HL Deb 25 July 2002 vol 638 cc598-614

7.39 p.m.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their policy on prison visitors' centres and their role in the resettlement of prisoners in society after release.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the issue of the role of visitors' centres at our prisons and to highlight what I believe to be a key aspect of our planning and provision for prisoners and their families. This aspect of penal policy may seem to some a peripheral concern in comparison with the pressing, big issues of our rising crime rate, our exploding prison population and the needs of victims of crime—to name but a few. But unless we focus more seriously on the role of prisoners' families, recognise their potential and make a real commitment to proper provision for them, I believe that we shall never crack the central problem, which is the high and unacceptable rate of reoffending.

The admirable Director-General of the Prison Service, Martin Narey, is on record as saying: I cannot overemphasise the important role that families play in helping to achieve effective rehabilitation and reducing re-offending… I firmly believe that we should do as much as possible to sustain family relationships at what for many will be an especially traumatic time in their lives". In its brief reference to families, the recent government While Paper acknowledges importantly that, prisoners are 6 times less likely to re-offend if contact with their families is maintained".

The crucial role for visitors centres at the frontline of any provision seems incontrovertible. They provide a neutral setting where issues relating to both families and prisoners can be addressed at the very interface between inside and outside. Families can talk, and help and advice relating to both family and prisoner can be given. As the recent excellent review of visitor centres Just Visiting? found, the experience of visiting is made infinitely easier and less stressful, and is the most effective way of encouraging visits when there is a centre at a prison.

Further, when working relationships with prison staff are forged, prisoners' issues can be better understood and perceptions and understanding of family issues improved. As prison staff have little or no training in dealing with the needs of families, this is invaluable. At Holloway prison, for example, the manager of the centre now has monthly meetings with prison staff, who are also welcome as colleagues in the centre; and everyone benefits.

I must declare an interest in that I was involved in setting up the very first visitors' centre at Pentonville prison 30 years ago—prompted by the sight of straggly queues of women and children in the Caledonian Road near where I lived, waiting in all weathers for the moment when the next shift of prison officers would come on and let them in to wait for their visits. I did not know then that they could come from as far away as Southend or even Scotland; that there was a tiny little room that served as a waiting room; and that, in those days, the wait could sometimes take hours.

Happily, however, there are now some 75 centres throughout the country, though estimates vary according to what you define a visitors' centre to be. It is a development that I greatly welcome. However, this still leaves around 82 prisons without any such facilities. Currently, they are of widely differing kinds with widely different standards of provision. This now needs to be looked at seriously if the importance of the family and visits is truly acknowledged. They range from state of the art provision with paid staff, supported by the prison, to the situation at Eastwood Park—a women's prison—as described by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, where the waiting room is the bus shelter and the lavatory is the hedge. That is intolerable.

Worryingly, in the past five years the number of families visiting prisons has actually dropped by about a third. The reasons are varied and unclear, but today it can sometimes take days to find which prison the prisoner is in; booking a visit can take literally hours, or even days, of persistence to achieve, which is just too much for some people; the journey can involve very long distances—around 26,000 prisoners are over 50 miles away from home and 5,000 over 150 miles; there is invariably a long wait before getting in to a visit, which is a basic reason for the necessity of a visitors' centre; and the business of getting in to a prison involves a variety of screening processes, physical searching, and so on, which includes children. After all this, a visit may or may not go well. Finally, there is the return journey, probably with children in tow.

Of course, the pressure of numbers on the Prison Service today and the need to do everything possible to prevent drugs coming in during visits explain some of these difficulties for the visitor. But perhaps noble Lords should try to imagine going through this process themselves. It then becomes easier to understand why families, who are so crucial to bringing down re-offending rates, sometimes cannot sustain these vital links. I should add that 43 per cent of sentenced prisoners lose contact with their families after entering prison. That is a tragedy.

Families are not prisoners, but the stigma, the hardship and the difficulties often endured make it no wonder that they are described as the "forgotten victims" of imprisonment. Visitors' centres can mitigate the worst of these experiences. With good resources and manpower, they do much to ease both the visitors' burden and also facilitate things for the prison at the same time. There is a brief but enlightened chapter on families in this month's Social Exclusion Unit report on reoffending, but there were no recommendations at the end of the report relating to families.

