HL Deb 29 November 2001 vol 629 cc455-8

3.24 p.m.

Lord Dholakia asked Her Majesty's Government

What are their views on the report from the board of visitors on Downview prison.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, we welcome the board's report which acknowledged a lot of good work at Downview and we will be giving it our full response shortly. We note particularly its concerns about the speed of the prison's change of role to a women's prison. That was necessitated by a steep rise in the female prison population and work is under way to address the board's concerns.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, can the Minister explain why, when the crime rate is going down, the prison population is at its highest ever at more than 68,000? That includes 4.000 women, which is also a high figure. Does the Minister subscribe to his own independent Board of Visitors' report that Downview prison, which had the best drug rehabilitation programme, is now in a shambles; that inmate facilities are inadequate; that staff do not receive adequate training; and that there have been four suicide attempts?

Will the Minister explain where within the system we have produced a discrepancy which imprisons a large number of women offenders who overall commit less crime and yet are subjected to custodial penalties?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, it sounds like a paradox, but the answer to the noble Lord's first question about why, when crime figures are going down, the prison population is going up is that the one may be following the other. If there are persistent offenders who have been caught, they go to prison. In this particular case there has been a phenomenal increase in the number of women sent to prison in the last period. It is currently some 4,050—that is the figure I have for Monday this week. A combination of factors is responsible for that: there is no one single factor. Many of the offences are drug-related.

There is a difficulty and we are having to increase the prison estate for women. However, the Government do not have a fixed number of people who should be in prison. The courts are doing the sentencing and we have requested that, where possible, those who do the sentencing look at alternatives to prison. We are seeking alternatives to prison. We have to be very careful about, for example, home detention curfews. We have asked governors to look at them and there is a risk involved, it is true. Nevertheless, there has been a large increase. Faced with that, the Prison Service had no choice but to make more emergency places available for women in prison. It will not allow overcrowding but it allows less overcrowding for women than for males. That urgent action has to be taken.

I do not accept that Downview prison is a shambles. There have been difficulties and they are being addressed. We regret the problems caused for the men who were moved out of there because it was a training prison. However, it was the best available prison in the best available location to meet the needs of the increase in the number of women prisoners.

Lord Acton

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that the Lord Chief Justice, in an address to the Prison Reform Trust on 31st January this year, said: There should be a Board responsible for women in the criminal justice system. Its responsibilities in relation to women should be similar to that of the Youth Justice Board. It should regard its primary responsibility to be to contain the growth of the women prison population"? In view of the alarming rise in the number of women prisoners, should not that weighty recommendation be implemented with the greatest possible speed?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I do not know the details of that. It sounds an incredibly sensible suggestion to me but I suspect that somewhere it has been sat on. I shall have a problem for giving that answer because it sounds so sensible.

I myself have visited only one women's prison since I have been at the Home Office—it was an unannounced visit—and I came away wanting to bulldoze the place down. I was depressed because of the conditions there, the quality and lack of activity and other things, and because of what some of the people there told me about what they were in there for. That comes back to those who do the sentencing. Within the last 12 months a judge found it necessary to send a thalidomide quadriplegic to prison over arguing about a debt for a couple of hundred quid. There was a terrible problem when that female arrived at the prison. What was the judge thinking about when he did that, I ask myself. It is that kind of issue that we ask the sentencers to think about. Is sending someone to prison the best possible sentence, bearing in mind the circumstances of the case?

Lord Elton

My Lords, clearly the Minister is in touch with real life. Can I ask him to encourage his department to examine how much money is spent on preventing young children entering into crime before they are old enough to do so? I include young women in that, and refer in particular to those young people excluded from school. Does the Minister agree that, if a larger budget were directed to addressing those issues, less would need to be spent by the Home Office, which would be encouraging for his department?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. I cannot give the figures off the top of my head, but many programmes aimed at reducing the numbers of young offenders have been put in place by the Home Office, working in co-operation with local authorities and other bodies involved in the criminal justice system. We seek to cut out the problem at the earliest possible age because we know that such intervention can have a massive impact in later life. As I have said, numerous programmes have been put into place to that effect. Over time we hope that they will be successful; only time will tell. I can assure the noble Lord that we do not have to bring forward crime prevention programmes for young people. They are actively under way already.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, to return to Downview prison, warts and all, is it not the case that the prison has had a quite exceptionally good record in respect of education, training and rehabilitation? First, can the Minister therefore reassure the House that, when it is rerolled as a women's prison, that culture will be preserved and, indeed, enhanced for the benefit of its new occupants? Secondly, will the males being relocated have continuity in the educational provision that they have enjoyed at Downview?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right in his latter point. Downview was a category C training prison for men and it was extremely successful. It is true that we have disrupted the training programmes of some of the inmates. I understand that most, if not all, of the prisoners have been relocated to institutions of their choice and have been able to get their programmes under way. We want to run, if you like, a successful women's prison at Downview. It would be better if we did not have to have the prisons, but we must have them. We want Downview to be a successful institution, both for the convicted prisoners and for those on remand.

New management has been put into Downview to oversee the transition. It is not easy to effect a transfer. We have recently announced that Buckley Hall near Rochdale is also being rerolled to become a women's prison. We have to make available greater capacity, otherwise we shall end up with overcrowding in women's prisons, which would destroy all the programmes aimed at education and so forth that need be carried out in prison.