HL Deb 25 March 1998 vol 587 cc1228-78

3.10 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale rose to call attention to the problems facing the Prison Service in England and Wales; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the list of speakers for this debate is indeed most impressive. We have talked a good deal about crime in recent weeks, but this is our first opportunity since the present Government took office to discuss overall policy relating to prisons, a matter of very considerable importance. Let me begin with some of the good things.

There has been a sharp reduction in the number of escapes. Police cells have not been used for some time; the practice of putting three prisoners in a cell designed for one has been ended; and "slopping out" is no more. Then, behind all that, it looks as though there has been evolved a reasonably satisfactory working relationship between the Home Secretary and the Prison Service. The previous administration drew a distinction between policy and operations, which the uncharitable (I say this with great diffidence in the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, who, happily, is to speak later) tended to describe as meaning that, if matters went right, it was policy, and therefore a matter for Ministers; whereas, if they went wrong, that was operational and therefore a matter for civil servants. I think that this Government have returned to a more traditional attitude towards ministerial responsibility. It would be enormously helpful, however, if the Minister today could take the opportunity to spell out the details of the present relationship. I gave notice that I should be making that request.

The Prison Service itself has no control over the numbers in prison. Its responsibility is to keep in custody those committed by the courts. I think it is generally known that the number so committed has been steadily increasing in recent years, and that the total is now the highest in modern times. I wish to discuss why that is so, and touch on future prospects. I shall refer also to one or two of the problems of running the prisons, some of them so overcrowded. I am afraid that I shall not have time to touch on possible alternatives to imprisonment.

The prison population in England and Wales on 16th March was just over 65,000. Five years ago, it stood at under 42,000. A projection by Home Office statisticians in January suggested that the figure could rise to nearly 83,000 within seven years. Using brilliant new techniques, the statisticians worked out a worst-case scenario of 92,600, which would, I think, mean 24 new prisons at a cost of £2 billion. I cannot persuade myself that that last figure is realistic. However, previous forecasts have consistently turned out to be too low and we always have before us the example of the United States where the prison population has risen so phenomenally.

Recently, we were told that tagging could make greater inroads on the total than had at one time been supposed. But no one would claim that that is the complete answer. The Government cannot tell the courts what sentences to impose. However, given the alarming figures to which I referred, they must presumably have some strategy for the future. A principal purpose of today's debate is to try to find out what it is.

It is remarkable that this inexorable rise in the prison population has been going on at a time when recorded crime, at any rate in certain important categories, has been going down. The previous government, admittedly, took some positive steps to increase the numbers in custody; for example, by tightening up on bail, discouraging too great a use of cautions, and creating new offences, including, towards the end of their time in office, mandatory sentences for certain repeat offenders—provisions which, to my regret, have been implemented in part by the present Government.

But the most important influence on the courts, it seems, was the encouragement by Ministers and by the press of sending more people to prison, and for longer. Judges and magistrates alike responded to that encouragement. The statistics show that a higher proportion of convicted offenders, both in the Crown Court and in magistrates' courts, have been sent to prison, and also that the average length of sentence imposed has steadily increased. We have achieved a quite remarkable result; namely, that our courts are filling the gaols by imposing the toughest sentences in Europe, whereas large swathes of the populace believe that the courts are out of touch and soft on crime.

The Home Office 1996 British Crime Survey confirmed that most people thought that sentences were too lenient. However, it also showed a widespread ignorance of what was actually happening. For example, most people thought, wrongly, that recorded crime was increasing, and that a large proportion of crime was violent. Very few people seemed to know that practically every man convicted of rape, and something like four out of five convicted of mugging, were sent to prison. It is not altogether without interest that, when members of the public were themselves asked to try their hand and suggest an appropriate sentence in a real case of burglary, they tended to be more lenient than the judge.

This is a most serious matter. Is there not something to be said for consulting the experts about mounting a professional and properly thought-out campaign to try and get the facts better understood and some of the misapprehensions removed? Or is the risk of being thought "too soft on crime" too great?

There are some particular categories where it might be possible to reduce the numbers. For example, I wonder what expectations the Government have of reducing the numbers held on remand—some 11,000—as a result of their efforts to speed up trials? Then there are the young, about whom others will be speaking. And there are the mentally ill and mentally handicapped. I hope that the working group involving the Prison Service and the NHS about which we were told the other day will have a better fate than previous inquiries.

Perhaps I may be forgiven a personal reminiscence to illustrate that the difficulties with the NHS are of long standing. Nearly half a century ago, a junior Home Office Minister and I waited on the then Minister of Health, one Aneurin Bevan, to see whether his new National Health Service could help us over a problem at Dartmoor. That was my only meeting with the great man. I am sorry to say that nothing much happened, but it was an interesting experience.

I turn now to the problems within the prisons. It seemed difficult enough in all conscience when, once upon a time, I myself had some direct responsibility. But we did not have large numbers from the ethnic minorities; we did not have nearly so many serving life sentences; and we certainly had no one who had been told that he or she should stay in prison until death. AIDS had not been thought of, and tobacco, rather than drugs, was the principal problem. Alas, things have changed and having to cope with reductions in the budget has not made it any easier for today's prison governors.

People are coming out of prison and back into society in their tens of thousands every year. Are they to come out bitter and resentful against society, brutalised, addicted to drugs and perhaps having learnt new tricks from other criminals? How far is the Prison Service able to discharge its role of looking after those committed to custody with humanity, helping them to lead law-abiding lives after their release?

The overriding problem is overcrowding, particularly in local prisons. To quote just two of the worst examples, at the beginning of the year Birmingham prison, with certified accommodation for 707, had to crowd in 1,032 prisoners. Preston had 414 places and 671 prisoners. The impact of overcrowding obviously varies from prison to prison, but in general it makes it more difficult to find space and resources for training, work and education. It means shifting prisoners around, sometimes far from their families. It causes tension and instability and heightens the risk of disturbances.

I know that the Prison Service tries hard to increase the time for what are described as "purposeful activities", but the figure overall of just over 23 hours a week which it has achieved is still a pretty modest total. Behind it there is a lot of frustration.

Then there are drugs. A Home Office Minister wrote to The Times the other day saying that things were getting better, comforting us with the news that yet another review was going on, this time of prison drug strategy. But the fact that last year nearly 1,200 visitors to prisons were arrested by the police in connection with drug-related offences and that in the recent nine-month period over 16,000 prisoners were found guilty on adjudication of offences disclosed by mandatory drug testing suggest that there is quite a long way to go. I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, can give us an assurance that the staff themselves do not on occasion depend on the drug barons for keeping some kind of order.

In a short speech I can touch on only some of the issues. However, in conclusion. I wish to say this. Long-term imprisonment, as a punishment, is not all that old. Time was when the assize judge went round to clear the gaols, not to fill them. But he had available sentences of death and transportation: a choice, as someone put it, between the New World and the next. Now there is no alternative to imprisonment for serious offences.

Just over a century ago, the Gladstone report evolved the concept, tucked away as it was in the small print, that imprisonment should have as its twin aims deterrence and reformation, to which over the years has been added the concept of retribution. There have been many inquiries, not a few White Papers, quite a bit of legislation and some judicial directives, all of which have put varying emphasis on these ingredients. There have been periods of near despair. Many of the public would simply like to see the offender locked away and not think about what happens next.

But the way in which offenders are dealt with is one of the tests of a mature and civilised society and of its quality of justice. I hope we shall hear something today of the views of the Government on the role and purpose of imprisonment. I beg to move for Papers.

3.25 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the deeply impressive speech of the noble Lord, Lord Allen. If new Members dissatisfied with their place in the speaking order were to come to me to ask for advice I would say: "You've only to stay here half a century and you'll get a better position".

When I opened the first debate on the prisons in this House in 1955, I never expected to find myself following a former Permanent Secretary of the Home Office and preceding a former Home Secretary. The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, is not the only Home Secretary speaking in the debate.

To me, the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, will always be associated with the name of R. A. Butler, as we knew him, or Lord Butler, a great name in the history of penal reform. The noble Lord, Lord Allen, was close to him. I am not sure of the precise relationship. But that was a golden moment in the history of penal reform when Lord Butler came in. Suddenly the atmosphere was changed. It was not a party matter. Mr. C. H. Rolph wrote a famous article in the New Statesman saying that it was an all-party effort. It was a completely new atmosphere not only in the eyes of those involved over some years. To me, the noble Lord, Lord Allen, will always be associated with that. Lord Butler was succeeded by a whole series of enlightened Home Secretaries, some of them speaking to us today.

So it went on. Then we reached the age of Howardism. I do not wish to say anything personal about him. I was going to call him the "late Michael Howard", but I believe he is still going strong in some other capacity. Anything I say will be subject to what I always recall the grandfather of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, saying about a Peer whom he criticised: "There is nothing personal in my remarks about him". Nevertheless, there is something called "Howardism". No one will question that, for good or ill, there was a new policy, a whole new approach to penal reform which was introduced in 1993 by the Home Secretary, Mr. Howard, with the full approval of the Cabinet. It was a new approach.

What is the result? It was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale: the prison population has been increased by 50 per cent. in the past few years and it is going up and up. Even on a fairly optimistic scenario, it appears that it will have doubled within 12 years. For what reason? There is no increase in crime, so what is the reason? History will find it difficult to understand how it could have occurred. Of course, one may say that it is the courts. Yet we have the great judicial leaders here. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, will speak. The inspiration did not come from the top people at any rate in the judiciary. It came, I am afraid, from the atmosphere introduced by Mr. Michael Howard.

Then we come to the question of whether that atmosphere has been modified at all during the time of the present Government, to which I am, of course, obsequiously loyal. What are the two outstanding facts in relation to the prison population? They have been brought out before, but they cannot be repeated too often. On the one hand, it is the colossal and increased actual and prospective number of people in prison and, on the other hand, there is no increase in crime. Those are the facts, due to this new philosophy that prison works. That was the famous phrase which won so much applause at the Conservative Party Conference.

I do not intend to make a party speech. We had six Conservative Home Secretaries before Mr. Howard—all wonderful people, including the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, who is to follow me and is now chairman of the Prison Reform Trust. They were all high-minded people. What does the Prison Reform Trust say about Howardism? No doubt we shall hear that in a moment, which will be more interesting perhaps than anything I can say.

Nevertheless, Howardism was introduced. What did it mean in practice? There are two aspects of it. On the one hand—the noble Lord, Lord Allen, did not mention this—there were cuts in the Prison Service. I do not know the absolute numbers. Because of the vast increase in the number of new prisons it is difficult to find out. I have been trying to find out how many new prisons are predicted, but no one can tell me. However, a great many new prisons are involved.

I go to prisons twice a week—I was due to go to one this morning but the taxi never turned up. At any rate, I go to prisons twice a week and everybody there is aware that there have been cuts. In all existing prisons we find people complaining about the cuts. As soon as anything goes wrong they say, "It is due to the shortages". What is being done about the cuts not only in prison staff in existing prisons but also in the probation service, which is experiencing severe cuts also? I shall return to that.

I am glad to see my noble friend Lord Hoyle responding because he is even more sympathetic than my noble friend Lord Williams, if that is at all possible. It is not possible for my noble friend Lord Williams to be with us today, but in his time he has denounced Howardism. If we ask anybody in existing prisons whether they notice any difference between the policy of this Government and the policy of the last government, they will say that they see no difference at all. Whether one speaks to the staff or to the prisoners, that is the answer; that is, that they see no difference at all. If one believed in the last government's policies over the past three or four years, one will think, "Jolly good show. Keep it up. That is what the public wants".

That seems to be the situation at the moment. There is no difference between this government's policies and the previous government's policies. The one thing that I will give them credit for is that we are told that in the new Bill tagging will produce some reduction in the numbers in prisons. That is something. But, by and large, when one visits prisons one finds no difference in atmosphere between the period of this government and the fateful last years of the previous government, which is in total contradiction to the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, and his predecessors.

There have been education cuts. We talk of rehabilitation, yet we cut the education service in prisons. This is a time of unprecedented boom when this country is richer than ever; it is more than twice as rich as it was at the end of the war. Yet for some unknown reason the education service is being cut. The Minister will have a hard task to explain why the education service is being cut. He may say that it is all subject to a comprehensive review. That may be so. But why is education being cut?

One comes to the more fundamental question. How is this attitude to be altered? The Minister and the Home Secretary must come forward and try to persuade the public that Howardism was wrong. One is either on the side of Howardism or one is not. I shall leave that to the Minister.

3.33 p.m.

Lord Hurd of Westwell

My Lords, it is a great privilege to congratulate the noble Lord. Lord Allen of Abbeydale, who opened the debate. It would be hard to better the shrewd and reasoned way in which he tackled the problems.

There is simply not enough debate about this hidden corner of our society, the prison system. I cannot recall any Prime Minister of this country ever visiting a prison. Prisons only enter the news when there is a riot, an escape or some story which can feed the myth that our prisons are places of luxury and leisure. Yet it must be right to debate the fact that there are 64,500 men and women in prison in England and Wales today and that that number is rapidly increasing. Why? What are the alternatives and what are the ways in which those thousands spend their time?

Too often the debate is shouted down at the beginning by those who argue that we are debating the wrong subject; that we should be discussing crime and not prisons; that we should be discussing the victim and not the offender. Like my predecessors and successors as Home Secretary, I have been thoroughly in favour of victim support; but I have never understood the logic of the argument that we do some favour to the victim by making a hash of dealing with the offender. Indeed, if we deal with the offender wrongly, the offence is likely to be repeated so that bad sentencing and bad prisons add up to more crime, not less.

On the question of overcrowding, this Government inherited a sharply rising prison population and a substantial prison building programme which I believe will deliver four new prisons this year. Can the Minister say what is the Government's forecast about the match between the two—people being sentenced to prison and prisons becoming available? It cannot be a scientific forecast, but they have estimates and we should like to know what those are for men and also for women, because the pressure on women's prisons is particularly tense.