Lastly, there are the children: tens of thousands are affected each year by having a parent in prison. It does not take much imagination to realise what damage such separation does, particularly as far as concerns women prisoners where 80 per cent are being separated from their children for the first time. In a most telling report on the effect of a parent's imprisonment on teenagers, the young people spoke of the fear and anxiety that they experienced—silently—for, as the report is entitled, No-one ever asked me. Most poignantly, the experience was likened to a bereavement. Yet, it is also well established that the chances of a young person becoming involved in the criminal justice system are greatly increased if a parent has been to prison. This is a social welfare imperative, as well as a penal reform issue.

I should like to ask the Minister whether he agrees with me that families are a priority in policies addressing reoffending. If so, can the noble and learned Lord say whether capital funding will be available to set up visitors' centres where none exist? Will they be properly resourced and managed? Will the Prison Service accept the cost of running them? Will the role of families in prisoner planning be recognised by, for example, identifying and involving the family member who is a positive force? Will the role of visitors' centres in facilitating links be developed? Will the staffing/organisational issues, which include the difficulties that I mentioned of booking visits, the huge distances that people have to travel and the unpleasantness of much of the process of visiting, be addressed? Finally, will the noble and learned Lord undertake to develop prisoner officer training, to include an understanding of how crucial the role of the family is in work with the prisoner, and a recognition of the fact that a duty of care to the family as well as to the prisoner is necessary?

The new Chief Inspector of Prisons has said that prisons need to have visitors' centres. She is right. Families need them, prisoners need them, prison staff need them; and, because families are the key to reducing reoffending rates, we all need them. This is not a peripheral issue, it is centrally important.

7.48 p.m.

Lord Windlesham

My Lords, perhaps I may be the first to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, on drawing attention to one of the less visible, but, nevertheless, highly relevant, aspects of the current crisis in the penal system. If anyone regards the reference to "crisis" as too alarmist an exaggeration, perhaps I may refer to two statistics. As recently as 5th July 2002, which is less than three weeks ago, the certified normal accommodation of the prison estate—known as the CNA—was 64,232 inmates. Yet the total prison population was 71,360.

One of the many harmful consequences of escalation on this scale is to reduce access for visits by prisoners' relatives or partners. We should always remember that regulated access by visitors is an entitlement; it is not a discretionary facility. Yet one statistic stands out: it is the noticeable decline in the overall number of visits at a time when the prison population is rapidly increasing. As a result, only two-thirds of prisoners in local prisons and just over half in training prisons are able to exercise their entitlement of two visits per month. A principal cause is the very long distances that visitors often have to travel. It has been estimated by the Prison Service that about 5,000 inmates are now located in establishments more than 150 miles away from their home. That is a significant statistic.

However, it is not the full story. Where there are dedicated visitors' centres, in which families wait to be admitted to make their visit, the standards vary considerably. Recent research indicates that not all of them—it would be remarkable if it were all of them—are fulfilling their potential.

I shall end on a more positive note. There is from time to time a tide of events in penal reform. After a lengthy and initially discouraging campaign, a shift can occur. Attitudes change, priorities alter, and money and resources—hitherto denied—are found, although seldom enough. A relevant example, of which some noble Lords participating in this debate will be aware, involves the changes for improved facilities for women in prison, following Professor Dorothy Wedderburn's profoundly significant report a year or more ago.

Despite all the practical difficulties currently facing the Prison Service, I believe that this could be another such moment. The hour may be coming to concentrate attention on visitors' centres in prisons. It may seem a small step but it will be a symbolic one. If it does come, much of the credit will belong to the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, whom we have heard so eloquently today, and her supporters.

7.52 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, for introducing this major issue. I should declare an interest at the outset, although it is not direct and it is certainly not financial; indeed, the reverse. My wife is a trustee of a charity, Kids VIP, the sole purpose of which is to provide supervised play areas in visitors' centres in prisons. Most of what I will say is derived from what it has produced for me, and I am grateful to it.

The noble Baroness rightly said that prisoners are very much less likely to re-offend on release if they have a stable family home to which to return. In that sense, families should be encouraged to be a resource rather than a problem for prisoners. Families need to show that, although they have difficulties in their own community, they are onside. They therefore need to have a place where they can get their act together and somewhere to wait and smarten up before they see the prisoner in question, because that relationship is vital. They will be under pressure in their own community. They and the prisoner need support and the only way to provide that is through an effective visitors' centre.

