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Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, before the right reverend Prelate sits down--and I apologise for not having heard his opening remarks--perhaps I may ask him if he is aware that the basis of this Motion is security in the prison service administration and what practical proposals of a constructive nature he has to improve it.
The Lord Bishop of Birmingham: My Lords, I am well aware that the primary focus of this debate is security, but I am also aware that Sir John Learmont himself mentioned other factors, including the care and control which are necessary in the satisfactory administration of the Prison Service. I was concerned to point out that I think that justice is an even more fundamental category of control and that justice in the running of prisons is essential if control is to be effected.
Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, I very much welcome the fact that the right reverend Prelates the Bishops of Lincoln and Birmingham have spoken in the debate. Both have a great deal of direct knowledge of the subject we are discussing, and it is therefore all the more appropriate that they should have spoken.
As we all know, the debate is taking place at a time when prison numbers are continuing to escalate, with the warm encouragement of the Home Secretary and his junior Ministers. It is instructive to note that at a time when the service's corporate plan for 1995 to 1998, as amended by the Budget Statement, envisages unit costs being driven down by between 4 per cent. and 5 per cent. on the grounds that it is necessary to cut public expenditure, that precise moment is chosen to announce the appointment of yet another junior Minister to the Home Office team, with all the resource implications that are involved in the appointment of additional Ministers. There are now five junior Ministers in the Home Office. Mr. Attlee required precisely one. On value-for-money grounds I wonder whether we are doing very well. One has only to compare the reputation of the Home Office under Mr. Chuter Ede and under Mr. Howard to draw a rather adverse conclusion. The Prime Minister has declared his enthusiasm for "down-sizing" and "de-layering" in the public service, but he shows surprisingly little enthusiasm for cutting the number of his political colleagues who secure employment by those means.
The noble Baroness must accept that the Prison Service draws the most obvious conclusion when it sees that rise in ministerial appointments at a time when it is facing a real cut in the resources available to it; and at a time when it is also experiencing a rapid rise in inmate numbers, more violence on the wings, a dangerous epidemic of drug abuse--to which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred--and an indignant and often resentful staff.
I recognise that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has no direct responsibility for the Prison Service. I also have no doubt that she will persuade herself, as she did on the last occasion when we discussed these matters, that criticisms from these and other Benches are entirely unjustified. I wonder whether she recalls the observation made by a governor--which was widely reported at the time in the press--at a crisis meeting of prison governors called immediately after the dismissal of Mr. Derek Lewis as director general. He asked the noble Baroness's colleague Miss Widdecombe, as Minister of State who attended that meeting, whether she was aware of the low esteem in which she and the Home Secretary were held by the Prison Service. That was an extraordinary statement by a prison governor who was a member of a class of public servants who are the most loyal and
Ministers should ask themselves how they have got themselves into their present mess. Perhaps I may set out the reasons for the present groundswell of bitterness and anger in the Prison Service, for the House must recognise that that is exactly what we are currently experiencing.
Take the example of Mr. Lewis, the sacked director general. I should make it absolutely clear that I thought that his appointment was a lamentable mistake. The decision was taken, of course, not by Mr. Howard but by Mr. Kenneth Clarke. As we all know, he ignored the views and recommendations of the appointments board which interviewed the candidates. Mr. Clarke chose the candidate the board rated as number three out of three on the final short list. An experienced and able candidate from the public service was rejected by Mr. Clarke on ideological grounds. So a television executive from the private sector got the job.
I hardly know Mr. Lewis, and I am sure that he did his best to make a success of his job. However, the post of Director General of the Prison Service is one of the most demanding in the public service. He began, as he confessed, with no direct knowledge of the Prison Service, having only had the opportunity of watching one or two episodes of "Porridge". He was then permitted to retain a non-executive directorship, which limited the amount of time he had available for carrying out his job as director general. It was also made clear to him that one of his central responsibilities was to privatise as much as possible of the prison estate, thus inevitably worsening his relations with the staff associations. Loyal members of the Prison Service--and they are the vast majority of people working in the Prison Service--cannot be expected to look with a great deal of enthusiasm at a man who has been given the task of driving many of them out of their jobs. So Mr. Lewis experienced a host of entirely foreseeable difficulties. Then, when the going got rough after the publication of the Learmont Report, Mr. Howard sacked him. Mr. Lewis is now apparently pursuing a civil claim against Mr. Howard in the courts; and we all look forward with interest to finding out what will happen.