In relation to regimes, there has been a sharp improvement in the quality of prison regimes since I was Home Secretary. It would be better if there were not so many people in prison. But since those prison sentences have been, and are being, passed it is better that the conditions of serving a sentence should be improved. It is better that there should be no slopping out—my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking had a key hand in that—and it is better that prisoners should not be held in police cells, but in modern prisons such as the prison at Belmarsh near Woolwich, which I visited last week.

However, that improvement in conditions is now at formidable risk. As usual, it is Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons who sums up the subject week by week in vivid and accurate terms. Last week he published a report on his last visit to Dartmoor where he wrote—he has written this prison by prison, month by month in different phrases— The Prison Service is, at present, labouring under two conflicting pressures—the inexorable rise in the prison population and the equally inexorable demanded cut in financial resources. That a prison such as Dartmoor should be required to close three trade training courses and have its educational provision cut by half, and that it should not have enough prisoners of the correct categorisation to be able to work on the admirable farm, would seem to be situations defying common sense, not least in the face of an impending population increase which can only add to the 148 at present unemployed". That is but one report on one prison, but it can be multiplied many times. Can the Minister say what he now foresees as regards regimes? I know that this Government appointed a director of regimes. That is a bureaucratic move. I do not use that as a term of abuse, but it does not actually improve the situation on the ground. What comfort can the Minister give us about the priority being given to the questions of education, work and training? I went to one London prison recently where there is education provision. The question is not the provision, but the fact that the prisoners do not turn up half the time because there are not the staff to escort them—the staff are busy doing other things. In fact, education is residual in that prison and that is a prison where 70 per cent. of the inmates failed in some way through the education system. Quite apart from reality, it is a matter of public safety that as many as possible of those who are imprisoned should come out from prison able to read, write and count so that on release they have some chance of obtaining and holding a job.

Perhaps the Minister could say something in relation to three specific categories of the prison population. First, there are 3,000 women in prison. The increase has been twice as fast as for men—I am not sure why. We in the Prison Reform Trust set up, under Professor Dorothy Wedderburn, a committee of inquiry into women's prison systems. I hope the Home Office can bless that—I know that it does bless it—and that we receive such help as is needed.

Secondly, those on remand number 12,000 out of a total prison population of 64,500. The Government are full, as all governments have been, of excellent intentions about cutting the law's delays and they are trying again to set deadlines, as we all have done in our time. It is not so easy. In Scotland there is the 110 day rule, which is the time by which cases, except in exceptional circumstances, are to come to court. I cannot remember what arguments were produced before me as to why we could not apply that rule. I am sure they were produced. Momentarily they persuaded me, although I am not sure they would now. I should be grateful if the Minister could produce those arguments for the House so that we can see whether they persuade us as well.

Finally, there are 500 asylum seekers, a category where the policy is confused. It is a difficult subject. As a result, at Campsfield in my former constituency, and in other places, there is a lot of confusion and there are bad ways.

We should study what happens in America, but not follow it. More than 10 million Americans will see the inside of a gaol or prison cell in any one year. America has three times as many prisoners as it did in 1996. It cannot be right to define the success of our criminal justice system by the number of our fellow citizens being put behind bars. There are alternatives. Some work and some do not. The Home Secretary is right to experiment and encourage. I underline the word "encourage". He and his colleagues need to raise their voices somewhat on this issue. So do we all, but their voices are somewhat louder than ours and can reach public opinion and those who pass sentences. They will get into trouble with some newspapers if they take that course but they have a big majority and they should have broad backs to put up with that. The Home Secretary and his colleagues will find that if they follow the road of humanity and common sense sketched by my two predecessors in the debate they will find that they will not lack support when they need it.

3.41 p.m.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, I should like to spend my time focusing on what I believe to be the main problem faced by any prison system in a democracy. It is necessary to look at the purpose of imprisonment, at the elements of the punishment, and to identify those elements which are not intended. These are sometimes more counterproductive than all the positive measures in place.

Let me start by talking about prison as a punishment. Historically, people were imprisoned while awaiting the carrying out of sentence. In recent years, imprisonment has become the punishment. When the sentence of imprisonment is passed, I presume that the sentencer has these features in mind: the convicted person is to leave home and live in state-provided accommodation; personal clothing, and implicitly identity, is to be removed and replaced by prison uniform; employment and financial security are to be disrupted, usually on a permanent basis; reputation is to be lost; personal relationships are to be suspended; family and parental relationships are to be disrupted; the person is to become subject to the prison rules; a boring life is to be lived among people with whom one would not necessarily wish to be associated; and temporary lifestyle is to be determined by the authorities.

Those features are probably all intended to be the nature of imprisonment. After all, this is the most severe punishment available to the courts on most occasions and it must be unattractive. But then this has already been described as an expensive way of making bad people worse. I find that too gloomy a view, though it is, in part, very true.

Reflecting on my time as the social worker at Inverness Prison, I recall that the local prison at Porterfield did a good line in people who came once or twice and never again. Meanwhile, there were also a number of prisoners who were there for their eighth time. For those who came but once, the experience was a sufficient crisis in their lives to promote desirable change in their lives. In the main, these were people who saw a marked difference in their lives outside from that briefly lived inside. There was an acute sense of loss while inside.

However, when it comes to those "revolving door" prisoners, we find a very different story. For a wide variety of reasons, these folks found little difference in the misery of their lives either side of the prison walls. As marginalised people—that marginalisation is the product of their own behaviour towards others—they have far less to lose than most people. As an example, social work discussions with offenders about the effect of, say, a theft on a victim are always more difficult when the offender has little experience of ownership, and the concept of revulsion at the violation of personal space becomes even more esoteric. But then the effect of fear of crime, which imprisons so many people in their homes, is something many offenders do recognise. Unfortunately, their response is to dole out more of the misery. It is also a feature that they often have experience of being the victim of crime but, again, draw the wrong conclusions and dole out more of it to others.

I should like to finish by concentrating on what I believe to be the unintended products of imprisonment. These are widely varied and only some can be redressed by governments. On liberation, the offender is even more marginalised by most people and is more likely to find friendship among delinquents. The period of unemployment that follows is a real trial of temptation and resolve. The discharge grant lasts only one week but the first benefit payment will be in the third week. Prisoners who are single householders are likely to have lost their homes and possessions because housing benefit during imprisonment has recently been drastically reduced to a few weeks. The resettlement task is being distorted by the demands of community notification. I am sure that there are other effects.

My purpose is to highlight the task of preparing the prisoner for return to the community. There must be a line drawn under the sentence for those who do not offend again. I fully accept that many prisoners have no intention of going straight and that others have few skills other than criminal ones. The task of rebuilding civil life after imprisonment is a big one, and one that needs to start on admission, for most prisoners.

Although it will be seen as unfair to the law-abiding unemployed and homeless, it is expedient to secure accommodation and employment for ex-offenders. The logic lies in the effect of their behaviour on others if their behaviour is not altered. Reconviction rates for employed ex-offenders with secure homes are, not surprisingly, much lower than for their homeless and/or unemployed equivalents.

While inside, the prisoner needs to begin to believe that life outside will be better if changes are made in lifestyle. This is more likely to be achieved if the prison is sufficiently staffed to assist in this task. I acknowledge that the first priority in prison is to maintain order and discipline. That has to be so. It is inevitable that the first words of advice from the staff to a new prisoner will constitute a coping strategy for life inside. But it is necessary for there to be time for discussion about, and the development of, a coping strategy for the return to wherever. The post-release coping strategy will be adopted more easily if the offender believes that there is, realistically, more chance of success than there was before going inside. The elements of success will include pre-release contact with those who will give support in the community and also training opportunities or at least a daily work routine. The other element is the way in which the prison is run and the facilities that are available for useful self-improvement. For many, prison is such a miserable experience that it produces apathy or, worse, anger against the community.

It is old hat that there are no votes in prison expenditure. I believe that statesmanship demands that an effective Prison Service be maintained. That is clearly not possible while the service is so starved of funds that it can barely fulfil its first task of locking up at the end of a peaceful day.

3.50 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Durham

My Lords, this is a subject which has long been of concern for the Churches and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, for his speech and for making this debate possible. Indeed, I wish that he had had more time to develop some of the themes that he could only touch on. Your Lordships will know that it is a statutory provision that a Church of England established church chaplain is present in every penal establishment. They, together with their Roman Catholic and Free Church colleagues, are appointed to every prison establishment. Every prison also has a visiting minister from non-Christian faiths.

The chaplain has statutory duties. He has to interview every prisoner on reception; he has to visit daily all prisoners on punishment or in healthcare; and he has to interview before discharge, and of course conduct Divine worship. Chaplains also answer applications from prisoners and exercise a pastoral ministry to the staff.

Most of them also have a key role to play in education within the prison. The Alfa Course in Christian Education is being used in 75 out of 133 prisons. A new programme has been introduced by the chaplaincy at The Verne Prison in Weymouth to reduce recidivism. Chaplaincies at Highpoint, Swaleside and Brixton are planning to introduce that programme into their establishments.

The Churches have been glad to be part of the progress in penal reform over the past decade and yet at the moment Britain locks up a greater proportion of its population than any other country in Europe except Portugal, and the proportion is rapidly rising. It is true that the Government are taking action in many areas which lead young people to commit crime and to end up in prison with custodial sentences. School exclusions, truancy and youth unemployment can all lead to crime. I welcome government action which takes away the pressure to behave badly.

Nevertheless, all that action, we hope, will produce results in the future. What is happening now is massive overcrowding and cuts in expenditure on education and constructive activities. Chaplains in prisons report that young people feel brutalised by a system which is just not working. Young people are often received into prison late in the day and left overnight with the minimum of staffing. There is concern, too, about the increasing numbers of suicides in prison.

In the vast majority of prisons dedicated prison staff are working against great odds to maintain all the hard-won improvements of the past decade. The Archbishop of Canterbury gave a lecture in 1996 to the Prison Reform Trust and entitled it "Restoring Relationships". He maintained that crime is a reflection of damaged relationships, which is not what God intended for us. One-third of all prisoners have been in care without the support of family relationships. Crime also damages relationships between the victim and society and the offender and society. Punishment is needed to repudiate the crime, but, as the Archbishop said, punishment must be subordinate to the aim of restoring relationships.

Thankfully, there has been much progress. Visitor centres have been established in many prisons; prison education has been extended and treatment programmes are now available for all serious sex offenders. All this helps in keeping contact with families, in addressing offending behaviour and in developing unrealised potential. Yet much of this is now at severe risk. Chris Scott, chair of the Prison Governors' Association, has spoken of the effects of overcrowding. Prisoners are moved around to less crowded prisons, far from their families. It is obviously more difficult for them to visit. Visits are getting shorter, visiting rooms are more crowded and prisoners' relationships with their children are becoming more difficult.

Education is another concern of the Churches. The rise in constructive activities from 1990 to 1994 has now gone into reverse. In the past two years there have been cuts in 71 per cent. of prisons and young offender institutions. That is a direct result of cuts introduced by the Home Office two years ago. In some prisons like Wandsworth the number of education hours has halved in two years. Again, that affects the chaplains' work. Sometimes chaplains have to talk to prisoners through locked doors as there are no staff to unlock the doors. Evening classes are cut and more is expected of volunteers.

Your Lordships will know that most establishments have groups of volunteers recruited and supervised by the chaplains. Onley Establishment for Young Offenders has visitors numbering well over 100. But it is unfair of a system to take advantage of those who give their time and abilities freely. They say, "We will be there, of course, but please do not take advantage of us".

Chaplains work alongside the prison staff in seeking to bring a change in attitude in prisoners and to support prisoners and staff in their needs. They know how much relationships with families matter. They know how much education can raise personal esteem. All this is put at risk by the current state of expenditure and overcrowding. I believe that prisons are close to crisis. We should be abdicating our responsibilities if we did not address the situation with real urgency. Through the chaplaincy service the Churches are ready to play their part in that action.

3.57 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, in joining in the well-deserved congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, on introducing this debate, I find a pleasure tinged with nostalgia. In my few years as a Minister at the Home Office there were various campaigns to accelerate the speed with which we replied to correspondence. I remember that the first of these was in two or three phases. At the end of each phase one had some satisfaction over the genuine progress made. At the end of each phase I would then receive a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, asking "May I please have an answer to my letter written six weeks ago?". So I hope that replies to his questions today may be more fruitful and swiftly answered.

The effort that has been made in the Prison Service should not go without congratulation and comment. The very first time that I spoke from the Dispatch Box opposite as a Home Office Minister was to answer a Question by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, as to the future of Her Majesty's Prison Service. As I had been the Minister responsible for only five days. it was something of a task to answer. I discovered that I was inheriting an estate in which not one brick had been put on another for any secure adult accommodation that century. Since then we have had an enormous programme of prison building, started by my noble friend Lord Whitelaw, accelerated by Leon Brittan and carried forward since then. That has been based on the needs of humanity as well as security.

One has to ask whether the effort is perhaps not in the wrong direction. One can measure it. The Audit Commission report Misspent Youth identified the cost to society of all measures to combat all crime in this country at £1,000 million a year and, of that, £40 million was attributable to the Prison Service. The proportion of that criminality which fell to young people of 21 or under was two-fifths, and one-quarter of them were only 18 or under, and count as children. Identifying each of the young offenders in that group who was caught cost the police force £1,200 and every successful prosecution of one of those children worked out at an additional £2,500. Only 6 per cent. of those charged actually finished up with any remedial treatment. If I remember correctly, three of them went to prison.

It is clear that the response of the Prison Service to this tidal wave of criminality, of which we are sometimes unaware, is absolutely necessary, but in my view it is in part avoidable. I am glad that Her Majesty's Government are, in the Crime and Disorder Bill, setting up a coherent, motivated system to respond to youth offending. I am sure that the motivation is correct. I fear that it may become bureaucratic, but I encourage the Government in their effort.