Where are we now? A good practice guide for visitors' centres was produced in 1998 but it contained nothing to progress implementation. Central and Yorkshire areas of the Prison Service piloted the visits charter in 1999, which stated that all prisons should have visitors' centres. In spring of this year, a report was produced by the Federation of Prisoners Families Support Groups jointly with the Prison Reform Trust with various recommendations for visitors' centres including visitors' centres at each prison and quality standards at each prison.

According to the 2000 Prison Service review report, there are only 90 prisons out of 130 in England and Wales with visitors' centres. Provision is very patchy. Some of them provide advice, support and refreshment in good surroundings but many others are merely huts and sometimes do not even have toilets. Sometimes, they merely have checking-in facilities. That does not seem to be enough.

There are all sorts of reasons why visitors' centres should be encouraged. I hope that my noble and learned friend will address the point.

The time has come for a sensible review—a statutory review—of what visitors' centres are for. We should encourage visitors' centres not only in terms of a relationship between families and prisoners but as a positive resource to ensure that re-offending is less than it otherwise would be.

I briefly looked at the recent White Paper, Justice for All. Referring to the "What Works" approach, I note that paragraph 6.20 states that there will be, "specific structured schemes"—whatever that means— designed to address the factors that give rise to offending, such as thinking". I am not sure that thinking—perhaps my noble and learned friend will advise me—is a matter of offence. If it is, I propose that he should think very "hardly" about how we can encourage visitors' centres and ensure that the balance is right for prisoners and offenders to be resettled in the proper conditions when they are released from prison.

7.57 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Rochester

My Lords, this debate is of great personal importance and enormous significance to the Prison Service. It is of great personal importance because it is harrowing for a family, when visiting a prisoner, to have to wait in depressing surroundings.

The distances that some families have to travel are huge. Two examples illustrate the point. First, a young man at Feltham young offender institution was recently transferred to Castington on the Scottish border. Secondly, the women's prison outside Bristol, Eastwood Park, to which the noble Baroness referred, has a catchment area that extends as far as Land's End and has taken women from Cornwall in the last few months. Those are perhaps extreme examples but it is common for families to travel 50 miles or more to see a member of their family in prison. They arrive, often with young children and often exhausted, and then face the stress of meeting their partner, son, or father and finding the right supportive words that will sustain the relationship. A good visitors' centre makes a huge difference.

It is obvious that the system is not working. The number of visits per prisoner has been dropping in recent years. Of course, as the number imprisoned grows—we have already heard the figures—the absolute number of visitors increases. However, if one asks how many visits a prisoner will get a year, the number has fallen away in recent years. That is confirmed by the Prison Reform Trust and other bodies. The reason is obvious. Faced with the need to make efficiency savings each year, prisons are increasingly finding it hard to staff such facilities as visitors' phone lines. There are also problems recruiting prison officers in the South East, given the cost of housing. In several major London prisons recently, there have been huge shortfalls in the number of staff manning phone lines. Perhaps one or two do so when there should be half a dozen. That means that when families ring up they continually get the engaged tone. It should be possible to re-book a visit for a month's time when the current visit is over. In many cases that is impossible. A consistent and predictable service is needed.

These facts can be corroborated by prison charities working in prisons. The Church works alongside many of them. The recent social exclusion report states at page 14: There are still lots of prisons where families have to wait in the rain outside the gate". On the same page, it continues: The attitude of staff conducting visits at prisons has often been criticised as being unsympathetic and characterised mainly by suspicion". Of course prison officers must prevent drugs being smuggled into prison but, as has been said already, families are not criminals.

This recent official government document confirms the criticisms made by the Chief Inspector of Prisons in her recent reports on Exeter and Dartmoor prisons. Neither has remotely adequate visitors' centres, yet Dartmoor is very isolated and Exeter, which acts as a local prison for those remanded and convicted, is severely overcrowded.

