensuring that prisoners who are released temporarily into the community on licence are discouraged from consuming alcohol in breach of the conditions of their licence. Temporary release on licence helps prisoners reintegrate into society and maintain close links with their families.

Prisoners are temporarily released only after stringent risk assessments. However, temporary release brings with it ease of access to alcohol. That is an obvious concern, not only to the public in general but often also to prisoners' families. Where prisoners breach the terms of their licence by consuming alcohol while on temporary release, they can cause control problems on their return to prison and for other prisoners who may be similarly tempted to breach the rules. The availability of testing for prisoners returning from temporary release to see whether they have consumed alcohol in breach of their conditions of licence will send a clear message that such abuse will not be tolerated, and it will act as a deterrent.

I said that the Bill was simple; it is also straightforward. Clause 1 amends the Prison Act 1952 by inserting a new section which will give a prison officer the power, subject to proper authorisation and the prison rules, to require a prisoner to provide a sample of breath for the purpose of ascertaining whether he or she has alcohol in their body. That power is extended to young offender institutions, remand centres and secure training centres as well as to contracted-out prisons. The circumstances of when the power may be exercised, as well as other associated matters, will be set out in prison rules. The intention of the Prison Service is to require testing by breathalyser, which has been a familiar fact of life for the general public for some considerable time. However, the clause provides for additional testing by other means. That is to ensure that advantage may be taken of future developments in technology which might at a later date make some other form of testing more efficient or cost-effective. It may also be necessary to employ other forms of testing if, for instance, the prisoner is unable to supply a breath test or challenges the results of one. Similar contingency arrangements support the police in their duty to test motorists.

Clause 2 takes account of the particular arrangements that apply in contracted-out prisons and requires the requisite authorisation for testing to be given by the director of a contracted-out prison.

Clause 3 makes provision for the short title, commencement and extent of the Bill. The Bill extends only to England and Wales. However, the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Bill, which is currently before Parliament, makes similar provision for Scotland.

During the passage of this Bill considerable surprise has been expressed in another place that these straightforward provisions are not already a matter of law. I share that view. The concerns which now give rise to the Bill have long been known and I believe that they are widely acknowledged. First and foremost, there is the risk to the public of prisoners consuming alcohol in breach of their conditions of licence who as a result may commit further offences. There is the equal risk to all those who work in prisons and with prisoners and who should not be expected to have to encounter the violent behaviour that only too often accompanies alcohol abuse. There is also rightly concern about the effect of such abuse on the innocent members of prisoners' families and on other prisoners.

Prison is, by definition, a closed and structured environment. Unacceptable or violent behaviour associated with alcohol abuse can often have far-reaching consequences for the maintenance of good order and control. Prisoners who choose to involve themselves in alcohol abuse may have a history of drink-related offending behaviour which, if not deterred during their sentence, may perpetuate their offending on release into the community. Similar concerns have already promoted the introduction of mandatory drug testing. I referred earlier to the disciplinary procedures which are presently available to governors to deal with alcohol abuse. Since 1995, all licences for the temporary release of prisoners have contained a standard condition prohibiting the prisoner from entering a public house while on licence. In addition, governors may impose a prohibition on the consumption of any alcohol during a period of temporary release.

The Bill does not create any additional offences or place further restrictions on the granting of temporary release. However, it does provide a significant and important power to supplement those provisions as part of an integrated strategy to combat drug and drink abuse by prisoners. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. (Baroness Berners.)

1.55 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Berners, for the way in which she has introduced this important little Bill. I think of her family as being distinguished in music and it is nice to know that the noble Baroness has added advocacy to the qualities of which her family can be proud.

I share the surprise of the noble Baroness who said, in effect, that we all thought that these powers already existed. It seems extraordinary that there should be perfectly adequate powers for drug testing in prisons and that there should be controls on the use of alcohol in prisons, but no facilities for testing for alcohol consumption. That leaves me to my sour point, with which the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, will be familiar, that this is a synthetic Bill. As Dennis Skinner said in the House of Commons, this is one of those Bills which uses the private Member's Bill procedure to remedy a defect in the operations of the sex, drugs and alcohol department—I beg your Lordships' pardon, I mean the Home Office—which should have been thought of before and which should have formed part of proper government legislation. However, that does not mean that this Bill is any the less necessary.