I should like your Lordships to look for a moment at that effort through the eyes of somebody who is either about to become an offender at a young age or is already such an offender. That person, who will already almost certainly be either acutely frustrated with society or in rebelling against it, will see the social worker, the probation officer, the schoolmaster, the policeman and the magistrate as "them"—that is, as part of the system—as yet something else with which he or she has to cope in life. Those people will be seen as something "directed at" the young person. Therefore, I ask Her Majesty's Government in their planning of this laudable effort not to forget the enormous value of the voluntary sector, which is composed entirely not of policemen and schoolmasters but of people's aunts, uncles, friends and brothers. They are not "them"; they are "us" to those young people. That is my first point.

Secondly, those people come cheap. That is an unpleasant way to put it, but it is true. As the right reverend Prelate said, they will be there, so we should not let them be exploited. One way of protecting them from exploitation is to ensure that those people, who have the enormously valuable skill of getting on with youngsters, getting inside their skins, understanding how they think and getting them to empathise and to see the necessity of co-operation in society and the need for rules and hierarchies, should not then have to spend two-thirds of their time trying to get the money to make their organisation work so that they can make their skills available. I declare an interest as chairman of a trust that I set up four years ago, the DIVERT Trust, to help people to do exactly that. My organisation has to spend a great deal of its energy in getting money so that it can give small amounts out into enormously effective small schemes.

What must the content of those schemes be? What do those children lack? We must remember that they all started in the cradle as we did and as our children and grandchildren did. They all started out defenceless and potentially wonderful or wicked. I believe that in the earliest years of their life a great many of them have lost parental love and in the later years of their life they have lacked any form of adult love in substitution. In the language of the social services and the newspapers, "love" is a much traduced word. I suppose that the nearest one can get to expressing it in an official report would be the "caring" service. But I have seen time and again that the fact that an adult actually cared personally and passionately about how a young person got on in life breaks like a revelation on a young person heading for a disastrous career of wickedness or crime, or both. What such young people have been lacking has been adult care.

Therefore, in this unstructured but heartfelt speech, I ask Her Majesty's Government to look for where they can find that adult care and to give it to those who really are the poor of the earth who have been starved of understanding, adult sympathy or love and who consequently become disruptive pupils, who are consequently put in the corner, dealt with last, put on detention and who then fall further behind and become frustrated by their academic failure. Those people desperately need understanding support before they become criminals—before it costs £3,000 or £4,000 to identify them and untold millions of pounds to lock them all up in prison. Get to them first; get to them cheap with people who love them. That is what the Government should try to facilitate in our society today.

4.5 p.m.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, in a recent debate. I learned to my astonishment that out of the total population of 65,000 people in prison, no fewer than 3,500 were serving terms of life imprisonment. They are called "lifers". I thought that as many noble Lords would be speaking with greater ability than I on questions of overcrowding, rehabilitation and the like, I would find out a little about those 3,500 persons.

First, an average of 80 or 90 lifers leave prison each year, but they enter prison at the rate of 300 per year, and that number is bound to increase—quite significantly, I believe—because of the lack of wisdom of this Government in agreeing to implement Section 2 of the Crime (Sentences) Act on the automatic life sentence.

I sought to discover whether such prisoners were in a different category in the sense of how they react to prison. As a generalisation, they have a greater sense of resignation, and a sense of helplessness and of frustration because they have special difficulties of their own to put up with. I list them under six headings.

First, there is delay in the provision of information. The initial assessment of a lifer cannot begin without official information about the current offence, previous convictions, trial judges' comments, psychiatric and post-sentence reports from the Probation Service. That is not gathered together until two years on average after sentence. The initial life sentence plan cannot therefore be completed until information arrives which allows for a baseline risk assessment to be made. The consequence of that delay is that the Prison Service does not begin to work with the lifer until two or three years of the tariff have already passed.

Secondly, there is a lack of structure in the period spent in local prisons. Lifers wait in custody to come to trial perhaps for a period of a year. After sentence, they also wait for a year before a vacancy arises in a main centre. Nothing useful is happening with that time; nor are lifers being helped to come to terms with their offence and its impact on theirs and many other lives. Reference has been made to suicides in prison. For the lifer, the risk of that is four times greater than for other prisoners.

Thirdly, I deal with the effect of the increase in prison population. This affects the lifer in the following ways. He has to compete with the determinate-sentenced prisoners for places in the courses that they need to undergo. Those with determinate sentences take precedence because their sentences are fixed, whereas lifers have open-ended sentences. There are no vacancies in C category prisons which lifers have to pass through before they reach open conditions. The C category prisons are full to bursting point with short and medium-term prisoners, and governors cannot keep free lifer places so that they are available when lifers arrive. Governors are under pressure to achieve full occupancy. The population is therefore backed up to the main centres and, before that, to the "locals". There is no flexibility—no fast-track—to assist the one-off lifer to move through the system.

Fourthly, there is a shortage of resettlement locations. Lifers are released from open conditions. There is only a limited number—about 12—from which lifers can be released, and very few of these are in urban areas. There are not enough places to move out the number who may merit this. Lifers wait for every move that they make. and every wait is dead time and effectively extends their sentence. I am told that only 40 per cent. of lifers achieve their release in accordance with the tariff.

Fifthly, I deal with budget cuts. Governors have discretion as to where to make the savings required to achieve these cuts, but the easy targets are probation staff and psychologists. There have been losses in both specialisms, particularly probation staff. It is these staff who deliver the offending behaviour work treatment without which lifers in particular cannot progress.

Lastly, I deal with lifers and the risk to the public. There is an assumption that lifers must be risky offenders. This applies to discretionary lifers as they are sentenced on the basis of a pattern of offending or a mental disorder. But it does not necessarily apply to those who serve a mandatory life sentence who represent the whole spectrum of risk. At present all lifers are subject to the same system. They start in category B main centres and progress laboriously through category C and on to open conditions and eventual release. They progress by being seen to work on their offending behaviour through attending programmes, counselling sessions and other group work. Whereas this is no doubt entirely appropriate for high risk sexual and violent offenders, it is not so for those lifers whose offending is unlikely to be repeated. I refer to the one-off type of murder case rather than those with a pattern of behaviour.

I believe that there is some light at the end of this rather depressing tunnel, inasmuch as the Chief Inspector of Prisons, from whose department I have obtained this basic information, is in the process of carrying out a review. I hope that the review will be seriously considered by the Government and implemented, even if more resources are required.

4.14 p.m.

Lord Baker of Dorking

My Lords, this debate is both important and unique. It is important in the sense that it would be very difficult for it to take place today in the House of Commons. Labour Back Benches would not want to be seen to be critical of the Home Secretary and the Home Office and the Conservative Back Benches would not want to be seen to be weak on crime. In such a debate the victim is common sense.

It is unique that seven noble Lords speaking today at one time or another have had responsibility for these matters in the Home Office: the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, a distinguished Permanent Secretary, who made an admirable speech in opening the debate; three former Home Secretaries; and three Ministers who had responsibility for penal matters in the Home Office. I believe that all of us who have had those responsibilities agree that there is no easy solution to what we are debating.

It was a mistake of the previous government to believe that just one phrase—"prison works"—was necessary. The phrase has a spurious and superficial logic. It is superficial because if a criminal is in prison, clearly he cannot be committing crime outside. It is spurious because it does not take into account the effect of overcrowded prisons on the criminal and the fact that 99.9 per cent. of all criminals will one day be released. Society will then find that prisons do not work. If the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, believes that I have come latterly to this judgment—it is a policy that he is now following—I hope that he will read the speeches of my noble friend Lord Hurd of Westwell and myself in the House of Commons as members of the previous government which made exactly those points.

When I was Home Secretary the prison population was just over 40,000. Today the figure is 65.000 and may increase to 83,000. We should understand what that means for the prison system. No element of the public sector will be subjected to such strain and tension. The enormous responsibility placed on prison officers, prison governors and the administration of the Home Office is almost unbearable. That seriously damages the regimes of prisons.

As Home Secretary I received the Woolf Report. I believed it to be the best report on prison regimes since the war. It allowed me to bring to an end slopping out but also to increase significantly the fund for education and training. It is deplorable that those funds have been cut in recent years. Anyone who has visited prisons knows that obviously they contain some real villains who should be there because they are dangerous and violent men. However, what strikes one when one visits a prison is the utter inadequacy of the great generality of prisoners. They are failures in life. They are even failures as criminals in as much as they have been arrested and are serving sentences. Usually they are very poorly educated. I believe that one of the main functions of prison is to give prisoners the rudiments of education—reading and writing—and some kind of skill so that when they are eventually released there is a possibility, which can only be a possibility, that they will go straight. There is no doubt that given the present strains in the Prison Service the time for training and education has been cut. The right reverend prelate the Bishop of Durham referred to Wandsworth where the time for training has been cut by half. My noble friend Lord Hurd referred to the report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons on Dartmoor where the time for training has been cut by half. I find that utterly unacceptable.

The present Chief Inspector of Prisons is a very forthright figure. He was appointed after Judge Tumim. Judge Tumim was supposed to be very virulent and outspoken. 1 suppose that when someone who had served in the services was appointed Chief Inspector of Prisons the Home Office breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps the department thought that he would understand its problems. However, his reports make Judge Tumims' appear rather mild. I hope that those reports are read by Ministers in the Home Office.

Particularly worrying is the rise in the number of young offenders who are subject to custodial treatment. That cannot be good for them. It is well known that in three of our leading young offender institutions bullying is endemic and very difficult to deal with. Young offenders subjected to that will come out infinitely worse than when they went in.

What can be done? There are four issues. First, we shall no doubt hear from the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, that the prison building programme is expensive. It will take longer to complete than his brief says. It will happen. It will happen through private prisons, not that the Labour Party thanked me for introducing them when 1 did, but I pass that by.

Secondly, there will be an attempt to improve tagging. We tried tagging; it failed technically. I hope that this time it proves more successful; I suspect that at the end of the day its effect will be only marginal. Thirdly, the Government should look into the unacceptable fact that there are 11,000 prisoners on remand awaiting trial. That is because of the law's delays. It is for the Home Office and the CPS to find ways of reducing the number. It is unacceptable today.

Fourthly, one has to accept that there should be greater use of non-custodial sentences. I know that the courts in recent years have been encouraged to increase custodial sentences, largely as a result of government exhortation. I hope that the exhortation will be the other way in the future. An endless amount of research in this country, America, Canada and Europe shows that offenders who receive properly supervised sentences within the community reoffend less than those who have been in prison. I can quote examples, particularly in car crime, where the experiments in London, Manchester and Birmingham of treatment in the community have reduced the level of offending.

I hope that the Home Office will take those matters into account and not just search for populist tabloid headlines. If reporters who write about prisons being luxury hotels were to spend just a month in one of them they would realise that that description is far from the truth. I hope that the debate has focused attention in the House and in the wider community upon the real crisis affecting the prison system. I hope that the Government will realise that they cannot continue in the way they have set at the moment.

4.21 p.m.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Allen, on his formidably impressive speech. I hope noble Lords will forgive me any repetition, on the grounds that we cannot underline enough the importance of the issue that he has raised.

Prisons are an integral part of society—as much a part as our schools, hospitals and churches—and our prison system is in a state of crisis. In 1910, Winston Churchill as Home Secretary, famously told the House of Commons: The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country". The explosion in our prison population is one of the most alarming aspects of society today. As we have heard, it is over 65,000 and has grown by 60 per cent. in the past five years. But this has not been a result of new legislation, or an increase in crime—indeed, recorded crime fell by 8 per cent. between 1993-95—but as a result of a combined change in attitude by the judiciary, the politicians, the public and the media. There is an organic relationship between those groups, each responding to what it perceives to be the expectations of the other.

Judges and magistrates arrive at their decisions by interpreting the law in individual cases and responding to what they perceive to be the demands of the public. Politicians exert an influence on them through their promotion of such policies as "Prison works", or "Tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime", which reflect what they perceive to be the voting public's expectations. We are all, to some degree, sentencers.

The last element in the sentencing cauldron, as the catalytic link between all three, is the media. Only yesterday the Prime Minister said: The mass media alter taste, perceptions and national culture with stunning rapidity". They remain the most powerful source of news and opinion on crime and punishment, and they, too, have undergone an attitudinal change, particularly towards the judiciary of which they have become much more critical. They offer, however, little real insight into the nature of the penal system, and the tabloids in particular tend to concentrate on the sensational. There is very little prominent counterbalancing information, discussion or argument on offer from the prison service itself or other agencies. There is an urgent need to reach both the hearts and minds of the public and sentencers to dispel ignorance and enlighten debate.

The previous government demonstrated the powerful effect of political influence when promoting custody not merely as an effective penalty but the effective disposal. Between 1992-96 the proportion of indictable offences resulting in custodial sentences went up from 16 per cent. to 23 per cent. in the Crown Courts, and doubled from 5 per cent. to 10 per cent. in the magistrates' courts. Not only were sentences tougher, they also became longer—with the inevitable result. Now 4 per cent. of the current prison population are women—and their rate of increase is twice that of men. Nearly 40 per cent. of the population is mentally disordered (70 committed suicide last year; that is, more than one a week) and now 11,505 are children and young prisoners. As we have heard, we have more people in prison than any other country in western Europe apart from Spain and Portugal, and more lifers than in the whole of western Europe put together. What kind of a record is that? Has our population suddenly become significantly more criminal? Are we safer, can we sleep more easy in our beds? Are we, through tough sentencing, making any impact on the causes of crime? I think not. We are seriously out of kilter with our European neighbours and with constructive sentencing.