I fear that the trouble about the present Home Secretary, and the reason that there is so much discontent in the service, is that when faced with any sort of political difficulty, his immediate response is to identify a scapegoat and then to throw him to the wolves of the tabloid press. He did precisely the same with the former governor of Parkhurst, Mr. Marriott. I remember watching the BBC television "Nine O'Clock News" filming the car carrying Mr. Marriott away from Parkhurst Prison after his removal. There was no question of due process, or anything of that sort. He was just removed with a snap of the fingers. It was a humiliating episode. If Ministers want to
Following the Learmont Report, Parkhurst is to be downgraded from being a dispersal prison to one holding at most Category B prisoners. Some other establishment, possibly Belmarsh, may become a dispersal prison. Perhaps the noble Baroness will be in a position to tell us later whether that has been decided. After the treatment accorded to Mr. Marriott, I would find it a little surprising if there were a desperate struggle among governors for the honour of succeeding Parkhurst as a dispersal prison.
I turn to another reason for low morale in the service. I refer to the extraordinary proposition that we have debated before: that it is possible to separate what are described as policy issues from operational issues. Neither Sir. John Woodcock, the author of the penultimate report on the service, nor Sir. John Learmont were able to make any sense out of it. Nor, of course, can anyone else. It seems merely to be a device for attempting to shield Ministers from criticism when things go wrong. Even that no longer works. Indeed, it simply causes derisive laughter.
Quite apart from that, what does the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, have to say about the recent revelations in the Observer that the current acting head of the Prison Service, Mr. Tilt, was instructed by Miss Widdecombe, the Prisons Minister, to alter a parliamentary Written Answer in order to avoid giving details of expenditure cuts which could have been a significant factor in permitting the escape of the three high security prisoners from Parkhurst? The alteration to the Written Answer also avoided disclosing that the dismissed governor of Parkhurst, Mr. Marriott, had--and I quote from Mr. Tilt's original draft--
This is the man they sacked for what was described as negligence. Because of Miss Widdecombe's intervention, those sentences were censored out of the Written Answer given in the name of a Home Office official. A number of us have always had doubts about the practice of chief officials of executive agencies replying in their own names to Questions for Written Answer. Indeed we discussed it in the Procedure Committee, but we were led to believe that they were at least their own answers. Now we have learnt that they are being edited by Ministers, in this case with the clear objective of preventing Parliament from being told the full truth. I think that this is quite deplorable. It once again throws an ugly light on the lengths to which Ministers will go in order to protect themselves from public criticism.
An immense number of public servants of high quality work in the Prison Service. They do a fine job on behalf of us all, sometimes working in fairly dreadful conditions, often having to put themselves at some personal risk--risk on some occasions of physical attack, and risk on others of being used as scapegoats by fearful Ministers. I have worked in the Home Office at times of high crisis following the
Baroness Mallalieu: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, has introduced a debate tonight on a subject which has repercussions for virtually every one of us. I congratulate and thank him for doing so.
Our penal system is in a state of acute crisis. I cannot remember a time when morale within the Prison Service, and public confidence in it, has been so low. In essence, we ask for two things from our penal system: first, that those who have forfeited the right to remain in the community should be kept secure for the length of their term of imprisonment; and, just as important, that when they are released those who have been to prison will be less likely to reoffend, not more likely. Only if those two requirements are met can any Home Secretary properly say that prison works; and the public perception at the present time is that they are not being met.
I sometimes wonder how the Home Secretary manages now to see across his desk. Report after report has landed on it. Some of them are still there gathering dust, like that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Justice Woolf, and His Honour Judge Stephen Tumim. Perhaps I may associate those of us on these Benches with the tributes paid by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers. Other reports are rather more recent: that of Sir John Woodcock in particular and the Learmont report which we debate tonight. Does the Home Secretary do anything about those reports? I found the answer in General Sir John Learmont's work. Indeed, reference has already been made to it by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers. In a period of just 83 working days up to January of this year, over a thousand documents were sent by the Home Office to the prison headquarters, including 137 full submissions containing substantive advice about policy or operational matters. Much of that seems to have passed on in what the report describes as unworkable initiatives issued without consultation to a hard pressed work force. Noble Lords will remember that after the dismissal of the Director General of the Prison Service in October, the Home Secretary told us that he was responsible only for his policy towards prisons and not for operational matters.
A little earlier this evening, in dealing with an earlier Statement in relation to Her Majesty's Stationery Office, my noble friend Lord Peston complained about the cost of matters produced by it. I see that the Learmont report cost £24.50. During the course of the debate, I wondered whether the noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Alloway, and Lord Vivian, had obtained a shorter, cheaper, expurgated version which excluded criticism of the Home Secretary. I am bound to say from what both of them said that it appeared to me that we had not been reading the same document. I am quite sure that the
It is abundantly clear from what is set out there that the view of those who prepared that report was that proper supervision and control of the Prison Service has been hampered by an avalanche of material coming from the Home Office which the headquarters has been required to deal with. Time which should have been spent on solving problems which the service undoubtedly face was instead spent trying to explain matters to the Home Office.