Excellent work is being done in prisons by Church-based charities such as the Mothers' Union and the Union of Catholic Mothers. They help run visitors' centres, while the charity PACT, formed this year from a number of other charities, including the Roman Catholic Bourne Trust, has sole responsibility for running such centres in Holloway, Pentonville, Woodhill, Belmarsh and Wormwood Scrubs. They do a superb job, but on few resources.

It is important for the Prison Service to sort out its relationship with voluntary charities and to provide adequate funding for this activity so that there is a centre for every prison, properly funded. Charitable funding has its limits. The service has tried hard to improve its relationships with the voluntary sector. I welcome that, but there is still a very long way to go.

8.2 p.m.

Baroness Stern

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, on initiating the debate. She is well known as a pioneer of visitors' centres. She has been a heroic defender of them for more than 30 years and prisoners' families owe her a great deal.

The debate is very important because it reminds us of one of the consequences of our high imprisonment level, now the highest in western Europe. It is not only the prisoners but large numbers of families who are affected. Visitors' centres are the only parts of the prison organisation that are geared to their problems and their experiences.

The support that visitors' centres give is greatly needed because, by European standards, our visitors do not do very well. I am not speaking about private family visits—sometimes called conjugal visits—which are available to prisoners and their families in Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Russia, the Netherlands, Canada and some states of the United States, but simply about visitors' entitlements to see their imprisoned family member, an entitlement which is meagre when compared to other countries. The basic entitlement for visits is one visit every two weeks, whereas in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Spain it is at least twice that.

But prisoners' visitors also suffer in other ways. These can vary from the time it takes to book a visit—someone on a board of visitors informed me that the process can take two days, even in a good caring prison—to the humiliations they can suffer when they visit, as so graphically described by the chief inspector in her report on Eastwood Park.

Visitors are also victims of something called the "incentives and earned privileges scheme", which applies in every prison. It is a kind of grading of all prisoners according to an assessment of their behaviour and level of co-operation. Prisoners are graded into three levels—basic, standard and enhanced—and what they get depends on their level. This affects not only whether they may have access to a television and other benefits; it also affects the number of visits they can have from their families. At one prison I know, families can visit so-called "standard" prisoners twice a month. They can visit "enhanced" prisoners five times a month.

When a prisoner is moved, as often happens at the moment because of the crisis of numbers and the search for beds for the growing prison population, the prisoner is put back on "standard" level at the new prison and the family is allowed only two visits—not because the prisoner has done anything wrong but because the prisoner has been moved. It can take three months before the new prison establishes that the prisoner is worthy to be deemed "enhanced". The family, which has already had to endure all the problems we have heard about, discovers that they have lost three visits a month through no fault of the prisoner.

Can the Minister confirm that this happens to prisoners' families? If it does, will he reflect on what this shows about the priority that the Prison Service is able to give to relationships between prisoners and their families? Can he also revisit the issue of the inclusion of visits in the grading scheme at all and consider whether it is appropriate that prisoners' families should suffer in this way?

8.6 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, for her 30 years of campaigning in the field of prison visitors' centres. We all have a great deal to gain from prisoners maintaining strong relationships with their families.

I have an interest to declare. I am very involved with a charity called Safe Ground, which works in prisons producing parenting courses for use in prisons. Obviously visitors' centres are an important part of its work. Prisoners who are encouraged to make better parents and to make better contact with their families need better facilities in which to do so.

Their spouses are often extremely stressed anyway from the experience of having their other halves in prison. They often find themselves in facilities which are basic in the extreme. As has been said, often there are no facilities and prisoners' wives, girlfriends and families have to wait in the rain. This is not conducive either to a successful visit or, more importantly, to the kind of liaison there should be between those who are looking after the prisoner's family and those who are looking after the prisoner.

I phoned a few prisons this morning to chat to the people operating the visitors' centres. In the first two I tried, the people on the prisons' switchboards did not know the number of the visitors' centres. I got through to the third one, an excellent prison called Moorlands, which other noble Lords may know, which has an excellent visitors' centre.

It is clear that when the system is operating well there is a great deal of active co-operation between the visitors' centre and the prison. Problems which come out in discussions in the visitors' centre are passed on to the prison officers in charge of the prisoner concerned and visits are arranged through the prison visitors' centre. There is a great deal of active co-operation which helps to keep the family unit together. That in turn helps in the management of the prisoners and dealing with the problems that they see happening outside but cannot touch because they are stuck away in prison.

