HL Deb 10 April 2000 vol 612 cc1-4
The Earl of Longford

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to the report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons on inspection of close supervision centres.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

My Lords, the report makes 21 recommendations to the Director-General of the Prison Service and one to the Home Secretary. Of the recommendations, 14 have been accepted in principle and two rejected wholly or in part. The remaining seven recommendations are still under consideration.

Our response to this helpful report has been guided by the principle that any recommendation which has the potential to increase the risk to prison staff or other prisoners will simply not be accepted.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I apply limited enthusiasm to that guarded Answer from my noble and much esteemed friend the Minister. He is aware, of course, that the report is highly critical of the arrangements for looking after these very difficult prisoners. I wish to ask him two questions of which he has been given slight notice, although he may not have had time to consider them. First, does he realise that the chief inspector is calling for a totally new approach to supposedly dangerous prisoners? I turn to the particular. I am referring now to someone called Charlie Bronson. He is rather famous. He has been in solitary confinement for 22 years. He is possibly the strongest man in England, doing 3,000 press-ups a day, and is considered dangerous. But he is a gifted man. He has won four prizes for cartoons and he has written a book. This man is at present on a concrete bed and has no window in his cell. Is the Minister going to justify that?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we welcomed the report, which was both helpful and constructive. It is perhaps worth reminding your Lordships of the opening paragraph of the inspector's report. It states: The most difficult problem facing any prison system is that posed by the small number of really dangerous and disruptive prisoners who attack staff, take hostages, attack and murder other prisoners and refuse to conform to normal prison conditions". In those circumstances we have to pay serious regard not only to the recommendations but also to the threat that is posed to prison officers and staff working in the prisons by these 40 or so most difficult prisoners within the entire prison system. The Prison Service is to conduct further research into the management of highly disruptive prisoners and a new advisory group will assist the Prison Service in that regard.

As to Charles Bronson, it is not the case that he is sleeping on a concrete bed. He is sleeping on a concrete plinth, but the fact is that it has normal bedding material, including a mattress and bed clothing, placed on it. His cell does have a window. He has a cardboard solid chair and table and a fixed notice board. He is allowed a number of personal items. The reason he lives in those very constrained circumstances is that he poses a profound risk to staff and there is a very long record of that. The Prison Service has to take pay careful regard to the danger he presents not just to other prisoners, and not just to prison officers, but also, on occasions, to himself.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are high-security inmates in this establishment? Does he accept that the regime has been oppressive? Does he further accept that the test of a civilised prison regime is that the establishment is run in a civilised way? Will he consider the possibility of examining good practice in countries such as Holland and Denmark to see what lessons could be learnt and whether such good practice could be implemented in some of our prisons in this country?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the test of any civilised society is that it can contain its prison population in a highly civilised and humane way. However, as I said earlier, there are just 40 prisoners within this special category of supervision. The noble Lord suggests that we should undertake research into best practice internationally. I can advise your Lordships' House and the noble Lord that there is no established best practice. We are attempting to establish precisely the best possible practice. We intend to conduct further research into the issue because we realise that it is difficult, as the inspector recognised, to hold such prisoners in our prison system.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, does the Minister agree that many of the prisoners in this institution will have come from deprived families and will have very little education behind them? Does he not further agree that the Government's Sure Start programme, which seeks to intervene in order to help children and families by supporting them early, is welcome in terms of reducing the number of such institutions and the need for them in the future?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I cannot possibly comment on Sure Start; that is a different programme from a different department. Obviously, any contribution that it makes in the long term to eradicating the more severe forms of personality disorder of which these prisoners are a reflection is welcome. Such prisoners are at the extreme of personal behaviour. For that reason, great care has to be taken regarding how they are managed through the system and through the prison estate.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that he has the support of these Benches in setting the safety of prison officers and staff as the first priority in the case of difficult and violent prisoners? On a detailed point, will the Minister comment on what I understand to be the case; namely, that the boards of visitors have been cut out of the decision-making process by the new set-up? I am not at all sure that that is desirable.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his continued support for the measures that we take to deal with violent prisoners of this kind. As to boards of visitors, there are only two establishments involved as close supervision centres. It is our view that it is important to have a special advisory group; therefore, a new CSC advisory group is to be established. That indicates that the issue of accountability in the system is being seriously addressed. The group will advise the Prison Service, the inspectorate and the Home Office on the treatment of prisoners and on the way in which they are managed through the prisons system.

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