When the noble Baroness replies I very much hope that she will feel able to tell us what Her Majesty's Government propose to do about Recommendation 71 of the Learmont inquiry. The recommendation states:
The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, made mention of a variety of different initiatives, all of them triggered no doubt by material from the Home Office and then passed down to the workforce to try to implement. The noble Lord set out the catalogue, and I am afraid I am tempted to repeat it: one statement of purpose; one vision; five values; six goals; seven strategic priorities; and eight key performance indicators. Only the partridge and the pear tree seem to be missing.
No business could operate as the Home Office has tried to make the Prison Service operate in recent years. If all that intervention had eased the crisis, then it could perhaps be justified. But I come to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, that the prison population has hit a record level of 52,731. The last figures I have available show that, at the end of September, 13 prisons were overcrowded by more than 30 per cent., and one of them, Exeter, by 61 per cent. Prison suicides are at a disturbing level. I add that because of a close experience of a suicide in Exeter within the past four weeks--not, I think, coincidentally with the 61 per cent. figure. Eight-and-a-half thousand prisoners are still two to a cell designed for one. That is the legacy of a period when the penal system has found itself caught up in a series of about-turns, when each new embarrassment in the Government's prison policy has been met with a new and more extreme change of direction.
From the White Paper, which effectively accepted the Woolf Inquiry recommendations only a relatively short time ago, prison governors are now expected to produce a wholly different and unquestionably more austere regime. They are expected to do that with less and less money. Together with the overcrowding, prisons are finding it increasingly difficult to develop or even sustain existing constructive regimes, which provide the only effective hope of preventing further criminality. That is our second requirement as members of the public.
We have reached a stage when meddling and tinkering with the problems of our penal system will no longer be adequate. The problems are in many ways too many and too fundamental. What is desperately needed is some leadership with real vision and a long-term, as opposed to short-term, strategy. I hope--and I suspect it is more a matter of hope than expectation--that the noble Baroness will be able to give us some encouragement.
As a first step, it is clearly necessary to look at and clearly define the separate roles of the Home Office and the Prison Service. After that it is necessary to examine some very fundamental areas, most of which were touched on in one way or another by this report and its immediate predecessors.
First, who are we actually sending to prison? Among those 52,731 are too many people who should not be there in the first place. I give just two examples: mentally disordered prisoners, of which there are a significant number according to the Prison Governors' Association, and those who have failed to pay fines. A less cost-effective and more socially destructive punishment would be hard to devise for them. Radical steps are needed to ensure that only those who should be in prison actually go there.
In relation to security, the picture that emerges from Learmont is, frankly, a scandal. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Young, I was astonished by some of the revelations. For all the Home Secretary's posturing at successive party conferences, we have reached a stage where prisoners in some prisons are apparently able to dictate to prison staff that security cameras should not be used. They are able to make telephone calls, apparently virtually unlimited and unmonitored, some even to victims. The real problem is surely that there is no considered strategy for how the system shall deal with long-term prisoners, the sort of strategy that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, requires. Are they just to be put all together; are they to be dispersed? How are their sentences to be managed? This surely is an area of the Home Secretary's responsibility. I hope the noble Baroness will be able to tell the House what has he actually done about it, as opposed to said about it?
Learmont recommends a major overhaul of the Prison Service. Within the service, as I know personally and others paid tribute to, there are dedicated men and women who, despite the events of the past few years, are managing to make major improvements. They have done a great deal so far in regard to restricting the number of those escaping. I believe I am right in saying that there has been a reduction of 49 per cent. since 1992. I pay tribute to that. But Learmont suggests major radical changes in structure and management. I entirely agree with the report's proposal, as I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stewartby, that what is needed is a disciplined Prison Service.
Perhaps I, too, may turn for a moment to an Asian example, as did the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson. Three years ago in Hong Kong I visited most of the major prisons. Every officer of whatever rank wore uniform. The prisons were clean, free of peeling paint and
I hope the noble Baroness will outline the Government's strategy to restore those parts of the Prison Service to a standard of which all of us can be proud. What are the Government proposing to do in the long term, not just today or in the next 18 months until the next general election, to seek to provide proper work in every prison for every prisoner and proper long-term plans for educational facilities? Without such a clear policy, we simply return offenders to the community with no work skills or prospects, often with severed family and community ties and an increased likelihood of further criminal offending.
Unless those matters are tackled, unless we stop treating the prison system and those who work in it like corks floating on the tide and at the mercy of political expediency, we do no justice, not merely to those within the system, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham said, but to victims and potential victims of crime. I ask the noble Baroness, and indeed if I may term them in this way, the hard-liners who have spoken--the noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Seccombe--to consider long and hard whether concern for victims does not also involve being concerned for prisoners and their future after release.
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