If there was more of this kind of activity, as the noble Baroness said, we would find ourselves with a lower rate of re-offending, which is supposed to be one of the objectives of the Prison Service. But often that seems to get lost in the sheer problems associated with managing the Prison Service and the astonishing practice of shuffling prisoners around the place and, even more astonishing, shuffling governors around the place at an enormous rate. That certainly does not allow for an efficient service which is focused on making the best use of the time that prisoners have in prison to give them the best possible chance of not re-offending. It is a difficult job, but that should be the objective of the Prison Service. Providing visitors' centres and that kind of facility to help keep families together is one of the key things that we need to do.

Families are the prisoners' anchors in the community. Looking after their family—many prisoners have only half a generation of family; they know their mother but they do not know their father—is of great importance. Most prisoners appreciate the joys of being a parent and having a relationship with a child. There is a great deal there that can be built on if it is allowed to continue and flourish in prison.

If we train prison officers in how to support prisoners' families—as we should—we ought to do the same for them. They have a very hard life and often work in very difficult circumstances. They do not have an easy time in terms of their own family relationships or their own lives. If we support the families of prisoners, we have a duty to offer prison officers the same kind of support. If they have happy and fulfilled family lives, they will find it much easier to support, encourage and create the same for the prisoners in their care.

8.10 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, I strongly support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, about supporting those who often work with very difficult adults and young people. I could not agree more. I thank the noble Baroness for allowing us the opportunity for this timely debate.

Is the Minister considering making available as an amenity in visitors' centres the parenting courses that are widely provided to prisoners and young offenders? They would provide a means to attract visitors, and would represent effective early intervention for families who may be vulnerable.

The recent report by the Youth Justice Board, Building on Success, shows how effective parenting orders have been in reducing re-offending. It has been reduced by one-third as a result of such courses. Furthermore, 90 per cent of the parents involved have said that they would recommend their course to others. They have been eager to learn how to manage their difficult child or children. That reduction has been achieved at little cost to the taxpayer.

Her Majesty's Government have recognised the importance of early intervention to support vulnerable families. They have devoted much funding and ministerial attention to their Sure Start programme, which seeks to support the most vulnerable families in the time leading up to the birth of a child and in the following three years. The Minister has responsibilities in this area himself.

Given the vulnerability of some prisoners' families, especially the young women who are partners of young offenders, does it not make clear good sense to extend the offer of parenting classes and advice to them as they make use of visitors' centres? Most especially, teenage mothers—some of whom are likely to have come through the care system, as have their partners in young offender institutions—might benefit from such help and advice and might welcome it. Such intervention could be a factor in breaking the cycle of deprivation between generations.

Visitors' centres could be used also to provide information on parenting generally. They could provide leaflets and pamphlets on the availability of parenting classes for visitors in their home locality. Taster courses could be provided. An incentive such as a gift for a child or a voucher for a shopping centre might be offered to those who attend. He or she could then be put in touch with his or her local parenting courses. The Parenting Education and Support Forum could supply details of its national network of advisers. I have witnessed the forum's work and have been very impressed by it.

I am most interested to know what is being done along the lines I have set out and what plans the Minister may have to take this kind of work further. I did not warn the Minister about this request for information, so I should be grateful if he would write to me if he has information to offer.

We are always concerned that families at risk, particularly vulnerable families, should receive the help they require to provide for their children. This may be one opportunity for important early intervention.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Linklater for introducing this important debate. Those of us who know her, know of her concern about criminal justice matters. This is one of the many initiatives on which we shall no doubt hear much more from my noble friend.

I need do no more than invite the Government and the Minister to cast an eye over the report produced by the Government, Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners. I draw the Minister's attention to Chapter 15. If he has read it, we shall obviously receive an answer to the recommendation. If he has not, I suggest that it makes good bedtime reading in relation to families. Perhaps I may quote from the report: Prisoners' families, including children, often experience increased financial, emotional and health problems when a family member is imprisoned. Very little help is available to deal with these problems. It is estimated that 125,000 children have a parent in prison, adding to the inter-generational effects of custody". That is the finding of the Government's own research.