The Bill is necessary in the context of a proper assessment of the control of alcohol misuse and other misuse in our prisons. It seems extraordinary that the Prison Service, in answers to Written Questions from Members of the House of Commons, should within the past few months have acknowledged that it has no central records of the number of alcohol-addicted prisoners and no information on the finds of illicit alcohol. How can it be said that the Prison Service is taking alcohol in prisons seriously if it does not have a comprehensive view of the size and nature of the problem with which it is supposed to be dealing? After all, as the noble Baroness said, alcohol is a cause of crime and its use is correlated to the incidence of other crimes. Murder and manslaughter, for example, are often committed when under the influence of alcohol.

The Prison Service's lack of knowledge of the extent and nature of the problem means that what ought to be an objective of the service in terms of the treatment and rehabilitation of offenders must be fundamentally flawed in this respect. The Prison Service cannot be doing the job of treatment and rehabilitation unless it knows what it is trying to treat and for what the rehabilitation is intended. That includes issues such as psychiatric treatment. We have tabled amendments to the Crime (Sentences) Bill on exactly that point, but the Government have resisted them.

This is a little Bill but a valuable and necessary one. However, it should be seen in the context of the whole problem of substance abuse in prisons. It has not been. Legislation should not be brought forward in this piecemeal way, lest it be thought that this is a disciplinary measure which is for the convenience of government and the management of prisons.

I record and welcome the statement of David Roddam, the general secretary of the Prison Governors Association, who not only supports this Bill but states that prisoners themselves would support it. That is an important consideration. Prisoners are themselves at risk from other prisoners who use the weapons of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and physical violence to maintain an alternative discipline—or indiscipline—in prisons and

make the lives of other prisoners a misery. If that can be stopped even in small part by the passage of a Bill of this kind it is worthwhile. I support the Bill.

2.1 p.m.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for setting out the provisions of the Bill and the importance of them so concisely and helpfully. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, for his support.

The Government fully support the proposals contained in the Bill. Taken together with other recent measures which my noble friend mentioned, we believe that they will facilitate and supplement Prison Service strategies designed to prevent alcohol and substance abuse.

The Bill had all-party support at all other stages in another place although it prompted some interesting dialogue about the nature of alcohol consumption in prisons and how this should be dealt with. I could speak at some length about the problems of alcohol abuse, its links with crime and the suffering visited on individuals and families concerned. I can also list the very positive efforts being made to help prisoners combat alcohol problems such as counselling, education and the involvement of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, was concerned about what was being done in prisons in relation to alcohol abuse. Ninety seven per cent. of prisons have treatment or education provision for alcohol-misusing prisoners. Thirty per cent. of prisons have provision for detoxification treatment, including 76 per cent. of local prisons where the need is assumed to be greatest. Seventy per cent. of prisons provide counselling on alcohol and its related problems. Therefore, there are programmes in hand to deal with this problem.

But essentially this Bill aims to provide a tried and trusted means by which prisoners who breach rules and the trust placed in them by consuming alcohol can be detected by reliable, scientific and just means. My noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, spoke of their surprise that measures to test prisoners for alcohol consumption were not already law. I am sure that this view would be shared by members of the public who might also be concerned that those imprisoned by the courts had any great access to alcohol. However, those of us who take a close interest in the problems of detaining those sentenced to imprisonment by the court, often for drink related offences, will be only too aware of the difficulties involved.

Prisoners can and will obtain access to alcohol in a number of ways. The problem is essentially one of security and the balance that needs to be struck between control and rehabilitation. Alcohol consumption is most problematic in the environment where the Prison Service is looking to prepare prisoners for release and their constructive and law-abiding return to the community. This approach quite rightly enables prisoners, subject to proper risk considerations, to be held in open prisons. At this stage, the possibility of them being released on temporary licence for several days at a time, again subject to individual risk assessment, is also appropriate. The more relaxed regime appropriate in open prisons and the ability for prisoners to take temporary release to pursue work opportunities or consolidate family ties are important steps in preparing prisoners for release. In the vast majority of cases prisoners respond positively to the trust placed in them in this way.