The argument for tough sentencing is that the public must be protected. Yet less than a quarter of sentenced males are in prison for crimes of violence. Three-quarters of the prison population represents no threat to us personally. Of course we all need protection, particularly from dangerous criminals, but sentencing must be more relevant and the use of custody more appropriate. Used inappropriately, custody actually contributes to further crime. For example, of teenage ex-prisoners 90 per cent. are reconvicted of a crime and of all released prisoners 51 per cent. reoffend within two years. As we have heard, community-based alternatives to custody are overwhelmingly more effective in reducing reoffending as the 1996 Audit Commission's report showed. Not only are they more effective, they are cheaper. In the 1980s there was a concerted drive to divert offenders into those alternatives, but that trend has been tragically reversed and the cost in financial and social terms is immeasurable.

Over my 30 years working in the penal field, I have watched the prison service struggle to improve the quality of the service it discharges to us, the public, while the demands made on it make its task harder and harder. I have also seen the deeply damaging effects prison can have on people inappropriately imprisoned, particularly the young, the mentally and women—all vulnerable, all needing to be elsewhere.

The pressure of rising numbers is drastically reducing, and in some cases destroying, the positive programmes of care which do exist in prison life. The Butler Trust is one such example. I was there only on Monday while 35 people were given awards for distinctive and distinguished work within the prison service, despite it all.

It is simply not possible to contain, control and care for such large numbers in the present accommodation and maintain constructive regimes in all prisons. Everything suffers: education programmes, lack of work, prisoner/officer relationships, facilities for vulnerable prisoners and so on. There is evidence of it everywhere. Even with four new prisons in the pipeline—at a cost of £90 million each, not including running costs—we are simply compounding the problems. We must have fewer people in prison, not more, and it is the duty of all of us, as sentencers, to play our part in bringing that about.

I very much fear that in our treatment of crime and criminals today we are dismally failing Churchill's great test of the civilisation of this country.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for initiating the debate and giving us the chance to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, describing his wide experience of the Prison Service.

Recently, we have heard of problems at Wormwood Scrubs prison. One of the matters I wish to bring to your Lordships' attention is the board of visitors. I served at a young offenders' institution on the board of visitors for many years. Members of boards of visitors are appointed by the Home Secretary to ensure that the well-being of prisoners is adhered to and that all is satisfactory in the establishment which they serve.

When I read that the report from the board of visitors at Wormwood Scrubs had been sent to the Home Secretary, it made me wonder whether it should also have been sent to the Minister responsible for prisons. In fact, would it not be better if all reports and requests from boards of visitors went to the Home Office and the prison department? I believe that boards of visitors, which are independent bodies, are an important safeguard. When they raise problems they should be noted, Ministers informed and action taken.

One of the serious problems which seems to be increasing in many establishments is bullying, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking. This should be stamped out, whoever does it—staff or inmates. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the vile practice of bullying. I believe that boards of visitors need a clear line of communication with the Home Office and the prison department, as prisons have become very overcrowded, pressurised places. This puts immense stress on governors at times when problems emerge. Those problems need sorting out before they escalate and become disasters.

I served on the Yorkshire Regional Health Authority when the closure of many large psychiatric hospitals was being planned and care in the community was being discussed. No one disagrees with care in the community if it is backed by plenty of resources and support. Without that backing—I said it then and I say it now—many psychiatric patients who do not take their medication and who do not have support will land up in prison, having caused problems for the community and themselves.

That problem hit me when I visited Brixton prison some time ago and Holloway prison recently. Brixton prison had a ward full of schizophrenia sufferers and Holloway prison had some very disturbed women with mental disorders. It seems that prisons are landed with some very big human problems. Many of the prisoners who are mentally ill need skilled staff to look after them. Do the prisons employ enough trained psychiatric nurses? There is a problem recruiting nurses in National Health Service hospitals. I ask the Minister whether it is even more difficult in prisons.

It is encouraging that in 1995-96 the Standing Health Advisory Committee to the Prison Service chose as one of its major themes the provision of mental healthcare in prisons. May I ask the Minister, who I am sure will do his best to answer, what progress has been made for the through-care and after-care of prisoners who are released with psychiatric problems?

Many people believe that the Health Care Service for Prisoners is a small, isolated service and an unattractive place to work. The work can be fascinating, with great variety. Prisoners retain the right, as set out in the United Nations declaration, to have healthcare equivalent to that available to those outside prisons. But for many prisoners, that right is not met and the chain of responsibility and accountability to ensure that it is met has become more uncertain now that individual prisons are responsible for purchasing healthcare. The position would be clarified if responsibility for healthcare were separated from the custodial function and transferred to Ministers at the Department of Health. The response to the inspectorate's 1996 review overwhelmingly favoured integration of the National Health Service and the Health Care Service for Prisoners. France has recently shown that the integration of prison health services can succeed. Can the Minister say what are the Government's views?

There is a big public health issue, with the increasing prison population. During the past week, we have heard of the increase in cases of tuberculosis and I read in The Times on Monday: Interpol expert predicts a flood of drugs. Britain is facing a drug crisis that will see open warfare on the streets between rival drug gangs". Heroin on the streets has reached an all-time low. It is a very serious world problem. Drugs coming into prisons is only a reflection of what is happening in society at large. It is terrible when one hears that a prisoner has become a drug addict in prison, having been clean before sentence.

Last night, I attended the launch of one of the drug agencies undertaking drug prevention work and rehabilitation within prisons and the community. "Addaction", which stands for addiction and action, has gathered together many experts. Illegal drug use is a huge problem and I congratulate the Government on appointing a drugs co-ordinator and a deputy. Perhaps the Minister will be able to give your Lordships an update on how prisons are coping with the problems of HIV prevention, drug rehabilitation and through-care covering the whole country.

One of my greatest concerns is the cut in the provision of education and rehabilitation in prisons. It involves teachers, psychologists, trades instructors and probation officers. To leave prisoners locked in cells for hours on end is asking for trouble. Boredom must make many of them desperate. I am sure that the encouragement of prison industries and useful work, with freedom from red tape so that prisons can give prisoners hope and skills, would help to counter the hopelessness and the degrading practice of drug taking.

Skills and useful work and some money earned within prison, so that prisoners have something to go out with to set them up for a useful life, must enhance self-esteem. I remember visiting a prison shop in Italy and being very impressed by the high quality of the goods for sale. Governors should have the freedom to organise such facilities with their local communities. I hope the Minister agrees that unless one prepares prisoners for a life outside and gets them into a routine for work many will just give up and find themselves back inside.

4.38 p.m.

Lord Acton

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, on introducing the debate. He is not only one of the most outstanding civil servants of the past seven decades, but also a legendary former Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office. As such, he is pre-eminently qualified to call attention to the problems facing the Prison Service.

As was said by the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater of Butterstone, the explosion of women prisoners from 1,353 at the end of 1992 to 3,068 on 13th March—the highest level since 1905—is especially worrying. Such numbers make it imperative to examine and improve the lot of women prisoners.

Fortunately, that is the view of Sir David Ramsbotham, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, who last May issued a key report entitled Women in Prison: A Thematic Review. His first recommendation, which he stressed again and again, was the appointment of a director of women's prisons to be responsible for the management of the female estate.

On 21st January, my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn announced the appointment of Linda Jones as assistant director of regimes with specific responsibility for women prisoners. A myriad of problems greet her. In his report, the chief inspector listed 160 separate recommendations to reform women's prisons. I quote the fourth recommendation: A thorough needs analysis of the female prisoner population should be conducted so that relevant national policies can be formulated towards health, education, food, employment. physical education. contact with families, security, tackling offending behaviour, bullying, alcohol, childcare, counselling and resettlement", and there are 159 more recommendations.

Last Friday, I visited Holloway and I was struck by the number of foreign women prisoners. The first two whom I met in the library were Nigerian and Russian. Incidentally, the latter asked me to thank British taxpayers for supporting so many women in prison. The first prisoner whom I met in the kitchen, preparing fish for lunch, was Puerto Rican.

In his report, Sir David emphasises the substantial percentage of foreign nationals in prison. He recommends that on reception, a list of suitable translators should be available who should be trained to explain the rules and procedures to women who cannot understand English. Furthermore, all prisons receiving women from court should keep an up-to-date supply of materials on legal and bail issues, translated into languages needed by the prison population. As many of the foreign nationals are in prison for drug importation and are not themselves users and rarely present control problems, the chief inspector recommends that foreign nationals should not be excluded from open prisons.

While I was talking to the principal officer of the medical unit, there was a sudden alarm and a pounding of prison officers' feet down the corridor. A woman in the detoxification unit had tried to hang herself. Fortunately her life was saved. Statistics show that there were three female self-inflicted deaths last year. The chief inspector reported that over 40 per cent. of the women interviewed had intentionally harmed themselves and/or attempted suicide. He also pointed to research which showed that one in five women reported attempts at self-harm in prison, while 44 per cent. reported thoughts of suicide while in prison.

Sir David recommends that staff should listen to women who harm themselves, help them to understand their motives and find ways to cope. Staff should be trained to work with women who harm themselves and professional support should be provided for the staff. As to suicide, managers in women's prisons should ensure the proper use of the suicide prevention system.

In the report, mention is made of the 33-bed detoxification unit and the 33 bed short-term rehabilitation unit at Holloway. The chief inspector estimates that the £500,000 devoted to those beds represents 80 per cent. of the total figure allocated centrally for drug intervention for women prisoners in England and Wales. He recommends that a consistent detoxification strategy should be implemented across the 15 prisons holding women.

Of course, I should like to hear from the Minster about developments in regard to all the recommendations that I have touched upon arising from my visit to Holloway. I should like to ask my noble friend about two further matters. Between April 1990 and March 1995, 269 babies were born in prison. At paragraph 12.116, the chief inspector said that, in view of the vulnerability of women in prison, the Prison Service should advance the date to achieve the "changing childbirth" recommendations from 2001 to December 1997. Has that been done?

At paragraph 12.111, Sir David recommended that full access to screening for breast and cervical cancer should be available by July this year. Will that target date be met?

The new assistant director for women prisoners has a mighty task. At the same time, she has a remarkable opportunity for she can better the lives of many thousands of women. I wish her all the luck in the world.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Carr of Hadley

My Lords, like other noble Lords who have spoken, I wish to say a few special words of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Allen, for bringing forward this debate today. He has long been a most distinguished and wise adviser on those matters, and I always felt particularly lucky, on becoming Home Secretary at rather unexpectedly short notice way back in 1972, that it was the noble Lord, Lord Allen, who was still the Permanent Secretary. I have always felt a great deal of gratitude as well as friendship towards him as a result of that experience.

The last time that the noble Lord initiated a debate on prisons in this House was just over four years ago, in February 1994. The purpose of his debate then was to draw attention to the problem of overcrowding in our prisons in England and Wales. I supported him strongly in that debate and I wish to do so again today.

In that debate four years ago, we warned most strongly against the dangers which can be caused by overcrowding in prisons. We were alarmed by the likely effect in that direction caused by the new penal policies which were being introduced by the then government. Whatever may be the merits or otherwise, in the long run, of those policies, experience over the past four years has shown that those warnings were only too well justified so that we now have a prison population which has increased by—is it? —60 per cent. in a very few years.

While the Prison Service today is far from being in a state of collapse—and we must be careful when we talk about our problems not to exaggerate the problems and failures or to forget the successes that the Prison Service is having—we must not ignore the fact that recent reports have shown that the state of affairs in at least some of our main prisons is a cause for grave anxiety—and "grave anxiety" are not exaggerated words.

I believe strongly that it is serious overcrowding, in both its direct and indirect effects, which is the biggest and most dangerous problem facing the Prison Service today. That must be tackled, and tackling it must take priority over other considerations if we are to serve the public, as we need to, in reducing crime in this country over the next few years and decades.

Penal policy must deal with punishment and criminals who commit serious offences must expect to go to prison. But we are in danger of forgetting—or at least the public and certainly the media are—that the ultimate objective of penal policy is to reduce crime and not just to punish current criminals. The prison regime must support and help us in that process and not do the reverse. However, if the prison regime goes wrong, we must realise that it can be, an expensive way of making bad people worse". In using that phrase, I am not creating it myself. I am quoting from a White Paper published in 1990 by my noble friend Lord Waddington who was Home Secretary at the time. He does not perhaps, in some quarters, carry the same taint of being soft on crime that I may have done in the past, however unjustified I may think that to have been.

That is the danger we face at the moment. Over the past few years there has been a sharp increase in the number of people going to prison. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Allen, remarked, People come out of prison". So, in the next few years, we face the prospect of an equivalent increase in the rate of people coming out of prison. If they come out of overcrowded prisons where they have been the victims of a lack of active training and preparation for release, we shall find that they will very quickly return to crime and that we have in fact turned many bad criminals into, perhaps, worse criminals; and certainly not into less bad criminals.

Therefore, action must be taken. But what must it be? I believe that we must restore urgently the cuts recently made to the Prison Service. For example, in relation to the employment of probation officers in prison; and in the educational service. Not to do so would be sheer madness—like not looking beyond the end of our noses and would just be a matter of storing up criminal trouble for the public in the future. It is not weakness and softness; it needs strength and firmness to do so.

After that, as has already been mentioned by my noble friend Lord Baker, with whom I strongly agree, we should speed up the process of justice in order to reduce the number of remand prisoners. There is a way in which we could alleviate the pressure of the numbers in prisons without in any way weakening the penalties for bad criminals. Then, as a number of speakers have said, I believe that we should make a more determined attempt to increase the use of non-custodial sentences. Here we have a big educational problem with the media and the public. Non-custodial treatment of the right kind is not a weak, soft option. There are plenty of ways of showing that if only we set about doing so in an organised way.

Finally, I should like to suggest that we ought to consider radical change in the form and content of custodial sentences. The size of the prison population depends not only on the number of people sent to prison but also on the length of time they are kept there. I am not recommending a reduction in the length of sentences, but I am recommending a change in the way in which we make use of the period of sentence. It seems to me that the greatest danger to the public comes when former prisoners are suddenly released from prison one morning, without having had proper training and preparation for a return to freedom and for life in the community. I believe that every prisoner released from prison should be subject, as part of his sentence, to a period of supervision and training, and that he should also be subject to recall to prison if he breaks the conditions of his release.