What is the Government's recommendation? Even where a visit is possible, the conditions and amenities available are also frequently insufficient, despite the best efforts of some prisons. It is important for the Government to spell out clearly their intentions in relation to a number of issues identified by noble Lords.

The essential service that visitors' centres provide is to make visits less stressful. Often, visitors have travelled a long distance on public transport to a distant prison, perhaps in a remote rural location, with small children and baby buggies in tow. They then face intrusive searching and security procedures before spending a relatively short time with their imprisoned partner or relative, in a visiting room which may be overcrowded and noisy. In these circumstances, is it any surprise that visits can often be a fraught and unsatisfactory experience?

Visitors' centres increase the chances that the visits will go well. They do this by providing a number of facilities. They are a comfortable and welcoming place for visitors to wait before their visit—in contrast to those prisons where visitors have to stand in a long queue outside the main prison gate in all weathers. They provide facilities such as toilets, refreshments, baby changing areas and play facilities for children, which can help visitors to freshen up and calm down before a visit. Staff can give help, information and support on a wide range of issues, from factual information on prison procedures to support for distressed visitors and help in sorting out problems by taking them up with the prison authorities. They can also provide access to other specialists such as drugs workers and mental health workers. All this help and information can be supplied to families.

Yet, according to an oral Answer by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on 7th March, 77 out of 123 male prisons—63 per cent—have visitors' centres. So nearly 40 per cent do not. Even more disturbing is the fact that only eight out of 14 female prisons, or 57 per cent, have visitors' centres—which means that 43 per cent do not.

Where prisons have visitors' centres, these vary from being little more than waiting areas to fully staffed centres providing information, support and advocacy for visitors. Centres which are run by voluntary agencies usually provide a wider range of help and support than those run by prison staff. While visitors' centres receive some funding from the prison, the level varies from nil to £48,000 a year.

In making visits less traumatic, visitors' centres not only provide a much-needed humanitarian service; they also make a real contribution to the reduction in crime. I hope that the Minister will take into account the comments that have been made and that he will be positive enough to indicate the type of resources that are required to help ultimately in crime prevention in this country.

8.19 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, for giving us the opportunity for this short debate. I pay tribute to her work and to all those, especially the volunteers, who work in prison visitors' centres.

Prison sentences can serve three purposes: securing public safety; punishment; and rehabilitation. If we do not encourage rehabilitation, society fails when some of its members and their families become trapped in a cycle of reoffending. The Social Exclusion Unit report, referred to by several noble Lords, found that released prisoners are responsible for at least 18 per cent of recorded crime. That costs us all about £11 billion a year.

The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, is right to highlight the value of the role of prison visitors' centres in the resettlement of prisoners after release. Other factors can play a valuable role. We shall need to debate them when parliamentary time is made available. I have in mind the interesting Home Office report published this month, Breaking the Circle: a Report of the Review of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. It concludes that employment can reduce re-offending by between a third and a half.

The Government's White Paper, Justice for All, published last week, recognises that, Prison can break up families, impede resettlement and place children at risk of an intergenerational cycle of crime: 43 per cent of sentenced prisoners and 48 per cent of remand prisoners say they have lost contact with their families since entering prison. 125,000 children are affected by the imprisonment of a parent each year". My noble friend Lord Windlesham was right to refer to the crisis in the penal system. The prison population is at an all-time high and it is alarming that the number of visitors has declined significantly over the past five years. Factors contributing to the decrease are that around 26,000 prisoners are held over 50 miles from their committal court town—noble Lords have given details of the problems—and the difficulty of booking visits, as has been explained. There is significant stress and exhaustion associated with visiting prisons.

As my noble friend Lord Lucas said, visitors' centres in prisons can help greatly in enabling families and prisoners to maintain vital links and relationships. They prepare visitors for what to expect and they support them after a difficult visit. Those are all valuable measures.

The Prison Reform Trust conducted a review of prison visitors' centres in partnership with the Federation of Prisoners' Families Support Groups. It recommended that every prison should have a visitors' centre and that prisons should be located in areas that are readily accessible to visitors and at the least possible distance from prisoners' homes. That must be right.

The findings of the research suggest that the contribution of visitors' centres, when backed up with sufficient and stable funding and support, is likely to be of great advantage to prisons as a whole and to the successful reintegration of prisoners into the community following release.

