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House of Lords

Thursday, 27th November 1997.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Exeter.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prison Overcrowding

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What further measures they have in mind to eliminate overcrowding in prisons and to prevent the deterioration of daily regimes.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, the prison population this year has been consistently rising. The resulting levels of overcrowding are jeopardising the provision of constructive regimes targeted at tackling offending behaviour, to which the Government are committed. In recognition of these difficulties, the Government have provided the Prison Service with an additional £43 million this year and next to provide additional places and support regimes. We have also set in motion a number of measures intended to reduce overcrowding. From 1st October we introduced plea before venue which will not only speed up the court process but should also have a significant effect on the prison population. In addition we are committed to providing effective and tough community punishment in which the courts and the public have confidence in order that a better balance may be achieved between the use of custody and other disposals. Last week I announced to your Lordships our intention to introduce home detention curfews for prisoners nearing the end of their sentences. These will provide a way of managing the transition between custody and living in the community.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his most helpful reply. Is he aware that I welcome in particular what he said about a more balanced penal policy and about non-custodial sentences? Will the Government provide resources for those community supervision programmes which have been shown to be effective, and will they impress on sentencers the urgent necessity to make more use of them?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his general support. The figures are grave. The most up-to-date information I have is that the prison population is now the highest ever recorded--63,788. Of course we want to adopt a flexible armoury in dealing with offenders, bearing in mind in particular that public protection is the important overarch, as I have said on previous occasions. We need to have flexible remedies for differing offenders and differing offences. One of the tasks that the Home

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Secretary has put his mind to is considering the allocation of resources between custody and alternative methods of dealing with people in the community.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that probably the most effective way of reducing overcrowding is to reduce recidivism? That depends largely on the effectiveness of the Probation Service. In view of the answer which my noble friend has just given, does he agree that more resources for the Probation Service would be money well invested?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, that is part of the thinking behind the review which the Home Secretary has in hand of the relationship between the Prison Service and the Probation Service, because in a sense they are both labouring in the same vineyard. My noble and learned friend is absolutely right. Recidivism is a significant feature of the custody statistics. We believe that, to stop recidivism, we need to go to the very heart of matters; namely, re-examining the youth justice system.

Lord Lane: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that probably the only practical way of reducing the danger of an explosion in the prisons is by generous use of amnesty; namely, the release of prisoners--probably non-violent prisoners--long before their due release date?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, perhaps I may personally welcome the identity of the questioner since I frequently appeared before him in happier times-- I ought to say as an advocate rather than as a defendant. The Government do not believe that amnesty is a proper way to deal with these matters. We have introduced the managed return from custody into the community. We believe that wholesale amnesty has difficult constitutional implications, not least with regard to the relationship between the executive and the judiciary.

Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Lord accepts that building can play a part in dealing with the problem of prison overpopulation. He will accept that we built quite a large number of new prisons, particularly under the private prison programme which his party opposed when they were in opposition. Can he confirm that the Government have now agreed to an expansion of the private prison programme?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, we found no practical alternative in dealing with the situation which we inherited other than to continue, first, with some contracts that had already been let; and, secondly, to expand the programme. We are not able to afford ourselves the luxury of putting political dogma before practical consequence. I am sure your Lordships will find that to be an extremely refreshing change.

The Lord Bishop of Leicester: My Lords, while security is of vital importance, does the noble Lord agree that if staffing levels do not allow adequate work and education opportunities for inmates, even security suffers through general institutional tension?

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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I entirely agree with the right reverend Prelate. What I said earlier was not that security is the overarching determinant but that public safety is. Public safety depends on a proper civilised regime in prison, not least in trying to equip prisoners to return to a productive and fruitful life. Developing education and skills, with proper staffing levels, is extremely important in that context.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, in view of what the Minister said earlier, how can he defend the Government's plan to cut the Probation Service?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, what I said earlier, I think--if I did not, there will be plenty to assist me in correction--was that the Home Secretary had it in mind to review carefully the relationship between the Prison Service and the Probation Service. That is a step of common-sense utility. I should have thought that it might reasonably be welcomed by all Members of your Lordships' House.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, in the light of overcrowding and the cut-back in the budget, does the Minister agree that prison, so far from working, is now established to be a very expensive way of making bad people worse, as previous Home Secretaries have said? If he agrees, what steps will the Government take to re-educate the public in that direction?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I have heard the citation on a number of occasions that prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse. As with all truisms, it has a grain of truth in it, but it is not an entire answer to the total question. The blunt fact is that some people have got to be kept in prison because they are a danger to the public.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Williams of Mostyn: That being so, no responsible Home Secretary is simply going to let people out.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, does the Minister agree that there are far too many people on remand whose cases are put off for a variety of reasons? What measures do the Government intend taking to cut down that waiting time and thereby let out more people?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Baroness is right. The over-representation of those on remand in the prison system is a gross blot. We are already putting remedies in hand. We shall introduce specific time limits for juvenile offenders who will be speedily dealt with. We are encouraging the courts to resist applications for adjournments. We hope that within a year or two we shall be able to point to a very significant advance in the time between arrest and the final disposition of a particular offender. I entirely agree with the sentiments put forward by the noble Baroness.

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European Central Bank: President

3.11 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they intend to support any particular candidate for the presidency of the European Central Bank; and, if so, whom.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Maastricht Treaty makes it clear that only member states which are participating in EMU are involved in the appointment of the president of the European Central Bank.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Can he then confirm that, as long as we are out of the economic and monetary union, we shall not have a British member of the six-man executive body; we shall have no representative on the governing council; nor, if the article by the French Finance Minister in today's Financial Times is to be believed, shall we have any representative on the informal council in which first-wave EMU members will co-ordinate their economic policy? Under those circumstances, is it not really a danger for Britain that, as long as we are not in the European Central Bank, we shall suffer from decisions of that bank which will affect us, while we shall have no part in the making of those decisions?

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