Therefore, I should like to see a reduction in the proportion of the time of a sentence spent in custody; but I should also like to see every sentence concluding with a substantial and significant period on release, under supervision and under licence, with proper training, together with the power to return the prisoner to prison if he breaches the terms of his release. If we really followed that course, I believe that we might go a considerable way towards reducing the fear of the public of softness and reducing the danger to the public while, at the same time, limiting the number of people in prison.

4.54 p.m.

Viscount Tenby

My Lords, it is a particular pleasure for me to be able to speak in this debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Allen of Abbeydale. As a former prison commissioner and with a working life of great distinction in the public service, chiefly in the Home Office, no one can speak with more authority on this most intractable of society's problems. Moreover, we have the participation of what I can only describe as an all-star cast. Indeed, looking at the speakers' list makes me feel that I am the only person speaking this afternoon who has not actually worked in the Home Office, but I can perhaps claim ancestral connections. Such a star-studded list of speakers pays tribute to this record and also underlines the importance of the subject.

Perhaps I may briefly reminisce. It was during a debate on alternatives to custody some years ago, also led by my noble friend Lord Allen, that I made my maiden speech. On that occasion, speaking as the then deputy chairman of a large and busy Bench in the South, I recall pointing out that, there are many in prison who ought not to be there". That was perhaps not the most original of thoughts, but things that are true are worth repeating.

Although there have been certain peripheral but nonetheless welcome changes for the better in the meantime—for example, the end of slopping out and the greater use of community sentences as an alternative to prison—the main thrust of what was said then remains depressingly similar. It is a huge subject that we are discussing this afternoon. Accordingly, I propose to refer to just one part of the problem: people who are in prison but who do not need to be there—that is, if you take as your principal objective in sending people to prison the need to protect the community.

First, we have a whole range of young people, boys and girls—some 3,000—between the ages of 15 and 17 who are often remanded into senior prisons because of acute shortage of secure local accommodation. The girls are invariably mixed with their seniors because of the absence, unlike the boys, of separate facilities for them. That is an issue that I know my noble friend Lady Masham is much concerned about and one which has been debated at length during the proceedings on the Crime and Disorder Bill, which is now awaiting its Third Reading in this House. Then we have those prisoners whose mental condition makes it quite unsuitable for them to be committed to what I might describe, for want of a better phrase, as a general prison.

Perhaps I may briefly quote one example. Last week, a 69 year-old former miner, Thomas Hughes, hanged himself in Cardiff prison. He had been in custody since October but the appropriate hospital would not admit him due to his infirmity and age. Can we really believe that? He had also been passed as being fit to return to prison. I should point that he had paraphrenia, senile dementia and Parkinson's disease. What, in the name of the sanity that he so desperately sought, was he doing in a prison cell?

A recent report states that research indicates that 19 per cent. of sentenced prisoners and 25 per cent. of remand prisoners have problems associated with mental illness. If you add into these statistics those suffering from drug dependence and abuse, the figures rise to 39 per cent. and 63 per cent. respectively. In fairness, it must also be said that transfers from the Prison Service of mentally disturbed prisoners to hospitals rose from 94 to 746 in the 13 years from 1983, but there are still far too many in general prisons. What is needed, and needed urgently, is an increase in the secure mental hospital estate. I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm today recent media reports of a thorough overall of the arrangements for secure mental accommodation and plans for the building of new units. It will also be necessary to increase provision for community care in this area by local authorities. May we please have some assurances on this today?

I turn now to those in prison because, as offenders, they have, as it were, come to the end of the sentencing road. All the other options have been tried and found wanting. For example, take those who have been found guilty of wilfully refusing to pay a fine. This is always the example which is used to illustrate the unsuitability of some sentencing decisions. In fact, there were only 159 men and seven women so imprisoned on 31st January last. So eliminating this undesirable practice would hardly lead to a dramatic drop in prison numbers. But that, of course, is no reason to accept the situation and not try to replace it with something better. The small total is almost certainly due to the fact that most fine defaulters, who have hitherto throughout the proceedings claimed extreme penury, miraculously find the necessary when gaol looms. It is difficult to think of any alternative sanction which would carry quite the same message and part the offender from his cash so effectively.

Similarly, there is the repeat driving offender. In the past few days the press has carried the story of a man convicted some 15 times for driving while disqualified. How do you stop that? A community sentence, however desirable—I have to say that I am one of its warmest advocates and have been for years—will not prevent such a person getting into a car once again at some future date with possibly disastrous consequences. Despite these reservations I must repeat that there are still far too many in prison who need not be there if—as I repeat—one accepts the premise that only those who pose some kind of threat to society should be so sentenced. Such people, once inside, should enjoy a strict but fair regime in which the rehabilitative objective, by way of education, trade training and character formation should be no less important than the need for retribution and the public's protection.

Prison policy is far too important to be a political football dribbled between parties. As a result of recent policy changes over the past few years—mostly dictated by a political agenda—we have seen the prison population increase dramatically until, as we have been told repeatedly this afternoon, it now stands at the staggering figure of 65,000 and continues to rise inexorably. We all know what that means: overcrowding—when will there be three to a cell again?—more time locked up, less time for education and skills training, more juggling to find prisons that have those elusive spare places, probably many miles away from a prisoner's home territory and therefore from his family and the necessary probation support.

How do we break this pernicious cycle? We could, of course, make greater use of community sentencing. Every effort must be made to find suitable and constructive alternatives to custody. I add my voice to that of my noble friend and refer to something that has been mentioned already; namely, the education of the public about the facts of prison life. For too long now the public have been prepared to pontificate about the need for a tough penal policy, egged on—it has to be said—by certain sections of the press, without the knowledge and appreciation of many of the points at issue. In this context it is an eye-opener to study the reactions of those who visit a prison for the first time and the impact it has on them, sometimes for months afterwards. Therefore, the issue is one of education too.

Until we as a nation confront the issues inextricably linked to sending people to prison, so long as we bandy about phrases such as "prison works" and turn our backs on the reality, so shall we have a rocketing prison population and an all-too-ready tolerance of conditions within prisons which should not be acceptable in a civilised society as we approach the millennium.

5.3 p.m.

Lord Windlesham

My Lords, I echo the tributes which have been paid to the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale. He was the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office when I first arrived as a junior Minister more than 25 years ago. He was my mentor then, and has remained a wise friend and guide for many years afterwards.

Short speeches are the order of the day. I shall therefore compress my remarks into developing a single proposition. It is that the more frequent resort to imprisonment is closely linked to public opinion or, more accurately, perceptions of public opinion by those who have a hand in the making of policy and in sentencing in the courts. Recent legislation culminating in the Crime (Sentences) Act of 1997 has become increasingly punitive in orientation. The emphasis has been on custody rather than on non-custodial sentences which often have a better track record in reducing re-offending.

New offences have been created criminalising conduct not previously penalised by law. Maximum determinate sentences of imprisonment have moved steadily upwards. More discretionary life sentences have been passed. Then, only last year, in an historic wrong turning, mandatory minimum sentences were introduced for the first time in our law—other than the penalty for murder—for three categories of offender. Two of those provisions are now in effect: the mandatory life sentence on second conviction for one of a list of eight offences of violence—some more serious than others, as we debated recently in this Chamber in Committee on the Crime and Disorder Bill—and mandatory minimum sentences of seven years' duration for a third conviction for a Class A drug trafficking offence. In themselves those mandatory sentences have not been responsible for the surge in the prison population. Many offenders would have received lengthy custodial sentences in any event, and the impact of the new sentences will not be felt for some years ahead. However, they are symptomatic of the penal climate.

It is this climate of opinion to which sentencers in the courts throughout the country are subject. Like politicians, judges and magistrates are conscious of what is expected of them. The assumption is that the public want more punitive sentencing as a demonstration of toughness. So more offenders are sent to prison rather than receiving community sanctions. That perception does not always correspond with reality. It is illustrated by one of the many interesting and important findings in the most recent British Crime Survey of 1996, which found that only 20 per cent. of the public—when questioned closely—wanted tougher sentences. What would really submerge the already dangerously overloaded prison system would be the implementation of the third category of mandatory provision in the 1997 Act: namely, a minimum of three years' imprisonment for repeat burglars.

There has been an increase approaching 5,000 in the prison population over the past year. We should compare that figure with the estimates published in the financial memorandum which accompanied the Crime (Sentences) Bill of 1997. The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, spoke of the importance of making forecasts. The forecast at that time of the financial effects was an increase of 11,000 in the prison population some 12 years after the implementation of the three categories of new mandatory minimum sentences. Almost half of that total has been achieved in the past 12 months. In retrospect, at any rate—and I was not alone in thinking so at the time—it was absurdly optimistic (indeed almost a deception) to have published such an estimate as a prelude to what became the Crime (Sentences) Act of 1997.

A change of public attitude is necessary if the disastrous mismatch between the demands made on the Prison Service, about which we have heard so much today, and the resources available to it, is to be corrected. A good place to start—I say this directly to the Minister on the Front Bench opposite—would be to repeal the unimplemented provision of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997.

5.10 p.m.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, a great many points have been made already and it is difficult not to repeat them. I propose to confine my remarks to two types of diversion. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, spoke most movingly of one diversion: guiding young people away from activities which will get them into prison and instead into worthwhile local activities. That was an initiative of Lord Ennals when he was Minister of Health. He gave enough funds from government for an institution to be set up which acted with great competence. Unfortunately, the generosity of Lord Ennals with government money was not followed by his successors. However, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, took up the work and has been doing it magnificently ever since by means of private fund-raising. It would be a worthwhile expenditure of public money if the Government were to do again what Lord Ennals did, and to help the noble Lord in his valiant fight to keep this funding going.

We have heard that the prison population has risen to 64,500. The last figure that I had was 63,000, but that was two years ago. It gave a statistical figure of great interest: 120 prisoners for every 100,000 people in this country. I think that we must regard that as a shocking figure. It should shock us into action rather than words. That statistic indicates that we are at the bottom of the league in Europe except for Portugal.

I realise that the primary attack on those appalling numbers should concentrate on the young. For goodness sake, let us start with the young. I have heard the view stated in this House that prisoners are failures. If we can stop this ghastly procession of failures going through our prisons and coming out worse, if anything, than when they went in we should do a great service to the nation. We should also do a great service to the younger generation which is on its way to prison—alas!—unless brilliant ideas are put to work among young people in the same way that the noble Lord, Lord Elton. graphically described to us. In brief, those are efforts to divert mostly vulnerable young people from crime by helping them to take up other activities in the community of more value both to themselves and to the community. That is one diversion I wish to bring to the attention of the House.

The second diversion concerns mentally disordered offenders who so far have somehow not received much attention in this House. Until now I have, perhaps innocently, believed that in law only people in their right mind at the time of the offence may be sent to prison. Why are so many mentally disordered offenders in prison? A report entitled An unsuitable place for treatment was published in February this year. It cites research studies which indicate that 19 per cent. of sentenced prisoners and 25 per cent. of remand prisoners have problems of mental disturbance. I believe that those figures are very similar to those given recently by my noble friend Lord Tenby. The figures are considerably higher if problems of substance dependency or abuse are included. That leaves, roughly speaking, a margin of between 19 per cent. and 39 per cent. of those in prison who are mentally unstable, mentally disturbed.

I ask a very simple question of the Government. Why should not this considerable section of the prison community be sent to proper places for treatment? In other words, they should be sent to secure hospitals in the first place. In recent years the Prison Service has made some progress in arranging for mentally disordered people to be sent from hospitals to proper places for treatment. In 1983, 94 such transfers were made. The number has risen substantially to 746 for 1996. So why, I ask, should these people have been sent to prison in the first place? What a relief for hard-worked prison staff it would be if those considerable numbers of prison inmates were diverted earlier to secure hospitals where their disordered symptoms, their mental problems, could be addressed professionally by the health services and. one would hope, by the social services.

Finally, in connection with mental disorder, I believe that the case is now made for the Prison Service to be served by the National Health Service instead of the prison mental service. I believe that the ironing out of the sentencing of mentally disturbed prisoners should be addressed very soon.

5.18 p.m.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow

My Lords, I am the third successive speaker in this debate from this side of the House who had the pleasure to serve as a Minister in the Home Office when the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, was Permanent Secretary. Like my noble friend Lord Windlesham, I benefited enormously from listening to his wise advice at that time, just as I believe we have all benefited today from his great experience in the House.

Much of what one would wish to say in a debate of this kind has already been said. But surely it is clear beyond doubt that we face a crisis in prison numbers today: a figure of 65,000 in prison, compared to 40,000 some five years ago. A prison population that is rising at the rate of 6,000 a year must cause concern. The noble Lord, Lord Allen, reminded us that the projections are for a figure of 83,000 or even 92,000. It is an alarming situation. It is therefore perfectly reasonable to ask the Government, as the noble Lord, Lord Allen, has done, to tell the House their proposals for tackling this situation.

There is nothing new in this. The noble Lord, Lord Allen. will remember that, in 1970, he presented a paper to the then incoming Conservative Government in which we were told that the prison population had reached the alarming figure of 40,000 and that, if nothing was done about it, it would get bigger and bigger over future years.

As the noble Lord, Lord Allen, will remember, we attempted to do something about it. We implemented a prison building programme to attempt to meet the overcrowding that existed. But in the Criminal Justice Act we placed great emphasis on non-custodial penalties. We introduced the principle of community service. I believe it to be essential that the Government again today place greater emphasis on non-custodial sentences.

Sixty-thousand people in prison means appalling prison overcrowding, and that inevitably affects the regime that can occur in prison. It must be remembered that one of the aims of imprisonment is to attempt to rehabilitate the offender, but it is very difficult to achieve that end if a person is locked up for most of the 24 hours of every day.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, who is to speak later, will remember that, as members of the same committee, we took as our main theme that one of the purposes of prison must be to prepare people for release. If, after leaving prison, people commit further offences, then imprisonment has failed—and very expensively. I therefore hope that we shall hear from the Minister today that thought and emphasis is being given to an examination of possible alternatives to non-custodial sentences.