I look forward to the Minister's response and in particular to the report that I hope he will give of the progress made by the Government since the commitment given by his noble friend Lord Rooker in this House on 7th March this year that they would consult the federation of support groups about the research findings.

It is impossible to do justice to this important matter in four minutes. It is vital that we ensure that there is a long-term serious debate on how to get people out of the cycle of crime. It is important that we recognise now and in the future that prison visitors' centres play a valuable role in the resettlement of prisoners.

8.23 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, for obtaining this short debate. I also pay tribute to her for her work on visitors' centres and a range of other prison issues. It is right to mention that she drove the creation of the first visitors' centre—as she said all too modestly—in Pentonville 30 years ago. That starting point has made a real difference. Although, as she rightly said, there are debates about the figures, my advice is that there are currently 92 visitors' centres. There are a significant number of visitors' centres throughout the prison estate in this country, although we all agree that there are not enough.

I start with some basic points on which we all agree. Prison Rule 4 requires that special attention is paid to the maintenance of a prisoner's relationship with his or her family and with agencies outside prison in order, to best promote the interest of his family and his own social rehabilitation". The importance of maintaining family ties cannot be overstated. As a number of noble Lords have said, one of the purposes of prison must be to prevent reoffending. All the research shows that breaking family ties increases the chance of offending and the continuation of family ties promotes the chances of not reoffending. We should promote the continuation of those family ties not just because it is right but because it benefits society. We believe that that is important and is one of the roles of the Prison Service.

Good family ties also help prisoners to cope better inside prison, help prepare them for release and are an important factor in helping them get a job when they get out. Prison staff are being encouraged to use families as a means of obtaining feedback about a prisoner, as prisoners are often more likely to confide in a member of their family or a friend rather than uniformed prison staff. The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, referred to that when she said that visitors' centres are a way of promoting interaction between prison officers and families of prisoners in which issues about the prisoners can be much more easily discussed.

I make it clear that the promotion of family ties is an important priority and it does good. Noble Lords have referred to the Social Exclusion Unit's report and to the White Paper published last week, Justice for All, which both make that point. The Government accept that. We also accept that visitors' centres are an important means of helping the Prison Service achieve that.

Many noble Lords—though not all—will be fully aware of what visitors' centres can do. One of the most recent visitors' centres was opened last month at Walton Prison in Liverpool as the second phase in the construction of a purpose-built visits building. Previously the congregational point for visitors was little more than a bus shelter. The first phase and lower floor of the complex involved the construction of visits rooms for convicted and unconvicted prisoners. The contract to run the centre independently was put out to tender and awarded to a voluntary group—the partners of prisoners and families support group, known as POPS—which is in the process of recruiting managers, volunteers and childcare assistants. This Manchester-based organisation is well established and already provides a range of services, including advice, information and moral support for those with a member of their family in prison.

The prison has provided POPS with £20,000 for the first few months of the contract to assist with the start-up costs. The eventual aim is that through the sales from the cafeteria the centre will be self-financing and any profit will be given back to the prison. The centre is open six days a week—it is closed on Wednesday—from 8.30 to 5.30; that is one hour before visits commence until one hour after they end. The centre provides a cafeteria, counter service and reception, the aim of which is to offer advice and information relating to financial reimbursement for visits, prison rules and the handling of property. There are plans for a secure pushchair park on the first floor. Once the childcare assistants have been appointed by POPS, both visit rooms—for convicted and unconvicted—will have children's supervised play areas.

I have gone through that in detail to show the comparison with what was previously no more than a bus shelter. That conveys the important role that visitors' centres can play in seeking to keep prisoners relating to and connected with their families.

That is the good side. There are plainly also real problems which noble Lords have drawn our attention to. Why do visitors' centres have such a low profile? Prison governors very much value the contribution that visitors' centres make to the treatment of visitors and the support and services that they offer. They are especially effective at offering a warm welcome to those to whom prison is an unfamiliar and daunting experience. The Prison Service is working to raise the profile of visits-related issues above and beyond those relating to security in the training of prison officers and more generally.