However, the greater access to the community that these arrangements involve also carries with them greater access to alcohol. It is far easier for prisoners in open conditions to smuggle or otherwise arrange for alcohol to come into an establishment. In the case of those on temporary release on licence a prisoner is effectively placed on trust. Even in more secure establishments alcohol consumption can be a problem with prisoners displaying exceptional ingenuity in the production of illicit alcohol. These are the facts of life that the Prison Service must deal with. There are of course already preventative measures available to governors in the firm of search and confiscation powers, and these are employed to good effect. There are also provisions under the prison rules for prisoners to be punished either for consuming alcohol in prison or for doing so in breach of the temporary release licence. But, as my noble friend pointed out, the present disciplinary arrangements suffer from the lack of an objective test of whether a prisoner has been drinking and if so to what extent. The prison rules issued in September 1996 introduced a charge that a prisoner is intoxicated wholly or partly as a consequence of knowingly consuming alcohol. A second lesser charge that a prisoner knowingly consumes alcohol was also made available at that time. In the first case, an adjudicator must be satisfied, among other things, that a prisoner was intoxicated to the point of being beyond self-control for a finding of guilt to be made. In the lesser of the two offences the adjudicator must address the question of whether a prisoner's observed behaviour was the consequence of consuming alcohol. In both cases evidence may be available in the form of witnesses recording the prisoner's breath smelling of alcohol or that he or she had difficulty in walking or had slurred speech. These are essentially subjective tests open to interpretation and dispute. Your Lordships may agree that they are reminiscent of the old tongue-twister and white line tests employed by the police before the introduction of the breathalyser. The use of a calibrated form of objective testing will remove these areas of doubt and provide a strong disincentive to prisoners to seek to flout the rules.

In the same way, the introduction of alcohol testing will bolster improvements that have been made to protect the public in the area of temporary release on licence. New arrangements for the release of prisoners on temporary licence were introduced in 1995. All applications for such release are now subject to a stringent risk assessment and, where granted, all licences contain a standard condition preventing the prisoner from entering a public house. Licences may also contain a condition prohibiting the consumption of any alcohol. This may be particularly appropriate for inclusion in cases where drink has played a part in previous offending. It would be unreasonable to apply this in all cases given that an occasional private drink with family and friends may be part and parcel of a prisoner's adjustment to life in the community.

Prisoners who abuse the privilege of temporary release by consuming alcohol in breach of their licence put at risk the public and often their own families. Where a prisoner returns to prison under the influence of drink prison staff can also be in danger of assault. If the prisoner's drinking goes undetected his or her behaviour can bring the privilege into disrepute and act as an incentive to other prisoners to follow suit. It is for these very sound and necessary reasons that the Bill provides for the common sense facility of testing to ensure proper detection, deterrence and punishment of breaches of the prison rules.

I would also like to say a few words about how it is intended to employ the Bill's provisions. The circumstances governing the use of alcohol testing will be prescribed by amendments to prison and young offender institution rules. Final decisions on this have yet to be made but the Prison Service will wish to build on the experience being gained through operating the provisions for drug testing introduced under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. It is most probable that alcohol testing would be introduced at one or more establishments by way of a pilot study to identify any problems and areas of best practice. The intention is to make testing subject to a test of reasonable suspicion with action triggered, as at present, by observed or reported behaviour. It may also be appropriate to target testing in open prisons where preventing alcohol entering the prison is more difficult generally or in other prisons which may from time to time have a particular alcohol problem. In addition we will wish to consider the use of random testing of particular groups of prisoners. Those returning from temporary release on licence would be such a group. These arrangements will need to be carefully thought through.

In conclusion, this is a necessary and overdue measure and I am pleased to lend the Bill our support for its Second Reading.

2.8 p.m.

Baroness Berners

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their well considered response. The abuse of alcohol is always a problem wherever it occurs, but especially within closed and structured establishments such as prisons. For such places to be run effectively the necessary authority must be in place. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.