My next point has been made by earlier speakers. What is the reason for the vast increase in the prison population? It is not that more people are being convicted and sentenced. It is the fact that a higher proportion of those who are being convicted are being sent to prison, and for longer periods. Anyone who has anything to do with the system knows that that is so. Yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Allen, said, the irony is that, at the same time, the public are invited to regard the judges as being in some way soft in the sentences that they pass. It is vital that the Government should attempt to give a lead in clearing up the misunderstandings that exist in relation to the penal system, sentencing policy and the length of sentences passed by the court, and that they encourage shorter rather than longer prison sentences.

That leads me to support the point made by my noble and learned friend Lord Windlesham in relation to the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997. In what is almost their first measure, this Government will increase the prison population by implementing the mandatory proposals in two of the three ways that that Bill provides. Should they be foolish enough to introduce the third, then the prison population will increase even further.

However, I welcome the fact that they have decided not to proceed with changing the system of early release. The whole purpose was that people should spend a recognised proportion of their sentence in prison, and should then be released, under supervision, for the remainder of that sentence. It is a provision that works.

Finally, like the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, I also attended the meeting yesterday evening. It is a disturbing thought that 70 per cent. of crime committed in this country is said to be in some way drug related. The offences are either directly to do with drugs, or they are to do with obtaining money for the purpose of feeding an addiction to drugs. If the Government could succeed in their fight against drugs, if they could put more emphasis on that fight, and particularly against drug abuse by the young, they would do more to reduce crime, and therefore reduce the prison population, than would any other measure that might be introduced at present.

5.26 p.m.

Baroness Ludford

My Lords, I, too, wish to thank the noble Lord. Lord Allen of Abbeydale, for initiating this very important debate, which has attracted such distinguished speakers. I cannot hope to match their distinction and experience. My only locus is that, as a councillor in the London Borough of Islington, I feel a certain representational responsibility for the prison at Holloway, although those there have no vote.

The governor of Holloway believes that there are women in Holloway who should not be there. On a programme last night, he responded to the example of a woman who had evaded a £14 taxi fare. She could not afford the £400 bail, and was therefore remanded in Holloway—at a cost of £1,600 for four weeks' remand. That does not seem a good bargain.

There are simply too many women in prison. As has been remarked, the figure is over 3,000, and is the highest this century. In the period of just over five years since December 1992, the figure has more than doubled. Two-thirds of women prisoners are mothers, with an average of three children each. Only a quarter, when they are imprisoned, have their children looked after by the child's father or by their partner; 56 per cent. have them cared for by family and friends; and 10 per cent. of the children go into local authority care or foster care, or are adopted. That obviously places a huge strain on the mothers, and especially on the children, storing up who knows what social problems for the future. Since there are only 14 female prisons, there is often a long distance between the prisoner and the children. Do the Government accept that, if a woman prisoner poses no risk to the public, she should be permitted extra temporary release and home leave to visit children?

The conditions for women prisoners give rise to concern. Holloway and Risley, a mixed prison, were included in the "black list" of nine worst prisons identified last September by the Chief Inspector of Prisons. There was said to be very serious intimidation and violence at Holloway. One of the problems was that the security crack-down following the Parkhurst and Whitemoor escapes apparently affected women, who rarely escape in comparison with men. There is believed to have been a security "overkill" that has affected women. Issues such as chaining, handcuffing and strip-searching have given rise to concern. Will the Minister give an assurance that the policy is that no women prisoners should now be chained; and, if so, is that policy made clear to prison governors?

The secretary general of the Prison Governors' Association has said. It's quite clear that a number of women in prison arc there as a direct result of poverty and abuse". It might be said that they are not merely failures, but victims. A 1991 study found that 56 per cent. of women in prison have mental health problems; half have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused in childhood. Thirty-eight per cent. have been in local authority care, compared with 2 per cent. of the general population. We are mainly imprisoning damaged women, not evil women.

As has been remarked, there is a severe shortage of secure places for women in special hospitals, so prison remains the last resort. Forty per cent. of women inflict self harm which is called "cutting up", or attempt suicide due to their history of abuse, family relationship problems, depression and stress. Many have drug and alcohol problems. There need to be more addiction programmes to address the problems, but prisons are overwhelmed by overcrowding difficulties.

I welcome the study of the Howard League, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, of teenage girls in prison. I welcome the forthcoming study by the Prison Reform Trust referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hurd.

The governor of Holloway also believes that women are judged more harshly than men in the criminal justice system. The statistics on it are rather complicated and I shall not attempt to go into them. Seventy-one per cent. of women in prison have never been to prison before and half have no previous convictions. Only 20 per cent. of those were charged or convicted of violent offences. Thirty-eight per cent. of women prosecuted are charged with not having TV licences. According to the Prison Reform Trust: Every week around five or six women come into Holloway for non-payment of the TV licence and one in 20 women in Holloway is a fine defaulter". My conclusions are threefold. First, as others have said, the Government need to lead and not to follow public opinion in creating a climate which will encourage the use of alternative sentences to prison. That is particularly the case for women. I wish to pay tribute to the recent record of the Prison Service and of prison staff. There is much enlightened thinking, particularly on conditions for women prisoners. I have quoted Mike Sheldrick, the governor of Holloway. There are many humane people in the Prison Service and the Government need to encourage them by taking a lead in setting a climate of opinion in the public, the media and the judiciary. They should not just stand hack and let it happen.

My second conclusion is that we need more research into why women enter the criminal justice system, why 71 per cent. who are sent to prison have never been in prison before. We need research into the problems of fine defaulting and whether, where the original offence is non-imprisonable, the sanction of imprisonment should not be imposed for fine arrears. I should particularly like a response from the Minister on that. Issues surrounding the separation of mothers from children need to be further researched, as well as the provision of mental health treatment and drug and alcohol treatment services, together with the most effective regimes to reduce re-offending. Finally research needs to be carried out on re-settlement problems. One noble Lord mentioned the issue of housing benefit which we shall discuss under the Social Security Bill next week. If women are to be resettled after prison, the problem of backdating restrictions on housing benefit will become a live issue.

In conclusion, we need a review of the conditions for women in prisons. Like the noble Lord, Lord Acton, I welcome the appointment of Linda Jones as assistant director for women. I hope she will be able to conduct a review. I understand that one of the problems is that the equality of treatment for women prisoners does not always work to their advantage.

I finish on a quote which I understand is a joke among women at Risley: "Equal treatment means that if the men want pie and chips and the women want salad and lighter food, we get pie and chips". Equal treatment does not always mean fairness for women.

5.33 p.m.

Lord Rowallan

My Lords, I too wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, for introducing the debate. I am afraid that I know nothing about prisons. I speak purely as a layman, as I see things happening.

In 1939 the prison population was 11,000 out of a total population of 47 million; that is 0.2 per cent. As we have heard, it is now up to 65,000 out of a population of 583/4 million, which is 1.2 per cent. There are six times as many people in prison, yet the population has only increased 0.25 times. Are we getting naughtier or are we simply putting more people in prison as discipline and respect for elders and property disappear in this modern society of ours?

Alternatively, as the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, and the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, said, can we reduce the whole problem of having too many in prison by simply taking out of the prison population per se groups of people who should not even be there? By that I specifically refer to the young, of whom we have a population of 3,000; remand prisoners numbering 12,364; and the mentally ill, totalling 20,000, 2,586 of whom should be in hospital. The remaining 17,500 are languishing somewhere in the prison system. That is a total of nearly 50 per cent. of the entire population of prisons.

As my noble friend Lord Carr of Hadley said, the result of the overcrowding—which is the crux of the problem—is cells with three or four in them which were designed for one; the sane mix with the insane; the remand prisoner mixes with the old lag; the young and impressionable mix with the old and incurable. The consequence is more potential youth crime. More and more prisons are being built, one three miles from my home. Unfortunately, too few regard prison as a chastising punishment never to be repeated. Too many regard prison not as punishment but as a safe haven which provides free food, a free roof over their heads and no financial problems. Unfortunately, again, very few—but too many—regard prison as a livelihood. I shall say more on that in a moment.

No one knows how long people will be in prison as we still work on an early release system for good behaviour. Good behaviour should be de rigueur in prisons. There should be add-ons for bad behaviour. The prisoner is in prison to be prepared for a normal life outside in the community where he is expected to behave in a normal fashion. So sentencing by our judiciary should mean what it says. Ten years should be 10 years, 20 years should be 20 years, and life should he life.

Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, said in evidence to a Home Affairs Select Committee on 11th March this year: British prisons are controlled by drug barons, packed with the mentally ill and in chaos". He told MPs that as many as 10 drug dealers per prison were operating with immunity and using enforcers to collect their debts.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, perhaps I might interrupt the noble Lord. He said that he knew nothing about prisons and he made that evident all too quickly. Is he really saying that the 3,500 people serving life sentences should be there for life?

Lord Rowallan

My Lords, under the system I propose, yes. Under the current system with the judges life may not be that. I am saying that if a judge considers someone so dangerous that they should be in prison for life, that is what they should be there for. If the judge thinks that they should be there for only 20 years, that is fine. It would be his decision, not mine, nor that of any other members of the general public. After all, it is the judge who is present at the trial and who hears all the evidence.

Sir David Ramsbotham went on to say that 30 to 40 per cent. of young offenders need not be in prison at all. An estimated 20,000 inmates—almost a third of the prison population—suffered from some form of mental illness. He also said that foreign nationals were a "hideous drain" on the service and should be sent back to serve sentences in their own countries.

If we got rid of all those groups which he talked about, we would presumably lose many of the prison population and make it easier for everyone to govern prisons. Half the prisoners who commit suicide have had previous psychiatric illnesses. Gaoling the mentally ill—and remember that one in five schizophrenics is in gaol and one in 10 of us has a chance of being a schizophrenic during our lifetime—nearly always worsens their condition. It is inhumane to lock them up with the sane—it is inhumane for them, inhumane for the sane inmates and inhumane for those who look after them. As the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, said, in 1997, 70 inmates with mental problems killed themselves in prison. In 1994 a Mr. Edwards was killed in Chelmsford gaol by a mentally ill cell-mate on a three-day remand for psychiatric assessment. Sixty-three per cent. of remand prisoners, according to a Home Office-funded survey published in 1996 in the British Medical Journal, had a psychiatric disorder and 50 per cent. of those needed immediate treatment.

With figures of that magnitude it is clear that we are building prisons to house the mentally ill when what is needed are new secure psychiatric facilities. It has not been progress to close asylums and simply open prisons. Our prisons are for the detention of criminals; they are not hospitals. Three years ago the Government assured us that the number of secure beds was being doubled by the National Health Service. But nothing has happened. Prisons are being built at an astonishing rate, but nothing is being done to help the mentally ill in their tragic plight. They are often locked up for 19 hours a day because no one is available to give them the help that they need. If they need to be assessed, very often they are there for even longer. In Holloway, the average remand time for patients referred to one consultant is 28 days. That increases to 63 days when two consultants are involved.

One of the problems is that prisoners cannot be treated against their will in the prison system, except for urgent treatment given under common law. That crucial difference means that prisoners cannot be treated even when they have been found guilty of an offence, even when their diagnosis is not in doubt and even as they await transfer to hospital. When the doctors finally agree to give them beds, it is done under Section 37 of the Mental Health Act 1983. That means that they are sent back to prison for a further 28 days, which is the time the Act permits for the bed to become available. Yet had that been done in the community, under civil law they would have been admitted within 24 hours.

Home Office Circular 66/90 says that mentally disordered people should never be remanded to prison simply to receive medical treatment or assessment. Circular 12/95 asked for chief police officers to develop arrangements for examination by psychiatrists in police custody at selected police stations. And yet the courts, the police and the prosecution authorities continue to flood prisons with mentally ill people.

We must separate out the mainstream prisoner from the remand prisoner and the mentally ill prisoner. Then one hopes we can allow prison officers, psychiatrists and everyone else involved in the rehabilitation of prisoners a chance to provide for the future of those people when they return to the community in order that they can integrate properly and, through the auspices of bodies like Apex, find employment, having duly served the punishment that society gave them.

5.42 p.m.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, in the early 1950s the noble Lord to whom we owe this debate was deputy chairman of the Prison Commissioners. In the same decade I developed some much lower level interest in prisons through giving a series of lectures in Durham gaol. I have rarely enjoyed audiences so attentive and appreciative and I was struck by the educational opportunities that prison life presented. However, with other things to do, I assumed that the opportunity was being duly seized upon by the authorities concerned and left it at that. News emerging as a result of funding reductions in the past couple of years showed me that I was wrong. The provision for education and training gives reason for deep concern and that has been echoed around your Lordships' Chamber this afternoon.

In 1995–96 the average cost per inmate per year was around £25,000. That is a tidy sum and one might have expected that a tidy bit of it went on education and training, so that prisoners could emerge better equipped to earn a legal livelihood. But in fact the amount for education and training was not a tidy sum; it was a tiny sum—2 per cent. or, in gross terms, £37 million out of a total prison budget of £1.75 billion. But Mr. Richard Tilt's bad news has since got worse. In the following year, despite a steep rise in the prison population, the amount allocated for education and training fell from £37 million to £34.5 million. And even in the current year the figure is still £750,000 below the £37 million of two years ago.

Therefore, with a rise of 25 per cent. in prison numbers, the fraction spent this year on education is down from that wretched 2 per cent. to a mere 1.8 per cent. Given the fact that educational provision is patchy across the system, the news for some prisons is even worse. Reference has been made this afternoon to Sir David Ramsbotham's newly published report on Dartmoor in which he notes with dismay that this prison suffered a cut of 50 per cent. for education.