The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, asked whether training is provided. The answer is yes. The Prison Service offers as part of its component training for officers a component specifically on families. The training is provided by a voluntary sector organisation called KIDS VIP, an organisation with which the Prison Service works closely. We are grateful for its work in seeking to promote a better understanding among prison officers of these family issues.

What is the position on funding for visitors' centres? The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, was absolutely right to draw noble Lords' attention to the assurance given on 7th March by my predecessor, my noble friend Lord Rooker, who said that he would come back and inform the House of the position following completion of the spending review. Although the spending review was announced last week, I am not in a position to inform noble Lords of its implications for visitors' centres as those implications have not yet been fully worked out. Because of what was said by my noble friend Lord Rooker, I need to report to the House as soon as I can on that.

As noble Lords will be aware—the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, referred to it, as has the noble Baroness, Lady Stern—our prisons are currently very full. Noble Lords will also be well aware that there are very considerable pressures on funding for prisons. However, I undertake to return to the House and inform noble Lords of the position on funding for visitors' centres.

Noble Lords have quite rightly drawn attention to the number of prison visits. I am told that the number has remained moderately static. However, as all noble Lords have said, as the prison population increases, so the number of visits per prisoner decreases. Consequently, the number of visits per prisoner to promote family ties has been reducing. What are the reasons? A number of reasons have been given, including stricter controls on drug smuggling, which may have put off some visitors and removed their enthusiasm for visiting. Other reasons cited are visitors' dislike of passive drug dog searches and changes in visitors' disposable income and employment patterns. As more people find employment, more people encounter difficulty in obtaining time off from work to visit—particularly if, as noble Lords have said, thousands of visitors are 50 miles or more away and 5,000 prisoners are 150 miles away from their family home.

As noble Lords have also indicated, the increase in telephone booking arrangements for visits has given rise to difficulties. It was the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, I think, who said that people seeking to arrange a visit on the telephone sometimes have a long wait before the telephone is answered. We need to look at that, an inevitable consequence of the increase in the prison population. The last point is the simple one that population pressures lead to more prisoners being further from home and to greater pressures on visiting areas and booking lines. So the current position does not paint a happy picture. Research has set out the position. We have to look at ways of improving the situation.

I should like to say what we are definitely doing in relation to visitors' centres. Various noble Lords referred to the excellent work done by Dr Nancy Loucks, on behalf of the Federation of Prisoners' Families Support Group and the Prison Reform Trust, in research published some time ago entitled Just Visiting? A Review of the Role of Prison Visitors' Centres. It is a very good piece of research which shows what visitors' centres can do. At its heart, the research recommends that there should be visitors' centres at every prison. As I said, however, I am not able to outline our position on that today as it depends on the disposition of funding.

Nevertheless, we have taken some steps. First, a voluntary and community sector procurement strategy has been commissioned which will, among other things, assist governors to develop contractual relations with organisations that run visitors' centres. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester touched on the importance of establishing sensible relationships with organisations that provide the staff working in visitors' centres.

Secondly, I can cite the development through the Prison Advice and Care Trust of an evaluation tool for visitors' centres. As the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, made clear, the centres vary in the service they provide. As we believe that consistency and quality of service are important, an evaluation tool is important.

Finally, funding has been approved for the development of quality standards for visitors' centres, together with a project that will ensure the revision of current good practice guidelines for visitors' centres. We therefore recognise the importance of visitors' centres. We seek to facilitate their relations with the voluntary sector—which plays such an important role in this regard—and to ensure consistently high standards in visitors' centres.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, raised the important issue of the privilege scheme. She drew attention to the fact that, although prisoners can receive more visits as they progress through the three-tiered scheme, they could then be moved and, through no fault of their own, drop down to another level in the system which allows them fewer visits. I think that she was essentially asking, "Is that a sensible way of running such a scheme? Could you not, please, review it?" The answer is yes, we can. I am happy to say that we are undertaking a review of the scheme, as announced in the Criminal Justice White Paper. I am glad that I could bring her some good news on that.

I cannot do justice to all the points raised in this short debate. However, I confirm three points. First, this is an important debate to which we should return. Secondly, promoting family ties is absolutely vital for the prisoners and for preventing re-offending. Thirdly, visitors' centres unquestionably promote the continuation of family ties. They are a thoroughly good idea which we should seek to spread.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.39 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.36 to 8.39 p.m.]