Surely economising on education and training displays a mystifyingly disastrous sense of priorities. Here we have 65,000 inmates disproportionately male; disproportionately young; disproportionately from unhappy family backgrounds; and—disproportionately ill-educated—as well as being disproportionately prone to inflict misery, damage and fear upon the communities from which they come and to which they will return. That is 65,000 people who, before imprisonment, tied up huge resources in police manpower, domestic security devices and closed circuit surveillance in our streets and businesses. They include the people who make pensioners on housing estates too terrified to emerge from their homes; who menace tourists in the streets, and who push drugs at school gates. Yet, instead of recalling the apparent optimism of yesteryear when prisons were called "houses of correction", recalling indeed the current publicly proclaimed mission of the Prison Service to help inmates lead law-abiding lives after release, we grossly neglect the areas most obviously directed to achieving that objective—education and training.

Of course I do not underestimate the difficulties. The inmates tend not only to be deeply ill-educated, but deeply hostile to education and they present the service with other problems too. There is a high incidence of poor mental health, to which reference has been made. Sir David Ramsbotham has estimated that it may well amount to one-third of the prison population. We have the ubiquitous problem of drugs, under the control of apparently uncontrollable drug barons who have a powerful presence in every prison. There are the logistic problems of inmate range: from lifers, through sex-offenders and inmates of foreign nationality to the large numbers merely on remand. Nor must we forget the special problem of inmates who are virtually children within the young offender institutions. And though I have stressed that the vast majority of inmates are young males, there are record numbers of females—as we heard this afternoon—posing their own problems for the system. For example, when a pregnant prisoner goes to a maternity unit she involves a special detail of nine warders who work in shifts of three.

One therefore must not and does not underestimate the factors militating against attention to education. It is easy to understand why the pressures of mere day-to-day management tend to preclude longer-term, more ambitious strategies. But, easy to understand or not, any such preclusion is a profound and tragic mistake.

The Prison Service must be given clear direction plus adequate resources to overhaul training programmes and remedial education such that programmes are developed for all prisons and all categories of inmate. The goal must be to compile an individual profile immediately on reception and then to assign each inmate to appropriate classes and training programmes, with incentives to inmate enthusiasm related directly to a privilege system right up to the privilege of early transfer to the Category D institution that prepares prisoners for release.

Nor should it be thought that such profiles and programmes are inappropriate for remand prisoners. Indeed, it can be argued that these are the very inmates for whom educational provision is most immediately suited. Let us not forget that many inmates are ill-educated because they were excluded from school or excluded themselves from school by truancy. Their incarceration makes them, literally, an apt captive audience for the education they missed. And if they are not already motivated enough to make up for lost opportunity, a mixture of prison discipline and attractive incentives should change their minds.

Now of course a good deal of what I should like to see already goes on, but very patchily and curiously in isolation. Prison governors are too busy, or perhaps too parochial in their interests, to spread or adopt the good practice that exists. But I have been impressed by the marvellous initiative by two officers in Brixton to address the problem of deaf prisoners. There are the prison charity shops with which the noble Lord, Lord Attenborough, is associated and which operate in Bromley, Peckham and Rugby. There are high intensity training programmes like that at Thorn Cross in Sheffield; the pre-release employment schemes which are working well at Springhill in Buckinghamshire and at the contract prison Buckley Hall near Rochdale; and of course there is excellent work on NVQs in many prisons, as well as programmes for teaching basic literacy and arithmetic.

But in too many prisons, such educational resources as exist are squandered on tokenistic exercises that smack of political correctness or on a plethora of superficial topics with no more constructive goal than to keep a few inmates amused.

In any case, it is not just a matter of resources. Fundamental structural changes are necessary—and on some of these I would welcome the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle. For example, the probation services within and outside prison should be unified so as to facilitate strategic planning with continuity to ensure implementation of educational and training objectives. And just as Sir David Ramsbotham has added his voice to those keen to see the NHS assume responsibility for the health of prison inmates, so I would like to see the Department for Education and Employment involved in prison service education. Of course, like the NHS, the DfEE may well be said to have enough on its hands already. But it could not do better than address the very important fraction of our population that could benefit from education in prison.

5.52 p.m.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, on introducing the debate. It is interesting that his concern has been endorsed by three previous Home Secretaries, the noble Lords, Lord Hurd, Lord Carr and Lord Baker, and by at least three former junior Ministers, the noble Lords, Lord Windlesham, Lord Elton and Lord Carlisle of Bucklow.

The debate has clearly demonstrated that the treatment of crime and criminality continues to cause concern to all those who care about the criminal justice system. It is not easy to reconcile the different views because, on the one hand, we have the tabloid newspapers and those who express views like, "Hang them" and "Flog them." Against them are those who are concerned as practitioners and policymakers in the criminal justice system. What we need to do is ask some very basic questions. Do we over-react and make excessive use of prison as a means of dealing with offenders? Is the resultant overcrowding hindering prison reform? Has prison lost its objective of rehabilitation, training and treatment? Has that been replaced by the simple objective of deterrence?

I declare an interest. I have been a magistrate; I have been a member of a board of visitors for 14 or 15 years; and I was involved at one stage with the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, in reviewing the parole system. All that has given me an insight into the criminal justice system. More importantly, I have also been responsible for picking up some of the pieces as vice-chairman of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders.

The debate is not about the causes of crime but about the inability to focus clearly on the effectiveness of punishment and treatment. As long as we continue to use prisons solely as a deterrent for society's ills, reforms that are badly needed will take a secondary place. The heavy emphasis on being tough on crime without a corresponding strategy for crime prevention must be a recipe for disaster.

It is clear from the figures that we spend nearly £10 billion a year on our criminal justice agencies but less than £240 million on crime prevention. The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, is right. The most important problem facing prisons is the over-use of custody. If the aim of the criminal justice system is to take criminals out of circulation, then of course prison works. The more the emphasis on locking up people who commit crime, the greater the pressure on prisons to cope and the greater the pressure simply to contain people in prison with less emphasis on improving conditions to provide activities or to deal with problems in individual prisons.

The number of men, women and children in prison has increased by 60 per cent. in six years. Last week we were told that there are more than 65,000 people in prison. Of course the Government have inherited much of the problem, but there is an urgent need to re-focus attention on the justification for imprisonment. No one can dispute that prison, for public safety reasons, is appropriate for serious and violent offenders. But community penalties are more effective for non-violent offenders. It is in this area that we should make less use of custody. I believe that, as a civilised society, we should aim not merely to contain prisoners but to prepare them to lead law-abiding lives on release.

Figures have been cited. I shall add to them. At present, 53 per cent. of all prisoners, 75 per cent. of young offenders and 89 per cent. of juveniles are re-convicted within two years. Is prison working for this group of people? The answer must emphatically be no. We need to re-examine our attitude to prisoners who face especially acute problems. They include young offenders, a high proportion of whom have been in care and who are unlikely to be released to a stable and supportive environment; women prisoners, many of whom are the primary carers of young children and whose family links can be badly damaged by imprisonment; and mentally disordered offenders, who pose an additional problem in terms of successful resettlement. In fact their condition can be worsened by imprisonment. Black prisoners often serve two sentences—one prescribed by the court and another by the extent of discrimination they suffer in the closed environment of prison.

We need to re-emphasise the objectives that prisons need to achieve: a positive plan of action for life outside prison; decent, good quality, stable accommodation; employment, training, education and meaningful activities; a source of income (a job or access to appropriate benefits); strong social and community ties; help in dealing with addiction and health related problems; and help in dealing with the reasons for committing crime.

Speaker after speaker in the debate cannot be wrong. At the root of everything is the sharp rise in the prison population. The Home Office had to revise sharply its projection of future population size. I was not in your Lordships' House at the time but on 9th June 1997 the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said that if the present trend continued the projections were likely to he a substantial underestimate and that the prison population could rise to 68,4(X) by March 1999. We are very close to that figure now. I suspect that the Crime and Disorder Bill which is going through this House at the present time will also have a large upward effect on the revised figures. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, will be able to comment on the implications of some of those policies.

It is accepted that overcrowding leads to poor prison conditions. Prisoners spend more time in cells. Access to activities is limited or reduced. Prisoners are moved away from their home areas and cells now hold more inmates. Of course, we can build more prisons and fill them up more speedily. What is unexplained about our country is why we incarcerate more prisoners for every 100,000 of the general population compared with France, Germany, Holland and Sweden. I feel ashamed when we are often equated with the prison situation in Turkey, which is one of the worst if one considers that part of the world.

Despite all the overcrowding we are fortunate that there are dedicated staff in the Prison Service who continue to provide a valuable service to those in their care. Perhaps I may quote the Butler Trust. It is right to point out that the quality of the relationship between prisoners and those who work with them in custody is one of the single most important factors in reducing re-offending and breaking the cycle of crime.

We must express our concern about the incidents in Wormwood Scrubs. I am aware of the internally-run Prison Service inquiry. It would be improper for me to comment on the incidents complained of. I shall avoid the temptation of quoting from the report of the board of visitors. What the incidents have demonstrated is crystal clear. The present machinery of relying on the office of the Prison Service Ombudsman to resolve discipline and grievance issues is wholly inadequate. Equally, an internal inquiry has little to commend it because it does not provide a level playing field for those who feel oppressed in a closed environment.

Public confidence and the confidence of the victims can only be established if there is machinery which is meaningful and independent and which has the power to recommend disciplinary action and disciplinary charges to those who manage our prisons.

The example cited is often that of a body similar to the Police Complaints Authority. There is much to commend it. I have served as a member of the Police Complaints Authority for over three years. Its chairman and dedicated members have gone some way in building the confidence of both the police and complainants in the machinery that the state has established. It has the confidence of the Home Secretary—

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I agree with the general line the noble Lord is taking. I was at Wormwood Scrubs last Friday. How can one improve on the board of visitors?

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I take that point into account. What happened at Wormwood Scrubs, including the report of the board of visitors, hardly addressed the situation affecting the inmates.

I conclude by saying that reform is long overdue. By the very nature of the crimes they have committed, prisoners have lost many of their rights. But what they have not lost is the right to be treated with dignity and respect. Equally. those who run the prisons must he afforded the same dignity and respect. The courts have determined the sentence that a prisoner should serve. We must not create conditions which oppress beyond what the courts envisaged. If we fail to uphold these values, we lose our status as a civilised society.

6.4 p.m.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I join others in offering my thanks and congratulations to the noble Lord. Lord Allen of Abbeydale, for introducing this debate which has attracted one of the most distinguished lists of speakers for some time. I believe that it was my noble friend Lord Baker who referred to the fact that it has attracted three former Home Secretaries and three former Ministers of State at the Home Office with responsibility for the Prison Service. My noble friend was admirably non-partisan when he referred to the fact that they were merely former Home Secretaries or Ministers of State. He did not refer to the fact that they were all former Conservative Home Secretaries and Ministers of State.

It is with some sorrow that I saw how few were prepared to speak from the Government Benches other than the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who described himself as "obsequiously loyal" and the noble Lord, Lord Acton. It would have been useful to have heard the views of some of the other former Home Secretaries or some of those who have been relatively active on the Crime and Disorder Bill, which has considerable implications as regards prison policy. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, will encourage their participation on future occasions; or perhaps he would rather not because they may not be as "obsequiously loyal" as the noble Earl, Lord Longford. Certainly I shall encourage them to participate in the remaining stages of the Crime and Disorder Bill. particularly on matters relating to sentencing and the possibility that children as young as 10 or 11 years of age should be sent to prison, as the Government are now recommending in that Bill. I was surprised that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, did not address that matter.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I had no time!

Lord Henley

My Lords, I appreciate that the noble Earl did not have time, but I am bringing the matter to his attention. Perhaps he may wish to address it on some other occasion.

As I said, although there were a number of speakers from my own Benches, there is considerable debate within my party. I cannot agree with everything that some of my noble friends said on this occasion. I begin by saying that although there was a general theme running through many of the speeches that prison does not work, I certainly believe that it does and can work. On many occasions prison is a necessary punishment for the offender and to protect the public. I accept that the prison population has risen dramatically over the past four years. I forget the precise figures, but I believe there has been an increase of about 40 per cent. in the four years to June 1997. Perhaps the noble Lord can confirm that figure. But one should remember that during that time crime fell by 10 per cent. I believe that the two are linked. It is a point that has been made on a number of occasions by senior police officers that locking up those who repeatedly offend can have a major effect on the levels of crime in certain areas.

I have one particular point that I wish to make as regards prison working. It was my understanding that re-conviction rates for those who have served a prison sentence were somewhat lower than for those who had served some kind of community service order. Certain noble Lords have quoted figures to the contrary. I shall be grateful if the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, with all the authority of the Home Office behind him, can give the figures and tell us what are the different levels of re-offending as regards those who have served a prison sentence and those who have served some kind of community service order.

In no way do I wish to decry the use of non-custodial sentences. I believe that all of us agree that they play a major part and that they are a very useful weapon in the armoury available to those who sentence people who have offended. It would be useful to know what are the official, correct figures for re-offending for those who have received some kind of community service order and those who have served prison sentences.

I would like to say something about our record during our years in government. We opened a large number of new prisons. I believe that some 28 new prisons, youth offender institutions and remand centres were opened between 1987 and 1997. Some 11,000 new places were created. I believe that a further 7,500 extra places were provided through the development of existing sites. Therefore, will the noble Lord be prepared to comment on the news I received only yesterday that the Government are to close the Colchester Young Offenders Institution? That was a new initiative started only last year to help to bring in some expertise with staff appointed from the Military Corrective Training Centre. Can the noble Lord comment on why it has been closed so early and before we have seen a study of the regime? When a study is carried out will that be made public?

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, in the course of his interesting remarks, will the noble Lord tell the House whether he is defending the record of Mr. Michael Howard in the last phase of the Conservative Government or the records of the three Home Secretaries who preceded him? Those records were totally different. Black is white occasionally, but not very often.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I had the honour to serve in the same government as Mr. Michael Howard. I was part of that government and I agreed with what the government were doing. I believe that my noble friend Lord Hurd also served with my right honourable friend Mr. Howard for a time and I believe that during that time my noble friend would have agreed with the policy of that government.

If I may continue, I turn now to the question of—

Lord Hurd of Westwell

My Lords, I hope my noble friend will allow me to intervene. Before making such a remark again perhaps he will consider one of my last speeches in the House of Commons on this theme, to which my noble friend Lord Baker referred.

Lord Henley

My Lords, if my noble friend will bear with me, I was referring to the time when he was speaking as a member of the government rather than as a Back-Bencher. I was also referring to my time in government and to the fact that I was a member of the same government as Mr. Howard and that I supported what he was doing then. I still do.

In the short amount of time now available to me I turn to the question of expenditure on the Prison Service. It has been suggested that we cut expenditure. I assure the noble Earl, Lord Longford, in particular, that the prison budget almost doubled in real terms between 1979 and 1997. Those who argued that we cut expenditure should address their questions to those on the Government Front Bench. I refer to a Written Answer in another place on 31st July last year when Joyce Quin, the Minister responsible for prisons, referred to a cut in the prison budget, stating that planned expenditure for 1997–98 was £1,774.5 million and £1,733.3 million for 1998–99. That was following a planned expenditure increase under the Conservative Government. It is the current Government who are intending to make those cuts.

I had intended to ask the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, a number of questions. I shall have to save most of them for another occasion or for correspondence with either the noble Lord or his noble friend Lord Williams. My most important point relates to the contracting out of court escort services, privatisation and the private finance initiative in relation to prisons. Before the election we heard Mr. Straw telling prison staff that privatised prisons would be taken back into the Prison Service as soon as contractually possible. Since then, we welcome the Government's conversion to PFI. We gather that four new prisons are to be built under that initiative. I should like confirmation from the Minister, first, that that will continue and, secondly, of the enormous savings that PFI can bring to the Prison Service. Perhaps the Government will confirm that there is evidence that in terms of running costs private prisons are up to 20 per cent. cheaper than those in the public sector and that even greater savings can be made with regard to capital costs.

On the contracting out of the court escort service, the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, will remember that the first court escort service to be contracted out reduced escapes by some 82 per cent. and produced savings of some £12.9 million up to April 1997. When we left office, eight such contracts were in place with a total value of £465 million. The first contract was awarded to Group 4 in April 1993 and it will run until 2003. Can the noble Lord inform the House whether that particular contract with Group 4 for court escort work in the East Midlands and on Humberside, which I believe is due to run out next month, will be renewed? There are great savings here and it is right that the Government should confirm that such contracts will be renewed.

I see that my 10 minutes are up. I have a number of other questions and I shall write to the noble Lord with them. I am sure that I will receive answers in due course.

6.14 p.m.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, I have quite a lot to deal with in the time available to me because so many questions have been asked in this very considered debate. If I may say so, the way in which noble Lords have examined this subject in detail has shown this House at its best. I am tempted to say to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, that, although he may have lectured me on the number of Labour Members behind me, I have received more support for our policies than he received for his comments about Mr. Michael Howard and his policies from his noble friends who are former Home Secretaries and Ministers. Perhaps the noble Lord would prefer it if his noble friends did not speak in future in debates such as this—

Lord Henley

My Lords, on this side we welcome open debate within our party on such matters. There was silence on the other side, except from the obsequiously loyal noble Earl, Lord Longford, because none of the others dares to speak unless they have received the blessing of Mr. Mandelson.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, that comes a little strange from the party of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, but I shall leave that argument at that.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to respond to this debate. The Government are committed to the work of the Prison Service. One of our first actions was to take back formal responsibility for the service. It is now the responsibility of the Home Secretary. That was a most important step. All Ministers at the Home Office now answer all parliamentary Questions about what happens within the service. That is a change from what happened under the previous regime.

As all noble Lords have stressed, we are all aware of the pressures created by the dramatic rise in the prison population over recent years. It has been rising steeply since early 1993. In 1993 it stood at 44,600 and is now just over 65,000. When my name was first put down to respond to this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle of Bucklow—we have known each other for many years—said to me, "I see you are now an expert on prisons'. I told him that I had been in many of them but I assure noble Lords, not in custody; merely as a visitor. My prison visits, however, come nowhere near the number of my noble friend Lord Longford. His record is second to none. Whenever he speaks on the subject in your Lordships' House, he does so with the benefit of his great experience.

As has been said, it is for the courts to decide who should be committed to custody and for the Government. through the Prison Service, to provide the necessary accommodation. The Prison Service has performed commendably to manage the rising prison population, but that should not be confused with an acceptance of the present state of affairs. In terms of accommodating the rising prison population, the situation is far from ideal. As has been said throughout the debate, overcrowding of prisoners brings its own pressures, with "overcrowding drafts" and prisoners facing the sudden breaking of family ties. Pressure on the services within prisons is also increasing. Overcrowding impacts on the constructive regime which not only all noble Lords, but also the Government, want to see.

We, as a government, recognise the pressure and we have taken some action. We have already audited the resources of the Prison Service and we published the outcome last July. It revealed that the Prison Service was not resourced adequately. We continue to monitor the trends in prison numbers. In the light of the latest prison population projections, the Home Secretary has made available an additional £112 million in 1998–99 to increase capacity and support regimes. I must point out that that represents an increase of 7.5 per cent. on the 1997‒98 figure.

However, we are not interested solely in accommodating rising numbers; we are committed to developing positive and constructive prison programmes. Constructive regimes are essential to the aims of our policy on criminal justice because in themselves they protect the public. Noble Lords have said today that if there is a constructive regime and people do not commit further offences when they leave prison, that protects the public. We want regimes that address offending behaviour and rehabilitate offenders. Such programmes, however, must be relevant to life outside to which prisoners will return. They must also maintain relationships between the offender and his family and the community. We attach the utmost importance to developing constructive, challenging and well-ordered regimes.

Before I turn to some of the points raised in the debate, in particular those raised by the noble Lord, Lord Allen, I should like to deal with two matters raised by the noble Lord, Lord Henley. He asked two questions which I am able to answer. The two-year reconviction rate for prisoners released in 1993 was 53 per cent. The equivalent for community service was 54 per cent. I suggest that there is not much difference. He also asked me why Colchester had been closed. The reason was that it was too expensive. It cost £30,000 per place. But we are committed to continuing high intensity retraining at Thorn Cross, which I witnessed first hand while in Warrington, and development regimes for juveniles.

Noble Lords have discussed the sentencing policy that is presently in operation. As I said right at the beginning, it is a question of what the courts decide. There is no doubt that judges and magistrates react to public opinion as it is perceived in the newspapers. Nor is there any doubt that the former Home Secretary's belief that prison is the right thing and that more and more people should be put in custody has had an effect. As the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, said, more prisoners are being sentenced to longer and longer periods of imprisonment.

If that is occurring—this point has been raised by noble Lords on both sides of the House—what consideration is being given to alternative non-custodial sentences? First, we believe that for serious offences people should be in prison, but we should also look at what can be done to prevent people from going to prison or keeping them in the community wherever possible. It is in the public interest that a person does not go back to prison. It also means that the pressure on the prison population is reduced. As noble Lords have pointed out, in the Crime and Disorder Bill there are tough new community penalties for drug misusers and juvenile offenders, including drug treatment and testing orders, action plan orders and reparation orders. We are also keen on making greater use of modern technology in relation to tagging and curfew orders.

Two pilot schemes in Norfolk and Manchester allow courts to impose community service orders or curfew orders on fine defaulters and persistent petty offenders. We are also considering the extension of curfew orders to juveniles and the imposition of driving disqualification. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is taking a close interest in the inquiry now being conducted by a Select Committee of another place into possible alternatives to prison sentences. My right honourable friend will be considering its report and any recommendations that it may make.

It has been said many times today that this country has the largest prison population in Europe. Yes, we do. However, we should also bear in mind that other countries—for example, France—have a larger proportion of prisoners who serve shorter sentences. We are continually looking at alternatives to custodial sentences. We believe that prison should be used only where it is necessary and justified and where the offence is serious. There will always be some offenders for whom that is the only response. However, we do not want prison to be used if non-custodial sentences are appropriate. That is the cornerstone of the Government's policy in relation to this matter.

A good deal of time has been spent considering government policy in relation to sentencing policy. We are looking for an effective sentencing system to ensure greater consistency. The Court of Appeal is preparing sentencing guidelines for all of the main criminal offences. We are also looking at a number of different orders to keep people out of prison.

What has been the effect up to now on people in prison and what can be done in relation to it? We are concerned about it. Despite the extra £112 million, the Government accept that the situation will be extremely difficult if the present trend continues and more and more people are placed in custody. For the moment, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has provided the service with an additional £112 million, which means that spending on the Prison Service now amounts to £1,816 million. We shall continue to make use of the prison ship "Weare", build six more houseblocks, fund conversion of accommodation to cells to hold extra prisoners in new prisons and carry out absolutely essential repairs to the prison estate. It is a question of modernisation and bringing new prisons on stream.

The £112 million provides for new places in prisons. Two hundred and ninety new places were announced at the time of the audit. It will lead eventually to 1,250 more places and the placing of an additional 2,280 prisoners in existing accommodation. It also provides for additional staffing and funding of regime activities. We hope that in the short term this will help the Prison Service cope with the population rise.

This strategy relies on population projections from 1999 onwards. Does it mean a population of 82,000 or more than that? We are determined to ensure that there is adequate accommodation for those who need it. We shall ensure that we keep up with it. In the meantime, we are considering all of the methods that have been discussed today—for example, curfew orders—to keep people out of prison. One noble Lord referred to three or four prisoners sharing a cell. We have dropped down to two to a cell, and as far as I know there are not four prisoners to a cell. Certainly, we do not want to go back to the use of police cells.

The size of the prison population is a problem. It is one that will continue. There has been a huge rise to the present figure of just over 65,000. We have also seen the projections. I am as concerned as are other noble Lords by the number of female prisoners. They increased from an average of 1,580 in 1992 to 2,675 in 1997. Even so, they still formed only a small proportion (4.58 per cent.) of the prison population. I was pleased to hear the welcome given from all sides of the House to the assistant director, Ms. Jones. We all wish her well. There is a problem for her to tackle.

The unfortunate increase in the number of women prisoners has not been due, as has been suggested today, to their being licence offenders who have not paid for TV licences. I believe that there are only three women in prison in relation to such an offence. Unfortunately, a number have been due to drug offences.

I shall turn to what is happening about drug offences. They form one of the real problems in prisons with which we have to deal. We are trying to deal with that problem. Mandatory drug testing is taking place. If I have any good news for the House it is that the testing has shown a reduction of 19.9 per cent. to 17.1 per cent. in the number of samples which have tested positive for cannabis. Similarly the percentage of random samples showing opiate use has fallen from 5.4 per cent. to 4 per cent. Many people have been troubled as to whether prisoners are now switching from cannabis to heroin because it does not remain in the urine for so long. Up to now the testing does not show that such a change is taking place.

We have been asked about trying to prevent drugs entering prisons. That is always difficult, because prisoners must see their families. We are using sniffer dogs and searches. Unfortunately they have to include visiting children. We are doing all that we can. We do not want to move to closed visits, but governors have the right to introduce closed non-contact visits where there is drug misuse.

We have also said that those prisoners who wish to live in a drug-free environment will have VTUs available to prove that they are drug free. If they wish to prove that they are drug free and are prepared to be tested, we are trying to give them the opportunity for that. We are introducing a range of treatments to a selection of establishments. We are trying, as far as possible, as has been said today, to provide the necessary treatment for prisoners.

The same applies to mentally disordered prisoners. They pose a great problem to the Prison Service. As has been acknowledged today, we are trying to get as many as possible out of prison where there is accommodation available in the NHS. We have also been asked whether we accept that the prison health service should come under the NHS. The Chief Inspector of Prisons made that recommendation. It is being studied at the moment by Ministers. In the meantime, we are concerned to ensure that mentally disordered prisoners receive the attention that they need.

Education has been mentioned. We are keen on education. We are keen to give prisoners more opportunities for education. A more relaxed regime is being introduced. We are also introducing into the prison service the Welfare to Work programme. As noble Lords will be aware, that is part of the Government's general initiative to give 18 to 24 year-olds the skills necessary. That is even more necessary for young offenders. We are going to run a pilot programme for 18 to 24 year-olds in 11 prisons. It is scheduled to start in April when the New Deal goes through. It is being financed by £1.5 million of windfall tax. We are hoping to put 2,000 18 to 24 year-olds through the scheme. When such people leave prison we shall be giving them the advice necessary to ensure that they obtain employment. I am sure that everyone here will welcome those developments and initiatives in relation to education, and what is being done in relation to those who are mentally disordered.

My time is nearly running out. I hope that I have shown that the Government have already acted. They are committed to further action to ensure that the Prison Service can deliver our key priorities. As I have said, the Prison Service has a key role to play within the criminal justice system. It is already doing much to deliver our commitments, including those on developing constructive regimes and on tackling the problem of drugs in prisons.

The Government are confident that the Prison Service will continue to build on that work. Given an increasing prison population, no one pretends that that does not create severe problems. However, the Government are determined that those who commit serious crimes will go to prison, but, as I said, we are considering methods other than prison for other offences. For those in prison, the Government place emphasis on education, training and rehabilitation so that we ensure, as far as possible. that former prisoners have the opportunity to live useful lives within our society away from crime.

6.36 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, by overrunning his time, the Minister has left me with only a minute or two. I shall content myself with saying that it has been a fascinating debate in which we have had some learned and knowledgeable contributions. I am afraid that I am not content with the answers that we have received on some of the most important issues, but I shall read what has been said. I only hope that in Whitehall, or, perhaps more accurately, Queen Anne's Gate and Clelland House, they will read what the others have said. I thank all those who have contributed to the debate, and beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.